Painting and Failure
[This essay grew out of responses I had to the challenges posed by a call for submissions at Open Space in the fall of 2006, Dowsing For Failure, curated by Doug Jarvis and Ted Hiebert. Implicit in the essay are reconsiderations of much of the content of the show’s expressed mandate itself, though I prefer to regard it as a tangential contribution rather than a rebuttal.]
I choose ‘painting’ rather than ‘art’ in the title of this essay because accidents happen in painting with more fluid spontaneity and with less obvious consequence than in many both more and less materially entrenched media (such as for instance, subtractive sculpture, or video). To go further, painting’s heritage as a descriptive medium, its inevitable involvement in both illusionistic and material propositions, as well as the breadth and prestige of these traditions, make it a medium ideally suited to the difficulty involved in the question of recognizing ‘failure’ as such, not as a rhetorical gesture that is reabsorbed as either a material or pictorial challenge, but as some more fundamental breakdown in the operations of intention, work and communication.
To address the problem of failure from the point of view of painting is to move, like a painter, from the miniature world of the close surface, to the framed view of the work as a whole, to larger questions about whole ways of working, and finally the prospect of the practice of painting itself. There is the point of view of a single incident within the painting, as in a misstep with the brush, a wrong colour put on hastily, both of which can be ‘corrected’ (though sometimes at the cost of freshness), or more gravely, the failure of passages of an oil painting that ‘fall’ over time or flake off, or pigments failing to be lightfast. These material disasters are of special interest in the wake of a history of modern painting that has entailed so much experiment with the limits of the medium, but also consequently placed so much importance on the particularities of material behaviour as they relate to form.
Stepping further back from the easel, there is the scrutinizing of the formal whole as something that “works” or “misses”, presenting a unified scheme that affects the viewer’s attention as magnetic, absorbing, resonant, transportive, etc. Looking over the history of painting, one might recognize that a given painting by Velasquez may be said to “work” as surely as one by Barnett Newman, though not certainly with the same result. Looking over the history of an individual painter’s development, most would also probably acknowledge one given work by a given artist is decidedly more successful than another, giving rise to the notion of the ‘masterpiece’. History tends to focus on the defining moments represented by masterpieces, and in the process lesser works – and careers- are forgotten, though insiders and academics are aware of their crucial role in supporting the stars of history, as rehearsals, foils, permissions, agency, the stuff of milieu.
Just as success or failure in a given painting might tend to define a career in the round, so careers define the practice of an era, a generation or a century, and long-term views of these cultural patterns in terms of ‘success’ are prone to readjustment in the rear-view mirror. One generation’s ‘failure of nerve’ can read as another’s ‘subversion’. Observing the rewriting of reputations through history can lead to the impression that ‘success’ is an unstable isotope, projecting its radioactive half-life into the future, wherein it may be read as prophetic, regressive, retroactive, symptomatic or self-fulfilling.
These observations are of constructive and consequential interest to artists. To make more of that earlier gesture of moving “like a painter”, let’s say that this attention to both microcosms and macrocosms, painterly details and the trajectory of careers, is constantly being deranged in this case by a will to find something new in the old, or vice versa, in seeking parallels and permission for one’s own creative impulses. This kind of attention is by its nature opportunistic and incomplete, it tends to skew depth perception and collapse definitive boundaries.
For instance, when newly interested in the work of Mark Rothko, I saw the ‘Harvard Murals’, a suite of paintings by that artist that are now famously losing their pigmentation, moving from their original fiery vermilion to an ashy violet. At that stage in my life, it was impossible not to consider the murals from the point of view of Rothko’s obstinate denial of the sensuous qualities of colour in his paintings as constituting their reason for being. I sympathetically imagined that these paintings were an outcome of that debate, in which the paintings went on ‘living’ past the failure of their colour, as a diagram of possibility that no longer required colour to deliver the impact of its presence.
To make matters worse, I allied this fantasy with the notion of the artists’ suicide in the painting studio, following in the footsteps of other onlookers who have read in Rothko’s last works –dark, flat, black and grey compositions- a renunciation of life and a life’s work. Immature, and restless to see something other’s didn’t see, I convinced myself that the failure of pigment molecules was some kind of trump on Rothko’s part, that he had gone beyond the existential brink that his generation conceptualized and realized something that would have been impossible in life: undead artwork as ‘meta-painting’. I was trying hard in that moment to convert a failure on the level of substances into a revelation I could impose on the posthumous trajectory of a career. Was this an absurd thing to think? Certainly, but also not, if (and who could ever say) such a notion took on life in work I went on to make as a painter, or became recognizable to me in the work of others.
