TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT Summer 1984

STAMPEDE TO THE FIGURE

THESE REMARKS FOLLOW from my sense that painting’s recent “return to the figure” is an important episode in the history of the medium, so important that it overwhelms vision: we talk as if we’ve witnessed the return of the figure. But the figure never went away. The lineage of figure painters extends unbroken from antiquity to the present. So the hordes of human forms in the work of young painters do not signal the sudden reappearance of a venerable subject; rather, these artist’s return to the figure is like a first pilgrimage to a sacred site, a place one knows because it is part of one’s heritage but which, for reasons of extreme youth, one has never visited. For those who became artists when Minimalism and conceptualism still had the aura of the new, the figure appeared only on the periphery of vision. Its significance was easy to overlook. A young painter “returning” now to this subject undertakes a migration to the core of painting, to the site of the crisis in the very purpose of paint.

This crisis has been with us for a long time, which is to say that painters have managed for decades to ignore it. I’m talking about the familiar failure of “advanced” art to sustain an optimistic linear vision of history, of progress, of an advance ordained by our best hopes in the future. When those hopes were strong and much energetic art was utopian, many painters believed that progress required the pictorial equivalent of deportation—the figure had to be banished so that, rising above individuality, the medium could attain to universals. And figure painters also sought an escape from the singular self.

Oskar Schlemmer, for example, continued throughout his career to populate his art with images of men and women, but these were the creatures of a mechanical heaven—robotic angels. Even Alberto Giacometti’s melancholy produced an Everyman, an Everywoman, and the monumental figure of Everydog. Willem de Kooning deploys a rhetoric of private anguish, yet the “Women” who float up and out of his painterly mess have the glow of myth. They are latter-day goddesses, sweetheart versions of Hecate and Cybele. Whether filled with a faith in painting’s social role or entranced by heroic visions of modern destiny, these artists all sustained a belief in art as an agent of progress. Despite iconographical differences, “figurative” artists made common cause with abstract painters. This moment’s new painting enacts and re-enacts the abandonment of that cause, which, in his odd way, even Andy Warhol supported. Wouldn’t it have been progress of a sort if he had been granted his wish to be a machine?

As long as the “death” of the avant-garde felt like a recent event, pictorial options still lined up along a boulevard that led somewhere, if not to a better tomorrow. But now possibilities for style and subject, past and future, form a labyrinth turned in on itself. To develop, a painter must navigate a maze. The most sophisticated drift around blind corners, through overgrown passages, to the maze’s core, a zone patrolled by a monster—the minotaur at the heart of every ambitious image of the self. This is the site where the painting’s apparent concerns fall prey to the real subject, the will of the painter.

To say that painting has returned to the figure is a superficial—or simply inaccurate—statement, unless we mean the comment to point to the way certain young artists have returned under a half-conscious compulsion to basics of figure and ground, image and space. Though the stylistic surface of their art is complex, a primitivism rages just out of sight—a desire, historically retrograde in the light of the avant-garde faith, to revive the Romantic claim that an artist succeeds by permeating an artwork with his or her will. These younger painters have “solved” their historical dilemma by acting as if the loss of avant-garde momentum were an empty issue. In a way, it is.

When a painter’s presence permeates a painting, distinctions of figure and ground persist only to demonstrate their tenuousness. The Death of Sardanapalus, 1827, asserts the life of Delacroix, an energy of will that inhabits the forms of ruler and ruled, human and animal, the animate and the inanimate, the texture of light and dark, the surge of color and the reach of space itself. Finally the painting is Delacroix, an image of the artist in his most ambitious incarnation, hence fit to stand as a monumental figure against the backdrop, the mere ground, of the world. I’m not saying that any of the new painters—“the Italians,” “the Germans,” or “the Americans” tagged with the unfortunate “Neo-Expressionist” label—have the stature of Delacroix. My point is that the presence of will in their art is as insistent, as nearly palpable, as Delacroix’s will is in his. Unlike Delacroix, they are figure painters in spite of themselves, painters at the mercy of the human form’s demand to be seen in their work, to defy the rationales that lead beyond the self, to remind us that all of the painting of the last two centuries—Modern painting—is inhabited, haunted by the willful figure of the artist.

