Push’n Pull – Hans Hoffmann and July Talk. What the hell is Painting and Beyond?
July Talk -
In relation to the exhibition „The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World“ (2015) Peter Schjeldahl writes about an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, that it seems like „a futile effort to try to shoehorn painting back into a museum culture that has come to favor installation, performance, and conceptual and digital work.“ He ends his review by stating that „painting bleeds but can not heal“. So now, in his narrative, painting has become a wounded body that does not heal...a leaking body, leaking fluids...blood and milk. We thereby seem to be catapulted back in the Nineties, when global borders and axes of power went through seismic shifts while body fluids entered the white cube through abject art.
This text is written partially in response to a question by a student at a recent talk I gave on my expanded notions of what I understand to be painting in a complex and transformed world. The climate is changing, one could say.
YOU MEAN LIKE THIS?? Weirdest doll in Weimar. 2014, 30 cm x 40 cm, oil on canvas.
I studied painting in New York. Mostly our classes were based on some version of the original Bauhaus introductory courses. Painting was taught as a series of technical and formal exercises, to which one usually found ones-self attaching some sort of personal content. My professor from over 20 years ago, Robert Berlind, who recently passed away, was fond of saying: „The way to paint is to paint. The way to start painting is to paint. There is no other way.“ He painted landscapes for his entire adult life, over forty years of green variations. So, there was no conceivable outside to painting for a painter in his mind, and after you diligently did nothing but paint for a few years, you went on to get your extraordinarily expensive MFA, and if things went well, (and pretty much everybody I studied with was convinced things would go very well for them, despite relatively stable statistics indicating that perhaps 10 percent of a class manages later to live off of making artwork) - you would strike out and find some sort of signature painting style that would then carry you through the male dominated, hierarchically arranged and well mapped out roster of significant galleries in New York City and like some, though it must be said, very, very, very few of my former classmates (as a matter of fact, I know of only one, Erik Parker), you would spend your life producing slight variants of your recognizable signature style work and successfully sell these for enough money to support your hip and fascinating alternative and individualistic lifestyle. That idea of a career in painting was way too narrow for me. There had to be more to it than that. After witnessing September 11, 2001 in New York City, it seemed like world politics had caught up with me, and, so, after 11 years, I left this extraordinary, highly seductive but entirely too self absorbed city to see the "more to it than that" I suspected lay out there, and I landed in Berlin, where there was still plenty of free space and above all, time, to explore these questions.
My most interesting and influential professors in New York were women who were hired as adjuncts or guest professors, and therefore had no real institutional power, but were present and visible as less securely funded but much more highly engaged and superbly inspiring feminists in what seemed to be the „real world“, ecking out a meager living as adjunct professors. One of these adjunct professors was the now highly successful Judith Bernstein. I also was lucky enough to study with Jane Dickson for a very productive semester.
What a contrast to Robert Berlind...
Above: Delilah (Waiting) 2000. 80 x 110 cm, oil on canvas.
I had opened my first and last show in Manhattan on September 3rd, 2001 at Denise Bibro Gallery of that same year. My work was selected for this show with 3 others from 400 applicants. Oil on canvas, representational work from 2000. I didn‘t know anyone in the jury. Then I watched the scenery before my kitchen window in Brooklyn change, as the World Trade Center was erased, 8 days later. We could smell the cloud hovering over the cityscape for weeks, as we walked past photocopied images of people missing in the subway...
The new world order entered my kitchen and then my refrigerator, as ranks started to close to the outside world. Suddenly, the milk cartons had nationalist slogans on them: „United we Stand“.... and such. So I painted that. I sold that painting to someone who understand the weird puzzlement of suddenly finding this larger political drama inscribed on my milk carton.
And then I left for Berlin.
dolls, dolls, dolls (in Weimar) 80 x 60 cm, 2014
dolls, dolls, dolls (in Weimar) 2014 80 cm x 80 cm, oil on canvas.
Bunkerfon, 2017. Oil on canvas, 30 x 40 cm
Like so many of the students I later had the privilege to teach and mentor at Bauhaus-Universität Weimar, and the University of the Arts, Berlin, many of whom had been politically active in their own countries before coming to Germany, I had already had my doubts about whether the aforementioned sketched out life plan based on Robert Berlind‘s, as much as I respect him and his work. My thought was that there must be more to being an artist today than making attractive things in relatively privileged isolation by pleasurably pushing and swishing paint on canvas in my studio. Forty years of green while the world was falling apart. I just couldn‘t do it. Not that there is anything wrong with that. Would have been great for all of us if one very notorious wannabe artist whose name I shall not mention had just stayed at home and painted architecture for the rest of his life. But I, for some reason, really needed to see what else was possible, first, with painting, public art, politics, art history... context... participation... and who got to participate, anyway? Who had the power to determine meaning? Would what I understood to be painting - the pleasure of painting, my need to smear and play with stuff on surfaces, to see and to touch, to mark and think and be seen doing it - survive these questions? Was painting in fact conservative, as some of my more radical comrades ("Genoss_innen", and I am "Genossin Dr. Sabiwalsky" in that context) seemed to insist? How to keep painting without becoming a "sellout" to conservative capitalist forces - in line with abstract expressionisms seductively attractive stance of supposedly ALREADY providing equal access to all via avantgarde‘s beyond temporality, as critically discussed by Boris Groys in "On Becoming Revolutionary“? At the same time, criticality to those around me seemed to mean nothing more than kinda sorta asking why one - why I, me -was not part of this, and while pushing for more diverse representation is, in my opinion, an entirely legitimate undertaking, for historians as well as artists, I have been interested in looking at the workings of the pushing out and other erasures in a more structured and empirical way, and to look at how this shapes concept.
