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Fresh Paint

Now that painting has re-emerged from a difficult stretch, isn't it time for a survey of the best new work?

April 04, 1999|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | Christopher Knight is The Times' art critic

Three years ago, I asked distinguished artist John Baldessari what major museum exhibition of contemporary art he'd most like to see organized now. Baldessari, a pioneer of the Conceptual art movement 25 years before, answered my query without hesitation: "I'd really like to see a survey that says, 'Where is painting right now?' Because I don't have a good idea. . . . There's so much of this 'Isn't it interesting how the kitchen door looks like a painting?' school of art. Rather than that, I'd just like to see a painting."

I smiled--partly because Baldessari's humor is always pleasurably wry, but partly because I shared his desire. I still do. His wish, voiced in 1996, has not been fulfilled. Surveys of contemporary painting were once a museum staple, but not any longer. I can't recall the last one I saw. Yet the reasons for organizing one now grow more pressing every day.

In the 1990s, something has been changing in the landscape of art. It's hard to put your finger on this inchoate shift, but painting certainly has something to do with it. A smartly chosen survey, selected with critical care from what seems to be an abundance of terrific painting being made by new artists in the last several years, might go a long way toward understanding what's afoot.

What is definitely not afoot is a so-called "return of painting." Painting has returned periodically, ever since its supposed "death" at the hands of Conceptual, Postminimal and other artistic strategies in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Usually, the trumpet-blare about this or that return of painting is sounded by the art market, eager to package product with a gloss of newness for ease of consumption. The most prominent episode came in the early 1980s, when the newly market-mad art world brought us Neo-Expressionism. Mini-boomlets, like Neo-Geo, have flared up (and died down) since.

Claims for painting's return are also usually surrounded by a tinge of benighted relief, as if some grievous wrong has at last been righted, a prodigal child come home, a deposed monarch restored to the throne. Painting was the spine of Western art culture since the Renaissance, so any discussion of painting's condition now is easily endangered by that kind of reactionary nostalgia.

Then there's the not-insignificant fact that painters of many different stripes (and assorted ranges of talent) have been working all along, regardless of whether or not painting was in fashion. Some have even developed serious reputations and important bodies of work.

Yet my interest in the state of painting today is not about a new style, a movement or putting it back on some pedestal. (In the end, a pedestal is just a tiny prison.) It's more about a change in attitude.

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Over the last 30 years, painting has been charged with everything from being irrelevant to life in a postindustrial society to being a politically indefensible relic of a waning age of patriarchal empire and colonial expansion. Pronouncements of its death were linked to an unshakable symbolism of exclusionary establishment values. Partly in response, a variety of nontraditional forms flourished: performance art, video, found objects, mail art, installation, photo-based art, new genres, post-studio art.

You could tell painting had some atoning to do, if only because of the popularity of one approach toward navigating the problem of whether or not it was legitimate. Painting got loaded with irony, a method of often subtly sarcastic expression in which the intended meaning is the opposite of its usual sense. Ironic painting gave a wink-wink signal to a tuned-in audience, which said that the artist knows that the audience knows that the artist knows what's up.

A greater irony has long since emerged, though, swamping any feeble sort that painting might now muster. By the 1990s, a quarter-century of suspiciousness toward painting and increasingly ironic antidotes to its charged status had themselves become the closely held, restrictive premises within establishment art circles. As the context itself became ironic, ironic painting pretty much canceled out its own effectiveness.

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