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Issue 22

Different Strokes

On the occasion of the large-scale exhibition Painting 2.0: Expression in the Information Age at the Museum Brandhorst, Munich, the co-curator of the exhibition, David Joselit, speaks with art historian Susanne von Falkenhausen about painting after 1960 – from spectacle to social networks

BY Susanne von Falkenhausen in Interviews | 11 NOV 15

Charline von Heyl, Now or Else, 2009, acrylic on linen, 2.1 × 2  m

Susanne von Falkenhausen 
The title of the exhibition you co-curated with Achim Hochdörfer and Manuela Ammer at Museum Brandhorst in Munich, Painting 2.0: Expression in the Information Age, suggests a wide reaching attempt to re-locate painting within art history. What was the initial impulse behind the show?

David Joselit The exhibition attempts to conduct a thorough revision of how painting after 1960 is understood. The show looks back from the present but it’s very much intended as a new reading of postwar painting, which all three of us are deeply concerned with from different perspectives. According to conventional art historical accounts, conceptual art displaced painting as a means of confronting, resisting and expressing an emerging ‘society of the spectacle’. We believe, though, that painting, perhaps even more so than conceptual art, had special, more flexible capacities to deal with these conditions. Therefore, we began to think about the various painterly approaches that developed during this long period. The three sections of the show – ‘Gesture and Spectacle’, ‘Eccentric Figuration’ and ‘Social Networks’ – to some degree map onto the deep research and long engagement that the three of us had in different questions regarding painting. ‘Gesture and Spectacle’ deals with a period and a set of issues that Achim is a great expert in. ‘Eccentric Figuration’ grows out of research that Manuela has done for years and her interests as a curator and thinker. And ‘Social Networks’ is rooted in work that I have done over the past several years.

SvF I had the impression, and you just confirmed it, that the show is supposed to rewrite a genealogy of painting. What are you narrating against? What is your worry for the history of painting and its narratives?

DJ This will sound old fashioned, but on one level it’s the notion of medium specificity, which has been criticized to the point where one would think it were dead. In many ways it is, but on the other hand there still hasn’t been an adequate way to theorize painting’s capacities beyond that. While everyone knows that medium specificity is inadequate, what we’re trying to do is to offer three different models for rethinking painting’s post-war genealogy. One of the ways that Achim has consistently thought about this, which I think is very important, is that gestural abstraction, on some level, carries with it a quality ofthe human that is not merely subsumed by spectacle, but that can move alongside and even confront it. The market has taken up painting again in recent years in a big way, and we wanted to provide a history, or genealogy, of contemporary painting; to assert that in fact it wasn’t invented in 2003, or whatever date one would choose for its most recent ‘return’.

SvF So medium specificity – that’s the old spectre. And what does medium specificity, what does Clement Greenberg, have to do with Guy Debord? You would like to get painting out of the register of Greenberg and put it into a register of Debord?

DJ I suppose it’s very hard to characterize a complex project in a slogan. But from my point of view, what painting really can do is represent, even theorize, the circulation of pictures – and by ‘pictures’ I mean commoditized images as they arise in mass media of all types ranging, in our period, from television to the internet. We know that appropriation was aimed at indexing the ‘life of pictures’. But it did so in a very severe way, which in fact made the displacement from one context to another – art to advertising, for instance – clean and unambiguous. Whereas in painting, what you see from Robert Rauschenberg to the present is that commoditized images are put into circulation in time and space, and move at different rates. Many of the questions animating conceptual art with regard to changing values of visual knowledge have been explored in painting, but I don’t think this has been sufficiently recognized. While it is a simplification that has many problems, for the sake of argument I think your characterization is largely correct: we are trying to take painting from Greenberg to Debord.

SvF But Debord …

DJ He would have hated the project.

SvF Yes, I think so. He would have sent in some black paper or something like that.

DJ Right, or a film. But while any theoristis rooted in his or her time, his or her work is available to be carried forward into different contexts. Obviously Debord did not and would not approve of painting. I think we are talking more about what has been theorized under his name as a realm of commoditized images: an image population explosion, as I have put it, which escalates the intensity and reach of image worlds to a point that makes traditional ideas of painting seem quaint. Nonetheless, I think painting’s long history can be used to redound on the present in very interesting ways.

