Friday, 23 September 2011

TONY GODFREY: 'PAINTING TODAY', 2009, Phaidon, London, NY.

This is one of those huge ‘coffee table books’, designed for only the sturdiest of coffee tables, or in lieu of one. Where Terry Smith’s What is Contemporary Art? squarely targets an academic niche (with University of Chicago Press) Godfrey’s more imposing tome pitches to a more general audience, on more generous terms. The book essentially maps a comprehensive set of currents to painting over the last forty years. Written between 2005-2009; it offers a global perspective, a bit like Edward Lucie-Smith’s Art Today, but devoted to just painting. Godfrey is best known for his book on Conceptual Art (although at one time, also a Burlington Magazine regular) and clearly not one daunted by difficulties of theory, evaluation and history. So there is some expectation in the choice of subject here and sadly some disappointment.

The main problem is not the selection of works – it seems a fairly well-judged survey – but the categories, or the way selections are organised. Chapter headings like ‘The Figure’, ‘Painting Space’, ‘Death and Life’, ‘Dresden and Leipzig’ are either too general to convincingly describe an historical development, or too specific to offer much insight into formal features and continuity. Others like ‘Post-Feminism’ attempt to impose social issues but only beg stylistic distinction or treatment, while others, like ‘Installation Painting’, register merely a peripheral hybrid of projects. What we have is a smorgasbord of topics that loosely fit selections, but never quite nail them. What is missing is a coherent programme or project, a convincing history of styles and demonstration of influence or continuity. It may be too much to expect from a study devoted to recent developments, it may be the book simply over-reaches. Still, Godfrey has a keen eye that would only emerge sharper for more careful analysis.

Painting Today confronts two problems in building a convincing perspective on ‘contemporary’ painting. Firstly, influential critics largely shun painting in deeper or more theoretical discussion, or dismiss it as dead. Secondly, whatever critics still find to talk about in contemporary art (installations, fabrications, digital video/photography/graphics) remains largely confined to Western artists and does not reflect the growing integration and mobility of cultures, the undeniable trend to ‘globalisation’ or trans-nationalism. So it’s hard to find terms to talk about painting these days and then it’s hard to grant them adequate scope. The book commences by reviewing critical indifference, such as the 2005 publication Art Since 1900 by Yves-Alain Bois, Benjamin Buchloh, Hal Foster and Rosalind Krauss (something of an October omnibus) where painting all but ceases to rate a mention after the 1970s, the exception being perhaps Gerhard Richter. Then there’s Boris Groys’ dismissal from 1998, that painting expires with Minimalist abstraction (again, time-of-death sometime in the early 1970s) and Robert Storr’s complaint that there is no critical discourse for painting since the 80s, (p.11) presumably meaning Neo-Expressionism. Nevertheless, painting continues to thrive in galleries and art fairs, if not on the circuit of Biennales and other international surveys. How can this be?

For those convinced painting is dead, it only underlines a market in denial, a symptom of broader social decay. For those impressed with developments in recent painting, it flags a crisis in criticism, an inability on the part of critical doctrine to discern or respond to the new or different. Godfrey, who holds a senior post with Sotheby’s, hedges on this one, unwilling to probe implications on either side. He is at pains to deny a market perspective, or any sense of an investor’s guide for his book (p.7), but cannot quite join academics like the October group or Groys in shifting the discourse to pointed social critique nor properly contest their views and reconstruct a formal or formalist art history. What we’re left with is an uneasy middle ground. Painting is defended as a primal need, an indispensible activity for humans (pp 15-16). But this hardly answers the objections of October and Groys. For, while picturing of some kind is obviously crucial in human development, it does not follow that it must remain central to fine art, and if and where it does, that it must take the form of painting. The argument is insufficient to the book’s needs. It still needs to say in what way this primal need excels in some instances above others (excellence) and so qualifies as fine art and in what sense it provides an ongoing tradition. It adds neither and the book suffers.

Beyond this primal role for painting, Painting Today also appeals to social history, looking for striking correspondences between works and current events, in a bid to classify styles. Here too the cost of the compromise is evident, where stylistics is exchanged for social history. At a deeper level, the difficulty lies in accepting enough (disputed) art history from which to erect a formal framework within which to describe other or later styles. But a new art history cannot simply tack on bits to received history – without failing to make history! Some revision to accepted history is always needed. Facts at some point insist on frameworks - and factions. Painting Today is content to accept October and Groys’ art history, up until the 70s, at least, and then to replace their views with its own. But borrowing premises and substituting a conclusion will not do either. The two, quite logically, never quite mesh and the book is further weakened by this shortcut in method.

