Chuck Close, Big Self-Portrait (1967-68), acrylic on canvas, 107-1/2″ x 83-1/2″; courtesy the Walker Art Center
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The death knell for painting has been ringing long enough now to have been heard by generations of artists. To those who esteem high art (no scare quotes, please), it is a silly notion, more a feature of an art world geared toward novelty than a prognosis of the medium itself. This season alone has seen top-drawer exhibitions of painting, and artists continue resolutely to dab at their canvases. More than a few of them, however, have grown accustomed to the fact that their chosen medium is considered by many to be outmoded. (That it is so considered, more likely than not, by those who make art their business is one of the peculiar ironies of our day.) In the January issue of Art in America, the critic Lilly Wei wondered, “Is there still a place for this kind of art, or is it just something in which we used to believe?” Wei was writing about the work of a specific artist, but her doubt goes to the art of painting itself. What is disheartening is that Wei likes painting. That even its advocates become fidgety looking at— and, presumably, deriving pleasure from— painting, makes one realize how pervasive the “painting is dead” conceit really is. Several recent exhibitions of painting attested to the medium’s ongoing viability.
Whether the Chuck Close retrospective at MOMA was one of them is debatable. In a radio interview, Close stated that he was “an old-fashioned artist.” He is, in actuality, a new-fashioned one; he just happens to use paint and canvas, that’s all. While not, technically speaking, a conceptual artist, Close came of age amid the conceptualist milieu of the 1960s, and it shows. The work is self-conscious, arty, and impersonal. What is never made clear during the course of the exhibition is why Close has spent thirty years painting heads. Unlike, say, Morandi with his bottles, boxes, and jars, Close’s chosen motif never gives a sense of pictorial necessity. Why heads? Why not landscapes? Or, for that matter, soup cans? He isn’t interested in traditional portraiture; the term “heads” is, after all, Close’s own. In the catalogue, Kirk Varnedoe states that the head has a “base in primordial reflexes of recognition” and “the reliability of [an] involuntary perceptual gestalt.” In other words, a gimmick. As with so much writing about contemporary art, highfalutin’ nomenclature is used to forgive a deficit of artistic vision.
Close’s paintings from the late 1960s and 1970s, with their unflinching depictions of facial hair and mottled skin, offer zilch to the eye in terms of painting. Given their airbrushed surfaces, describing the paintings as inert gives them too much oomph. The work perks up in the 1980s when Close begins to apply oil paint with a pointillist brushstroke aligned to a grid. His touch becomes increasingly painterly and gratifyingly so: squiggles, blobs, and what are described as “hot dogs” array Close’s canvases. Standing near them, one sees only accumulations of pattern and marks. Moving back, they come into focus as “heads” of Kiki Smith, Alex Katz, or some other art-world luminary, often the artist himself. This is painting as optical trickery. I might bemoan the waste of talent in the service of such an obvious device were it not that Close derives so much patent satisfaction from his work. While there is something to be said for his sense of a job well done, one prefers the tension even in, say, Francis Bacon’s sensational misanthropy to these numb paintings.
Agnes Martin has been (as Varnedoe says of Close) painting “the same damned thing over and over.” For Martin, the “damned thing” has been the stripe. Hers is an art of reduced—not to say Minimalist—means and the work’s aesthetic terrain is not an expansive one. At first glance, her oeuvre would seem to be as narrow as Close’s. Yet as her 1992 retrospective at the Whitney confirmed, Martin is an artist for whom formal repetition is surprisingly open-ended. While predicated on a systemic approach, the paintings avoid the mechanical. The stripe provides a means for continuity and renewal. Almost imperceptibly, the paintings create a pulse—rhythm is too bold a word—out of a sensibility so reticent that it risks evaporating altogether. It doesn’t, though. There is an asceticism to the paintings, and their repetitions can be likened to visual mantras. What saves them from being boring (or vacant) is Martin’s wan light— one observer called her “the last luminist”— and the understated trace of the artist’s hand. Rarely have ruled lines been as sentient. Martin’s talent is in locating the balance between not enough and just right.
