Prolixity and Painting

When I was asked to be a guest editor for this section of the Rail, I sent the following proposition/question to a number of writers:

Portrait of Nancy Princenthal. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

It looks like words have won.

When Harold Rosenberg wrote, “A contemporary painting or sculpture is a species of centaur—half art materials half words,” he was responding to the Minimalism and dawning Conceptualism of the late 1960s. By the early 1980s, it was a commonplace that art was being compelled to find new footing in an image world inundated by a cataract of commercially produced and broadcast pictures. It now seems clear, however, that the digital connectivity which followed has created a global community at least as prolix as it is visually saturated. In an art world distinguished above all by endless talk—much of it generated, it should be said, by artists—it falls to such astute critics of relational esthetics as Claire Bishop to remind us of the importance of “drawing attention to the work of art as an intermediary object, a ‘third term’ to which both the artist and viewer can relate.” That we need such advice suggests the pass to which we’ve come. Verbal language has, arguably, gotten the jump on visuality.

The questions raised are: Do you agree that this has happened? If you do, do you think it matters? If it does, how can it be remedied—how can writers give art more breathing room?

I wanted to hear from writers who were primarily artists, because they live these questions in their work. But it honestly didn’t dawn on me until the responses started coming in that everyone I’d asked (including, as it happens, a few people who weren’t able to participate) was, specifically, a painter. So I suppose what follows is not just a roundup of ideas about the relationship of art and words but also a series of reflections on painting and its kinship to writing—one that incidentally opens the question of why painters and not, say, video artists or sculptors figure so prominently among art critics. The answer will have to wait. In the meantime, I’d like to thank the contributors for their generosity in submitting these thoughtful and provocative essays. Several responses came from regular contributors to the Rail, adding significantly to the liveliness of the discussion. I’m very grateful to them as well. It seems that Rosenberg’s centaur can still raise some dust.


Nancy Princenthal