Magnus Schäfer

Painting after Modernism Canonical Historiography and Recursive Differentiation

Louise Fishman, "ANGRY JILL", 1973 Louise Fishman, "ANGRY JILL", 1973

In the 1960s, a process of reflecting on painting as a form of practice commenced, in the course of which painting’s conditions and possibilities were emphatically questioned and newly formulated. In the U.S.-based discourse and the European responses to it, the notion that painting has reached an historical end with modernism proves to have a lasting effect. In Clement Greenberg’s seminal concept of modernism, abstract painting is the paradigmatic medium, starting from which he – and subsequently Michael Fried – formulates the concept of media-specificity as a pivotal criterion of modernist art. Greenberg describes the development of modern painting as a teleological process in which painting detaches itself from its representational and narrative function, with its visual quality as such, which transcends the object character of the picture, increasingly emerging as its specific feature. [1] Contrarily, in the mid-1960s, artistic practices evolve with Minimal Art that, as Fried formulates it in his well-known critique of their “theatricality,” are situated “between” the traditional borders of the individual arts and thus set themselves off from the central modernist notion of media-specificity. [2] The finality implicit in Greenberg’s modernist concept of history is simultaneously (re)interpreted by Minimal artists themselves, such as Donald Judd and Robert Morris, as an argument speaking for the end of painting. [3] The shifts that become apparent here are part of a comprehensive expansion and restructuring of the practice of art in the late 1960s, when “art” emerges as a general concept or, as a generic term in the sense of Thierry de Duve, preceding all individual forms of articulation. [4]

Correlating to this, there is a broad consensus that painting can no longer do justice to the theoretical and practical claims of contemporary art production. Douglas Crimp argues along these lines in his essay “The End of Painting” (1981), when he states that the imminent end of painting could not be overlooked in the late 1960s. [5] At the time Crimp wrote this, it was another development that could not be overlooked and against which his text is directed: a distinctly articulated interest in expressively connoted, figurative painting in both institutional and commercial contexts that, in reference to the meanwhile dogmatic soberness of Minimal and Conceptual Art, rejects the notion of an end of painting – not seldom expressed with great emotion and the evocation of alleged historical constants. [6]

The narrative of the end of painting thus establishes itself in the 1980s as an invariable in the reflections on the conditions and possibilities of postmodernist painting. In the frame of the historiography of modernism oriented toward Walter Benjamin’s thought, critical theory, psychoanalysis, and post-structuralism developed in the context of the periodical October, [7] this concept of an endpoint functions as a double distinguishing feature. On the one hand, it is pitted as an argument against the traditionalist approach discernible in the figurative painting of the early 1980s and that is understood in regard to its – also political – dubiousness as paradigmatic for painterly image production after modernism. On the other hand, talk of the end of painting serves to legitimize a narrowly conceived range of painting methods that are attributed historical validity as “painting after the end of painting” in that the positions associated with it become readable as a coming to terms with the conception of an end point. [8] Robert Ryman’s focus on the facticity of the medium and the painterly mark making or the distanced handling of alternating modes of painterly motifs in Gerhard Richter, for example, are discussed from this perspective. [9] In contrast, affirmative uses of the traditions of figurative painting also refer to the thought figure of an endpoint – be it in the attempt to directly negate this notion in the form of evoking subjectivity, sensuousness and a “sheer joy of painting” – expressly directed against Minimal and Conceptual Art – i.e. of calling upon categories, that are for example brought forward in the case of 1980s Neo-Expressive painting. [10] Or be it in genealogies drawn up in shows such as “‘Dear Painter, paint me …’ Painting the Figure since late Picabia” (2002) or “Bad Painting – good art” (2008), to then, again not without emotiveness, play off painterly image production with a rebelliously charged gesture of breaching the rules against the narrative of the end of painting. [11]

