PRINT October 2016


Opposite Sexes

Artforum, Summer 2016. Cover: Barbara Kruger, special project for Artforum, 2016.

AS THE CURATORIAL TEAM of “Painting 2.0: Expression in the Information Age,” we feel the need to address one highly problematic aspect of Jack Bankowsky’s extensive review. While we recognize the author’s in-depth engagement with parts of the exhibition (and the accompanying publication), we strongly oppose his cursory take on the feminist argument that animates all three sections of “Painting 2.0.” This argument is most strongly put forward in—but not exclusive to—a section titled “Eccentric Figuration,” which, according to Bankowsky, might have been “sacrificed” in order to achieve a “more streamlined whole.” The streamlined whole he envisioned would not include artists associated with the feminist A.I.R. collaborative, whose objective was precisely to disregard the idea of a coherent aesthetic “brand” as well as modernism’s notion of progress (which, as many scholars and theorists have pointed out, closely parallels the values of patriarchal capitalism). Neither would it have included artists such as Joan Mitchell, Eva Hesse (as represented by her less known early paintings), or Joan Snyder—mentioned by the author—whose work is fundamental to a project that investigates an ongoing yet largely unacknowledged afterlife of modernism’s gestural heritage in the information age. While Bankowsky manages, remarkably, to touch on most of the artists represented in the other two sections of the exhibition, “Gesture and Spectacle” and “Social Networks,” and even proposes additions—such as Roy Lichtenstein, Martial Raysse, Brice Marden, John Armleder, Richard Prince, Jeff Koons, and Takashi Murakami—most of the artists represented in “Eccentric Figuration” remain unnamed, with the exception of those who are “cherry-picked” as “relevant highlights” (Bankowsky’s words) for the other chapters of the show. Despite his acknowledgment of the exhibition’s claim that the “body, the human hand, the material mark . . . [are] privileged vehicles by which to figure [today’s culture of the networked image],” Bankowsky makes no attempt to engage the prosthetic corporeality featured in Lee Lozano’s and Maria Lassnig’s paintings from the 1960s, the theatrical staging of clichéd gestures in the ’70s work of Ree Morton and Frank Stella, the painterly renderings of excess by Elizabeth Murray and Ull Hohn in the ’80s, Sue Williams’s and Jutta Koether’s ’90s contributions to the discussion of affect and the abject, or more recent takes on the relationship of painterly embodiment and mediation by artists such as Amy Sillman and Leidy Churchman.

We fully acknowledge a critic’s right to disagree with curatorial decisions, including his expression of preferences regarding individual artists and artworks—a task that is no small feat considering the scope and size of “Painting 2.0.” However, Bankowsky’s selective and imbalanced discussion of the exhibition’s arguments amounts to a “pruning” (again, the author’s choice of word) that not only makes it impossible for readers to relate to one of the show’s core aims but also suggests intentional gender bias. Bringing together “various aesthetic manifestations of what might characterize the bodily in painting under the influence of media and spectacle” was not the female curator’s “impulse,” but resulted from extensive discussions and a collective thought process—just as “Gesture and Spectacle” and “Social Networks” are the result of a team effort. Furthermore, stripping the show of its feminist argument also means stripping off the “body” that holds “gesture” and “network” together. With “Eccentric Figuration,” “Painting 2.0” deliberately pursues a trajectory in conflict with the historiographical privileging of Minimalism, which has shaped the critical reception of painting in crucial ways. Artists such as Mitchell, Lozano, and Lassnig neither subscribed to high modernism’s call to disembodied opticality nor submitted to a literalist rhetoric. Rather than working with a model of the body-as-eye or the body-as-phenomenon, they figured bodies that are labeled, mediated, clichéd, sexed—exhibiting a corporeality that is intricately entangled in the contemporary world of spectacle. “Eccentric Figuration” claims the heritage of these artists for a genealogy of painting in opposition to a “streamlined whole.” By treading paths that are not supposed to exist in the canon, their work—and work made in its wake—complicates gendered mechanisms of canonization. Bankowsky closes his self-designated “fantasy” of a “Painting 2.0” without “Eccentric Figuration” by suggesting that the latter might have been a “bolder bid at locating a painting not only of our time but equal to it.” As far as we are concerned, any exhibition—or painting, for that matter—that aims at such “equality” to its time must necessarily recognize the inequities and contradictions that characterize our current moment.

