If one could measure provisionality in painting, then Michael Krebber would probably score off the charts. Much of his work, although ostensibly about painting, uses none of its accepted components—his most recent show in New York, at Greene Naftali Gallery, centered on sliced-up windsurfing boards—and when he does engage brush and canvas, the results can seem laughably thin. Many of his paintings consist of a few bits of sketchy brushwork that might or might not represent an object or body part slapped over a white or pastel ground. At other times, he has painted white blocky shapes over kitschy bed linens, or glued single newspaper spreads onto cursorily painted grounds. Confronted with a baker’s dozen of Krebber’s paintings, London critic (and Krebber fan) Adrian Searle once observed: “How long did each painting take—five minutes, 10 minutes max, a lifetime of experience?”5 There’s nothing inherently noteworthy about a quickly executed painting, but Krebber’s hastiness seems closer to a prostitute’s hurried coupling than to the rapid elegance of a Chinese ink painting. It appears to say, Painting is what I do but let’s not get sentimental about it or waste unnecessary time or materials; this is all you’re getting for your money. And yet, Krebber’s disdain for painting could equally be interpreted as a sign of overvaluation of the medium—he holds it in such high esteem that he’s afraid of besmirching it through excessive contact.
The dandyish, self-lacerating wit that runs through Krebber’s work (this may be the real basis of his critical association with Kippenberger) extends to some of his titles. A 2004 show at Dépendance gallery in Brussels of newspaper-spread paintings was named “Unfinished too soon,” a phrase that suggests an artist failing to achieve nonfinito vitality out of sheer impatience. In 2001 he titled an especially sketchy painting Contempt for one’s own work as planning for career. It would be a mistake, however, to equate Krebber’s contempt with cynicism. His attitude to painting ultimately seems to echo Marianne Moore’s to poetry: “I, too, dislike it,/ Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it,/ One discovers in/ It, after all, a place for the genuine.”
The historical context of the quintet of artists above may become clearer with the new accessibility of bodies of work by Joan Miró, Martin Barré and Kimber Smith. Until “Joan Miró: Painting and Anti-Painting, 1927-1937,” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York last fall, I’d relegated Miró to the status of Boring Modern Master, an artist whose once radical innovations had long ago been tamed and diluted by overexposure. The 12 series of works gathered by MoMA curator Anne Umland made me dump this ridiculous misperception once and for all.
Miró’s aim in this period was, as he told a Spanish journalist in 1931, to “destroy everything that exists in painting.”6 Two works in particular exemplify this agenda. Painting (Cloud and Birds), 1927, is a big unprimed canvas with a giant clump of white paint into which Miró has scribbled a cursory series of looping black lines; some incomplete featherlike shapes are scattered below. Painting (Head), 1930, a 7½-by-5½-foot white ground canvas, has been . . . “defaced” is the first word that comes to mind, by a schematically outlined, giant pink head, large blotches of black and pink paint and a huge tangle of looping blue lines similar to the black ones in Cloud and Birds. The images in Painting (Head) are lined up on a diagonal (lower left to upper right), and the entire composition is crisscrossed with rapidly drawn pencil lines and a smattering of dots and dashes. The lack of finish, aggressively crude figuration, and extensive doodling and cancellation marks suggest a painter at war with his medium. That Miró dared such provocations at this scale more than 75 years ago is astounding; he looks like a contemporary of Polke or Kippenberger.
I think the source of Miró’s daring, and the reason why his work is so close to what I’m calling “provisional painting,” resides in his rejection of the idea of a finished, durable work. In 1928, he confessed to Francesc Trabal that after completing a painting he had his dealer take it away as quickly as possible: “I can’t bear to have it there in front of me. . . . [When] I’ve finished something I discover it’s just a basis for what I’ve got to do next. It’s never anything more than a point of departure. . . . Do I have to remind you that what I detest most is lasting?”7
The paintings of Martin Barré (1924-1996) remained little known in this country until last year, when they were the subject of a show at Andrew Kreps Gallery inNew York and a monograph by Yve-Alain Bois [see A.i.A.,Jan. ’09]. Emerging in mid-1950s Paris as a gestural abstractionist, Barré went against the grain by working with thin paint. “But,” as he explained to Catherine Millet in 1974, “what bumped up against the taste or style of the period was not so much this lack of thickness as the impression of emptiness, of nonwork.”8 In the early 1960s, he embarked on a series of paintings with stripes and grids (he also used arrow motifs), sometimes made with spray-paint applied through stencils. Even now, the pictures look strikingly preliminary and offhand, like the underpainting of some never-finished work. It’s common to locate the zero-degree of painting in the realm of white or black monochromes, but Barré’s skewed grids and free-floating signs can make Ryman or Reinhardt look positively old masterish. And yet he insisted that his paintings should not be understood as neo-Dada critique. “What I was doing,” he clarified to Millet, “could well appear as antipainting, whereas what I wanted to show, through the traces or points of impact in a clear surface, was what a painting could be if disencumbered of object, color, and form.”9
