Abstract Critical

Para-painting and Transactional Art

Written by David Sweet


Forty-five years ago this summer Michael Fried’s essay ‘Art and Objecthood’ was published in Artforum.[i] It was a critique of minimalism and its accompanying discourse, which opened with an epigraph quoting Jonathan Edwards, an eighteenth century American theologian, and closed with the slightly spooky phrase, ‘Presentness is grace’. Few people bought the argument in between. In the final paragraph Fried senses the odds stacked against his thesis, acknowledging the overwhelming cultural pervasiveness – ‘the virtual universality’ – of the sensibility associated with minimalism, and the relatively powerless position of the modernist painting and sculpture he considered to be the ‘authentic’ art of that time.

Minimalism bothered Fried, but Fried did not bother minimalism. Indeed it was in the interest of minimalism’s practitioners to accept his designation of their work as  ‘literalist’ or even, less explicitly, ‘theatrical’[ii]. If one discounted the intended critical sting, it simply meant that minimalism reflected the way things were, or was sympathetically attuned to the default ‘mode of being’ of contemporary society, a mode of being Fried himself was familiar with, confessing ‘We are all literalists most or all of our lives.’

Fried’s argument was constructed in the context of reductive abstraction, so was weighted towards an examination of what might be called the viewer’s fundamental encounter with the ontology of the work of art. It did not concern itself with the many other aspects of the viewing situation that are raised when the differences between representational and non-representational are in play, when the debate is about the presence or absence of imagery, narrative, or content, or the problems of intelligibility.[iii]

In ‘Art and Objecthood’ Fried was comparing two categories of gallery experience, mapping the appropriate critical behaviour and methods of scrutiny they called forth. One involved the exceptional viewing habits required by art, specifically modernist art, and the other, those adequate but non-exceptional methods of looking reserved for ‘objects’. Under these stripped-down circumstances, the particular mode of subjectivity which grew out of Fried’s critical appreciation of modernist painting and sculpture’s achievements, and the concept of the modernist self implicit in that subjectivity, was defined and could be contrasted with, and preferred to, that projected by the prevailing literalist, or theatrical, tendency. The latter, he believed, reduced the viewer to being a member of an audience, albeit on occasion, an audience of one. However, the modernist self that emerges in Fried’s writing is not the assuredly unified figure usually depicted in the standard critique of modernism. It suffers a degree of alienation and estrangement from the world, and is prey to anxieties and division, but attempts to retain some kind of critical function in the face of these uncertainties.[iv]

As well as the influence of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s version of phenomenology, the emphasis in ‘Art and Objecthood’ on the encounter between the work and the individual subject and, above all, anxieties about the subject’s authenticity, are reminders of the language of Existentialism and high modernism, and are concepts that have long since fallen into disuse.[v] However, I prefer to see such terms as vintage, rather than discredited. They remain relevant because the virtually universal minimalist sensibility, which was the target of Fried’s critique, has not been eradicated. Rather it has been successfully institutionalised, surviving within the many apparently diverse visual art developments that have occurred since the late sixties, including ‘post-modernism’, and is still recognisable as a feature of contemporary practice. The structural legacy of minimalism, the creation of ‘presence’, can be detected in the staging of Damien Hirst’s vitrines, and especially his For the Love of God, 2007 and was also abundantly evident in Anish Kapoor’s Marsyas, the viewer-dominating installation of 2002.[vi] Its characteristic mode of address can also be found in the well-supported genre of participatory art, notably Antony Gormley’s Fourth Plinth-based One and Other, 2012, and Jeremy Deller’s bouncy Sacrilege 2012. Performance art, with its constitutional dependency on the presence of the captured audience, is obviously the medium that literally carries forward minimalism’s theatrical project into the contemporary gallery setting. Marina Ambramovic’s The Artist is Present event in 2010 sounds like Fried’s worst nightmare made flesh.

2

Given the continuity of a core of literalist sensibility within current art, it follows that the leverage of Fried’s vintage concepts might still be productively applied. At least they stand apart, offering both relief from the lexicon of contemporary discourse, and an alternative position from which to theorise and pay attention. To begin, however, I would like to complicate things by introducing two slightly inelegant terms: ‘para-painting’, which I’ll gloss later, and ‘transactional art’ which I’ll deal with now. They intermingle in what follows, with each other and the lost language of ‘Art and Objecthood’.

