2: Contemporary Painting: Avant-Garde or Not? Part 2
All throughout the twentieth century, traditional painting never completely died out. It was still being taught up into the seventies by aging academics, but the art itself was ignored, marginalized and denied critical legitimacy by the reigning art establishment. Then, in the 1980s, some figurative artists saw in postmodernism’s opposition to modernism a foothold for them to regain critical legitimacy. When the “New Spirit in Painting” show opened at London’s Royal Academy in 1981, many defenders of the newly emerging postmodernism back then worried that this defense of realism and “humanism” would set off a reactionary wave of anti-modernism within postmodernism. The curators were surely looking to provoke debate when they wrote in the catalog for the show that although “non-figurative” (read “abstract”) art was valid, it was “unthinkable that the representation of human experiences, in other words people and their emotions, landscapes and still-lifes could be forever excluded from painting. They must in the long run again return to the center of the argument of painting…” (A New Spirit of Painting, p. 12)
This statement caused a backlash among many postmodern critics. A decade later, Paul Wood and Charles Harrison wrote:
“’Experience’ has come to be seen as the coded product of social ideology…If the aim of the re-invocation of humanism is the recovery of stability - the recovery of something shared and universal which is supposed to have been questioned or threatened - how can this be other than conservative in nature, a ‘call to order’ of a kind encountered in earlier phases of modern art during periods of social retreat? It seems that conventional figuration cannot do other than replay conventional misrepresentations of what it is to be human in bourgeois society.” (Wood, 232-233)
In 1982, the year after the British “New Spirit” show opened, Newsweek covered the new phenomenon: “The Revival of Realism,” with a realist painting of a nude on the cover. However, according to James E. Cooper, the article inside Newsweek focused “on what appeared in 1982 to be the raison d’etre of these new realists, [which is:] realism couched in a postmodern stance.” (Cooper, 2) Interestingly enough, most of the figurative artist introduced in Newsweek, including Chuck Close, Philip Pearlstein and Larry Rivers, were not traditionalists. Even so, just to make sure that atavism was not what “realism” meant, the author of the Newsweek article, Mark Stevens, cautioned 1982 artists that the art of “cornball humanists” such as Andrew Wyeth (denied a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that year because the director threatened to resign over the proposal) was despicable. Stevens further warned this new crop of realists not to drift into “seductive nostalgia” lest they be seen as “heirs to those detestable academicians of the nineteenth century, while postmodern painters such as Julian Schnabel, Georg Baselitz and Sandro Chia … continue to wage the vanguard battle for the serious values of high art.” (Cooper, 2)
It was a decade in which realists had to persevere against outright dismissal. In 1983, senior art critic John Russell of the New York Times wrote the infamous quip: “Realism, like influenza, is always with us,” and branded realist artists as mere “illustrators” not discursive enough to qualify as fine art. (Cooper, 8) Such prejudices have slowly become less vocal as the decade passed. Some artists began to rediscover the secrets of the old masters before they were lost. One of them was Richard Lack, the founder of Collins movement, who coined the term “classical realism” in 1982.
The point is this: Richter shares more in common, politically and philosophically, with artists of his generation like Chuck Close and Philip Pearlstein, than he does with Collins. Richter, like Pearlstein and Close, values abstraction equally with realism. Collins does not paint abstracts and has no interest in postmodernism. Collins is precisely what Clement Greenberg feared and loathed: an unapologetically traditional academic painter. Collins and his colleagues are indeed heirs to what Stevens above called, “those detestable academicians of the nineteenth century,” and proud of it. Collins, eschewing the postmodernist category in a recent interview said:
“I’m sympathetic with parts of the modern program, especially when you compare it to postmodernism. I’m very fond of the modernists’ idea of the art object as a powerful thing: that art is transformative to both the artist and the viewer, that art experiences could cause emotion. One of the negative things about postmodernism is that it’s just smart-ass, and that’s not something I’m interested in. It’s not… purely political, but it makes a smart political stance that’s not about the intrinsic quality of the art. …I believe in a traditionalist approach to art. Even the modernists valued the art object in itself. One of the misfortunes with postmodernism is a loss of qualitative value.” (Panero, Interview with Jacob Collins, 2)
Gerhard Richter’s Painting
At first glance “Barn” and “Meadowland,” by Gerhard Richter look like typical warm, inviting, bucolic landscapes, but examined more closely certain qualities begin to indicate a different picture. Traditional landscapes, such as those by 19th century painter Albert Bierstadt, welcome the viewer’s gaze and invite the eye to search about the countryside and rest here and there. However, in Richter’s, there is some barrier that bars us from being fully invited into the pictures, something more than just the picture plane that separates what’s “inside” from the viewer outside.
