Is Painting really forever?
Art critics have been proclaiming the end of painting since the age of
modernism, but a new interest in the medium’s complex and conflicting
tradition, as well as its possibilities, has recently emerged. This is
evident in “Painting Forever!,” a large, joint project celebrating
contemporary painting in Berlin. But what does the future of painting
actually look like? ArtMag has asked the experts.
Ellen Blumenstein. © Edisonga
Interest in the various artistic genres has much to do, as in other
fields, with the latest trends—in both the art discourse and on the art
market. I believe, though, that the discussion of the “end of
painting,” which keeps recurring in waves, is one that is very much
internal to the art world. Most people not professionally involved with
art automatically associate “art” with “painting.” Painting, along with
sculpture, is the artistic means of expression that conjoins technical
skill, the possibility of examining the world that surrounds us, and
our questioning of it, through the shaping of form, and a material
presence in space. Every one of us can relate to that. It thus comes as
no surprise that exhibitions of paintings have always been the
institutional programs that attract the most visitors.
Ellen Blumenstein is chief curator at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art. In the context of “Painting Forever!” she is curating the exhibition “Keilrahmen” (Stretchers).
Hou Hanrou. Courtesy Auckland Triennial
Painting as Catch 22: I have been asked to state my opinion on the question of the life and
death of painting. And I have found that this is a question of Catch
22’s type, like Joseph Heller’s
famous book lying on my desk at the moment. This question is always
there, haunting the art world with passion, even hate and love, but can
never be solved… but almost nobody can escape from it.
Today, paintings are gaining unprecedented economic and social values
in the market and institutional spaces. But its ontological,
existential, spiritual and hence artistic
values are increasingly defied and even diminished. The art world and
mass media recurrently raise the question of the death of painting,
more than ever. It seems to be true that the more popular and expensive
paintings are, the less influential in the art world itself they
become. This once the most important incarnation of the invention of
new canons of art is no longer representing the new, the avant-garde.
Therefore, its cultural values are rapidly reduced. This paradox shows
a more profound paradox of art in general: Who is defining the real
value of art? The artists, professionals, the historians, the critics,
the media, the institutions, or the markets (collectors and dealers)?
The question remains open. But there is one interesting contradiction
that can still guarantee the survival of paintings as a “genre” in the
arts: its vitality relies on how much it can do away from the
historical rules, canons and criteria of its own history and how much
it is de-constructively influenced by other forms of visual and
cultural expressions of the contemporary time—photography, film, video,
conceptual art, design, advertisement, social and cultural theories and
even political discourses… In a word, it’s in its own deconstruction,
or “suicide,” that painting can still maintain its real vitality.
Perhaps this is true for the whole contemporary art world, facing the
rapidly and radically mutating world driven by the most contradictory
forces of technologic progress and conservative defense of the values
of established systems—economic and political, the expansion of some
dominant “global models” and the insistence on “local singularities,”
etc. In this context, as the most historically influential form of
visual art expressions, painting has to perpetually encounter with its
own fate and its continuous metamorphoses.
June 16, 2013, Mammoth Lakes, California
Hou Hanru is curator of the 5th Auckland Triennial (Auckland, New Zealand, May – August / Mai – August 2013) and a member of Deutsche Bank Global Art Advisory Council.
Once painting was no longer bound to
architecture as fresco, and the picture became mobile, the field
expanded and the style was emancipated. Even today, painters are still
experimenting with paint on canvas and creating landscapes, genre
scenes, portraits, squares, abstract gestures, patterns ... Most of the
colorful images currently finding their way into living rooms and
sometimes into museums are boring. Joseph Beuys: “The error already begins when someone goes out to buy a stretcher frame and canvas.” Jörg Immendorff and Blinky Palermo
studied with Beuys! The great painting of the past centuries has
decisively shaped our cultural development and shows that, despite its
material limitations, this medium serves as a mirror of its times and
offers a fertile basis for artistic exploration – in all media. Of
special interest are artists who don’t believe in painting, but instead
treat it as an issue to be grappled with: Julia Schmid’s highly topical, fragmented pictorial scenes; Francis Alÿs’s The Green Line or his “Rotulista” pictures; the ink compositions Wade Guyton delegates to the printer; Jeremy Deller’s or Lucie McKenzie’s wall paintings; Imran Qureshi’s portraits; the scenes by Amelie von Wulffen; Monika Baer’s concept paintings; Glenn Ligon’s text consolidations; Pamela Rosenkranz’s skin-colored images. Or Antje Majewski’s tool paintings: not a paintbrush to be seen anywhere.
Rita Kersting is curator of contemporary art at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. In 2011 she curated the show “About Painting," for / für abc – art berlin contemporary.
Udo Kittelmann. Photo Mathias Schormann
“Painting Forever!”—a statement that looks to the future as well as
back to the past. It patently makes reference to the multiple occasions
in the course of the twentieth century, and still today, on which the
medium has been “declared dead.” At the same time, I believe that this
postulate of the everlasting nature of painting also alludes to its
eternal “implicit horizon”*, which resonates from the past to influence
developments of the future. Painting can accordingly be seen as a
bedrock full of reference points—ones that in fact apply to every form
of artistic practice. With this in mind, I don’t believe that “Painting
Forever!” is necessarily an optimistic prediction, but rather a
conclusion derived from over 100 years of art history. That painting
has been subjected to a constant need to legitimize itself as a medium
of contemporary artistic practice is likewise a testament to
art-historical developments, above all since the establishment of
Conceptual Art as a counter-pole to the Abstract Expressionism of the
1950s and 60s. The challenge facing painting ever since is to create
its own, new conditions under which it can continue to assert itself
next to other forms of expression. That it succeeds at doing so time
and again is for me a clear sign of the necessity of painting’s
existence for both art and its viewers.
* Avigail Moss, Kerstin Stakemeier, Painting – The Implizit Horizon, 2013, and the eponymous symposium that took place in 2010 at the Jan van Eyck Academie in Maastricht.
Udo Kittelmann is director of the Nationalgalerie Berlin, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. He is curating the show “BubeDameKönigAss” (JackQueenKingAce) together with Melanie Roumiguière at the Neue Nationalgalerie as part of the project “Painting Forever!”.
Thomas Köhler. Photo Harry Schnitger
Painting is immortal. In particular in the twentieth and twenty-first
centuries, it has repeatedly reinvented itself. Starting in the early
1920s, avant-garde painting constantly explored new avenues. Beyond
mere decoration, painting was now about painting in relationship to
space. El Lissitzky’s Proun Room
is legendary. It represents a world of its own, a space with mysterious
objects and geometric forms, some of them three-dimensional, some of
them painted. The painting entered into a symbiosis with the space and
became an installation. The architect Gerrit Rietveld,
whom El Lissitzky fostered, took these ideas a step further and
implemented radical color concepts in his architecture. After World War
II, there were artists such as Lucio Fontana
who radically challenged the conventional aesthetic practice of
painting, struggling with the flat surface of the canvas and focusing
on the space behind it in order to open it up sculpturally. In the
1960s, this development continued to be pursued by Palermo, Sol LeWitt,
and others. A few examples demonstrate the constant process of
transformation painting has always been subject to. A dynamic inherent
to painting lets it live on while playing with the conventions of the
Thomas Köhler is director of the Berlinische Galerie. For the project “Painting Forever!” he is curating the exhibition “Franz Ackermann” at his museum.
Painting has both an easy and a hard time of it. It has been declared
dead so many times and yet has proved impossible to kill. For a time it
looked as though the painted picture might be go under completely in
the wake of the technical image. But during the heyday of renouncing
painting, people tended to forget that going on the defensive had never
done the old medium any harm and that painting had no need of the
youthful charm of its electronic rival in order to continually exercise
fresh fascination on its viewers.
