Roberta Smith keep the dialogue about contemporary painting current and vital. Regarding that old saw, “painting is dead,” Smith is consistent in her refusal to buy in.

In today’s New York Times Arts section (I refuse to call that part of the paper by its full title, Arts & Leisure since it is irritatingly effete, and the “& Leisure” does, after all, show up in grayscale font) Smith’s latest article, It’s Not Dry Yet, gets the center spot above the fold once again. (I wrote about another Smith piece on painting, Post Minimal to the Max, that held the same position a few weeks back, Do Something Else Next.)

Smith’s latest piece begins with a great set of statements: “Few modern myths about art have been as persistent or as annoying as the so-called death of painting. Unless, of course, it is the belief that abstract and representational painting are oil and water, never to meet as one.”

Smith goes on to track the peculiar history of the connection between abstraction and representation, and more particular, where that relationship has brought us today:

As for representation and abstraction, historically and perceptually they have usually been inseparable. Paintings — like all art — tend to get and hold our attention through their abstract, or formal, energy. But even abstract paintings have representational qualities; the human brain cannot help but impart meaning to form.

There have been moments of dazzling balance between the representational and the abstract — for example, Byzantine mosaics; pre-Columbian and American Indian textiles and ceramics; Japanese screens; Mughal painting; and post-Impressionism.

Painting may be in a similar place right now, fomented mostly, but not always, by young painters who have emerged in the last decade. They feel freer to paint what they want than at any time since the 1930s, or maybe even the 1890s, when post-Impressionism was at its height.

This can’t help but feel like leaven in the loaf of the current art world, a willingness to take painting in every direction. This reminds me of a great line I encountered some time ago but can’t recall who said it: Want to be subversive in the art world today? Just paint.

And Smith takes another swing at it, ending her piece with these two paragraphs:

Old habits die hard. No less a personage than Klaus Biesenbach, the Museum of Modern Art’s new chief curator at large, recently told The Art Newspaper that he preferred the phrase “contemporary practice” to “contemporary art” in order to include fashion, film, design and more. That doesn’t bode well for a phrase like “contemporary painting.”

But what really is questionable, and passé, is the implied ranking of art mediums and the leaving of some of them for dead. None of them ever really, ultimately have much of a monopoly on quality. And something else greatly reduces the chances of the death of painting: too many people — most obviously women — are just beginning to make their mark with the medium and are becoming active in its public dialogue.

Keep those fires stoked ladies.

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A few samples from the 12 images included with the article:


“The Butt” by Ellen Altfest. (Photo: Bill Orcutt, Courtesy of White Cube)

“Pillows” by Raja Ram Sharma. (Photo: Victoria Munroe Fine Art)

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