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After Modernist Painting
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Since the publication of Clement Greenberg’s ‘Modernist Painting’ in 1960, the status of painting and its continued legitimacy as a medium has been repeatedly placed under question. As such, painting has had to continually redefine its own parameters and re-negotiate for itself a critical position within a broader, more discursive set of discourses. Taking the American art critic’s text as a point of departure, After Modernist Painting will be both a historical survey and a critical re-evaluation of the contested and contingent nature of the medium of painting over the last 50 years. Presenting the first critical account of painting, rather than art generally, this book provides a timely exploration of what has remained a persistent and protean medium. Craig Staff focuses on certain developments including the relationship of painting to Conceptual Art and Minimalism, the pronouncement of its alleged death, its response to Installation Art’s foregrounding of site, how is was able to interpret ideas around appropriation, simulation and hybridity and how today it can be understood as both imaging and imagining the digital. After Modernist Painting is an invaluable resource for those seeking to understand the themes and issues that have pertained to painting within the context of postmodernism and contemporary artistic practice.
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Craig Staff is Reader in Fine Art at The University of Northampton, an artist and author of Modernist Painting and Materiality (2011).

‘While painting, as a practice, appears now in a host of widespread plural guises and contexts, attempts to theorise its global terrain have generally been avoided of late. Craig Staff’s timely interrogation of the practice does not shirk this responsibility. It examines the last 50 years or so in the wake of Clement Greenberg’s most famous self-defining and critical statement from the early 1960s. What this book proposes is not simply a survey of recent painting, but a complex commentary of its continuing self-interrogation and definition, and its intertwining with numerous other discourses and contestations, both as theoretical and visual propositions – from minimalism, the expanded field of practice, to today’s digital networks and subtle interrelations of concept, media and context. For those who want a highly informed and erudite overview of this unstable and ever-evolving landscape, this is essential reading and a welcome contribution to recent literature around painting and its philosophy and theory.’

David Ryan, Reader in Fine Art, Anglia Ruskin University

‘Craig Staff weaves a lucid and distinctive narrative through the bewildering variety of ways in which artists have questioned painting’s relevance as a medium, and sustained its potency as an idea over the last half-century. Carefully selected works inform a journey that is international in scope, as it ranges across formalist, conceptual and political concerns. The book’s phenomenal achievement is to steadily guide the reader through a multitude of competing theories and debates around what painting is, whilst being grounded in the diverse practices of individual artists as they speculatively push at the frontiers of what painting might become.’

Dan Hays, artist

Published in 2013 by I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd

6 Salem Road, London W2 4BU

175 Fifth Avenue, New York NY 10010

Distributed in the United States and Canada Exclusively by Palgrave Macmillan

175 Fifth Avenue, New York NY 10010

Copyright © 2013 Craig Staff

The right of Craig Staff to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

All rights reserved. Except for brief quotations in a review, this book, or any part thereof, may not be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

International Library of Modern and Contemporary Art: 3

ISBN: 978 1 78076 179 4 (HB)

ISBN: 978 1 78076 180 0 (PB)

eISBN: 978 0 85773 315 3

A full CIP record for this book is available from the British Library

A full CIP record is available from the Library of Congress

Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: available


List of Illustrations



1 Arbitrary Objects

2 Auto-critique

3 Painting in the Expanded Field

4 A Costume of Rags

5 Manic Mourning

6 An-atomising Abstraction

7 Situating Painting

8 Imag[in]ing the Digital


Further Reading


Colour Plate Section


Chapter 1: Arbitrary Objects

Eleanore Mikus, Tablet 49, 1963, white flat enamel on wood. 48 x 30½ inches (121.9 x 77.5 centimetres). © the artist

Niki de Saint Phalle, shooting Tir, Impasse Ronsin, Paris, 26 June 1961. © 2011 Niki Charitable Art Foundation, All rights reserved. Photo credit: © Shunk-Kender/Roy Lichtenstein Foundation. ADAGP Paris and DACS, London, 2012

Sam Gilliam, Light Depth, 1969, acrylic on canvas. 10 x 108 feet, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Museum purchase, 1970.9. © Sam Gilliam

Chapter 2: Auto-critique

Giulio Paolini, Senza titolo (Untitled), 1961, Tin of paint, stretcher, polyethylene. 8 x 8 inches (21 x 21 centimetres), collection of the artist. Photo © Paolo Mussat Sartor