A premodern painter is one whose world never came under pressure from industrialization. Industrial technology made an institution of attitudes we gather under the label of empiricism, a view of the world with ancient origins and yet not dominant in the culture of the West until about two centuries ago. The image of empiricism as a modern institution offers modernity as the source of totalizing solutions, not only to problems of manufacture but to questions of social and economic life, the pursuit of war, education, and so on—questions whose answers inspired a spread of institutions in the ordinary sense, each one of them from municipal bureau to conscript army, to Gesamtkunstwerk, with its own totalizing method and steady production of all-embracing, empirically “responsible” answers.

A modern institution survives through the exercise of a suprapersonal will to absolute authority throughout an unbounded sphere of influence. But institutional omniscience, like institutional omnipotence, is unattainable. Modern armies, like modern schools, invariably fail in their self-appointed missions. Battles may be won but the war for absolute control, exercised through empirically “correct” technique, must of necessity be lost. Think of the fate of high-tech hardware in the face of local insurgency. Think of contemporary theories of the personality in the face of new forms of life. Institutional thought and method have produced a rubble of failure, an intricately layered wasteland of collapsed systems, the institutional response to which is the production of new and more oppressive layers. By its nature, technology cannot correct its fundamental mistake—to treat its subjects (its audience, so to speak) as functions of its own mechanistic rationale. When a technique founders, when a bureaucratic initiative collapses, its managers’ first reflex is always to redefine the targeted population in ever more reductive terms.

The modern self, individuality as we know it, is a response to these manipulations, an expression of unyielding will. With the appearance of this embattled self, painting took this will as its abiding subject. That subject, which swirls through all of Turner’s later art, was simply not available to Claude. The sedimentation of institutional failure since Turner’s time has produced a situation more desperate, even, than the one against which he struggled in the era of Victorian imperialism—more desperate in part because so many of the self’s definable, quantifiable demands have been met. Individuality’s grievances have become difficult to locate, not to say redress, especially now that so many “cultural” institutions claim to support art and artists. These days the figure of the artist’s will must assert itself against a ground of bewildered—and relentlessly destructive—acceptance.

Turner began as a mere topographer—a landscape-painter-as-empiricist. This was not satisfactory to him, for reasons best stated by his German opposite Caspar David Friedrich, who spoke with impatience of “The modern demand . . . for the exact aping of bodies, in other words, of lengths, widths, heights, shapes, and colors. For these, in the opinion of modern gentlemen, actually comprehend the spirit, since the spirit can express itself only through them. This is called pure, humble, childlike submission, and sacrifice of personal will. In other words, the painter ought not to have a will, he should simply paint.” Friedrich never did this. Turner grew tired of it soon, and began to depart from observed appearances. No more reliance on science as defined by scientists, much less art as defined by art experts. He had begun to map the far reaches of his own imagination. In 1855 Baudelaire felt impelled to state, flatly, that “the artist owes nothing to anyone but himself.” In the jargon of our times, these figures had willed themselves into a state of autonomy, and their art—paintings and poems—were the emblems of their success. In resisting the institutions of art, literature, and science, they had made counterinstitutions of themselves. Whether or not the public, the sociologist’s crowd, accepted them as such was beside the point, though extremes of misunderstanding, to say nothing of neglect, could inspire doubts about the worth of one’s autonomy. This produced doubts of a deeper kind, which could only be suppressed by further acts of will. Doubt haunts the modern artist in the form of melancholy, the feeble shadow of the will, a condition the painters and poets of the 19th century, more candid than their 20th-century heirs, mentioned time and time again.

Whatever its ostensible subject, the painting of our era has hidden its own nature from itself. Thus hidden, the figure reappears in unlikely places, under the pressure of extreme mutation. A cab driver once refused to transport a small H.C. Westermann box because, the driver said, he didn’t want to carry a baby coffin in his cab. As Robert Morris’ work of the ’70s and ’80s suggests, there was a strong funereal presence, an image of the dead self, in his sculptures of the ’60s, those shapes from which geometry was supposed, at the time, to have expunged all traces of “anthropomorphism.” Looking back at Jasper Johns’ “Targets,” paintings from which much of Minimalism derived, one senses as much of Johns’ presence in the elegantly worked surfaces as in the body fragments (the self targeted and assaulted) that appeared above the red, yellow, and blue Target with Plaster Casts of 1955. No image of the human form need appear for a painting to serve as an emblem of the artist as a monument of will. In abstraction, so-called, the ground may absorb the figure—see Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings. See Wassily Kandinsky or Barnett Newman for images whose “non-figurative” forms resist that absorption, posing and gesturing just like the figures of painters we call figurative. The differences between Pollock and Newman, between Newman and, say, Malcolm Morley, are great, but never great enough to obscure a persistent truth: in our times a painting comes into being as the ground where the figure of the artist exercises an implacable, sometimes demonic, will.