Reread the paragraph above and you’ll note a certain lapse of logic, and that is the point: a creative endeavour often starts as something patently incorrect, a failure of interpretation, though not one of nerve, and so often it is in the failures of the past that young artists find something sufficiently under-mediated that they can safely impose themselves on it. It’s more factual to say that the way those Rothko paintings really live on, is to provide steady work for the technicians who have to restore them! And it is the public institution that does this on many levels, to the varied nuances of risk and potential failure in an artwork. In looking at a painting, we may see nothing or something, and our participation in the risk is critical to its outcome, but the message of all of the care and restoration of the art institution is that the work is obviously worthy of care, and the work becomes a prize but also a patient, and a prisoner of its success.
What I have already begun to suggest is that failure is a kind of currency in the making and viewing of art. The currency initially belongs to the artist alone, and eventually may change hands between family, peers, industry professionals and the public at large. Of course the definition of success or failure changes with each possessor of this currency, but success on material terms at least, can be readily quantified. What is more mysterious is how the artist’s definition of failure is defined, because it is never understood completely, not even by the artist. For instance, has the artist internalized notions of failure from parents, authorities, etc., and to what degree is this integrated into an aesthetic outlook hardened by a career a culture in which ‘artist’ may not exist as a stable social role? Success can be a very crude gauge, because the artists’ notion of success may not (and in the ‘tradition’ of western avant gardism does not) correspond with society’s notion of success, but the two may become blurred within the epiphenomenon of a successful career episode. Failure is necessarily a more delicate instrument, as one’s definition of failure, regardless of where it originates from, is one’s own, unknown.
Thinking of images of abstract art (in which realistic illustration can’t exist as a measure of achievement), one might recall Mondrian’s painstaking rehearsals of composition using masking tape, or return to Rothko’s late ‘black paintings’, in which the width of white space that ‘framed’ the edges of the paper was rigorously measured and remeasured. We might read these efforts as a process of elimination, in which –in such pared-down presentations- the all too familiar correspondence must surely be with failure, the sense of drawing a line in shifting sands, rather than the immediate promise of potential transaction, that an apprehension of success in recognizable (and so worldly) terms tends to involve. Instead, some kind of intimate familiarity is being sought, a familiarity whose apprehension has been honed by many hours in the studio, most of which cannot have yielded masterpieces. So in developing a working method, the labours one undertakes as ‘craft’ (a word with multifarious associations in modern painting) are a dowsing for the tug of the familiar that leads to something more, whose first approach will be wrapped in the taste of one’s unique and specific history, that is, of failure.
And so a great disservice is done to the sense of craft in modern painting by the abuse of notions of chance, the “happy accident” that leads to a breakthrough, as if each painting session were a fresh start without the at-hand sense of the past, present in both the body of the artist and the material body of the medium, as exceptionally fluid, rich with subtle but knowable inconsistencies, but fundamentally prone to slippage within the fluctuating limits of optical and tactile perception, athletics, gravity, and time.
It’s worth noting how many artists anecdotally relate how quickly and easily a successful work comes after ages of toiling away on a less effectual effort. Most painters have a small stable of pieces that they have spent inordinate amounts of time on that will never be more than workmanlike. Similarly, painters who make a practice of frequently destroying works in progress often do so early on in the potential timeline for the works’ development. Both of these tendencies reflect the issue of how one learns through failure, developing a sense of, if not self, self-respect. This sounds like a modest claim, as does the one advanced in the name of craft, but in a situation where any outcome is possible, and the acknowledgement of success by ones peers or industry is never certain, they are fundamental to the maintenance of a creative life. From the notion of failure as a trustworthy absolute comes some personal definition –divined through selective negative comparisons- of success.
That this quiet, mostly solitary set of problems takes place within the dynamics of a traditionally social medium is a contradiction most painters adapt to physically, by virtue of the hours required simply tackling the learning curve of the medium. The existential side of the issue is more often appreciated at a distance, as in the inevitable romanticizing of artists’ biographies. Consider the idea that as the risk the work originally possessed as art -the potentially all or nothing gamble of commuted meaning versus incommunicability- has been bled out of the work by decades of critical approval, so that the aura of ‘failure’ -as threatened consequence, or liberating atmosphere- is metastasized into the artist’s biography, as if the difficulty of a life were ordained by the momentary transit of a painting from negation and neglect to acceptance and elevation.