The book thus builds its platform from discussion of painting as Minimalist abstraction in the late 60s or early 70s, and while the style has quietly persisted, clearly, it has hardly remained a dominant influence. But this is where October and Groys are happy to discuss painting (if only to take issue with earlier evaluations) and so Painting Today lumbers with this narrow view, expanded into ‘The Western Tradition’ (Chapter Two) and resulting in a seriously skewed perspective. The trouble is, Minimalism was not the only style of painting in the 60s and 70s, so that discussion of painting as Minimalism; hardly does justice to painting then (or now) in fact scarcely does justice to abstraction, much less figuration. Crucially, Pop Art also arose at that time, enjoyed equal prestige and influence but found no influential theoreticians or ambitious critics. However, to ignore the influence of Pop Art is not only dishonest as art history, but makes the task of explaining subsequent developments all the harder. Indeed, the whole rationale for commencing from the 70s looks misconceived once one considers Pop Art. The omission extends to following styles of Photo-Realism, Bad Painting and New Image Painting, and even to later derivations of Minimalism, such as Pattern and Decoration (P&D) and Neo-Geo. None figure even as preliminaries in Painting Today, largely because of the ill-conceived starting point, the theoretical straightjacket. The book acknowledges photographically-sourced works in Chapter Four but fatally, misses how these are derived from Pop Art via Photo-realism, how print sources set in train iconographic categories, how these inspire various painterly treatments (that is, define ‘painting’). Consequently, Chapter Four, like chapters noted above, looks somewhat arbitrary or ad hoc.

The emergence of Neo-Expressionism in the late 70s, early 80s, comes as early as Chapter Three, unsurprisingly, since only Minimalism is recognised in the 70s. While superficially a revival, Neo-Expressionism is much less a thorough rejection of preceding styles, once one appreciates the steady dilation of Pop and Conceptualism, the convergence of icons and allegory, parody and pastiche. Painting Today includes pivotal figures like Phillip Guston and Sigmar Polke, but does not quite grasp the undercurrents to the stylistic diffusion they variously undertake, why they should receive increasing recognition at that point. And, as if to confirm Storr’s observation, Painting Today can make no later stylistic distinctions, lest it go out on a limb or dispute too much orthodoxy, even though such argument is a declared aim. Styles following Neo-Expressionism in the 80s, such as New Image Glasgow Painting (in Glasgow), Hypermannerism (Italy) or The Berlin-Braunsweig Group (Berlin) are ignored, even though the book professes to a global scope, and even though they represent interesting departures from Neo-Expressionism. Surprisingly, there is little discussion of Post Modernism at this point either, although the term was popular in 80s criticism, and brought with it further declarations of painting’s demise (now as a preference for photography).

Chapters Five (‘Pure Abstraction’) and Six (‘Ambiguous Abstraction’) examine developments in abstraction. But since these are cut off from preceding developments, such as Pattern & Decoration, the gradual assimilation of more figurative motifs to repeating patterns, that renders works a good deal less abstract (or more ambiguous) and the attempts to animate line as a formal resource, in extending colour fields, leaves the distinction between Pure and Ambiguous similarly weak and explains little. Even where the book grants abstraction precedence in painting, this foundation sheds little light on more recent developments. Again, one cannot argue with the selections – Marden, Taaffe, Kippenberger, Oehlen, Pittman, and Lasker are all there – even Australian Aboriginal works are rightly placed in this expansive or maximising phase to abstraction – but the analysis is faint-hearted, muddled. It needs to step back from the critical rhetoric and look a little harder at the works, the shows and collections, before jumping to conclusions. One might have perhaps hoped for a Günther Förg to demonstrate German interest in later linear abstraction, or a Terence La Noue to illustrate the transition from 70s process-driven abstraction, to a more inclusive approach; but these are quibbles. In the main, Painting Today displays impeccable taste, a discerning eye.

It is significant that four of the following chapters appeal to the traditional hierarchy of genres, in distinguishing, The Figure -or portrait - (Chapter Seven) Landscape (Chapter Nine) History Painting (Chapter Eleven) and Still Life (Chapter Twelve). But it is hardly enough simply to record their survival. Pop Art is sometimes divided by genre, especially for still lives, but in general the presence of text, in combination with diagrams and logos, tends to be seen as a collapse into abstraction or the assimilation of genres native to print. More might be made of this move, but the book, again, doesn’t quite get there. Traditional genres are now too broad or crude to properly catch a Peter Doig, a John Currin or Jenny Saville, for example. Recent painting unquestionably observes genres, but they are no longer merely the traditional genres of painting, no longer a simple distinction between objects and scenes, persons and events. For genres now we must look to narrower categories of content, a broader range of media.