Unlike Miró and Barré, the American painter Kimber Smith (1922-1981) was not out to destroy or to disencumber his chosen medium, and yet he made paintings, especially toward the end of his life, that hover at the edge of dissolution, that seem radically unfinished. Smith’s career can be divided into two parts: the decade he spent in Paris (1954-64), where he was particularly close to fellow expatriates Shirley Jaffe and Sam Francis, and the years after his return to the U.S., when he divided his time between New York City and the Hamptons. The best recent presentation of Smith’s work was a 2004 retrospective at the Kunstmuseum in Winterthur, Switzerland, which included paintings such as Kirchner’s Garden (1976), Prague (1977) and Nissa (1980). In these works, Smith treated the canvas as a giant sketch pad. He generally combined sets of wavy lines, floating bars of loosely applied paint, some approximately filled-in shapes and lots of empty primed canvas. The marks seem notational, as if this were a preparatory gouache that somehow ended up as the final painting. Smith’s signature—a penciled-in KS that seems as iffy as the composition it claims—identifies these as finished works. In a stylistic fusion that anticipates Heilmann’s informal formalism, Smith splashed Matissean insouciance over the serious-minded legacy of Abstract Expressionism. Reviewing a show of Smith’s paintings for Artforum in 1979, Hal Foster noted the artist’s “apparent nonchalance” and freedom from “anxiety” in relation to his immediate predecessors. Smith, he wrote, “does not fight at the fore, but neither does he fight at the rear; indeed, he fights not at all.”10 Although chiefly concerned with how Smith faced the dilemma of being a second-generation Abstract Expressionist painter at the end of the ’70s, years that were so inhospitable to the style, Foster broaches a much larger issue. It is precisely in declining to “fight” that painters such as Smith, Heilmann and De Keyser make their attacks on received ideas about painting.
Painting and Its Impossibility
What makes painting “impossible”? What makes “great” painting impossible? Perhaps it is a sense of belatedness, a conviction that an earlier generation or artist has left only a few scraps to be cleaned up. Or maybe, at a particular moment, in a particular life and history, nothing could seem more presumptuous or inappropriate—maybe even obscene—than to set out to create a masterpiece. Impossibility can also be the result of the artist making excessive demands on the work, demands to which current practice has no reply. At a certain moment, in a certain studio, it appears that great painting may be impossible, that painting of any kind may be impossible. Nonetheless, for whatever reasons pertaining to a particular painter at a particular time, painting must be done, must go on.
A growing number of younger artists (and a few who have been showing for longer) are entertaining the idea of impossibility in painting. This has led them to reject a sense of finish in their work, or to rely on acts of negation. An Austrian artist based in Vienna, Stefan Sandner works mostly with found texts and documents—scrawled notes, agenda pages and enigmatic sketches—which he paints in a greatly enlarged format onto his large monochrome canvases. Some of the texts are obviously self-referential (“see me before you go!” pleaded one painting in his 2008 show in New York at Museum 52); others recycle inscriptions by famous people (the text of a 2004 diptych is cribbed from Kurt Cobain’s journals), handmade public notices and art-world ephemera (e.g., a playlist for a Stephen Prina performance). The initial sense of disconnect between the triviality of the texts and the way they have been reproduced (often at imposing scale, on faultlessly executed canvases) gives way to a new synthesis. It’s as if conceptualist Joseph Grigely were supplying material to Ellsworth Kelly. (Lest viewers be tempted to pigeonhole him as a textual appropriator, Sandner usually includes at least one textless monochrome painting, often on a shaped canvas, in each of his solo shows.) Rather than turning abstraction into a joke—like Richard Prince, with whom he has been unfavorably compared—Sandner gives it a serious task: to bridge the gap between the everyday and the ideal.
The 20 paintings in Richard Aldrich’s show this winter at Bortolami in New York rehearse nearly that many modernist modes: there were gestural paintings that look like details from late ’50s Gustons, deconstructed canvases, essays in oblique figuration, compositions that verge on pattern painting. Aldrich uses collage elements (pieces of cloth and art reproduction postcards), cuts away sections of canvas to reveal stretcher bars, slathers on oil paint and wax, reduces a composition to a scattering of seemingly random marks, paints copies of his own work. Rather than an exercise in stylistic pastiche, however, or suggesting that the artist were assuming different personae, the show looked very much of a piece, held together by a curious awkwardness, even incompetence, that persisted across the different modes. Accommodating slightly irregular stretchers and a lack of perfect right angles, several canvases are badly wrinkled and folded at the edges. In one work, four thin lengths of snapped-off wood employed as improvised pins hold together two pieces of black cloth. The bottom third of a large portrait is abruptly cut away to reveal the flimsy-looking stretcher underneath. Attached to a large painting featuring postcards of Whistlers from the Frick are four large sheets of paper, one of which is crumpled in a corner and already peeling away from its canvas backing. Another painting looks like a half-finished canvas that some second-string abstractionist had stuck in the racks circa 1960. One way or another, every painting has something “wrong” with it: sloppy craft, outmoded style, impenetrable obscurity. Taken together, these flawed works seem less about offering yet another critique of painting than securing permission for the artist to pursue every potentially interesting idea that crosses his mind.