Mary Boochever
David Diao
Stephen Ellis
Mary Heilmann
Ika Huber
Stephen Westfall

It is more than a simple historical irony thanks to which even the most clamant exponents of the century’s avant-gardes, those whose work was seen by others or even by themselves as “anti-art,” have succeeded above all in expanding the resources of art by opening up the range of its materials, its techniques, its critical vocabulary, in short its possibilities in every sense. At the same time, artistic avant-gardism, like the Leninist idea of the leading role of the party to which it offers a partial correspondence, can today appear as little more than an instance of the most arrant nostalgia.
As the critique of political economy now begins to register the loss of any Archimedean point outside capitalism from which to displace it as a totality and instead must seek the seams along which a molecular disturbance within the system might effect critical transformations, so art seeks neither some impossible place “beyond” itself – not even that small – time out proffered by the pinched academic ironies so common in the mid-to-late eighties – any more than it can rest easy in some ‘kinder, gentler,” neo-conservative complacency with its own firnitations (here one might cite certain practitioners of the so-called New Romantic Landscape). Rather it demands a more determined examination of the contradictions, not so much of its own semiotics (which have already been ransacked beyond all patience) but of its own ontology.
It is more than a simple historical irony thanks to which even the most clamant exponents of the century’s avant-gardes, those whose work was seen by others or even by themselves as “anti-art,” have succeeded above all in expanding the resources of art by opening up the range of its materials, its techniques, its critical vocabulary, in short its possibilities in every sense. At the same time, artistic avant-gardism, like the Leninist idea of the leading role of the party to which it offers a partial correspondence, can today appear as little more than an instance of the most arrant nostalgia. As the critique of political economy now begins to register the loss of any Archimedean point outside capitalism from which to displace it as a totality and instead must seek the seams along which a molecular disturbance within the system might effect critical transformations, so art seeks neither some impossible place “beyond” itself – not even that small – time out proffered by the pinched academic ironies so common in the mid-to-late eighties – any more than it can rest easy in some ‘kinder, gentler,” neo-conservative complacency with its own firnitations (here one might cite certain practitioners of the so-called New Romantic Landscape). Rather it demands a more determined examination of the contradictions, not so much of its own semiotics (which have already been ransacked beyond all patience) but of its own ontology.

In a famous and misunderstood passage, Harold Rosenberg spoke of the Abstract Expressionists’ discovery of the canvas as “an arena in which to act.” His (and their) insight remains valid, at least to the extent to which we can purge it of a certain prejudicial sense of melodrama. Rather than an arena for action, we can simply say that painting is a delimited space in which an event takes place. What kind of paradoxes, I would like to suggest that what transpires in painting is the appearance of a disappearance. Let’s take some signal examples. In 1988 the Metropolitan Museum displayed, thanks to a loan from Barbara Piasecki Johnson, Mantegna’s Descent of Christ into Limbo. As is conventional for this scene, the gateway to Limbo is the mouth of a cave. What is significant for us is the nature of that cave: not simply a hole, it is truly the entry into a vast and irrational (because measureless) space, a space greater than that of the picture itself, a sublime space -or rather than an entry into such a space, perhaps, it is instead the entry of that space into painting. If this is illusionism, it is one that devours itself, that turns itself inside out. Even more so is the late work of Velazquez, also recently exhibited. When we see a portrait such as that of Juan de Pareja, the incredible solidity and reality of the depicted figure draws us in to view it more closely, but as we do so the image dissolves into the very matter of the medium itself. Velazquez depicts not merely the flesh but also its evanescence in time. In the cubist works of Picasso and Braque, lately seen at the Museum of Modern Art, signs and fragments of space continually elicit their own appearance and disappearance, so that the moment of dissolution can no longer be isolated as a part of the picture, like Mantegna’s cave, or even as a moment in the process of its viewing, as with Velazquez, but is dispersed throughout the picture and throughout one’s perception of it; indeed this “anthology of destructions,” in Picasso’s phrase, has become identical with painting as such.

This is the great tradition of painting, and it is one that in our time has been maintained primarily (but not exclusively) through abstraction. It touches the work of Mary Boochever, David Diao, Stephen Ellis, Mary Heilmann, Ika Huber, and Stephen Westfall at various points. Rolfe once wrote of one of Boochever’s paintings, “as something which cannot possibly be entirely present.” Diao’s paintings may be elaborate in-jokes about the history of modernism at one level, but at another they are eulogies to a sense of touch so refined as to translate that history into a kind of fairy tale now faintly heard as one falls into the sweetest sleep. And his is only the most obvious example here of how a highly intellectualized, highly sensualized nostalgia for painting as a sequence of prestigious historical practices can lead to a reclamation of some of its conventions not on the basis of their credibility, but of their fictiveness. The grand destructions of modernism having been definitively performed, there remains the possibility of rigging up creations out of the fragments. But what is created is still the sublime space into which something appears to be disappearing. In Westfall’s, case, for instance, this will often be a color that seems to have disappeared behind another color, some light disappearing through other light. Ellis’s paintings seem to be about a process of measuring or mapping something whose fluid nature is released by the very act of trying to set out its boundaries, which are thereby blurred, just as with Huber light devours the matter that subtends it. With Heilmann and Boochever, the constantly signifying imprint of some painterly activity (extending, in Boochever’s case particularly, to the very construction of the object to be painted) leaves traces suspended in the space between the action that produced them and the meaning toward which they tend. In none of these cases is painting primarily a sign for painting, as with “neo-geo”; it is rather a world where things come into existence in order to depart, joining a silence in which the memories of many paintings murmur.

Barry Schwabsky

Emily Selvin

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