Richter’s photo-painting has a subtle tinge of the Ersatz, an artificiality that makes the familiar somehow strange. The images presented to the viewer aren’t paintings of nature. They are hand-painted enlargements of photographs of nature. Richter first began calling his photo-paintings “Capitalist Realism” in 1963 as a satiric label for pop art (as opposed to Socialist Realism, a political propaganda art proper to an earlier era). In both the above paintings Richter intentionally mimics the flattening and slightly off coloration of a tourist’s snapshot, and presents them in a nearly square format like a Polaroid. The color is intentionally unnatural; the blue appears more like Kodak than Fuji- but never like the actual sky. The sky in “Barn” is vertically lighter in the center and darker and more saturated toward the left and right margins, something not found in nature or in paintings from nature. Richter deliberately copied the photo’s distortion to make it plain his source was a photo rather than nature. He and his biographers have explained that these series of paintings were specifically created to negate photography by painting photographs as photography was thought to negate painting by rendering it redundant.
In Richter’s “Meadowland” there is an overly dark, menacing central tree. The contrast is high in the center most likely because the built-in meter of the camera that took the snapshot that Richter used as his source had over-adjusted for the light patch of gray landscape directly next to the tree. A built-in flaw of photography, cameras often under- or over-expose areas where high contrasts of light and dark occur near each other. Had Richter been on location, painting this scene en plein air, his eyes could have discerned the real colors and mixed his paints to match the local colors of both the shadow of the tree and the light gray-green tone of the far hills caused by aerial perspective, but because he was copying a photograph, he did not. He surrendered the gathering of visual information to an unthinking machine rather than his eye deliberately because, as he says: “My landscapes are not only beautiful, or nostalgic, with a Romantic or classical suggestion of lost Paradises, but above all 'untruthful.' By 'untruthful,' I mean the glorifying way we look at Nature. Nature, which in all its forms is always against us, because it knows no meaning, no pity, no sympathy, because it knows nothing and is absolutely mindless, the total antithesis of ourselves.” (Gilmore, 396)
The two landscape paintings above confirm that Richter doubts nature’s conventional interpretation. He thinks the rolling hills of the rural countryside are a conceptual trap. He does not find proof of mankind’s original paradise in images of land and sky as the American Hudson River School painters did. He considers nature to be worse than the mindless machine that takes its picture for he believes the romantic image captured by the camera lies and deceives. For Richter, the artist thinks and nature does not. The artist, not the subject, makes the statement, especially when the artist’s statement is a dialectical negation of that statement. The viewer tries to invest it with meaning, but Richter’s photo-paintings simply duplicate the non-narrative “reports” of random snapshots. He is presenting random visual non-statements- and he means what he says (or doesn’t say) as strong as he can. Richter liked this quote from John Cage: “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.” (Gilmore, ibid)
One of Richter’s trademarks is his characteristic blur. This is more evident in his figurative work than in the landscapes. This effect exaggerates elements from photographs: motion blur and the look of an out of focus camera lens. It also exaggerates how trained painters treat edges. Only amateur painters leave sharp or unfinished edges around objects. In the traditional practice of oil painting, edges are softened and blended until figures “sit” on the background, but never taken to the extreme that Richter takes it in his blurring. Richter’s technique is nevertheless a likable and beautiful effect as can be seen in the above figure painting, “Torso.” In the painting, the blur sets up another dichotomous relationship, between what can be seen and what cannot be seen but only felt, disrupting conventional mimesis and creating extra-visual meaning with dissemblance.
