If you’re interested in contemporary painting you’ve probably noticed that a massive realignment in the art-world is underway. As if waking from a culturally induced coma, abstract painting is back and ready to make up for lost time. Leading the critical charge are what’s been christened “provisional” or “casual” paintings; flagship abstract styles that seem to embrace aesthetic poverty as a positive factor. Wildly diverse in scale, scope, media and quality, these paintings share few formal or technical traits and are bound together mainly by their inexplicable appeal to artists and writers alike. However, if you find the hype disproportionate to the reality of this revival of abstraction, you’re not alone. Here then, are three hypotheses that explain its current popularity.
The first, owing to its prosaic nature, is probably the most correct: provisional painting is an illusion. As the product of several gifted writers’ fertile imaginations, treatments on provisional painting are simply the literary equivalents of making a five-star meal out of leftover McDonalds. Bad painting has never had it so good, been more prevalent, or had so many well-placed, intelligent champions. There’s no malicious intent here, these writers mean well, but ultimately they’re just doing what writers do; trying to tell a good story and making the evidence fit into a preconceived narrative. No harm, no foul.
Hypothesis two is slightly more complex and I’ll have to bore you with a bit of my own history to explain it. For several years after completing my MFA I had the great fortune to adjunct-instruct at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. The Art Academy of Cincinnati has a long and prestigious history and is endowed with excellent professors who are dedicated and talented artists.(1) But as an incubator of creativity par excellence, the Art Academy, like art schools across the globe, has a tendency to attract a particular sub-set of student which my current employer, a public four-year university, is strangely bereft of.
These students could be found clustered in small groups just outside the school’s front doors outfitted in regulation torn leg-wear, leather jackets, strategically unkempt hair and immersed in a perpetual cloud of cigarette smoke. They were my favorite students, smart, funny and happy to bum me a smoke when I needed one. In addition to a particular type of dress, many of these students made a particular type of work. Whether 2D or 3D, much of it looked “casual, dashed-off, tentative, unfinished or self-cancelling” (2) and it frequently displayed “a studied, passive-aggressive incompleteness” (3) that didn’t just court failure, it was set to marry it.
While Raphael Rubenstein might have called this work “Provisional Painting” and Sharon Butler may have dubbed it “The New Casualism”, at the Art Academy, a few adjunct instructors and I had a different term for it: Poseur-Art. Far from “reassessing basic elements like color, composition, and balance, based on 1920s-vintage Bauhaus principles” (4) these students probably never understood those concepts in the first place, nor did they care. Much of the work appeared “causal” and “dashed-off” because it was, often moments before a group critique. Despite the paucity of visual achievement, they were adept at discussing their work as if its creation had involved genuine existential struggle.
Don’t get me wrong, they were good kids, and in many ways they’re the legitimate heirs to the art-world post-modernism bequeathed them. A world where the old gods of talent, originality, inspiration and authorship were killed; replaced by a pantheon of Marxist-inspired impotents and deified by a university-museum-gallery complex more interested in semiotic connotations than impeccable craft. Is it really such a leap to go from Duchamp’s art-as-intention, to art-as-attitude?
What we are witnessing with the ascendancy of provisional or DIY abstraction is simply the widespread institutionalization of the “poseur” mentality as a viable art-making strategy. It’s a mindset that values the idea of being a painter and the sociological approach adopted in the studio far more than the arduous reality of making good paintings, or even of the painting itself. While it may be true that, as Walter Darby Bannard has said “there is no sweat equity in art”(5) surely there should at least be some sweat? The core tenants of conceptualism have so thoroughly colonized the “discourse” that the return of circa 1980’s “bad” painting can be hailed as a triumph while Roberta Smith quickly dispatches highly-skilled work as “rotten” and “radioactive”(6).
Today, “artist” is just another option on a buffet of available lifestyle choices that emphasize style not substance. Not nearly thoughtful enough to be conceptual, nor skillful enough to be aesthetically captivating, provisional painting falls harmlessly and lifelessly in the middle. Easy enough for anyone to make, It’s the ultimate peoples’ art with a decidedly American flavor. Provisional painting fits perfectly into an art historical narrative conceived in Marxist terms; one that thrives on the novelty of the new and the myth of historical progress.
My final hypothesis explains the popularity of provisional abstraction in somewhat more pessimistic terms. This vaunted “re-birth”, hailed across the art-world, is merely another manifestation of the wider cultural nostalgia industry; a longing for the look, feel, and glories of the past in a backward-looking present thoroughly corrupted by indifference and cynicism. Since we cannot imagine what a future for abstraction might actually look like, a bevy of painters mine the past, adopting desiccated gestures as if there were meaningful aesthetic victories at stake. But there aren’t.
The heyday of abstract painting as a cultural force is well and truly over. There are no longer any significant cultural-aesthetic resistances against which to assert an individual stylistic vision and as a result, making bad painting doesn’t look revolutionary, it just looks bad. That doesn’t mean important abstraction ceases to be made. “It survives” as Greenberg once said “in the face of this new rationalization for the lowering of standards” (7) in the hands of practitioners who value the sweat of the brow at least as much as the life of the mind, and for whom pictorial quality may require formal novelty, but is not beholden to it.
There’s no reason to give up painting, but there are good reasons to stop making claims on its behalf. Disquisitions on “new developments” in abstract painting –or any kind for that matter- make for good copy, but they have the side effect of keeping last century’s spurious theories on life-support. The old arguments of modernism and post-modernism are worn-out, unproductive and irrelevant to the art of the 21st century. It’s time we set aside old habits and seek new avenues for production and new paradigms for discussion.
1.Founded in 1869, is was the first art school in the United States to admit women as students and some of its more notable alumnae include Tom Wesselmann, Julian Stanczak, and Petah Coyne.
7. Clement Greenberg “Modern and Postmodern” in “Clement Greenberg Late Writings” ed. Robert C Morgan, originally Arts 54, no. 6, February 1980 p.66