Magazine article Artforum International

Unfashionably Late

Magazine article Artforum International

Unfashionably Late

Article excerpt

Painting in the '90s has become a tightening circle, a game of diminished rewards and opportunities. Every year a "new" painting is touted; every season brings a "hot" young artist. For all these claims, little work stands out. Midcareer mediocrities receive vast retrospectives, pseudomasters reign at the Met. The few painters we can point to with confidence, we praise excessively, out of a nostalgia for better times (our endless lionizing of Gerhard Richter, for example, or our hesitancy to criticize Robert Ryman, whose process-based abstraction has finally lost its freshness). As for the current fashion favoring painting that explores identity-based content, it has become enough to inscribe a few signifiers of gender, race, or queerness to suggest a frisson of newness, a trend the market has certainly encouraged. But it remains to be seen whether this drive to pictorialize the political will accomplish a convincing integration of content and form.

To paint or not to paint: serious practitioners have faced this dilemma since the early days of Modernism. The alternate routes mapped by Kasimir Malevich and Marcel Duchamp became paradigmatic for the rest of our century. Whereas Duchamp abandoned painting, Malevich conceived the medium as a "zero degree," a blank slate for renewal, opening up the Modernist tradition to come. Ellsworth Kelly is arguably the leading painter still working this latter vein. Yet he has always followed a path that, in retrospect, seems slightly out of sync. Leaving New York for Paris during the late '40s, as the Abstract Expressionists hit their stride, he encountered Jan Arp, Georges Vantongerloo, and other representatives of European abstraction, the very tradition Clement Greenberg considered spent. Kelly found otherwise, developing a unique way of working that combined Dadaist strategies of chance and recombination with an indexical tracing of motifs, a method Yve-Alain Bois has described as anticompositional. …

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