Shadows of an Ideal

In his 1908 ‘Notes of a Painter’, Henri Matisse wrote, ‘A work of art must carry within itself its complete significance and impose that on the beholder even before he recognizes the subject matter. When I see the Giotto frescos at Padua, I do not trouble myself to recognize which scene of the life of Christ I have before me, but immediately understand the sentiment which emerges from it, for it is in the lines, the composition, the colour. The title will only serve to confirm my impression.’ A little over fifty years later, in the lecture ‘Modernist Painting’, Clement Greenberg articulated a similar idea: ‘Whereas one tends to see what is in an Old Master before one sees the picture itself, one sees a Modernist picture as a picture first. This is, of course, the best way of seeing any kind of picture, Old Master or Modernist.’

The idea shared by the painter and the critic, that painting communicates most powerfully by way of a syntax and semantics internal to itself, rather than through its overt subject matter, has become an unpopular one. Today, artists and critics are inclined to be suspicious of claims to understand a work through its formal elements alone, and to give more weight to a work’s subject – and to the correct reading of it – than Matisse or Greenberg would have allowed. But who would dismiss the significance of a painting’s form altogether? We’re all still modernist to at least that degree. And it’s worth noting that this belief that one can and should see a painting in formal terms before (not to the exclusion of) considering its subject – what one might well call an abstract way of seeing – was held in common by a critic best known as a passionate proponent of abstraction and by a painter who could never quite abandon the model, and who, in an interview toward the end of his life, decried ‘the so-called abstract painters of today’ as having ‘no power, no inspiration, no feeling, they defend a non-existent point of view: they imitate abstraction.’

So having an abstract way of looking at painting never required the artist to paint abstractly, nor the viewer to seek out only nonrepresentational art. This is something that Jed Perl seems to have forgotten when writing his recent essay for the New York Review of Books, ‘Between Abstraction and Representation’. Perl sees the twentieth-century differend between the two modes as nothing less than ‘a war of ideas’. And like an old veteran who feels he was most alive in the heat of battle, he has deep nostalgia for the old conflict.

Perl has long been a defender of contemporary representational painting. Having trained as a painter himself, he began his career as a critic at The New Criterion in the 1980s. Despite being a protégé of its then-editor, Hilton Kramer, Perl did not evince anything of the latter’s hardcore neo-con political views. His aesthetic conservatism, however, was never in doubt. In the mid-1990s Perl moved to The New Republic, where he continued to denounce what he saw as the meretricious fashions of contemporary art – titles like ‘The Wildly Overrated Andy Warhol’ (and then, three months later, ‘The Curse of Warholism’) give the tone. One of his last pieces for The New Republic, in 2014, was ‘The Art World Has Stopped Distinguishing Between Greatness and Fraudulence’ – a takedown of Sigmar Polke, whom he lambasted as a ‘megalomaniacal show-off’. Since then, he’s been a regular at the New York Review of Books. Yet despite the prominence of his venues, Perl’s has never been considered a voice to reckon with by the art world – as even Kramer had undoubtedly been. Presumably his readers among the literary intelligentsia don’t quite realize how quaintly eccentric his views often seem to most artists. Perl’s stance has been to present himself as the courageous objector to the art world’s decadent values, and the defender of the overlooked and underrated artists who’ve continued to mine modernist-inflected modes of figurative painting. But in preferring the likes of Gabriel Laderman or Stanley Lewis to Polke or Gerhard Richter, he merely demonstrates his unerring preference for the less over the more interesting.

In the recent essay on abstraction and figuration, Perl starts from an observation that’s hard to gainsay: that recent years – decades, really, by now – have witnessed ‘a tendency to embrace abstraction and representation as vehicles rather than avowals, means to an end rather than philosophical imperatives’. Well, let’s say, instead, that they can be philosophical propositions rather than religious dogmas. I’ve always felt that I belong to my time in this belief that an artist’s choice between using images and abjuring them could not be an absolute imposed from without, and must be the product of an inner inclination, perhaps even an inner necessity, but not one that is frozen in place. Philip Guston the abstractionist was just as firm in his conviction as Philip Guston the figurative painter would be, and for the same reason. Guston the abstractionist eschewed what he called ‘recognizable art’ because ‘it excludes too much. I want my work to include more. And “more” also comprises one’s doubts about the object, plus the problem, the dilemma, of recognizing it.’ He went back to painting images when he came to feel that his abstraction excluded too much – and that among the things it had come to exclude was the doubt he felt so deeply.