Although the discursive figure of an end of painting as such can hardly claim to be relevant today, it could prove to be productive in historicizing this historiographic narrative itself – less with the intention of a correction than with the question regarding its function and the inclusions and exclusion related to it. If, in the transition from a media-specific to a “generic” concept of art, painting no longer possesses the paradigmatic status that the modernist discourse had claimed for it, this shift results in an historiographic privileging of certain painting approaches that are viewed in the sense of a distanced and reflective coming to terms with the finality of modernist painting. For, as Yve-Alain Bois has pointed out, this notion of an historical endpoint affects less painting as such, but instead – although it often remains implicit – modernist painting with its specific practices and discourses. [12] It therefore does not mark a factual end, but justifies specific forms of producing painting. These discursively privileged, conceptually oriented methods can simultaneously be grasped as moments of a comprehensive process of the recursive differentiation of painting as a form of practice. In this context, modern and modernist painting appears as an historical frame of reference of an artistic practice, while “painting” formulates itself as a variable structure of historical and discursive practices. This means that, after modernism, “painting” can be grasped less through specific material, technical or pictorial elements than via a set of conventions, through and against which it defines itself.

Sigmar Polke’s picture “Moderne Kunst” (1968, acrylic paint on canvas) can be counted as a paradigmatic work in this regard. It makes use of an heterogeneous mixture of gestural marks and geometrical figures drawn from the repertory of abstract painting of the 1950s and 1960s against a dark background, framed by a white edge and the cleanly painted letters of the title. This framing identifies the painterly vocabulary as second-hand, so to speak, and generalizes it from “modern painting” to “modern art,” as if there were a lack of criteria or a failing willingness to make a more precise distinction. Polke develops a linguistic mode here, in which the paraphrased forms are taken up in a pronounced derivative manner. The shift to a postmodernist understanding of painting can be grasped here in the sense of a distanced access to the traditions of modernist abstraction as a collection of generic signs. With Lynda Benglis, on the other hand, this access appears as a material reformatting that simultaneously raises the question of established gender attributions. With “Contraband” (1969), and similar floor works made using latex mixed with color pigments in the late 1960s, she latches on to the expansive gestures and notions of spontaneity that are associated with Abstract Expressionism. Benglis pours the latex-pigment mixture directly on the floor and thus reclaims not only the male-connoted gesture of Abstract Expressionism for herself, [13] but also lets gestural trace, color, and picture medium fall in one in a material sense, thus situating them – like Minimal Art – outside of the purely visually conceived image space of modernist painting in the viewers’ “real” space of experience.

From this perspective of a redefined access to modernist traditions, one can also cast a view to painting practices that canonical historiography has hitherto assigned a more marginal role for the reason that they imply differentiations that have no room in the narrative of the end of painting. This applies, for example, to artists who in the 1970s positioned themselves in an ambivalent relation to modernist painting. Louise Fishman, for instance, in a 1973 series of acrylic works on paper, the so-called “Angry” Paintings, utilized an emotional, gestural-abstract, formal vocabulary of broad brushstrokes, hatchings and finger marks combined with elements of writing. In each picture, the adjective “angry” is added to a female first name, in part supplemented by words such as “SERIOUS RAGE”. Some of the names can be attributed to people from Fishman’s personal environment (e.g., her partner, author Bertha Harris, or artist Harmony Hammond), but also to prominent women such as Marilyn Monroe. Contrary to the heterosexual-male connotation of Abstract Expressionism, Fishman transfers the urgency that the painterly gesture suggests to the articulation of a lesbian-feminist position – a “loud” articulation pressing for intensity, which in the context of the 1970s feminist movements implies literally raising one’s voice for the claim to social recognition of one’s own identification. While Fishman, as she stated in an interview in 1994, initially grasped Abstract Expressionism as “a hidden language, on the radical fringe, a language appropriate to being separate” and linked it to her double marginalization as a lesbian artist, at the end of the 1960s she distanced herself from the heterosexual-male-connoted formal vocabulary and turned to methods that are connoted as “feminine” and “craft-oriented”, particularly to sewing. [14] Again taking up an expressive painting paradigm in the “angry” paintings can be understood as a recursive reinterpretation. By reclaiming the nexus of gesture and expression associated with Abstract Expressionism for a feminist approach, Fishman takes on certain parameters that the modernist tradition offers for the understanding of a gestural painting style in the way that they mark a difference to traditional gender implications.

