TOWARDS ISABELLE GRAW'S LOVE OF PAINTING VIA JERRY SALTZ (PART 2)
By JAMES MERRIGAN | JUNE 15, 2018
PART 2 [READ PART 1 HERE]
The fallout from Part 1 was, I bought the book. A hefty volume, The Love of Painting: Genealogy of a Success Medium is a joining up of Isabelle Graw’s thinking on the interrelationship between product and person, labour and market, art and artist, life and world under the medium of painting. Reading the 350 pages over the course of two weeks, Graw's beliefs and values and, dare I say, personal mythology of painting comes to the surface in her personification of what she neatly terms the “meta-medium” of the artworld.
Painting for Graw is a manifestation of life. A mediated life, or a life mediated suggests that we experience life through others; through their loves and their desires, through their groans and their moans, even through their Instagram feed, which is discussed in quasi-seriousness during a conversation with artist Merlin Carpenter as having a “vitalistic” essence in its own right. But Graw wants to go one step further with painting, even though she is met by outright resistance in conversations within her circle of contributors – discussions which at times feel they are constructed for the sake of argument, having a “staged authenticity” about them like her critical observations on Martin Kippenberger's mock-serious art. But maybe art criticism always feels staged or theatrical because it's such a repressed expression in the artworld.
Graw willfully challenges frenemies that deem her “fetishistic” about painting's “aliveness”, or cast her as being overly “romantic” in her imaginary projections onto the painter's “lifeworld” by speculating, not ‘pronouncing’, as the dictionary definition of Vitalism goes: “that the processes of life [and painting] are not explicable by the laws of physics and chemistry alone and that life [and painting] is in some part self-determining” (square brackets mine). It's the “in some part” of “self-determining” that is significant here. Painting for Graw ‘in some part’ resembles its creator: “not so much a genuine bearing of the painter's soul that we encounter in the painting but rather signifiers designed to [love this following turn of phrase] stimulate such an exposure”.
Like Freud before her in his use of the mindfully and materially absent ‘unconscious’, Graw's repeated use of “quasi” before a stream of nouns and adjectives – quasi-person, quasi-human, quasi-presence, quasi-automatically, quasi-subject – is speculative not rhetorical. This book is a testing ground for “notes” and “sketches” (not dry and unread catalogue essays) that speculate on the quasi-nature of painting as a “living picture”. Here Graw gets to tease out her “vitalistic fantasies” in essay and conversation form against the logic of the market and the limiting logic of prose in the face of that most elusive but enticing of discursive mediums since, as Graw remarks, “Duchamp reframed painting as discourse”. Painting, in The Love of Painting, is a medium that is almost alive but never dead. There are no pronouncements here (as Jerry Saltz's pronounces); this is limbo theory that opens minds and mouths.
Graw always carries a claw hammer in her critical tool bag but she doesn't drive pronouncements home; she taps them to see if they'll stay or sink. If they stay she claws at them until the steel bends and the concrete flakes. Her criticism is a sequence of acknowledgments, sometimes agreements, but mainly ‘buts’ and the interrogative “Yet” that Christopher Hitchens was so fond of. So Douglas Crimp's “The End of Painting”, Rosalind Krauss' “post-medium condition”, Clement Greenberg's art is the “essence of [its] medium”, Benjamin Buchloh's subjective friendship with the anti-subjective Gerhard Richter, and her own “authentic staging” of criticism within her circle of frenemies are put to the test.
Some of the language Graw uses to mythologise her theories, like Karl Marx's and Sigmund Freud's nomenclature did in the service of money and the mind, Graw does in the service of painting. In this sense Graw is the lovechild of both Marx and Freud – bridging the socio-psychological and lexical gap between commodity and fetish, money and painting, subject and object. This results in a refreshingly analytical approach to the subject of painting.
Graw proffers many interesting ideas in The Love of Painting – the ‘The’ in the title suggesting a collective, cultural and historical love of painting and not Graw's personal love for the medium (which I argue is not the full picture). Alternating between essays and conversations that critically elbow and kick the blurred line between artist-subject and painted object, you end up with argumentation not pronouncement. Sometimes the forces of objectivity and subjectivity feel a little staged, but Graw's contributors toe the line between sham and truth, from Martin Kippenberger to Merlin Carpenter.
Packing all of Graw's ideas on painting into this one review becomes a real mouthful, but the breadth of the book, materially and historically, spreads her ideas generously, that by page 200 or so you get where Graw is going. Graw uses one-to-one conversations as a way to level the discursive playing field – she has the same amount of airtime as her contributors. There's none of this on-bended-knee claptrap about the interviewer being invisible for the sake of the artist's visibility; thus the conversation is discursive, democratic, generous and most crucially, critical.
Graw's essays (some real keepers), from one on Manet and his recasting of the “outside as inside” to my personal favourite on Frank Stella's Early Work wherein Graw discusses “The Force of the Impressional Brush” and sheds new light on Stella and his peers (Carl Andre and Donald Judd) in their utilisation of “symmetry as an antidote to composition” and an “appropriate means to attain pictorial force and directness”. As Stella stated almost too famously during a lecture at the Pratt Institute in 1960: “Make it the same all over.” Graw even tackles her reputationally untouchable countryman Gerhard Richter on his anti-subjective posturing, claiming “The artist [Richter] plays down his own subjectivity to amplify the subjectivity of his paintings”. According to Graw, Richter's withdrawal is in fact a projection of his subjectivity.