In Perl’s view, today’s artists have lost the passionate commitment that artists of Guston’s time felt toward their artistic choices. They ‘appear to think that it’s possible to be a representational artist one minute and an abstract artist the next’, he huffs. And yet, while he loves the idea of a battle between abstraction and representation, he says they should not be ‘regarded as ideologies’. That puzzles me. If abstraction and representation don’t amount to what he calls ‘ideological absolutes’, then why dig yourself into the trenches for one of them?

What’s strange is that, in an essay lamenting that artists and others no longer take sides on behalf of either abstraction or representation, neither does Perl. In fact, he never even says what he thinks either of those terms means. Instead, he simply takes a pair of examples, Piet Mondrian and Diego Giacometti, as totemic names who stand for all the rest. As Perl rightly says, ‘A creative process is a philosophical search, shaped by matters of practice and procedure that extend from the first touch of the artist’s pencil, brush, or chisel to the final decisions about what constitutes completeness.’ That’s a truism worth repeating, but the critic needs to undertake his own philosophical search before berating others for failing to do so. Perl is confident that the creative process can only be undertaken within the conventional boundaries of established, unexamined categories. Abstraction and representation, he believes, have ‘deep implications’ to be explored but their intersection, or the structures of seeing that underlay both of them? Apparently not. Perl sees that Julie Mehretu, for instance, has a long-standing practice of ‘overlay[ing] abstract and representational elements in her immense canvases’, but doesn’t seem to understand why anyone would pursue such a course or recognize the difference between this consistently developing style and the more eclectic approach of someone painting abstractly one minute, representationally the next. Nor does he address the profound difference between the referential forms that Mehretu employs – schematic and diagrammatic notations – and traditional representation. The referential systems she works into her paintings are also a kind of abstraction – almost the opposite of the ‘mere images’ Perl says they are, though in the same breath he also calls them ‘fixed, inscrutable elements’, which is perhaps more to the point.

Perl seems to be looking past Mehretu, and a couple of other painters whose work he discusses more briefly, at the man whom he appears to consider the big bad wolf of contemporary painting, Gerhard Richter. Richter, of course, unlike Mehretu, really does paint sometimes abstractly and sometimes representationally. To Perl’s mind, it seems that the German artist has been cheating by working in such a way that ‘the juxtaposition of representational and abstract works and their impact as a totality’ is what has made him so admired. That art lovers can savour the way Richter executes these paintings is something that Perl refuses to believe. Twenty or so years ago, Perl unleashed a tantrum of a review on Richter in The New Republic. Its fire-breathing opener: ‘Gerhard Richter is a bullshit artist masquerading as a painter’. Since then, though, Perl seems to have lost some of his polemical energy. Now his grousings could almost be taken for neutral description: ‘Entropy is Richter’s subject. The stylistic free-for-all that in Richter’s work suggests an artistic endgame can as easily suggest a kind of comedy.’ Sounds respectably, if unexcitingly, Beckettian to me.

Perl goes on to cite the critic and representational painter Fairfield Porter – who was a great admirer of much abstract art – for his contention ‘that many artists who identified themselves as abstractionists or realists were producing little more than illustrations – “shadows” – of an idea or ideal.’ That, of course, is what Matisse had already said of the abstractionists, and I suspect he’d have said the same of most realists. The artists capable of raising themselves out of the slough of academicism are the exceptions. Why Perl imagines, contra Porter, that plunging oneself once more into some exclusive conception of abstraction or representation would offer an exit from these imitations of imitations is a mystery.