Since painting is a fine art—I should say, still a fine art—the painter need not acknowledge the violence of his or her will. The fine arts stand apart from the coercions of our times, no? Painting has to do with freedom, or, if that word is too compromised, it is a medium for the undoing of coercive pressures. The painter’s claim to autonomy cannot be negotiated. It can only be imposed, unilaterally. As a fine art, painting opposes the coercions of our institutions with coercions of its own. In fact, the willful presence of the painter is one of our era’s most commanding institutions.

This has nothing to do with the artist’s personality or the struggles of that personality to express itself. The institution of the painter is an artifice built from fragments of actual personalities, just as the varieties of pictorial space are constructs assembled from a number of sources in and outside of the history of painting. Hence the familiar distance between artist and artwork. Just as great, though less well known, is the distance between the painter-as-painter and the painter, the figure of the same name, one meets in the form of an ordinary person. Ambitious artists counter the alienating pressures of our era’s institutions by remaking those alienations on terms specifically their own.

The Violent Aggressions of Ger van Elk

Ger van Elk? Violent? His recent works begin with photographs of flower arrangements or placid landscapes. Occasionally he joins these photos to maps of the most ordinary kind. True, he splashes their surfaces with paint, but the act hardly looks like a violation. There is always such a delicate consonance between his two palettes, painterly and photographic. The gloss of enamel makes precise, restrained comment on the sheen of a color print. Van Elk’s splashes are concerned before all else to evoke neither the athletic flair of Pollock nor the frenzy of German Expressionism. These are contemplative splashes. So how could they be violent?

They aren’t. Van Elk’s violence is elsewhere, disguised by a rhetoric of quiet measure. With the appearance of maps in his most recent work it begins to look as though he is that most sober of image-makers, a cartographer, though the mundane surface of the earth is not his primary interest. Wielding a brilliantly elliptical—and idiosyncratic—set of conventions, he maps the terrain of style and medium, His paintings, if that’s what they are, summarize the immense zone where two-dimensional images loom up into visibility. To map so much on a (relatively) small surface requires van Elk to position himself at a great distance from his subject.

The mapmaker’s chief device is scale, the ratio between the size of a unit on the map and the size of the corresponding unit in the world. Current art talk has turned “size” and “scale” into synonyms. Usage has its rights, even its reasons, yet this one is unfortunate. It conflates a relationship, a ratio, a complexity (scale) with a simple attribute (size). Simplicity wins out. When “scale” comes to mean “size,” height and width, the very notion of scale—of ratios—evaporates. Image becomes identical to the physical object, which makes it easy to overlook the impulse, so powerful in so much current work, to invest human form with an overbearing monumentality. We neglect the issues raised by these figures and, distracted by surface clutter, refuse to see how oppressive are the pressures of the space containing those figures.

Van Elk’s recent use of maps seems designed to correct this confusion of size and scale. His newest works leap past the human presence to a scale beyond the global. Only the huge, imaginary figure of the artist remains in these images—van Elk in the hovering form of the eye from whose viewpoint he maps spaces of ungraspable immensity. When snowy white paint flows over a map of the North Pole, this modest spill of pigment spreads into the shape—and for the imagination, the size—of a row of huge peninsulas. This surge of paint, so insistent on denying any sympathy with Expressionism, is actually minute. It charts an impulse, yes, but an impulse controlled with such exactitude that the very notion of spontaneous self-expression appears to have died of a severe and sudden chill. Van Elk has devised a scale of emotional distance, a ratio between what he permits himself to feel (tenuous, a matter of faint traces) and the pictorial devices available to convey those feelings (an immense, overwhelming repertoire). The world to which van Elk refers with his “maps” is the realm of his inwardness—or rather, of those aspects of himself he wishes to bring into visible play. He has suppressed the rest of himself by an exercise of the will that organizes, that insists upon, lurching flights of scale. I call his work aggressive because with elegant, icy gestures of control he eradicates every impulse except those mapped by his cartography, the emblem of his will.

