I found an article in The Independent yesterday that I posted on my filter blog Slow Painting. It has dominated my thinking all day. In a singularly succinct manner, it captures a core set of issues that are at the center of my disaffection with a number of trends in contemporary art. These are some of the same concerns that drove me to start blogging two years ago.

Two imperatives are identified as de rigeur in the high profile world of contemporary art:

Rule 1) Justification by meaning: the worth and interest of a work resides in what it’s about.

Rule 2) Absolute freedom of interpretation: a work is “about” anything that can, at a pinch, be said about it.

The article goes on to elaborate this conundrum:

In short, meanings are arbitrary, but compulsory. And this double bind holds almost universal sway. Whenever you learn that a work explores or investigates or raises questions about something, that it’s concerned with issues around this or notions of that or debates about the other, you know you’re in its grip.

It’s weird how people can’t resist. If you want to make art sound serious, this is simply the way you do it. Read any gallery wall-caption or leaflet or catalogue, and see how long it is before the writer commends the work solely on the basis of what it’s about. And then note how it is isn’t really about that at all.

Meaning comes first – even before the work itself…

That’s the problem with these meanings. They’re not just highly tenuous. They’re depressingly limiting. And we should put them aside. We should stop measuring art by its meaningfulness. We should heed the wise words of Susan Sontag, written almost 50 years ago in her essay “Against Interpretation”.

“Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back on content so that we can see the thing at all. The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art – and, by analogy, our own experience – more, rather than less, real to us.”

This runs in a similar vein with much of what Lawrence Weschler has explored in my still current favorite book, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees. What Irwin keeps moving in and out of in the interviews included in the book is related to Sontag’s issue of cutting back on content and getting the viewer closer to what is “real.”

I’ve referenced Irwin’s well known response to a Philip Guston painting in an earlier posting here but it is particularly pertinent to this discussion. He describes going to a gallery and seeing a small Guston hanging next to a large James Brooks. The Brooks painting was big in every way—large shapes, with strong color. The Guston, an early piece, was small, painted in the subtle and signatory muted pinks, greys and greens. But in Irwin’s eyes, it outstripped the Brooks completely.

In Irwin’s words:

My discovery was that from one hundred yards away…I looked over, and that goddamn Guston…Now, I’m talking not on quality, and not on any assumption of what you like or don’t like, but on just pure strength, which was one of the things we were into. Strength was a big word in abstract expressionism; you were trying to get power into the painting, so that the painting really vibrated, had life to it. It wasn’t just colored shapes sitting flat. It had to do with getting a real tension going in the thing, something that made the thing really stand up and hum…Well, that goddamn Guston just blew the Brooks right off the wall…

Not on quality, just on power…some people call it “the inner life of the painting,” all that romantic stuff, and I guess that’s a way of talking about it. But shapes on a painting are just shapes on a canvas unless they start acting on each other and really, in a sense, multiplying. A good painting has a gathering, interactive build-up in it. It’s a psychic build-up, but it’s also a pure energy build-up. And the good artists knew it, too. That’s what a good Vermeer has, or a raku cup, or a Stonehenge. And when they’ve got it, they just jump off the goddamn wall. They just, bam!

What Irwin keeps getting at—that power of the painting itself—lives outside the domain of applied and obligatory meaning. It’s Irwin’s memorable phrase that I referenced in an earlier posting—phenomenal presence. As Weschler posts in describing Irwin’s line canvases:

They only work immediately; they command an incredible presence—“a rich floating sense of energy,” as Irwin describes it—but only to one who is in fact present. Back at home, you may remember what it felt like to stand before the painting, the texture of the meditative stance it put you in, but the canvas itself, its image in your mind, will be evanescent. That is why for many years Irwin declined to allow his work to be photographed, because the image of the canvas was precisely what the painting was not about.

This is the deep furrow I want to plow. The contemporary concerns for obligatory meaning and languaged legitimacy melts away for me in the face of full-bodied power. Overlay and artifice? Enough already.

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