How painting became a product

What is it that makes a painting live? So many are filtered out, only a few survive the test of time.

Since the mid 1950s America has dominated the art world. Starting with a group of artists loosely labelled “Abstract Expressionists”. For them the problem was how to make paintings that weren’t poor relations to the painting in Paris. They wanted their own, home grown painting. The main obstacle was Picasso, how to go further than him. They tried imitating him and couldn’t get hold of the core of Picasso’s power. De Kooning, Gorky and Pollock all loved and cursed Picasso. He was an all powerful god who had to be overcome and destroyed if necessary. In the end, they realised it was impossible competing on his terms, so they changed the game. They smashed up painting. Picasso had said of his own painting that it was “a sum of destructions”, so the Americans followed his example. It was a truly heroic struggle. De Kooning, Pollock and others would sit and study their paintings for hours on end without making a mark. Then, something would be put down and it might change the balance in a painting, bring it to life, so that they could continue and try to take it further. The game was impossible and the artists were deadly serious. Some killed themselves.

Then, after a few years, Pop Art emerged. A completely different and younger group of painters were getting attention. De Kooning met Andy Warhol in the early sixties. He said: “I hate you, you killed painting.” Warhol’s response was “Uh, I’ve always liked your paintings” and he meant it. The Pop artists weren’t interested in struggle, although in the early years they took great pains to hide their efforts, so that the images they made would appear to have a breezy, carefree look. They wanted images which were familiar, everyday and banal to be the new face of painting. America was a consumer culture, advertising was already in people’s homes. The billboards in cities announced the way forward. They were large, eye catching and witty.

This wasn’t the first time advertising posters and billboards influenced painting. In the 19th century Zola wrote about Manet, saying he had been influenced by the flatness of posters. But, and this is crucial, the shapes and colours in Manet’s paintings were scrupulously organised. Every colour had a role, every shape adjusted so that it would play its alloted part in a constructed whole. Posters weren’t built, they were designed.

From cave painting to the present there is a continuous line, like a river of electricity, that animates and keeps some images alive. The conventions vary, but what is common to all, is that every colour, every line, every shape, all the ingredients and constituent parts of a painting must work. If they don’t, the emotional charge which is channelled through these elements leaks out and the painting will become lifeless, a product.

At the beginning of Pop painting  1959-60; Frank Stella, a young, gifted and intelligent abstract artist delivered a lecture at the Pratt Institute. He explained he wanted to avoid the balancing of the various parts of a painting by making paintings which were the same all over, using regulated patterns, like a target for instance. This simple solution seemed to deliver painters from the impossible situation which had faced the Abstract Expressionists. But there was a price to pay. By removing the difficulties, Stella and the Pop artists began throwing out the baby along with the bath water. Problems are the life-blood of painting.

Thus began the first stage of the journey towards painting as a product.

The second and final stage was quite different, not initiated by artists, but by art dealers and speculators. People realised there was money to be made through selling art. The generation of young Pop and abstract painters started getting recognition early on. Soon, many would be rich and there was competition among them. Warhol envied Jasper Johns’ superstar status and felt he wasn’t earning enough, so he made repeats. Paintings which could be silkscreened over and over again. Sometimes as many as fifteen hundred versions of the same painting. Needless to say, the emotional charge which came from the attention and care given to paintings before, was lost. But buyers, speculators and dealers didn’t care. Unfortunately, neither did some artists. Warhol’s example has been followed by a number of recent painters. Constant repetition of a style can also lead to dullness and product. Even if the painting is hand-painted by the artist.

Changes in painting  since the 1950s have been of relatively short duration. The period we are in has lasted longest, roughly thirty years. It could be called “Post painting painting”. A kind of limbo, during which various styles keep repeating. Each repetition makes the original, whether it’s Pop or Expressionism, much sweeter. It’s as if the sugar-coated pill which once belonged to real painting, has now become sugar without the pill. Consumerism has made painting just another product. For many, this is how it should be. Didn’t Andy Warhol say the best art is business art?

 

The Three Dancers 1925 by Pablo Picasso 1881-1973
The Three Dancers 1925 by Pablo Picasso 1881-1973

 

de kooning
Willem de Kooning, Excavation, 1950

 

warhol self portrait
Andy Warhol, Self-Portrait, 1986

 

By Paul Gopal-Chowdhury, April 16th 2015