June 20, 2015

"People don’t realize that when you are working on a painting, every day you are seeing something awful."

Said the painter Albert Oehlen to the art critic Peter Schjeldahl who elaborates:
The dramatic mood of the work is comic, beset by existential worry. It’s as if each picture wondered, “What am I? Am I even art? O.K., but what does that mean?”
Schjeldahl calls Oehlen "the foremost painter of the era that has seen painting decline as the chief medium of new art."

Painting was once very important. Isn't it strange that the foremost painter of our era is someone you've never probably never heard of and who even when you're told he's the foremost painter you probably don't even care enough to click to see what the hell that awful, comic, beset-by-existential-worry thing looks like?

50 comments:

Michael K said...

My daughter worked for some years for a painter I never heard of and whose paintings sell for the price of a nice Orange County home. Now, she works in an art gallery where women walk in and buy painting I never heard of for a million dollars. They probably spent this week at an Obama fund raiser.

Another world.

I wish she could paint.

harrogate said...

"Painting was once very important."

Not so sure it isn't still important.

"Isn't it strange that the foremost painter of our era is someone you've never probably never heard of and who even when you're told he's the foremost painter you probably don't even care enough to click to see what the hell that awful, comic, beset-by-existential-worry thing looks like?"

Maybe on these boards the "you" in the above sentence generally applies. Maybe not. But even if nobody reading this blog recognized the name nor cared to view the painting, it wouldn't be very strange in terms of history.

Was there ever a time where you could go to just any group of people and they'd all be hugely into painting?

Eustace Chilke said...

I looked. It's crap.

There's a reason why stories about scam artist artists are so common. This is a guy we're supposed to take seriously but even people who consider my reaction as uninformed are often taken in. And no wonder. No one can really tell the difference between this kind of thing and something slapped together for a quick score. The art here is in getting to be taken seriously.

Paddy O said...

"Isn't it strange that the foremost painter of our era is someone you've never probably never heard of"

Not really. For a few reasons. One, the foremost in a lot of fields is a person most others haven't heard of. Foremost doesn't necessarily mean most popular. Kandinksy's triangle comes to mind as a reason for that.

The other reason, is less profound and likely more art critic related. The foremost can't be something hoi polloi know. Critics are the original hipsters. If everyone had heard of Oehlen, they'd pick someone else to be "foremost."

Foremost is also a way of saying "established" and "old". I did care enough to click on the link and it seems like he's the foremost of a ending movement. Modern art has exhausted itself. He was shaped in style in the 60s? That's half a century ago. Paint is in need of refreshment.

There's also a lot more mediums out there, so painting is pretty diluted. Hard to find the new thing, when artists have so many choices of expression. Painting has been around for 10,000s of years, so a lot of the possible paths of discovery are old. All we have left is various neos.

Skyler said...

There's a difference between art and decoration. This painting is decidedly in the decoration category, as is much of the "art" since the mid 20th century.

Ann Althouse said...

Note: I went to art school, beginning in 1970, and majored in painting.

Ann Althouse said...

Painting was a far, far more important part of the culture back then and in the preceding decades.

The fact that there are still painters and that some of them sell paintings for a lot of money is beside the point I'm making, which is whether the larger culture cares, as it did back in the 1960s and earlier.

"I wish she could paint."

You wish that in the reality in which she can't.

Michael said...

Have a good long look at this picture and then take a stroll through the Metropolital Museum' s Renaissance and Late Middle Ages galleries

Is there a reason that liberals gravitate to the modern, to the abstract? Is it because they love nuance and are smarter than the rest or is it because they cannot, metaphorically or otherwise, draw a stick man?

gerry said...

Note: I went to art school, beginning in 1970, and majored in painting.

I'm glad you learned a trade.

Terry said...

I think that you could program a computer to come up with a very similar style to the painting shown in the article, and yet very different in appearance. Then you could have fun spoofing critics who thought they could the real from the fake.
So, non-representational paintings are supposed to be given meaning in the mind of the viewer, rather than imposed on the viewer by the artist.
You know what that means? Yep. The Oehlen painting is a portrait of Rachel Dolezal.

harrogate said...

Michael,

Is there any reason why one cannot appreciate both or all? Are you just wholesale writing off modern and/or abstract art, just trying to score a political point, or what?

Graham Powell said...

I wonder if there's a sense in the art community that painting is a vein that's been mined out, as if there's nothing new to do. My opinion is that the search for novelty is a terrible thing, that even stuff that isn't breaking new ground can be really, really good. But then I've been reading a lot of whodunits from the 1930s lately, so maybe I'm just backwards.

Sebastian said...

"Painting was once very important."

