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Friday, January 10, 2014

The nihilist condition and provisional painting a la Rubinstein

Flannery O’Conner stated that you could not understand the modern world without understanding nihilism’s central role in moving and shaping modernity.  She said it was the air we breathed. As a Catholic I assume she felt that we cannot base the way we live on either the positivism of science or superficial societal strictures of what is good and bad. I am not very knowledgeable about Catholic doctrine but I know unlike the Protestants they believe in original sin and from what I recall of St Augustine’s “Confessions” you can only overcome it through the grace of God. To say that we are all nihilists is tantamount to saying we start out our lives as fallen from grace.

That a devout Catholic living in the conservative 1950’s South should find herself as Andy Warhol’s intellectual bedfellow only proves the pervasiveness of the nihilistic strains that permeate our world. These nihilistic experiences seem to hit us from different directions but genealogically have the same origin. Warhol’s fame as an artist was due to his understanding of the role that mass media played in our perception of self; that we are no longer individuals relating to a small community but have been abducted by alien forces as it were into the universe of the electronic media. If O’Conner can acknowledge the nihilism of society and express its fallenness, then could it be said that Warhol shares with her the same sense of our fallen condition and sees our mediated condition as a false transcendence?

So how to connect the dots that place O’Conner and Warhol in the same nihilistic world? Warhol picked up that mass media provides a sort of transcendence to the ordinary. On the one hand to be lifted up out of one’s existence and forced into the media is like being reborn in the human condition, a double dose of nihilism and fallenness. The fifteen minutes of fame implies transcendence of our mortal coils but only for a moment before we fall back into the banal. Is Warhol a theologian
of banality?

When I wrote about Guyton and Kassay, in my article on Zombie Art, who produce ice-cold replicas of High Modernist art, I detected that the only way to get a grasp on these artist’s success was to see the correspondence between the nihilist air we breathe and their total lack of anxiety about being a simulacrum of another person’s style. I threw in some gratuitous rhetorical flourishes, that painted these artists as being a sort of cultural dead end. But if you are a nihilist then dead ends are where you want to be. Especially when you take Stella’s work, which is part of the scientifically based positivist strain of modernism that looks for building blocks, “sine qua non”s and relation of parts to the whole, and then bleed it dry so that the copy is a pale memory of the original. What is intriguing is that there are contemporary artists who paint images similar to Guyton, but who are descendants of the positivist line of Held, Stella and de Kooning. David Row and Craig Stockwell are two artists who come to mind. In the case of Row his work has its origins in Held and de Kooning. In Stockwell I see Brice Marden. I think they want the viewer to visually and intellectually experience an event, a movement of rhythms in time and space, painting that still captures the energy, like the events  that are caught on an x ray in a scientific experience. It is very Aristotelian. Concepts like energy, time and movement are crucial to their self-understanding. 

Craig Stockwell

But the art scene moves quickly and although these descendants of High Modernism are successful, they are not at the center of the cultural radar. The name of Raphael Rubinstein comes up often as an apologist for a new movement he calls “Provisional Painting”. Around the end of the last decade, he noticed a distinct artistic style, when he made the rounds of galleries and artist’s studios in New York. It was abstract (Mary Heilmann, Aldrich), mildly ironic(Christopher Wool) and unabashedly derivative (Stanley Whitney) and in no way wanted to surpass its influences. He curated a show on the abstraction of the 80's this past year at Cheim and Read to convey that this movement was more than just a recent phenomena, but had its antecedent  in the work of for example Joan Snyder and Jonathan Lasker, although some  such as Snyder are incredibly earnest and only look provisional. I suspect, that like Greenberg’s ideas on abstraction in the Fifties, it got codified and became a self -fulfilling prophecy, where the artists outside of the movement (if you can call it that) start to think that this is the new wave to emulate and its ideas begin to infect the academy and its MFA mills.
Stephen Mueller

