PRINT March 2003

The Painter: Thomas Lawson

THROUGH THE SELECTIVE LENS OF ART HISTORY, WE TEND to see the critical melee of the early ’80s as a focused duel between the photo-based art of “Pictures” and brushy neo-expressionism. Although this formulation allows for the later emergence of more restrained, geometric canvases by the likes of Philip Taaffe and Peter Halley, it largely ignores the alternative modes of painting that flourished at the turn of the decade, including that advanced by Thomas Lawson. The Scottish-born painter and critic came to New York in 1975 and soon began publishing insightful essays and masterful exhibition reviews in the pages of Art in America, Flash Art, Artforum, and Real Life, the magazine he cofounded in 1979. In his writing and his own painting practice, Lawson developed one of the most cogent and controversial approaches to the medium in the ’80s—pursuing a critical agenda commonly ascribed to the photobased art of “Pictures” within the unlikely space of painting.

In the late ’70s, the battle lines between painting and photography were yet to be clearly drawn. Douglas Crimp’s seminal 1977 Artists Space exhibition “Pictures” delineated a group of young artists whose work probed the conventions of representation, often with imagery derived from media sources. In this first incarnation, the works were not necessarily photo-based, as evidenced by Crimp’s inclusion of Philip Smith’s oil-stick drawings and Sherrie Levine’s painted presidential profiles. Yet when the critic refined his catalogue essay for the Spring 1979 issue of October, he emphasized photography’s importance by omitting Smith in favor of Cindy Sherman, using as illustration Levine’s new photographic appropriations, and distancing his project from the recent “New Image Painting” (the essay tellingly ended by aligning his chosen artists with postmodernism rather than modernism, as his catalogue text had done).

Concurrent with this issue of October, the March–April Flash Art addressed the new “interest in representation” with articles by Crimp, Lawson, and David Salle. Lawson’s contribution, “The Uses of Representation: Making Some Distinctions,” reads as a sympathetic companion piece to Crimp’s “About Pictures” in its advocacy of a critical return to representation (Lawson, it should be mentioned, had written positively in Art in America of Crimp’s original exhibition in one of its few reviews and had put a photographic appropriation of Levine’s on the inaugural cover of Real Life). A self-proclaimed manifesto—often written in the first-person plural appropriate to the genre—“The Uses of Representation” discussed four of Crimp’s five original artists, as well as other figures, including Lawson himself. Further cementing his alliance with “Pictures,” Lawson used phrases found directly in Crimp’s text, citing an involvement with “representation as such” and arguing that “our images do not refer directly to the world at large, but instead to the world of other images.”

During the first few years of the ’80s, Lawson and several other artists, including Richard Bosman, Walter Robinson, and Michael Zwack, gained attention for their deadpan paintings and drawings based primarily on anonymous media imagery. Often grouped with David Salle, Jack Goldstein, and sometimes Eric Fischl, they appeared in varying combinations in a slew of feature articles and exhibitions exploring issues of representation, illustration, and allegory (critics at times called the loosely affiliated gang “Real Lifers” after Lawson’s magazine). These artists’ success, however, coincided with a fresh assault on painting by critics including Craig Owens and Crimp, whose 1981 October essay “The End of Painting” seriously challenged the viability of the medium. The critical retrenchment was no doubt encouraged by the rise of a fashionable neo-expressionist discourse centered on artists such as Julian Schnabel and Francesco Clemente, but it had the effect of redrawing the battle lines so that Lawson, previously a critical ally of Crimp and Owens, was pushed with his like-minded painters to the side of the ancien régime.

