PRINT December 1986


THE REVIVAL OF PRINTMAKING AND papermaking, the recovery of photography as art, and the popularity of architectural drawings are phenomena related to the idea of the “work on paper” whose revival seems to be gaining momentum. Together, they collaborate in the ongoing discourse on the presumed limitations of Modernism, at least as formalist practice. “Works on paper” now have a kind of trendy cachet, but they actually represent a kind of conceptual androgyny, symptomatic of a genuine problem that emerged when abstract art conflated drawing and painting to the point where they became interchangeable, indistinguishable, or even the same thing. This further depressed the already diminishing possibilities of meaningful representation, but it also paved the way for the more recent, more graphic type of “picturing” that absorbs the scale of the Modernist work while pretending to evade its tendency to the decorative, the tendency of color abstraction particularly.

Paper has become the “alternative surface” of choice in pictorial art in recent times. Artists seek the lightness of its absorptive qualities but retain the ambitiousness heretofore largely reserved for canvas. In this scheme, a drawing is very often not a drawing but a “work on paper” The same holds true for certain paintings. Works on paper generally seek the particularity that was once the province of illustration. They are usually about tonal values, even when color is present, and even when they look like diagrams or “plans” for something—revealing, obviously, their kinship with the preparatory sketches of old. They are often redolent of a nostalgia for the spontaneity and directness of the sketch. The result is a lot of primitivist marking and fecal splurges, like Robert Morris’ smears of charcoal. Julian Schnabel’s paper works, which are not overloaded like his painted surfaces, sometimes suggest the surrealist signmaking of early works by Helen Frankenthaler or Robert Motherwell. And Alice Aycock’s scale drawings for her installation sculptures are really a species of narrative art. This is not all bad, by the way, but it is essentially decadent.

Or, perhaps, not decadent enough. True decadence is rare in our society, which puts a premium on success, and classes everything else as failure. In a capitalist society, where crime and the weather are barometers of the moral state. corruption is hardly decadence, but a form of betrayal; and we have bourgeois decadence, but this is not decadence of the classic type (which is, after all, associated with a kind of creativity, and implies at least stylishness, perhaps even style, as in the case of the dandy), but simply the fetishization of luxury and comfort. This provides a social aspect for the increasing predilection for works on paper: such works are often affordable for the collector while representing for the artists a demotic effort to save art from the deprivations of high Modernis m—making paper the equal of canvas deflates the historical authority of the easel tradition, and forms part of the post-Modern effort to create major art with “minor,” subordinate, or unconventional media. But the results are often just tasteful, fetishized surfaces in a world of increasingly luxurious decor. Richard Serra’s oilstick “drawings,” for example, which emphasize an iconoclastic materiality, really pander to the taste for the gentrified and rusticated picturesque.

The value of a show as haphazard as “Color on Paper,” seen this fall at the Knoedler gallery, New York, was its inadvertent demonstration of the ideological confusion embodied in the term “works on paper,” “Color on Paper” was actually wimpy in its ideas, exploiting a current fashion without actually examining it. And although all the works were in color and on paper, not all of them fitted the concept implied by the show’s title, unless one was supposed to take it to mean that some of them were about paper and some about color. Yet the show had a few blazingly brilliant pictures in it, and it was precisely because they did not stress the fact that they were on paper—nor did they deny it, for that matter—that their “content” was not compromised. One has to say, for example, that Adolph Gottlieb’s Pendulum, 1945. William Baziotes’ Tropic Morning, 1954, and Jasper Johns’ Untitled II, 1969, are not works on paper, but simply pictures drawn or painted on paper with gouache and/or pastel. (I had not noticed until now that all three artists use one or the other of these mediums, or both together.) In works on paper the primacy of paper as a support too frequently dilutes the inference of representation that is its raison d’être. When paper “supports” an image, the artist is not so much calling attention to that support (i.e., to the picture plane) as enlisting it subliminally in the representation of an idea. This is of course elementary, but it became an issue in the ideological context created for the show by its fuzzy but revealing title.

I don’t mean to claim the intrinsic superiority of a drawing over a work on paper, but there is the possibility that hierarchies in some practices and classes of objects are natural. And perhaps some categories are sacred and must be rescued from erroneous categorization. Strictly speaking, “color” and “paper” have different conceptual programs, not necessarily mutually exclusive but not casually commingled. Both the Willem de Kooning and Hans Hofmann works in “Color on Paper” have a paper support, but the Hofmann is a drawing, the de Kooning an oil painting. Somehow, Hofmann could make a yellow look cool, a green warm in his Untitled, 1951, which crosses Fauvism with Cubism. It’s probably because the planes are delimited by line rather than color, calling attention to the cursive, drawn feel of the piece. Gottlieb’s gouache Pendulum, on the other hand, feels like and is a painting, though a painting that exploits paper’s accessibility and disposability (if it didn’t work, he could throw it away), and the mat coloring of the gouache, to indulge an improvisational approach that situates the artist’s pictographic signs in a deeper space than is usual in his pictures of this kind and period.

It might be argued that this is all a matter of terminology and largely irrelevant to art as art, but I have to insist that it is also a matter of conception. It is also not a matter of a work being just a painting or a drawing or a work on paper, but of degree. Another relevant issue is that of reconciling color and drawing, and color as drawing. Baziotes’ lovely pastel curbs color to a gentleness consistent with the finely drawn biomorphic shapes, cooling their ardor and exposing a decorum of both idea and execution that reads as conviction and modesty at the same time. Johns’ two graphic blocks, one of gray with a color insert, the other filled with a spectrum of mostly primary color, is a fine, largish planar abstraction which straddles the line between drawing and a work on paper. Its approach to color pushes it in the direction of a work on paper by spreading it out to stress the page as support. (It’s a little pat, I have to add.) In a work on paper, the page, when made too conscious an issue, is didactic and depressive, but ironically, when it is ignored, the ambiguity of the genre is compounded, and the result is a work like Michael Heizer’s Dragged Mass, 1983, a piece of vaguely conceptual art executed with the silk-screen process, watercolor, and crayon. It’s an abstract académic.

Works included in the show by Jackson Pollock, Frankenthaler, Motherwell, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, Franz Kline, Richard Diebenkorn, and Howard Hodgkin would only attenuate my argument if I discussed them, but in truth this is not a subject about which a final statement can be made. To say so is not to contradict what I suppose my discussion infers: that the integrity of such categories as drawing and painting, color and paper, cannot be casually bandied about. Thus we know the Pollock is a painting, no matter its surface; that the Hodgkin is bad, because the color and texture eliminate the surface and don’t replace it with anything, even themselves; that the two Frankenthalers perform an interesting self-critical pas de deux. For the most part, the term “work on paper” is a misleading rubric that nonetheless, and somewhat ironically renews the Modernist affinity for materiality and surface, even as it proclaims an effort to restructure it.

Sidney Tilim is an artist and critic who teaches at Bennington College, Vermont.