In Baltimore in 2011, I attended the opening for a young painter’s first solo show. As the small gallery filled with viewers, the temperature rose quickly. The heat was intensified by spotlights above each painting. On one work, a sagging blob of enamel paint kissed the lower left corner, and a 4-inch-long drip hung off the bottom like a stalactite. Slowly, the spike developed a bulbous tip until a drop of wet paint split through its skin and landed on the floor.
Since that day in Baltimore, I have noticed gallery shows containing wet paintings becoming more common. I have seen glistening and gooiness at shows by strong painters like Dana Shutz and Keltie Ferris. But if an artist is ready to show a painting before it is even dry, one has to ask: How long does it take an artist to evaluate a piece of their work? Probably, the time varies. But for an artist to immediately know the work is significant would require virtuosity on the scale of Caravaggio. How many painters can claim such genius?
The most probable explanation for the inclusion of a wet painting is that the artist worked up until the last minute and felt the work was similar enough to the rest to be shown. This is not the best model for value judgment. As horrible as it sounds, artists often put up new work because they need to fill the space and to round out the show. But I wonder, what harm could come from spending three months or a year with a work before showing it? Is it possible that the artist might change the work? And if that is the concern, what does that mean for the exhibitions that include work that is no more than a month or even a day old?
Very little money can be made by being patient. Maybe that is one reason for the virtue’s fall from grace. Productivity, redundancy, and professional practices can be confused with smart and successful art. But it’s more than okay to be patient. Patience can be necessary for a piece to be worked to its natural completion.
Willem de Kooning spent over a year painting, reworking, and contemplating Woman, I (1950-52). Without the time constraints of upcoming shows or probing interest from collectors and curators, de Kooning had the time to bear down and prepare a rebuttal to Clement Greenburg by returning the figure to painting. I can’t help but imagine that de Kooning must have looked at that painting several times over the course of that year and thought it was complete, only to walk into the studio the next day and realize it was not even close.
The explosion of the contemporary art market in the 1980s likely increased an artist’s incentive to be productive. Art sold rapidly and at high prices. Art schools increased enrollment and MFA applications went through the roof. The possibility of making a living as a professional artist became obtainable rather than fantastical. Aspiring artists funneled through academic programs that required art-on-demand by means of deadlines and all-nighters. The academy has no patience for patience. It is not okay to show up to a thesis evaluation and say “You know what? I have been staring at this painting for a month, working and reworking it, and I think I might need a couple more months to figure this thing out, so I don’t want to show it right now.”
Coincident with the expansion of the market was the widespread acceptance of postmodernism. Free from the absolutist tenets of modernism, artists were relieved of the idea that art could be compared or judged. Pluralism allowed artists to make anything they wanted and call it a success. Academic institutions were painted into a corner. Evaluating a student’s work seemed impossible except to describe how much time was spent working on assignments. Working hard started to be considered the same thing as doing hard work. Galleries, collectors, and academics wanted lots of work, and the assumption of the day was that pretty much all of it is good. An artist became a person that made lots of stuff that looked like art. Patience was pointless.
In 2009, Art in America writer Raphael Rubinstein coined the term “provisional painting” to describe a common attitude and approach he saw among several of the most influential living painters, including Albert Oehlen, Mary Heilmann, Richard Aldrich, and Michael Krebber. Their paintings appear humble, tentative, and hasty. This work operates less like a finished film and more like the outline for the script. Rubinstein’s essay had an enormous impact on young painters and MFA students.
Unfortunately, most young painters who fell in love with provisionalism make work that shares the aesthetic of Oehlen, Heilmann, Aldrich, and Krebber, but lacks their serious approach. In 2011, only two years after Rubinstein’s article, artist and blogger Sharon L. Butler observed a new class of painters rising to fame in the style of the provisional painters including Amy Feldman, Joe Bradley, and Patricia Treib. She dubbed them the “New Casualists.” Both essays include some great painters, but I think the key difference between the provisionalists and the casualists is patience. The patience of provisionalism allows for the creation of work that seriously questions the modern masters, but the quick wit of many of the new casualists just looks like careless reiterations of provisionalist painters.
The etymology of the word provisional, as Rubinstein describes, means only meeting the standard of “it’s okay for now.” Many painters combined Rubinstein’s ideas with the mode of pluralism and formed a value structure for their work that allowed them to assess the success of a piece with a single glance. A painting no longer needed to be contemplated for a year, as with Woman, I; it only needed to succeed for a moment. Painting continues to trend further from hard-won achievement and more toward superficiality and redundancy.
This attitude has produced a glut of fast and hip work that makes for a splashy, fun opening, but otherwise needs only a minute or so to scan the room and leave. Increasingly, work makes fun of another painter’s ideas rather than proposing a well-thought rebuttal. It’s always faster to make a joke or to say “fuck you” than it is to have the conversation that might actually advance the dialogue and make meaningful change. This impatient work looks like busy work disguised as art. I imagine that tons of this work is hanging in the homes of people who have lost interest in it. The magic and intrigue doesn’t last.
I implore the artists who believe Provisional Painting to be an articulation of their ideas to read another Raphael Rubinstein article, A Quiet Crisis. In this article, Rubinstein argues that painters should get in the ring with the champions of history and try to contend with them rather than simply reference them. He seems to wonder whether painters take the time to be critical of their own work. Although the essay was written 10 years ago, it remains relevant. From what I see, most painters do have a value structure, but too often it seems that the work attempts only to reach the bar rather than jump over it. I find myself wondering whether painters ask critical questions of their work before sending it out to be seen and sold. In the studio, a painter might ask: What is at stake here? Are the ideas of my heroes and
disputants being challenged? Is this work redundant? Would this painting be interesting to someone who is familiar with my forbearers and contemporaries? If not, am I willing to destroy it and try again? Questions like these should take time to answer.Ironically, most artists I know are extremely dedicated to their work. They put in long hours at the studio and make tons of paintings. But the paintings look like all their other paintings and those of their friends. The work has become easy because we no longer have the patience, or the incentive, to allow it to be hard. It takes time to contend with great artists. It takes years and years of hard work to make something that stands up against thousands of years of conversation. Nevertheless, I am optimistic that, with patience, a painter can add cogent insight to the history of painting rather than quickly chiming in to say, I agree, and, me too.