Regions of the Self

In his remarks on the Universal Exhibition of 1855, Baudelaire sneers in his most oblique manner at the notion that there are universals in art. What, he asks, does one do “at the sight of a Chinese product, a strange product, weird, contorted in shape, intense in color, and sometimes delicate to the point of fading away?” Acutely, morbidly aware that this string of adjectives is a product of his own obsessively French point of view, Baudelaire says that in order to understand such a “strange product” “the critic, the viewer, must bring about within himself a transformation, which is something of a mystery, and, by a phenomenon of will-power acting on his imagination, he must learn by his own effort to share in the life of the society that has given birth to this unexpected bloom.” To understand a piece of Chinese art the viewer must find a way to possess its meanings. On some plane far from actual events, the viewer’s will must be dispatched on the mission of colonizing the very idea of China.

Of course such imaginary events were not so different from ones which actually took place in the course of the 19th century. And the 20th. Look at our mutual relations with Japan. But Baudelaire is not especially interested in China or the history of colonial adventure. What is significantly “strange” for him is the work, the presence, of painters and poets he feels compelled to acknowledge. Even stranger, even more in need of being brought under the control of his will, are troubling aspects of his own being. These rebellious regions of the self are, for Baudelaire, the “China” that matters.

False Colors, True Selves

Writing about the Salon of 1846 Baudelaire keys his remarks to the subject of color. "Let us imagine,” he begins, “a beautiful expanse of nature . . . ” and goes on to describe a tropical profusion of greens and blues and reds in what we would now call an allover field, the expansive image that made its first appearance in the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock. Baudelaire evokes alloverness only to bring it under the control of composition, that hierarchical sort of order with which Pollock dispensed when he began to sling paint with a wooden stick.

Because he finds the academy so tiresome Baudelaire does not employ official, academic terms when he imposes composition on the chaotic flow of color. Nonetheless, he agrees with the academy that composition must prevail, order must be imposed. So chiaroscuro and modeling, depth and perspective, balance and counterbalance, the terms of pictorial composition, are transposed by him into musical terms: “Harmony . . . Melody . . . [melodic] conclusion. . . . ”

Translated back into the language of the studio (chiaroscuro and so on), these are catchwords of an authority born in the Renaissance and codified in treatises on perspective. Baudelaire accepts this authority, differing with academic conservatives only in locating its present-day site. For his opponents, that site is the academy itself. For Baudelaire, authority resides in the major artist (Delacroix is the only one he considers truly major), whose stature begins to show in his independence from observed appearances. The academic painter proceeded by delicate negotiations between the ordinary look of things, “Nature,” and the demands of a banal ideal. A major painter like Delacroix treats “nature as a dictionary,” picking and choosing his colors at will.

After Delacroix’s willfulness comes that of Gauguin, who said that when one is searching for a red, “use your best red.” Do not, in other words, be constricted by the look of things outside one’s painting. Then there is Fauvism, later Matisse, Frank Stella’s decorative extravagance—see the Day-Glo orange of his late ’60s work—and now the color barrages of graffiti. Is Delacroix somehow responsible for the look of the subway cars in Manhattan? Is that what I’m saying? Precisely not. In the realm of the will, responsibility is claimed for oneself, absolutely. It is not passed on.

Subway Maps

Baudelaire: “The artist owes nothing to anyone but himself.” The graffitists have chosen to owe nothing, not a thing, to the notion of art. That is why art-world discussion of the work requires such elaborate twists and turns—anything in the way of subformalist nonsense to distract us from the fact that the graffiti writers are not painters. A painter’s will strives to capture the institution of painting. Graffitists want to capture another institution altogether: the modern city, as emblemized by its network of underground trains.

Subway maps are those schematic summaries of the urban organism’s circulatory system. A subway car, then, is a metaphor for all that must be circulated: people, information, money, power. Never mind that the powerful usually don’t ride subways. It’s enough for the graffiti writer to know that the powerful know, at however great a remove, that the graffiti image has captured a key element in the urban system. The image shows no trace of traditional composition. It is not, save by accident, anything like the allover images which dispensed with composition in postwar New York. Art-world yearnings to the contrary, this is just not painting. The graffiti image moves over the surface like writing. It is writing, a declaration of war that counts also as total victory—the victory of the individual will in its struggle with the will of the city, the urban monster, as symbolized by the Transit Authority, the tender of the monster’s circulatory system.