400 years ago, in parts of Europe, among elites.

"whether the larger culture cares, as it did back in the 1960s"

Elites were better able to tell "the larger culture" what it was supposed to care about. Impressionable young art students were most likely to buy the BS, flattered to think that what they did Mattered.

Of course, the price of art depends on status competition among the rich, not whether the larger culture cares.

harrogate said...

"The fact that there are still painters and that some of them sell paintings for a lot of money is beside the point I'm making, which is whether the larger culture cares, as it did back in the 1960s and earlier. "

Yes and your point is taken, although are we in danger of giving in to nostalgia of some kind, to suggest that "larger culture" cared so very much more for painting and its foremost practitioners in the 60s, than now.

harrogate said...

I rather like the paintings at the link, btw.

Oso Negro said...

Painting went off the tracks when it required explanation by critics. Walking through the Albertina in Vienna a couple of years ago, it was obvious that among the casualties of World War 1 was painting. The paintings before the war were enjoyable; those after the war, shit. Of course, what do I know? I have degrees in English and Chemical Engineering. But I sold art prints for a time while I was in college in the early 1970s. Even then, people were buying representational art.

Oso Negro said...

Oh, and the one thing that Hitler did that I applaud is he took care of the Bauhaus people. They fucked up architecture.

Skyler said...

My personal theory is that modern "art" exists mainly as a means of laundering money.

Eric the Fruit Bat said...

Making monsters used to be very important, as well.

CAPTION: "I spend a lifetime making monsters, Igor, and what does it get me? A room full of monsters."

(Caption from memory.)

Eric the Fruit Bat said...

Kliban on art criticism: LINK.

Said with love, I'm sure.

Ann Althouse said...

"Painting went off the tracks when it required explanation by critics."

"The Painted Word," by Tom Wolfe.

Anthony said...

Photography killed painting as an important art form, but the lust for the ugly of the early 20th century sped the decline.

Before photography, there was a lot of work for journeyman painters to make portraits and landscapes for the moderately important or wealthy person - think of the manor house with paintings of all the head of the family for the previous 300 years, or the old office with a painting of the company president. Now, people use photographs for the same purpose, so the people with the aesthetic sensibility who would have gone into painting instead go into photography, shrinking the pool from which truly talented artists will emerge (and instead, we get very talented photographers).

Painting as an art isn't dead, and won't be - go to a street festival where painters sell their paintings for proof. But there won't be as many pioneers in the field or truly spectacular painters as there used to be, because the field doesn't support as many ordinary painters.

Critics aren't helping, though. When I was young, people of my parents class discussed art, and while most couldn't afford an original painting by a well-known artist, there were well-known artists, and they could afford a limited-edition lithograph by a Picasso or Dalí. And the critics agreed with them that painters like Picasso, Dalí, Warhol, etc., were the foremost painters of their time. These days, would a typical law professor want works by the foremost painters of today in their house?

Laslo Spatula said...

Does no one remember the video of Farrah Fawcett painting with her nude body?

I sure do.

I am Laslo.

Michael K said...

"Michael,

Is there any reason why one cannot appreciate both or all? Are you just wholesale writing off modern and/or abstract art, just trying to score a political point, or what?"

Why "political ?"

I wonder if you are as enthusiastic about the modern art in the London museum of same ? I went there with my daughter a few years ago. One item was a piece of board about 20 inches by 10 inches with nails driven into it in the outline of a fish. Then string was wound around the nails. I laughed at the poor custodians who had to maintain it. Does that appeal you you or am I being too "political?"

I do like some abstract color paintings but much of "modern art" seems to be pretentious.

How about the cans of the artist's shit ? I understand they are leaking.

Michael K said...

Sorry, harrogate. You were probably addressing another Michael. Still, modern art, of the type my daughter sells, is not to my taste. The expressionists, who I do like except Seurat, were considered out of bounds when they tried to exhibit in Paris in the late 1800s.

I also went to art school but not in college. I like to paint a little and one of my sons has a painting of mine in his house.

harrogate said...

"Does that appeal you you or am I being too 'political?'"

No, Michael K., to be honest, that particular piece (the board and nails) doesn't sound very appealing the way you describe it. :-) Although I would have to take a look to be sure. I have always wanted to go to that Museum btw, but have never been.

I only brought up politics because Michael asked: "Is there a reason that liberals gravitate to the modern, to the abstract? Is it because they love nuance and are smarter than the rest or is it because they cannot, metaphorically or otherwise, draw a stick man?"

Most likely, knowledgable and talented Artists, as well as Art Historians, critics, and just fans, gravitate to works across eras and genres. And also dislike individual paintings and entire movements across time periods too. Regardless of their politics.

harrogate said...

