I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
In this continuation of papers and discussions excerpted in the last issue of BOMB, 14 painters address the following question: Is any part of the “modernist project” worth retaining and if so, how might it be made relevant to our present condition? Organized by Saul Ostrow and chaired by Joe Masheck, participants include: Gary Stephan, Lydia Dona, Stephen Westfall, Peter Halley, Mary Boochever, David Craven, David Reed, Will Mentor, and Jack Barth. The Round Table Discussion took place in Lower Manhattan at the Galway Bay Bar last Fall.
Although I do not pretend to have a final report on painting, l am unimpressed with general diatribes. One-dimensional Bible thumpers are not only walking the street for churches, but also have their wares in all our major magazines and museums, their six sentence definitions on the lips of all collectors. The question is not which painters are complicit and which are critical; which painters are intuitive and which are visual activists, but, how is painting complicit and critical simultaneously? … I see that our task is to define the parts of any conversation without reducing its complexity. My suggestion is to consider painting from different angles. Although they are all active at times and dormant at others, the following categories can be utilized in the making and interpretation of painting: physical, optical, emotional, topical, semiotical, political, mysterious. Paintings are not just flat objects, but also a product in the marketplace; not just a sign separated from a signified, but also a tool for topical discussion; not just a hermetically sealed language, but outcomes of intuitive activity; not just examples of modernist historicism, but also outcomes of mysteries; not just an investigation of the picture plane, but also a strategy of visual social activism. All of those intellectual activities that surround the making of art are simply tools with which to understand and get along with each other—aspects of being a human being.
Will Mentor Thoreau says, “Before I hear about ideas, I want to hear a simple account of the man or woman.” Everybody has a body, emotions behind their ideas, intellect and intuition; and then everyone’s surrounded by mystery. And to engage “useless” private concerns along with the public ones is more holistic. It’s more complete.
Stephen Westfall What Thoreau was also saying was that everybody has experience which can be related.
WM I would love to see a history of the physiological and emotional response to art. When you’re standing in front of an object and you have absolutely no explanations behind this feeling of otherness, how do you talk about it? That’s what I mean by stepping away from the method of criticism and the method of making art.
Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe Hegel says that you can’t make works of art out of negative acts. Negative acts, critical acts just take things out of the world; the work as a whole puts things into the world. That’s really the question we ought to be thinking about—how do things get put into the world through painting? There isn’t any one way or any one world or any one kind of painting.
David Craven Maybe Picasso’s work is so universally accepted because it’s celebratory. I don’t think Picasso laid down a Desmoiselle with a smirk; I think he did it, then he smirked.
Saul Ostrow One of the things that interested me about the papers we’ve all written was a level of unself-reflexivity. No one saw themselves as products of modernism but as makers of modernism, except possibly Deborah Kass, who talked about a history that’s not hers. Everyone seems to take the object of history’s position and then writes about what one can do within that objectified history.
DC That’s also a function of method, let’s face it. We’re asked to write papers which will be made public to people we don’t know so there’s bound to be certain veils placed over what we’re prepared to let out. Now that we’re here, those veils should be unwrapped. Deborah started unwrapping when she talked about personal experience—within the studio—the mechanisms of making work.
In the disjunction of the body from the main land,” the mirage, a reality that disappears through new technologies (which actually accentuate the necessity to somehow re-plug and connect one point of disjunction to another and become the apparition within the apparatus) is where I see my interest (in the frictional project in its form as painting). As the fragment which absorbs and contains information, my aim is to reconstruct the gap between the poles of claustrophobia, the vaccuum, the entropy, and fragmentation of systems. The synthesis of Nature and Culture become one screen, where their identities are frontal as well as aerial, absent, or present, all within the same implosion. The desire is to allow the multi-readings of multiplicities. In the mode of almost “diagnostic records” l am interested in the virus which infects the apparatus, and the biological models which are displaced by the machinery of abstraction, collapsing within its own genetics, its own representation. —Lydia Dona
Lydia Dona It’s almost like the friction is a little fragment, and I see painting itself operating as this system that is completely broken. Its cells are broken. Painting, in its meaning—in its dislocation, in its redefinition, in its necessity—in its almost, let’s say, agonized momentum, even in its possibility of being completely dead—is a broken discourse … a language that is castrated to begin with as a mode of critique. So it’s about this self-referential system that is artificial to begin with and can start, therefore, being reborn.
