April 20, 2018

Rewriting Painting

Yesterday, the Cooper Union hosted a symposium and book signing for the recent publication of the Lund Humphries Series, featuring Philip Taaffe. As the audience assembled in the Great Hall auditorium, a friend remarked darkly that if a bomb went off that evening, painting in NYC would be over. On the stage: painters Philip Taaffe, Lois Dodd and Tom Nozkowski... paired with writers Barry Schwabsky, Faye Hirsh and John Yau; all present for the purpose of comparing writing and painting, the rub of which resulted that night in a few sparks... but not enough to start a fire.

What follows is a critique of the panel discussion. I respect, am inspired and I admire all artists and writers involved. Giants, all. But the night was a bit too soft and fluffy -some people were bailing out early, I had noticed- it could have been more interesting. I'll be sharpening an edge in a search for ways that such a discussion could have had one of its own too.

Schwabsky started off auspiciously with quotes dropping Horace and Lessing in order to talk about oblique approaches (...name dropping Process Art along the way, strange). Unfortunately, the rest of the talk was infected with a crab-like avoidance of anything... spicy. Such is the way of the oblique. However small the nut was within the husk of platitudes, it amounted to this: how the writer must summon the power of poetry to resonate with the sister art of painting. A tasty nut, but a solitary one makes not a meal. More nuts, please.

Most times the healthy meal is bland as well. But spices are the prime ingredients for the appetizing repast, the adjective usually being the overlooked yet important factor in nutritious fare. And what would be in stock on the spice rack? Rummaging through, I find this sampling:

- Only writers who are artists in command of of their own medium are qualified to write about the visual arts (yes, a more picante version of the theme named above). Boring writers writing about great art insults the subject.

- What are the limits of writers approaching the visual arts? What can they never "get"? For writers, sensible, tactile reality will always remain an idea. Artists -painters and sculptors especially- know intimately the feel of material resistance. Even Melville lacked sense memory to convey vividly the sinking of the Pequod.

(Muy, muy picante, I know. Tal vez, demaciado.)

- Killing puppies. With the current population ranks of artists of a swollen art world, it seems that the number of the authentically talented has remained the same as it was before the 60's. The coupling of burgeoning art school graduations with a longstanding postmodern theory that levels distinctions creates the miasma that everything means everything and nothing counts has resulted in a massive population making mediocre art. Piercing through this with a sharp critical knife would be as brutal and as necessary as setting a broken bone.

As the power and influence of criticism has declined, mediocrity passes as insight, further diminishing the impact of criticism, a dynamic cycle of self destruction. Has the time come to cull the herd? The thought is distasteful, indeed... but so is the sacrifice required to eat a hamburger.

The final comments (not included in my notes since they didn't fill a page) revealed some reticence towards this idea. Schwabsky hailed David Salle justly as a heralded artist who writes well and that the most interesting things written about art are written by artists. "...vividness, immediacy, to artists who write, please write!" Philip Taaffe chimed in the final words of the night: "But don't say anything too mean!"

Beware the doctor who withholds the fatal diagnosis, the psychotherapist who shies from hurting your feelings.


Postscript (more spice):
- On the other hand... all critique is self critique. That is, we usually (or always?) see the faults in others that we recognize -either consciously or unconsciously- in ourselves. Perhaps this all that we are capable of. And it is in the critique that we get the opportunity to view into the window opened by our critic and gaze even if for only a moment, into the landscape of their mind.

We go to school to assemble a jury within our heads, exemplars from the history of art, heroes stern and demanding enough to keep us on our course. They whip us on in the studio. The pain is adequate only short of the unbearable.

But for most of us, it's tempting to whip not ourselves but others around us. Sadistic pleasure finds a fine disguise as the moralist prescribing the cure for your own good. Cleverly, the self flagellation of the wee hours in the studio can be easily avoided with a righteous lashing at peers who could be great if only... if only...


I took notes:


Posted by Dennis at April 20, 2018 7:46 AM

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