I want to place the term ‘transactional’ at the other end of the spectrum to ‘relational’. Both terms relate to types of ‘psychological contracts’, originally describing arrangements made between employee and company or organisation, but here their use is extended to classify encounters in general and art encounters in particular. A relational contract (which has nothing to do with the art world socialising of Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics.[vii]) involves long-term mutual emotional commitment and engagement, while a transactional one is more short-term, impersonal and detached.[viii] Transactional art is associated with a certain limited exchange between the parties involved, though it is an agreement entered into freely from which both derive some benefit.

Partly for convenience I want use the example provided by the exhibition Turner, Monet, Twombly; Later Paintings to illustrate both of the terms.[ix] Also at this point I have to declare that my preferred model for the contract between viewer and artwork is ‘relational’. My preferred model viewer is one who enjoys a certain, if vulnerable sovereignty and autonomy and is not only capable of, but actually wants to exercise, informed independent judgement, and is prepared to defend the psychological space from which that judgement can be made.

Claude Monet, Japanese Footbridge 1920-22, Image © Scala

When considering the relative merits of the work of Claude Monet and Cy Twombly it’s tempting to say that the viewer should simply use their own eyes. However, if you encounter the work in an exhibition which has been put together with the express, if bizarre, intention of showing significant thematic similarities between the two, rather than formal differences, then you will be asked to consider them through the eyes of another figure entirely: the curator. If the viewer is uncertain about encountering art, and operates without a canonical strategy, ordinary eyesight, or visual attention, is easy to redirect. You will be invited not to look ‘at’ but to look ‘for’: to look for how they both deal with the exhibition’s narrative – light, loss, old age, or whatever. By implication, you are encouraged to overlook almost everything else, including the properties of the exhibits that might provide the grounds for a critical judgement, probably because that judgement may jeopardise or complicate enjoyment of the ‘journey’ offered by the exhibition.

Cy Twombly, Untitled 2007 © Cy Twombly Foundation

 

The visual challenge of any particular work is posed in the framework of a relational contract with the individual viewer, but under the circumstances outlined above, it is overridden by the curator’s vision for the whole exhibition, and the curator’s need for an audience. The panic-inducing task that faces the single viewer is broken down into a set of non-judgemental, visual tick-box operations of a transactional nature. This way the exhibition connects with its viewers not as potentially sovereign individuals, or autonomous subjects, but through their default demographic identity as members of an audience. And the gallery patron seems to benefit. Turning unpredictable, aesthetic experience into a series of transactions, where the outcome is more reliable, makes the task of viewing an act of consumption. The exhibition’s thematic keywords, light, loss, lateness, will also be consumed, or successfully communicated to the satisfaction of the visitor. Most will go away feeling they have had a high-grade art experience, thanks to the curator.

This, as it’s meant to, echoes some of the anxieties of ‘Art and Objecthood’, but in contemporary terms, the cultural influence of the literalist sensibility that Fried saw as implacably opposed to modernism has evolved to become richer and even more pervasive than it was in 1967. I think that is because the temporary, short-term transactional contract, usually involving strangers, has appropriated the behaviours associated with the relational, including versions of caring, loyalty, kindness and intimacy. At the supermarket till, the commercial transaction of buying groceries is embellished with a script that implies that the shopper has some sort of mutual personal bond with the assistant; ‘Thank you for waiting.’ ‘Do you want any help with your packing?’ and the dreaded, ‘Have a nice day’. Even the automatic self-checkout, at the end of a totally mechanical series of operations and instructions, says ‘Thank you for shopping at Tescos’.

These curated, contact experiences, in the gallery and the supermarket, are becoming more and more common as the individual navigates an increasingly corporate world. As if inspired by a non-profit version of this institutional model, Tate Modern seems to have been designed as a temple to the transactional, and the behaviour that it generates, transferred to the domain of visual culture. And it functions extremely well. Obviously those who planned it realised that the Tate’s holdings of 20th century and contemporary works were weak by international standards. However, by housing them in a mall-like space, with corridors, lifts and escalators to speed the public between floors, galleries, cafes and bookshops, it is able to offer a meaningful cultural package to visitors rivalling that of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, with its vastly superior collection. The installation of Carsten Holler’s slide (Test Site, 2007) exposed the concept of the audience implicit in the gallery’s brand. Sovereign individuals had to forgo their autonomy, suspend their critical faculties and submit both to the laws of gravity and the grandiose whims of an artist in exchange for the pleasures of passing through the Turbine Hall at a slightly higher velocity than usual. I’m sure most enjoyed the transaction. ‘Thank you for visiting Tate Modern’.[x]

 

3

If our encounters with art take place in a culture dominated by transactions, or corrupted by theatricality, to borrow Fried’s language, the practice of criticism, as opposed to art writing, has to take that into account if it is to retain ethical credibility. In these circumstances, I think the effort of what I have un-memorably called ‘exceptional viewing’ becomes a duty rather than an option. I’ll try to perform this duty by returning to the distinction between painting and para-painting.