—Manuela Ammer, Achim Hochdörfer, David Joselit

JACK BANKOWSKY’S REVIEW of “Painting 2.0: Expression in the Information Age” at the Museum Brandhorst in Munich (the show has since traveled to the Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien, Vienna), published in Artforum’s otherwise very engaging summer issue on “Art and Identity,” indeed offers a very identitarian concern. It presents us with an exemplary case of social violence in written form: Bankowsky imagines a history of painting without women. On a basic level, the text defies the review format in refusing to engage with the propositions made in the show’s vast thematic survey of painting after 1960. It instead wholeheartedly projects the writer’s own desires onto it—and onto the curators—by singling out faves and foes. In Bankowsky’s case, this means reconstructing contemporary painting along the lines of something that “Painting 2.0” distinctively aims to counter: the relentless reinforcement of male privilege that has been continuously showcased in painting’s embarrassing master narratives. Where the exhibition attempts to delineate the history of painting as an untimely and unstable conjoining of the information age and human expression—complicated by its associations, per the curators’ introduction, with not only “intuitive subjectivity” but also “conservative forms of nationalism and patriarchal posing”—Bankowsky simply seeks out who is worthy of carrying the torch of painting’s vitalist mastership. He consequently reviews not the exhibition but rather its potential for catering to his own masterful taste.

Out of the show’s three chapters—“Gesture and Spectacle,” “Eccentric Figuration,” and “Social Networks”—he singles out the second as unworthy of painting’s history. This is the very chapter of the exhibit in which the curators engage explicitly with questions of painting’s sexes. Instead of simply opposing male vs. female painting, they draw out divergent lines of desire that cut across such gendered stereotypes and instead engage with painting as living practice. Bankowsky, interested rather in a “more streamlined whole” that would entail the appearance of one sex only, the sex of the master, leaves the actual questions posed in this section illegible. While he takes the time to provide us with an almost complete list of artists on display in the show’s other two sections, most of the artists in the “Eccentric Figuration” section—the complete roster of which (in Munich) comprised Kai Althoff, Monika Baer, Nairy Baghramian, Georg Baselitz, Lynda Benglis, Sadie Benning, Leidy Churchman, William N. Copley, René Daniëls, Carroll Dunham, Nicole Eisenman, Isa Genzken, Philip Guston, Harmony Hammond, David Hammons, Rachel Harrison, Mary Heilmann, Eva Hesse, Ull Hohn, Joan Jonas, Jutta Koether, Maria Lassnig, Lee Lozano, Joan Mitchell, Ree Morton, Ulrike Müller, Elizabeth Murray, Ed Paschke, David Reed, Amy Sillman, Joan Snyder, Frank Stella, Walter Swennen, Paul Thek, Cy Twombly, Sue Williams, and Karl Wirsum—are central to the consequential decentering of painting’s sexed stereotyping, and yet simply go unmentioned. Others, such as Althoff, Hammons, and Dunham, are corralled to resuscitate the very normalized order their works defy, thereby obliterating the show’s claims and the history of such hard-won positioning completely. Bankowsky then implicitly qualifies Manuela Ammer, who authored the essay devoted to this section in the show’s catalogue and cocurated it alongside its counterparts, as a superfluous addition to the otherwise male duo of curators. “Painting 2.0” confronts its audience by engaging canonization itself in the age of mediatization. For example, it helps us to understand New York’s A.I.R. as a “Social Network,” which served not only as “an effective vehicle for combating the system and getting the art out into the world,” producing what Bankowsky dismisses as “a more or less normative array of styles of the ’70s,” but as an engaged context of feminist endeavors within the art world, one that was not thriving for a shared style but instead for a shared stance; to see the work of artists like Nancy Spero, Howardena Pindell, or Hammond as a “normative array of styles of the ’70s” without comprehending the relation between collective convictions and individual articulations is ignorant at best. “Painting 2.0” deserves a serious and engaged criticism that engages its propositions, but instead Bankowsky brutally prunes painting’s history to just another misogynist nightmare.

