The Icon Emerging

In 1968, the Democratic Convention broke heads, so Guston broke out. Nixon swelled with lying, Guston drew him that way. Guston said he didn't just want his paintings to sit on the wall. The world was horrible, and the art world was being polite. So Guston invited hairy limbs to the party. What are those limbs doing? Can anyone explain their behavior?

An Art Chronicle

El Greco and Philip Guston at the Met

El Greco is like waking up in the middle of the night and seeing triangles. Guston is staying up and seeing french fries. It was a punchy gray dream to see them together.

Without El Greco, it would have been impossible to imagine, and useless to be shown, what the iconic color and space of the East would do when hit with the overwhelming technologies of Venetian oil paint and perspective. Impossible to imagine because only he could take a Byzantine head and pin it to the rich technique learned from Titian. Useless to be shown, because European art galloped along just fine from the 16th century to the 20th, ignoring his discoveries. The abused perspective, the colors in flat, acidic tangles, were ugly and strange to centuries of pale European eyes. But El Greco, with his shards of space and torn belief, came alive as we approached the awfullest century, when history broke open—when the smooth spaces and easy stories became history painting—when classical stillness collapsed. Our new-old masters, Cézanne, Picasso, could see him. He took Cézanne through still lifes and landscapes. El Greco never really left Picasso’s side, leading him from thin blueness into cubism, out into the horror of Guernica and on to the last years of blue-gray diaries. After the long 20th century, we know how to see his inscrutable inherited beliefs dancing in unresolvable spaces, we remember bodies stretched excruciatingly to heaven, we feel the icon emigrating.

Without Guston, what? Can we see him yet? We swim in a generation of painters who only saw his cartoonishness and took up his concern for crapola. Guston was run out of art town for crudely painting figures, an apostate from Abstract Expressionism—then posthumously invited back, so he could be even more crudely simplified. Like El Greco, he left false piety for strange devotion. And he’s been rewarded with the kind of imitation that mostly demonstrates a continuing blindness.

In 1968, the Democratic Convention broke heads, so Guston broke out. Nixon swelled with lying, Guston drew him that way. Guston said he didn’t just want his paintings to sit on the wall. The world was horrible, and the art world was being polite. So Guston invited hairy limbs to the party. What are those limbs doing? Can anyone explain their behavior? When he had the first show of late work at Marlborough Gallery, everybody said, “Yuck, cartoonish cigarettes.” Now it’s “Yay! Cartoonish cigarettes!” Has anybody really looked at those things?

A painter’s painter, he was intruded upon by meaty phantoms from Odessa pogroms, his father’s junkyard, a frontier Los Angeles of 1919. The clumsy hoods and piles of cigarettes were a serious confession. He was a great painter who had finished with his era’s overabundant and fail-proof flat paintings of stripes. And what came out? Inscrutable icons emerged, inviting us to look at the century again. This is precisely why it is such a crime to pretend the klansmen and chubby junk piles are a pose or a style. Hilton Kramer tried that argument out by famously saying Guston was a mandarin pretending to be a stumblebum. Nowadays, we have theories piled up to bolster a creeping technical incompetence. On the supposedly avant-garde side of this important misunderstanding, you see an art world full of stumblebums as mandarins.

John Currin at the Whitney

John Currin, on the other hand, “knows how to paint.” Everybody’s been wondering just how he painted his baby’s balls to look so big in that New Yorker photo. I don’t have any answers.

After I saw the show he curated at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, I looked through a book of his paintings and thought, why apply the most mediocre tropes of Northern European painting to big breasts, turtlenecks, and bad skin? I decided he had a magazine-size imagination. But when I walked out into the world, all the women looked as if he had painted them. I prepared my retraction. Then I remembered it was wintertime in Boston.

The Whitney retrospective provoked a season of self-congratulation. A midcareer retrospective for a teenage middle-aged man turns out to be just the thing for everyone to agree on. The new work featured “Thanksgiving,” an Italian mannerist trio of Thomas Hart Benton-curving ladies and an impressive plucked turkey. But you’ve seen mannerism, you’ve seen Benton, and you’ve eaten turkey. You’re full. Some people think it’s de facto interesting to think about what the art world thinks is interesting. This deserves a Currin image: a circle-jerk of castrati. They sing so sweetly!

In back were much better pictures, the humiliated attractive women who made his reputation: the busty bobby-soxers, the estrogenless socialites. Ten years ago Currin had promise. Now he’s enthroned.