Matt Mullican, Untitled (Signs), 1981, sign paint on paper, 4 parts, each 127 × 72 cm

SvF In Europe, feelings about the history of painting have a different dimension than in the US. Greenberg is not the main enemy to operate against. When I read through your text Reassembling Painting in the show’s catalogue, I had the feeling that referentiality and meaning both come in through the back door under the guise of ‘circulation of pictures’. When you try to describe the manual, the haptic, the physical process of painting and the role of pictures in that process, I had to think that this opens up the old dichotomy between abstraction and figuration. Because, to me, the way ‘circulation’ seems intended here is: conferring meaning that is circulated through pictures we all share. That makes for the return of a very old role of painting indeed: namely, of conferring content. I don’t mean ‘content’ in the short sense of Instagram, but content in the way, say, of how church or history painters conveyed it –telling a story, representing faith, or power, or collective identities, rather more weighty stuff than this strangely content-free entity called ‘content’. So the horizon of Greenberg becomes a very short episode. 

DJ I see why you would have that reading. But to my mind, what happens in an eco­nomy of circulation is that significance shifts to questions of speed, scale and saturation as opposed to representation. How widely something is disseminated, how rapidly it goes from one place to another and at what scale that can happen is what matters. It’s these qualities of velocity and saturation that begin to displace the ‘intuitive’ or ‘subjective’ content of an abstract gesture in postwar painting. As Jutta Koether has said, the point is to make painting perform. I would rephrase that by arguing that painting can now make pictures perform in a way that goes beyond late 1970s appropriation, or conceptual art’s references to archival and bureaucratic forms.

SvF I still don’t quite understand the separation between circulation and referentiality. There is no circulation without referentiality. Painting in the 1990s – such as works by Lydia Dona, David Reed, or Jonathan Lasker – which was not about conferring messages, has dealt with that on the formal level very extensively: colour coding, brushwork coding, all these codifications in abstract painting. So I wonder what the rewriting of this genealogy could signify if you draw the line between signification and circulation. 

DJ I would argue that circulation itself signifies, regardless of the content of what’s circulating. So let’s just take an example: Heavy Burschi (1991) by Martin Kippenberger. Here is a complex process of reproduction and destruction of the same set of images. What signifies here is not what the images show. Instead, what you begin to see is the operations to which those pictures are submitted, and how they go from elaborate forms of creation to a dumpster. That’s one kind of allegory of circulation and its attendant shifts in the frame of valuation. And while it’s a kind of simplification, I think a lot of the works in the exhibition demonstrate the alternate lives of pictures in a way that painting can do quite effectively. If you think about Rauschenberg, he’s doing a similar thing, in fact. Or Niki de Saint Phalle, or Kerstin Brätsch, or Josh Smith.

SvF In the show, Nikki de Saint Phalle is listed under ‘Gesture and Spectacle’. That makes me slightly sceptical. I don’t know ifI would put her Shooting Pictures from the early 1960s in the gestural corner. I would rather see them in a genealogy of the neo-avant-garde. You don’t like that term, as you explained in your text for the catalogue, and I can understand your reasons. As far as I understood you want to substitute this term with the term ‘network painting’. For sure, neo-avant-garde is not a very nice name – but why collect and assemble all these practices that try to be beside themselves, beside genres, and regroup and rename them under the label of painting?

DJ Any postwar show, I suppose, could be called neo-avant-garde, but what is the ‘neo’ here? I don’t accept the term ‘neo-avant-garde’. It’s a false characterization, so on that level I think it’s important to not use it. The term arises from a belief that the strategies of the postwar period are a repetition of ones that were put in place in an earlier moment, in the historical avant-gardes. In my view, that precisely is not what’s happening with, say, Rauschenberg. He and others were responding to an entirely different image culture. Using the term neo-avant-garde would givea false sense of repetition, erasing specific historical conditions. Moreover, there are different political questions at stake that can’t come into view when the prefix ‘neo’ is applied. But, then, as you imply, why retain the term painting? I think it’s justifiable because there is a set of tactical possibilities that are associated with painting that can be redeployed under its name – this is different from understanding painting as a recursive medium. Our show, overall, is an effort to think the tactics of painting beyond thematerial nature of painting. Painting, in that sense, is not about the material substrate, but about a set of discursive possibilities.

