In painting, one should avoid worrying about accomplishing a work that is too diligent and too finished in the depiction of forms and the notation of colors or one that makes too great a display of one's technique, thus depriving it of mystery and aura. That is why one should not fear the incomplete, but quite to the contrary, one should deplore that which is too complete. From the moment one knows that a thing is complete, what need is there to complete it? For the incomplete does not necessarily mean the unfulfilled.8
This text, from the year 847—written, one can't help noticing, when the best artists of Carolingian Europe were spending their lives applying gold leaf details to illuminated manuscripts and crafting decorative metalwork—could easily be a commentary on 20th-century modernism. "One should not fear the incomplete, but quite to the contrary, one should deplore that which is too complete. From the moment one knows that a thing is complete, what need is there to complete it?" This sounds like something Duchamp might have said. How curious that the prospect of leaving a work intentionally unfinished remained controversial in Western esthetics some 10 centuries after its virtues had been recognized in Chinese painting, and some four centuries after Michelangelo's ambiguous embrace of the non finito.
5. PROVISIONAL PAINTINGS, LAST PAINTINGS It's important to make a distinction between provisional paintings and last paintings. Last paintings appear within a narrative about the end of painting, an art history that believes (or believed) in a certain progressive logic; they occur within an esthetic dialogue in which artists feel compelled to finesse or outmaneuver art of the recent past. Provisional painters know that such conditions no longer prevail, and yet they don't want to give up the sense of difficulty that energized the painters of last paintings, such as Ad Reinhardt. I am tempted to say that the provisional painting is what follows after the last painting, except that doing so would entail a teleological scheme that the last painting was supposed to have brought to a close, and that is, anyway, no longer tenable.
In the 1980s, it was thought that last paintings would be followed by simulacra of paintings. Emptied of all transcendence, all utopian pretensions, all expressive qualities, proffered as signs of painting rather than the thing itself, "simulated" paintings like Peter Halley's were first and foremost a measure of diminishment, which seemed like a natural direction to go after the last painting, after the failure of the last painting to be the last painting. Does provisional painting appear when last paintings are no longer possible to paint? Maybe it's wrong to talk, as I have done, about painting being "impossible." It's impossibility itself that has become impossible.
Visiting the Brooklyn studio of one of the artists I wrote about in "Provisional Painting" [A.i.A., May 2009], I get into a discussion about "impossibility." The artist thinks I've misunderstood something fundamental about his work. For him, painting is never impossible—just the opposite. I realize that I have committed one of the worst, if most common, critical (and curatorial) sins: recruiting an artist into a compelling critical narrative while missing something fundamental about his or her work.
INTERLUDE II: Among one Berlin-based artist's favorite materials are ammonia, hydrochloric acid and chlorine bleach. He applies these corrosive substances to pieces of canvas, linen or jute fabric, sometimes to create pale patterns, but more often to make the painting support look like something that's been left out in the rain or pulled from a mildewed basement. Using gouache or other thin paints, he will then add a few shaky geometric designs or stray gestures to his damaged fabrics. In other works, he sews strips and patches of colored or beaded fabric that seem to float atop the gently distressed, subtly atmospheric grounds. Sometimes he will stitch up a tear in the fabric. Delicacy and a sense of loving attention coexist with a mood of neglect and abandonment.
When the artist exhibits his work, he generally leaves the gallery or museum lighting exactly as it had been arranged for whatever show was previously in the space. But for all the desultoriness that seems to go into their making and presentation, his paintings have a remarkably consistent focus. His compositions resemble fragments salvaged from the shipwreck of modernist abstraction: melancholy, vulnerable, absolutely convinced of their own necessity, lying in quiet wait for viewers willing to give a piece of their lives to a rectangle of barely-thereness.
6. IT JUST HAPPENED . . .
Provisional paintings can show signs of struggle and can also look "too easy." In the case of easy-looking provisionality, we encounter a paradox: the struggle with the problematics of painting results in a painting that shows no signs of struggle in the sense that the finished piece displays a minimum amount of work (Michael Krebber, for instance). But in other cases we can see the record of the artist's struggles, though not necessarily accompanied by Giacometti-style anguish (Raoul De Keyser). But whether it looks easy or arduous, the provisional work is always opposed to the monumental, the official, the permanent. It closes the door on the era of the high-production-value art market (Hirst-Koons-Murakami-Currin). It wants to hover at the edge of nonexistence. It wants to rest lightly on the earth.
Robert Ryman is often cited as a maker of "last paintings," but read this quote from him and ask yourself if he doesn't sound more like Matisse than Reinhardt: "The one quality I look for and I think is in all good painting, is that it has to look as if no struggle was involved. It has to look as if it was the most natural thing-it just happened and you don't have to think about how it happened. It has to look very easy even though it wasn't."9 In a 1974 interview, Martin Barré, a French painter whose work was often fiercely provisional, approvingly quotes Jean Cocteau: "The work must erase the work; people must be able to say, I could have done that."
Provisionality inoculates the painting, conveys to us the dissidence of the painter from a prevailing style. Once, not all that long ago, artists could establish their dissidence through the innovative originality of their work, but the avant-garde strategy of rupture, the creation of an iconoclastic artwork, has become so thoroughly assimilated as to no longer serve as proof of anything more than that the artist is a good student. Perhaps the only time that iconoclasm retains its power is when the icon that is broken is the artist's very own work. This is what a provisional work can do: demolish its own iconic status before it ever attains any such thing. The provisional is born in the moment when the painter hesitates between painting and not-painting-and then begins to paint nonetheless.