And while Perl admits that premier venues for new American art in the 1950s and 60s, such as the Tanager and Tibor de Nagy Galleries, ‘embraced a pluralistic view’ and showed abstract and figurative works side by side, he finds it suspicious when today’s galleries do the same. In illo tempore this was apparently done in authentic recognition of the crucial nature of the distinction; these days the same practice is ascribed to ‘muddleheaded eclecticism’ and ‘high-end shelter magazine’ aesthetics. One of the shows he didn’t like paired works by Josef Albers and Giorgio Morandi. And while either of those artists’ work would, for that matter, look good in a high-end shelter magazine, I wonder if he’d really be prepared to argue that that’s all there is to either one of them? And if not, what’s different about showing them together – except that it happened in 2021 at David Zwirner and not in 1961 at Tibor de Nagy?

But here’s where my beef with Perl gets personal. Another of his ‘muddleheaded’ targets was a presentation of paintings by Thomas Nozkowski (a committed abstractionist) and Jane Freilicher (a lifelong representationalist) at the Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation. Perl doesn’t voice any particular complaint about either of those artists’ work, but he doesn’t understand why their work was shown together. Apparently, it’s not enough to know that Nozkowski – who passed away in 2019 but was still alive when the exhibition was first being planned – was a passionate admirer of Freilicher, who died in 2014, aged 90. But isn’t that in itself worth dwelling on – that Nozkowski’s dedication to his own abstract path was no barrier to his recognition of the worth of a very different kind of art, that the pursuit of his idea did not entail a war against another artist’s idea? And doesn’t that imply that in those ideas there might be some commonality worth contemplating? At least one reviewer of the show, David Carrier, found it succeeded in suggesting ‘shared ways of looking that Freilicher and Nozkowski achieved independently’, despite their practising such different modes of painting.

Perl, on the other hand, complains that ‘when the people involved reached for an organizational principle to explain what they were doing, all they could summon were banalities like “There is a commonality more significant than all their significant differences put together: Let’s call it integrity.”’ Here, I’m the one who has to beg the reader to excuse my having committed a banality. I wrote the catalogue essay from which Perl quotes without mentioning my name – I don’t know whether he thought that in veiling my authorship of that sentence he was being kind, or if he thereby meant to condemn me all the more absolutely. No matter. What’s revealing there is Perl’s sloppiness about imputing intentions – his willingness to attribute my words to the exhibition’s organizers, which is to say its curator, Eric Brown, and the Resnick and Passlof Foundation’s executive director, Susan Reynolds, and its president, Nathan Kernan. My contribution to the catalogue came, as it were, after the fact; I was asked for it, I suppose, as a critical supporter and longtime friendly acquaintance of Nozkowski’s who had also written appreciatively about Freilicher, but it was never my role to explain what the organizers had in mind. Beyond that, I’d be curious to understand better why my ‘banality’, which Perl allows ‘could be made about any work that succeeds to some degree’, is more banal than his banality in pointing out that ‘the experience of a work of art isn’t a matter of theory (which isn’t to say that artists and audiences can’t be interested in theories); it’s visceral, whether Mondrian’s spare abstractions or Giacometti’s roiled portraits.’

Yes, there is – must be – something visceral in one’s response to ‘any work of art that succeeds to some degree’, and it’s worth reminding ourselves of this familiar fact. Actually, what Perl says is true even of work that might not succeed: his rejection of Mehretu’s work, which he calls ‘a visual shouting match’, is nothing if not visceral. Like him, I find her work too chilly for my taste, and I question her success in allegorizing grand socio-political themes via abstraction – there’s a lack of mediation that rubs me the wrong way. But I object to his presumption that her attempt lacks seriousness, comparable to every philistine’s favourite example of artistic blague, Marcel Duchamp’s moustache on the Mona Lisa. This points to the great problem with Perl as a critic: his inveterate belief that today’s artists (except for a few personal favourites of his) are all somehow acting in bad faith, and that it was only in the good old days that people pursued art with seriousness. ‘Whether we want to or not’, Matisse insisted, ‘we belong to our time and we share in its opinions, its feelings, even its delusions.’ We should be critical of our time, and to do so we must be self-critical, but we can’t hide our heads in the past.

Read on: Saul Nelson, ‘Opposed Realities’, NLR 137.