If the canonical historiography of modernism highlights painting as a whole, the horizon of which is formed by the thought figure of an endpoint, then the host of heterogeneous approaches, in which painting becomes diversified in the transition from the modernist conception of media-specificity to a “generic” concept of art, also becomes discernible against the foil of this whole. The considerations briefly presented here outline a concept of painting that, on the one hand, does justice to this differentiation and, on the other, makes adhering to “painting” as an overarching frame of reference meaningful under these conditions.

(Übersetzung: Karl Hoffmann)


[1]Cf. exemplarily Clement Greenberg, Modernist Painting (1960), in: same, The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol. 4, Chicago 1993, pp. 85–93.
[2]Cf. Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood” (1967), in: Gregory Battcock, Minimal Art. A Critical Anthology, Berkeley/Los Angeles/London 1995 (1968).
[3]Cf. Bruce Glaser, Questions to Stella and Judd (1964), in: Battcock, op. cit., pp. 148–164, Donald Judd, Specific Objects (1965), in: same, Complete Writings 1959–1975, Halifax/New York 2005, pp. 181–189, Robert Morris, Notes on Sculpture (1966), in: Battcock, op. cit., pp. 222–235.
[4]Cf. Rosalind Krauss, “A Voyage on the North Sea.” Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition, London 1999, particularly pp. 9–11, as well as Thierry de Duve, Kant after Duchamp, Cambridge, Mass./London 1996, particularly pp. 152–155.
[5]Cf. Douglas Crimp, The End of Painting, in: October, No. 16, 1981, pp. 69–86.
[6]Cf. exemplarily Christos M. Joachimides, Norman Rosenthal, Nicholas Serota (eds.), A New Spirit in Painting, exh. cat., Royal Academy of Arts, London 1982, as well as Wolfgang Max Faust/Gerd de Vries, Hunger nach Bildern. Deutsche Malerei der Gegenwart, Cologne 1982.
[7]Converging in a compact form in: Yve-Alain Bois/Benjamin Buchloh/Hal Foster/Rosalind Krauss (eds.), Art since 1900. Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism, London 2004.
[8]Cf. also Johannes Meinhardt, Malerei und Malerei nach dem Ende der Malerei, Ostfildern-Ruit 1997.
[9]Cf. exemplarily Yve-Alain Bois, “Painting. The Task of Mourning”, in: same, Painting as Model, Cambridge, Mass./London 1993 (1990), pp. 229–244, and Benjamin H. D. Buchloh (ed.), Gerhard Richter, Cambridge,Mass./ London (October Files 8).
[10]Cf. Christos M. Joachimides, “A New Spirit in Painting”, in: Joachimides, Rosenthal, Serota, op. cit., pp. 14–16.
[11]Cf. Sabine Folie, “Meta-Trash oder Die groteske Liebe zur Malerei”, in: “Lieber Maler, male mir …” Radikaler Realismus nach Picabia, exh. cat., Vienna: Kunsthalle 2002, pp. 15–17, and Susanne Neuburger, “Das erste und das letzte Bild? Eine Versuchsanordnung für Bad Painting”, in: same/Eva Badura-Triska (eds.), Bad Painting – good art, exh. cat., Cologne 2008, pp. 11–43.
[12]Cf. Bois, op. cit., pp. 241–242.
[13]The photographs showing Benglis at work call to mind the photos of the painting Jackson Pollock taken close to 20 years beforehand. Cf. the reproduction of a double page from Life magazine from February 1970 with a direct juxtaposition of Benglis and Pollock, in: Lynda Benglis, exh. cat., ed. by Franck Gautherot/Caroline Hancock/Seungduk Kim, Dijon 2010, pp. 126–127.
[14]Louise Fishman cit. in: Harmony Hammond, Lesbian Art in America. A Contemporary History, New York 2000, p. 34.