Joseph Masheck It isn’t content with this condition and this utility. Is that the friction?
LD Yes. It’s admitting momentum …
SO What then becomes painting’s potential? For me it goes back to the earlier conversation about the sublime in the Kantian sense, which is a presentation of that which is unpresentable, the presentation of that which is only presentable by its opposite.
SW We’re all a little abashed by continuing to introduce objects into the world that basically has a surfeit of objects already. As a painter you’ve got to be sensitive to the coarseness of being, like it or not, part of an industry, an industry of reification.
JM Lydia, one more question about what you mean by friction. Is it between the broken fragments, or between the self and the outside world, or both?
LD You see, I feel the self is part of a fragment. It’s like parables. The meanings are more in between—if there is any kind of possibility of meanings they are ruptured to begin with; they’re splitting. And in this recycle of things that are constantly in the situation of being split, there is a possibility too—regeneration.
Deborah Kass It’s similar to a person born into a culture that doesn’t particularly need yet another person. A culture that dehumanizes our experience is an analogous configuration. It’s such a no-win situation. You’re born, you know you’re going to die. You make paintings and paintings are dead—such a similar kind of irony.
SO That configuration drives painting back to a Sartrean existentialism which is the act in bad faith: you know you’re doomed, but you go on working anyway.
DK I think that’s what Peter Halley was talking about as the aesthetic quality of utopian idealism. Take that away and what do you really have? I think this is where Peter and Lydia actually—
DK Agree. (laughter)
SO The reason to paint is to create the potential of indicating that which doesn’t exist. That becomes a utopian project.
Suzanne Joelson It’s not that which doesn’t exist, it’s that which is not presentable.
SO Well, I would claim that it’s both: the utopian is not presentable nor does it exist—though it’s conceivable.
LD Is painting utopian by itself?
SO No. But I think that paintings are in a great miasma of self-indulgence.
JGR These people are too self-indulgent. This is a problem I keep having with this conversation: the ready acquiescence to a discourse which comes from somewhere else. Why should this moral language be the language which guides this practice? Art itself is about the forming of the question of that moral language.
SO From my reading, the drive of bourgeois ideology is to reduce or disregard that moral discourse.
JGR Actually, bourgeois ideology is nothing but a moral discourse.
SO It’s a two-tiered moral discourse in which a morality is maintained for one class and amorality practiced by another.
JGR It’s a moral discourse which has contradictions. There are no other kinds.
The last artists to “believe” in their power were the abstract expressionists. The first great artists this country produced. They were naive and intoxicated and their power was used to ends they did not anticipate. We will not be so innocent again. Belief is now translated as desire: passion is bracketed. I believe we are in the awkward years between wondrous innocence and hardened wisdom … … The criticality of Russian formalism has been degraded into a fatuous affair with novelty, radicality for its own sake. I despair at moments that are continually antithetical, although many individual artists inspire me. I nevertheless continue to judge art by the modernist standards of internal critique: that work can be reflexive and reflective and can participate in and encourage a state of consciousness. Increasingly, I look to the body as the house of this consciousness. —Suzanne Joelson
JM Suzanne, the thing that most struck me in your comment was the criticality of Russian formalism has been degraded into a fatuous affair with novelty, radicality for its own sake. This strikes me as another case of having to decide whether it is in fact a fatuous affair, or whether there’s truth to it that survives this degradation that you intend to revive.
SJ I think in the sentence before that I explain my position. Where I say, I am leery of ingrained belief systems and l am disgusted by continual revelling in the new. Is the question induced by the former worse than the amnesia required for the latter? I don’t have an answer. I want to be de-anesthetized but I don’t want amnesia.