What I find astonishing is there is no reference to nihilism in the samples of his writing, that have appeared on line. If he had read Vattimo, a contemporary Italian philosopher, who came up with the notion of "weak thought" or "weak ontology", he would have understood the NY scene deductively, so that what was happening in NY, was already part of the nihilistic universe that Flannery O’Conner observed. The post–modern condition has its source in Nietzsche’s vision that God is dead, which takes on more meaning if you see that he also sees that metaphysics or any vision of the world where there are absolute truths is dead. However, as a hermeneutician, Vattimo thinks that thought is backward looking as well as forward looking, so that it will never abandon the metaphysical tradition completely. The metaphysical past will always haunt us as something that is still embedded in our language and institutions. Is not this what is happening with “Provisional Painting”? The edict, that was handed down from on high that painting is dead, meant that painting as embodying metaphysical absolutes was past. But can we stop painting? Can we stop interpreting the past? Is the will to say something about one’s experience of the world at an end and is not abstraction in its manifestations in the 20th century full of bits and pieces of language that we can “bricole” with. You don’t have to espouse the absolutism of Held or Stella to borrow from their playbook. Vattimo says that traces of that metaphysics linger that are absolutely crucial to our existence. We can still believe in the power of the self to envision the world without espousing a powerful sense of Being and Truth, hence “weak ontology”.
Mary Heilmann
Jonathan Lasker
I think working inductively creates problems for Rubenstein, when he tries to extrapolate back to Matisse, Bonnard and Giacometti the provisionality of his acolytes. He sees an erasure in Matisse and assumes he is only problematizing what he is doing. But Matisse’s work grew out of a quest for scientific truth, where color has power to push and pull optically. He created positive visual events as does Row and Stockwell, and, if he erases something, it is only to bring him closer on his path to a cognitive whole. Genealogically, the late cutouts of Matisse lead right into Rothko and on to the minimalism of Ellsworth Kelly. Giacometti struggles to pin things down from his existential point in space .The more he tries to capture what he sees, the further away it moves from him. Nothing provisional about that. He is a phenomenologist of the experience of man under the Lacanian gaze of the other. The world provisional sounds so flaccid. How can you not feel the deep anxiety and sense of failure in Giacometti’s work? Some of the contemporary artists thrown into this bag of provisionalism tell Rubinstein there is nothing provisional about their work. But little of Giacometti’s angst is to be seen in the artists that Rubinstein espouses. Vattimo’s “weak thought” would be a perfect concept to encapsulate where painting is in Rubinstein’s provisional world. Vattimo sees a weak connection to Being in a positive light as a sort of enlightened nihilism. As in Richard Rorty’s world, we at best bounce off of each other interpretively and creatively, to establish horizons of meaning without insisting that our values are superior.  Vattimo even claims that these are the characteristics of Nietzsche's Superman. When taken in the context of what Malcolm Bull sees as Vattimo’s misunderstanding of Nietzsche, we can see that the problem with provisionalist painting today is the ironic weakness it espouses.
Schnable and Aldrich
For Nietzsche interpretation is evidence of the will to power.” It is a means of becoming the master of something.” Bull says: ”Interpretive failure occurs when someone  ‘no longer has the strength to interpret’ for ‘exhaustion changes the aspect of things, the value of things’. For Nietzsche interpretation and value creation are inseparable. Whereas the strong ‘involuntarily give to things and see them fuller, more powerful and pregnant with future… the exhausted diminish and botch all they see-they impoverish the value’. It is hard to knock a movement that controls the gallery scene and gets top dollar for its work, but it is only in the context of galleries with high ceilings that the work takes on any heft. 

Stanley Whitney
In a “Brooklyn Rail” interview Rubinstein sees the provisional movement as a reaction to the slickness of work by Currin, Koons and Murakami. I have observed this sort of reactive event in the New York scene several times over. Chuck Close comes to New York looking to stand out from the minimalist crowd, and, according to  an urban legend, espouses photorealism as a means to this goal. Neo- Expressionists react to minimalism and some of them like Schnable survive to be part of the provisionalist reaction to world wide corporate slickness. So it goes the agonic battle between generations. To know that it all functions under the umbrella of nihilism would be a good critical tool that would help critics understand the different strains of nihilism and maybe put the fire in the belly of the next generation to overcome the shadow it casts on all we do.

I can be followed on twitter @mugar49


  1. A comment from artist Sarah Walker from facebook:
    This essay is fantastic as well- lots of great putting of words to perceptions- real tools for dealing with this particular form of creeping rot.

  2. With the last three posts I feel I am involved in a shootout at the OK Corral.

  3. From facebook:
    Sarah Walker:
    "I love a good shoot out."

  4. Typed out some long response yesterday and it seems to have disappeared! See if I can get back in the groove. I really enjoyed this line of thought and any essay on Nihilism that begins with Flannery O'Connor certainly gets my attention. Ironically, I appreciate the sincere way in which you've really engaged Nihilism. I also appreciate the mention of my work and I think you get it pretty right. I am quite taken by Rubinstein's thoughts on Provisional Painting, and, it (PP) challenges my own ideas and comfort in a rich way. You're correct in placing my work as a remnant of High Modernism. I am currently attempting to address the more central conversation (center of the cultural radar) through painting as installation, that is, playing out various possibilities of paintings (including the provisional) within an installed grouping of paintings.

    1. I enjoyed bringing Flannery O'Conner into the discussion.Glad you enjoyed that as well.It helped make my point that we swim in the sea of nihilistic thinking and it shapes us no matter how much we try to ignore it.Thanks for your comments.

  5. Good to hear from you. Glad your comment made it the second time around.I remember some years ago being encouraged by Bernie Chaet to contact classmate Dave Row,who is mentioned in this article, to get him to recommend galleries in NYC where I might submit work.He replied by quoting our teacher Al Held, who had told him in his inimitable way that you could give BJs to every dealer in New York, but if your work was not in vogue then you would not get shown.I think he had trouble in the 90's in that regard .He was truly an artist in the high modernist tradition.I write these blogs in part to get a feel for the trope of art scenes and to try to accept that there is a rhyme and reason to what gets shown.I thought that Rubenstein gets into trouble when he sees every provisional mark in artists, who are truly classical like Matisse and Bonnard as proof of their being predecessors of the school he has described as provisional. Glad you accept my classification of your work. It is one that I feel at ease putting my work in,although I am closer to the materiality of Richter, which I talked about in the Stella to Colen blog post.

