The Love of Painting: Genealogy of Success Medium
(Sternberg Press, 2018)
Rachel Harrison’s Rubber Maid (2018) is composed of a mixed-bag of materials—acrylic, wood, enamel, cement, polystyrene, and a Rubbermaid mop bucket, complete with wringer—the bright gold textured plank, embellished by pink and blue spray paint, touches a similarly-hued plastic bucket on the floor beside it. Included in the exhibition Painting: Now and Forever, Part III (June 28 – August 17, 2018) across Greene Naftali and Matthew Marks galleries, Harrison’s three-dimensional piece is indicative of what Isabelle Graw terms an “elastic conception of painting.” What has a painting historically been, and what is it now? In her new book The Love of Painting: Genealogy of a Success Medium, art historian, critic, and educator Graw ruminates on Harrison’s paintings, and the work of Martin Kippenberger, Avery Singer, and Marcel Broodthaers, among others, tracing the origins of the medium, its evolution, and its enduring significance.
Graw outlines her arguments in the book’s introduction, “rather than indulging in the love of painting…I attempt to trace the material, art-historical, and sociological reasons for this art form’s specific potential in view of a contemporary capitalist system that has increasingly turned into a digital economy,” and assembles a thematic scaffolding that runs through the critical essays, case studies, and conversations with artists contained within. She asserts that painting has “intellectual capacities,” citing writings by Leon Battista Alberti and David Joselit that discuss the medium’s ability for agency, in addition to utilizing formation (as Michel Foucault ascribed it) to characterize painting’s dialectical general-yet-specific nature. She connects this to materiality’s relationship to affect and the semiotic and commodity aspects of painting. Graw also puts forth her view of “vitalistic fantasies” (how the personality of a painter may be evident in her painting, or how paintings achieve personas) as they relate to a viewer’s engagement with the medium. These examples are offered as possible reasons why painting has continued relevance and renewal within the sphere of contemporary art.
Graw explains that “in recent years, painting has received much more attention in critical writing and theory, and contemporary painting exhibitions have been extremely popular, bolstering an increased interest in the art form.” This is a counterpoint to the idea that painting has lost relevance since the middle of the last century due to the proliferation of performance, video, and installation art. Painting has not only persisted, but morphed and acclimated, as Graw delineates through her evaluations of artists’ practices. From the outset, she states that her writing will focus on the discourse surrounding painting primarily in Western Europe and North America, and that “the ideas and values associated with painting in this book are thus characterized by Western thought, and are not easily applicable to non-Western painting.” It is useful to be told of the scope, though a mention toward a larger reach may have been beneficial.
A collection of Graw’s meditations on this art form, The Love of Painting is organized into six chapters, where each section combines case studies, essays, and conversations thematically in a mixture of previously published and new work. At times the prose is discursive, but this is ultimately helpful to draw out her most salient points regarding vitalism, subjectivity, semiotics, and value.
A co-founder of both the Berlin-based art periodical Texte zur Kunst and the Institute of Art Criticism based in Frankfurt (am Main), Graw draws from a rich cache of critical writing to situate her thinking—the notes at the end of each chapter are plentiful and worth perusing by those interested in her source archive. She engages with the practices of over a dozen artists, including Frank Stella, Édouard Manet, Joan Mitchell, Ellsworth Kelly, Gerhard Richter, Jutta Koether, and many more in her comparisons and appraisals. Conversations with friends Koether, Charline von Heyl, Merlin Carpenter, Wade Guyton, Alex Israel, and herself on the merits of Jana Euler’s work are the most enjoyable to read and are successful at elucidating Graw’s hypotheses on the prominence of painting today. In her conversation with Koether, Graw ponders Joan Mitchell’s style as an “alternation between impulsive action and a considered approach” with a nod to the “conceptual expression” of Kippenberger’s paintings. Koether does not wholly agree, answering “after all, conceptual expression, even if it’s present here, is based on completely different premises.” The close relationships between the writer and her artists are important, as they lend an intimacy to the conversations which allows for honesty and disagreement.
In her essay on Harrison and Isa Genzken, Graw names the figure-like assemblages found in both artists’ practices “quasi-subjects”, which she defines as “objects that behave (or seem to behave) as subjects, as though they are possessed of agency and changeable inner states and capable of acting upon their environment.” The works reflect lives burdened by the struggle to survive in late capitalism, a struggle that, for most artists working today, is all too real. The book culminates on the subject of value and the work of painters in a neoliberal economic context. In an increasingly digital (art) world, painting occupies a particular space that reinforces its appeal and worth.