Like safely risqué cartoons, his pictures are skillful and sometimes funny. Punny titles, impolite jokes, deft references. He built a style in the 1990s “Age of Irony,” and this kind of thrift-store satire was native to a painter on his way up. What is boringly sad is when he is talked about as if he were not just a painter, but the painter, and it is said that a few of his skillful images could again give painting its direction. That would be the last sincerely ironic joke, my friends. We are not so starved for tits.

A Yale art student told me Currin once made the following pronouncement: Americans are afraid to make great paintings.

Richard Serra’s Figures in Landscapes

Serra at Gagosian: As it turns out, large-scale, macho minimalist sculpture inspires nothing so much as small-scale effeminate chatter.

Serra at the Guggenheim, Bilbao: As it turns out, there is no better way to fill a big, empty, big-name museum than with a big, empty, big-name sculpture.

Serra at Yale: Silent and gothic.

Serra commissions in public spaces: An interesting court case.

Chorus: Over the Years

Over the years, images replaced paintings, and objects replaced sculptures. But painting was quietly both an image and an object.

Over the years, systems and projects replaced style. You see a series of ecological niches. One bird will eat brown grubs in distinction to one who eats black. But a common ancestor ate something better than grubs. If everyone is trying to make something unassailable and market-precise, they’ll end up crawling into some very small corners.

Some of this work has been fine and interesting. It expresses the artists themselves, if nothing better than themselves. But an art world thick with underdeveloped and overpraised visions gives the most power to curators and critics, since they’re the only ones left to present a complete picture. Using magazines and group shows, they gather the various minor characters together and give them their roles. This assembly satisfies many with a very good picture of the art world, but it somehow fails to deliver the world.

Over the years, names came and went. An accepted term for our condition was post-minimalism. You were either post or neo. It’s time for more capacious terms—post-neo! The new post. Over the years, history has been preparing the ground for something new. After decades of debating whether painting was an illusionistic window or a formalist wall, we realized it was a door. Most walked out. But a few quietly slipped in. Isn’t painting finally an open question again.

Elizabeth Peyton and David Hockney at the Whitney Biennial

Painters can wind up looking like what they paint. It can be a sign of genius, or inflexibility. Like David Hockney in his striped ties and brightly mismatched hearing aids, Elizabeth Peyton, too, looks like her pictures. She paints the young, dreamy, and successful. In photos, she gives the camera that soft, almondeyed, and loving look she so often paints ont
o her models.

Both painters are now famous painters, and they’ve been hung across from each other in the same room of the Whitney Biennial. Peyton is young and chose Hockney as her master. Hockney is old, and his greatness shows how little the disciple has learned. When you come to resemble what you paint, maybe it matters that Hockney paints swimming pools, interiors, streets, and gardens, so looking like them proves his negative capability. Peyton paints rock stars, celebrities, and her friends, who look like they wish they were rock stars and celebrities.

Peyton’s best picture at the Whitney depicts an awkward human seated on a chair, wearing patterns, slightly lazy and good-looking. Beautiful, actually; a beautiful human. It seems appropriate to our time. It recalls good Hockney-astute, honest, and witty with the patterns. It lacks the astonishing talent, though, the indefinable addition. The beautiful young person is not the occasion for wonder that he is in Ingres, Parmigianino, or Matisse. We start to feel that it’s unimportant to paint beautiful people, and that’s an awful feeling.

The curator confirms this by wildly including a da Vinci copy Peyton made. It is a painting of a beautiful painting, and it shows you what you find in the pictures of the beautiful people: nothing. Nothing, that is, you didn’t already know from seeing beautiful people in life, beautiful paintings in the museum.

David Hockney only has a few watercolors up on the opposite wall. Is he the most famous living artist after Thomas Kinkade and before Damien Hirst? He has the most visual talent. Over forty years, he’s applied it to painting’s unfinished business of representation. He wondered about space via Picasso and decoration via Matisse. He wondered about photography all on his own, and he changed our art-historical understanding of the camera’s place in the history of painting, both with his writing and his photo collages. In California, he invited Asia westward, made some of the best gay paintings ever, and perfectly captured, as a foreigner, the spirit of the place, even trying to paint the perhaps unpaintable Grand Canyon. He and his work are disarmingly frank and generous, and art people mostly hate him.

The star of his wall at the Whitney is a friendly and cool horizontal interior. There is a lamp flanked by two striped couches, all of it pale and sure. A fireplace, black marks, hangs back in the center of the painting. We hardly notice the work of it, the wit and sense is light, but we can return to it, we want to revisit that room.

