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by Donald Kuspit
The growing evidence of an overall structured and powerful human nature, channeling development of the mind, favors a more traditionalist view of the arts. . . . Works of art that prove enduring are intensely humanistic.
-- Edward O. Wilson, Consilience

Painting can still do what the best traditional painting has always done: evoke, with telling emotion and exquisite precision, "the ancient hereditary ground" of "the human esthetic," to use Wilson’s words. But the lesson of modernist painting is that it must enlist the medium in the service of the human esthetic if it is to continue to do so convincingly.

"Human nature exists, and it is both deep and highly structured" -- "evidence accumulated to date leaves little room for doubt," Wilson, the founder of sociobiology, reminds us. But the traditional means of emotional "transmission of [its] intricate details" -- the "universals or near-universals [that] emerged in the evolution of culture," and that reflect the "archetypes" or "inherited regularities of mental development that compose human nature" -- no longer "communicate feeling" convincingly in the modern world.

Perhaps this is because it has produced no new spiritual ideology to counterbalance its rampant materialism -- no new belief system to embody the universals of human nature. The Christian system seems to have lost credibility -- lost universal appeal, even in the society that endorsed it -- and the trendy turn to traditional Oriental systems of belief, such as Buddhism and Taoism, seem to be holding actions rather than innovative alternatives. Have we become so materialistic that we are incapable of spiritual originality? Have we sold out so completely to instant material gratification that we have lost touch with the archetypal depths of our own nature, and so are unable to begin to fathom its structure and with that realize our own larger humanity? Preferring to stay on the material surface, the depth becomes too dangerously mysterious to explore.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons we are in living in an age of increasing barbarism and inhumanity, as such different thinkers as the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm and the former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski have argued. Is the collective inhumanity so overwhelming that personal indifference -- spiritual numbness -- is the only response to it, as T. W. Adorno has suggested?

Or is it possible to put modern materialism to spiritual use, in effect turning it against itself? Is it possible, as Clement Greenberg implies -- and this is the ironical core of his dialectical thinking -- to enlist modern materialism in the service of art, making it evocative for the modern materialistic viewer, thus giving it fresh spiritual resonance, emotional power, and seemingly innate depth?

This is what modern painting does: "modernist painting. . . call[s] attention to the physical properties of the medium, but only in order to have these transcend themselves" (Collected Essays and Criticism, vol. 4, 33). If "art explains to us what we already feel, but it does not do so discursively or rationally; rather, it acts out an explanation in the sense of working on our feelings at a remove" (Ibid., vol. 3, 216), then the self-transcendence of the medium’s physical properties in modernist painting acts out our deepest feelings, "explaining" our depth to us.

This is the way great painting -- the most emotionally convincing painting -- has always worked: "the great masters of the past achieved their art by virtue of combinations of pigments whose real effectiveness was ‘abstract’". . . their "greatness is not owed to the spirituality with which they conceived the things they illustrated so much as it is to the success with which they ennobled raw matter to the point where it could function as art" (ibid., vol. 2, p. 233). Greenberg neglects to note that ennobled raw matter is spiritualized raw matter -- spirituality emanates from the very substance of great Old Master painting. Their esthetically ennobled paint acquires spiritual effect: it seems fraught with "internal necessity," as Kandinsky said. As though anticipating Wilson, he remarks that "our inner life. . . is ordered according to plan and purpose." Painting, an "infinitely subtle and refined, infinitely complex and complicated. . . combination of color-tones," conveys the "infinitely subtle and refined, infinitely complex and complicated" combinations of feeling ordering according to plan and purpose. "The material serves the abstract," and "the abstract" has "direct effect on the soul," Kandinsky wrote, for the abstract is directed "toward inner nature" (Complete Writings on Art in passim).

Now Greenberg was so obsessed with the abstract that he dismissed "human interest" -- his simplistic way of thinking about the human esthetic -- as beside the artistic point. Kandinsky does not. He mourns for the "separate existence" of "the ‘purely artistic’ and ‘objective’" -- abstraction and the representation of human beings and their lifeworld -- that occurred in modernity. In traditional art "the former expressed itself in the latter, while the latter served the former." It was an "ever-varying balancing act," in which sometimes human presence, sometimes the purely artistic seemed more prominent. But neither was ever entirely sacrificed to the other. Today this subtle "equilibrium" has been upset: "Art has apparently put an end to the welcome complementation of the abstract by means of the objective and vice versa." Or, as I would say, the welcome complementation -- integration -- of the human esthetic and abstract esthetics that existed in great Old Master painting.

