Art Lies, Volume 47, Summer 2005 Page: 15
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The End of Representation
"Painting is dead" was a theory, not a fact. As such, it informed
our experience and interpretation of paintings produced under the
pall of such a fatalistic declaration. In the 1970s and '80s, those who
continued to make paintings-and there were many good artists
who did-risked marginalization and charges of elitism or naivete.
Painting went underground; ostensibly smarter and less commer-
cial, conceptual art prevailed. Then, "What the 1990s seem to have
brought us," according to Christopher Knight, "is the death of "the
death of painting," which no longer functions as an operating princi-
ple, either overt or covert."
Painting's first obituary is attributed to the French artist Paul
Delaroche, who is said to have uttered, "From today, painting is
dead," upon first seeing a Daguerreotype in the late 1830s. Swayed
by photography's capacity for the faithful representation of reality,
could Delaroche have overreacted? Could death-of-painting pro-
ponents be misreading irony for seriousness? Published in 1881,
Gustave Flaubert's Dictionary of Received Ideas-a primer of cliches
and a critique of bourgeois gullibility-defined photography: "Will
make painting obsolete. (See Daguerreotype.)" Implicit in Flaubert's
sarcasm is the naive presumption that painting is, in essence, a
mimetic form of art. Beyond capturing the likenesses of mortals in
portraits, painting's prerogatives have always leaned toward the
imaginative and evocative.
Although painting suffered little in the second half of the nine-
teenth century, its salvation is presumed to have been the inven-
tion of abstraction in the 1910s. Formally, expressively and sensually,
abstraction gave painters something to paint. Freedom from the
demands of representation, however, instilled abstract painting's
first flowering-from Wassily Kandinsky to Ad Reinhardt-with an
overwhelming sense of doubt. Jackson Pollock is said to have denied
the purely abstract nature of his drip paintings and Reinhardt was
the last to defend nonrepresentational painting against the tradi-
tional association of painting with mimesis. "No illusions, no rep-
resentations, no associations," he wrote. "The art of 'figuring' or
'picturing' is not a fine art." 2
After Pop, which is primarily a re-representational art based
on representations of representations, painting's prior options of
representation and abstraction were realigned. Soliciting artists'
responses to the idea that "painting has ceased to be the dominant
artistic medium at the moment," a 1975 issue of Artforum opined:
"The debates between its two major ideologies, abstract and repre-
sentational, have outlived their usefulness." 3 Although representa-
tional painting persisted as a minor art form, the mimetic mandate
shifted conclusively from painting to photography, while abstraction
was split into formal and conceptual approaches, a situation that
continues today. The divide characterized not only painting (includ-
ing Daniel Buren's decidedly anti-formal paintings followed by those of
Blinky Palermo and Olivier Mosset, for example) but non-medium-spe-
cific art forms, such as conceptualism. Conceptual artists stressed the
fact that their art works were abstract, in the manner of language, rather
than representational or figurative. At the same time, they were ada-
mantly opposed to formalist painting, despite its adherence to abstrac-
tion.4 Personified by Clement Greenberg and Kenneth Noland, formalism
was rejected for its emphases on perception, aesthetics and taste; "It's
a mindless art," wrote Joseph Kosuth in 1969.5
Perpetuating Duchamp's distinction between retinal and conceptual
art, and his association of retinal art with the slur, common in Duchamp's
time, "bete comme un peintre" (stupid as a painter), conceptual art-
ists claimed intelligence for themselves. "Brice Marden's paintings are
kinda dumb," declared Mel Ramsden, a member of the conceptual col-
laborative Art & Language. Dismissing an essay on Marden's profundity
by Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, Ramsden accused the critic of "a rationaliza-
tion or a naturalization of the parameters of media, museum and market.
I think Gilbert-Rolfe's idea of this bullshit art-criticism is that it serve as
a deodorant, preventing us smelling the stink of modernism," by which
he meant formalism. Ramsden's attack was supported by an interview
with Marden, who said, "A painter's just this odd weird person who has
to do this dumb thing called painting." 6
Gilbert-Rolfe is no intellectual slouch but his affinity for Marden (bol-
stered by his own practice as an abstract painter) situated his critical
interpretations on the opposite end of the theoretical spectrum from
Benjamin H. D. Buchloh and his support of Gerhard Richter. In his 1981
essay, Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression: Notes on the Return
of Representation in European Painting, Buchloh hammered away at
the authoritarian, patriarchal and bourgeois values of contemporary
ARTL!ES Summer 2005 15
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Bryant, John & Gupta, Anjali. Art Lies, Volume 47, Summer 2005, periodical, 2005; Houston, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth228012/m1/17/: accessed October 23, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; .