By suggesting that “eccentric figuration” is merely a “warring paradigm” that distracts from the “mutually enriching” relation between the show’s other two chapters, Bankowsky reinstates that old logic that complains of the “distractions” of feminist—or indeed, political––arguments from an apparently more important set of questions. But can the “gesture” or the “social” make sense without a consideration of “figuration,” of embodiment? Can “spectacle” or the “network” be conceived without attendant questions of marginality, rejection, or “eccentricity”?

These, however, are questions that take seriously the suppositions of a review that seems bent on not taking its subject seriously. A simpler question might be whether Bankowsky has considered the point Carol Duncan made forty-one years ago in the pages of this magazine, in her 1975 article “When Greatness Is a Box of Wheaties,” and that others like Chantal Akerman, Lucy R. Lippard, or Silvia Bovenschen emphasized at the time—that the assumption that “greatness manifests itself in the same way all the time . . . [that] it is a universal quality,” is done for, just as “greatness” itself should be constantly coming undone. This is, as we are made aware in Bankowsky’s text, a project further from completion than we might have dreamed. It has been incessantly pushed toward realization by the work of numerous artists, curators, writers, and teachers who believe that the instrumentalization of art as a means of reinforcing and ornamenting privilege has to be tirelessly countered. Bankowsky’s position is exemplary of a master narrative aiming to exclude women. In other cases, such lines of exclusion identify different groups as (art) history’s dispensable parts, whose presence taints art’s greatness as a streamlined whole. Bankowsky’s identification of the show’s artists follows the still overwhelmingly naturalized lines of a gender model in which identity comes as a given, and in his case as a given privilege. But many other contributors to Artforum’s summer issue on “Art and Identity” seem to have moved past this nostalgic divide and cherish identity as the battleground of a shared desire for emancipation. To quote Zackary Drucker from one of the remarkably pertinent texts in the same issue, “Visibility is a material.” To have it taken away—again!—is unacceptable.

Rachel Haidu, Jenny Nachtigall, Kerstin Stakemeier∗; Julia Bryan-Wilson, Lynne Cooke∗, Helmut Draxler, Darby English, Devin Fore, Tom Holert, Sven Lütticken, Maria Muhle, Steven Nelson

*Denotes participation in the exhibition’s catalogue and/or related events.

THE SUMMER 2016 ISSUE arrived at my house today. It contained the best review I have read in any art publication in years—a sustained, honest, art-historically astute but also refreshingly personal argument built around a significant exhibition. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that writing of this sort, writing that is willing to take a stand while not simply engaging in negation, is increasingly scarce. I’m similarly sure I don’t need to tell you how grateful we art thinkers are when we find the rare example.

Thank you, and thanks to Mr. Bankowsky. Decades of looking, thinking, reading, teaching, and market observation went into the text. It certainly shows.

—Dwayne Moser

Jack Bankowsky responds:

When art historian Linda Nochlin posed the revolutionary question Why are there no great woman artists? she dared to acknowledge a state of affairs that was, in 1971, all too grimly real. The situation, she insisted, would not be righted by feats of scholarly revision alone (Berthe Morisot versus Édouard Manet). Such intellectual labor on behalf of women artists of the past was not to be discounted, of course (if the deck was stacked against women achieving artistically in the present, so too was it stacked against us perceiving achievement by women in the past), but her point was that the problem could not be wished away in polite revisionism. The problem was not only real, it was foundational, and the status quo would only give way to a determined unpacking of the substrate of prejudice, received ideas, and closely guarded male privilege that the very rhetoric of her provocation slyly summoned (therein lay its destabilizing power).

This is precisely what Nochlin (and her compatriots in other academic disciplines) set out to do, and thanks to their tenacity, four and a half decades later the playing field looks more level—not by any means flat, but yes, progress has been made. Next year we should see a woman in the White House (God help us if we do not!), and when we casually survey the artists who have come of age since the early ’70s, surely there are as many women who seem likely to withstand the judgments of time as men. That said, there are also women artists whose work is less than earthshaking—just as there are male artists whose output is unlikely ever to be mistaken as first-rate—and I confess to being somewhat mystified by the opprobrium I’ve received for admitting this hardly surprising fact of life into my consideration of “Painting 2.0: Expression in the Information Age.”

