Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Two Kinds of Thickness in Abstract Painting

by Vittorio Colaizzi from The Painting Center blog

It is great fun to complain about the art market and the promotional machine, especially the gnawing fear that the exaltation and trauma of aesthetic experience is irrelevant to that machine. But if we nobodies can offer any resistance, it is only by continuing the conversation at the level of irrelevancy. There is a lot of painting out there, and some of it is very good, but there is also anxiety about the discourse around painting, and a fear that we rarely advance past a scorecard of stylistic referents. This might be the price we pay for the permissiveness that comes with a lack of centrality.
At the 2007 College Art Association conference, Lane Relyea chaired a panel on abstract painting and the thickness of paint. This was in partial response to a question that emerged in Artforum’s 2002 roundtable on death-of-painting theory and its aftermath. Robert Storr complained about a crisp, graphic quality to some paintings, noting that it seemed as if the painter wanted to get the material aspect out of the way in order to focus on the image, which is usually borrowed from the broader media. The following remarks are adapted from my contribution to that panel.
I would not presume to claim for any artist that facture is unimportant. Paintings have material qualities, and the visibility of these qualities seems to vary according to climate. For example, the viscous tactility of Gerhard Richter’s 1960s black and white photo-based paintings is always striking. At the time, these were aggressively antagonistic to the craft of painting, but now they are positively luxurious. This is not just because we read them through the lens of Richter’s own sentimental turn, because in a book, they are just as polemical as was the younger Richter’s rhetoric. Their tactility is still almost invisible in reproduction.
Reproduction remains a key issue for painting today. While Richter took reproduction on as intellectual and plastic subject matter, problematizing both photography and painting, some painters today vault over reproduction as a given, producing work that appears made for reproduction, or already having been reproduced. Again, I will not say that a painting by Sarah Morris is without tactility, but her mode of pictorial organization is easily translatable into other formats, as is evident in her installation at Lever House. Nothing essential to Morris’ work is lost in this project, because, as a trafficker in images, she is concerned with the significance communicated by her crisscrossing lines and colored facets.
Part of Morris’s subject matter is arguably Modernism’s formal language as refracted through the mechanical and digital image stream. Her work contains the memory of Mondrian, but Mondrian in reproduction. This earlier artist’s facture is imbued with an awkwardness and urgency that might come from the belief that he was making a difference. It would be a mistake to attempt to rekindle the utopian ambitions of 20th century Modernism, just as it would be a mistake to take too seriously the either/or dialectic that seems to be set up by the preceding comparison. For the purposes of a discussion of facture I do not propose that we should divide painters into thick vs thin and then assign concepts like authenticity or cynicism accordingly. Rather, we should note that while the materiality of paint and surface is not a major issue for some, paint still speaks more than one language for the others. In other words, painters rely on tactility for different reasons. Thick paint can be deployed as part of an existent code, or it can be integrated with the surface of the painting in a way that intimates the ongoing process. The latter mode often uses less actual paint, but relies on the materials as having-been-worked, instead of as part of a pictorial code. A brief consideration of the work of Jonathan Lasker and Robert Ryman will clarify this opposition.
In his self-described “abstract pictures,” Jonathan Lasker uses various means to repeat relatively simple shapes. Parallel lines or carefully sequestered scribbles sometimes project outward, but they are also corralled back into the pictorial idiom by means of their near-duplication by their neighbors. Such repetition denies each element’s uniqueness as an expressive statement. The presumed expressivity or personal engagement that has become a cliché of generous paint handling is thus assimilated and re-cast into a more analytical consideration of that cliché’s significatory function.
Robert Ryman’s many varieties of white paint are conditioned by his many grounds, which include canvas, steel, wood, and cardboard. The interaction between surface and ground causes the paintings to open up in a way that lets the viewer almost rehearse the procedure as he or she looks. Ryman’s “tape-removal paintings” of 1969, reprised in 2000-02, are among his most ingenious integrations of painting’s physical elements. They consist of thin sheets of fiberglass or vinyl taped to a wall and then painted, so that the paint strays onto the wall. The dried skin of paint holds the panels up, and the no-longer necessary tape is removed, leaving tabs of unpainted support, as well as tiny ridges where painted and unpainted areas meet. By painting very thinly, but instrumentalizing that thinness, giving it a job, Ryman disconnects materiality from thickness: The thinnest paint of his career is also the most literally consequential.
This same insistence on materiality outside of signification is evident in his most recent exhibition at PaceWildenstein on 57th street, “No Title Required.” The show contains a polyptych of ten wood panels coated in enamel and surrounded by wooden frames of maple, cherry, and oak, each contributing its own color. Ryman aimed the track lighting at the opposite wall in order to cast reflected light on the paintings, thus avoiding spotlighting their interiors as if they were pictures. He was also careful to let his brush wander from the central panels onto the “frames,” thereby asserting the paint as a substance in the experiential world with us, not sequestered into a pictorial fiction, This again is accomplished by a paradoxical thin-ness. While the panels are built up with numerous coats into a glossy sheen, the spill-over seems to only be one coat and is relatively matte and almost translucent; it is most real through its slightness.
At the end of the panel, during the truncated discussion period, Relyea asked if thickness can stave off the artwork’s inevitable reduction to commodity. I would argue that, by itself, it cannot, nor can any formal quality. But no quality is by itself. It always exists in dialogue with the other possibilities in the field, as well as the use to which it is put within the work. So while everything becomes commodity, some paintings might allow for moments of respite within themselves, by providing visual and tactile experience that is irreconcilable with linguistic systems.
The foregoing binary is a falsification of the complexity of painting, but it is a falsification intended to bring some truths about painterly practice into higher relief. It is hoped that painters and connoisseurs will find these categories useful, if only as an invitation to invent their own template with which to organize their experience.
Vittorio Colaizzi received both an MFA in Painting (2000) and a PhD (2005) Art History from Virginia Commonwealth University. His paintings have been exhibited in Richmond and Brooklyn. He has published in Art Papers, Smithsonian’s American Art, and Woman’s Art Journal (forthcoming) and presented papers at the College Art Association, Southeastern Conference of Art Colleges, and the Modernist Studies Association.
Virginia Commonwealth University is the top rated public art grad school in the country.

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