JGR Certainly, in my lifetime, the ideas of the Russian formalists have been turned into an academy. Their two modernisms—the modernism of inferiority (a modernism of over-compensation by those outside the accepted culture) and the modernism of historical significance are just two sides of the same coin. The tradition of the new is a notion which valorizes the principle of the individual.
Let’s look to the larger lesson of that formalism: the universal is problematic, there are only four narratives in the world, and you have a rectangular picture on a square. Under what conditions does the work involve articulation of meaning which is not parasitic? How do we set limits to the activity and the terminology of this thing painted? The word “urgency” has been mentioned here. The big problem would be: where does painting go in a situation where apathy is camp?
What’s interesting about painting in general is that it’s very dumb. It’s mute; in other words, its powerfulness and forcefulness has to do with its bursting to be new without being dependent upon some other literary discourse. So someone like the painter Peter Schuyff offers a challenge—how does one do something as dumb as that without doing something which is as dumb as that?—dumb without being dependent on dumb versions of where history has brought us, because we would then ask what sort of theory of history gives Schuyff’s paintings that kind of permission; and obviously it’s a reductivist mechanism.
Painting should stop pretending that its mother is necessarily social history, or the history of moral obligation, or indeed all these discourses which we find painters and artists constantly pointing to as the reason why things are fucked up. We now need another way of thinking things than that, a more scientific one in which we recognize that things are always fucking up in a certain way. There’s a way to characterize information about the current situation without imagining that people have to go back to some pure sense. Freud demonstrates that there are no normal people from whom everybody else departs. The history of medicine is the history of sickness, not the history of health; the history of the world is really the history of gaps between wars rather than the history of peace punctuated by wars, and so on. Perhaps we ought—as I’ve already said, rather uselessly, to think about how art gets ideas into the world, rather than with what ideas that are already there does art have to struggle with in order to make itself felt?
SO So it’s Nietzsche’s description of the nihilist. There is a moral obligation to do what one thinks is correct and right rather than what is considered to be correct and right.
JGR Yeah. It’s a sort of French version of Nietzsche’s description.
SJ I’m just thinking of what Ad Reinhardt said. “You can only be free to make a painting when you make the same painting again and again.”
RK It seems that there’s an engine to art that goes beyond the purely cultural. It goes beyond the search for some kind of clarification, or explanation. Something internal to the process of painting posits a continuing misunderstanding of the past, a continuing dissatisfaction. This is very positive. Doomsday is endemic to the processes of making art, and that’s part of what keeps innovation going.
SO The modernist project claimed emancipation from fragmentation by producing a self-consciousness that would unify that field. We are the products of that self-consciousness. That self-consciousness actually gave us a consciousness of how fragmented both our activities and our world is. We can talk about modernism in relationship to painting, but modernism is also endemic to politics, to social discourse, production, technological advancement, and change. It produced a belief that somehow progress would free us of this fragmentation, that fragmentation was a result of a lack of knowledge. Modernism posits that there is a unified field. What I keep hearing at this table is that somehow there is a way of introducing a unified field even if that unified field is purely a question of accepting fragmentation, that somehow the fragments can be put into the unified field as some sort of friction.
JGR So, I haven’t heard that at this table.
DC Yeah, scare the shit out of me that we’ll come out of here with some sense of a unified field.
JGR Why would it be the case?
JM I never understood progress.
SO No, no, not the belief in progress, but the drive to unity.
SW Berger in Ways of Seeing describes the moment of Cubism as, “there comes a time when the future seems to advance toward us.” I don’t necessarily feel that right now our future is advancing toward us.
SO I hear the claim that the past does.
SW There’s a great deal of image-making in our time that is in the service of a textual model, and that the beauty of what happens in the studio is that sometimes we can elude textual models. We have to struggle constantly to maintain a flexibility. We foreclose ourselves from some of the options critically. There’s a sense of the timeliness of our work which is already a reactionary, settling into an arthritic, sensibility—the notion that our work must be timely—which is different than being modern.