Hockney has looked at a lot of Chinese paintings over the years, and this painting distills those lessons. The marks are concise, the scale is human and somewhat larger all at once, and the eye has true freedom as it wanders around. The myopic perspective of the West and the tightness of our realism are loosened. The Chinese say you can’t paint nature, but you have to paint like nature. In a similar way, Hockney doesn’t imitate Chinese painting, he just paints with its openness. Like da Vinci, he can draw water.

Amy Sillman at the Biennial

Amy Sillman’s quiet, medium-sized pictures may go unseen by many at the Biennial, but those who notice them slow down in their vicinity. Instead of soliciting attention, they reward it. They are a bright pause in the show, a bright hope.

Her pictures are like an amusement park in winter. Built and empty, oddly explosive and circumspect. Curtains reveal tangles of color, weird bouquets, and even funny little animals. It is hard to say what they mean, except: not what you think they mean. In a Biennial experience otherwise a lot like a circus, these pictures play a strange role, being a quietly deeper show. They are an empty cage at the back of the tent, and when you look inside, you see the rare tiger too precious, or too dangerous, to be taken out.

One big oil rides three crude cartoons of sleeping human figures, making horizons on the canvas for something planetary. The fundament, down below, is a stretched sleeper whose feet turn downwards; his head is a pink fleshy circle marked by its radius. The middle ground is a living being mazed with colored triangles like a pipe-cleaner mosaic. A sea and mountain landscape rides the topmost dreamer, as a jack-in-the-box zooms out of a cock-mountain to say: “Hello!” The face in the top left corner emanates a line of yellow commas like zzzs. The whole thing is called “Hamlet.”

Another of the achievements in these paintings is the palette. In this carnival the weather turns wet. There are strange flurries of warm and meteorological marks. The palette seems to be in flux—gray blushed purple, a red losing its brightness to white, orange and green imitating and confronting one another. They move in strange ways: they are divided vertically, in panels where one or another language of representation will giddily take over, and passages that she fought for and ones she thinly charmed. The pictures change with distance and over time, and they surprise on every level.

One is reminded: painting is an open question. Guston makes a grand return in Sillman. He is in the structure and the mood. The piles of tubes, plumbing, and junk somehow are turned into these gorgeous multicolored mazes. Her mysterious gestured—at figures might be smoking pipes in the Guston manner—or is that the thing’s lip? You could never have guessed he could return this way. Even the palette seizes it—at once auroral and cruddy, her colors make a sympathetic translation of his late sensibility. It is all the more amazing for the colorlessness of Guston’s late work, which renounced the fineness of color, though color had made his name in the period of abstraction.

If one were to conclude anything about Amy Sillman, it would be how grateful we are not to have to conclude. The paintings have the confidence to suggest, but not impose, a future line. Her career seems likely to stay open and curious, giving viewers the same expectant feeling with which Sillman seems to paint. One can only look forward to more of her multiple horizons.

Coda

In an image-drowned world, where a digital picture is as easy to make as a phone call, painting has a responsibility to be the visceral exploration of the visual. It has the opportunity to enjoy its slow strength—and its double palpability, as space and substance.

In an art world awash in ideas, painting has the job of embodying ideas in an ancient medium. For a time, this history was seen as a narrowing corridor, which at any step might conclude. Now we notice the collections of doors in that hallway, opening on multiple futures and on the scenes of astonishing depth and variety of the past, the painted caves, palaces, churches, and galleries that came before us, and sustain us.

Representation had looked like a burden for painting. It was an act of violence, imposing its frame on the world. We now see that it can also be a glimpse of the perpetrator at the crime scene, a tantalizing flirtation, a funhouse mirror, a raw dream, or a visual eulogy to the constantly disappearing world. Where could its limits be?

Related Articles

July 12, 2006

Perhaps this is always our first reaction when confronted with allegory: a suspicion of gimmickry.

June 17, 2005

Painting has been both dead and back for a little while now, and Greater New York is no exception.

April 2, 2007

Caro’s literary treatment of Moses, as modern Gotham’s Faust, has had amazing staying power.

February 12, 2009

Certainly his arrest adds to his credibility as a street artist engaged in a radical art practice.

More by this Author

July 10, 2006
Death’s Sky Blue Bag
January 7, 2011

To find the iconic professor, one has to first navigate a super-dense hallucinatory realm.

August 20, 2010

It’s not a question of whether you can communicate or you can’t, but that it has to go somewhere. It takes practice.

Issue 1 Negation
Art Chronicle; or, The Icon Emigrating