#24. Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe writes on “Marginalized but not Demystified”

Frank Stella, “Die Fahne Hoch!”, 1959, enamel paint on canvas

Frank Stella, “Die Fahne Hoch!”, 1959, enamel paint on canvas

Marginalized but not Demystified

It is years since someone curated a show called “Greenberg’s Dilemma” and an old man came in and looked around attentively before approaching the desk to ask “What’s the dilemma?” The person there was Amy Lipton, who was a partner in the gallery, and the old man was Clement Greenberg. He left dissatisfied and while I don’t know what Amy might have said I’ll make two guesses. I expect Clem was ready to dismiss any thought of abstract painting being without a purpose or of uncertain historical usefulness. He was probably expecting something about irony, given the date of the story (1986,) and may have pointed out that abstraction can no more be ironic than can music. The extent to which either could conceivably be ironic would be the extent to which you were recognizing an interpretation of a reference, a critical comment on a quote. You would be reading the work rather than letting it be there more like a person than a page, an active phenomenal presence as opposed to a written message.

That is, however, what those in power in the museums and elsewhere want. Painting as a dead surface with signs on it, Warhol’s rather than Pollock’s or Cézanne’s version of the pictorial field, where the surface is itself alive. It seems to be only by treating the medium in this way that abstract painting is considered a feasible enterprise by the establishment at the moment, a confirmation that things have not changed but rather consolidated over the past quarter-century or so. The claim is that painting is now “demystified,” but this turns out to mean only that it has been stopped. One may do something with the idea of abstract painting, defined as a utopian project whose teleology has been exposed but which lives on as a dead reminder of itself with which people may do things of art historical significance, which however means that it may only consist of illustrations of a version of history which it may not undermine or criticize. Isabel Graw, by far the liveliest of the writers associated with the approach to art known as institutional critique, which now appears to be in charge of all the institutions, is quite explicit about this although she does not put it that way. Critical of Greenberg for not thinking that sheets of paper with writing on them are as flat as any painting, she sees painting as having been demystified by institutional critique and it is in those terms that she herself has to insist that the surface of painting is as inactive as a page, and like one activated only by what goes on it.[1] She has written by far the most useful account of how intellectual and commercial value combine and are mutually supportive in the contemporary art world, or market. I am in particular very interested in what she has to say about the relationship between the painting and its viewer given that we see paintings as beings rather than things. To share a space with them is more like being with a person than with a table or a rug. However, I think she is prevented from acknowledging the complexity of this aspect of abstract painting because of her insistence on limiting it to being what institutional critique insists it must be, a dead medium for which new uses must be found and they will be about writing and reading not about painting and seeing. Painting may not be active, but must instead be activated, its innate capacities considered unsuitable for contemporary requirements.

This sounds to me like being against the violin because it is not a contemporary instrument. You can’t plausibly be against an instrument. It is true that it was once the loud solo instrument in music of a sort to which we listen nowadays less often than to a different sort of music in which the lead guitar fulfills the role previously taken by the violin. The sound of a violin remains what it is. The idea that it would somehow be irrelevant because of being displaced is surely one that is flawed. We’d not have had any poetry at all for at least hundreds of years.

I have written elsewhere about how Greenberg is preserved so that someone can always claim to be the one who did the final demolition job, and the one that people seem to believe has now been done has to do with his central idea about painting and flatness.[2] What is done is, however, done by ignoring Greenberg’s rejection of monochrome and insistence that a painting must have at least two colors, which would automatically prevent one from seeing it as either flat or static. I taught with Michael Asher, one of the founding influences of institutional critique, for seven years and I could never get him to see that if you stared at a white surface for more than a few minutes you would be unable not to see it as a space. Or I could never get him to admit it, denying it is like saying that you don’t see that a twig looks as if it’s bent when standing partly in water, when all you can mean by that is that you know it isn’t and are therefore repressing your perception of it. This is the literalism which institutional critique opposes to abstraction as well as to any kind of pictorialism or invocation of depth when that occurs in painting. It depends on not getting the point and I’ll come back to it.