Elkins describes the shock of the slow pace experienced by scholars encountering materiality in an artist studio work. He says:
"Art historians who are new to the studio can find their minds racing like the engines of cars stuck in ice.“
„Slowness is painful. It follows that the experience causes anguish: nothing, it seems, is being learned, and no thought can find expression without being dragged through a purgatory of recalcitrant materials.
Studio art can become a kind of chronic, low level pain, where the mind is continuously chafing against something it can not have. Academic thinking – the running equations, the scintillating conversations – aim to be as free of that pain as possible.“
This is the view of an academic frustrated by material resistance and pretty much explains why he is not a practicing artist. For many of the students I have taught in Weimar, the beyond of painting has rather been about exploring its disciplinary boundaries not by foregrounding abstract thought, philosophy or art history but in public space, where there is arguably more resistance and consequent slowness to be encountered than in the studio or exhibition space, spaces specifically set aside for art. So one could say the artists I have worked with have often sought out more resistance rather than less.
Instead of striving as far away from this moment of academic frustration, it is as if those of us looking for painting and beyond were willfully placed ourselves in revisiting this moment of a mind racing while being stuck in ice and over again when we work as artistic researchers. We are looking for this material resistance. We need it.
Painting locates the person doing the mark making in the here and now and then transmits that physical embodied here and now in the form of a mark into the future, it becomes an actively created trace of a person engaging in a conversation on painting that is at least 30 000 years old – whether anybody ever will look at and mentally follow that mark making in the future or not.
Above, walking paths, some of which have become roads, on the island of Crete. Below, walkway on the former border between East and West in Berlin at Alexanderufer, from the Frauenklinik to Futurium We inscribed ourselves into memory and space in Walking from Weimar to Berlin, walking 267 km in 6 days in 2015.
It is as fundamental as walking, whereby the body, often in groups and repeatedly, when the same path is walked over and over again, through gravity inscribes itself into the ground it is walking on. It makes sense to revisit Pollock, who dripped and splattered and marked all over canvasses laying on the ground, before "civilizing“ his work by lifting it up and placing it on walls.
I recently witnessed an artist inscribing himself onto an exhibition wall in the form of a painting in the exhibition bodylandscapingtime, at ngbk that I initiated and curated. I wrote about it, and then read out loud at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, the following:
The wall painting consisted of rectangles of grey on slightly bluer grey, hand painted square corners where one could see the slight human quiver of the hand of the breathing, live artist. So at first it was a line that formed the space as we discussed how to arrange the painted parts of his body on the wall, considering perspective, for example, and how placing the skull up high would make it look very small. The artist transferred the measurements from his own body to the paper by using his hands to feel the length of his bones and then the width. For example the skull, he would use his forefinger and thumb to feel by touch the beginning where the bone above the upper jaw ended under the cartilage of the nose and his index finger to feel the edge of the ridge of his brow and then carry over that which he had touch felt – ertastet – that measurement onto the paper and make a mark. The drawing on the paper was in pencil and served to transfer to the wall the bones. There was a spot that reminded me of what painting was like. I saw it on day two or three of his painting process: he was there a full week, full time, and subsequently covered that spot that I had seen with more sharpness and at acrylic opacity, pushing the viewer back. That spot reminded me of the sound of the color and how it works together. Where the brush is more generally slathering, having a kind of wetness like when you push a sponge over a smooth surface and it leaks a bit and drips.
Of course we know that the establishment of Abstract Expressionism in NEW YORK was part of a consciously political enterprise of supposedly depoliticizing art by hefting it into the beyond space of the avantgarde - and cutting off all the roots of politically progressive influences that brought it there. This was and is a convenient move that can and is being used to legitimate something like a universal quality, to be found in the GREAT BEYOND -the discernment of which, curiously - in real and empirically observable life - seems to reside in the hands of some very similar looking people - over and over again. When where and how where other visions pushed out - often enough after providing those making the cut with very productive new impulses ?
I founded my own artspace with colleagues in Berlin in 2005 and funded projects that dealt with questions of participatory art at the interface to other disciplines until 2009, when I was hired to teach Public Art and New Artistic Strategies for 6 years at Bauhaus-Universität, Weimar. I chose to write my practice based dissertation (PhD) on materiality, and focused painting and drawing with human milk as art material - at the edge of other disciplines, primarily urbanism and medicine, for example.
Apparently, one of my artistic strengths is immense versatility in terms of medium when think-making about painting. I do not remain within the narrow confines of painting being about pushing viscous material within the boundaries of a predetermined stretched surface in a well trained manner, but I never abandon the sensuality of working with materiality, whether it is text or research into human milk in art in a painterly way, grounded in embodied knowledge. Technique is important, but it is certainly not enough.
Making is thinking. Antifascism is manual labor, someone recently said, and in my opinion, it starts with small, incremental conceptual work with material resistance on the ground. This type of work dissipates fear, says Helge Oder. I have addressed contemporary themes of painting and technology by producing prints in human milk and painting obsolete technology and contemporary assault rifles in milk. I sliced apart films into film-stills and covered them in milk and then re-animated them. I smuggled frozen milk across borders and made paintings with my own human milk and I walked 267 km in 6 days in solidarity with a student project that was then presented at Gorki Theater in Berlin...
I understand that this can be confusing, and requires communication in order to hopefully sketch out a way of critically doing painting that moves towards the edges and sometimes beyond conventional disciplinary boundaries while being fully versed and informed in terms of traditional and contemporary materials, techniques conceptual approaches and forms, both as an artistic researcher and a practicing painter.
I would like to test how we might splinter normative and disciplinary edges when working on our urgent global problems, because they are related and yes, GO BEYOND...painting.