Why would an artist demur at the prospect of a finished work, court self-sabotaging strategies, sign his or her name to a painting that looks, from some perspectives, like an utter failure? It might have something to do with a foundational skepticism that runs through the history of modern art: we see it in Cézanne’s infinite, agonized adjustments of Mont St. Victoire, in Dada’s noisy denunciations (typified by Picabia’s blasphemous Portrait of Cézanne), in Giacometti’s endless obliterations and restartings of his painted portraits, in Sigmar Polke’s gloriously dumb compositions of the 1960s. Something similar can be found in other art forms, in Paul Valéry’s insistence that a poem is “never finished, only abandoned,” in Artaud’s call for “no more masterpieces,” and in punk’s knowing embrace of the amateurish and fucked-up. The history of modernism is full of strategies of refusal and acts of negation.
The genealogy of what I refer to as provisional painting includes Richard Tuttle’s decades-long pursuit of humble beauty, Noël Dolla’s still-radical stained-handkerchief paintings of the late 1960s, Robert Rauschenberg’s “cardboards” of the 1970s, David Salle’s intentionally feeble early canvases and the first-thought/best-thought whirlwind that was Martin Kippenberger. I take such work to be, in part, a struggle with a medium that can seem too invested in permanence and virtuosity, in carefully planned-out compositions and layered meanings, in artistic authority and creative strength, in all the qualities that make the fine arts “fine.” As employed by younger artists, provisionality may also be an attempt to spurn the blandishments of the art market—what seemed, until only yesterday, an insatiable appetite for smart, stylish, immaculately executed canvases, paintings that left no doubt as to the artist’s technical competence, refined sensibility and solid work ethic.
Five Provisional Painters
Raoul De Keyser’s paintings tend to be modest in size, so that they have already forfeited “heroic” ambitions even before the first mark is made. Unlike many painters who wield impressive techniques in small-scale work (Tomma Abts, James Siena, Merlin James), De Keyser doesn’t compensate for modesty of size with complex compositions or dazzling brushwork. On the contrary, he works in a manner so low-key that even sympathetic critics can be unsure how to evaluate his paintings. In 2006, New York Times reviewer Roberta Smith noted his “weird combination of deliberation and indecision”;1 in 2004, Barry Schwabsky, writing in Artforum, described the oscillating responses De Keyser’s work can inspire: “Slapdash handling gradually begins to seem surpassingly sensitive—or is it? The grubby color, fresh and beautifully calibrated—but is it, really? The sense of doubt never quite goes away.”2
In truth, when you encounter a De Keyser it doesn’t take too much imagination to attribute it to an amateur painter having a try at abstraction after seeing reproductions somewhere of paintings by Clyfford Still and Jean Arp. He manages to lay down a few jagged shapes, usually all the same color, against a monochrome ground. The limited palette suggests not any reductivist strategy but a novice who has invested in only a couple of tubes of paint. No effort is made to hide the laborious adjustments to the contours of the shapes or preliminary pencil markings. No line is quite straight; placement of shapes and dots of color appear either senselessly random or stiffly coordinated. As French curator Jean-Charles Vergne puts it, De Keyser’s work “constantly asserts the impossibility of painting free of touch-ups, mistakes, accidents, set on laying bare the seams, the second tries and the failures. . . . [There is] a constant stuttering in the painting.”3
Unlike De Keyser, Albert Oehlen paints big and avails himself of far more than two or three colors, but his canvases also seem rife with “mistakes” and “second tries.” Oehlen does not bother to hide his reliance on standard graphic design software for many of his compositions. Even after more than a decade of experiment, he wields these basic digital tools with apparent clumsiness; his computer-assisted paintings can sometimes bring to mind Paper Rad, the U.S. art collective that fetishizes the clunky graphics of early video games. Oehlen’s paintings usually begin with collage-based inkjet images, over which he layers dirty-looking swaths of thin paint and whacked-out meandering lines. Canvases in a recent show of less digital work at Nathalie Obadia in Paris feature smudges of oil paint atop fragments of Spanish advertising posters; many of them look as if someone had inadvertently spilled paint onto a poster and, in the attempt to clean it off, had only made matters worse. This one-time purveyor of “bad” Neo-Expressionism has been committed to large-scale abstraction since the late 1980s (when, in his own words, he “started making an effort to be seen as a serious painter”4), but his work, which manages to be at once antiseptic and messy, continues to draw great pictorial force from its abject awkwardness.
The grisaille abstractions Christopher Wool has been making since about 2006 share a lot with Oehlen’s work. (The resemblance is more than coincidental: these two artists enjoy a longstanding dialogue, most recently evidenced by the Oehlen painting Wool selected for his section of the artist-curated show “Sardines and Oranges” at the Hammer Museum.) The smudged passages of paint defacing parts of Oehlen’s canvases become, in Wool’s work, something like the ground of the composition. Both artists also make Photoshop, or similar software, part of their painting process. For some works, Wool takes photographs of brushstrokes in his own previous paintings, which he manipulates digitally. These altered images are silkscreened onto aluminum or linen. Other more straightforward paintings employ enamel paint (sprayed and brushed on) to similar effect. The compositions feature large clumps of broad back-and-forth gray and white brushstrokes—think of whitewashed windows or rubbed-out chalk on blackboards—through which wander black spray-painted lines of varying thickness that suggest bent rebar or mangled wire coat hangers. There are echoes of de Kooning’s light-filled landscape-inspired paintings of the 1960s and ’70s, though Wool’s engrained chromophobia (over several decades of painting he has hardly ever strayed from a palette of black and white) keeps nature at bay. What we get instead are paradoxical pictures in which the artist seems to have obliterated a painting-in-progress and then presented this sum of erasures as the finished work. But has anything actually been covered up? Is there something under Wool’s erasures?
From one angle, Mary Heilmann is the unlikeliest of candidates for painting stardom: over nearly four decades she has relied on a few off-the-rack modernist structures—generally grids or blocks of color over solid grounds—which she deploys with a nonchalance that seems to border on carelessness. Like De Keyser, she favors the slightly wobbly over the straight and true, and an unflashy way of handling paint. Her palette—acidic primaries and an occasional black-and-white composition—is more attention-getting than his, and she has always been adept at slipping little visual conundrums into her paintings. (There’s an almost Escher-like oscillation of figure and ground in many of her works.) But for an abstract painter of her generation, she displays remarkably little sense of program or agenda. Because each painting is self-contained and unassuming, it doesn’t seem to invite any transcendent reading. Where so many other painters seek to convey their artistic ambitions through signs of intensive labor, grand scale, daunting complexity or serious themes, Heilmann, who began as a ceramist, seems to position painting as ceramics by other means. In her recent retrospective [see A.i.A., Nov. ’07], the presence of some of her ceramic vessels and dishes and funky painted chairs invited viewers to look at the painterly qualities of these objects. Far more interestingly, their inclusion suggested that treating painting as if it were ceramics, that is, as a medium free of weighty cultural expectations, is key to Heilmann’s art.