Michael K.,

Fair enough. FWIW, it sounds like you have one of the most eclectic range of expertise and interests, of the people who post here. I almost always disagree with you but I would wager you are a hell of a lot of fun to hang out with.

rcocean said...

I don't care about abstract painting. Most art is simply a commercial racket in order for Rich people to get tax deductions. Here's how it works. You buy painting X for $1 million then you and your rich buddies start buying and selling each others paintings. Before you know it Painting X, has a fair market value of $5 million. You donate it to a museum and you take your capital gain of $4 million as a charitable deduction.

Or you can simply bribe some museum or art "expert" to value your painting at $5 million, and then take the tax write off.

rcocean said...

That's what crappy art gets valued at a price. Its not about the Art and someone loving it so much they're willing to pay millions, its all about the Benjamins.

Laslo Spatula said...

If I was still a painter I would paint a series of works depicting a nude woman with pert breasts, and the series would be called "Miley Cyrus' Vagina."

In each painting a solid circle of color would be placed over where her face would be. Each painting would then be referred to by the circle color: "Miley Cyrus' Vagina (Blue)," "Miley Cyrus' Vagina (Green)," etc.

The juxtaposition of the naked vagina and the face obscured of all detail, except the color inferring a mood, would make it ART.

Of course, I would save "Miley Cyrus' Vagina (PINK)" just for Ms. Cyrus, where I would inevitably deliver it to her in person and she would have her people place it on the wall of her living room, and then she would take off her top exposing her pert breasts and suck on my cock.


I am Laslo.


Howard said...

Photography did not kill painting, it made it better through the chaotic application of free-market competition. Since photos took the place of place realism, painting evolved into what the camera couldn't do, like impressionism and multiple focal lengths, multiple F-stops, vibrant color, multiple vanishing points, etc, etc. Without photography, there would have never been Monet, Degas or van Gogh. Interestingly enough, some think that the Renaissance breakthrough on perspective was due to the use of cameras by the old masters as outlined in the controversial theory of the last great living Cubist, the gay Englishman from LA:

Old Masters Camera

Another view of the evolution of painting from a Bay Area vascular surgeon:

Art and Physics

Michael K: Encourage your daughter to take painting classes that focus on the basics of materials, perspective and design. It will provide a quantum leap in her knowledge of art. Painting is a skill that can be learned... Edison's advise to inventors (perspiration over inspiration) applies to art. One reason why so much are is junk is that basic skills are not taught. This is what hurts abstract painting most because it requires the highest technical skills... realism is easy. I learned in my 40's and was first inspired by Bob Ross, then followed the teachings of a great abstract realist and a great figurative master in charcoal:

Richard Schmid
Henry Yan

Terry said...

"Oh, and the one thing that Hitler did that I applaud is he took care of the Bauhaus people. They fucked up architecture."
Surely you don't approve of Hitler killing the Jewish Bauhaus people, Oso Negro?

YoungHegelian said...

Smoky, Maoist political frenzies, promoted by Immendorff, engaged him for a while, though not exclusively. “Mao was O.K.,” Oehlen told me when I spoke with him recently, “but not without Frank Zappa and Andy Warhol.” (When I asked who his favorite musician is, his answer seemed perfectly unsurprising: the free-jazz revolutionary Ornette Coleman.)

You have to be of a certain post-war generation when you can think Mao was okay, but he just needed more Zappa, Warhol, & Coleman as the teaspoon of sugar to make the medicine go down (to quote Mary Poppins, which seems positively realistic compared to the quotation above).

Historians 200 years from now will read the quote above & wonder how it was possible for anyone to think light that.

Michael said...

Harrogate:

I suppose it bends on what you mean by modern or abstract art and what you mean by politics. I think it is beyond doubt that abstract art is favored by people who would call themselves liberals or progressives. If you think otherwise I would like to hear your thoughts on that.

I travel around the world on a pretty regular basis and I always find time to visit the galleries, both the institutional ones like the Met but smaller ones which feature modern, current, artists. My wife is herself a painter who has talent and who works very very hard at it so I have a sense of what is required to produce pictures and the agony that process. So I am sympathetic to the ideas presented in the article.

Althouse referred to Tom Wolfe"s "The Painted Word" and I would commend it to you if you have not already read it. It speaks much more eloquently than I can of the art world's embrace of the abstract and, sometimes, the terrible.

I know of the painter in question and have no doubt he is a respected member of the non-academy. You no doubt know of the departures of artists from the established academies starting in the 19th century and bringing us to where we are today. The talent of a transgressive like Turner, for instance, can and shoiuld be juxaposed with the talent of, say, Pollock. As artists have tried to gain respect through transgression the "field", if I can call it that, has attracted more mediocrities than has historically been possible. I could go on, but I think I have made my point.