The victory is empty and its color false––false in its upbeat mood, which is transparent bravado. Yet, in their willingness to define the city as a monster and then confront it, the graffiti writers give their imagery a large scale of its own. The painter’s space takes you out of the city. Graffiti draws you into its labyrinthine heart, where the violence of these written colors serves as a true emblem of the urban individual’s will.

Shredding the Map

Baron Georges Eugène Haussmann was prefect of the Seine from 1853 to 1870. From the time he came to power in Paris, the favored agencies in the bureaucracy of that city enjoyed a nearly totalitarian authority to rip the social fabric to shreds. The shreds served to patch up the resulting situation. Haussmann improved material conditions at the expense of social cohesion, a paradox with which we’re familiar. Some writers have argued that the wrenching displacements of late 19th-and early 20th-century urban life find a reflection in Cubism as it tears down and partially rebuilds the machinery of traditional composition. Collage is thus seen as an extreme response to an anxious puzzlement in the face of improvements that only exacerbate the problems they are intended to solve.

Other writers respond with the observation, surely accurate, that the Cubists are not illustrators. As Georges Braque said, he wanted “not to reconstitute an anecdotal fact but to constitute a pictorial fact.” In other words, collage gave him and Picasso the means to exercise Baron Haussmann’s power to remake the configuration of space. Present-day Paris is haunted along every boulevard, down every one of its pompous, elegant vistas, by Haussmann’s almost Napoleonic presence. The inventors of Cubism haunt their invention the same way. They lord it over painting as Haussmann lorded it over Paris. Cubism cannot be taken as an illustration because the style competes too aggressively with the subject it might be imagined to illustrate. Likewise, Braque and Picasso had no desire to emulate the figures of powerful bureaucrats and politicians. They tried instead to give their historical selves, their institutional presences, authority over the imagination. Picasso succeeded. I’m not so sure Braque did. Does he loom as large in the imagination as, say, Charles de Gaulle did in politics?

The question might seem unfair. It might seem beside the point. But the point of Modern painting will forever remain elusive unless we learn to see that the painter’s ambition is all-encompassing. Pictorial space is in unceasing competition with the space we occupy, the “space” of political and military power, space in all its configurations. Painters want to tell us how our era should be defined up and down, near and far, large and small. Painters want to set the scale of our experience and provide us with a map of its highlights. Poets want to do the same thing. So do bureaucrats and scientific investigators.

Before modernity, space, like the social structure inhabiting it, was a given. The prevailing definitions of such things were taken to be natural, if not god-given. Modernity, as we all know, throws those givens up for grabs. What we often prefer not to notice in the ensuing competition is that every ambitious personality in every field wants to ascend to the scale where he or she becomes an institution, a cultural monument of the kind that hands down new, latter-day givens, definitions basic to our experience.

The Modern Will

By the modern I mean a quality precipitated by the Industrial Revolution, a panic in the face of institutions so new their authority is a claim to total and immediate solutions. Science is such an institution, “the marketplace” is another—both, amazingly enough, still making the claims they made when they took on their familiar (that is, modern) forms. Yet another such institution is the Fine Arts academy of the 19th century, yet another monolithic presence against which, we suppose, Romanticism rebelled.

The figure of the Romantic artist quavers with sincerity, and when his quavering is violent enough it sets up an empathetic response in the audience. Artist and audience vibrate in unison. There is communication, expression, the conveyance of meanings from the interior of one psyche to another. Then the inefficiencies of this emotive telegraph are noted by such figures as Manet. Also Stéphane Mallarmé, who, according to Roland Barthes, “was doubtless the first to see and to foresee in its full extent the necessity to substitute language itself for the person who until then had been supposed to be its owner. For him, for us too, it is language which speaks, not the author . . . ” (“The Death of the Author,” 1968.) But this is a superficial reading, one that takes the claims of Romantic painters and poets at face value.

In fact, the figure of the emotive, expressive Romantic artist was a product of conscious construction. Note the scorn François René de Chateaubriand felt for those legions of young writers who imitated without irony his exemplary Romantic sufferer, René (1802). René is first and last a construct of language, of a rhetoric with the power to give monumental stature to the dismay, the depression and disorientation, felt in the face of the totalizing answers supplied by institutions possessed of modernity. Monumentalized, that dismay becomes melancholy, and the individual, claiming the right to filter all of existence through this literary, dandified emotion, takes on the stature of an institution in its own right.