SvF Why do we need painting for that? Why don’t we extend some other genre? Taking the most laden genre specificity in order to overturn it is a very nice dialectical move. And this move results in a very complex thing: a new narrative. New narratives are mostly strategic enterprises. Strategic enterprises normally fight for something that’s considered weak. This kind of genealogy is supposed to reinscribe actual significance into painting, in a new way. Is that it?

DJ Yes. I would agree with that characterization, and from two directions. First, with regard to the market, where painting is now pumped out in huge quantities and consumed in equally huge quantities. We are interested in creating a set of critical terms against which to assess that commercial condition. The second objective is art historical: we are trying to revise painting with this idea of ‘2.0’. It’s important to dislodge the ‘medium’ from a certain set of orthodox relations: we would like to simultaneously rethink its relation to conceptual art and its ties to Greenberg.

SvF My feeling though is that if you stop there – and try to avoid the object itself through finding terms like ‘transitive painting’ – you go with the stream, in a way. I think we need some stones in the stream. Some resistance. And I wonder where resistance comes into the picture. It can’t be only about linking painting to a genealogy, to Debord for example.

DJ What an exhibition can do is create a productive balance between a conceptual framework such as these shorthand characterizations we are using in this conversation and a wide range of variations and material complexities, as encoded in individual works of art, many of which push against the legitimacy of those frameworks. The specificity of all of the works on display under a set of theoretical proposals seems to me a form of resistance. This exhibition won’t be an easily consumable product. And to me that’s a form of resistance. Even if this may be completely unacceptable and unconvincing to you, I do really believe that what will also be resistant about the show is introducing a new model of this period’s art history. I think that right now offering a history ofthe ‘contemporary’ is a progressive effort.

Niki de Saint Phalle, Tir, 1961, 145 × 44 × 33 cm, mixed media, 1978

SvF I was thinking about the way you use the term ‘nonobjective’. I had a hard time getting my head around your terminology. There is the object, and there is objective as the opposite of subjective. But you are using ‘nonobjective’ to mean the opposite of ‘mimetic’, which I would term ‘figurative’ within the usual art historical discourse. Whereas your ‘nonobjective’ would then mean what is usually termed as ‘abstract’. At the same time within your argumentation about painting that is not thought as a commodifiable object it sounds like you mean ‘not being an object’. The subject-object dichotomy has, for quite a while, been one of those enemies of discourse. I wonder why? Is it only because the object can be commoditized? We are getting commoditized as subjects all the time. 

DJ Yeah. First, with regard to the nonobjective, it’s a term that I started using years ago in an effort to be clear in teaching modern painting; because abstraction seems to imply abstraction from something that is initially figurative. So there’s a trace of figuration. But Malevich, Mondrian and others created a language that is internally consistent and doesn’t have any figurative reference whatsoever. In my view, abstraction is kind of a sliding scale, whereas the nonobjective is an internally consistent, uncompromising system.

SvF I had the impression you were arguing against an understanding of painting in terms of its physical presence as an object.

DJ No, but I see what you mean. It’s meant in the sense that there’s no earthly referent, but not in the sense of the physical presence of the work itself. My investment in making a particular argument about the gestural mark is – and in this I’m quite indebted to conversations with Achim – that the mark is both completely objective and also intuitive and subjective at the same time. I place the gestural mark beside what I see as the great inventions of modern art: the readymade, nonobjective painting, collage. The expressive mark negotiates the relation between subject and object under conditions of modernization that was also the ‘problem’ addressed by these other formats.