  6. John Bunker said…
    This appeared on "Abstract Critical"

    Hi Martin,
    Many thanks for your thoughts on nihilism. Your blog entry instantly reminded me
    of the spat between TJ Clark and Michael Fried during the 80s. Fried was arguing that Modernist art was an essentially positive development from one aesthetic discovery to another, a process of refinement and clarification negotiated between a succession of ‘great artists’. Clark argued that the ‘great’ art of Modernism was fuelled by a nihilistic vulgarity, peculiar to the alienation and violence wrought upon individuals and societies by Capitalism. Modernism anarchically smashed its way through one aesthetic cul de sac and social taboo after another.

    So could it be argued, that nihilism, far from being a inherently post modern pose, has always been part of Modernist art’s “cultural force”? How might abstraction generally be part of that? Are Provisional strategies evolving from this particular strand of Modernist DNA?

    “Artists today[xviii] are confronting an increasingly ramshackle future where aesthetic, political, economic, and ecological promises have been revealed as failures. If they are seeing a future where issues of scarcity become more urgent, materials must be recycled or scavenged from surplus[xix], and long-held political standards become increasingly irrelevant, it would seem natural to see trends in painting (re) emerge that question formal equivalents of these standards.”

    Brian Dupont’s full text is here.

    I’m taking these words by Brian Dupont out of context but they ring true to my experience. Is it still possible or desirable to re-imagine an idea of abstraction as a ‘cultural force’ that connects with and possibly redefines some idea of resistance to the onslaught of ‘Spectacular’ culture?
    Posted at 10:51 am on February 22, 2014

    1. There must be various streams of abstraction. The origin of abstraction is probably in the theosophical that interested Mondrian and Kandinsky. I wrote a blog on that last year.There is the will to power stream in deKooning and early al held.But the malevich stream that pops up in early Stella seems to feed the art I talk about in Zombie art.It is a kind of bureaucratic coinage that is self referential.

    2. I write about the theosophical here:

  7. nice work. just a quick thought... the idea of exhaustion is spot on and one I hadn't considered enough with this generation.
    The nihilism is clear and overt - an SNL world where nothing is really serious or important (because it'll change, self destruct or offend us tomorrow). The exhaustion part though comes through an insane rush of mixed messages...being built up and let down day after day and also in a constant conflict of caring and not caring. I'm not defending the bad painting (you know that). Just trying to understand it.

    1. Spot on.I am motivated by the same need to understand.It has the strange sense of the eternal return of the same.

  8. This comes from an essay on abstractcritical and is a response to this essay:

    As to nihilism’s role in all of this, I think there’s a great deal to be said for that, Martin. Recently, I was discussing a particular “culture-war issue” here in the United States and a poll was cited as an example of “American’s increasing acceptance” of this said issue.

    But the fact is, the poll was only evidence of increasing nihilism. American’s simply no longer care, nor believe enough in anything to resist cultural change for good or ill.

    Secular-Humanism is a vastly more profitable enterprise than sincerely-held belief systems that place something other than the self at the center of the universe. Since capitalism cannot abide barriers to profit whether they be physical or psychic, it uses nihilism as a kind of cultural steam-roller.

    Clearly this is a long way out from my essay, but I think there is a relationship between widespread nihilism as cultural force and an acceptance of very raw, visually impoverished art, as good.

  9. Dear Martin,

    I just wanted to send you a note to thank you for your comment on my essay at Abstract Crtical, but most especially because of its link to the excellent posts on your own site.

    It is refreshing to read considerations of art that are grounded in the understanding that western philosophy extends past the 1960s and is in fact deeply intertwined in our state of being. I am avidly making way through the posts on your site.

    Very Best Wishes,

    Alan Pocaro

  10. I recently was sent this by Carl Belz (March 2015)and it seems apropos of Pocaro's remarks above:
    "It occurs to me at times that looking at certain kinds of painting may have become generational, like kids who don't know how to look at a clock that's not digital. I saw a FB comment on a Joan Snyder stroke painting from around 1970, it said the painting was facetious, a response that had never entered my mind, nor anyone else's that I know. I know from sports, for instance, that younger people think the NBA et al began a decade ago at most. Is that the case with art's history now, with contemporary, for instance, that it only goes back 10 years? That's certainly become the case with museums, but is it also what's taught in art school?"

  11. Some comments from twitter:
    "even Guyton or Kassay. They found a way to approach #painting in a new/ novel way, but making (any) #art is still positive."

    "I disagree w/ characterizing #artists as nihilistic; I dont think anyone approaches making #art with the fatalism the label implies"

    1. It’s sort of my philosophy—looking for the nothingness. The nothingness is taking over the planet.
      —The Andy Warhol Diaries

  12. Got this from the beginning of the review of Gopnik's Warhol by Gary Indiana.

    "It’s sort of my philosophy—looking for the nothingness. The nothingness is taking over the planet."
    —The Andy Warhol Diaries