Posted on 05 February 2014.
We’ve been debating painting’s death for centuries now, and it seems we can’t quit. In 1839 the late French painter Paul Delaroche first dared to say those fateful words “painting is dead.” But even now nobody can agree if it’s dead; painting’s been reborn more times than we can count, thanks to critics who declare that “painting is back.” Is there any point to this seesawing between “painting is dead” and “painting is back”? Well, I did some quick and easy Google research and came up with a brilliant conclusion: My head hurts.
You don’t need to do research to feel art pangs, but anyway, I did some research. First I chose a representative essay from each year which declared the status of painting as either “dead” or “back.” Those are listed below. (A Google search returns approximately 66,300 results for “painting is back” and 175,000 results for “painting is dead.”) Then I made a very unscientific chart of the two Google search terms, featured above. As you can see there’s some back-and-forth between blue (“painting is dead”) and red (“painting is back”), at least in terms of Google search popularity. Take that with a grain of salt.
Now there’s one important irony I dragged out from all this “painting is dead” versus “painting is back.” Art critics often bring up “painting is dead,” but only to say they don’t believe it. Howard Halle and Jerry Saltz for example, are both quite fond of talking about—and dismissing—the “painting is dead” line of thinking. Oddly, it’s hard to find articles where people actually believe that painting is dead. Nobody’s willing to go on the record saying it is finally, truly, and forever dead. Instead, we get an in-crowd of critics attempting to knock down a straw man that nobody really believes in.
Critics, this post’s for you. There’s no better way to gage this absurd, meaningless chatter than looking at how these phrases have been used over the last decade in the articles below. My favorite, by James Kalm in a 2004 issue of The Brooklyn Rail: “Painting is dead. No painting is alive. No it’s dead, no it’s alive, no dead, no alive, dead, alive, yada yada yada.” I think it’s time we shut up now.
Painting Is Dead
From “Off the Wall, Through the Surface, and Around the Painting,” Kevin Blake, Bad At Sports
2013 – “The only place painting is dead is the art world.” (Mario Naves)
From “Does Painting Still Matter?” Patrick Neal, Hyperallergic
From “Painting’s Not Dead: Charline von Heyl,” The Double Negative
From “After the Drips,” Jerry Saltz, Artnet
By Howard Halle, Time Out New York
From “Gerhard Richter,” Howard Halle, Time Out New York
From “Some Paintings,” Doug Harvey, L.A. Weekly
2007 – “Except for diehards, the pleasure police, October magazine, pedantic curators and those last few Greenbergian critics who still insist that if painting isn’t about itself it’s washed up, no one thinks painting is dead.”
From “Back From the Brink,” Jerry Saltz, Artnet
2006 – “For all of the regular pronouncements of the ‘death of painting’ it just refuses to roll over and play dead. Painting as possum. Not dead but just pretending to be as it gathers strength for yet another resurrection.”
From “Cecily Brown at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston,” Charles Giuliano, Berkshire Fine Arts
From “A New Lease on Painting,” Nichole Davis, Artnet
2004 – “Painting is dead. No painting is alive. No it’s dead, no it’s alive, no dead, no alive, dead, alive, yada yada yada. Actually painting is not dead; it’s more like Neil Young’s “Rust,” in that… it never sleeps.”
From “Cynthia Hartling,” James Kalm, The Brooklyn Rail
Painting Is Back
From “Star-tissima: The Grande Donna of Contemporary Turin,” Simon Hewitt, The Huffington Post
From “British Painting Is Back,” David Killen, Prospect Magazine
From “Ecstatic Dots and Dashes,” John Haber, Haber Arts
From “Why Nothing Can Be Accomplished in Painting, and Why It Is Important to Keep Trying,” James Elkins (From 2004, Revised in 2011)
From “Distinction or Dichotomy,” John Haber, Haber Arts
From “Beyond Hard-Edge,” James Panero, the New Criterion (originally published in 2005)
2008 – “After two visits to Pace Wildenstein Gallery, the site of the recent Thomas Nozkowski exhibition, I am willing to place my bet that abstract painting is back in the saddle not because of the market, but that it means something.”
From “Meaning in Art,” Robert C. Morgan, The Brooklyn Rail
2007 – “Abstract painting is back.”
From “The New Abstraction,” Barbara A. MacAdam, ARTnews
From “Market News: Princess Margaret’s Collection and More,” Colin Gleadell, The Telegraph
From “Why Painting Is Back in the Frame,” The Telegraph
From “Painting Is Back,” The Christian Science Monitor