Just the same, let’s never forget the real outcomes of failure in the studio: a sense of incoherence, an aesthetic heaviness, muddiness or confusion resulting in bewilderment, contempt or animosity, an undermining of the logic of past successes, a questioning of purpose and momentum, and a reassessment of the values established as part of a working (read living) routine. To be incoherent to others is frustrating, but to follow one’s instincts to results that seems to oneself incoherent threatens sociability and sanity. But much of modern art’s story seeks to frame just such episodes.
The recent dramatization of the life of Jackson Pollock is an excellent example. The story avoids the problem of mediating an interpretation of the Pollock’s drip paintings by externalizing their potential incoherence in terms of physical absolutes: the inexplicable grace of the act and the opacity of chronic alcoholism. In the specific cultural moment of their first coming across (the moment the film is built on, but can’t resolve), the potential incoherence of Pollock’s drip paintings as a failure wasn’t just local to Pollock, but represented a kind of absolute of failure within a narrow but strategically important art community. The potential failure of Pollock’s work – as that of all works of art- can never be resolved, but culture can enjoy this fact positively, as recreation, or can participate in the prospect mistrustfully, mediating the difficulties using therapeutic language, presenting the narrative of Pollock’s life and death as a sort of bait-and-switch to forestall the question of confronting the pictures with any seriousness.
This brings us to call for submissions for a show based on the concept of failure. Is the point to depict failure or embody failure? To undertake a work whose outcome is preordained as ‘failed’, is to imitate oneself ‘failing’, an act of such obvious artificiality as to immediately underscore the authenticity of failure as a resource. On the other hand, the extreme argument of an investment in ‘failed’ work is the conviction that the instruments of craft are no longer capable of divining any success within the field of sociability. This leads to abjection, by which I mean the presentation of a work that is so distressed as to suggest – beyond any failure local to its apparent internal logic- that communication is no longer possible, that incoherence is the governing state, not only for the work at hand, but universally.
The problem with an abject presentation is that the institutional environment of the gallery or museum immediately imposes its own kind of order upon the assumed privation, defining it as a work of art, ordering the deranged scraps within the larger gesture of its mission as a place of learning. Abjection then, is not a confrontation with failure as a working absolute, but the offering of localized failure presented within the context of its recuperation by a greater authority, a failure adequate only to its immediate purpose, which is a didactic illustration of the power of presentation.
This brings us back to where we started: painting’s saving grace and slippery frustration, in that it offers pluralistic aspects of illusion, illustration, materiality, ‘object-hood’, etc. in its presentation. Questions of whether a painting is finally an abject renunciation of itself or just ‘playing dead’ require a lot of vigilance on the part of the viewer, and we must assume the painter as well. A generation of artists working out of the heritage of modernist abstract painting (Richter, Ryman, Tuttle, Martin, etc.) have in different ways had this problem become part of their works’ perceived content. Earlier abstract painters such as Rothko and Pollock often characterized the struggle with the problem of failure within the context of a single episode of confrontation with a single work, an experience which tends to extend to their viewing, despite both of these artists’ obviously recognizable styles, and which gives resonance to Rothko’s dictate that the artist be able to “reliably perform miracles”. Artists coming of age during and after the encoding of the act in terms of ‘processes’ or ‘systems’ must confront instead the possibility of failure for their entire line of inquiry.
The point is not -as has been fashionable to assume- a failure for all painting, a “death of painting” for a culture, but – more meaningfully as a testimonial of creative thought and craft – the failure of an individual effort to sustain its view alone and unsupported. Conversely, its subject also becomes a failure of community.
Contemporary painters might be said to work within a now-established ‘poetics’ of these failures. By this, I mean that many artists present their work as a kind of search through repetitive fieldwork in both the visual syntax of pop culture and the history of art (with some significant mingling of these categories), marked by a daily occurrence of slips and losses on the surface of individual paintings. Is there another content of this work, bigger than some thematic sense of fatigue or travail, or the idiosyncratic look of subject matters in their treatment as meta-anomaly? One resource might lie in forming a more comprehensive understanding of failure in its attachments to both the privacy of the studio, and the public corpus of contemporary art history, as something that lives in intimate exchanges, in relations, in comparisons – in short, in community- rather than in the ‘success stories’ offered by official information panels and gallery advertisements. So end here with failure not only as a dowsing rod, but also as a doorstop: as long as a final judgement is forestalled, and all of the possible tools of the practice remain, respected and bewildering as they are.