One might say that the market needs painting. Paintings are the
collector’s item par excellence, the traditional artistic goods that
you can take home with you, hang on the wall, stack up as inventory.
That may be true, but it doesn’t really help much to explain things.
The electronic image can also be stored in a well-organized system—in
the Cloud. Might it be the case that painting derives its unassailable
dignity from its own innate history? Anyone who paints a picture has
had his own experience of time, has grown quite a bit older while
And painting itself is an age-old art. It doesn’t have to be immortal.
It is absolutely sufficient for it to demonstrate with every new
picture—more sensually than any other medium—that there is after all no
such thing as progress in art. Traditionally, we see art history as
taking us from the Dark Ages to the bright spotlight of Modernism,
where the human imagination has supposedly reached its historical
apogee in the virtuoso play of emancipated form. We should finally be
in a position today to write an art history that doesn’t merely pile
new on top of new, but observes the unceasing ramifications of the old,
which tells of how art began with painting on stone and on cave walls
and in fact never grew beyond it.
All the same, painting still fulfills today the unquenchable thirst for
the original. This guarantee of originality forms the basis for the
incredible authority of the medium, for its aura. And it is this very
aura that has continually plunged painting into the plight of having to
justify itself. The twentieth century resorted to desperate, ultimately
triumphant efforts to finally shed the legacy of this aura. Virtually
every avant-garde movement had the goal of pulling the rug out from
under the putative bourgeois celebration of the unattainable art
original, of making all the fuss over the uniqueness of the picture
look absurd. Even painting subjected itself to this kind of
ridicule—all the while only avoiding the question of what makes for the
indestructibility of painting pictures. It can’t be a kind of cultural
law that we simply can’t stop plying the same old craft. Perhaps we
just need painting in order, in the midst of today’s constant stream of
image-creating algorithms, to rescue the unpredictable picture as
enduring object of knowledge and experience.
Hans-Joachim Müller is a freelance writer for FAZ, DIE ZEIT, and art. Das Kunstmagazin.
Isn’t it high time to take our leave of the supposed linearity of (art)
history, with one style or medium continually replacing another?
Painting has been around for as long as humans have inhabited the
earth. The seemingly eternal or at least regularly recurring debate on
the alleged “death” of painting is by contrast a relatively recent
development. It is the discourse bequeathed to us by a European avant
garde in the early twentieth century that itself is now part of
history, a discourse that surfaced time and again in the course of
Postmodernism, especially in the 1970s and 90s. This discourse, which
stamps painting as bourgeois, too amenable to market demands, too
oriented on the unique work of art, and no longer in keeping with the
times, was perhaps justifiable, and also meaningful, in its day.
However, the avant garde then met its end before painting did. What’s
more, the oft-invoked end of painting has never much impressed those
who paint—and demonstrably has not affected the art market either.
(It’s probably much easier to live with a picture in the long run than
with for example a video installation.)
Certainly, it is a good thing and very important that painting is
frequently confronted with the emergence of new media and discourses
that pose ongoing challenges to its standing. Photography, film, and
computer technology have influenced and altered painting (and
vice-versa), as have Conceptual Art and the Readymade, Action Painting,
Pop Art, mass media, the Internet, and many other developments.
Painting has thus continually been expanded and its boundaries
dissolved, and not only in material terms. And yet it still continues
to assert itself even in its “post-medium condition” as an autonomous
art form, even beyond any conceptual underpinnings. Particularly in our
digital age, painting’s intractable crafted-ness, its specific
materiality or “residual specificity” (Isabelle Graw) have only gained in significance.
I would like to concur with the three painters Majewski, Plavcak, and Sarti,
who in the Painting Forever! catalogue plead for painting to be seen
not merely as an artistic medium but as a universal form of expression
that is part of what it means to be human.
Eva Scharrer is a freelance curator and critic. She is curating the exhibition “To Paint Is To Love Again” for the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle as part of the project “Painting Forever!“.