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More books on Contemporary Painting

PostPosted: Sat Sep 24, 2011 7:55 am
by CAP
I suppose I might have added this to the Smith and Myers reviews. It’s enough I can flag those earlier posts here. I had intended to review Charlotte Mullins' Painting People as well, but that will have to wait.

Why should artists bother with criticism or art history? Basically because such publications are used as justification by dealers, curators and collectors, in advancing pet artists. They’re the backbone of catalogue essays and artist’s CVs that boast ‘publications’ to exhibitions. They’re not necessarily the real reason some artists are taken up and others ignored – that’s as likely to be more personal networking – but in as much as one can ever dispute these decisions, it’s at the level of criticism, at the nub of facts and reasoning. And it’s important to remember these things are not necessarily gospel or set in stone, that they are open to reply.

‘A man convinced against his will, is of the same opinion still’ runs an old proverb, pointing to the limits of reason, especially in matters of taste. But, in as far as we pretend to be open to reason in public matters, like judgements in art, there is a small window in which to at least advance differences, options. So I take some trouble with reviewing the claims made about painting and its recent history, in the hope that others may find them useful, in promoting or being promoted.

Tony Godfrey: Painting Today, 2009, Phaidon, London, NY

This is one of those huge ‘coffee table' books, designed for only the sturdiest of coffee tables, or in lieu of one. Where Terry Smith’s What is Contemporary Art? squarely targets an academic niche (with University of Chicago Press) Godfrey’s more imposing tome pitches to a more general audience, on more generous terms. The book essentially maps a comprehensive set of currents to painting over the last forty years. Written between 2005-2009; it offers a global perspective, a bit like Edward Lucie-Smith’s Art Today, but devoted to just painting. Godfrey is best known for his book on Conceptual Art (although at one time, also a Burlington Magazine regular) and clearly not one daunted by difficulties of theory, evaluation and history. So there is some expectation in the choice of subject here and sadly some disappointment.

The main problem is not the selection of works – it seems a fairly well-judged survey – but the categories, or the way selections are organised. Chapter headings like The Figure, Painting Space, Death and Life, Dresden and Leipzig are either too general to convincingly describe an historical development, or too specific to offer much insight into formal features and continuity. Others like ‘Post-Feminism’ attempt to impose social issues but only beg stylistic distinction or treatment, while others, like ‘Installation Painting’, register merely a peripheral hybrid of projects. What we have is a smorgasbord of topics that loosely fit selections, but never quite nail them. What is missing is a coherent programme or project, a convincing history of styles and demonstration of influence or continuity. It may be too much to expect from a study devoted to recent developments, it may be the book simply over-reaches. Still, Godfrey has a keen eye that would only emerge sharper for more careful analysis.

Painting Today confronts two problems in building a convincing perspective on ‘contemporary’ painting. Firstly, influential critics largely shun painting in deeper or more theoretical discussion, or dismiss it as dead. Secondly, whatever critics still find to talk about in contemporary art (installations, fabrications, digital video/photography/graphics) remains largely confined to Western artists and does not reflect the growing integration and mobility of cultures, the undeniable trend to ‘globalisation’ or trans-nationalism. So it’s hard to find terms to talk about painting these days and then it’s hard to grant them adequate scope. The book commences by reviewing critical indifference, such as the 2005 publication Art Since 1900 by Yves-Alain Bois, Benjamin Buchloh, Hal Foster and Rosalind Krauss (something of an October omnibus) where painting all but ceases to rate a mention after the 1970s, the exception being perhaps Gerhard Richter. Then there’s Boris Groys’ dismissal from 1998, that painting expires with Minimalist abstraction (again, time-of-death sometime in the early 1970s) and Robert Storr’s complaint that there is no critical discourse for painting since the 80s, (p.11) presumably meaning Neo-Expressionism. Nevertheless, painting continues to thrive in galleries and art fairs, if not on the circuit of Biennales and other international surveys. How can this be?

For those convinced painting is dead, it only underlines a market in denial, a symptom of broader social decay. For those impressed with developments in recent painting, it flags a crisis in criticism, an inability on the part of critical doctrine to discern or respond to the new or different. Godfrey, who holds a senior post with Sotheby’s, hedges on this one, unwilling to probe implications on either side. He is at pains to deny a market perspective, or any sense of an investor’s guide for his book (p.7), but cannot quite join academics like the October group or Groys in shifting the discourse to pointed social critique nor properly contest their views and reconstruct a formal or formalist art history. What we’re left with is an uneasy middle ground. Painting is defended as a primal need, an indispensible activity for humans (pp 15-16). But this hardly answers the objections of October and Groys. For, while picturing of some kind is obviously crucial in human development, it does not follow that it must remain central to fine art, and if and where it does, that it must take the form of painting. The argument is insufficient to the book’s needs. It still needs to say in what way this primal need excels in some instances above others (excellence) and so qualifies as fine art and in what sense it provides an ongoing tradition. It adds neither and the book suffers.

A longer version of this article appears @ CAP'S CRITS.