INTERLUDE III: The scene is Paris in the early 1960s. An art critic remarks to a young expatriate American painter enjoying his gallery debut of thinly painted abstractions, "I see you're not very interested in matière." The artist replies, with a deceptive nonchalance, "Well, I'm interested enough that I try to eliminate it." Within a few years the materiality of oil paint takes on a more central role in his work when he begins to make paintings by depositing small amounts of liquid paint onto his canvases and tilting them this way and that to direct the paint toward the edges of some faint pencil markings. He never knows exactly what will happen, how a painting will look when it is finished; it often seems to be "doing" itself. Thin color has flooded the canvas or, as he increasingly turns to smaller formats, sheets of paper, and receded, leaving visible a residue of barely emerged imagery: hutlike structures, wobbly Roman numerals, luminous grids that suggest an archeological dig seen through patchy fog. Rather than minimalist, they are subliminalist. For a 1987 show of small gray paintings he has a passage from the French writer Maurice Blanchot typed up and affixed to a wall of the gallery. "Speech," the quotation ends, "is the replacement of a presence by an absence and the pursuit, through presences ever more fragile, of an absence ever more all-sufficing."
8. AND WHAT IF?
And what if provisional painting is an implicit critique of human ambition, a kind of vanitas?
And what if provisional painting is a response to the renewed dematerialization of art that has accompanied the rise of digital mobility, a way for painting to say "I, too, am just a momentary image on a screen?"
But what if provisionality is nothing more than a stylistic trope, rather than a matter of profound artistic conviction and philosophical reflection? I keep rereading a sentence I came across in one of Frank O'Hara's art reviews: "It is simply a property of Bonnard's mature work, and one of its most fragile charms, to look slightly washed-out, to look what every sophisticated person let alone artist wants to look: a little ‘down,' a little effortless and helpless." Could provisional painting, or at least some of it, be merely the medium on a casual Friday?
9. FAILING BETTER
How does one respond, as a critic, to a provisional work of art? Can one practice provisional criticism? What would this look like? Given the way that every judgment, evaluation and interpretation is subject to revision—if not total rejection—by the passage of time, isn't every piece of criticism provisional? Maybe. But at the same time, doesn't every critic also try to offer something that will be completely nonprovisional, i.e., durable and confident? After a long period when painting was frequently dismissed as a complacent, indulgent, narcissistic medium in contrast to other modes (conceptual art, relational esthetics, etc.) that were supposed to be more faithful to the skeptical, oppositional character of historic avant-gardes, some painters have been rediscovering doubt as an aspect of their medium, reclaiming Cézanne as an ancestor and nominating as their tutelary spirit Samuel Beckett, a writer who favored paintings where he found "no trace of one-upmanship, either in excess or deficiency. But the acceptance, as little satisfied as bitter, of all that is immaterial and paltry, as among shadows, in the shock from which a work emerges."10
INTERLUDE IV: Words painted quickly over other words, some of which have been obscured by equally speedy painterly gestures. The letters, always uppercase, are neither crude nor graceful. They can be thick or thin, but always look like the artist was in a hurry to get from one edge of the canvas to the other. Along the way, spaces are opened and closed, flipped and flopped; color is summoned but with no more ceremony than when you switch on a light. The paintings contain ordinary words or phrases that, because they seem to point to no obvious external referent, sometimes ask to be read as descriptions of the painting in which they appear: "CUTE AND USELESS" or "DISASTER." Others might be admonitions to the viewer-"THINK"-and some could be both self-referential and the artist talking to herself—"PAINT!" If the painterly side of this work looks back to de Kooning's practice of hanging abstract compositions on letter shapes, and the linguistic aspect engages conceptual art, it's the apparent nonchalance of the paintings, their complete lack of pretense or fussiness, that marks them as belonging to NOW.
1 James Lord, A Giacometti Portrait, rev. ed., New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980, pp. 9-10. 2 Ibid., p. 44. 3 Ibid., p. 79. 4 Cf. Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel E. Barnes, New York, Philosophical Library, 1948, p. 37. 5 Philip Guston, "Faith, Hope, and Impossibility," ARTnews Annual, October 1966, reprinted in Clifford Ross, Abstract Expressionism: Creators and Critics, An Anthology, New York, Abrams, 1990, pp. 62-63. 6 Philip Guston, "Public Forum with Joseph Ablow, 1966." The transcript appears in Clifford Ross, Abstract Expressionism: Creators and Critics, pp. 63-75; my quotes from Guston appear in this source. 7 William Baziotes, transcript of Artists Session at Studio 35, 1950, in Abstract Expressionism: Creators and Critics, p. 216. 8 Chang Yen-Yuan, quoted in François Cheng, Empty and Full: The Language of Chinese Painting, trans. Michael H. Kohn, Boston and London, Shambhala, 1994, p. 76. 9 Robert Ryman, "Interview with Robert Storr, Oct. 17, 1986," in Abstrakte Malerei aus Amerika und Europa/Abstract Painting of America and Europe, Vienna, Galerie Nacht St. Stephan, 1988. 10 Samuel Beckett, "Henri Hayden, hommepeintre," in Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment, New York, Grove Press, 1984, p. 146; trans. by Lois Oppenheim in The Painted Word: Samuel Beckett's Dialogue with Art, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 2000, p. 103.