The first in a four-part essay on the practice of contemporary painting

Part 1 – History:

In 1975, when I was a fifteen-year-old juvenile delinquent and considered by all to be an academic dead loss, my divorced and otherwise estranged parents conspired to send me off to boarding school. The place they sent me to, The Woodstock Country School, was among a handful of alternative liberal arts prep schools that had popped up in the 20th century, often on the grounds of reconstituted farm compounds located in liberal bastions like New England and California. These institutions were listed in the briefly ubiquitous 1980s Preppy Handbook with the description: “There is a Black Labrador retriever on campus; he wears a red bandana; the students have given him drugs.”

(There was, he did, and we had).

WCS was founded in the 1940s, in part by a married couple who had studied and taught at the legendary Black Mountain School. It was a free-wheeling, bohemian, co-educational place with a horse barn/farmhouse campus set in an idyllic Vermont valley along the tiny Kedron River. It favored subjects like the great books, political science and journalism, creative writing, botany, dance, theater, weaving, ceramics and painting. If it accomplished nothing else, one thing WCS did dependably well was to groom many of its students for a life of skeptical and idealistic nonconformity, thus ill-equipping them to navigate the economic and socio-political realities that would greet them as young adults in Ronald Reagan’s conservative, corporate utopia.

In my Freshman year at WCS, I broke out in a torrent of independently-guided oil painting (I was not a cooperative student and ignored the instructions of the then resident arts and crafts teacher who wanted me to make linoleum block prints along with the rest of the class ). Eventually I completed a big mural recreating a Renaissance battle scene originally drawn in one of Leonardo daVinci’s sketchbooks. This was a near life-size melee of fighters on horseback that I painted in a stairwell leading to the art department. Despite the project’s inflated ambitions, it was an example of an overall unwillingness to do assigned work that characterized all my other academic subjects, and which led to my expulsion at the end of the year due to chronically failing grades. After that, my parents washed their hands of my aspirations for a private education and I spent the following fall semester languishing at a local public high school in Rhode Island, where I soon saw what I had thrown away. On a trip to visit friends in Woodstock that fall, I plead my case to the new headmaster — a charismatic, indulgent sort — who found a family in the Midwest (parents of a deceased former student) who together seemed ready to forgive my ungovernable creative inclinations and pay my tuition and board on the strength of assurances that I would henceforth strive to be more a dutiful pupil.

Upon returning to WCS in the Spring semester, I fell in immediately with a new art teacher named Peter Devine, who had, in my absence, overpainted my ostentatious mural and transformed the dusty hay loft where our visual arts classes were held into a neatly whitewashed artistic operating theater. Peter rounded up a core group of dedicated visual arts students and proceeded over the next two and a half years to give us a comprehensive, college-level, introductory course in oil painting materials and techniques, with a smattering of art history thrown in for good measure. An earnestly serious painter himself, Peter also managed to communicate to us the fundamentals of the Modernist view of painting as a deeply intellectual vocation of practice — a path one chose (or more likely was called-to) purely for the purpose of following it well and thoughtfully. A commercial career as a painter was far less the aim of his instruction than an indoctrination into the distilled Zen-like spirit of the discipline.

On graduating from WCS in 1979, I enrolled at RISD, a small art and design school in Rhode Island that had, up to that point, hewed to a pedagogical philosophy that was not so different to Peter Devine’s. But as I arrived, the school was undergoing a shift that was orienting its instruction more acutely to the kind of Art World celebrity and commercial success that contemporary stars like Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns had recently begun to attain in New York. RISD’s growing orientation to the fashionable downtown New York scene was compounded with the simultaneous introduction of an idea-based avant-gardism brought in by a new painting department head who had taught at the highly Conceptual Cal Arts school in Los Angeles. He in turn recruited a cadre of like-minded instructors who began to supplant the aging Modernist true-believers still lingering on staff. This new conceptual drift — coupled to the fashionable zeitgeist of the rising tide of Neo Expressionists then making a splash in Soho galleries like Leo Castelli’s and Mary Boone’s — set the confused template for the kind of artistic success that RISD, and a great many other art schools, thereafter encouraged their students to pursue: a curious self-cancelling formula of theoretical pretense married to market-targeted gimmickry.

