The half life of painting

Print edition : June 09, 2001

Grasping these as works of art seems to require a very different set of reflexes than viewers of paintings have hitherto had.

PAINTINGS come at the eye so obliquely nowadays - glancing off the past of painting, often, in ways one can barely track - that one may have to look off a painting, so to say, more than look straight at it, in order to get any sense of it as a work of art. Take Gerhard Richter's Evening Mood and Abstract Painting; the entirely generic character of their titles diffuses, somehow, the visual reference to particular periods and modes - to German Romantic painting and to later 20th century abstraction - leaving these pictures which, though they are about passages in painting's past, seem not to illuminate, or explore, or even orient the viewer in any definite way toward the stretches of the past they refer to. We really have to cast about to see how these works might have come out of the past they call up; that seems true of the other pictures (reproduced here) as well, and the title of this article is meant to suggest how these works stand to their past. (All these pictures were shown in an exhibition of German art that toured the country recently as part of the Festival of Germany in India.)

Gerhard Richter, "Evening Mood", 1969; oil on canvas; 120 x 150 cm.-

Putting things so supposes that the art that painting was came to an end some time ago; or, at least, that painting has for sometime now been a practice radically other than what it had been for much the better part of its history (no matter how little difference there may be, between then and now, in how painters go about the business of making the material objects that paintings are). Talk of the death of Painting did, of course, figure largely in talk about visual art for quite a while (though that seems to have gone out of fashion; and the upper case is used here to refer to painting as the art it once was). What is meant by talking of its 'half-life' is suggest how painting might now go on to use up Painting: to as it were consume its past as an art (odd as it is to talk of consuming or using up a past).

Let us note straightaway that all this is not being said about painting tout court, as that might have gone on anywhere and at any time. What may come to be used up is the particular art painting was in Europe, and in the Americas later, from the 14th century or so down to around the middle of the 20th. Narrowing what is to count as a past this way will seem perverse, here in India particularly. It suggests, for instance, that a contemporary painter's relation to Indian modernism, and to what followed, is best understood seeing these as phenomena secondary or ancillary to European and American modernism, and to their aftermath; and though 20th century Indian painting does develop in apposition, as it were, to European and American painting, it is surely an injustice to treat the work of important painters here as merely ancillary to anything.

But one is going, rashly, to maintain what was just suggested about the formal relation between contemporary Indian painting and its local past. The large reason for doing so is the character of interpretive writing on contemporary art, as it goes on here nowadays: which for the most part only rehearses, mechanically, how contemporary art is interpreted in America or in Europe. But interpretation there, for the most part, gains what cogency it has by indexing, if only in rather elementary ways, a corpus of artworks which together constitute a past; take away that special past, of European and American art, and what gets said will seem mostly noise (when it is not simply banal. One says this of the writing taken as a whole: there are splendid exceptions). So, if interpretation here only mimes interpretation there, it might well be the case that, as suggested, the formal relation between contemporary Indian painting and its local past is best understood by treating 20th century Indian painting as ancillary to European and American painting.

I am supposing, of course, that interpretive practice in some sense orders earlier art as a past for contemporary beholders. But it seems odd to talk of the interpretation of contemporary art ordering or organising earlier art as a past. That, one thinks rather, is what the writing of history does: and historians of art do not seem bound, as they consider the art of some period, to talk at all of what may have come out of the practice they are looking at. Of course, a historian who happens to admire some contemporary mode of practice may read an earlier mode as a precursor to the later, and in doing so may interpret some artworks in both modes - may try to bring out the special ways in which meaning is embodied in them - but it does not seem required of historians of art that they so interpret works of art.

So perhaps we should distinguish between a past as the writing of history construes it - a 'historiographed' past, we could call it - and a past as it might be construed, much more loosely perhaps, by the generality of readers a historian addresses. We might call this a commonly remembered past, for lack of anything better, or a living past (as Michael Oakeshott calls it) or simply a sense of the past (as Eric Hobsbawm has it, in an essay titled just so) that may be shared by the larger social whole a historian inhabits (which sense of the past, if it is not generally shared, will very likely be contested by some group within that whole). Remembered and historigraphed pasts overlap, of course, and the more remote a period grows the more it comes to be, as a region of the remembered past, reconstituted as part of a historiographed past. Coming back to Painting, it is probably true of large and more or less remote stretches of its history that those, as common pasts remembered by beholders of art, are just historiographed pasts now (and this is so because of the large part the writing of history has played, for some time now, in making beholders of art the particular sorts of interpretive creature they are). But could that be asserted of more recent passages in Painting past: of, especially, modernist painting?

What complicates matters here is that beholders of art, considered as beholders of modernist painting particularly, do not form a homogeneous class. (And to forestall a possible confusion one may say that the class of beholders includes painters, who are beholders of each other's painting.) For those who had come of age by the end of modernist painting - which by common consent is supposed to have come by the middle of the 1960s - for such beholders their experience of the painting will possess an interpretive authority that cannot be countermanded, let one risk saying, by the writing of history. The historiography of modernist art has to respect properly, rather the experience of such beholders: for whom, then, modernist painting is more a commonly remembered than a historiographed past. That is very likely not the case with beholders coming of age now, for many of whom modernist painting, and what immediately followed it, will be just a historiographed past: or will be such to the extent that their experience of the painting does not, typically, possess an interpretive authority that is at all independent of what they learn as history.