SO What’s the nature of the product that one produces?—not on an incremental level but on the level of discourse. For me, one produces something that has effect, not only in the world but on one’s self. That produces any number of possibilities. Those possibilities are both illogical and rational. What happens when one engages the illogical, rather than the recognizable continuance of a style?
DC So this is your definition then, of the thoughtful practice?
SO That’s what I would say. And that breaks the unity of modernism—that breaks that linearity and makes it possible to continue as opposed to running in place, producing more of the same, and never breaking with one’s own consciousness. One engages in the constant reinforcement of being right. And that’s where the moral argument comes in, Jeremy.
JGR Yes, but that’s enlightenment through modernism rather than prior to it.
JM So as to avoid eccentricity.
SO No, it’s an argument for the potential of eccentricity, of radical change. I remember the arguments made when Guston shifted from abstraction, how people attempted to justify his shift either in terms of his own history (i.e., he was a social realist and he’s returning to that), or look, they’re painted exactly the way the abstract paintings are made; they are equivalent.
SW Guston said the issue was freedom.
The relation of the viewer to the painting creates the painting’s meaning. It is the job of the painting to define that relationship, and to do so it must be controlled by its own criticism. A painting that can only be approached through an intermediary will ultimately be understood only in a formal, historical, or economic way. The creation of a purely private sensibility is the creation of a purely private language. There are three kinds of paintings: the easy, the difficult, and the impossible. We must make difficult paintings. The difficult is always possible. To understand the difficult, one needs a diagram, a map, a set of instructions. A painting should contain those instructions … … Analysis is visceral as well as intellectual. Pictorial analysis is essentially the creative displacement of memory. A painting should remember its birth. When paintings speak a common language they speak the language of history. Structure and skin are the parallel lines that converge in perspective but never meet: intimacy without intrusion, understanding without consumption, the making and the made, the past locked into a perpetually renewed misunderstanding of the present. This disjuncture, this essential misregistration, is the basic conformation of irony and wit. The ironic object is the distanced object. You must step back to see … Cézanne recognized the importance of the depleted model. The shifting mosaic of the real world, the continuing narrative of symbol and event was too compelling a model for painting. Only by narrowing his focus, by an act of voluptuous austerity, was he able to preserve for painting that which was painting’s and not literature’s … Today abstraction stands at Cézanne’s juncture. We must paint Mt. Ste. Victoire again and again, but each time completely differently. The sterility of the anecdotal is matched only by the emptiness of the final, yet infinitely reproduceable object. Painting that is conscious is painting that is aware of its own devices and divisions. Device: the visual reminder of an explicit formal strategy. The metaphor for making. Division: the creation of a means of comparison. The visual equivalent of set theory. The destruction of a unitary view of painting. Change and renewal are possible only when the internal tension of the painting increases beyond acceptable bounds. Tension and release equals pleasure. Optimism is the most interesting and furtive of models. —Richard Kalina
JM I can’t tell whether you mean just as the notion of a purely private language would be absurd, so would a purely private sensibility.
Richard Kalina What I meant is, when you’re painting, if you just put down your feelings, the things that have no bearing on anybody else’s ways of seeing, if you’re speaking only your private language it’s not a language, it’s only … nonsense. It can only be seen in a formal way. A blue will look nice next to that yellow … These are the sorts of things that will be communicated, that will have the sense of a language but don’t really say anything. And I think that by using larger languages, of history, of a shared sensibility, you’re creating something understandable.
Gary Stephan I think there’s more agreement than any of us want to admit. For example, the distinction between the sound and the damaged, the sacred and the profane, the idea of grounding practices in health or grounding practices in disease which metaphorizes the living and the dead. We could all agree on this—the thing that made me think about this—I’ve been in your house, Deborah, in the summer and seen your take on your garden. The values that you draw from it and the ones that I share with you are absolutely, like everyone I’ve ever met who had a garden—you venerate the healthy and you decorate the bankrupt or the damaged. Or you see them in some sort of discourse that metaphorizes your own life. These are values that people around this table can share.