I went at my review forthrightly (and at the risk of offending the single-issue voters among Artforum’s readership), based on my assumption that in a publication given to parsing fine-grained distinctions about the meaning and evolution of art—a context in which, I would like to think, the baldly reactionary politics I am being accused of here are unlikely to find a home—one should be able to discuss such differences without fear of censure, or censorship. In my experience, the most powerful, compelling (can we reclaim the freighted “great” in 2016?) women artists—and I have known and worked with a few of them—are the last people on this planet to wish to exempt their often hard-won achievements from the critical distinctions that enable us to appreciate them as such in favor of a blanket (and patronizing) critical immunity.

I was shaken by this pair of letters and remain shaken. While I am tempted to dismiss these attacks as merely the expedient defense of a group of ambitious curators (and their vocal allies), miffed by the fact that the reviewer they drew happens not to believe their curatorial effort to be quite as convincing as they do, the seriousness of the charges (the accusation of “intentional gender bias” is heavy artillery) demands that I take these reactions seriously. Nor do I discount the possibility that the slight to women artists I am accused of is genuinely felt as such by these letters’ authors. This prospect is deeply troubling to me, and I can only insist that, if I have not been willfully misrepresented, then I have been misunderstood.

It is clear that the perception of gender bias in my review stems from the fact that I criticized and accorded less attention to the third of the show titled “Eccentric Figuration.” Accompanied by a catalogue essay signed by Manuela Ammer, who, of three curators, is the lone woman, the section also featured the greatest number of women artists in the show. Further, I questioned the urgency of the capsule, within another section of the show, devoted to the A.I.R. collective. (I argued that the latter was, in my view, an imprecise fit in the larger context of an exhibition that was announced by its authors to be an examination of painting in the age of the internet.) Never mind that, in the process of forwarding my argument, I singled out numerous women artists for discussion and praise. In a show featuring more than 100 artists all told, one would think that a reviewer might be excused for failing to discuss every single figure, and that it might, indeed, be taken as business as usual to discuss fewer of the artists in the section one least admired. And while both letters note as a symptom of my bias that I am exhaustive in naming all of the artists in the first section (“Gesture and Spectacle,” which had the highest proportion of male artists), the careful reader will understand that I offer this list as a rhetorical device to establish a sense of the delirious capaciousness of the show as a whole via the example of its opening section, while gently pointing to the at times random-seeming nature of who is included and who is left out in this sweeping but, in fact, pointedly edited conflagration. Perhaps it is the wrong moment to rub it in, but the exhaustive list was meant as a double-edged sword . . . not a celebration of this male-heavy chapter at the expense of any other. Finally, and most importantly, women artists figure decisively in all three sections of the show, as one might have hoped they would, and as the curators argue is the case in their letter, the feminist thread runs strong in all three chapters. All this said, was I really not to criticize the “Eccentric Figuration” section for fear of being accused of “intentional gender bias”? Talk about a repressive injunction! My point was not to exclude the artists (male, female, or any other gender) in this section, but simply to demonstrate that the artists whom I find most powerful I also feel to be to be less than perfectly served by the frame this chapter imposes.

I will own to one criticism in the letter from the curators (the more measured of the two responses—if only relatively speaking): In the perfect review I might have written if, well, I were perfect, I should have discussed more explicitly the feminist thread the curators argue runs through each of the sections and essays. Their complaint is fair in that by not highlighting this motivating imperative, I prevented the reader from perceiving the curators’ full purposes, as their feminist perspective informed some of the selections and omissions that I went on to criticize. Had I done this work, my take on the show would surely have been fuller and truer. But really—willful bias?!? If I failed to explicitly analyze their feminist frame—one frame, it is important to remember, in an endless mise en abyme of nested frames—the plain fact that I considered, and considered favorably, any number of the women artists one might presume said frames were devised to serve should count as the relevant measure of my commitment. Indeed, if these charges were not so horrifying to me, so bullying and disrespectful of my past work and of my intentions, not to mention those of the magazine in publishing my review, I would find it laughable to be accused of “disappearing” the likes of Jutta Koether, of whose work I mounted an apology in the very review under attack. Or Eva Hesse, an artist I hold in the highest esteem. Or, absurdly, Rachel Harrison, a sculptor I similarly admire, and indeed honored with a cover when I was the editor of this publication—never mind the fact that I contributed an essay to her monograph. One would think my involvement with this artist’s work might have earned me the right to my implied criticism that Harrison’s art was as inadequately served by the conceptual frame to which it was subjected in the “Eccentric Figuration” section and the accompanying essay as that of Isa Genzken (an artist whose work I also happen to admire), or, for that matter, any number of male or male-identified artists (such as Leidy Churchman), for reasons I spelled out in my review.