Now, standing between these juvescent beholders (so to say) and those venerable elders is a sort of beholder for whom modernist painting and its immediate aftermath are not an entirely historigraphed past: for whom their experience of the painting seems to yield, now and again, a sensuous grasp of embodied meaning which is not bound or circumscribed by the writing of history (as one's grasp of embodied meaning in Mannerist painting, say, would be bound by written histories of Mannerism). Such beholders would have come of age in what historians of art have begun to call the postmodern era, which itself is said to have ended rather recently (by the early 1990s or so, though opinion seems divided here). We might, as a matter of convenience, call these beholders themselves postmodern: without implying that all of them had postmodernist attitudes (to some allegedly special condition of the times in which they came of age). To postmodern beholders, then, modernist painting, and the sorts of painting that immediately followed, remain as much a commonly remembered past as a historiographed one; and it is this remembered past - which, recall, is a shared sense of the past sustained by an experience of the painting that possesses an interpretive authority not entirely constrained by the writing of history - it is this specially shared sense of a crucial passage in Painting's past which will come to be 'used up'.

I HAD begun by talking of the past of Painting itself being used up (whatever that might specially consist in) but seem to have lowered my sights somewhat: I shall keep them lowered. Next to indicate why something like a using up might take place; but before doing that let one try and say why the experience of a painting could, when it is not too remote in time and place, have an interpretive authority that is not bound by the writing of history. The large reason is just this: the ways in which painted works of art and texts come to mean what they do are simply incommensurable (and it is this felt incommensurability which licenses talk of embodied meaning).

Sigmar Polka, Untitled, 1987; ink, tusche and lacquer on paper; 73 x 102 cm.-

Defending such a claim would be difficult; but I think any more than casual a beholder of Painting will not find it silly. Successful intrepretations of a painting are just those which manage to bring out its embodied meaning, and they seem to do so by measuring, somehow, the tension between the almost opposed means of verbal and visual meaning. But the interpretation of Painting takes considerable licence with words; and to the extent that the writing of history does not tolerate such licence, to that extent the historian of art is interpretively disabled (by just those discursive constraints which make the writing of history the sort of practice it is).

Let us go back now to Richter's Evening Mood. This was painted in 1969, as it happens, and the picture may have been seen then as an attempt to 'use Painting as a means to Photography (to paraphrase the artist's own words). One needs the upper case here because it is to photography as a social practice that Painting is to be a means: to photography as a mode of representation taken as a whole, from the taking and viewing of art photographs at one end, to the holiday snapshots at the other, and including everything in between. One would have to gloss the phrase "as a means to" in some special way, of course, in order to bring out how the calling to mind of this painting, at once, a landscape by Caspar David Friedrich and a picture postcard, say, would have gone into the meaning it embodied for its first beholders. (And if postcard pictures of sunsets are not - or were not then - always so lacking in visual incident, we might suppose the picture to have been taken by an amateur trying his hand at art photography.)

I am going to suppose that embodied meaning is not exhausted by this calling to mind: that sensuously grasping Evening Mood as a work of art, then or now, could not consist in just that. The scale and loose focus would have mattered in a particular way to the work's first beholders, whose eyes, primed just as they were by Pop Art and Optical Art, may well have read these features as inviting a revaluation of late modernist abstraction (which both Pop and Optical art counter in their own ways). It is worth recalling now that Clement Greenberg had praised this sort of painting - which he called 'postpainterly' - for "providing optical experience unrevised by tactile association". The key term here is "unrevised". Greenberg was not saying that postpainterly abstraction did not, at all, call upon the beholder's powers of touch and movement; the claim, rather, must be that the painting addressed its intended beholders as sighted bodies only incidentally possessing the powers of touch and movement they actually did. (Morris Louis' stained canvases make good examples here; and, of course, it is Pollock's late painting which thoroughly 'revises' optical experience through tactile association.)

Evening Mood could plausibly be said to have revalued late modernist painting for its first beholders only if, one, the work itself gave them optical experience 'unrevised' by tactile association and, two, if it managed to do so in a way postpainterly abstraction could not have. Both these conditions were actually met by the work, I think; and though saying why or how would not be easy, one could claim that Evening Mood meets these conditions by insinuating what it shows into the world Photography builds (for its first beholders. Spelling out how Photography 'builds' a world, and what 'insinuating' might amount to, would be hard; but it does not seem unapt to put things so. Something of the sort could be claimed for the ancestors of Abstract Painting as well; Richter began painting pictures titled just so in the 1970s.)

Could any of this, one wonders, be said of Evening Mood if it were a much more recent work? The question is not an idle one: Richter has gone on painting portraits and landscapes in a like manner and, indeed, nothing visible distinguishes this work as an earlier one. The catalogue for the exhibition of German art that toured India has some writing on each of the artists shown, and talk of Evening Mood takes up most of the bit on Richter. Nothing is made of the date of the work; it is treated as a contemporary of Abstract Painting, which was painted some 25 years later, and we are told that "the possibilities of painting as such are examined by both works."

Neo Rauch, "The Collectors", 1997; oil on canvas; 200 x 150 cm.-

No argument supports this claim. One could, I suppose, maintain that Evening Mood, when it first appeared more than 30 years ago, did examine the possibilities of painting as a carrier of embodied meaning; but the work no longer does what it did then, in no small part because the social production and consumption of images has radically changed now (with the advent of the personal computer and the Internet). The same holds for Abstract Painting: had it appeared earlier - not too long before or after Atelier say - the work might have examined the possibilities of painting (as, again, a carrier of embodied meaning) but it cannot now be said to. (It is difficult to understand Abstract Painting as a work of art, actually: however attractive it may be as a piece of what Greenberg would have called 'design'.)

A supplement to the catalogue (prepared for the leg of the exhibition in Bangalore) describes Evening Mood as "an evocation of the Romantic tradition in German art, but only from a 'pure' painter's point of view", which is said "to deliberately lack the philosophical background of German Romanticism". It would not be easy to master the philosophical background of Romanticism; let the implication stand, though, that those who matter in artworlds today could do so if they chose to. But what are beholders to make of the fact that the lack is deliberate, as they try to grasp the picture as a work of art? The writing offers no suggestion. The lack might have been significant if there were a general expectation - which the work could then frustrate - that a painting which evokes some period of Painting's past should come to grips with its philosophical premises as well. That a work managed to frustrate some artworld expectation was sufficient, once, for it to be thought as a piece of art; but that game has grown tiresome now and, anyway, frustrating this particular expectation would be worthwhile only with beholders who have some use for argument. The writers here seem to have none; both the catalogue and the supplement are as feeble as writing on art usually is nowadays, and one registers without surprise the unwitting contradictions and the non sequiturs (and the melodrama: "we are relentlessly compelled" by Richter's pictures, we learn, "to recognise what they are: painting, nothing more and nothing less").

This sort of thing might have been alarming once, because the exhibition was organised by Munich's Haus Der Kunst - by its senior curators, in fact - and the Haus der Kunst is a premier venue for art; but one has long since learned to live with the special virtues of the curatoriate, so to say, who count for so much in artworlds now. What does distress, though, is how empty phrases like "painting as such" have begun to sound. They had point once - Greenberg could, even in the short space of a review, give one a live sense of how a picture might be getting at painting as such - but the words are of no use here; they yield no sensuous purchase on the work, and one has to wonder if that is not a sign of some larger loss to art and interpretive talk generally (which our authors paper over with silliness: Abstract Painting is said to be "an almost scientifically conducted critical examination" of abstract painting from the 1950s).

Interpretive disability of this kind is what one would expect when Painting's past presents itself as 'pure' painting, "nothing more and nothing less" - or only as mere image, rather - and appears to be available all at once, as if its temporal structures had suddenly collapsed (leaving the practice of painting in what has been called a 'posthistorical' condition). The interpretation of art is not always or everywhere so weak, of course, but one has to wonder if it will not become uniformly so quite soon. One suspects that for postmodern beholders a picture like Evening Mood now means anything, in any special way as a work of art, only by failing to mean in the ways they remember or imagine it once doing. Such failures may be actively sensed - may register themselves on the senses as more than a mere lack, and so count as embodied meaning - only if beholders have some way of measuring the gap between themselves and the sorts of minded bodies, so to say, that the work's first beholders were. But it is precisely the ability to do so that will soon wither, one feels, because the practice of art, given what artworlds have become, will increasingly 'evoke' the past as mere image, and do so with less and less discomfort to beholders: and that will leave them with a sense of the past possessing no interpretive authority at all.

I have not managed to say how or why, specifically, anything like a 'using up' might take place as the remembered past is interpretively neutered: but I hope what gets said next will excuse, at least, my talk of using up a past. I had noted, parenthetically, that it is difficult to grasp Abstract Painting as a work of art. That difficulty cannot be got at easily, either, but we could begin by noting that painted works of art usually address their beholders as receivers (or even as putative senders) of either representations or 'manifestations' of things not themselves representable. Abstract Painting, however, seems to ask its beholders to imagine their bodies as 'switches' - or as 'filters' say - in a continual relay of visual signs. That will seems fanciful; but putting things so should bring out the peculiar demand the work seems to make on beholders of painting. (The later work of Sigmar Polke reproduced here seems to ask something similar; but one may have to say something more with regard to Neo Rauch's painting). Anyway, grasping Abstract Painting as work of art seems to require a different set of reflexes than beholders of painting have hitherto had - reflexes that will enable to catch what the work does or shows even as they 'look off' it - and it is the development and coordination of these reflexes, among the sort of creature beholders of painting will become, which, should it happen, will use up or 'consume' Painting (or the modernist past and its aftermath, at least, as postmodern beholders still commonly remember it. I don't know how much this has helped, so let me cite a 'precedent' for the sort of thing I am trying to get at: what is called Art Nouveau developed out of Symbolist painting by consuming, one could say, the common sense of the Symbolist past its beholders had.)

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