DK We can also understand our ambivalence. I can attach a language to the history, but I am also vulnerable and ambivalent in relationship to it. It doesn’t mean I can’t use it.
GS That’s the tonality—the kind of stress you bring to your practice—shared discourse.
DK Absolutely. Yes. This tonality—the tone of my ambivalence, the tone of my mistrust, the tone of my love, all at the same time—it’s exactly what I bring to my practice.
SW Jeremy, you said art is grounded in a sense of positive relationship to the world, which does not mean art exists in affirmation of all that’s in place …
JGR On the contrary.
SW Otherwise we wouldn’t have tragedy. If there was such a thing as beauty in the world, it would have to acknowledge our innate sense of imbalances, our needs for redress and reordering.
RK I think a fundamental tenet that runs through the art that the people at this table make is that paintings are not answers—they seem to be conjurings of questions. In fact, if you put enough questions together, you’ll get something that leads to something else; you’ll get something that’s generative.
JGR The work of art is more like making something which doesn’t belong to the question and answer business. There’s no mileage, any more than there was in 1947, in trying to paint the ultimate painting. The idea that painting in one way or another offers an answer to the dilemma of art history is itself a problem rather than a solution to the problem.
SW There’s discourse and then there’s the paintings. Paintings stand outside of discourse. Discourse swirls around the painting, but the painting is still sitting there. The painting gets put away, it gets brought out again, according to the shift in the discourse; sometimes long after the painter has passed on. Lots of art is not parallel to discussion. Paintings are like the island which disappears and reappears in Cézanne’s Mt. Ste. Victoire—they appear and reappear and sometimes it’s antithetical: they appear in the discourse going the opposite way. Language is part of a feeling person’s life, but I worry that we are abstracting through language in a way that we don’t make abstract paintings. We are abstracting away from experiences that we know of, that we feel in the studio.
When I was a student in Oregon, Warhol came through on a speaking tour to a nearby college. I had seen one of the car accident paintings and rather than making me feel detached, his repeated silkscreened images had an emotional effect on me. His indifference made me care even more. I was going to stand up at the lecture and say that I was the real Andy Warhol; then I was going to describe my reaction to his painting. I couldn’t go to the lecture, but I’ve always wished I’d been able to carry out my plan. On that tour Warhol sent a surrogate, who pretended to he him. I would have been the real Warhol. I’d like to do for abstraction what Warhol did for media images and figuration: he caused a questioning and deep self-reflection. His formal devices, even distancing effects, cause emotion, self-aware emotion, rather than eliminating it … … The morning the Caravaggio show opened, I noticed the sloshing of the wine in the flask that Bacchus has just placed on the table. As I was examining the wine I saw a reflection on the top surface: it is Caravaggio painting the painting. I was astounded. There are many devices to draw you into the painting: the Bacchus is offering you wine, he’s opening the belt to his robe, he’s inviting you into the bed. But there are also distancing effects: the soiled pillow shows from under the white linen, the fruit is rotting, his fingernails are dirty. This Bacchus is wearing make-up and a wig. Nevertheless, one can’t help but be drawn into the magic circle. Only Caravaggio is excluded, he has created the illusions. He is too aware of the devices to take part. This is very wise. But it is also touching and sad. My paintings reveal themselves over a period of time. They are meant to be lived with in relaxed and intimate moments. It’s awkward that they have to be seen first in a gallery. I want to be a bedroom painter. Most paintings have tactile entry. Mine are peculiar in that the entry is eyes only … … Color field and neoplastic abstraction based their color on the color of impressionism—hue contrasted with values held constant. There are new unexplored possibilities for color in abstract painting. We can use contrasts and gradations of value and hue together in ways that have never been used before. Also, there are new artificial pigments which make colors that don’t yet have emotional connotations and certainly aren’t nostalgic. We have a great opportunity to give them specific connotations. I like the confusion between the organic and the man-made that can be created with these colors. —David Reed
JM You talk about new artificial pigments which make colors that don’t yet have emotional connotations and certainly aren’t nostalgic …
David Reed The trouble I’ve had with colors is that they’ve been defined. It’s too obvious that a certain kind of red stands for blood or anger.