Photography has other rules, largely having to do with turning Roland Barthes’ famous essay having to do with a photograph about his mother, which institutional critique has in some places turned into an obligatory ‘share my punctum exercise,’ where photography is made to illustrate or be a confirmation of a theory or good idea with which it would be automatically uncool if not worse to disagree. This has to do with what photography is and how it may be used, and how it is inhospitable because of the punctum idea being incompatible by definition with disinterested (i.e., aesthetic) judgment.[3] That may be not so relevant here, but other important differences between photography and painting which could be important to institutional critique seem unavoidably germane to me. I think it a pity that while wanting to talk about painting beyond the limits of its own medium Graw and others do not seem very interested in the influence of the photographic on painting in a way that could account for changes in the surface of painting which are not mere reminders of photographic surfaces, but instead do something with the kinds of movements that are available in the photographic surface but not readily there in paintings. Not doing so suggests a reluctance to move beyond Greenberg, or let painting do so.

Founded in hostility to Greenberg’s view of art in general, institutional critique wants to over-simplify and then disagree with Michael Fried’s 1966 essay “Art and Objecthood” in particular, by opposing the abstract with the literal, replacing the views expressed in Fried’s essay with the version of painting attributed here to Andy Warhol, where the surface of painting is not “already deep,” as Cézanne put it, but a flat surface on which one may put things, including signs. Painting is here seen in terms of the demystification institutional critique is said to have brought to it—as noted, Graw is explicit on this point—but as also already noted this is a demystification which prevents painting from doing what Cézanne thought it could not help but do, and with respect I don’t think that you can demystify the involuntary. You can’t help but see a space especially if there is at least one dot there, in which case they will shift around in it. Two colors or more and where the surface, as a literal thing you can touch, is from the point of view of what you’re seeing will become uncertain. Lateral distances—clothes on a washing line—are quantitative measurements, distance into depth is always a matter of judgment that can only be qualitative. Insisting that the only paintings worth looking at are ones that do none of these things doesn’t demystify painting as such in my view, it just restricts it to being something you can read like a text.

For my part I think Greenberg could not see beyond abstraction’s being different from representation, which led him to place too much importance on the picture plane and therefore—like Kant in this respect—on painting’s essential flatness. I think he was not capable of seeing very far beyond that comparison, while in my view the photographic is a major element in modern and contemporary painting, cinema and video included. I was certainly not the first, in 1970, to suggest that film influences all the arts in the twentieth century. As to video Richard Shiff has spoken and written about the video signal on old black and white televisions as the experience of abstraction that he had long before he saw an abstract painting. He was a kid in New York, I suggest that this will have been an experience of abstraction for many who lived out there where there is no art long before they ever made it to a museum, perhaps all the way to art school. Discussions of painting’s relationship to other mediums is not to be found in Greenberg, and it’s a limit on his usefulness in my view. It keeps him away perhaps from Mondrian’s observation that the painting doesn’t happen on, or in, its surface but between it and its viewer and around both. Greenberg, who after all rejected Stella’s shaped canvases as being “really” sculpture, would probably have thought his own and Mondrian’s views incompatible, but I think that is not so. I think instead that Stella’s canvases draw the object into view and the space of the painting into a more complex (less certain) relationship to the space outside and around it. That said, ‘frontality’ remains the basis of the viewer’s relationship to the painting. At the same time one does not keep one’s head quite still when looking at a painting or being faced by one.[4]

