28 January 2016

Ceci n'est pas une pipe, pt. 118

From a recent discussion between Susanne von Falkenhausen and David Joselit, concerning the latter's curatorial hand in the Painting 2.0: Expression in the Information Age exhibition, via the German edition of Frieze mag:

SvF: So medium specificity – that’s the old spectre. And what does medium specificity, what does Clement Greenberg, have to do with Guy Debord? You would like to get painting out of the register of Greenberg and put it into a register of Debord?

DJ: I suppose it’s very hard to characterize a complex project in a slogan. But from my point of view, what painting really can do is represent, even theorize, the circulation of pictures – and by ‘pictures’ I mean commoditized images as they arise in mass media of all types ranging, in our period, from television to the internet. We know that appropriation was aimed at indexing the ‘life of pictures’. But it did so in a very severe way, which in fact made the displacement from one context to another – art to advertising, for instance – clean and unambiguous. Whereas in painting, what you see from Robert Rauschenberg to the present is that commoditized images are put into circulation in time and space, and move at different rates. Many of the questions animating conceptual art with regard to changing values of visual knowledge have been explored in painting, but I don’t think this has been sufficiently recognized. While it is a simplification that has many problems, for the sake of argument I think your characterization is largely correct: we are trying to take painting from Greenberg to Debord.

SvF: But Debord...

DJ: He would have hated the project.

SvF: Yes, I think so. He would have sent in some black paper or something like that.

DJ: Right, or a film. ...Obviously Debord did not and would not approve of painting.

Unless the painting in question were one by Asger Jorn (who's included in the exhibition). In which case, Debord was all to ready to accept it as a gift, which -- lore has it it -- he would turn around and sell, using the money from the transaction to fund the publishing of the next edition of the SI journal.

At any rate, at a latter point in the same discussion:

SvF:  In the show, Nikki de Saint Phalle is listed under ‘Gesture and Spectacle’. That makes me slightly sceptical. I don’t know if I would put her Shooting Pictures from the early 1960s in the gestural corner. I would rather see them in a genealogy of the neo-avant-garde. You don’t like that term, as you explained in your text for the catalogue, and I can understand your reasons. As far as I understood you want to substitute this term with the term ‘network painting’. For sure, neo-avant-garde is not a very nice name – but why collect and assemble all these practices that try to be beside themselves, beside genres, and regroup and rename them under the label of painting?

DJ: Any postwar show, I suppose, could be called neo-avant-garde, but what is the ‘neo’ here? I don’t accept the term ‘neo-avant-garde’. It’s a false characterization, so on that level I think it’s important to not use it. The term arises from a belief that the strategies of the postwar period are a repetition of ones that were put in place in an earlier moment, in the historical avant-gardes. In my view, that precisely is not what’s happening with, say, Rauschenberg. He and others were responding to an entirely different image culture. Using the term neo-avant-garde would givea false sense of repetition, erasing specific historical conditions. Moreover, there are different political questions at stake that can’t come into view when the prefix ‘neo’ is applied. But, then, as you imply, why retain the term painting? I think it’s justifiable because there is a set of tactical possibilities that are associated with painting that can be redeployed under its name – this is different from understanding painting as a recursive medium. Our show, overall, is an effort to think the tactics of painting beyond the material nature of painting. Painting, in that sense, is not about the material substrate, but about a set of discursive possibilities.

Plenty of interesting ideas being kicked around, but I find the exchange as a whole a bit taxing in the way that it hop-scotches all over the theoretical map. For example: vacillating between talk of “pure relationality” at one point, and what comes across as crypto-formalist chatter about visual languages devised by nonobjective painters like Malevich and Mondrian that sounds suspiciously akin to the Kantian idea of aesthetic autonomy at another.*  Perhaps that’s because the premise of the exhibition is about as shaky/dubious/problematic as its title. Or maybe its premise is intended as purely conjectural, with the hopes of prompting further discussion.

If anything, the premise and the title of the thing suggest that its steered toward the theoretic gulf between the material and medium-specific qualities of painting, and the matter of pictoral “content” the circulation of painting as objects and images in a culture long saturated by image reproduction and circulation.**  Some would argue that a similar challenge faced the discipline in the 19th century, when painting had to contend with another technological innovation, the introduction of photography. After which idea of an “avant-garde” in visual art coalesced around the various ways that painting diverged from mere “illusionistic” and representational conventions. Which is where discussion of any possible “neo-avant-garde” above seems so wistfully moot in the present context. As it is, many aspiring contemporary artists regard it as such an outmoded practice that they don’t even think of it as an option.***

Returning the Situationist angle, I did find it interesting that the curators apparently included work by the Gruppe SPUR, the four-man German contingent of the Situationists before Debord purged the SI of artists. SPUR are -- it seems -- little known outside of mainland Europe, and quite frankly I hadn't had reason to think of them in a good many years.

images: Guyton/Walker, Wade Guyton, 
Jacqueline Humphries, Terry Winter

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*  Joselit’s oft-cited thesis about “transitive painting” in his 2009 essay “Painting Beside Itself” offers little help in this matter; as his definition of transitive painting makes its argument by citing the work of a handful of artists whose works -- by Joselit’s theory -- operate in a painterly relational “network,” and by way of their referentiality are deliberately posited against notions of aesthetic/pictoral autonomy.

**  Or that’s one favored art-historical rubric, anyway. Others would argue that it was just as much do with with reflexive pushback from the centuries-old Renaissance/classicist traditions, as epitomized in the increasing “decadent” and degenerative models being churned out en masse by the Beaux Arts/Salon institutional networks.

***  Noted that many of the artists included in the exhibition were/are not primarily painters.

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