PRINT November 1992


SOME PEOPLE SAY we live in a world of objects—a world of three-dimensional lived space, the apprehension of which can somehow yield autonomous experiences. For me, however, our world is a two-dimensional place of images and signs, where our thoughts are focused on the flat screen. Painting remains of interest because of its one-to-one relationship with this two-dimensional world.

A lot of people, of course, have trouble with the idea of painting. They argue that the practice of painting today is an anachronism. I think this argument is flawed. One cannot make a case based solely on historical determinism about a class of objects, because the nature of that set changes over time. What is called “painting” now is completely different from what it was even a hundred years ago. A coffee mug from Conran’s has as much relationship to a 17th-century porcelain cup as contemporary painting has to the Baroque. While both may be called by the same name, the technology, the economics, and the cultural associations are all completely different.

Admittedly, much of the abstract art around today does little more than refine the esthetic nuances of earlier abstraction, turning subtle variations on stylistic norms into its primary subject matter. To me such work seems mandarin and academic. In the last year or so, however, some interesting new painting has turned up in New York. What strikes me about this work is its quiet, taciturn quality, very different from the publicness and theatricality of the painting of the ’80s. I like to compare the new painters to the Coenties Slip Group of the late ’50s—Agnes Martin, Robert Indiana, and the rest. The work of those artists—situated between Abstract Expressionism and Pop—seems to me quiescent, inward-looking, and refined. Yet in their art is the inception of many of the concerns of the Pop and Minimalist era that followed.

One of the most interesting of the new painters is Scott Grodesky. His work embodies tensions between figuration and abstraction, process and image, and objectivity and subjectivity. Grodesky’s imagery offers a kind of pop inventory of the male psyche: explosions, cars, a generic male head, and male figures (at least one of them based on a Ken doll). The images are drawn on canvas in graphite, which deprives them of their pop presence, and suggests a notational, analytic point of view. Stripped of its pop assertiveness, the imagery takes on a brooding, private quality.

Grodesky’s paintings are pessimistic, even awkward. The explosions seem somehow inert; their centers are empty, as in Roy Lichtenstein’s paintings of mirrors. Though ostensibly violent, these pieces have a detached mood. They bring to mind Jasper Johns’ comment on Da Vinci’s “Deluge” drawings—that the artist’s hand was so steady and detached, even though he was drawing the Apocalypse.

The male figures are more overtly disturbing. They are rendered with the same slightly smudgy graphite line, which is then augmented with a sooty wash of graphite powder and acrylic. The figures and faces are monstrously imploded, as if by some horrible science-fiction gravitational force. But these contortions are not the result of any subjective expression on the artist’s part; Grodesky has simply drawn his figures in reverse perspective, a drafting formula that literally implodes traditional perspectival rules.

In the images of cars, the center of the canvas contains a simple outline of an automobile, usually taken from a magazine ad. From this center the car’s outline is repeated again and again, once more through reverse perspective, so that as it reverberates out to the edge of the painting it becomes progressively more cartoon-like and distorted.

In their technique, the paintings are terse, succinct, and iconoclastic. Color is almost always absent. Shapes are rendered by the cool, antisensuous graphite line. Even where there is a build-up of acrylic paint, as in some of the explosion images, the surface appears plasticlike, brittle, resistant. One remembers Barnett Newman’s quip that working with acrylic is like painting with rubber cement.

Just as the images are borrowed from the media, drawing and compositional decisions are eliminated by recourse to a series of fixed operations—a preset reliance on mathematical intervals, certain random occurrences, and so on. In many ways Grodesky is continuing the tradition of programmatic painting associated with Johns’ work, early Frank Stella, and Sol LeWitt, in which the artist abrogates decision-making in favor of predetermined rules and images. In Grodesky’s work the marriage of objective rules and pop-based imagery results in a pessimistic subjectivity, most comparable to Johns. These paintings seem to say that objectified means will yield not classical balance (as in much previous programmatic painting) but a tortured universe of unpredictable distortions.

Programmatic rules, symmetrical compositions, empty centers, allover activity: all of these elements have appeared in painting since at least the mid ’50s. What is their relevance to a young artist today? In dealing with these ideas, Grodesky involves himself with perhaps the key issue in the art of our time: the question of free choice and the impossibility, in our era, of making decisions in the traditional sense.

Around the mid ’50s, something seems to have happened in our culture that made the idea of subjective, autonomous choice problematic. Was it the Bomb, the increasing hegemony of technology, the ever-growing determining power of capital? For whatever reason, many of the most thoughtful artists of our era have perversely adopted a stance of passive receptivity, willingly accepting what the culture might otherwise impose on them by force. Grodesky is attempting to address this issue, whose impact in the social realm we have, in all probability, just begun to experience.

Peter Halley is an artist living in New York.