That melancholy joins the inventions of Delacroix, Chateaubriand, and Byron to those of Samuel Beckett and now Sherrie Levine, but one must look beneath the surface of style to see the connection. An “exalted and grave sense of melancholy shines forth with a bleak brilliance” from Delacroix’s paintings, according to Baudelaire, and from those of any number of contemporary painters.

As I have already stated, painting in our period, the last two centuries, is the painter’s claim to define the very nature of space, and the source of such a definition—the figure of the artist—of course stands alone. Ambition enforces isolation (this Romantic cliché persists, for good reason), isolation becomes the pain of loneliness, and the artist anesthetizes this pain by scaling it up to an attribute of the primal creator—thus the melancholy of genius. From the outset of the modern period, the ambitious artist’s exercise of the will has generated this cloudy, oppressive, artificial emotion. Mark Rothko’s desperate claims to the tragic depths of his painting give evidence that the rewards (including punishment) for suffering this melancholy in its latter-day form (which is to say, the rewards for cultivating it) are immense.

The Geology of the Modern Will

In 1846 Poe said that “the pleasure derivable from [allegory] . . . will be found in the direct ratio of the reader’s capacity to smother its true purpose, in the direct ratio of the reader’s ability to keep the [didactic content of the] allegory out of sight . . . ” If the meanings of art are to be total, its images must be autonomous, untainted by any practical purpose. Like Baudelaire, Poe set his will the task of suppressing aspects of himself, leaving only the surface of his own monumental presence, his grandest invention, visible. Both Poe and Baudelaire posit meaning as layered, its layers to be rendered visible or not according to the dictates of the will. This is the purpose of all the layering that clutters so much contemporary painting, from late Francis Picabia, to Sigmar Polke and David Salle, to the geological accretions of the East Village.

Gori’s Garden

In Santomato di Pistoia, which is near Florence, there is a villa owned by a collector named Giuliano Gori. The grounds of this villa were designed in the 1840s to resemble an English garden of the previous century.

The word “picturesque” derives from the Italian “pittoresco,” and yet the Picturesque was late in coming to Italy. That is because the Industrial Revolution came late to Italy, and Picturesque art was the product of artists who gave over their wills to that of industrialization. The Picturesque is art mechanized, specialized, subjected to assembly-line conditions. Yet none of this comes through at Gori’s garden because the grounds are overgrown. This Picturesque garden has returned to a state of “Nature,” comparable in many ways to the artificial wilderness of Chateaubriand’s novels—comparable in many ways but not in the most crucial one: Gori’s portion of “Nature” is not consciously, willfully artificial. It is overgrown by neglect, not design.

In fact the proprietor is sprucing the place up. The Gothic teahouse has been refurbished. Sooner or later paths and vistas will be cleared, permitting the garden to impose its anonymous, mechanistic—in other words, traditionally Picturesque—effects on the wandering visitor. Near the teahouse, and scattered throughout the grounds, are site sculptures by Alice Aycock, Dennis Oppenheim, Robert Morris, George Trakas, the Poiriers, and others. To see the intention of these works as sculptural one must abstract them from their settings, which are dominated by pictorial and literary ideas. Let those ideas dominate and the sculpture sinks into a flat, emblematic condition.

So Gori’s Garden is Picturesque, Romantic or Modernist; it is layered, like an allegory, and as subject to the exercise of the will as Poe claims it must be. You can suppress the layers of the site or bring them forward, as you wish. You are free to decide what is figure, what is ground. One figure permeates the place, whatever configuration you give to the ground—namely, you, providing that you insist on the prerogatives of your will.

The Site of Bath

Bath, in Avon, is also layered—Roman, medieval, and Georgian. The clarity of Georgian builders—their precise lines and arcs, their terraces and crescents—wins out over other periods, bringing the city under the sway of a certainty that appeared just before all certainty disappeared for good under the pressures of the modern.