Here is, to my mind, the key question (rhetorical only, please!): Was this show intended merely as a catalogue of everything that called itself painting during the span of years corresponding to the rise of the World Wide Web? (No, for conspicuous omissions suggest this cannot be the case.) Or was the show a more ambitious attempt to track some decisive modulations, even a paradigm shift, that have occurred in the art of painting in conjunction with the advent of Web 2.0 and (as I would have hoped the show would do, and indeed called on it to do), to privilege work that gets under the skin of these changes, figuring (consciously or otherwise) painting’s changed condition in their light? I gave the curators credit for the latter because I felt the show made valiant headway in this respect, via its proposed “network painting” model, wherein painting remains at once itself (as a convention) and “beside” itself, activating the social and cultural networks in which it is necessarily embedded precisely by performing its status as such within said networks. I also believe the show made significant strides in plotting a revisionist history of painting since the ’60s that might be seen to support this paradigm shift. By this litmus test, I argued that I did not think the inclusion of the A.I.R. work was convincing (indeed, a less disingenuous response to my review might have debated this claim), and I certainly never said the artists in this collective should be written out of art history, as the letter signed by Haidu et al. claims (in fact, I took pains to underscore that this was not my point). Rather, I argued that A.I.R. seemed a strained fit with respect to the network painting model, which I found to be the exhibition’s most compelling offering. Neither did I say that all the artists (female or male) in the “Eccentric Figuration” section should have been scrapped; I merely said that the section’s underlying model, which seemed to propose the recuperation of the painterly body and gestural mark as in itself a significant artistic response to our networked present, did not seem convincing to me as a way of confronting this contemporary condition from any vantage, feminist or otherwise.

To dismiss the distinctions I have argued for as merely affirming a patriarchal brand of greatness seems to me a willful vulgarization of my program—when I am, in fact, calling precisely for a painting that, like the freighted term greatness, in the words of Carol Duncan, “should be constantly coming undone”—a painting that, on the most substantive and structural level, as opposed to a merely a reactive one, addresses the challenges of the internet age. Such a model of painting today would internalize the lessons of several decades of interdisciplinary and intermedia experimentation rather than blithely proceeding with painterly business as usual, as if the medium’s expressive ways and means were ever-stable. Indeed, the very impulse to mount a mega-survey of painting (however affirming the marketplace remains of such initiatives) may be somewhat problematic as a feminist initiative, as so much, yes, “great” art by women in the period in question has staked its claim precisely outside and between the traditional mediums. Suffice to say that heated accusation (not just of gender bias, but even “violence”) here seems to leave any honest characterization of my argument—not to mention the serious discussion of painting or gender or how they might relate—entirely by the wayside.

I can only hope that the readers of this exchange of letters will take the time to go back to my review, where I took pains to argue my points at great length, and which appears in cartoon versions in these attacks. To the offended parties, I can appreciate that my having cited near my conclusion several prominent male artists who I felt were conspicuous in their absence (an absence all the more notable for remaining unremarked on by the curators, particularly given that they are among the purest exemplars of what I see to be the show’s most productive paradigm) might have felt like the last straw and kindled suspicions; but these happened to be the artists who were missing. I can assure you that had the show omitted women artists who have as decisively figured painting’s networked condition under the pressure of our technologized present as the men I cited—artists like Koether, Genzken, Harrison, Emily Sundblad of Reena Spaulings, R. H. Quaytman, and, in a more pointedly instrumental manner, Adrian Piper—I would have called them on this just as loudly. And I should have called them on the missing Sturtevant, who would have made an astringent addition to the “painterly renderings of excess” the curators seem to see as the province of the art form particularly suitable to women.

Let me conclude by saying only that I regret that I should have been misunderstood by anyone regarding my commitment to art by women; indeed, it runs directly counter to my own self-understanding. I would have been inconsolable had I not, in fact, also received numerous personal notes complimenting my review from both men and women—men and women as committed, and as feminist, as my correspondents here—none of whom were in any way compelled to misconstrue my intentions.