The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2023

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MAY 2023 Issue

Raphael Rubinstein’s The Turn To Provisionality in Contemporary Art: Negative Work

Nothing (Really) To See Here

Raphael Rubinstein
The Turn To Provisionality in Contemporary Art : Negative Work
(Bloomsbury Academic, 2023)

It’s always with massive reserve that one should approach anything like a “turn” at this clogged critical crossroads where “we’re all in” sounds less like a rousing call to destiny than a doleful marching order. In an earlier art world iteration (circa the late 1970s) this kitchen sink aesthetics was referred to as “pluralism.” Since then, a whole range of wild flora has broached the garden gate of art critical propriety past, which, while not immediate cause for a reactionary retrenchment, has led to an ongoing crisis in criticality that few have been able to adequately weed (without replanting perennial political binaries). Fortunately, Raphael Rubinstein’s follow up to his influential 2009 proposal, “Provisional Painting,” is a fascinating study in skeptical digression. Throughout this entire book-length reprisal and reevaluation of his original thesis, Rubenstein expresses the kind of radical existential doubt that he also often refers to in the text as a patent impossibility in today’s “hip to that kind of trip” world. A good example of such is when he declares: “I am very hesitant to stuff all the very diverse artists I discuss into something called “the Rubinstein mode” (it’s already bad enough that I corralled them under the rubric of Provisionality)” Hence, the author’s halting step lends paradoxical drive to his deeply- delved detours into painting’s precarious present.

The book begins with the reiteration of Rubinstein’s pair of articles, “Provisional Painting” (2009) and To Rest Lightly On Earth (2012) first published in Art In America. This usefully sets the reader up to embark with the author on a journey through his critical past with an eye toward its residual relevance. It offers an insightful snapshot of a particular moment in the internationalist artworld when it seemed as if a correlation could be made between an efflorescence of “poor” images and the concurrent US/World economic recession. Artists including Mary Heilmann, Christopher Wool, Albert Oehlen are mentioned as examples of painters whose “abject awkwardness” (Oehlen) and “a nonchalance that seems to border on carelessness” (Heilmann) constitute a collective attitude of preferring not to engage in merely copying painterly precedent as the oft quoted hero of anti-engagement, Melville’s Bartleby, abstained from his employment at copying law. Another section of the book explicitly invokes this by now familiar koan of art and literary recalcitrance via a quotation from Enrique Vila-Matas’s book Bartleby and Co., “only from the negative impulse, from the labyrinth of the No, can the writing of the future appear.” Such an invocation reminds one too of Giorgio Agamben’s comprehensive look into the “divine” potential of artistic refusal in his essay Bartleby, or On Contingency, in which he surmises (via an Aristotelian telos), “Thought that thinks itself neither thinks an object nor thinks nothing. It thinks a pure potentiality (to think and not to think) and what thinks its own potentiality is what is most divine…But the aporia returns as soon as it is dissolved.” Rubinstein, in accordance, revolves his entire argument around a turn to the provisional in contemporary art by a perpetuation of the on-thinking/off-thinking paradox which holds any critical resolution in radical suspension. This is some risky business, as, to paraphrase the pragmatic John Dewey, a philosophy that takes no form will attract no followers. Of course, one could take Dewey to task for basically naming the inherent fallibility of the “empirical present” of the pragmatic encounter, but isn’t that logical fallacy what allows Pragmatism to ever evade easy subsumption as philosophical doctrine? It’s to Rubenstein’s credit that his citation of Varieties of The Provisional, a chapter heading in the book recalling William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, follows a meandering, pragmatic path of irreligious irresolution. In that chapter he corrals four painters, namely Michael Krebber, Albert Oehlen, Rachel Hecker, and Amy Feldman toward establishing a memberless club of precarious means. Krebber might be its most reluctant member as, according to Rubinstein, his desultory stab at painting “tempts his viewers into a dizzying dialectic of meta-irony and insincerity.” From this the author remarkably extrapolates: “Arguably, this is the kind of exhaustive self-consciousness about painting that has contributed to the recent shift to socially engaged figurative painting.” With this last statement Rubinstein skirts assuming the benighted role of a disgruntled artworld gate keeper, risking a “crisis in criticality” for a pre-established foothold in critical futurity. Nevertheless, such lapses in politically appropriate judgement or “leaks” in lockstep socialism as he at times exposes in the text offer a salutary reprieve from a reactionary repression too often augmented by art-market determinism. Skeptics of his own skepticism have painted it otherwise. In the books concluding chapter Rubinstein includes such debate. Citing the art historian Lane Relyea, he recounts Relyea’s characterization of “Provisional Painting” portraying “the neoliberal world in an enchanting light” and, “Being a D.I.Y. artist in the Rubinstein mode, too unique and uncategorizable and ever-changing to be pinned down….can often result in a romantic art, its template the romantic hero’s transcendent quest for leaving behind common social definitions and roles in search of unique paths and triumphs.” One wonders if buried in such reactions are the master’s tools whose use value is only applicable to the last culture war. In other words, how does one ultimately overcome the perpetual advent of reactionary political overcoming without resorting to some alternate, D.I.Y. means at their disposal?

Rubinstein demonstrates throughout this book, via his eclectic mix of art and literary references, that the contingent, provisional, and precarious can emerge in a panoply of guises and aesthetic trajectories. My personal favorite chapter, taken from a previously unpublished manuscript by the author entitled “Painting The Stuckness,” recounts how Samuel Beckett’s relation to painting, via his friendship with the Dutch abstractionist Bram van Velde, amounts to an allegory of the impossibility of expression in an age “when the universe itself had become provisional.” This trope in Beckett’s work has been theorized as being shaped by his post-World War Two experience volunteering in an Irish Red Cross hospital set up amidst the almost absolute ruins of the Normandy town of Saint-Lô. According to Rubinstein (and others such as Marjorie Perloff), this super positioning of a provisional healing structure atop a man-made wasteland gave impetus to Beckett’s stories in Stories and Texts for Nothing and Waiting for Godot. Beckett would write later on Van Velde’s work because he felt a deep kinship with the painter who might “end up giving it [painting] up… if only from exhaustion.” By the end of the chapter Rubenstein reverts to critical self-reprimand by contextualizing a Beckett quote from Worstward Ho with his own invention: “The only antidote (to the banality of a cliché commons and cul-de-sac criticism) is to return to the original sources, to Beckett’s books and plays, to the paintings of Heilmann and Barré and divest yourself of the easy slogans and formulas that have accrued to them. In other words: Forget ‘Fail Again, Fail better’ and forget ‘provisional painting.’” Via such self-effacing means throughout this book the author has managed to erect a transparent monument to the inescapable paradox of thought thinking itself, which makes for itself the most interesting of art.


Tom McGlynn

Tom McGlynn is an artist and writer based in the NYC area.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2023

All Issues