Friday, June 1, 2007

Blogging October 1 - The End of Painting in 1981

“The End of Painting”
Volume 016: Art World Follies, Spring 1981
Douglas Crimp

Why has painted reached an end? Crimp teases and hints at possibilities throughout his landmark essay. He quotes extensively from Daniel Buren’s [pictured] most polemic moments, Gerhard Richter’s most enigmatic (“… basically painting is pure idiocy.”), and William Rubin, who broached the subject while head of MoMA’s Department of Painting and Sculpture in 1974.

Rubin attempts to categorize and understand the break: “Perhaps the dividing line will be seen as between those works which essentially continue an easel painting concept that grew up associated with bourgeois liberal democratic life and was involved with the development of private collections as well as the museum concept – between this and, let us say, Earthworks, Conceptual works and related endeavors, which want another environment (or should want it) and, perhaps, another public.”

The reader is left to believe that today’s avant-garde has successfully foreclosed on the legacy of modernism, rendering its easel paintings dead. It’s an optimistic vision of revolution. Of course, the last twenty-five years have repudiated Crimp’s (and Rubin’s) theory. Indeed, it’s particularly ironic that they write immediately preceding the explosion in painting (speculation) of the 1980s that continues, largely unabated, into the present day.

To discern why his theory failed, it's necessary to see how he understands the twin forces he sees motivating the rise of modernism in the nineteenth century – socio-economics (the triumph of bourgeois democracy) and technology (the creation of photography) – which he suggests underpin today’s shift. There are clear, troubling breaks in this parallel.

Unlike the nineteenth century, which saw the development of class-consciousnesses throughout European society and the concomitant cultivation of “compromise institutions” like museums meant to align the interests of the bourgeoisie with the masses, there is no such rupture today. Bourgeois economic (and political) power has become only more deeply entrenched in late era capitalism. Class consciousness - if it has made any move at all - has only receded. Elite capital has enjoyed success, as evidenced by the incredible proliferation of hedge funds and private equity firms (to say nothing of art consultants) used to sustain and grow bourgeois wealth.

On the technological front, despite obvious advancements in communication, Crimp can’t cite a destabilizing innovation that has brought about a systematic shift in thought. That’s because there haven’t been any epistemic-worthy events to foment such a change. Photography - the great medium of modernity - has taken on an aura (even if only of a type) as original prints enter the best collections at the highest prices.


Painting is alive and well. To argue that even some of its contemporary manifestations aren't interesting and worthwhile is simple stubbornness and naivety. If there has been an epistemic shift in high art, something I wouldn’t dispute, it’s in the content of painting, not their relation to the marketplace. Crimp wants to use Foucault to declare easel painting dead. He should just be happy that the subject has changed.

With that said, the real joy in reading “The End of Painting” is witnessing Crimp’s methodical, almost joyous takedown of critic Barbara Rose, whom he casually paints as a dilettante and ties mercilessly to the pages of Vogue; Richard Hennessy whom he portrays as her lackey; and Frank Stella (Rose's husband!), at whom he hurls just about every insult he can generate – claiming that each of his late works “... reads as a tantrum, shrieking and sputtering that the end of painting has not come.” ["End of Painting Stella" above, The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, 1959. "Sputtering Stella" to the left, Bilbimtesirol I, 1995.]

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