PRINT April 1981

Cold Turkey: “A New Spirit in Painting” at the Royal Academy of Arts, London

A WOMAN DECIDES TO hold a dinner party and hires a maid to wait on the table. All goes well until the servant steps into the room carrying a huge turkey, trips and drops it on the carpet. “Blanche,” says the hostess, her voice quivering, “Take that away and bring in the other turkey.” “A New Spirit in Painting” isn’t just a turkey—it’s the same old turkey dusted off and disguised. Cold, mangled and covered with fluff, it may stick in our throats, but the day is saved—any turkey is better than no turkey at all. Unless of course, you prefer the truth. The most provocative part of “A New Spirit” is the word “new”; every major point in the catalogue text has been made before, and the average age of the artists is 50. By London standards this is a very large, very expensive show indeed, and publicity for it has been unusually immodest. Unfortunately, magnitude of size has led to a loss of coherence. “A New Spirit” is a chance to think about the possibilities of painting; it is a clarion call to born-again painters, an attempt to consolidate some current critical stances and a ratification or revision of existing traditions. Inside it are entire sub-exhibitions trying to get out—for instance, a survey of contemporary German painting and a group of late modern masters. Altogether, it is synthetic, symptomatic, even representative. Not “new.”

The selectors seem to disagree. Christos Joachimides writes, “This exhibition presents a position in art which conspicuously asserts traditional values such as individual creativity, accountability, quality, which throw light on the condition of contemporary art and, by association, on the society in which it is produced.” Wait for the catch. “Thus, for all its apparent conservatism the art on show here is, in a true sense, progressive.” Britain, a country with extraordinary continuity in its cultural history, is easily fooled by such paradoxes. But “backwards equals forwards” isn’t a paradox; it’s an untruth. Any major public display of this kind demands an accompanying statement, and, to paraphrase Pound, exhibitions should be at least as well organized as critical essays. Here theory is replaced by appeals to traditional esthetic uplift. It is the last straw when Joachimides recommends a recapitulation and then claims that this will renew the avant-garde.

According to the selectors, “A New Spirit” is a manifesto but not a prophesy, an “area for assertions to be tested” and “a reflection on the state of painting now”—an anthology and an artwork in its own right. The main confusion is between description and prescription. Why are the paintings there? Are they slides for a lecture or counters in a Leavisite power struggle? Why is New Image painting banished, or at least restricted? Why is pattern painting ignored completely? Why drag in performance artist Bruce Maclean or Jannis Kounellis just to prove a point about the flexibility of the medium, while conceptualists engaged in examining the philosophy of painting (such as Michael Craig-Martin) are omitted, to the detriment of the show and its argument? Why, above all, does the British section exclude John Walker, the single artist in the country whose entire output for the last 10 years is relevant to the matter at hand?

One thing is clear. “The New Spirit” was intended to make exciting juxtapositions and propose new historical relationships. Its failure to do both can be attributed to a scattershot thesis, and to the nature and brevity of the catalogue texts. Yet it is just possible to spot connections without knowing whether they were deliberate. It is like imagining a small city block where by chance Frank Auerbach and Willem de Kooning are neighbors. Hockney and Warhol might also live near each other. At times they pop upstairs to de Kooning’s to borrow a cup of sugar. Balthus and Kitaj talk politely from time to time in the elevator, united by a distant family relationship. The minimalists would keep themselves to themselves; the landlord rented them an apartment but no one knows why. One of the mysteries of “The New Spirit” is why all these artists are hung together. Gotthard Graubner seems to draw on the German Romantic tradition; while projecting the warmth of a physical presence, his stuffed canvases heave with the Sehnsucht of overweight contraltos. Alan Charlton is site-specific, dividing and inflecting the space he finds. Robert Ryman is an inventor, determined to begin again as if no one has ever made paintings before, conscious of the fact that after 30 years he may only have redesigned the wheel. Are imageless paintings included as an indictment of the bankruptcy of means? At the boundaries of the tradition of abstract formalism, Brice Marden should qualify as a key figure in any debate surrounding “The New Spirit.” There is no clue that he has been singled out, though two recent works are included. On the subject of abstraction in general, it is difficult to piece together an argument. The importance of German Expressionism is hammered home, but the fate of Abstract Expressionism is less easy to discern. Philip Guston’s change of heart, and an aspect of late de Kooning, hardly provide material for an answer. But we can see A.R. Penck’s vast hieroglyphics recall early Adolph Gottlieb and David Smith’s drawings. Someone in Sweden must be writing a scholarly article about Per Kirkeby and his connection to the New York School. Kirkeby is that art-historical rarity, the artist who revives a defunct movement and kills it off again almost immediately. In his case he does it in the same painting. Mimmo Paladino’s Rosso Silenzioso—it sounds better in Italian—has me completely foxed; it is either a deep and moving cry from the unconscious or a piece of flim flam too silly even to hang on the wall.

Abstract Expressionism, then, seems to have vanished or been abandoned, though there are whiffs of it here and there. In the U.S. it may be difficult to mount a major show that is optimistic about the future of painting without constant reference to the ’50s, (Barbara Rose’s “American Painting: The Eighties” is a good example.) But in Britain an unbroken line of realist art, which Kitaj calls School of London, can be used as a spine. The main figures are represented here: Bacon, Hockney, Kitaj himself, Auerbach and Lucian Freud.