SVF In your catalogue essay you use a notion of ‘passage’. Passage in painting means, I quote: ‘painting consists of pure relationality without beginning or end.’ Set against this is your concept of ‘picture’ as ‘secondary ideographic sign’, that is images from visual culture that are then to be found in painting. I tried to draw a diagram of analogies: we have passage and picture, and painting as passage is described in terms of ‘gesture’, ‘subject-object mark’, ‘de-objectifying force’, and ‘pure relationality’. Picture on the other hand is linked to the qualities of ‘figurative’, ‘reification’, and ‘static’. I wonder if it’s representation that links these two branches of painterly practice in the end.

DJ What matters for me is that painting can represent how pictures move in space and time. One of the big issues in art since the 1990s is what could be understood as the accumulation of time, which many theorists have talked about, including you. How, as Bernard Stiegler argues, machines store time, and externalize our memory and knowledge, and how this form of alienation can be oppressive. It seems to me that painting is one of the great media of temporal storage, as well as anachronism. Time and space can be simultaneously pictured in painting in a way that is unique – that’s one of its capacities as a set of practices with a discursive history, as opposed to merely as a recursive medium.

SvF That’s a little bit of a return to very old discussions – from Gotthold Lessing’s Laocoon (1766) onwards – about media specificity and the history of paintings, and narratology and anachrony in painting. All of this comes into it, if you narrow it down to the object, or if you say we just grab the context in the picture and go from there. I wonder why painting turns out to be something like your allegory on the state of art right now.

DJ Am I discussing painting as an allegory? Yes, probably. I can accept that. But I would insist that my reading arises in response to actual works of art and that this approach was suggested to me by looking at and thinking about real paintings. That’s what critics do, right? The artist need not be responsible for our readings or agree with them, but what we say should nonetheless be inspired and provoked by actual artistic practices. One of the reasons why Painting 2.0 is quite large is that we’ve made an effort to embrace a widespread set of perspectives in painting. And it doesn’t bother me that you think of Lessing, I think that’s great. I’m not sure art history should be chopped up into consumable movements; there are a lot of overlapping continuities of long duration.

SvF I wonder how your codification or method – passage, transitivity, and so on – would work to show what happens in practice of today’s internet artists. Would you apply these categorizations of painting to someone like Ryan Trecartin for example, whose main source for pictures is the Internet, in terms of the passage from time-related to object work?

DJ Yes, I would. You’re bringing me around to saying that in fact the tactics we’re discussing are not specific to painting. One of the great things about Trecartin’s work is that it’s interruptive in a way that is quite stunning. It’s impossible for any action to complete itself – he does this using a catalogue of racial and gender stereotypes, producing a kind of stuttering stereotype. And so we could proceed with the analogy by looking for painterly projects analogous to Trecartin’s. But no artist goes into his or her work thinking ‘I’m going to do a stuttering stereotype’– that’s a critic’s fantasy. But if a painter did make something along these lines, it would be completely different from Trecartin’s videos, right?

Martin Kippenberger, Heavy Burschi, 1989/90, installation view, Tate Modern, London, 2006

SVF Maybe the most interesting aspect of the show to me is the social network aspect. As far as I can see, you also include some feminist and other positions in the show, often artists that I ignored completely in the ‘70s – and you put them on the plate again.

DJ This came out of conversations with Achim and Manuela. Manuela’s work, especially, on eccentric figuration – inspired by Lucy Lippard’s show Eccentric Abstraction (1966) – comes out of a feminist perspective. It brings back into the conversation a number of very important women painters like Maria Lassnig and Ree Morton, if she can be calleda painter, as well as many others right up to the present. I hope that such choices will function, as you put it earlier, as a kind of resistance. With that said, any artist in Painting 2.0 is included on the same footing as everyone else in the show: they are there because, in our opinion, they made significant contri­butions to the art and discourse of painting.

Painting 2.0: Painting in the Information Age, was on view until 30 April 2016 at the Museum Brandhorst, Munich.

Susanne von Falkenhausen is an art historian and professor emerita of modern and contemporary art history, Humboldt University, Berlin, Germany. Publications include Kugelbau­visionen (2008) and Praktiken des Sehens im Felde der Macht (2011).