Daniel Buren, Photos-souvenirs: ‘Affichage sauvage’, work in situ, April 1968, Paris. Detail © D.B. - ADAGP Paris and DACS, London, 2012

Gerhard Richter, Grau (Grey), 1976, oil on linen. 78¾ x 67 inches (200 x 170.2 centimetres); San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Accessions Committee Fund purchase: gift of Gerson and Barbara Bakar Philanthropic Fund, Jean and James E. Douglas, Jr., Evelyn D. Haas, Doris and Donald Fisher, Mimi and Peter Haas, Phyllis and Stuart G. Moldaw, Christine and Michael Murray, Leanne B. Roberts, Helen and Charles Schwab, Danielle and Brooks Walker, Jr., and Judy and John Webb. © Gerhard Richter, 2012

Marcia Hafif, An Extended Gray Scale, 1973. © the artist

Karen Carson, Untitled, 1971, cotton duck and industrial zippers. 95 x 83 inches (241.3 x 210.82 centimetres), depending on variable installation. Purchased with funds provided by the Pasadena Art Alliance and the Rosamund Felson (M.2003.55). © 2012. Digital Image Museum Associates/LACMA/Art Resource NY/Scala, Florence

Chapter 3: Painting in the Expanded Field

Lynda Benglis, Night Sherbet A, 1968, dayglo pigment, phosphorescence and poured polyurethane foam, 5 x 48 x 60½ inches, 12.7 x 121.9 x 153.7 centimeters, CR# BE.7695. Courtesy of Cheim & Read, New York. © Lynda Benglis. DACS, London/VAGA, New York, 2012

Cynthia Carlson, Cascading Crystal Kaleidoscope, 1976. © the artist

Robert Kushner, ‘Purple,’ from Persian Line: Part II, acrylic on taffeta, print fabrics, tassels, 1975. Photo: Harry Shunk. Courtesy of Robert Kushner and DC Moore Gallery

Chapter 4: A Costume of Rags

Elizabeth Murray, Painter’s Progress, Spring, 1981, oil on canvas. 19 panels, 9 feet 8 inches x 7 feet 9 inches (294.5 x 236.2 centimetres). Acquired through the Bernhill Fund and gift of Agnes Gund. Acc. n.: 271.1983.a-s. © 2012. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence: © 2012 The Murray-Holman Family Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS

Chapter 5: Manic Mourning

Susan Hiller, Painting Block, 1974/80, oil on canvas cut and bound with thread into block. 6¾ x 5¼ x 2½ inches (17.2 x 13.3 x 6.4 centimetres). © the artist. Courtesy of Timothy Taylor Gallery, London

Allan McCollum, Collection of 480 Plaster Surrogates, 1982/1989, Gray Frames, enamel on cast Hydrostone. Variable dimensions, 107.375 x 327.125 inches. Courtesy of Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York. Photo: Larry Lamay

David Salle, Muscular Paper, 1985, oil, synthetic polymer paint, and charcoal on canvas and fabric, with painted wood, in three parts. Overall 8 feet 2 inches x 15 feet 7 inches (249.3 x 475 centimetres). Gift of Douglas S. Cramer Foundation. Acc. n.: 373.1991.a-c. © 2012. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence, © David Salle/DACS, London/VAGA, New York, 2012

Peter Halley, Red Cell, 1988, acrylic, Day-Glo acrylic and Roll-a-Tex on canvas. 93 x 108 inches (236 x 274 centimetres). The Broad Art Foundation, Santa Monica. © Peter Halley. Courtesy of Mary Boone Gallery, New York

Chapter 6: An-atomising Abstraction

Lydia Dona, Photo Ghosts and the Labyrinth Drips on the Void, 1996. 84 x 64 inches (213.4 x 162.6 centimetres), oil, acrylic and sign paint on canvas, private collection, New York City

Pia Fries, homatta, 1999, oil on wood. 110¼ x 76¾ inches (280 x 195 centimetres), signed and dated verso, M36.PIF.00085.M. Courtesy of the artist and Mai 36 Galerie, Zürich

Chapter 7: Situating Painting

Franz Ackermann, Untitled (Mental Map: no. 10, Public Parking Lots), 1994, mixed media on paper. 5 x 7½ inches (13 x 19 centimetres). © the artist. Photo: Todd-White Art Photography. Courtesy of White Cube

