PRINT May 1977

Garry Kennedy: Painting Painting Itself

DOES IT MAKE SENSE TO speak of “post-Conceptual art”? Is the new painting of the ’70s a return to the old painting of the ’60s—or has it been transformed by the lesson of radical alternatives? Was there something wrong with painting before?—or with Conceptual art? It would be a disservice to perpetuate an awkward term by compounding it. The facts may not even sustain belief in any general revival in the art of painting. Yet just asking such questions puts Garry Kennedy’s work in perspective. He began as a painter, but there was a phase of conceptual experimentation. Kennedy’s new paintings necessitate an understanding of at least some conceptual strategies, but they manage to read as an endorsement of the tradition of painting—as well as of the conceptual alternative.

In practice, this all has more to do with the person he is than with what he thinks about art. At the point where Conceptual art (and the old “modernist” art before it) achieves real depth of resonance, self-reference slips over into autobiography. In Kennedy’s case that entails no intimate revelations, rather a reflection of his public role as head of a college of art. Indeed, the art projects an administrative outlook. Student work and early work set the groundlines: paintings that are limited in their choice of materials. Graduate students are always low on funds, but there was in this case a marked taste for the sumptuousness of subtle elaboration within a restricted range. Kennedy would return to the same works over and over, insistently pushing them along, building up layer on layer. There developed a sort of attachment to the piece that had only incidentally to do with the fact that at the time he could not afford to abandon anything.

From 1967 building up Nova Scotia College of Art and Design demanded a lot of Kennedy’s time. Books, photo-pieces, video pieces and performances were for him an interlude. Only as committees began to take over administrative work did a real sense of his own identity begin to re-emerge. Two works from 1972 point the way; one has to do with people, the other with place.

Trying to remember the names of all the people he had ever known was a way of taking stock. The first exercise was a print. He made a Xerox of an old school photograph and wrote on the names of the people he could remember; in production it was possible to superimpose his writing over the original photograph. What is striking about the result is that, in a way, it makes no difference. We no more know who, say, Judy Bolton is, for the addition of her name, than we did before. What the addition of her name tells us is that her youthful existence continues within living memory. I find that moving but wonder about the depth of his engagement with that particular individual. A statement on the print insistently relates it to the general project. Was Judy Bolton ever more than a statistic in Kennedy’s inventory of experience? The image has been processed through his personal understanding, but it comes out as an affirmation of its previous remoteness.

In the same year the college arranged an exchange with the Vancouver Art Gallery. For his piece in the Vancouver show, Kennedy asked that they photograph the corners of the room—just tiny, actual-size photographic details—and paste them up as an assemblage. For an individual show at California Institute of the Arts two years later, in 1974, he went along the actual edge of the walls with a pencil, as if he were doing a full-scale drawing of the room in situ. That intention might not immediately press itself upon an observer, and yet I think the sense of endorsement would—that Kennedy had made his response as an indication of the way he perceived the situation before him. If the indication emphasizes what has been judged to be important, it comes very close to replacing the reality with the endorsement itself.

In comparing his own art with that of Sol LeWitt, Kennedy is quite clear that LeWitt has no concern for the wall on which he externalizes his ideas. In contrast, Kennedy’s approach is more pragmatic, more realistic. The ground inevitably limits the options, so one had better take it into account from the beginning. In the actual piece it forms the basis for noncommittal observations about its own structure. A strategy of self-reference is used to anchor the meaning of painting to its own material support.

Kennedy’s very best works, the canvases since 1975, convey the sense of endorsement with fullest intensity. Certain pieces rely on the canvas itself, like a small work from March ’75 that delineates the edges with a soft pencil, in just the way Kennedy had relied on the wall in his California show. Even earlier he had begun a group of several pieces in which pencil marks were allowed to glide along the grain of the canvas—over and over, along every grain, all the way down. The very first followed a dominant horizontal weave; the next took one of two subordinate diagonal directions. Both were done with the canvas tacked up loose on the wall. When Kennedy first mounted his canvas, tiny irregularities showed up in the matching of the pencilled square and the stretcher frame. Later, he worked with the canvas already stretched, and a darker ridge built up where the pencil first came in contact with the surface at the edge. He experimented with different sorts of pencil. The hard ones leave just the faintest duller-than-silvery sheen of graphite enhancing the texture of the cloth. Where the pencil meets an irregularity in the weave it bounces and may briefly make a darker line, but that alone is enough to point out what has taken place.

One senses the mental and physical concentration that is necessary to keep the pencil point moving at an even pace along its (almost) regular track. One experiences a reconciliation of contrasted scales—the path of the pencil point and the five-foot square of canvas—and, along with it, the human tension of concern for each minute mark, as well as a poise that keeps each part at an equal emotional distance.

Ad Reinhardt came to the same five-foot scale because it was the size of canvas he could just grasp in his outstretched arms. Similarly, it was the size that accommodated the swing of Garry Kennedy’s arm. For Ad Reinhardt such an observation arbitrarily resolved the question in favor of its most negative solution, but for Garry Kennedy this was integral. Ad Reinhardt endorsed the tradition of canvas as an art material; Garry Kennedy would also take into account that particular piece of cloth.

Over the last year or so Kennedy has returned to the use of paint, just a few neutral colors and rarely more than one in a single work. Painting began again on paper, where he fixed on three or four major imperfections and then painted the shape between them. The very first was done with clear water, so that only imperfections in the buckling of the paper marked the area of his activity. Later Kennedy reverted to canvas. He would paint the surface over and over with acrylic until its texture disappeared, leaving, in one instance, just a single thread/line descending down the diagonal grain from the top left corner. Eventually the line bounced off the edges until it caught up with itself, forming an asymmetrical lozenge wedged tightly at the right, inducing a peculiarly twisted space. Later still, the line kept on going, crisscrossing lattice-fashion, until it found its way into another corner.

Sometimes Kennedy would use white, sometimes gray, and then a muted oxide red. Once he built up the gray by adding an extra touch of black to each coat of paint so the resulting color charted the time involved, although he decided that was unnecessary because the brushwork itself gives an adequate indication.

Initially, the layering was just a matter of eliminating the texture of the canvas. As time went on Kennedy came to see that, in doing so, he was still perpetuating the direction of the weave in the marks of his brush. He tried using the diagonal weave instead of the horizontal, and then tried playing off its 60° angle against the 45° angle between opposite corners, a division that registers only in the slight variations in the way the brushwork catches the light.

Many of the paintings are available to at least some of the language of formalist criticism, but behind such theory is a taste that marks “modernism” as the reverse side of action painting. Thus Olitski too could claim that the brushed-in touches around the edge of his canvas were also a matter of drawing its shape, as in that small work of Garry Kennedy’s from March of 1975. That Kennedy’s drawing is more “accurate” is only a superficial difference. Against the forces that pull his art toward the limits of the frame, one feels with Olitski a sense of obligation to be free. For Garry Kennedy there is no such tension: the realization of personal identity is achieved in the act of acknowledgment itself. One could go further: in the mechanical ritual of the process there may be something therapeutic, a respite from the pressures, specifically, of art administration. As Kennedy sees it, “It’s the sort of work that allows the maker to be something else or to do something else.”

Eric Cameron