In Time Out New York this week Howard Halle begins his Gerhard Richter review with this tired declaration: “It’s a widely held belief in the art world that painting is dead…” Why, I wonder, do artists and critics insist on dragging out this simpleminded proclamation when painting is clearly alive and well? Is it just an easy trope for the doubtful painter and /or lazy writer? It’s certainly a disingenuous way for painters, especially those who have been painting as long as Richter, to position their practice not as painting per se, but as a more fashionably conceptual undertaking. Some individuals who declare that painting is dead may have lost faith in the process of painting, and perhaps others have gotten tired of looking at paintings, but this hardly warrants a death certificate for such a challenging medium. If I had to choose a candidate for most lifeless medium, video, not painting, would be my unequivocal first choice simply because I’m tired of it, regardless of how stylish and new the equipment and installation techniques appear.
“Since Richter’s work appears to give lie to this assumption, you have to wonder whether he means what he says, or is just parroting a line that allows otherwise right-thinking critics to swoon in front of his canvases.” Halle writes. “I’d bet that even Walter Benjamin would piss his pants over Richter’s latest offerings at Marian Goodman, they are that sublime. Benjamin, of course, famously postulated that the advent of photographic reproduction had irrevocably terminated art’s ‘aura,’ or ability to inspire awe, but what are you going to believe? The conventional wisdom, or your own prevaricating eyes? Richter’s compositions, however, are more than just beautiful. They present the paradox of seemingly opaque treatises on “painting” (complete with scare quotes), plumbing the deepest quandary of the human condition: the choice between good and evil….
“Richter’s conceptualist deconstruction of painting into genres (portrait, landscape, still life) and styles (Expressionism, Minimalism, Realism) has never been as neutral as it’s purported to be. Rather, I’d argue that his process rehearses the weighing of actions and their consequences: Do you paint a clear picture for yourself? Do you rely on abstractions? Do you make up your mind before changing it again? In this respect, his work rediscovers the moral center for a relativistic age: a metaphor for what we all go through when faced with the judgments that history compels us to make.”
“Gerhard Richter,” Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, NY. Through Jan 9.
UPDATE (January 1, 2010): Howard Halle, suggesting that his position has been misunderstood by readers, responded via FaceBook this afternoon. “I like painting; I don’t think that painting is dead. But based on the relatively small percentage of painters who are typically included in major surveys of contemporary art like the Biennial, you have to wonder what curators think on the matter.”
UPDATE (January 6, 2010): Robert Smith’s end-of-decade wrap-up includes this declaration: “All this has moved beyond the simpler days of art movements, trends and warring claims for the supremacy of one medium or another. If it seems otherwise, you’re not looking hard enough or without blinkers. To beat a dead horse: even painting remains very much alive. It is a language that is too complex, widely spoken and beloved to expire, but you can bet it is changing all the time.”