The prefix ‘para-’ is used here as in ‘paramedic’ or ‘paramilitary’, with both the idea of ‘being supplementary to’ but also more ‘limited’ or ‘incomplete’, indicating less depth of training and a narrower knowledge base than that possessed by the professions they respectively shadow. Marilynne Robinson, the American author, uses ‘para-science’ in a comparable way when describing the atheistic arguments of Richard Dawkins, which she regards as having some of the rhetorical features of scientific discourse, while lacking the essential element of rigour found in true scientific exposition.[xi]

To say that Claude Monet is a painter, but Cy Twombly is a para-painter is not to say that Twombly is a mediocre painter any more than a paramedic is a mediocre doctor; he is just limited and incomplete. In Twombly’s work why, to reverse the usual question, is there nothing rather than something? Why are they so empty, and why is their emptiness so noticeable next to Monet? What’s missing? The answer is that in Twombly there is no ‘evidence of study’ and no ‘object of study’.

‘Evidence of study’, a truly vintage concept, used to be part of art school pedagogy, and referred to a body of supporting work consisting of preparatory sketches or visual research done prior to a larger piece, as well as more disinterested exercises in observational drawing, composition or colour analysis, which showed that the student had absorbed the practical fundamentals of the chosen discipline. It’s unusual to find someone of Twombly’s generation who comes over as so academically limited. Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, fellow Black Mountain alumni, were anxious to demonstrate their grasp of ‘traditional’ skills as part of pursuing an ironic agenda meant to question the value of the tradition itself. But Twombly’s programmatic rejection of his technical education, which he did for perfectly reasonable motives, and the excision from his work of anything that might seem to be the touch of a skilful hand, is so complete that his final methodology became effectively identical with the untutored graphic language of Outsider art.

Of course (it doesn’t quite go without saying) Monet’s education was highly academic, and every inch of his painting clearly declares his practical competence. But he is not a virtuoso, even though he shows ample ‘evidence of study’. This is because, along with his ‘evidence of study’, Monet also has an organised ‘object of study’.

Claude Monet, Waterlillies (Nymphéas) 1916-19, Oil on canvas, 2000 x 1800 mm, Courtesy Fondation Beyeler, Riehen, Basel, Photo by Robert Bayer, Basel

Obviously a large part of Monet’s object of study was nature. In this he is surely more comparable with Constable than Turner. Like Constable, who saw himself as a natural scientist, Monet studied nature not as metaphor, or visualised pathetic fallacy, but as an independent system ‘out there’, to be scrutinised, observed, perceived, confronted, cultivated, inhabited. But an equally important part of his object of study was painting itself, the possibilities of the medium or discipline, which he learnt and continually developed and renewed over many years. It’s this progressive element, going beyond academic competence, that makes his work of interest to later painters, who could interpret his treatment of the two interpenetrating planes of lake surface and reflected verdure as an abstract structure, two interlocking colour fields, and relevant to their own contemporary study of an inherited practice.[xii]

Monet’s achievement represents a extended double engagement with, on the one hand, what painting was, and could be, and on the other hand, nature, which was what painting was not, and couldn’t be. Monet’s psychological contract with painting and nature was, to say the least, ‘relational’, i.e. long-haul, committed, and sustaining a mutually reinforcing dialogue within his practice.

Cy Twombly, Quattro Stagionia: Autunno, 1993-5 © Cy Twombly

Twombly’s insistence on appearing unschooled worked well, but it meant that the medium or discipline of painting – and its possibilities – which he rejected so completely, could not be the basis of any ongoing study. Despite his long career, his pretend Outsider methodology remains parked in the late fifties, and begins to look more eccentric than principled as time passes. The work does not lack subject matter, far from it. There are plenty of references to Greek myths, poetry, and a four-panel piece representing the seasons, with an Italian title. The problem is that these subjects are not converted to objects of study. The seasons are casually, almost negligently differentiated using a slightly infantile colour code, winter/snow/white, summer/sun/yellow, but there is no sense that nature is being observed with any notable tenacity. Classical references exist, but they are just that, mere mentions of Hero and Leandro or Orpheus, but no sustained relational contract with the antique world of the sort Titian took the pains to establish within his tradition.