The two primary features that identify “Torso” as a modernist or postmodern work are the cropping used and the body language of the model. The extra severe cropping may not have come from a “found” photograph. Richter could have edited the model’s extremities in the painting. Cropping her hands and feet as shown is not that unusual as a compositional device, but no artist prior to the twentieth century would have cropped through the middle of a model’s face so viewers couldn’t see her eyes. Cropping first shows up in painting about 140 years ago as painters such as Degas, after seeing cropping in photos, began cropping hands and feet to enhance effects of realism in their paintings. Cropping of heads, however, was considered a compositional error until far into the twentieth century. Richter crops everything to express anonymity and the vulnerability of the young naked female. Cropping her eyes, head, feet and hands objectifies her and denies her an identity; depersonalized, she becomes nothing more than a female body. Cropping all her extremities makes her the visual equivalent of a basket case. This also accounts for her withdrawing into a fetal position, denying the viewer access to her breasts. We can’t get to know her and it looks like she does not want to know us. Instead of inviting our gaze, she covers up and the viewer feels gazing at her violates her space.
Jacob Collins’ Painting
Now let us compare Richter’s landscapes with two by Jacob Collins, the small 2004 canvas, “Fire Island Sunset," and the large Hudson River School inspired 2008 painting, “The Hen Islands.” Whereas Richter’s paintings beckon the viewer to stroll on Old World German farmlands that suddenly deconstruct into dialectics, driving the viewer from an ersatz paradise to ponder the depths of existential despair, Collins offers the viewer the real thing: the contemplative tranquility of the woods of home. Even though these woods are illusions made of paint, the viewer trusts that human eyes saw the actual woods depicted and their images have been painted with human hands for the simple purpose of delighting other human eyes.
Collins successfully captures the “Dutch” quality of light found in our Long Island sunsets in “Fire Island Sunset.” No buildings, boats nor other signs of human life interfere with the viewer’s gaze upon timeless serenity. Only sea, sky, earth and vegetation exist in this breathless moment that will not last long, for the sun soon sets and everything turns twilight. This rarefied moment is composed only of blocks of colored light and dark masses. Rays of light stream towards us from the sun. Yet Collins maintains a balance between ideal beauty and the real world. The decay of the marshland and the overcast sky just above the sun add a note of believability to let us know this is no depiction of heaven but the overlooked phenomena of our real lives.
According to Stephen Doherty, “The difference between looking at a photograph and a great painting is similar to seeing a plate of food and eating it. One tells us what we are looking at while the other provides a fulfilling experience.” (Doherty, 1) With that in mind let us turn to Collins’ large painting, “The Hen Islands from Eastholm.”
Collins studied the methods of the original Hudson River School painters to create this painting. He took months of time making careful observations, doing dozens of plein air studies and charcoal sketches of trees, branches rocks and skies. Collins did an excellent job in coming close to capturing the natural world in the true observational realist way. He tried to assimilate everything, even the reverence the original masters had for nature. The painting is beautiful, but in reviving the original school’s reverence he may not have been completely successful, because, as Panero noted, “The original Hudson River School painters did not go into the wilderness to paint illustrations of the natural world. They went to paint the God they saw manifest in the natural world.” Then, to highlight the difference in commitment between the original artists and modern New Yorkers like Collins who vacation in the Catskills, Panero quoted James Fenimore Cooper’s character, Natty Bumppo, as saying, “…none know how often the hand of God is seen in the wilderness but them that rove it for a man’s life.” That is why Collins cannot completely fill Thomas Cole’s shoes. (Panero, Hudson River Schooled, 12)
Clement Greenberg considered any return to realism after abstraction as highly suspect of commercial motives. However, he railed most loudly against any “reactionary” tendency in painting that might give comfort to middlebrow (bourgeois) taste. He detested any hint of romanticism or sentimentality. He considered techniques like blending brushstrokes, muting colors in shadows, or any other adherence to the rules of chiaroscuro set down since Raphael and taught by the 19th century academies as “dissembling.” Any revival of romantic aesthetics was for him “kitsch.”
