1. PAINTING IS IMPOSSIBLE
At the opening of his compact memoir A Giacometti Portrait (1965), James Lord is on a 1964 visit to Paris. He agrees to pose for Giacometti, who has proposed a "sketch" on canvas of his young American friend which is expected to require only a single sitting. They set to work in Giacometti's dilapidated studio, situated in an alleyway in the 14th arrondissement. Things start well, but at the end of the sitting, Giacometti announces his deep dissatisfaction with the results and obliterates most of the image. He asks Lord to pose again the next day, when the process repeats itself. As more days, then weeks, go by, the artist increasingly despairs of his task, canceling out each day's efforts as Lord remains a virtual prisoner in Paris, waiting for his portrait to be finished, changing his travel reservations again and again. Finally, late one afternoon, on the 18th sitting, as the last light is going, he is able to dissuade Giacometti from painting out that day's work, and the portrait is . . . "finished" isn't the right word. Let's say abandoned.
Throughout Lord's little book, which lays out the ground for his subsequent full-scale biography of the artist, published in 1997, we get to hear repeated expressions of Giacometti's profound self-doubt. "If only I could accomplish something in drawing or painting or sculpture," he tells Lord on the first day, "it wouldn't be so bad. If I could just do a head, one head, just once, then maybe I'd have a chance of doing the rest, a landscape, a still life. But it's impossible."1 On the seventh day Giacometti laments: "The painting's going worse and worse. . . . It's impossible to do it. Maybe I'd better give up painting forever. But the trouble is if I can't do a painting, I can't do a sculpture either."2 On day 13: "What I'm doing is negative work. . . . You have to do something by undoing it. Everything is disappearing once more. You have to dare to give the final brush stroke that makes everything disappear."3 Some of Giacometti's artistic pessimism might be put down to a superstitious artist not wanting to jinx his work in progress, but his relentless undoings and restartings suggest that he really did mean it, that he really did feel that art—achieving what he desired in a painting or sculpture-was, as he says, "impossible."
2. I HAVE BEEN "WANTING TO PAINT THIS PAINTING"
In the postwar Parisian milieu Giacometti inhabited, "negative work" was considered inescapable. Its classic expression is Jean-Paul Sartre's Being and Nothingness. (Sartre and Giacometti were close friends and the philosopher penned numerous essays about the artist.) At one point in Being and Nothingness, Sartre conjures up a struggling writer to illustrate what he calls "the origin of negation." Here's the passage, which I have altered, substituting the act of painting for that of writing:
In order for my freedom to be anguished in connection with the painting that I am painting, this painting must appear in its relation with me. On the one hand, I must discover my essence as what I have been-I have been "wanting to paint this painting," I have conceived it, I have believed that it would be interesting to paint it, and I have constituted myself in such a way that it is not possible to understand me without taking into account the fact that this painting has been my essential possibility. On the other hand, I must discover the nothingness which separates my freedom from this essence: I have been "wanting to paint," but nothing, not even what I have been, can compel me to paint it. Finally, I must discover the nothingness which separates me from what I shall be: I discover that the permanent possibility of abandoning the painting is the very condition of the possibility of painting it and the very meaning of my freedom.4
There's little surprise in the idea that wanting to write a book or to paint a painting can define an individual, can be their "project." What's important here is Sartre's insistence that one is only free if one can abandon that project at any moment. But what sort of book is written under such conditions, what sort of painting gets painted? What does it mean to believe that in order to create a work of art one must entertain the "permanent possibility" of abandoning and to believe that something called "freedom" inheres in this situation? What does it mean to say, with Giacometti, that art is "impossible"? What are the consequences if a work of art is produced under the sign of abandonment, negation, impossibility? Until very recently, these questions sounded very old-fashioned. The existential selfquestioning, the doubt, the anguish, all those hallmarks of mid-20th-century art, have been long put aside, superseded, forgotten, laughed out of the room. With the eclipse of Abstract Expressionism circa 1960, new modes of artmaking were discovered in which the kinds of doubts that troubled artists from Cézanne to Giacometti became largely irrelevant. They were replaced by a solid work ethic, by an emphasis on production, by attention to surfaces (in both a material and a psychological sense), by coolness, by social rather than individual identity; in short, Giacometti's gloomy, doubt-filled studio was replaced by Warhol's Factory. Even as James Lord was faithfully recording it, Giacometti's artistic anguish was already obsolete.
