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by Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe
As one enters "EXAMINING PICTURES" (subtitled,
"Exhibiting Painting" in tiny type), which originated at the
Whitechapel Gallery in London but is now at the UCLA Hammer
Museum in Los Angeles, one sees John Baldessari's Examining
Pictures, whence the show's title is derived. This work is flanked
by a Cy Twombly and a Carroll Dunham painting on each of the adjoining
walls, and faced by a Warhol Electric Chair.
The catalogue essay was written by the exhibition's curators, Francesco Bonami of the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, and Judith Nesbitt of the Whitechapel. The frontispiece is Velasquez' Las Meninas, which tells us that we are to understand painting from a perspective heavily influenced by Michel Foucault, whose brilliant analysis of that work (though apparently wrong in some important details) has become assimilated to a simpler scheme very popular with those who symbolically administer our cultural life.
When one turns the page, one finds a Jannis Kounellis painting largely made up of the word "paint," which tells one the same thing again. Bonami and Nesbitt describe the show as in part stimulated by the last Jackson Pollock retrospective, and predicated on the idea that Pollock brought painting to a close -- in the same way, one supposes, that Charlie Parker wanted to abolish melody and Joyce the novel -- rather than extending it.
Benjamin Buchloh is cited in support of this thesis, which as usual is treated as unarguable. Its abolition being the important thing, painting is to be maintained as a ritual confirmation of why it is unsustainable.
The first room reminds us of the rules and of how, as in Pollock's case, the meanings of works made before the early 1970s have been revised for our own good. Baldessari's profoundly funny work, made in an age when every cover of Artforum seemed to have Frank Stella on it, is here used as a humorless prohibition, exemplary in that its textuality and lack of color or gesture are now to be seen not only to rhetorically eschew these properties but to actually forbid their use.
The other three works are examples of what you can do instead. Twombly is there to show how you can do gesture as long as it's kind of like writing, which will enable one to rehearse the priority of the word over the image fundamental to the show's historicist fundamentalism.
Dunham's horrible painting rehearses the theme that only ugliness can guarantee authenticity and seriousness, which means that one may do painting as long as it's unpleasant to look at and as such a critique of the alternative to the unpleasant, which may be invoked only to be discredited.
Warhol's piece offers the third choice, which is that if it's to be made not of writing or marks that are sort of like writing, and doesn't offer the reassurance provided by the unambiguously negative, then it could be all right to make a painting as long as it wasn't actually a painting. This is the age of mechanical reproducibility option.
The rest of the exhibition repeats the lesson using various combinations, some especially unconvincing and quite a few made up of particularly bad examples of the artist's work. Robert Ryman -- who said one may screw a painting onto the wall through its surface but one can't do that to a picture -- and Brice Marden are there, as examples of what one should negate, using one of the formulae listed above, which may also be further combined, Stella's glaring absence perhaps confirming that he might be said to have transgressed against himself, which could unhelpfully qualify the thesis.
Dave Hickey pointed out to me that Georg Baselitz has said that there is a strong tradition of bad painting in Germany, and the curators have made sure that the works by Baselitz and Gerhard Richter that they've selected are representative in that respect, their main purpose here in the one case to provide some ugliness, picking up the Dunham theme, and in the other to perform the conversion of Warhol into Walter Benjamin.
Franz Gertsch is here but not Philip Pearlstein (for instance), Luc Tuymans but not Alex Katz, which adds to one's conviction that one is in the presence of a canon invented to manage painting in a way that will give the social sciences the last word while having as few loose ends as possible. Another way of saying which is that it is a show in which the New York School has been expunged in order that the Frankfurt School, bowdlerized, may take its place.
Perhaps it is best seen as one more sign among many that while the '80s could be sustained by artificial resuscitation throughout the '90s, the life-support apparatus itself has grown creaky.
"EXAMINING PICTURES" will have been invaluable to art and cultural historians seeking to get in early with books about how a fatuously historicist regime lasted for a little more than a quarter century before imploding under the pressure of its own absurdity during the first decade of the 21st century.
The exhibition was on view at the UCLA Hammer Museum, Feb. 2-Apr. 2, 2000.
JEREMY GILBERT-ROLFE is a painter. His latest book, Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime, was published this year by Alworth Press in New York.