Can one enjoy both contemporary art and that of the grand masters and their predecessors? Sure. Do you think that on a lark Oehlen could duplicate something by Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez? Even something simple?

Fernandinande said...

The paintings are pretty awful.

Fernandinande said...

Howard said...Without photography, there would have never been Monet, Degas or van Gogh.

I have no Monet to buy Degas to make the Van Gogh.

Fernandinande said...

Outsider Art

16 galleries, no waiting.

William said...

I think painters have actually gone up in status. In the Renaissance, the goldsmiths, jewelry makers, and sculptors had a higher place in the pecking order.....Here's a good place to put in a plug for the movie Mr. Turner. The movie dramatizes incidents from the life of the artist JM Turner. The movie details all his warts---and he was a veritable wart hog--and shows his genius. Both his genius and warts are left unexplained. Beauty and ugliness are mysteries.

Allison said...

The most beautiful paintings are now done by illustrators of children's picture books. Just incredible work. It probably pays little, but the better ones can make a steady wage of it. Children have no use for bad art.

dbp said...

"even when you're told he's the foremost painter you probably don't even care enough to click to see what the hell that awful, comic, beset-by-existential-worry thing looks like?"

I did click through but my first thought (after seeing a bunch of paintings I had never seen before) was that Oehlen probably is not really "the foremost painter".

So I did a bunch of searches, found paintings I had seen before, some I had never seen, lots I liked more than Oehlen's. And never found Oehlen at the top of any best-of list. Here is an example result that had at least a couple of names I had heard of before.

The chosen ones, selected by V.F.'s opinion crew of "top artists, academics, and curators," are...
Gerhard Richter.
Jasper Johns.
Richard Serra.
Bruce Nauman.
Cindy Sherman.
Ellsworth Kelly.

Oso Negro said...

@Terry - it is the architecture of the Bauhaus that offends, not the ethnicity of its creators.

Hammond X. Gritzkofe said...

Frankly, Althouse, I think the "art" tag inappropriate. "Sludge," maybe.

fivewheels said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Smilin' Jack said...

""People don’t realize that when you are working on a painting, every day you are seeing something awful.""

And even worse, they don't realize that what the world needs most is more awful paintings, so they don't even thank you.

Michael K said...

" I almost always disagree with you but I would wager you are a hell of a lot of fun to hang out with."

We should try that sometime. Maybe invite ARM but I don't do Wisconsin. Just kidding. I do do Greece, though.

Michael said...

Michael K

I have purchased your book on Amazon and look forward to it. If you haven't yet read it you should look at Oliver Sack's autobiography much of which covers his own medical school and practice.

You should be OK with Greece. The Gnomes of the EU aren't going to let it go

averagejoe said...

I clicked on the link. I looked at the paintings. If that guy is the foremost painter, and those haphazard smears and smudges are representative of his work, then there is a very good reason why "Painting" is no longer valued...

Robert Cook said...

I looked...some of it was tripe and some of it not so bad. None of it seemed worth prolonged consideration.

I have always been puzzled by those who cannot appreciate art in all its variety; even when I took life classes at the Art Students League (NYC) I would hear students--and once or twice, instructors--decry non-representational art, which always astonished me. Accomplished representational art displays certain technical skills that non-representational artists may or may not have acquired (don't assume all have not!), but skill alone does not make art. I have always believed that even artists who did not intend to work representationally should learn traditional drawing and painting skills, knowledge of the figure, etc., simply to provide them with the tools to be capable of executing without impediment whatever their imaginations might require. (De Kooning is one example of a modern painter who was well-schooled--and proficient--in traditional drawing skills and painting techniques). However, with the rise in the last decade or two of ateliers and schools devoted to representational art and teaching traditional skills, one sees again that phenomenon that gave rise to the Impressionists in 19th-Century France: academic art that is impeccable in technique, yet vapid, empty, still-born. Many of these young artists work hard to develop their facility and technique, yet they don't have anything to say, and there is no innate feel to their work that makes it worth remembering. And then, there are those few who do have something to say, or whose work does possess an indefinable feel that compels prolonged attention and appreciation.

I like non-representational art and I like representational art; the truth is, most of all of it is shit. Sturgeon's Law is an iron law, and applies to all things.

sparrow said...

"Isn't it strange that the foremost painter of our era is someone you've never probably never heard of"
Sad but true Beauty has been rejected as mere sentiment by fine artists in favor of ?? I'm not really sure.

Peter said...

Perhaps one can say much the same thing about novelists?