PRINT December 2015

Tim Griffin

Jacqueline Humphries, :-/, 2014, oil on linen, 9' 6“ × 10' 7”.

FOR MORE THAN A DECADE, the art world has been fascinated with Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello’s New Spirit of Capitalism (1999), making all the more striking the degree to which that volume’s single chapter devoted to art—more specifically, to the fate of artistic critique—has been ignored. For the predicament of critical models in contemporary art still finds a clear corollary in the authors’ description of corporate culture in France after May 1968.

As Boltanski and Chiapello propose, corporations operating in the wake of that populist uprising genuinely sought to satisfy protesters’ demands that personal creativity and expressivity be afforded roles in the workplace—and those corporations, to their managers’ great surprise, soon recognized that such subjective freedom was a source of increased productivity and economic value. In turn, business culture’s embrace of the day’s calls for self-realization at the office took on a jujitsu-like character, setting the very notion of authenticity—which to date had been defined by the separation of expression (personal and cultural alike) from the realm of commerce—into a kind of death spiral of signification. From here on, in other words, simple expressivity in the broader culture was quickly understood to be inauthentic—given its widespread sponsorship within emerging economic structures—whereas assumption of the guise of inauthenticity, paradoxically, carried with it the potential to signal one’s critical remove from such commodification. That is, inauthenticity rendered a kind of “authenticity” newly available to creative subjects, insofar as it reflected a subtle, if performative, mode of resistance—simply by denoting, with a nod and a wink, a basic cognizance of subjectivity’s implicated status within an expanded commercial field.

This narrative fits pretty neatly with the contradictory character of art in recent years—and, more specifically, with developments in painting during that time. Indeed, the inversion of authenticity described above offers a cultural counterpoint for, say, Martin Kippenberger’s roughly contemporaneous argument that his brushstrokes were indices less of any personal expression than of the context that would ascribe meaning to them. (“Good paintings are only good if they have this or that effect,” he observed. “And I will know that only when I get them to the outside. . . . I can only judge the reactions.”) Of course, the rise of inauthenticity in culture was to be mirrored well enough by the subsequent generations of painters who—whether painting by hand or utilizing mechanical procedures—looked to gesture after Kippenberger as a kind of ready-made object, taking pains to underscore gesture’s infinite manipulability through reproduction and forgery. Yet today, when this model of inauthenticity is itself a source of great commercial value—think just of the ever-expanding schools of post-Cologne painting in the world—one wonders what options might be available for artists beyond simply doubling down. How to obtain some reflexive purchase again on authenticity is, very possibly, the most significant question facing artists today.

Jacqueline Humphries has always occupied a curious place in the context of these dialogues, particularly as the artist has long positioned her canvases—which have commonly taken up the motifs of expressionism—in relation to our encounters with digital media. As early as 2001, Humphries was making large-scale color-field paintings whose grounds emulated the ambiguous representations of depth found on computer monitors—and yet these surfaces were also laden with drips and streaks of paint that seemed at once the stuff of optical afterimage and dumb materiality. More pointedly, material gestures were shown to be repeatable and utterly manipulable—going this way and that simply based on how the artist rotated her canvas on the studio wall or floor—at the same time that such appropriation was set explicitly in the visual register of recent technologies. And these were, after all, finally providing the tools to perform all those circulatory operations that hitherto had been strictly the stuff of theoretical debate in art. Simply put, Humphries was among the first painters at the turn of the millennium to postulate the terms of painting’s inauthenticity in a mode that seemed authentically attuned to its times.

Her newest body of work, shown at Greene Naftali in New York this past spring, continues in this vein, calling attention to visual overlays whose ambiguity of depth—passages seem to approach and recede with a mere shift of the viewer’s eye—is pulled from the lexicon of electronic media and digital applications. (One recalls a prominent digital theorist around the year 2000 citing “mindfulness” and “concentration” as guiding principles for online designers seeking to choreograph consciousness through optical relationships among objects of focus and their surrounding contexts on-screen.) In this regard, Humphries’s canvases are at once abstract and representational, material and illusory, constructed and rendered: a figuring-forth of a screen-based vocabulary that nevertheless acknowledges shifts arising in our experience of traditional mediums in turn, without any binary opposition. She is hardly alone in this respect, given, say, Zoe Leonard’s Analogue, 1998–2009, which, despite its title, invites the contemporary shuttling-among-images typical of viewers using digital media; or given Paul Sietsema’s sculptures made using procedures steeped in photography, such that physical substance is nonetheless imbued with a representational (or better, virtual) quality. But Humphries’s paintings here are remarkable for how the language of the contemporary screen was placed resolutely within a historical prism, with the repetitions of x’s and dots summoning not only pixilation, code, and file outputs (whether on paper or canvas), but also—and all at once—the compositions of Pattern and Decoration from the 1970s and the appropriated text and screen-printing of Christopher Wool during the ’80s and after. The ahistorical complexion of contemporary media is outwitted by a proliferation of art-historical references that provide an immediate sense of context.

Perhaps unique when it comes to questions of authenticity in painting, however, were the marks on canvases that seemed entirely abstract at a glance, but which upon closer examination revealed their true form: emoticons, symbols whose usage denotes both intimacy (given their transmission and reception on handheld devices) and disembodiment, and which have come to represent a kind of default mode for personal expression. True, the meaning of such icons evolves through use—and hence never remains static or entirely impersonal. But their initially subtle presence in the context of Humphries’s paintings—and, more broadly speaking, of the discourse of painting—suggests a quiet updating of Warholian comfort in melodramatic television, insofar as the media might give a subject in the commercial sphere (that is, all of us) access to a palette of emotions we might never otherwise have. The emoticon here, in other words, articulates a kind of redoubled abstraction: both a symbol for the feeling of a feeling lost, and a stand-in. And the critical space subsequently found—the space both necessary for and created by authenticity—is one marking instead the distance from yesterday’s notion of authenticity itself. In the emoticon, a figure of genuine communication, any evacuation of authenticity in gestures is only accompanied by the sense of a new order among them that has come to pass. And so it is for painting as well.

Tim Griffin is executive director and chief curator of The Kitchen in New York and a contributing editor of Artforum.