A student at one of Los Angeles' premier art schools recently asked a question that had been troubling her for some time. It surprised me.
Her problem was the dismissive, sometimes patronizing attitude toward painting her faculty and fellow students -- not all of them, but enough to notice -- regularly tossed her way. Painting is what she wanted to do, not video, installation, digital photography, performance or any of the other myriad art forms that have proliferated since the 1970s. But constantly defending her desire to be a painter was beating her down.
Part of my surprise came from a simple clash with daily experience: I see lots of new paintings in gallery and museum shows -- more than ever before. Doesn't she?
"When they sneer and say I'm foolish because painting is obsolete, I don't know what to say to them," she said, sighing.
Oh, I thought, that old chestnut. Art, like science and technology, used to be discussed in terms of progress. That meant an ancient practice like painting could become obsolete, like absolute monarchy or 8-track tapes. We don't think that way anymore.
"That's easy," I replied. "Say, 'Thank you.' 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.
The long explanation is -- well, longer, although not by much. It begins with another question: What century is this?
Lingering animus toward painting is so end-of-the-20th century. Painting hasn't been the black sheep of the art family for a couple of decades now, except in academic backwaters of provincial thought.
It wasn't always so. But the recent change in fortune of painting's status -- at least outside the academy -- turns out to be revealing.
In 1975, art critic Max Kozloff took note of a widespread indifference to painting among his scribbling colleagues. Writing in Artforum, then the leading intellectual art journal, he noted that "for at least five years . . . a whole mode, painting, has been dropped gradually from avant-garde writing, without so much as a sigh of regret."
Painting seemed to have evaporated.
After the 1970s and even in the face of a sputtering "return to painting" in the 1980s, the actual practice of slapping paint around on canvas took a back seat to academically inspired Conceptual art. "Ideas about painting," which is one strategy the inspiring first generation of Conceptual artists employed to shake-up the status quo, superseded painting itself. But the ideas were getting monotonous by the time the second- and third-generation Conceptualists came around.
Today, by contrast, actual painting is a staple in gallery exhibitions from Santa Monica and Culver City to mid-Wilshire and Chinatown. And paintings made by L.A. artists are everywhere. Lots of them are by younger artists, under 45. When California's deep recession of the early 1990s eased, galleries exploded across L.A. Now they number well into the triple digits. The number of painters, promising and accomplished, has likewise mushroomed. Painting -- of all kinds -- is as prominent as any other art in the city's galleries.
I think of them as "the undead." Do the math: Born in the 1960s and 1970s, these are artists who came of age in a world where painting was widely and sometimes loudly proclaimed to be finished, kaput -- dead.
Or, as Kozloff complained, more likely it was just being ignored to death. Painting was the crazy old uncle rambling around in the attic, and about whom the less said the better.
Why did painting disappear? And why has it reappeared in such abundance?
One reason is rarely voiced: The postwar rise of New York's cultural dominion -- and its more recent fall -- explains a lot of it.
Painting was always said to be "a New York thing." After World War II, when the New York School bumped the School of Paris off the charts, a few sculptors were present at the coronation. But mostly they were painters -- Pollock, De Kooning, Rothko, Kline, Still, Frankenthaler, Guston, Newman, Hartigan and many more.
Back then the bond between Modern painting and New York was intense. Eventually, it swelled to imperial proportions.
The Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, initially slow to respond, got on board. The otherwise adroit 1970 history of the New York School by NYU professor Irving Sandler (himself a former painter and gallerist) is titled "The Triumph of American Painting." It was axiomatic: Masterful American art was painting, and masterful painting meant the New York School. A local event was inflated into a national phenomenon, claiming worldwide stature.
But that was then, and this is now.
The triumph of American painting was actually a thrilling neighborhood affair with great public relations. So was the subsequent skirmish over painting's death.