Painting Today grants Neo Rauch prominence in a number of chapters and Chapter Fourteen is devoted to developments in Dresden and Leipzig. This is understandable given their acclaim in the first decade of the 21st century, particularly for the New Leipzig School. Although it too has yet to find a formidable critical champion and is regarded with suspicion in some quarters, as much less of a coherent style than a cynical marketing exercise. See for example, the hostility of Blake Gopnik or David Hudson, the condescension of Daniel Birnbaum or Christian Schüle. These may not be critics of sufficient calibre to warrant mention in Painting Today, but they represent a considerable groundswell in critical opinion. So it is something of an acid test for the book’s convictions, how The New Leipzig School and Rauch are to be distinguished from preceding and competing styles of figurative painting. With only the traditional hierarchy of genres to work with, effectively, Painting Today can no more than register aspirations to some version of history painting – reinforced with convenient social history – and with nods to the other genres. But this actually tells us little of what separates a Rauch, say, from a Daniel Richter, a Neil Tait, a Muntean & Rosenblum, or a Jules de Balincourt, all of which might be said to revisit history painting in various ways. Discussion of some of Rauch’s works in terms of the ‘carnivalesque’ – a liberating public spectacle – sits well with interpretations concerning Leipzig’s communist past, but hardly covers the many works that invoke science fiction, mutation, corporate branding and recreation. Nor does the book address qualms about stylistic integrity for the school.

In my review from 2006, I outlined why I think Rauch’s work merits interest. Some further remarks on the New Leipzig School in general, should help to show why the book’s instincts are right, even though its analysis is wrong. Firstly, disparity among school members’ styles is no more than that allowed the New York School or Abstract Expressionists. Not all stylistic features need be shared by all members of a school. Tilo Baumgartel, Tim Eitel, Martin Kobe, Neo Rauch, Christoph Ruckhaberle, David Schnell and Matthias Weischer, are usually taken as the most prominent members of the New Leipzig School. The split within them is essentially between architecturally focussed works (Kobe, Schnell and Weischer) and those favouring the figure. In both cases, aspects of planning, design and fashion (or timeliness) are foremost. Architecture is firstly rendered as models; similarly, people register as types or roles. Illustrational style here does not target a more particular genre, so much as ambiguities and conflicts in treatment between ostensibly compatible objects. The work breaks things down in a brusque way and rests squarely on drawing. This is a school attitude. The play with style may be deconstruction, but it is less a play on individual styles or works than with underlying conventions such as perspective, scale, tone and plane or surface. Notably, perspectives and scale go awry in architecture, confuse light source or tone, surface and space. With figures, proportion, anatomy and scale are often inconsistent or clash with settings and other figures.

The result is not a display of incompetence, of course, but rather the grey area between style and realism, with emphasis upon process or formula. On the one hand, the project might have simply reverted to Expressionism, on the other, proceeded to caricature and genre, as does much else in recent figurative painting. What makes the school interesting is the way it steers between the two options and adopts a (relatively) sophisticated base in drawing, but a (relatively) primitive top or superstructure in painting. The approach presses style where objects assume realism and vice versa, sheds realism where objects appeal to style. At a time when realism has splintered into so much plurality and abstraction no longer looks to absolute foundations, this teasing no-man’s-land to pictures matters a lot. And while others have mined this territory with equal endeavour, it is the collective impact of the various New Leipzig School painters that claim attention for it. Conversely, it is the sense of a conservative project, a middle ground, that disappoints the champion of other media.

Painting Today has not been able to say this in defence of The New Leipzig School (which, in any case, has - by 2011 - begun to disperse, stylistically) and it has not been able to join the dots for figurative painting since Neo Expressionism. But it has diligently collected an accurate sample, or the right set of dots, from which more illuminating conclusions ought to be drawn. While its chapters or categories lack rigour, they nevertheless allow the inclusion of some fascinating detail, such as the young Gerhard Richter’s social realist mural from 1956, Lebensfreude (p.33) and painters from South East Asia and Australia, often overlooked in such surveys. So there are consolations. To attempt to bring the history of art completely up-to-date is both irresistible and futile. History never stands still, no vantage point remains for long. But sooner or later it is necessary, if history is to continue. A more prudent researcher might have settled for describing just the end of the twentieth century, with a decade for hindsight. But ultimately, we want a measure of today; we want a measure by today. Godfrey has obliged, although the results fall short, even in the short term.