Charline von Heyl, "Alastor", 2008, acrylic on linen

Charline von Heyl, “Alastor”, 2008, acrylic on linen

I don’t think you can demystify painting except historically, and caution should accompany the wish to do the latter as it leads to wanting painting to be simple, instead of inherently complicated because one can’t help but see it as space rather than (only) a thing. Graw cites Charlene von Heyl, whose work seems to be generally approved of by the institutional critique establishment, as a painter who nonetheless admits to being led by the painting. I have suggested elsewhere a difference between being in the moment and being of the moment. Herbie Hancock described how he was playing with Miles Davis one night and it seemed like the piano was leading his hands. That is being in the moment. I distinguish it from being careful to be of the contemporary, a wholly historical concept it seems to me and of an epoch rather than a lived moment. Von Heyl’s paintings reach an intensity in which one cannot help but see the brush strokes and less thick colors as bringing into view a space, in which they move and compress, intensely. Space is three-dimensional in some way, even if the one you’re seeing isn’t really a space but rather an illusion on which your perception insists. Von Heyl’s work is a demonstration of how abstract painting when intense cannot be seen as inert, while what she seems to want are works that are enlivened only by a critical argument, which to make matters worse actually and unavoidably precedes them.

The Mystery Plays were plays put on in the Middle Ages by members of guilds at Saints’ festivals relevant to their special skill (or ‘mystery.’) The shipwrights of Hull performed the Jonas and the Whale story on that saint’s day, for instance. No mystery there in the modern sense, and we all know how carpenters and the Bible work by now.[5] Likewise, what actually is left to demystify when it comes to abstract painting, as opposed to repeating rituals of demystification at the price of keeping things implausibly simple? Everything there is to demystify lies elsewhere than in one’s relation to the work, that has only to be described, which is not the same thing. ‘Demystification’ seems to have to do with price and the works public reception in terms of what Graw calls the ‘personalization’ aspect of painting, and even there the demystification for which she argues falters in my view because it fails to account for too much of what a painting does, how it is there as a kind of live being. Art history is made by factions, partially identified by what they deem unimportant, and why. We have yet to thoroughly demystify that side of things. We should look at what matters about situational critique being entirely a product of the academy, something that has not been true of a dominant critical fashion since France in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Institutional critique has had more to do with instituting a form of criticism (its own) than with criticizing any institution. By now, it has become the institution, which has had severe consequences for abstract painting in that it keeps it out of the museums and from being discussed. This is because institutional critique’s approach begins with preventing painting, in the name of demystification, from possessing more than a very limited affective power. This is felt to be good as it is critical, but that is to mistake repression for critique.

In opposition to that idea and its consequences I suggest that making abstract paintings, like playing the violin, is without doubt and automatically part of the present. It is not a remnant of a failed utopian project about which those who don’t like it in the first place may be smug, but should rather be thought of as an instrument on which people continue to play very exciting stuff. If it points at the world of the electronic from outside in one sense, it is in the same sense a part and function of the contemporary world, but from a margin rather than a center. It has internalized a great deal of what does not exceed it or replace it but is instead supplemented by it, at least. However, whatever people may be doing with violins, most abstract painting that makes it to the museums nowadays is too simple—often, too ‘ironic’ as well—to persuade me that all that could be happening there is happening. Instead I see abstract painting reduced to an illustration of a hostile and limiting idea about itself. This is because it is no longer allowed to be about, or use, space. I think that while not looking to a future, whether utopian or not, an account of the present in which painting is not required to be dead would be more plausible than the institutional critique version. As it is far more than half the abstract painters whose work gets me off doesn’t show up in galleries or museums very often as the kind of work they do has been thoroughly marginalized.


[1] “Not only did (Greenberg) essentialize painting, ignoring the fact that it actually shares its supposedly essential condition—the flat surface—with writing, he moreover expected the artist to defend the imaginary purity of her medium by criticizing it from within.” Isabelle Graw, “The Value of Painting: Notes on Unspecificity, Indexicality, and Highly Valuable Quasi-Persons,” in Isabelle Graw, Daniel Birnbaum, Nikolaus Hirsch (eds) Thinking through Painting: Reflexivity and Agency Beyond the Canvas (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2015) p. 48.

I don’t think the surface of painting shares much with the surface of a page of writing, on the contrary I think it is essentially different. Lost in the prose or poetry, you don’t notice it that much and when you do you are momentarily looking rather than reading. You don’t stop noticing the surface of a Pollock while looking at the painting. As to criticizing a medium from within, that could cover quite a lot. I don’t think one would suppose that criticizing poetry or music from within would be to limit what one said to a specific aspect of either—meter or tonality for instances—without expecting that to lead to larger and broader questions. Without defending Greenberg necessarily, one still wonders why painting should also not be a medium where one starts with something that it does.

[2] I have suggested in more than one place that contemporary art theory tends to treat Greenberg and also Kant in the same way that Jacques Derrida has described Karl Marx being treated by Francis Fukayama, i.e., as a ghost retained in order to be ritually exonerated. See for instance Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe “Kant’s Ghost, Among Others,” in Differential Aesthetics: Art Practices, Philosophy and Feminist Understandings Penny Florence and Nicola Foster (eds) (Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate Publishing, 2000.)

[3] It may be that while it has been very useful to anti-aesthetic arguments one might ask whether at times the simply non-aesthetic becomes confused with the anti-aesthetic.

[4] Rebecca Norton and I have talked about inter-subjectivity as a condition of one’s relationship to painting that involves more than reading it as Graw and others seem to recommend, in regard to our collaborative work but also to painting in general, see Awkward x 2 (Rebecca Norton and Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe) “Lecture for Chicago” The Brooklyn Rail (October 4th, 2012), http://www.brooklynrail.org/2012/10/artseen/lecture-for-chicago

[5] “A Mystery Story” was the title I originally gave to my “Brice Marden’s Paintings” Artforum (October 1974).


  1. Very sharp piece. I especially like the bent twig analogy. It’s the hardest thing to see what’s going on right in front of your face. . .


  2. I’m very impressed be the piece and relieved to to see writing by someone who likes looking at paintings and sees their space.

    Good paintings are not some scratching on a flat surface but create volume–the best paintings do not create a material representation of space but draw you into inscape.

    Criticism that takes me away from intimate involvement with paint and its creation of events unfolding in space gives me a headache. Most acclaimed “art” of today is anti-art and most art criticism written by people who have no feel for painting or love for paint whatsoever. I am often reminded of Uncle Vanya’s description of Professor Serebriakov. Chekhov described perfectly who rules art criticism today.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great thoughts on the art world we live in. I was intrigued by the quote from Mondrian:”Mondrian’s observation that the painting doesn’t happen on, or in, its surface but between it and its viewer and around both.” I would add inside the viewer and the artist as well. This is excerpted from an article I wrote in 1995 :”According to Baxandall the authenticity of an artist such as Chardin lies in great measure in his ability to convey the notion that the observed is the invention of the seer. The paintings center of gravity is always within the observer. ” Here is the article:http://martinmugar.blogspot.com/2011/11/modern-arts-considered-this-article-for.html


  4. What is this buzz of ‘flatness’, claimed to be the groove of looking at such Stella art? is it the idea that ‘flatness’ is an anomaly in a three dimensional world? Prints are flat, very little painting is, certainly no oil on canvas. Is it the denial of one’s spatial faculties, that one is getting off on? Is it by way of some relief from an Internet browsing of ‘tits ‘n’ ass’? What’s the ‘flatness’ kick, what are you getting off on? Tell me, all you ‘flatness’ aficionados.


  5. Abstract art is being marginalized to keep the power of the visual in the hands of the media, hence Tracy Emin and the red herring of ‘art is about feeling, not seeing’, she’s the political pawn in tandem with the lousy art of Albert Oelen at Gagosian, to further trash any value system that might accrue around it, which is too dangerous for mass consumption, as a representation of sheer terror. I’ve re-read the above essay and wanted to add this comment.


  6. Just to add… A painting as a being? Are you sure you want to see a Stella as an interactive being? Go online to Ice Headshop. Buy some Xodus Damnation legal ‘herbal incense’. One packet of that in yr pipe and you’ll be on the floor begging to God for mercy if a Stella returns the stare. I know, I’ ve just spent the last three years on a packet a day, literally nearly killing myself to try and know what’s on ‘the other side’ of art. Road test your own practice on it and then you might title the painting ‘kill the Viper’, as she did, that artist.


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