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May 4, 2005

'Despite rumors of its death...'

Yesterday, Carolyn Zick flashed us back to 1995 for an Art in America cover job on art and the internets, Robert Atkins' diaristic "preliminary notes for a guide to the exploding on-line line art world" taking us back to the heady days of the BBS, the advent of graphical Web "browsing," and some ornery dude(s) dubbed "Unabomber" (also found here, slightly edited).

Today, Martin Bromirski of anaba brings us a Jerry Saltz AiA cover on the shocking resilience of painting in New York, dateline 1994:

For a medium supposedly on the wane, painting certainly was in evidence last season, and maybe even impressive, too. Last spring when I told people I was writing this article tracking painting over the course of the 1993-94 season, I got strong reactions. Essentially people divided into two groups—let's call them the left and the right. On the left people said things like, "I hate painting," "Painting is in trouble," or "Painting is out of it"—all, obviously, variations on the old "painting is dead" position. Meanwhile, on the right (roughly equal in number), people bluntly told me, "Right on, man—defend painting," "I hate political art," or "When are people gonna learn to look again?" This camp waits for the triumphant "return of painting." Both sides need to get a grip on the fact that painting can never come back. The reason painting can never come back is that it never left. Both camps are disconnected from reality.
From early September 1993 through early July 1994, I kept track of all the shows in 85 New York galleries: some uptown, some midtown, the majority in SoHo, nearly all of them listed in the Gallery Guide, and all regularly exhibiting contemporary art. Charting their monthly shows on a large five-page, color-coded graph, I counted and tracked 610 exhibitions. Of these, 240 (or 39.34 percent) were solo painting shows by living artists. If two-person or group painting shows, museum shows and exhibitions by deceased painters are added, the number grows to nearly 50 percent, with the remaining exhibitions divided between sculpture, photography, video, gallery group shows, theme shows and sundry installations.
So what do these numbers tell us? Like it or not, they say that painting is still the main currency of the art world (which is probably why people get so worked up over it). While the current house style of the art world is late-late Conceptual art, if you go even slightly outside the art world, painting is still art's ambassador. In fact, when there is no dominant painting movement, people at large seem to find it difficult to have an uplifting sense of the art scene.
This doesn't mean that painting is the "going thing," it just tells you that it's not an "already gone" thing. It's true that quantity doesn't equal quality and that proportionately there are as many bad painting shows as there are bad shows of sculpture, photography or whatever. But the fact that so many people in the New York art world are arguing about whether or not painting is dead shows how backwards things can sometimes get in the so-called center.
Because painting has had such a long and illustrious history, it's an easy target. Sooner or later every "new gun" in town comes looking for painting—to challenge it, to knock it down. Because so many people take aim at it, something unexpected has happened. Painting has become somewhat radicalized, even renegade or nomadic. It's not clear yet what effects this will have, but something is going on. Of course if painters get smug (the way they can), it'll be over before it starts. For now, painting is seen as "second dog" and this appears to be giving quite a few painters a sense of incredible license. It's okay that no one is rushing to embrace "the new painting," partly because that might snuff out the life in it, and partly because there is no "the new painting." Painting is moving in a series of covert actions, one artist and sometimes one painting at a time. Sometimes it quietly grazes, other times it moves in concerted counter-insurgency. For now, painting is in some sort of gestating Trojan-horse phase. It's huge, it's right out in the open, but no one knows what it's up to.
Instead of asking, "What's new in painting," it might be better to ask, "Are there any approaches, now, that seem particularly promising?" Beck, the musician who wrote and sang last year's anomalous hit song "Loser," said something in a recent radio interview that sounded really right if applied to art (not just painting). Asked about writing music and lyrics, he said, "It's harder to be real than it is to be ironic." Irony, which we've had reams of in all mediums, feels somehow false right now, or at least less useful. That is not to say you can't make "real" art about irony: look at the ways Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke work around painting's supposed impasse. Both artists split the arrow of irony, so that their works exist in the gap between passion and pose. "Realness" doesn't mean sincerity or sanctimoniousness. Awareness or directness might be other words for it, or clarity, or the vaunted Abstract-Expressionist term "authenticity" (minus the posturing or the pride), or that supposedly outdated term originality. What's involved is more than a snicker and less than a declaration. A scent of the marrow. This is a pretty flimsy idea to hang a case on, I know, and it lends itself to misinterpretation easily, but the closer to the core a thing is, the better. If something is open and done freely it contains possibilities, it can grow; if not, it turns rigid, predictable and dull.

See anaba for more... (Update: and more yet...)

"'Despite rumors of its death...'"
Posted by Dan at 12:23 PM


Yikes, my short memory was jostled by your link to Robert Atkin's 1995 Art in America article.

I think it was the first time my online work was mentioned (online or in print). I had to use the waybackmachine to see where the link to my work actually went. Oh, those were the good ole days! -g

Thanks for the pointer.

Posted by: Jeff on May 23, 2005 at 10:34 AM

Referenced in this post:

Anaba: More 1993
Anaba: More 1993 II
Art in America: A year in the life: tropic of painting—Jerry Saltz
Art in America: The art world & I go on line—Robert Atkins
Iconoduel: 'The year the art world went on line...'
Robert Atkins.net: The Art World (and I) Go On Line
Studio Notebook: These are the good old days