Blended brushstrokes, soft, muted shadows and the rules of chiaroscuro are precisely what Collins uses successfully in paintings like “Hen Islands,” (and in his many figurative paintings that pay homage to Nineteenth century academicians like William Bouguereau). He does this not to appease a social class, but to return fine art production to its original aesthetic purpose: beauty. Art that panders to public taste (and it does exist) has no such integrity as Collins does. An anti-modern hero, Collins has successfully negated Greenberg.
Today, Collins has critical defenders. Roger Kimball, regular contributor and co-publisher of the conservative The New Criterion has consistently championed Collins and the classical realist movement. His review of the new 2008 “Hudson River School” paintings at the Hirsch & Adler Modern was favorable and he has written books on it. Kimball predicts that since Collins has been growing and producing better work each year, he will become even more relevant in the future.
Yet other art critics trained in yesterday’s rhetoric still don’t get it. One example is Professor Tomas Kulka of Tel Aviv University. His 1996 book, “Kitsch and Art” comes from a more modernist than postmodern aesthetic, but his criticism still has teeth today: He wrote: “Works in the academic style [like Cabanel’s “Birth of Venus”] could be considered kitsch only if they were produced after academic art had been superceded and rendered irrelevant for the contemporary art world.” (Kitsch and Art, p. 63) If Kulka is right, it means Collins, who continues to paint in the French academic tradition is not an artist at all, but a producer of kitsch- or worse- irrelevant.
Another more recent example of such criticism comes from the artist and art critic, Maureen Mullarkey. In her article “Nothing Left to Hide” for the New York Sun, (October 12, 2006), she reserved some particularly sarcastic language for an exhibition of Collins’ figurative paintings shown at New York’s Art Students League:
“He [Jacob Collins] is an enthusiastic evangelist for a secular revival that preaches the gospel of traditional art practices. Known as Classical Realism, it contains neither classicism nor realism, as Courbet understood it. Instead, it promises deliverance from modernism and restoration of art as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. (Pius IX might sympathize.)
Realism is not a style but a response to life, its content and condition. Classical Realism, by contrast, is a contemporary style with retro appeal — like Chrysler's PT Cruiser. Though addressed to a different demographic, it is as much a marketing phenomenon as Thomas Kinkade's Paintings of Light. Mr. Collins, like Mr. Kinkade, casts a line to audiences who see themselves as a chosen remnant recovering a lost ark.
An initial publicist's blurb took care to note that the artist ‘resides in an Upper East Side carriage house.’
The cue is irrelevant to painting but crucial to the self-conscious aura of staged refinement that is the real content of the work.
‘Anna,’ ‘Candace,’ and coyly posed and lighted couples are McNudes for the carriage trade. This is fastidious erotica to go with the Jado bidet and high thread-count linens from Yves Delorme. Good living and good nipples are the classic combo in ‘Reclining Nude’ (2006). The nudes are less a counter to the vacancy of contemporary culture than an extension of it.” (Mullarkey, 1)
The outrageous, the shocking, the ugly, the loud and the scandalous have become typical of modern painting since Gustave Courbet. His frank “realism,” was ironically the first avant-garde art movement, the first to scandalize an audience seeking art depicting an allegorical or mythological idealism. The “shock of the new” became an expected part of the artist’s statement ever since. That is why we should especially note that Roger Kimball in his article called Collins’, “Hen Islands” a “quiet” masterpiece. This new realism is not loud or ugly. Classical realism, repairing the rift between the two warring factions of the 1850s, realism and idealism, between “ugly” truth and “ideal” beauty, represents the first “post-avant-garde” art movement. Some art critics like Mullarkey continue to find it too uncritical and not discursive enough to be real art, but such opposition always accompanies a genuine paradigm shift.
In the early years of the twenty-first century, we find contemporary art in flux, with many competing theories and methods vying for the attention of the art-interested in our society. Defenders of classical realism feel the art establishment is still in denial about the existence of their revival because it doesn’t fit current theories of art. They may be right. In a city like New York, the scant media coverage of Collins and his ilk could be proof of bias. Perhaps in the near future, if more scholarship is written about this new trend, the establishment will come around.
