CLAYTON ON ART: The never-ending death of painting

By Alec Clayton on February 12, 2013

Who are the important artists today? Someone posed that question on Facebook (Actually she said painters, not artists, but I don't follow instructions well).

Hardy anybody responded and those who did said things like nobody younger than 60 is important. One person listed a whole bunch of people who are dead and gone. The most frequent names put forth were Gerhardt Richter, who is 81, and British graffiti artists Banksy, who is the only artist of any international importance I can think of who is younger than 40. The only other artists I can think of offhand who is still doing important work is sculptor Richard Serra, another old dude - born in 1939. Oh, and Martin Puryear, born in '41 but a late bloomer who did not come into prominence until the '90s.

And I guess we have to include Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, two young artists who will undoubtedly go down in history as important figures. I have my doubts about Hirst but have to admit I do not know his work well enough to make an informed judgment. Koons, on the other hand, I find fascinating even though he's done little if anything that Warhol and Duchamp didn't do long before him.

Either there's a dirge of exciting young artists at work today or I am totally out of touch with what's happening.

It's not an exciting time in art. It's not like when I was in college. That was an exciting time (about the time Damien Hirst was born). Pop Art was in its heyday. There was minimalism, hard edge abstraction, happenings and environmental art. There was something new almost every day. I still think the most important artists of the modern and post-modern era were the Abstract Expressionists and Pop artists. Everyone since has just recycled what de Kooning and Pollock and Warhol and Frank Stella did with some comic art thrown into the mix.

But then the question - who is important begs another question: What is meant by important? I think to be truly important an artist needs to affect change in the world or in the history of art. Picasso and Braque certainly shaped the history of modern art with the invention of Cubism. Kandinsky has to be considered important as the first abstract painter. And Pollock, ironically, not so much for his paintings - which are marvelous - but for opening the doors to multi-media happenings and performance art. By painting on unstretched canvases on the floor and famously walking around and literally being in his painting he turned the art of painting into something larger that metaphorically and, in some cases literally, became something larger than life or something that obscured the boundaries between art and life - the act of painting became as important as the painting that resulted, which was just a kind of archival record of the act.

Throughout the history of modern art many people have declared painting dead. Perhaps Pollock killed it, but if he did, out of the ashes rose the phoenix of a new kind of art loosely termed post-modernist, which now encompasses everything that has come since. To extend the irony of Pollock, in the last years of his life he begin to make paintings that gave hints he might be reverting back to traditional easel painting. Since he died so tragically and so young we will never know.

Painting is dead; long live painting.

LINK: Alec Clayton's Visual Edge column