At least three contemporary painters struggle to restore it, if in very different ways: Jörg Immendorff, Odd Nerdrum and Nora Speyer. All three attempt to re-integrate what have become opposites, indeed, what seem to hate each other, as Donald Judd’s vicious attack (1981) on Neo-Expressionistic figuration -- Georg Baselitz in particular -- indicates. It was part of his vehement defense of American abstraction in the face of renewed European engagement with the human esthetic, all the more disturbing because it enlisted abstract esthetics in the service of figuration, seemingly tilted the balance in its favor.

In very different ways, Immendorff, Nerdrum and Speyer overcome what Kandinsky called the "splitting" of abstraction and figuration in modern art -- not by subsuming abstraction in figuration, but by emphasizing both, so that they seem simultaneous, and in uncanny relationship, never losing their intimate connection, indeed, dialectically reinforcing each other, even cross-identifying, as in a good marriage, and, even more deeply, caught up in an "interpenetrating mix-up."

Whatever the mythical character of the figures in Immendorff’s untitled paintings, which are haunted by images from traditional art -- his quotation of the grounded angel in Dürer’s Melencolia I is a telling example -- and however mythologized Nerdrum’s female nudes, floating in a seventh heaven that has ironically become a black abyss (both Immendorff’s and Nerdrum’s paintings suggest existential depletion; Panofsky has pointed out that Dürer’s figure symbolizes the despair of the artist unable to transcend his condition, however he tries), what is remarkable about their works is their painterly intensity.

Immendorff’s pictures are more thinly painted than Nerdrum’s -- the paint is ostentatiously packed on, with nuancing highlights that make the all-over blackness more emphatic by seeming to plumb its depths -- but both are implicitly abstract however explicitly figurative. The figures flatten into the ground in Immendorff’s paintings, and Nerdrum’s figures all but sink into the black ground -- their luminosity keeps them precariously afloat and alive, while Nerdrum’s are Hadean ghosts, that is, the living dead, as the flat black silhouettes of many of them and the gray pallor of the others suggest. In both painters abstraction conveys spiritual death even as the figures gesture and move, even as some of them fall into the void, as in Nerdrum’s pictures, or are already fallen, as in Immendorff’s perversely nostalgic pictures.

Speyer’s pictures convey something very different -- life at its most vital, indeed, the renewal of spiritual life, as her glorious trees, miraculously reborn in Spring, suggest. The trees are surrogate figures -- complex bodies, that however sometimes gnarled and twisted and old, like Speyer herself, still burst with life. Speyer is over 80, and her paintings show that late style need not dwell on death, need not be depressing: hope not only springs eternal, but art also can, even in the modern world. Old Oak Tree (2006) makes the point decisively: the tree is not yet dead, however much it has suffered the vicissitudes of time. Even the Dead Limbs on Patience Brook (2006) flow and glow with the lively, color-rich brook.

As in all great nature painting, nature romantically represents the exciting depths of human nature in Speyer’s paintings. Both natures have their seasons, and each is implicit in the other. But what makes Speyer’s trees trully alive -- whether corpse-like or hanging on for dear life -- is her painterly handling, simultaneously forceful and refined, an infinite and intimate combination of subtle color-tones, to refer to Kandinsky’s remarks, driven by deep inner necessity.

Sometimes the pictures are "cropped," to make the trees "outstanding," but it is the painterliness that carries the confrontation -- makes the trees uncanny and "forward," so that we can see every detail of their bark and the lability of their leaves. For all the thickness of Speyer’s paint -- its density helps mythologize the trees, suggesting that they might once have been Daphne-like maidens -- there is something judicious and parsimonious in its application. There is no sense of waste, or intoxicating excess, however Dionysian the final effect. There is a kind of calm elation and innocent glory.

No self-defeat here, as in Immendorff and Nerdrum, but joie de vivre sustained by painterly intensity. All three painters deal with the figure’s impending death -- an epic theme, all the more so because the figure was discarded by abstraction -- but Speyer’s painterly abstraction refuses to capitulate to the shadow cast by death, and brings out the inner humanity and with that the everlasting necessity of the figure.

Jörg Immendorff, "New Paintings," Jan. 24-Mar. 24, 2007, at Michael Werner Gallery, 4 East 77th Street, New York, N.Y. 10021

Odd Nerdrum, "Paintings," Jan. 25-Mar. 17, 2007, at Forum Gallery, 745 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10151

Nora Speyer, "Trees on Patience Brook," Jan. 25-Feb. 24, 2007, at Denise Bibro Fine Art, 529 West 20th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011

DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.