The provocations and ideas about the state of paint are plentiful in Jed Perl‘s recent essay in the New Republic, The Rectangular Canvas is Dead: Richard Diebenkorn and the problems of modern painting.* Using the occasion of the Richard Diebenkorn show, The Berkeley Years, 1953-1966 to unify his discussion (a show that is in its last day at the De Young Museum in San Francisco before heading to the Palm Springs Art Museum, October 26-February 16 where I will see it later this year,) Perl continues to court the controversial, the curmudgeonly and the insightful. But I’ve been thinking about the essay all week.
Perl starts by referencing a show of very small paintings—many only two inches on a side—by a young painter named Eleanor Ray. He describes her work as bringing a “tightly controlled painterly panache to her itsy-bitsy glimpses of the view through a window.”
The sizes of the panels…suggest a reverse hubris, a pride in how much she can do with so little. There is something about Ray’s hunkered-down facility that strikes me as symptomatic of a fearfulness that overtakes all too many serious painters today. As much as I worry about the power of the trashmeisters who now dominate so many of our galleries and museums, I worry more about an atmosphere that makes it so difficult for painters who are actually engaged with the possibilities of brushes and pigments to feel free.
He has a point, and it is one I can nod with some acknowledgment. But he doesn’t stop there. He takes these issues—of tiny works and of Ray’s “reverse hubris”—into another valence:
Eleanor Ray is in her mid-twenties. That is a time in artists’ lives when they ought to be trying things out, unafraid to make a bad painting. The best artists—the greatest artists—are not afraid to fail. As for Ray, instead of allowing herself to experiment, she remains armored inside her minuscule vignettes. Why this should be I can’t say for sure. But I have a theory. I wonder if Ray, coming of age at a time when painting is said by so many to be dead or dying, believes that the best she can do as a painter is keep a few tiny embers alive…The trouble is that the sizes of the paintings are designed to wrap up any unresolved conflicts in a perfect little package. You cannot really access these paintings. They’re so damn small that they feel as if they’re in lockdown. There is a sensibility here, but it is imprisoned. Whatever interesting conflicts and contradictions the subjects might provoke have been squared away without ever really being addressed.
Painting, which for centuries reigned supreme among the visual arts, has fallen from grace. I am quite sure that Eleanor Ray is aware of this. Every serious painter is…Ray is not alone in going into a defensive posture. With her lyrical painterly postcards, she strikes me as too willing to accept the idea that what has vanished in recent years, perhaps never to return, is painting as an expansive and foundational value or idea—as something worth boldly working for. There is no fight in her work. Behind the elegance of her effects, I sense the sadness of defeat. She is much too young for that.
I didn’t see Ray’s show, but Perl is addressing a larger set of issues than just this one body of work. A big part of his criticism is related to size and scale. Small does not have to stand for fearfulness, a lack of fight, a giving in to defeat. It has been my experience that small format work can achieve the “expansive and foundational value or idea” right alongside the supersized installation, and one of the best places to see that demonstrated right now is at MassMOCA.
Most visitors are coming to MassMOCA to see work by high visibility artists: Xu Bing‘s massive Phoenix and the installations by Anselm Kiefer in the newly opened Hall Foundation building. Both Xu Bing and Kiefer are international art stars, and they use scale to speak boldly about contemporary issues including social and political injustice, over industrialization, the death of values and tradition.
But the epic and larger-than-life is after all just one approach. Also on view at MassMOCA are works more intimately sized but also compelling, fearless and brave. Joseph Montgomery‘s Five Sets Five Reps is wall assemblages have a muscularity all their own while also exuding a playful inventiveness. These pieces are exciting and feel like they could climb right off the wall and into your body. Life’s Work features the singular works of Tom Phillips and Johnny Carrera. Philips’ visual transmogrification of a Victorian novel, Humument, is a tour de force of intimacy, playful seduction and mastery. Both Philips and Montgomery are fabulously gifted artists, and I spent more time with their works because they were so complex and compelling.
For years on Slow Muse I have advocated for the both/and. This is not just a liberal pluralism that can be dismissed for its unwillingness to make distinctions. My both/and is actually its own kind of subversion, but a subversion nonetheless.