Nedko Solakov, A Life (Black & White), 1998–, black and white paint. Two workers/painters constantly repainting the walls of the exhibition space in black and white for the entire duration of the exhibition, day after day (following each other); dimensions variable. Edition of 5 and 1 AP. Collections of Peter Kogler, Vienna; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; Sammlung Hauser und Wirth, St. Gallen; Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt am Main; Tate Modern, London. Courtesy of the artist. Installation view – 49th Venice Biennale, Venice, 2001. Photo: Giorgio Colombo

Chapter 8: Imag[in]ing the Digital

Monique Prieto, High Rolling, 1998. Courtesy of the artist and Corvi-Mora London

Wade Guyton, Untitled, 2008, Epson UltraChrome inkjet on linen. 84 x 69 inches (213.4 x 175.3 centimetres), signed on verso. Courtesy of the artist and Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York

Cheyney Thompson, Chromachrome 7 (5GY/5P) Portrait, 2009, oil on canvas. 24 x 20 inches (60.96 x 50.8 centimetres). © the artist. Courtesy of Andrew Kreps Gallery

Colour Plate Section

Kazuo Shiraga, Tenkaisei Kohogi Work Inspired by Chinese Novel, ‘Shui-hu chuan’, 1964, The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto. © the artist

Yoko Ono, Painting to Hammer a Nail in, 1961/1967, glass, steel. 12 x 8 x 4 inches, collection Walker Art Center, Minneapolis T.B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 2002

Mel Bochner, Theory of Painting, 1970, blue spray paint on newspapers on floor, vinyl on wall. Size determined by installation, collection of Modern Art, New York

Mel Ramsden, 100% Abstract, 1968. © the artist

Joan Snyder, Small Symphony for Women, 1974. © the artist

Mary Heilmann, Little 9 x 9, 1973, acrylic on canvas. 22 x 22 x 2 inches (55.5 x 55.5 x 4.5 cm), Ursula Hauser Collection, Switzerland. © Mary Heilmann. Courtesy of Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Stefan Altenburger Photography Zürich

Anselm Kiefer, Lot’s Wife, 1989, oil paint, ash, stucco, chalk, linseed oil, polymer emulsion, salt and applied elements on canvas, attached to lead foil, on plywood panels. 137½ x 161½ inches (350 x 410 centimetres). © the artist. Courtesy of White Cube

Pat Steir, The Brueghel Series (A Vanitas of Style), 1982–4, oil on canvas, 64 panels. 28½ x 22½ inches (72.4 x 57.2 centimetres). Courtesy of Cheim & Read, New York

Jonathan Lasker, Elaborate Stasis, 1992, oil on linen. 24 x 18 inches (61 x 46 centimetres). © the artist. Courtesy of Timothy Taylor Gallery, London

Philip Taaffe, Stele, 1995, mixed media on canvas. 139 x 64 inches (353 x 162.6 centimetres) The Broad Art Foundation, Santa Monica

Arturo Herrera, All I Ask, 1999, paint on wall. Dimensions variable. Installation view: Painting at the Edge of the World, The Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2001.

Federico Herrero, Found Painting, San Jose, Costa Rica 2004–8, digital photograph. Courtesy of the artist and Sies + Höke, Düsseldorf

David Batchelor, Found Monochrome 19, Islington, London, 01.05.99, 1999. © the artist

Ingrid Calame, Step on a Crack, Break Your Mother’s Back, 2009, oil on aluminium, 101.6 x 61 cm, Courtesy of the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London

John F. Simon Jr., Color Panel v1.0, 1999. © the artist

Dan Hays, Colorado Impression 5 (After Dan Hays, Colorado), 2000. © the artist


Firstly I would like to thank the artists whose paintings are discussed within the following pages. As well as kindly allowing me to reproduce examples of what they do, their willingness to engage with the project generally proved invaluable. I would also like to thank the various gallery and museum spaces for their kind assistance with respect to the provision of images and permission rights for the study. Always on hand to offer requisite levels of advice, guidance and reassurance, Liza Thompson at I.B.Tauris has been supportive from the outset. This book is supported by research funds that were kindly provided by The University of Northampton. Lastly, thanks to Judith, Céadach, Saoirse and Thora.


