Enduring Meaning in an Old Medium
by Patrick Neal on January 18, 2013, Hyperallergic

Despite cold, rainy weather, a large audience turned out for “… towards meaning in a plural painting world,” a panel discussion moderated by Katy Siegel at Hunter College’s MFA building. The room was filled with young artists and MFA candidates eager to participate, and the place swelled to standing room only. Siegel explained that the modus operandi for the evening was driven by questions from and conversations had with students, and that it was only necessary to cross the hall or walk downstairs to view artwork from the Hunter MFA Thesis Fall 2012 exhibition.

The press release for the event had said that participants would

… discuss whether the current plurality in painting dilutes meaning, or if it is just a case of many people doing many interesting things. How do we advance meaning given the plethora of dispersed, diverse, yet all seemingly functional approaches? Is the basic idea of advancement even a useful paradigm anymore?

Siegel joked that the audience was likely full of painters before introducing her guests: poet and art critic Raphael Rubinstein; author and professor Richard Shiff; and painters Dana Schutz and Merlin James.

Siegel pointed out right away that the focus on painting at this event was noteworthy. Similar events were more likely to discuss topical ideas surrounding art in general. Shiff mentioned that we don’t see panels on the state of sculpture or installation art and that talking about painting has become an avatar for talking about art in a larger sense. The panelists agreed that there’s still a lot of anxiety about painting as a medium, the “dumb blonde of the art world,” as one audience member called it. Schutz mentioned her frustration that this way of thinking persists. She recounted watching visitors in a gallery do a quick check of everything three-dimensional in the room, ignoring a painting on a wall and avoiding the slower, more subjective reading it required.

This led into a discussion of how photography, film, installation, and art practices involving relational aesthetics and social media tend to be more overtly political and are often given prominence at biennials today. Painting is often positioned as a foil to this kind of art. Shiff told a story of walking through the contemporary wing of the Museum of Modern Art and reading so many wall labels that said a work “challenges the assumptions of painting,” leading him to wonder what these so-called assumptions of painting are. Rubinstein said that a lot of art is taken in quickly and “comes with its interpretation pre-packaged,” the meaning already decided by the artist. Because of this, viewers may pass over a painting, which requires time spent examining the picture’s internal logic.

A consensus emerged that painting’s intrinsic qualities, as an infinitely plastic medium, are what give it strength. Shiff mentioned how close painting is to thinking, a very immediate process that is hand and body oriented but can also assimilate other technologies. Because its mechanics are so simple, painting allows for tremendous inventive freedom, and may for that reason be spawning so many of the hybrid offerings we have today. He mentioned R.H. Quaytman as an example of a painter maintaining an ongoing historical dialogue while broaching new ground as well. Likewise, James mentioned the artist Soutine, whose work could be perceived as political, but those passions are subsumed into the warp and weft of his paint handling.

Siegel brought the panel back to the central question of what’s at stake for painters today, saying that students often express a sense of loss that painting has relinquished its progressiveness and transcendental qualities. “Has pluralism created an atomization that’s done away with a collective meaning?” she asked. The participants brought up modernist art and criticism, when a union of artists and writers worked exclusively around the tenets of movements like Color Field and Minimalism. They agreed that doctrinaire credos are a thing of the past, but that the real energy generated by small groups, such as graduate programs or artist-created forums, has value. Siegel mentioned the creative synergy of Frank O’Hara and his circle, but the question remained of how to tie the aesthetic interests of a specific community to the larger art world. Rubinstein mentioned that we no longer work toward some sort of “teleological endpoint,” that there are a lot of genres today, the way Hollywood has Westerns, sci-fi, film noir, etc.

In regard to writing about painting, Siegel brought up the so-called “crisis in criticism” diagnosed during the last decade. She described the difficulty of providing focused literary material to young artists eager to enter into a discourse on painting. The conversation turned toward the need to refocus written attention on the scrutiny of artworks themselves. James spoke about the New Criticism, expounded by figures like I.A. Richards and Cleaneth Brooks, as a possible idea for where to go from here. Those critics performed close readings of poetry, concentrating solely on the formal properties of a given piece without being didactic. Rubinstein said a poem, rather than an art review, can sometimes better capture the “unspoken phenomenology” involved in looking at a painting. The panel singled out the translator Edward Snow and the painter Andrew Forge as exceptional artists who have written about art.

Rubinstein, who has previously written about the crisis in art criticism, said he now believes this crisis is waning. Speaking to young writers and artists, he gets the feeling that criticism doesn’t need to go through the tortured self-examination of the past several years. New technologies allow faster access to sources and have created novel ways to share information, such as blogs and social media. He added that some of the best criticism is done by artists citing Donald Judd and Frank Stella, and expressed a desire to see more artists devote time to writing about their chosen medium.

A question from the audience at the end of the evening squared the circle — the asker remarked that painting is best when it has some pressure placed on it, whereas “right now it feels soft and treated as an allegory for all art.” Shiff reasserted the independence of the painting medium by way of a breakdown of the big arguments of the last century. From 1900 to 1960, painting was either representational or abstract. By the ’70s, the question had become, “is painting dead?” partly because of the work of Judd, Minimalism, and the serious attention given to photography. The last five decades have homed in on the nature of perception, i.e. temporality through painting, how we perceive a figure, and the difference between reading and mark making. Shiff reminded the audience that these were often academic arguments, and that through all of the dicussions, “painting just kept going.”

“… towards meaning in a plural painting world,” a panel discussion moderated by Katy Siegel, was held at the Hunter College MFA building (450 west 41 st, Times Square, Manhattan) on Friday, January 11 at 7:30pm.

Enduring Meaning in an Old Medium