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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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I found a terrific article about painting and its complex relationship with the contemporary art scene. It is so provocative, and it reflects many of my own beliefs about the “state of the art” (so to speak) of painting that I posted most of it on my Slow Painting blog.

I don’t want to come across as a monomaniacal, logger headed defender of the ancient practice of painting, especially now when there are so many options for visual expression. While I am regularly delighted and provoked by art delivered in other media, there’s no other method that has ever captured for me the power, scope, reach, and depth of applying gooey stuff to a flat, receptive surface. And that connection happened even though I came of age as an artist during a time when painting was being vociferously declared (once more, with feeling) DEAD. As a result, I began my career as an artist on a definite back beat. Knowingly.

The story of how painting as survived successive waves of being disregarded is certainly more complex than a single newspaper article can cover, but Christopher Knight of the Los Angles Times pulls on a few of the key threads that feed into a knotty tapestry of influences and trends. He starts by sharing the dilemma of a young painter still in school (which is, uncannily, almost exactly the same sentiments I encountered when I was an art student years ago.) “They sneer and say I’m foolish because painting is obsolete, and I don’t know what to say to them,” she said.

Ah, that old chestnut—the belief that art is like science and technology and discussed in the context of progress. That means the old traditions, like painting, become obsolete, “like absolute monarchy or 8-track tapes.”

Knight’s advice to the young artist is clear and straightforward: Say thanks, and mean it.

The short explanation for expressing gratitude is that every young artist should take hostile groupthink — the promiscuous pressure to conform — as a cue that she’s on the right track. Those pressures can be especially acute at school. That’s one hazard of the current pervasiveness of academic training for artists.

Knight goes on to demonstrate that the shift in painting’s place within the au courant practices of fine arts has more to do with the decentralization of art (with New York no longer being an essential center of gravity) than a particular trend or movement. His final point is well taken:

Painting, unlike most image-making practices in industrial or post-industrial society, is already pretty much a solitary job. Rarely do production assistants, teams of fabricators and collaborators gather in a painter’s studio, as they do for movies at Paramount, TV shows at HBO and at the far-flung art factories established by video artist Bill Viola, sculptor Jeff Koons or installation artist Ann Hamilton. Usually it’s just one person in a room, with a flat plane and some colors, trying to juice the corpse and make it dance.

That’s the real legerdemain facing anyone determined to be a painter, whether the student who asked the original question gets the support of her teachers and peers or not. Painting isn’t dead — or, more precisely, it always has been and always will be. The perpetual trick is to give a painting life.

Yeah, baby.

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