The Painting of Modern Life

By Charlesworth, J. J. | Art Monthly, November 2007 | Go to article overview

The Painting of Modern Life


Charlesworth, J. J., Art Monthly


The Hayward London October 4 to December 30

On the evidence of 'The Painting of Modern Life', reports of the death of painting have clearly been exaggerated. It is still going strong, even if it has had to swallow the photographic idiom to which it was supposed to be antithetical. The first major exhibition curated by Ralph Rugoff in his new post as director of the Hayward puts together a tight history of how postwar painting has variously acknowledged and come to terms with the presence of the photographic image as a dominant mass-cultural form. Highly selective, it groups 22 artists from the early 60s to the present day, from the canonical to the coolly contemporary, broadly phased in decade-periods of activity. It is a confident showcase, a concentrated celebration of painting's assimilation and exploitation of photography's resources, with a hundred paintings whose variety and impact are likely to be a crowd-pleaser for the Hayward. Yet, as is often the case with historical shows that hook into the contemporary in order to prove some less than evident and nigglingly conservative notion of continuity or relevance with the past, 'The Painting of Modern Life' comes up with a somewhat dehistoricised and fenced-off account of its subject, a seamless and self-justifying narrative that leaves a lot unsaid.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

There is a problem, initially, with the overly canonical reverence paid to those artists who are set up as the painterly innovators of this new acknowledgement of photography. Andy Warhol and Gerhard Richter are the authority figures here, accompanied by Vija Celmins, Richard Artschwager, Malcolm Morley, and somewhat incidentally, Michelangelo Pistoletto, with David Hockney and Richard Hamilton offering some problematic counterpoints to the exhibition's generally dogmatic pursuit of paintings-that-look-very-much-like-photographs. But you know a canonical canard when you see one. Rugoff opens his catalogue essay with the line: 'In the early 1960s, at a time when abstraction still largely dominated serious contemporary art, a small group of artists quietly introduced a major turn in the history of painting.' It may share its narrative technique with the opening titles of Star Wars, and that's not surprising, given that the elite selection effectively mythologises a small group of artists at the expense of a bigger picture of the common concerns of the period. Indeed, Rugoff goes on to declare that this roll-call of artists were 'working independently of one another', with a tone that insinuates that they not only somehow all knew of each other by some odd process of geographic osmosis, but also knew what history would think of them in the future.

This may be a modest complaint; the works of Richter, Celmins, Artschwager and Morley are all still startling in their directness, in how they effortlessly enact Rugoff's justified argument for a painting that can interrupt the kind of codified subjectivity that is encouraged by the seductive immediacy of the photographic image. From Richter onwards, the show seems to argue, painting could reclaim some sense of cultural agency by merely 'getting in the way' of our reception of photography, decelerating and obstructing our complacent acceptance of a reality which is always anyway a fiction.

But this new status for painting--an ethics of cultural interruption via a rhetoric of visual interruption--means that 'The Painting of Modern Life' sticks somewhat ungenerously to a narrow visual range which, if one was to categorise it ungenerously, would boil down to blurry paintings on one hand, and high-key super-realist paintings on the other. And what is interesting is that for all its emphasis on photography, the show is curiously little interested in the notion of realism. The term appears perhaps once in the catalogue texts, which is odd if one considers how charged discussions of realism were in the 60s and early 70s. …

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