Having said that, Martin’s recent work at PaceWildenstein fell into the former category. The seven paintings on view were keyed to blue and white; two included a pale yellow. Although a couple of them divulged hints of layering, the paintings were cursory and unfinished. At her best, Martin’s work creates an ambient, fugitive presence. Here the paintings were bleached out, as if they had been run through the washer one too many times. The thin, blotted stripes of blue were less atmospheric than vague. I suspect the artist thought as much, seeing how baldly her graphite line was used as a structural overlay. Indeed, the line was so emphatic that it became rude— rude, at least, for Martin. I favored the two paintings with yellow because they gave off the characteristic Martin glow. The rest, however, were chalky and flat. These pictures could have benefited from (to paraphrase Clement Greenberg) more time spent “cooking” in the studio. Certainly they would have benefited from more sympathetic framing. The strips of metal lining the paintings—with their harsh glints reflecting the gallery’s lighting—ran counter to the imperturbable nature of Martin’s art.
The Helen Miranda Wilson exhibition at Jason McCoy included twenty-three small paintings of clouds. Wilson’s clouds recede in space, spread out in a flurry, float placidly, or cluster ominously at the top of the painting. In a few of the pieces we see evidence of terrestrial phenomena—a bird here, wind-blown leaves there—but, for the most part, the paintings are of the heavens themselves. (That we are left groundless, so to speak, reminds us of just how much we have invested in gravity.) Each image is based in observation of the most nuanced sort—anyone who dates her paintings according to the month has a stake in how time and season change the quality of light. Wilson is particularly good at capturing the improbable range of colors that occur in the sky. The greenish blues and internal light of the yellowish clouds in Angels Running (1997) are crystalline and virtuosic. Yet Wilson’s virtuosity is predicated in propriety and the surfaces of her paintings aren’t showy. They’re magnetic. We’re drawn into a spatial and chromatic experience that is undeniably beautiful.
Beautiful, one might add, and intense. The small size of the paintings works to dislocate our conception of scale. The actual immensity of the subject is in contrast with the blunt, boxlike formats of the pieces themselves. The paintings are as pressurized as a bottle of seltzer. There is something clinical about Wilson’s manner, as if she were preserving clouds rather than painting them. The result can’t be called Surrealist, but it does suggest the hallucinatory; the ragged whirl of clouds in Hidden Moon (1996), for instance, veers toward the psychedelic. Even though the works containing precisely rendered moons and stars become too literal, too precious, I can’t get the exhibition out of my mind. Wilson’s unearthly paintings made for one of the strongest shows of the season.
George McNeil, Promethian Figure (1981), oil on canvas, 54″ x 48″; courtesy Julian Weissman Fine Art
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It was difficult to tell whether the George McNeil memorial exhibition, The Expressive Body, at ACA Galleries constituted a retrospective or a hodgepodge. The work ranged from Subway Scene (1928), with its echoes of the Ashcan School, to the explosive figuration for which McNeil is best known and which he pursued until his death in 1995 (the artist was born in 1908). In between, McNeil studied with Hans Hofmann and was a member of the New York School. The exhibition skipped over his work of the 1950s and, given what I’ve seen of it, wisely so. Yet a few of his Ab-Ex canvases would have made this show more coherent. The art brut of Jean Dubuffet and the CoBrA group informed McNeil’s vision, but it was the Abstract Expressionists —in particular, Jackson Pollock—that were pivotal to his art. It was from Pollock that McNeil inherited a linearity that transformed the canvas into a field of energy. McNeil, however, is a better artist than Pollock ever was.
Although his approach remained Ab-Ex in spirit and attack, McNeil’s use of figuration activated his painting, transmogrifying Pollock’s decorative swirls into something resembling life. McNeil took the impetus for his lumpish figures from the streets of New York City, the magic of myth, the grit of graffiti, and the burlesque of the cartoon. The work can be poignant, sweet, funny, or bawdy— sometimes, as in the sadly hilarious Epernay II (1960–91), all at once. McNeil’s paintings have an emotional breadth that is as sweeping as the gestures he made in creating them. Yet as heated as the paintings are, they remain sturdy—they hold. With a palette that owes as much to Bonnard as to Hofmann, McNeil was a master colorist and, indeed, a master painter. It is a scandal that he doesn’t have a more prominent place in the history of American art. Should an institution like MOMA or the Whitney ever see fit to mount a retrospective of his work, the situation might be rectified. The show would certainly provide a needed challenge to the status quo, as opposed to the Close exhibition which only serves to confirm it. Given the majesty of McNeil’s accomplishment, such a retrospective is inevitable and I, for one, can’t wait.
© 1998 Mario Naves
Originally published in the May 1998 edition of The New Criterion.