Originally written for the United States Information Agency in the spring of 1960 and published as a pamphlet the following December by The Voices of America as part of their Forum Lectures Visual Arts Series, in many respects ‘Modernist Painting’ can be understood as being emblematic of Clement Greenberg’s criticism as a whole.¹ Certainly, reading the text as an elucidation of painting through the interpretive framework of modernism, albeit one that foregrounded the formal characterisation of the artwork, brings into focus the basic terms upon which Greenberg’s criticism remains even today most directly associated. However, whilst his claims did not go unnoticed – according to Thierry de Duve, the text stood as ‘a sort of aesthetic Organon for a whole generation of artists’ – neither did they go unchallenged.² Emerging out of a concurrent range of alternate practices that were all somehow antithetical to the critic’s claims on behalf of modernism and, for that matter, painting generally, amongst Greenberg’s detractors were those who held a particular disdain for what was perceived to be his deeply entrenched formalist orthodoxy.

Nevertheless, within the historical milieu of the 1960s art scene, and for those today who are keen to understand the nature of the debates as they unfolded during this period in recent art history, ‘Modernist Painting’ remains a significant benchmark.

Given Greenberg’s stated ambitions for painting and their place within the discourses of modern art, it would seem appropriate then that an account of the medium that encompasses the practices, theories and debates of a period of approximately 50 years should use Greenberg’s text as both a critical point of departure and as a historical backdrop. This is reflected in the title of the study that can be read in one of two ways. On one level, ‘After Modernist Painting’ concerns a period of artistic practice and theoretical debate that emerged after the publication of Greenberg’s text. Somewhat more speculatively, the title is also suggestive of a question that centres upon what constituted the terms of painting as a form of artistic practice after modernist painting – that is, when painting was no longer ‘modernist.’

What then follows is a critical perspective upon painting during approximately the last half-century, rather than a definitive history thereof. In this respect the book has sought to provide a measure of context to the ideas that informed the development of painting as a contemporary art during this period. Bringing critical shape allied with some form of rationale behind why certain painters painted what they painted and, in turn, why certain critics conferred onto those self-same paintings certain values, opinions or readings, the book equally does not lose sight of the particularity of the individual paintings themselves.

Interwoven within the argument that follows are two key strands that to a certain extent work to bind together the argument as a whole. First, at certain points the text seeks recourse to what were some of the more familiar, if not contentious, claims Greenberg made on behalf of painting. Secondly, the question of abstract painting, its various histories, theorisations (including Greenberg’s) and its development within a post-Greenbergian milieu remains a consistent point of focus. This is not to say that the argument deals exclusively with abstract painting, but given the point at which the text works outwards, it remains a pertinent and ongoing question.

Although the material has been organised broadly chronologically, the attentive reader will soon note that this isn’t strictly adhered to. This is partly to avoid the obvious pitfalls of an ‘a begets b’ historiography, of which Greenberg’s criticism didn’t entirely escape being culpable. Such an account of history which construes the development of art in terms of stylistic reaction, as Hal Foster points out, ‘is banal in the extreme; an ahistorical model, it cannot account adequately for any art …’³ Equally, however, the discontinuity that attends, indeed underwrites, the production and critical reception of painting during the period in question more truthfully represents and is indicative of the somewhat discursive and arguably disjointed nature of what were competing understandings of painting and more broadly the milieu within which it sought to stake some form of claim.⁴

As a means whereby an understanding of the critical and artistic terrain can to a certain extent be mapped out, the first chapter seeks to establish the terms upon which painting was given, and indeed radicalised within a historical period that immediately followed the publication of ‘Modernist Painting.’ Rather than focus upon those artists with whose respective practices Greenberg’s criticism had become associated, the first chapter is geared towards salient examples that presented either an adaptation or an alternative to Greenberg’s account of abstraction.

Whilst for Greenberg the operation of self-reference within the context of modernist painting was geared towards rendering visible what were to be understood as the medium’s ‘irreducible essences,’ the over-arching claim within the second chapter is that by adopting a more conceptual approach (albeit with the understanding that ‘conceptual’ as a designation necessarily carries with it a certain degree of latitude), painting could be deconstructed rather than hypostasised. For the artists whom we will consider in this chapter, by aligning painting with a more analytical form of practice, the medium was understood not as a series or set of delimited essences, but rather as being contingent upon and given by a set of assumptions, be they cultural, perceptual or ideological, that up until that point had worked to legitimise the work of art. As will become evident, by using, as it were, its epistemology against itself, the medium became organised around a form of auto-critique that was nevertheless able to avoid the reductivism implied by such a seemingly self-referential strategy.

