Henrik Soderstrom


On Youtube, there is a recording of a panel discussion held at the Jewish Museum in 2014 with Joanne Greenbaum, Stanley Whitney, and Philip Taaffe.  

The talk, moderated by Bob Nickas, is rhetorically titled What’s at Stake for Abstract Painting Today? - and Where Do We Go from Here?

Erin Sweigard sent me a link to the recording, which I listened to yesterday.


A projected image of one of Lucien Smith’s Rain Paintings absorbed some dismissive criticism from Bob Nickas during the discussion.  The main gesture of Nickas’ remarks implied that Smith (and other young artists like Fredrik Værslev - in his admittedly general words “men born between 1980 and 1989) were neither very patient nor very hard-working.

Joanne Greenbaum commented that lots of young artists “don’t even draw… don’t even seem like they read very much.”  She recounted a recent visit to an art school during which she noticed that no one was making objects.  Without exception, she said, the students led her to their computers and showed her plans of what they intended to make.  

In a patient tone of voice, Stanley Whitney pointed out that his paintings take a LONG time to make.  He seemed to indicate a contrast with the paintings by young artists shown on the projection screen behind him, many of which might generally fall victim to Jerry Saltz’s machine-gun style “Crapstraction” article from 2014.  

A young and somewhat snarky sounding audience member asked the panelists if they thought work made by the 20-and-30-something Lucien Smiths of our world might be responding to an overwhelming digital experience of reality. (ubiquitous computing, the internet of things, etc…)  Perhaps, he implied, the panelists were too old or out of touch to really get new paintings by young artists.  (They were later prodded by an impatient sounding audience member for missing a casual reference to a recent Richard Prince show.)


Here is a possible sketch of the disconnect in caricature form: 

For the old panelists, rectangular paintings are slow and ignorant of their relationship to rectangular digital screens. 

For the young audience members, paintings by artists like Fredrik Værslev use strategies related to monotony and apathy to reflect a smirking map of reality.

Perhaps this is unfair.


The disconnect between the panelists and many of the more sardonic sounding audience members brought to mind a bumper-sticker-quality sentence usually attributed to Bertolt Brecht: “Art is not a mirror to reflect reality but a hammer to reshape it.”  

One element of the scaffolding that all painters have inherited - the tradition of a flat thing on the wall with color and texture - is a visual word for slow down and open yourself to an aesthetic experience.  Paintings are sort of like windows, sort of like mirrors, and sort of like screens, but they have also carved out their own space over time.  We might gaze at phone screens for information, computer screens for work, and tv screens for less-than-challenging entertainment when we are tired, but maybe we respond to paintings more contemplatively, more slowly.  

At least painters hope so.  For example, I remember reading a 1983 Artforum  article by Kenneth Baker in which Vija Clemins insisted that her Star Field drawings were drawn from pictures that “are our images.”  “We see them everywhere” she said “in movies, on bill-boards, on TV, on stamps.”  The fact that Clemins was speaking years before paintings could have been compared to smartphone screens or experienced as photos-of-paintings on websites only amplifies the present contrast between “slow handmade” and "fast screen" images.  Even in 1983, Clemins' hope in making drawings of photographs of stars, she said, was to “slow them down so they’re not just a cliche in your mind.”  I think that this is a noble pursuit.

In a small way, it is possible that paintings experienced in person can nudge us to look carefully, experiencing an object with our mind and our emotions without tacking restrictive words like “entertain”, “analyze”, or “understand” on to our expectations.  

Should painters aim to reshape the critically passive behavior that we rehearse daily with other flat objects like screens by providing objects that prompt an alternative way of looking, or should we reflect a daily experience saturated with banner advertisements and boredom-vanquishing-phone-screens?  Even if we do the later with critically engaged sarcasm, we might still be complicit in re-enforcing a screen-numbed collection of cultural norms.  I realize that paintings-as-commercial-objects are vulnerable to the Spectacle as the subscriptions, objects, and identities being sold in Amazon banner adds, but I do not believe that this necessarily kills their ability to have an impact on the way we see.  Do we most often practice glancing fast, gazing greedily, staring blankly, or looking critically?  Do we expect aesthetically moving experiences or are we too smart to think they are real?  Paintings and drawings have a role to play in the daily battles fought over the mannerisms that rule our sight.