3. DRIVEN INTO A CORNER
Although he came late to abstraction and turned away from it after less than two decades, Philip Guston was able to articulate better than anyone the central experience of Abstract Expressionism. He summed up his attitude in the 1965 statement "Faith, Hope, and Impossibility," in which he describes his studio situation in terms that sound like they were taken right out of Being and Nothingness: "You begin to feel as you go on working that unless painting proves its right to exist by being critical and self-judging, it has no reason to exist at all-or is not even possible."5 As we well know, within two years of saying this Guston concluded that no abstract painting he might attempt had a "reason to exist."
The year after he wrote "Faith, Hope, and Impossibility," Guston spoke about his work in a public forum at Boston University. The transcript is full of his characteristic brilliance and self-analysis.6 One of the most interesting passages is one in which he discusses what he feels is still important about Abstract Expressionism. Guston insists that the issues Abstract Expressionism raised regarding painting were "the most revolutionary problems posed and still are," despite the fact that so many people (artists, critics, curators) had tried to kill the movement off. The error of these would-be murderers is to mistake Abstract Expressionism as a mere "style, as a certain way of painting." It's a cinch to get rid of a style; as Guston says, "After 10 years or 15 years, you're bored sick of it. Younger painters come along and want to react against it." The revolution of Abstract Expressionism, however, was not a matter of any stylistic innovation; instead, Guston says, it "revolves around the issue of whether it's possible to cre ate in our society at all." He immediately draws a distinction between "creating" and simply producing art:
Everybody can make pictures, thousands of people go to school, thousands go to galleries, museums, it becomes not only a way of life now, it becomes a way to make a living. In our kind of democracy this is going to proliferate like mad. In the next ten years there will be even much more than there is now. There'll be tons of art centers and galleries and pictures. Everybody will be making pictures.
Guston is being impressively prophetic here, even if the present level of picture-making (and every other kind of artmaking) is beyond anything he could have imagined. Guston's main point at Boston University was that the state of things in 1966 was very different from the original experience of the Abstract Expressionists around 1950 when, in his words, you felt as if you were driven into a corner against the wall with no place to stand, just the place you occupied, as if the act of painting itself was not making a picture, there are plenty of pictures in the world—why clutter up the world with pictures?—it was as if you had to prove to yourself that truly the act of creation was still possible. Whether it was just possible.
INTERLUDE I: The artist has chosen not to let us see the entirety of any of the paintings in the show. One has an old armoire jammed up against it, leaving only the margins of the painted canvas visible (broad gestures, drips, areas of scumbling and glimpses of spilling de Kooningesque light). Another is barely visible through a much-creased and torn piece of plastic sheeting. Multiple layers of plastic sheeting, black or transparent, are draped over another painting, though one of the bottom corners has been left uncovered and a tear in the black plastic reveals an area of painted canvas, but visible only dimly through the underlayer of transparent plastic; onto the surface of a third painting the artist has glued a frayed blanket, colored drab brown like a piece of army surplus. Rather than being smoothed out flat, the brown fabric has been irregularly gathered and folded to resemble both classical drapery and an unmade bed.
Having previously avoided the medium of painting throughout his lengthy career as a maker of sculptures, performances and conceptual provocations, the artist has now insured that there will always be something between the viewer and the painting; the painting will never give all of itself, nor will the artist ever give all of himself; something will always escape us, and maybe even something that is at the center of the work. But though it remains partially shrouded by failures—the artist's, the viewer's, society's—the painting is nonetheless there, in all its occluded and shabby beauty.
Once upon a time, New York painters tore themselves apart trying to determine what constituted a "finished" painting. During the famous Studio 35 conference of Abstract Expressionists, William Baziotes tied himself into verbal knots trying to clarify what he and his fellow painters thought about the subject: "In talking about the necessity to ‘finish' a thing, we then said American painters ‘finish' a thing that looks ‘unfinished,' and the French, they ‘finish' it. I have seen Matisses that were more ‘unfinished' and yet more ‘finished' than any American painters. Matisse was obviously in a terrific emotion at the time and he was more ‘unfinished' than ‘finished.'"7
Time plays a curious role in the perception of finish or its lack. Most Abstract Expressionist paintings now seem quite finished to us. But in some canvases—I'm thinking of mid-1950s Joan Mitchell and mid-1960s Guston—the flurries of marks have yet to settle down. It's rare to find a completed work that can retain an unfinished aura for several decades; Miró's white-ground anti-paintings of the 1930s are another striking exception. Long before Studio 35, Chinese artists had pondered the question of finished/unfinished. In his invaluable book on Chinese painting, Empty and Full, French scholar François Cheng quotes Chang Yen-Yuan, a Tang dynasty historian, in praise of the incomplete: