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. 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.