Art for Theory's Sake

An abstruse exhibit at the Walker pushes the art of painting out of its gilded frame and into the pages of a textbook

In Currin's work, as well as that of the other artists on display here, the old art-world pieties no longer apply. Genre, style, and even quality, the time-tested taxonomy of art, are rendered meaningless. So, too, are ideological markers of the Nineties, like gender and politics: This art refers, like a mirror held against a mirror, primarily to itself. Painting at the Edge of the World is postmodern both in its conceptual framing and in the literal, oxymoronic sense of the term: This is art in the future tense, independent of time and tradition. It's post-Pop, post-Op, post-Abstract, post-ironic, post-history, and perhaps even post-art. Indeed, Painting at the Edge of the World might be post-everything.


Why this apocalyptic mood? Fogle, who has taken up painting's defense with a convert's zeal, offers a historical view of what he terms "the trouble with painting." In an essay of the same title prefacing the exhibit's catalog, he explains: "Though collectively troubled by painting's status, we barely flinch when it miraculously rises from the dead again and again. This continual death and rebirth of painting, what we might call its Lazarus effect, has become a common feature of the artistic landscape over the past 200 years."

The neck is the window of the soul: John Currin's "Park City Grill"
The neck is the window of the soul: John Currin's "Park City Grill"

The art world's indifference to the medium's vital signs, Fogle continues, stems in part from painting's traditional role as the basic currency of the art market. A picture, by virtue of its size, permanence, and time-intensive production, is the objet d'art most likely to be sold, hoarded, and fetishized by collectors and museums. Thus art becomes commodity, and commodity becomes artifact. Artists--especially American artists since World War I--who felt uneasy with this progression were likely to respond either by not painting at all, or by tinkering with the notion of painting's commercial and aesthetic value.

Consider Andy Warhol's prints. By mass-producing visual flotsam--Marilyn Monroe's bee-stung lips, for instance--Warhol undermined the idea of his paintings as something singular, irreplaceable, and thus intrinsically valuable. While Pop was conceptually rich--and linked to Duchamp's subversive gambits--it did lasting damage to painting's currency by making previous notions of picture-making seem quaint and irrelevant. Artists who wanted to get ahead no longer learned drawing or color theory: Why study when you can steal? After successive assaults by Abstract Expressionism and Pop and Op Art, the grand old traditions of representative art seemed to reach some fundamental dead end. Where could painters go, aesthetically or conceptually, except backwards?

In his influential 1992 study of the problem, "In Defence of Painting," Hilton Kramer argues that painting has been displaced from the center of the visual world because of its nature: It's a fundamentally static medium in a moving world. "Painting is, in some fundamental sense, just no longer there for [us] as an aesthetic imperative," Kramer writes. "It has been effectively supplanted by other media--photography, video, assemblage, arrangements of objects claiming to be sculpture, and that whole range of display or tableau that goes by the name of conceptual art--that are said to have greater immediacy and legibility, and hence greater relevance to contemporary life." Paintings exist in the eternal now, in other words, while conceptual art and real-time photographic media march on into the future.

This hearkens back to Keats, who saw, in a piece of Grecian crockery, both the value and absurdity of worshiping frozen beauty. But the schism between kinetic mainstream culture and mimetic visual art has grown in the past half-century. Consider the parlance of today's popular media--cinema and television--versus that of painting. On one hand, we have "moving pictures," presenting life at life's pace (or even faster), and "television," enticing us with endless vistas. On the other, we have the "still life," which translates into French as nature morte, or "dead nature." The Old Masters understood this: Those gutted hares in Chardin's airless tableau were reminders that this, too, shall pass. To comprehend these or any other paintings is, on some basic level, to consider time and mortality. It's not that painting's dead; it's that the illusion painting makes manifest--of life, stilled--no longer has the same meaning for us.

Painting at the Edge of the World asks the next logical question: Where do we go from the end? Or, to adopt the fashionable opinion of painting, what can art say in a dead language? The artists included in this show take up the challenge either by reverting to childlike primitivism (the globby, intentionally bad pictures of Mike Kelley and Paul Thek); adding temporal or spatial elements (Wright's improvisations and Martin Kippenberger's funny, fluid "sculptural paintings"); or co-opting photographic media (Gursky and McCarthy). It's an unfortunate side effect of the exhibit's curatorial conceit, however, that so much of this work refers only to itself. It gazes Narcissus-like into a mirror, and, transfixed by its own form, forgets art's imperative to show us the world in new ways. At some point, then, Painting at the Edge of the World reaches a reductio ad absurdum: It offers no possibilities beyond self-reference. Movement, we are taught in high school physics, requires force as well as direction, and most of the new art here seems devoid of both. It's art for theory's sake.

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