The link between the three major groups represented—the British realists, the German neo-Expressionists and America in the ’60s—remains a secret. What can be learned from “The Greats”? From the final paintings of Picasso, a lonely abandon, with the colors of decay and a quicksilver style that is second nature, the rules of a game he had almost forgotten; from Helion, bathos, how to paint a fish head severed by an axe and call it Holocaust; from Guston, the guts to look at R. Crumb and steal from him; from de Kooning; the courage to be a child again; from Balthus, the strategies of a pasticheur with too little to say; from Bacon, an obsession with right-wing iconography. “The Greats” are their own captors, who, at worst, provide object lessons, and at best provide a private virtuosity that disciples cannot emulate. Like family gods, they exist to be cajoled and chastised, as if we really know them. We do not. What is to be learned from Shakespeare’s final plays, or Beethoven’s late quartets? Everything and nothing. Behind the bars they do not think of us at all, and ignore the nuts we throw.

In contrast, the “youngest” artists here seem to address themselves to less private issues; their headaches are caused by poise, taste, reconciliation of styles, the mechanics of facing an audience and entertaining. Rising from a wilderness of broken crockery in Julian Schnabel’s St. Francis in Ecstasy, a black-faced martyr looks puzzled as a male torso flexes in midair. Sandro Chia’s smoker farts as he puffs. Malcolm Morley’s Lone Ranger has wandered onto the set for Fantasy Island. Faux-naiveté is to the late ’70s what camp was 10 years before: a recoil from feeling, from history, from accountability. Despite its artificiality it reveals a distaste for devices, an impossible desire to present pleasure directly, to escape pre-existent languages and express an affinity with the purely fictional. Marooned in an historical doldrums, its exponents try to make the best of their situation; they strive for a new behavior, not a new technique—a way of accepting, even flaunting, poor expedients and hand-me-down styles. Dressed in tatters, they make tatters fashionable. To those who argue that realism in painting is a neglected vehicle for expressing ideas—ideas from the world outside—faux-naiveté must seem a betrayal, a way of dismissing the problem. And from any point of view this exhibition assumes an estheticism with which many will disagree, finding the ivory tower of Balthus, or Warhol’s obeisance to the privileged, offensive and irrelevant. All three selectors—Norman Rosenthal, Nicholas Serota and Christos Joachimides—write that in some of his last works Picasso: “achieved a synthesis born from the sense of the history of painting and also a wild disdain of his own place within it. The last paintings have a freedom of expression which allies them to the youngest painters of this exhibition. In the end the only care is about the act of painting itself. That we think is true of all the other artists in the exhibition, each in their very own way.”

Perhaps the real problem is expressed in the small room of Twombly drawings, skittish and excitable yet, after all, only variations on a sigh of regret that history and myth can no longer meet and fertilize, that time runs on while myth, and traditionally art, try to halt it. The classic Modernist invention was not the fixed style of “The Greats,” but the collage, which spoke of change, of the smell of the air in the street, outside the studio. Collage has been banished from “The New Spirit” yet has found its way in through the back door, as the only visual equivalent of the historical model which governs the present.

There were no grounds, runs the conclusion, for deciding that a direction was evident in “The New Spirit,” no grounds for proposing that the true avant-garde lay in unsaying the avant-garde. One style, and its justification, is here. Another is there. A third lies nearby. At the Royal Academy I can connect nothing with nothing. Frustrated that painting can’t be life and relieved that this is so, the faux-naives with their quasi-suspension of time, become easier to acknowledge. Their subject matter arises from boredom. Roland Barthes wrote “Ennui is not far removed from delight; it is delight seen from the shores of pleasure.” Ennui and delight is a combination that has been used before. In The Will to Power Nietzsche characterized Modernism as “the opposition between external mobility and a certain inner heaviness and fatigue.” With the painters of pleasure, total recall is subject to forgetfulness as they doze in the sun, living comfortably off the interest from their Modernist investments. At the other extreme is Teutonic gloom. Rivaled only by some of Bernd Köberling and Dieter Hacker, Anselm Kiefer wants us to look at bogs of dark impasto. Markus Lupertz paints three almost identical versions of a gigantic World War II monument against a battlefield setting, calls them Black, Red and Gold Dithyramb and hangs them side by side, a work with all the subtlety of a visual gangbang.

If any poetry resides in sheer murk, it emerges in K.H. Hödicke’s Against the Light and Rainer Fetting’s Large Shower I and II. Though Fetting’s fantasies exude an air of crucifixions and concentration camps, both he and Hödicke can produce large, fluent neo-Expressionist works without relying on bombast. Does some proportional relation exist between external mobility and inner fatigue, between the nervous brushstroke and the burden of the past? Hockney’s new landscape paintings suggest that one does. Quirky, oversized, they look like a cross between Dufy and Hundertwasser. The colors are uniformly bright and the composition has disintegrated into a collection of motifs. There are signs that subject-matter no longer interests him, nor the problem of finding visual devices; he may be content to string together cheerful Hockneyesque passages. His Mulholland Drive, 1980, is an allegory describing the directions the whole exhibition takes: realism, threadbare and giggling with embarrassment, prepares to come to terms with an avant-garde it claimed it never wanted to join. “What the hell,” Nietzsche would have said, “It’s all Modernism.”

From the shores of Modernism one can only look back. The four main points of “A New Spirit”—the return of figuration, the neglect of the Northern Expressionist tradition, the increased subjectivity of the artist and the need to reconsider “old masters”—give way to a different, dominant theme: the difficulty of establishing a relation with the past that involves neither continual homage nor deliberate ignorance. The problem is less a debate than a family quarrel in which logic has no place. In his poem “The New Spirit,” John Ashbery described such a vacancy: “So that we must despair of all realism now, because it is there, it is totally adequate for what was being represented, only we cannot feel it as such, but that is our tough luck.” There may come a time when talking won’t help, and when it will be impossible to move forwards or backwards. Worse still, that time may already have come. Unable to face it, we sent Blanche out for the other turkey. We have only ourselves to blame.

Stuart Morgan writes reviews regularly for Artforum.