Using Rosalind Krauss’s example of an ‘expanded field’ of artistic practice, a term that had originally been applied to the medium of sculpture, the third chapter seeks to explore the breadth of this field with respect to painting and the means by which it became characterised. Dealing with a period of artistic practice and debate that was protean, multivalent and contested, echoing on one level the broader socio-political milieu whereby a number of orthodoxies and normative social structures were being directly challenged, the chapter considers a range of different approaches to painting that were prevalent at the time. More specifically, and against the backdrop wherein a range of alternative practices that fell beyond the purview of discrete and firmly delimited disciplines worked, on one level, to challenge Greenberg’s doctrinal and somewhat overly prescribed reading of painting, all of the examples that will be marshalled present a range of accounts of and responses to abstraction.

In 1976 the American painter R.B. Kitaj curated The Human Clay, an exhibition of figurative painting and drawing at the Hayward Gallery in London. The title of this exhibition was tendentious, referring to a line in W.H. Auden’s poem Letter to Lord Byron. According to Kitaj: ‘[David] Hockney likes to quote the line from Auden’s long poem Letter to Lord Byron which reads, To me Art’s subject is the human clay.’ Betraying a somewhat unfashionable conviction towards the representation of the human form, Kitaj claimed that this was perhaps ‘the most basic art-idea, from which much great art has come’. In many respects The Human Clay anticipated what would subsequently become a renewed interest in painting and, moreover, one that became contingent upon particular understandings of ‘tradition’. It was also during this time that the term Neo-Expressionism gained a degree of critical currency, working to emphasise those artists who worked in a direct, unabashed and expressive manner. Unlike the London School, Neo-Expressionism, originally a pan-European designation, also came to encompass certain painters working within America at that time. As well as seeking to examine this apparent resurgence of interest in the medium of painting, the aim of the fourth chapter is also to consider what other, arguably less hyperbolic models of painting were being established contemporaneously.

Since the advent of photography during the latter half of the nineteenth century, painting has been subject to a succession of declarations regarding its alleged death. Arguably the first such instance entails the apocryphal story of the French nineteenth-century painter Paul Delaroche’s response upon seeing a daguerreotype, an early form of photography: ‘From now,’ he was reported to have exclaimed, ‘painting is dead!’ Locating the argument within a context during the 1980s when such declarations had almost reached fever pitch, the aim of Chapter 5 is to consider the particular theoretical rationales that constituted this so-called ‘crisis’ in painting. The theoretical impetus, if not the rhetoric, informing certain key texts, including Douglas Crimp’s ‘The End of Painting’ and Thomas Lawson’s ‘Last Exit Painting,’ both published in 1981, will be examined along with the paintings that became aligned with and were made in response to this critical discourse.

Chapter 6 will consider how painting was able to flourish during the 1990s. Although arguably the medium was no longer susceptible to the vicissitudes of some of the more exaggerated claims that had previously been made on its behalf, it was still required to locate itself against an artistic and theoretical backdrop that was pluralistic. In this respect the central claim of this chapter is that painting responded to such a multifarious artistic climate by both atomising and anatomising abstraction, and in the process adapting particular precepts derived from aesthetic formalism and Greenberg’s pronouncements in particular. This was partly achieved by artists being increasingly at liberty to plunder, scavenge and select from what one commentator described was formalism’s archive, and for that matter an archive that was no longer held in particularly reverent terms. If an artist like Jonathan Lasker could play fast and loose by appropriating and then short-circuiting particular tropes of modernist painting, then other painters sought to inhabit and explore what might be construed as disciplinary and thematic hinterlands, those interstitial spaces that were characterised by categorical slippage. Along with a consideration of what were the key debates pertaining to painting during this period, the proliferation of survey exhibitions of painting will also be considered. As one critic remarked, writing in a review of Examining Pictures, an exhibition held at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1999, unlike previous survey-type exhibitions of painting like A New Spirit in Painting that put forward an argument for painting, an exhibition like Examining Pictures ostensibly presented an argument about painting. Finally, within this culture of hybridity, plurality and historicism, the continued pursuit of an authentic abstract visual language by certain painters will also be considered.

Against a broader set of practices and debates, all of which were vying for position at the turn of the new millennium, the penultimate chapter focuses upon how certain artists sought to, as it were, situate painting. As will be educed, and working in opposition to Greenberg’s understanding of painting as following a trajectory that was centripetal – i.e. that was towards its own irreducible essence or core – the ‘situational’ within painting can be understood as denoting some form of orientation towards and consideration of context, however discursive, oblique or approximate, that pertains to the painting either during its production, or in terms of