Our times are represented in Bath by Richard Long, who lives nearby. His walks across the English countryside draw lines with only the merest of resemblances to those of John Wood (junior and senior), Robert Adam, and all the rest of Bath’s Georgian geometricians. Their lines establish boundaries. Long’s, inscribed on a map or worn into the landscape itself, are arbitrary. They establish no boundaries, measure no space. Long’s lines mark the openness of his vision, its potential for boundless expansion. His walks generate photos with the look and scale of Romantic landscapes. If Long permits his art to evoke the Romantic painting and photography of 19th-century Britain and America, it is to claim the will’s domination of space.

The Will of the Viewer

We expect a site—whether garden or city—to be layered. Pop art and Minimalism reinforced the postwar tendency to see art as one-layered (Warhol on the subject of the surface, his own and his art’s: “There’s nothing behind it”), or, in the case of sculpture, absolutely unitary in form and in significance (see Robert Morris’ “Notes on Sculpture” [1966] for Minimalism’s most stubborn denial that artworks present their meanings in stratified patterns). While the leading styles of the ’60s encouraged reductive readings, the current “return to the figure” points in the other direction. We have a chance to become adept at looking through a painting’s dense strata of meaning to the monolithic figure of the painter. Even Warhol’s stratifications have started to come into the light. Yet reductive habits are tenacious. We still resist the spectacle of meaning piled on meaning. We grow impatient with complexity and ask only, in the dialect of the studio, whether or not a painting “works.”

Naturally enough, the institutions of the art world, from museums to galleries, have their own reductive “solutions” to the difficulties of art. Curatorial expertise encourages us to skate over the surface of an image, noting only matters of style and influence. The market ushers us onto that same surface, encouraging the eye to focus only on brand-name mannerisms. At art history’s behest, we can do an iconological number, which is always amusing and sometimes revealing, but none of this has anything to do with an ambitious painter’s will to charge the space of the painting with layer upon layer of significance.

In order to have anything to do with painting, the viewer must follow one of two courses. The first is to identify oneself with the will of the painter, which is to let one’s own will be colonized by another’s. The more usual tactic is to appropriate the painting to one’s own uses. In Vainglory (1915) Ronald Firbank’s Mrs. Shamefoot shows how this is done: “‘The habit of putting glass over an oil painting,’ she murmured, ‘makes always such a good reflection, particularly when the picture’s dark. Many’s the time I’ve run into the National Gallery on my way to the Savoy and tidied myself before the Virgin of the Rocks. . . .’” In fact, when ambitious painters assume the role of viewer, they behave with just this blithe indifference to other artist’s intentions. They appropriate the will of the other, along with the other’s image. The spectacle of postwar American art has been the struggle to displace Pollock from the allover field and to claim it for one’s own.

Pollock

When Pollock dispersed his own presence throughout the field of his major paintings, he willed the unity of all time and all space. Then he confounded the spatial with the temporal. Pollock aspired to the purity of an absolutely tautological painting, an image in which everything would equal everything else. The Minimalists tried to capture his purity with a literalism that blocked the reading of imaginary space, imaginary time. They—and Robert Morris in particular—wanted the allover field to be the real space of the gallery, experienced in the real time of a gallery visit. Where the other Minimalists hoped for the clarity of absolute literalism, their shadow-self, portrayed by Robert Smithson, saw devolution. Where they hoped to equate the temporal existence of their art with the time the viewer spent with it, Smithson saw that in Minimalism, “Time breaks down into many times. Rather than saying ‘What time is it?’, we should say, ‘Where is the time?’”. Minimalism is haunted by the imaginary space it tries to exclude, and haunted as well by the time lived and suffered by “selves” the Minimalists tried to exclude from their art. To Smithson’s eye, the ghosts in the machine of ’60s literalism turned avant-garde progress back on itself. Modernism had become entropic, a story of “‘evolution in reverse.’” (Smithson credits the phrase to Wylie Sypher.)

And so, when Smithson left the gallery for the Great Salt Lake, he wanted to scale up his vision of entropy, of reductive purity cracking, crumbling, and laying itself open to speculations about time and space. He is an allover artist who mapped his art with movies and photographs, mediums with narrative—in other words, perspective—built into them. Smithson reminds us that maps imply the passage of time, the structuring of space.