Lawson launched a stirring and articulate counteroffensive in “Last Exit: Painting,” published in the October 1981 Artforum. The article represented nothing less than a bold defense of painting’s critical potential in the face of a ravenous market and a disapproving intellectual elite. In a move that would have seemingly endeared him to the October crowd, Lawson distanced himself from the “reactionary expressionism” of Chia, Schnabel, and Clemente, whom he had already lambasted in a series of incisive exhibition reviews. However, Lawson then turned his fire on Crimp, arguing that “The End of Painting” described a critical situation in which “creative activity is rendered impossible,” effectively sentencing artists to “enforced inactivity.” While Lawson shared the view of Crimp and Owens that “a truly conscious” artistic practice would concern the camera’s all-powerful mediation of contemporary experience, he worried that the photography of Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince might be “too easily dismissed as yet another avant-garde art strategy, commentary too easily recognized.” In contrast, Lawson suggested that such a critical investigation might best be conducted within the improbable context of painting, using the medium as “camouflage” to better infiltrate traditional “ideological institutions.” He wrote, “The appropriation of painting as a subversive method allows one to place critical esthetic activity at the center of the marketplace where it can cause most trouble.” Lawson offered Salle as the exemplar of this seditious approach—a risky gambit, since the high-profile painter had already been linked to the expressionists. “He makes paintings, but they are dead, inert representations of the impossibility of passion in a culture that has institutionalized self-expression,” Lawson wrote. They take the most compelling sign of personal authenticity that our culture can provide, and attempt to stop it, to reveal its falseness.”

For their part, painting’s detractors remained unconvinced by Lawson’s polemic, and they quickly moved to distance themselves from his position. Hal Foster, whose critical sensibility shared much with Crimp and Owens, dubbed Lawson’s article a “virtual portfolio” of “quasicritical painting” in the January 1982 Art in America. That comment was made just a few pages away from Owens’s piece “Back to the Studio,” which contained an elaborate critique of “Last Exit: Painting.” Owens began on a conciliatory note, conceding Lawson’s point that artists might occasionally need to “exploit discredited mediums and modes of production simply in order to be seen.” However, apart from this practical issue, he rejected a justification of painting based on “apologies which invoke the seductive notion of a ‘subversive complicity’ with art-world institutions.” In particular, Owens dismissed Salle, Lawson’s apotheosis, decrying the “fundamental duplicity” of Lawson’s contention that in Salle’s work “established conventions [are used] against themselves in the hope of exposing cultural repression.” Instead, Owens charged that Salle “strips images of their public resonance in order to reclaim them for subjectivity.” This “retreat into the psyche” would have distinguished Salle from the socially minded “Pictures” artists but not from the neo-expressionism that Lawson himself had so disparaged. Meanwhile, the most ardent champion of expressionism, Donald Kuspit, proved no more amenable to Lawson’s critical position, as he demonstrated in a scathing Artforum review of the painter’s 1982 solo show at Metro Pictures. Responding to a catalogue text Lawson reprinted in Real Life, Kuspit questioned the efficacy of Lawson’s painterly appropriationism, arguing that “the Real Life artist may unconsciously compromise his criticality in favor of the socially dominant media image, leaving its glamor intact.”

Spurned by the critical camps to both his left and right, Lawson’s shrewd position lost ground as the ’80s progressed, and his insights are now largely overlooked or remembered as an isolated anomaly rather than as evidence of a sophisticated and pervasive aesthetic theory. Yet in light of recent explorations of the photographic image in the paintings of Luc Tuymans, Thomas Eggerer, and Ulrich Lamsfuss (not to mention the belated recognition of an antecedent such as Gerhard Richter), it’s high time for a reappraisal. Today Lawson’s writing of the early ’80s burns with a kind of urgency no doubt fueled by the friction between his will to paint and his acute sensitivity to the pitfalls inherent in that practice. Imagining the critic alone in his studio—a pen in one hand, a brush in the other—it is nearly impossible for us not to sense a certain degree of pathos or anxiety in his claim that “there is a growing lack of faith in the ability of artists to continue as anything more than plagiaristic stylists,” or in his contention that “we are living in an age of skepticism and as a result the practice of art is inevitably crippled by the suspension of belief.” While my reading might imply the kind of humanist spin Lawson would have no doubt avoided, perhaps he would allow that the historian, like the artists in his text, must sometimes “act in as perverse a way as possible” to create “a disturbance in the calm waters of acceptable . . . taste.”

Scott Rothkopf is an art historian based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.