This was the era in American art colleges that produced the generation of instructors, historians, critics and curators who today populate what is collectively referred to as “The Art World”. That idea of a separate realm specifically about art coalesced at the end of the 1970s in a rebirth of the kind of institutional order against which the Modernists had rebelled in their rejection of the French Academy and Salon a century earlier. Between these two institutional phases there was the globally chaotic and rapidly transforming modern world as a whole, within which some people also chose to make art. The innovative ideas that defined Modernism as such were firstly that art had a life of its own which should be defined by artists rather than by institutions; secondly, those artists who embraced Modernism believed that the subjects that should most concern them were not to be found by looking within their own cloistered realm, but by looking out to the bigger non-artistic world around them. The 100-year period that elapsed between the exhibition of Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe in the 1863 Salon de Refusés, and the creation of Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box in 1964, was a generally anarchic creative age when a fantastic variety of artists made whatever inventive things they wished to make and did so for whatever personally or collectively defined reasons happened to drive them. They recognized no authority beyond that of their internal reflections and the private debates of their café and tavern culture. They also worked, as often as not, in the full expectation of a life of obscurity and even poverty. More perversely still, they would sometimes follow a creative path that was calculatedly self-destructive to their own commercial success by scorning the desires and tastes of patrons or sneering at the institutions that hoped to entomb their achievements as so much dusty cultural treasure. The principal figures in the great movements of Modernism, all the way from Edouard Manet to Eva Hesse, were its questing knights, subversive bomb-throwers and Zen Masters. Only at the end of that era did they begin to become celebrities and seekers of commercial success. When they did so, the movement ended.

The breed that came up in the 1970s and 80s — Andy Warhols’ kids, from whose ranks have risen the art fair and auction house sensations of today — were a differently motivated population from their Modernist forbears, though not so much as they imagined themselves (as the torchbearers of a differently defined, but still-daring avant-garde) but as a far more docile generation of conformists. What I experienced firsthand at RISD in the early 1980s was a dramatic shift in how artists my age and younger began to see themselves. Rather than being called-to the disciplines and lifestyle of art as a potentially enriching path for the spirit, they were instead beginning to self-consciously parrot the institutionally defined postures of contemporary art and put them on like a costume or uniform in preparation for engagement in a profession that might bring them critical recognition or commercial rewards, and hopefully both.  Bit by bit, as the decades ticked by, the market in contemporary art — propelled by the extraordinary inequities of wealth that began with Reagan and Thatcher and which have lately reached an astonishing inflation in the oligarchic imperia of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin — have become ever more single-mindedly focused on the making of money, of which art itself is now merely an emblem. In the process, a pervasive dumbing-down and hollowing-out of the objects of art has taken place and we are bombarded in rapidly cycling fashionable phases by a cornucopia of slickly-produced, consistently turned-out artistic “brands”: product lines that affect an aura of philosophical gravity or cultural consciousness, but contain none of the risky subtlety accumulated through lifetimes of searching practice which characterized the work of the genuinely great Modern movements. There is no expansive or transcendent core of reflection in the vast majority of contemporary works that festoon the booths at Miami Basel, the Armory piers or the contemporary galleries of Chelsea today — only a seamless cacophony of variegated surfaces betraying no underlying depth.

What ended with the rise of Postmodernism was not art history, but our willingness, and even our ability to recognize what art really is. The stuff went on being made despite those institutional shifts, and there is plenty of it both inside and outside the walled enclosures of the self-obsessed, self-congratulatory art world. But just as was true for both artists and for the general public at the beginning of the twentieth century, we need once more to abandon the institutional narratives and look with our own eyes and study our own responses in order to find the genuinely great art of today. It is once more time to heave a generation of academic thinking into the dumpster and begin the kind of direct, personal re-imagining of art’s purpose and place in our lives that is never a merely linear historical progression, but the cyclic re-awakenings that are the heartbeat of aesthetic consciousness.



2 thoughts on “The first in a four-part essay on the practice of contemporary painting

  1. Brilliant, Sir. The world is starved for meaning and it all began when, as you write: “Rather than being called-to the disciplines and lifestyle of art as a potentially enriching path for the spirit, they were instead beginning to put it on self-consciously like a costume or a uniform in preparation for participation in a profession that might bring them recognition or financial rewards (and hopefully both).” I am looking for signs, as you are at the end of your essay, that change is afoot.


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