Friends occasionally ask if I like writing about art. I say “like” doesn’t quite do it. Writing is a challenge, the words often resist, as if they’re actually physical. While their meanings are in many cases elastic, they can’t just be pushed around, they deserve respect. Though pleasurable to work with, they’re neither toys nor mere entertainments. Still, when responsibly employed in the job of writing about art, the words invariably guide and enable the urge to clarify my experience of the object at hand and articulate its content. And when all of that comes together the writing can be highly gratifying. To suggest what I mean, I’m here reprinting a few short essays, each devoted to a single painting, which I initially penned in conjunction with exhibitions at the Rose Art Museum. The pictures were all purchases for the Rose permanent collection.
|Tina Feingold, Bleed, 1997-98, oil on canvas, 30 x 24 inches|
The painting, a gift from the museum’s Board of Overseers, was presented to the Rose during a reception held in my honor in June 1998, in advance of which curator Susan Stoops had asked me on behalf of the Board if there was an area artist I wished to see represented in the permanent collection whose work we had not yet acquired, and I thought immediately of Tina, because she had been a close personal friend for many years, seeing just about every exhibition I ever mounted, reading closely each of my catalog essays and providing thoughtful responses to them while prodding me to write more, sharing provocative books and articles I had overlooked, traipsing around galleries and museums with me when I wanted companionship, reporting on shows elsewhere that I was unable to get to, attending for a full semester every lecture on the history of contemporary art I delivered at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and telling me later that they regularly inspired her to go back to the studio and paint, all that and more, yet asking nothing in return, except maybe an occasional studio visit during which she would put up with my telling her to get rid of the image and go for abstraction and other stuff I doubt she wanted to hear, but that never impeded our conversation or affected our relationship other than to deepen it, which is why I thought of her in connection with this gift that has my name attached to it, and, as I’m sure you can see, why Bleed caries significances that range far beyond its being a wonderful painting.
|Linda Etcoff, Still Life With “Chop Suey”, 1985, oil on canvas, 44 x 60 inches|
Of course the painting is more than just decorative, more than just an attractive still life, a poster announcing the exhibition of an esteemed American master, and a view of the city outside the artist’s studio. Let’s look again.
A table with two trays and a vase of tulips stands in the immediate foreground; behind it on the right is a wall on which the poster is taped, and behind the wall is the studio window with a stool and still life before it. But wait: the window is not actually a window, nor are the stool and still life actually a stool and still life. They are parts of another painting, another Linda Etcoff painting that rests on an easel that stands behind the wall that stands behind the foreground table in the painting we’re actually looking at.
So we have three paintings in one: first, the painting we’re addressing, Still Life With “Chop Suey”; second, the unnamed painting on the easel in Still Life With “Chop Suey”; and third, the Etcoff painting of the Hopper painting reproduced in the poster, the title of which is Chop Suey. Paintings of paintings and of reproductions of paintings, art coming from art, as we know all art does. In this case, however, I want to say that that dictum lies at the heart of the painting, animates it throughout, constitutes its subject. Etcoff develops her art out of her own past, but equally she develops it out of the art of artists such as Edward Hopper, and thereby does she honor and extend the tradition of American realist painting. In the sheer quality of her picture, finally, she also—and notably—enriches it. A high order of decoration is invariably as meaningful as it is satisfying.
|John Salt, Lunch Room, 1977, oil on canvas, 42-1/4 x 62-3/4 inches|
When advanced painting jettisoned narration, which was about a century and a half ago, photography was there to rescue it for the visual arts, and with photography it remained, eventually giving rise to pictures that moved and told their stories through real time. (BTW If you think it’s merely coincidental that movies were invented at the very moment when vanguard painting was putting a stake through the heart of narration by eliminating all traces of the visible world and becoming totally nonobjective, then maybe you should think again.) It remained there, that is, as long as painting wanted to go in the direction of pure abstractness in the process of defining its separateness from the other arts, from photography, for instance, or literature and poetry. But that urge was pronounced dead by the 1970s when painting, via postmodernism, embraced anew all manner of concerns that had previously been discarded from it, including narration.
Yet, if you were schooled in modernist purity and felt an obligation to retain its moral imperative, and you also felt the appeal of postmodernism’s promise of freedom—which is how I see the situation of John Salt and other photorealist painters—how would you go about resolving your dilemma? Well, you could do it by using a photograph to make a painting that looks like a photograph. Because photographs are flat, they don’t violate the flatness of the picture plane that modernism taught you to honor, and because they’re inherently narrative, they free you to tell stories you want your paintings to tell, stories like the one about the car in the snow in front of the lunch room.
(This is the first of a two-part post)
Carl Belz is Director Emeritus of the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University.