On the other hand, classical realism should not seek to supplant current theory, but only ask to be considered of equal validity with postmodernism by the art establishment. Some, such as Fred Ross of the Art Renewal Center promote classical realism by denying the legitimacy of abstract, modernist and postmodern art. His “web site is… a platform that Ross and his supporters use to extol the virtues of academic artists and castigate nearly everything associated with modern art,” says Mark Roth. (Roth, 42) Trashing Picasso, Pollock, Warhol and Koons as frauds and phonies only fuels the fires of a culture war between the right and the left within art. What the Art Renewal Center is doing is providing cultural conservatives ammunition in an arms race with the art establishment. When it comes to scholarship, it is highly imprudent to divide art along political lines: if there were ever a place where nonpartisanship should reign, it should be in the arts.
We live in an eclectic, pluralist, multi-ethnic, multicultural world. Even though all art lovers are passionate about what we love, we should try to listen and understand each other’s views and tastes as much as possible. It has become increasingly untenable that any art theory should dominate and dictate their one-sided view and suppress argument for competing viewpoints.
There is a worsening, terrible flaw in current American politics that cannot be allowed in art: disrespect for the other guy. We see political pundits on our televisions heat up their polemics with increasingly vitriolic personal attacks: demonizing persons of opposing political views as morons or enemies. This should not be allowed to permeate the sanctuary of art.
Yet the art establishment remains as one sided and intolerant of the traditionalists as the Art Renewal Center is of them. Celebration of the values humans hold in common remains conspicuously absent in theater, literature and the visual arts. Skepticism and criticism are the rule. The art world is rife with critical statement- with artists bashing institutions from museums to religions. This is what makes celebratory painting like Collin’s refreshing: he offers a traditional alternative to all the abstracts, installations and other nontraditional artwork out there. In the quote below, British writer Ian Curtiss talks about playwrights, but the same observation can be applied to painters:
“I tend to think…in terms of plays that celebrate our values rather than denigrate them. The Greeks had Aeschylus celebrating society and Sophocles decrying it. Shakespeare celebrated the divine order of the universe, while Webster probed the rotten entrails of society. In Edwardian England, J.M. Barrie celebrated, while George Bernard Shaw denigrated.” (Dreher, 1)
The imbalance noted by Curtiss makes classical realist painting valuable to genuine functional discourse. For too long, the theme of patriotic celebration has found no place in the arts, leaving only a boring consensus of “critical” correctness. Both approaches produce valid art. The suppression of one by the other is untenable.
If postmodernism, taken as a cohesive whole represents a thesis, than perhaps classical realism in art and contemporary Thomism in philosophy, taken together, may represent its logical antithesis. If this could be shown conclusively to be the case, then the answer to the problem is pure and simple Hegelian dialectic: the tension between the two is resolved by means of synthesis.
Therefore, celebration of our culture should be valued equally with its critique. Classical academic painting celebrating traditional values should be given the same media coverage that The New York Times devotes to installations in Chelsea galleries- for how can celebration threaten criticism? Without doubt, the critique of Western Civilization will continue, for our culture bears responsibility for sins of intolerance, racisms, sexism, and genocide- and we need to know about it. However, Western culture deserves praise for its contributions as well as criticism for its failures. Along with negatives it has given us great positives; the same culture that gave us Hitler gave us Mozart.
So let us transcend the false dichotomies of politics: let us salute the flag with the conservatives and burn the flag with the leftists. Let us criticize the ugly and celebrate the beautiful (and vice-versa). Let us be proud and ashamed of our country, our religion, our culture, our race, our gender, and our art: proud of the great things and ashamed of the terrible things. The right to argue respectfully is vital to intellectual health and must never be suppressed. When it comes to art, let us love the Mona Lisa with and without Duchamp’s moustache. The right to celebrate tradition must be perfectly balanced and placed on an equal footing with the right to deconstruct and dismantle tradition, for without dialog there is no discourse.
Robert R. Mehling
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