Graw's painting subjects, from Stella's early black and white paintings to Wade Guyton's inkjet ‘paintings’ are indicative of a critic who wants to explore and interrogate subjectivity in painting in the most intangible of places. She is not interested in the explicit expression of the brush stroke, like swirling paint upon the canvas. No. Graw wants to divine the artist's haptic touch in the most calculated and mechanical of processes, from painters who don't think of themselves as ‘painters’ but have been repackaged as such by the artworld (Guyton), to Richter who presses and drags a giant squeegee across his human-scale abstracts to obliterate the whispering parts for the louder whole. She does this by thinking of painting as gestalt, made up of the psychological, the performative and the market environs that are behind, beside and beyond painting but part of painting. Like in Gestalt Psychology, which considers the “whole child” within its environs and contexts, Graw treats the ‘whole painting’ in terms of “the value [and agency] of painting [being] always elsewhere”.
So Martin Kippenberger's public persona is wrapped up in his paintings; but so is Richter's or Warhol's in different ways. “Painting” (Graw puts it to painter Charline von Heyl) “is a specific language that provides a variety of artifices, methods, techniques, and ruses to generate this impression of the absent author's presence as an indexical effect. And for these indexical effects to occur, the artist doesn't need to have put his or her own hand in the picture, guiding the brush or throwing paint on the canvas.” In summary: the painter can be latently present in the paint even, and especially in Graw's view, when it's not all brushstrokes at dawn.
If we bring it back to art criticism – a subject that Graw herself cannot let go of in The Love of Painting (probably because painting has a facility to absorb criticism and critique itself à la Sigmar Polke and Richter), Robert Storr is wrong when he says Dave Hickey is “not very good about art” (Read Part 1); but he's right that we tend to mythologise the Texan bad boy based on his colourful autobiography that stands behind, beside and beyond his writing on art in factual flashbacks and fictive accounts between Texas, Law Vegas and Mexico. Further, while you do know what you are getting with Jerry (Saltz), you don't know what you are getting with Hickey. One minute he is an artworld-spoiler-brut-brat like Jerry, the next minute a belle-lettres sensualist with a capacity for beautiful prose second to none in the artworld, even Peter Schjeldahl. Jarrett Earnest (what a fantastic surname considering the discussion) writes in LARB: “The positive and negative poles of his public self create a magnetic field, setting the stage for Dave Hickey the literary character.”
The same goes for painting, but in more complicated ways – if you can get more complicated than the splitting that takes place in Hickey's “literary character”; and for that matter, Graw, whose The Love of Painting is primarily about the split personas and split loyalties of the painter vs. the artist (vs. the artworld): one bearing the weight of painting history and self image; the other finding methods to offload history and self image through a hands-off or mechanical approach and output. “For [Frank] Stella, to be a painter meant ‘to process one's own self-conception’. Self-conception here does not refer only to something individual, he added, but rather to an identity ‘big enough that everyone can participate in it’.”
Bottom line for Graw is, and particularly in the case of painting, “we must realise that value is not inside them, but it is always elsewhere”. That paintings are “not valuable as such” and they are discursively “open for speculation”: intellectually, emotionally, critically, financially, the whole gamut. As Merlin Carpenter cynically counters Graw's sometimes fetishistic, romantic, half-baked love for painting: “painting is a cover story”.
Graw’s The Love of Painting reveals painting for what it really is – a human medium; and what it really does – get people talking. Throughout the book, in essay and conversation form, there's two voices fighting on every page: one voice that is head deep in institutional critique, from art market forces to critical agency; and a second voice that is heel deep in wobbly terminology such as “quasi”, “love” and “lifeworld” (a favourite of the psychoanalytically inclined art critic Donald Kuspit). Like Barthes, Graw's ‘voices’ engage “head and heart at the same time”. With regards to the first voice, Graw mentions the always credible Jew when it comes to art and money, Karl Marx, but doesn't mention that other incredible Jew, Sigmund Freud, with regards to the second voice, even though in one instance she terms the painter's palette as a “transitional object”.
The absence of Freud and psychoanalysis as a noted reference in cultural criticism as a whole, as Adam Phillips observes, is everywhere, even though the language of Freud is everywhere, albeit, unacknowledged or ironically hidden. But as Freud remarks with regards to originary pleasures, money is a substitute desire, handed down by mam and dad, and something that small children are not interested in otherwise. But painting might be something every small child would take pleasure from without coxing or parental influence.
Graw is fighting with her inner messy child as she paints with money in The Love of Painting, concluding that painting and money have went hand in hand since the Renaissance. But that is what makes this book on Western painting so thought-provoking, a medium that has been conditioned by the world while also absorbing it since the fourteenth century: painting's permeability has always been two-way. Between head and heel there's real heart in Graw's sometimes cold prose but warm analysis of painting that creates a platform to talk, to argue, to partake in the possibility of another way of thinking and feeling and talking and sweating about painting. It seems that the stillness and silence of painting will always alert our primary instincts, even when the threat to painting is just theoretical, which in Graw's case, has always been in the service of the discursive, not the nail.