Because Twombly adopts the outsider position, it cuts him off from the history of the 20th century pictorial practice he is shadowing, ruling it out as something with which he could form a relational bond. Yet in the period when he was active, in modernism, and equally in post-modernism, the overwhelming component of the artist’s object of study has been art itself. All art is mostly about itself, but these movements make that explicit.  In modernist painting, this came out as an engagement, a relational contract, with the dynamic history of formal developments and the progressive definition of its area of competence, or constitutive norms. Painting became its own ‘other’, I guess. Modernist and post-modernist strategies are still viable, and understanding the history of modernist painting is essential to understanding how abstraction can be made intelligible. And ‘art’, as an object of study, has an added advantage in that it can be shared as ‘nature’ was shared, by Constable, Monet, Cézanne and even, at the start, Mondrian.

One of the chilling features of Twombly is that, unlike even Johns and Rauschenberg, he is neither a modernist nor a post modernist, although by putting himself ‘outside’ these movements I think the scratchy, impoverished results shows how much art needs to stay friends with itself. However, once more, this might be part of his current appeal. Because ‘Art’ does not take up much space in his work it might appear to offer an alternative to both modernism and post-modernism and their dedicated object of study. Periodically people get fed up with art about art. This leaves much more room for what is sometimes called ‘life’. Unfortunately in Twombly’s case, this means scenes from the practitioner’s autobiography, illustrated with appropriate subject matter, telling the viewer all they need to know about what it’s like to be an American artist settled in Italy, if you’re interested.

 

4

In making a what might appear to be an uncalled for distinction between painting and para-painting, citing the absence of evidence or object of study in Twombly’s work as a crucial factor, I’m using him as an example of what I’m beginning to suspect is a wider tendency. His work must resonate with current culture otherwise it’s hard to understand his appearance in a major and generally well-received, three venue European exhibition. What I see as a lack must appear as a positive in another perspective. It might be that Twombly’s glaring emptiness and tokenist subject matter reflects some sort of ‘moment’ in painting to which para-painting is a legitimate response.

As I’ve said, Twombly rejected his training as a painter, and refused to demonstrate ‘skill’ as evidence of study in keeping with his ongoing commitment to para-painting.  That wasn’t a typical strategy for its time, but today, most practising painters under forty will probably not have had anything resembling a course of ‘training’ in their discipline, even though they have a degree in Fine Art, because medium-specific pedagogical support has been missing in most places for many years. They cannot reject what they have not been taught, which logically places them in Twombly’s position vis-à-vis the notion of study.

There may also be a crisis in potential objects of study, suitable candidates to replace Monet’s ‘Nature’, Titian’s ‘Antiquity’, Vermeer’s ‘Delft’, or modernism’s ‘Art’, with which the younger painter can sign a long-term relational contract. Understandably, they might want to keep their options open, to avoid acquiring too much baggage and devoting too much time to one medium, so light-touch references to subject matter rather than its studied embrace, may be a more attractive proposition. If this is the case, then para-painting is obviously the art of the future and Cy Twombly its seminal figure.

Signs are that people, even young people, continue to paint, learning as they go. The current emphasis on material, on what the stuff can do, could be a return to painting as a study. There remains the pictorial art of the past as a learning resource, meaning that it is still possible, even in Britain, to be a student of painting. Inadvertently the ‘deskilling’ effect in art education since the sixties has helped the cause of painting by getting rid of the teaching of drawing, the traditional basis of training. Nobody draws now, and what’s more, nobody can show them how, which frees painting, particularly abstract painting, from a dependence on a practice that has different, and often conflicting priorities. (There is para-drawing, of course.)

But, skills aside, there is still the challenge of the ‘object of study’; that part of the painting that isn’t the painting, a challenge that, if met, should help the medium resist becoming merely a curator’s plaything. Many abstract painters have found it necessary to replace Nature or Delft with the study of some other organised system, like ‘The Unconscious’, ‘Deleuze’, ‘Theosophy’, ‘The Fibonacci series’ or ‘Colour’, but undoubtedly, part of the object of study has to be painting itself, not its essence, but ‘painting in general’, painting through time. But painting has become alienated from its past. Anthropomorphic reports of its death may have been exaggerated, but one does sense a discontinuity or rupture in its history. Perhaps a new generation is taking it up. Somewhere along the line it must have been reinvented or rebooted, but these new practitioners may not be interested in reconnecting it to its own history. Para-painting, Twombly, is maybe what you get when you try the I.T. trick of turning painting off, then turning it back on again.

 

5

I realise that all these comments are made from a minority, non serviam, critical perspective, but in the kind of paradigm shift we are (perhaps) living through, a personal position could face less of a threat than that confronting the prevailing institutionalised consensus. It’s beginning to feel that we may have reached an historical moment – we must have if the value of the capitalist system is discussed in the tabloids – where the theatrical corruption that Fried wrote against in 1967 has become intolerable. You don’t need a Savonarola to tell you that an art predicated on authenticity, addressed to autonomous subjects, seems superior to one based on selling shiny things to Russian oligarchs or hedge fund managers.

