Art of Endurance: Charles Saatchi Has Been Busy Ridding His Gallery of Messy Beds, Dead Dads and Sliced Cows to Make Way for Large, Colourful Canvases. So Will Painting Triumph in 2005? Richard Cork Is Not So Sure

Article excerpt

The other week, I got a call from someone at the publisher Jonathan Cape. Would I like to write the catalogue essay for a big, ambitious cycle of exhibitions that Charles Saatchi is planning for 2005? Intrigued, I asked what the mega-collector had in mind. The answer astonished me. Saatchi is moving all the Damien Hirsts, Tracey Emins and other Brit artists out of his palatial lair at County Hall in London. In their place, a three-part show will mark his gallery's 20th anniversary by celebrating "The Triumph of Painting". Saatchi wanted me to write a wide-ranging essay, placing the primacy of painting today in the context of its role over the past century or so.

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I told the man from Cape that it was impossible for me to oblige. Sounding puzzled, he asked why. I explained that, throughout my career, I had supported an open attitude to the array of possible media available for contemporary artists. As a young critic on the London Evening Standard in the 1970s, I had no time for the old idea that painting was pre-eminent. Plenty of readers felt affronted by the idea that "art" could legitimately explore the potential of photography, film, video, performance and so on. But artists were already producing powerful work by investigating these alternative forms, which have enriched art ever since.

Despite accusations levelled against me by diehard champions of pigment on canvas, I also admired a diverse range of contemporary painters--Howard Hodgkin as much as Robert Ryman. Yet I saw no reason why they should be regarded as superior to artists working in other ways. I certainly couldn't understand why so many people denounced the new media as "not art".

When E H Gombrich wrote his classic The Story of Art more than half a century ago, he declared in the introduction that "there is really no such thing as art. There are only artists." It was a sane and liberating remark, rooted in an awareness of the transformations undergone by "art" ever since image-making began in the prehistoric era. Gombrich's remark turned out to be prophetic, too. The late 20th century was a momentous period of widening directions taken by experimental young practitioners.

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In the early 1980s, there was a concerted attempt to reassert the supremacy of painting. Its most spectacular manifestation in London was a monumental exhibition at the Royal Academy called "A New Spirit in Painting". This contained a few impressive young artists, most notably the German Anselm Kiefer, but too many were uncomfortably close to blustering, latter-day expressionists. Their work has not lasted well, and most of them failed to develop in satisfying ways. Dealers and collectors who paid exorbitant prices for their work must have regretted the extravagance ever since. The most outstanding individuals in "A New Spirit"--Philip Guston, Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud--were far older and could hardly be hailed as proponents of a fresh impetus in art.

Plenty of other avenues were opened up during the 1980s, in many cases by artists who did not flourish until the following decade. As Saatchi was quick to recognise, a new generation wasted little time in stamping the British art scene of the 1990s with a startlingly different identity. Powerful painters could be counted among them, including Peter Doig, Gary Hume and Jenny Saville. On the whole, however, young artists preferred to move between a diverse range of media. …