When Laurie Anderson exchanges the earth worker’s actual deserts for the desert of the media she likewise blends alloverness with the perspectives brought to bear by picture fragments, narrative bits, and the saga of her persona. Barbara Kruger. Jenny Holzer, Gretchen Bender, and Sherrie Levine are all distinct, yet they have one thing in common: an ability to define the figure of the artist as a modem, the device that links computers into networks. These artists join widely separated fields of imagery into single fields, regions of meaning filled with conflict yet bounded by a frame—that is, the artist’s intention. As with the edges of a Pollock painting, these boundaries have a strong feeling of the arbitrary to them. Defining his field as urban, Robert Longo inhabits his art the way a major building inhabits the skyline. He has filled the storyboards of his proposed movie, Empire, with unitary, allover images, yet the very fact that these appear on storyboards shows how difficult it is for a contemporary artist to avoid the eclecticism that puts alloverness and perspective on a collision course.

This collision is nowhere more violent than in contemporary painting. There the clash between the two varieties of pictorial space occurs within the frame, an enclosure that brings this bruising event under pressures of expectation generated by the entire history of the painter’s medium. Fragments of narrative and the detritus of perspective fuse with memories of alloverness and shards of style to form the figure of the artist—a figure tempted by Pollock-like dispersal and at the same time lured by the opportunities of the moment to assume a clear, aggressively obvious presence. We see allover paint-slinging jostling with operatic figures; with scraps of literary reference; borrowings from the traditional art of Persia and India; mockery of how-to-draw manuals; melodramatic orthogonals and overwrought vanishing points; entire anthologies of mannerisms drawn from the late styles of “Modern masters”; and much more, including discards from the media. These painters offer us layered maps of a desperate situation, a cultural moment in which the figure of the painter seems to be totally compromised by an unwillingness or inability to choose any one option over any other. So options crowd each other unmercifully and the painted image gives off an air of forced grandeur, forced brilliance, even forced hilarity. The storyboard devices of diptychs and triptychs lead, as if by the logic of hysterical plot, to the spectacle of one-person shows spread across two and even three galleries.

Anselm Kiefer’s presence is the most imposing of all because he wields his options with the surest hand. Kiefer simply stamps the allover field with the patterns—the imperious orthogonals—of an exceedingly schematic perspective. Perhaps this German artist is trying to initiate a period of détente, a cultural era in which Western painting’s two varieties of space—Pollock’s and that of the Renaissance—will find a way to occupy the same canvas in a spirit of peace. But how is this possible? Allover painting is a denial of perspective, in particular the ruins of perspective deployed by the Cubists. Kiefer presents himself as a juggling Titan, a figure who stands outside of space with opposed definitions of painting in each hand. Yet he is a judicial Titan, not an autochthonous, Saturnine primitive. In his Germanic wisdom—which can only look like folly against the backdrop of the 20th century—Kiefer brings his juggling to an end with a decision in favor of compositional hierarchy, against allover openness. In other words, he uses traditional perspective to impose rigid order on the boundless potential of Pollock’s field.

Stampede to the Figure

Kiefer’s art generates a yearning for the return of the Romantic artist as spiritual leader, a Napoleon of the soul striding forward with total solutions to inward malaise. Viewed from a certain angle, Kiefer’s art is also a heavy-handed joke. At the moment less solemn, less resolved figures are more pertinent.

Throughout the late ’60s and the ’70s, innovation produced variety but little direction. As the borders of mediums dissolved and the notion of the avant-garde collapsed, it seemed as though the figure of the artist was in danger of extinction. At the very least, the artist was getting inextricably tangled with the figure of the art theorist or the art-world manager of images and concepts. This was a time when many painters, too, insisted on the conceptual force of their works. Concepts are shareable, and so the authority that had for so long emanated from the figure of the painter, that solitary source of irreducibly singular meanings, looked in danger of being lost. This danger inspired a panicky rush of painters which stampeded, continues to stampede, through the 1980s—figure painters because their effort is to dominate the work of art with an image of the artist’s presence, but an image charged with all the confusion, the fragmentation, the doubt of the moment. Beneath the stylistic glitz and the historicizing melodrama of the current image-barrage, their purpose is clear: to map a terrain, to define a space, where the artist’s will, our culture’s most privileged figure of the self, holds sovereign sway. This is their claim on history: we did it now, a moment before it would have been too late. The very dubiousness of their claim is what gives them their pertinence.

Carter Ratcliff is a poet and critic who lives in New York; his most recent book is Andy Warhol (Abbeville Press).