In another part of our culture, near Geneva, a group of people have been looking, exceptionally, for something posited nearly fifty years ago, the Higgs Boson, another vintage concept from the sixties. Like Monet, their object of study was nature. On Wednesday July 4th 2012, in their version of Giverny, the tunnel which houses the Large Hadron Collider constructed at great expense on the border of France and Switzerland, they found it. Why can’t art be more like science?

 


[i] Michael Fried, ‘Art and Ojecthood’, Artforum, June 1967.

[ii] ‘Theatricality’ does not have a fixed definition in Fried’s essay. It includes the concept of the audience as beholder, which he developed in Absorption and Theatricality, but he also links the term to the spectator’s experience of  ‘what lies between the arts’, amongst other things. I look at this in more detail in Michael Fried’s Art Criticism, University of Essex, Ph.D 2003, particularly chapter 3.

[iii] At this moment in time, when the notion of a fully mediated world is taken for granted, it might be hard to retrieve the challenge posed by minimalism’s claim to be the art of the ‘Real’. Obviously, Fried thought that the idea was self-contradictory. While he was at home with reality outside the art gallery, he had reservations about its literal presence within it. What is also hard to retrieve is the sense of urgent historical necessity that framed both Fried’s and the minimalists’ debate of these matters.

[iv] The concept of the subject in Clement Greenberg’s ‘practical’ criticism may well imply a more balanced Enlightenment style individual, yet one who would still possess a relatively fragmented post-Freudian personality.

[v] Existentialism is not specifically referenced in Fried’s essay, but neither is Merleau-Ponty’s The Phenomenology of Perception, though it clearly influences the concept of ‘presentness’.

[vi] Fried commented on the piece’s theatrical qualities in a talk he gave at Tate Modern when Marsyas was on view in 2002.

[vii] Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, 2002. I also don’t want to confuse the sense of relational used here with the relational/non-relational contrast often drawn between the sculptural syntax of Caro and the ‘phoned-in’ formal organisation of work by Judd or Morris.

[viii] The distinction between ‘transactional’ and ‘relational’ is made in Denise Rousseau’s Psychological Contract in Organisations; Understanding Written and Unwritten Agreements, 1995.

[ix] Turner, Monet, Twombly; Later Paintings, Tate Liverpool, 22nd June to 28th October. 2012

[x] Tate Modern has recently extended its accommodation to include the Tanks, specifically for ‘live’ art, reinforcing its global brand. For an interesting response to this phenomenon see Claire Bishop ‘In the age of the Cultural Olympiad, we’re all public performers’, Guardian, 23rd July 2012.

[xi] Marilynne Robinson, Absence of Mind, 2010. One of the marginal characters in her novel Gilead 2004 is actually named after Jonathan Edwards.

[xii]The quality of Monet’s late water lily paintings is variable. Some look like coloured Edwardian photographs but others, including the National Gallery’s Water-lilies and MOMA’s Reflections of Clouds on the Water-Lily Ponds, are more advanced than the colour field paintings which followed them forty years later. Not only are the best works more complex visually, with most of the touches being in two places at once, they take on an added dimension by explicitly referring to the act of painting itself. That’s partly because they look ‘unfinished’, so the painting act is more visible, but also, I think because they resemble palettes, the platform on which the process begins. The presence of mixed and pure oil colour on the canvas seems to imitate, at some level, the working and mixing of pigments laid out on the palette, a process which is continued on the canvas with the wet-into-wet technique that Monet favoured. Even the time it takes for oil paint to dry is factored into the experience. In the many photographs of Monet in his studio at Giverny, he is shown holding a traditional palette, (the shape of a lily pad) and in one there is a thermometer. The heat level in the studio was obviously key to the speed of the drying process. The caked surface of the National Gallery picture certainly looks like it was painted in very hot weather. I think all this suggests that painting itself was a conscious part of Monet’s object of study.

  1. Robin Greenwood said…

    Much as I like this article, I struggle with the ‘evidence of study’ thing. What, in the name of abstract art, can you study? It does sound like going backwards, which I can’t square away with a quest for ‘authenticity’.

    • Sam Cornish said…

      Though I see that your work aims to find new (authentic) structures, it surely does this within a narrow range which of approach, which would mean that surely it could in some sense be taught, at least initially, which it seems to me is a large part of the idea of an object of study.

  2. tony antrobus said…

    always thought Twombly hugely overated. Good piece.