SJ Isn’t there a symbolism for such high intensity, new, as-yet-undiscovered things that are outside of language? Or does it not simply seem, “Ah, modern!”
JM David, you seem to have some hope that such colors are not yet capitalized upon, are not smothered or spoiled.
SW But we don’t always know. I saw the restored Signorelli here this summer or the Mondrian, and those things look like they came right out of an early Spiderman comic book.
DR I like that vulgarity. I like the clean Sistine instead of the old one. The old one appeals to ideals of nostalgia, antiquity.
JM But the problem I was thinking of is more like the Neo-Expressionist problem of suddenly it just goes out that vivid orange is groovy.
DR What was once simply thought of as distasteful becomes acceptable.
JM Because then what had been the vehicle for something individual is just a superficial fashion.
SW Isn’t that first pleasurable impulse, that attraction, the beginning of a relationship?
SO David’s text actually deals with three or four different historical periods, an immediate past, a far past, a personal past and a potential future. It’s not the synthetic pigment I look for in the orange but I look for the novelty of the effect of the orange in the same way that Caravaggio dirties the feet of the Bacchus and Warhol is not there. David’s text broached the question of the use of history, personal experience, and technology—this is the potential of modernism.
SW I think they see it also as the tombs of bourgeois culture.
SO But one needs to have it fixed for it to be the tomb of bourgeois culture.
JM David, when you say, “I would have been the real Warhol,” do you mean you would have been the real artist?
DR I had read that Warhol wanted to be a machine. But standing in front of a Warhol painting I got very emotional—from this thing that is supposed to be so cold, and my reading is just as valid as his. When he didn’t show up at the meeting and sent a surrogate to lecture I figured he agreed with me; my interpretation was more important than his. I think that was really his position.
All painting is produced in an event field. The tension on the field constantly realigns as work is introduced, constructing new readings. The so-called avant-garde chooses to work at the edges of the field where the illusion of the greatest differentness—at least in the minds of collectors and curators—is possible. The tension on the field of all production is temporarily magnified by collectors with no historical consciousness and the self-serving complicity of the avant-gardist who go for the quick fix—“great taste, less filling”—rather than face the overarching labor of placing work of real human value deep in the field of history. This short-sighted strategy intentionally marginalizes their practice—sanitized for the uncritical viewer.This non-historical stance is temporal provincialism, replacing the spatial provincialism of the last century, the physical distance that then allowed Americans to view their isolationism as moral superiority over the wars of Europe and the famines of Asia. This century is spatially sophisticated, more understanding of the interrelatedness of all cultural production. What has replaced the physical barriers are historical ones: temporal provincialism. The truth is to work in a field of production formed of geographic space and historical time. Nothing will marginalize work into curiosities more surely than the narcissism of imagining we occupy an historical moment so unique that it collapses all contact with human experience before it.Many artists I talk with express the fear, which I share, that much current work collaborates with world consumer society as it moves towards integrating all production, advertising and consumption. The fear is that the system is now virtually pervasive, choking off all (outside). No critical distance is possible if we are all (inside). Artists that traffic in consumer culture are at best reporters and at worst collaborators. Now consider this: Stalin’s state apparatus was air tight—complete integration of all means of coercion, persuasion, surveillance, punishment. When a system becomes ubiquitous it is seamless, lacking the otherness of critique. The constancy of state persuasion habituates the populace. They tune out. Footpaths between the state links grow into a shadow economy and culture speaking in rumors, the real langauge of a closed press, subverting official reality—people released to make new value. —Gary Stephan
JM After introducing this idea of temporal provincialism, this sort of amnesia nowadays, you draw an analogy with spatial provincialism. Nothing will marginalize work into curiosities more surely than the narcissism of imagining we occupy an historical moment so unique that it collapses all contact with human experience before it. This is one of the closest statements of all to T. S. Eliot’s argument on tradition and the individual talent. Matthew Arnold’s remark was, “In literature we have with us in the present all the best that has been thought and said.” This is really the kernel of the Eliot idea, that whatever it is you’re doing now, if it’s worthwhile, it’s going to reshuffle the whole—the past is beholden to the present. That is the radicality of the creative action that is taken in the here and now. One sign that it’s got any life in it is that all of those other things are seen slightly differently and sometimes vividly all over again. All painting is produced in an event field. The tension on the field constantly realigns as work is introduced, constructing new readings. You are describing both ends of the action at once, what happens to the old master and also how the new meaning gets constructed.
SO How does one make work out of one’s own history—how do certain thematics and approaches reappear having been either filtered or perverted by one’s own practice.
GS It realigns in terms of one’s own. It seems to me if the ideas are pretty good. I should be able to put them to new ends and if they’re so narrowly argued that they only serve that visual purpose then they’re pretty didactic and shallow in the original conception.
SO Do you see the later uses as refinement or reinterpretion?
GS All great art is sufficiently subtle in its readings in time. Its intentions are officially open. It can be reused by people who have very different apparent agendas … The uses and reuses of Bach in history are shocking, and pretty interesting. I don’t think that would have been possible had the work not had an internal resonance that permitted it to be manifold in its meanings.
DC Gary, I want to take this opportunity to ask a question. I was very interested in some earlier paintings of yours I saw in Mary Boone’s small space and recently heard that you consider those paintings a real failure.
GS I did. In fact, I still am real leery. I thought it was a real dead end.
WM What show was that?
JGR The Dead End Show.
GS The problem with it was, is that instead of opening up intelligence, instead of it being a subtle motif, a course in which significance could be used as a field to read against. People were quite convinced, in my experience, that they knew what the pictures were like. But they saw the most collapsed pictures I made that way. I was stunned by how people agreed, narrowly, on how to use them and what they were like.
DC I thought they were successful because I didn’t know what to think about them.
GS I should have talked to you then. If they don’t work in consumer testing, as it were, then you have to rethink the way in which you’re seeking. I shouldn’t have made those until I was a very old man.
… I’ve come to think that abstraction has so narrowed its language that it really has expressive problems; it really can’t do a lot of the work that it should be able to do. This always bothered me in the studio—I was always trying to describe change in work … if Piero della Francesca wanted to talk about a hand being incomplete, he simply didn’t paint the ends, and everybody having an expectation about hands knew there was a great loss. I want to convey that with, in many cases I think, the impoverished language of abstraction; to convey that about a rectangle and so I shape it into a square. Nobody knows that it’s been done—because nobody has expectations about the life of these forms. They have no history.
DC No consensus.
GS They have no agendas, no lives, no morphologies to convert or modify—no one ever knows they’re conversions because they have no identity. There’s no baseline. I’ve tried to develop the Cézanneist model, a series of motifs that sit roughly between completely hollowed out language at one end and charged language at the other end. The beauty of it is that it’s a language that if you do something to it you have a baseline against which to compare the variations. Do you know what I mean?
JGR Piero could make incompleteness with the already half-completed, only because the space was already transparent. The space was not problematic, and whatever he did within that space did not problematicize it. If the subject of non-representational painting were that space, then the question of cropping or not, things within it, would not be a question. It would be another issue. There is this idea that abstract painting is a regression, an active regression to the condition before the instant that divides the world into a field structured by pigments; before that, it’s just a field. It’s a regression to a condition in which we can then second guess what comes later. That might be a way to think about certain kinds of nonrepresentational painting. The other question, I’ll just throw out … This reminds us that painting is not one thing. If indeed there’s painting which is the problem of space, the questions where does space begin—and if at the other end there’s still representation that fills the invisible space, fills the neutral space—then presumably there is some twilight painting. There is painting which is exactly between the two in one way or another, in a variety of ways. Therefore if there wasn’t only two kinds of painting, there would be many kinds …
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee