English text



[24a] David Batchelor, ‘Once Were Painters’, Art & Language in Practice, Vol. 2, Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona, 1999, pp. 177-183.

Once Were Painters

David Batchelor

The film Once Were Warriors is a spectacularly bleak picture about the remnants of a Maori culture now situated in the derelict outskirts of a grim town in modern New Zealand. (1) The opening scenes, which suggest a spontaneous, vibrant and chaotic sub-culture of parties, music and singing, are soon revealed to be a superficial gloss on an order which is rooted in poverty, division and oppression; and sustained by sexual and racial violence, drugs, alcohol, and delusions. It is a film about how various members of one particular Maori family attempt in different ways to come to terms with a past in which ‘our people once were warriors’. For most of the film that past is assumed to have been everything the present is not: pure, noble, unified, coherent, dignified, beautiful. The best moment is the point in the narrative at which that past is revealed also to have been based on various kinds of division and oppression within Maori culture. Some of the problems with the present, it appears to suggest, are inseparable from the mythologising of the past.

When you are trying to think about how to write a text, you will latch on to almost anything to help get you started; you can find an analogue in almost anything, or almost nothing, you happen to look at. Sometime after midnight one evening, this film seemed to be trying to speak to me about people who still make paintings in the desolate suburbs of a ruined modernism.

These paintings, whoever they are made by, almost always appear as corruptions of a tradition of painting which was once more pure, more noble, more unified, more coherent, more dignified, and more beautiful. This certainly seems to be true of much of the work by Art & Language, work which, while more or less obviously ‘painted’, seems at the same time to resist or appear ill at ease with the term ‘painting’. This unease shows itself in the viewer or commentator in the feeling that, once uttered, the word ‘painting’ immediately needs some sort of prefix or qualification (but not, perhaps, always the same prefix or qualification). But then, has painting ever not needed some kind of qualification? Certainly very little significant painting produced over the last three or four decades has held its ground as unqualified painting. The most interesting painting has not been ‘pure’ painting, at least not recently. ‘Pure’ is itself a qualification of course, albeit a paradoxical one which asserts the unqualified character of its referent. Anyway, these days painting is mostly impure painting, and the chances are it always has been. These days: since about 1950. But while the main theories of pure painting are all too well known, as are the main theories of the end of painting, where is the account of that painting which is neither pure nor purged? Where is the theory of this less tidy, less certain, less absolute and less idealised condition of the art? In his essay, “Marks of Indifference”: Aspects of Photography in, or as Conceptual Art’, Jeff Wall quotes a short passage from Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory: ‘At the present time significant modern art is entirely unimportant in a society that only tolerates it. This situation affects art itself, causing it to bear the marks of indifference: there is the disturbing sense that this art might as well be different or might not exist at all.’ (2) Wall’s essay concerns the photograph, and the apparent aesthetic indifference of photojournalism and amateurism which made the photograph so exploitable in Conceptual Art. But clearly Adorno had something more general in mind; it was a condition of all the arts that they would ‘bear the marks of indifference’, that they would register and reflect the uncertainty and doubt that is their situation in the world: ‘Aesthetics, or what is left of it... can no longer rely on art as a fact. If art is to remain faithful to its concept it must pass over into anti-art, or it must develop a sense of self-doubt that is born of the moral gap between its continued existence and mankind’s catastrophes, past and future.’

One possible interpretation of Adorno’s remarks would be the formulation that art will remain alive only so long as it embraces that which would extinguish it. Or: that art might have to register the possibility of its non-existence within itself, as a condition of its continued existence. This, in broad terms, would be a condition for maintaining and perhaps renewing the self-doubt which, for Adorno, marked art as modern. But what, then, are means of its extinction which painting might or must embrace in order to remain alive? This is not so difficult to answer, perhaps. There are a number of spectres which haunt painting, all of which have been around for most of this century, and all of which are fairly familiar. They include: the condition of the literal, of being only an object; the existence of the photograph or the photographic in representation; the presence of the written word and its elevation above the visual in representation; and the abyss of decoration, into which painting always threatens to fall. And there are of course others.

So on the one hand there is the theory that all the arts must resist or suppress the influence of every other art, and equally that every art must distance itself from all that is non-art, and that only then can value be preserved. And on the other hand there is the counter-argument: the demand for the dissolution of the arts into one another, and for a merging or a blurring of the boundaries between art and life. While both these theories can, in some part, be connected with Adorno’s reflections, what he seems also to suggest is that there may be a productive space between these absolutist alternatives. It is a space in which art walks on a kind of tightrope between exclusivity and extinction. The work which occupies this space could be seen to perform a balancing act which involves both taking on that which threatens the ‘purity’ of art, and holding off the moment of its dissolution. It is a drama which involves embracing that which implies your extinction and yet refusing to be extinguished. What has often resulted is neither ‘pure’ art nor the withering away of art, or, more to the point here, neither ‘pure’ painting nor the withering away of painting. In its place is often rather a kind of hybrid form, something not quite painting, yet not entirely something else either.

If a theoretical sketch for this type of work exists it is in Leo Steinberg’s essay ‘Other Criteria’ (1968-72), and perhaps in some of Judd’s early writing. But if much of the best painting since the 1950s has embraced a kind of flat-bed literalism, at the same time it has remained more than just an object. Painting-or-object, two-or-three-dimensions: these are not a matter of mutually exclusive alternatives so much as creative uncertainties, productive ambiguities. Likewise painting has tested itself, and continues to test itself, against the photograph in a relationship which is neither one of denial nor of dissolution. And the same is true of the written word, be it printing or writing or somewhere between drawing and notation. And the same is also true of questions of pattern and decoration and of many other forms of repetitive and decorative arrangement, be they classified as high or low.

This is not the place to go into any particular detail, but this argument could easily be illustrated with a wide range of work: Rauschenberg’s Combines, Stella’s shapes, Klein’s sponges, Latham’s books, Johns’s compartments, Twombly’s grafitti, Agnes Martin’s grids, Ryman’s brackets, Warhol’s screens, Judd’s boxes, Flavin’s tubes, LeWitt’s descriptions, Hesse’s tendrils, Kawara’s dates, Kosuth’s typography, Darboven’s scribbles, Buren’s stripes, Richter’s blurs, Polke’s layerings... All these artists and many others have, at one time or another, co-opted one or more of the spectres at the edges of painting – literalism, photography, writing, pattern. Some have remained more painters than anything else – hence perhaps the current popularity of Richter’s work. Some have increasingly moved further away from painting and become sculptors of a kind, while others became film-makers, and others became conceptual artists or designers. And some of these artists have remained balanced on the ill-defined edge between painting and something else.

If what I am characterising is something like a general condition of recent (present-day? post-war? twentieth century?) painting, then the question which has to be asked here is: what is it about the work of Art & Language which in some way marks itself out as particular or peculiar? First, it is clear that for many years some remnant of painting has often (but not always) figured in their work, but that this remnant has found a place only in relation to some ‘external’ limit or condition. This is evident in many works from the first phase of Art & Language production: for example, in Mel Ramsden’s early monochromatic Guaranteed Paintings (1967-68); in the small, two-part work Painting-Sculpture (1966-67) by Terry Atkinson and Michael Baldwin; and in the mirrored Untitled Paintings (1965), by Baldwin. In all of these works, some remnant of painting had always to compete for its place – either with the scepticism and sarcasm of an accompanying text, or with a doubt about its status as image and object, expressed through a form of textual nominalism, or through the play of surface and depth, inside and outside, which is the fascination of the mirror. In each case the status of painting and its content is not so much negated, but rendered uncertain, contingent, ironic. Ten or so years later, at a time when painting was again directly thematised in Art & Language’s work, for the most part this painting has again been haunted, or harassed, either by the spectre of the text, or by the object, or by both, or, though rather less often, by the decorative, or, lastly, and least often, by the photograph. What is perhaps different about the work of Art & Language, compared with other artists’ work from approximately the same generation, is that this relationship of painting to its others has simply never been resolved. That is to say, it has been rehearsed and repeated, almost like a series of crash-tests; but it has not, dialectically or otherwise, progressed to some higher synthesis, some new form of art, some space beyond painting. That doesn’t seem to have been an option; at least it doesn’t seem to have happened. What resolutions there are between painting and its others appear temporary and provisional; they have the mood of a stand-off or a stalemate; they are sometimes awkward or frustrating; they are occasionally funny and often absurd. These works suggest that the past is not easily shaken off and, at the same time, that it is not easily held on to.

Perhaps the crash-test is too spectacular an image. The processes of the studio are usually rather slower and less violent. But, as often as not, the large number of works which constitute a series – the norm of Art & Language production – appear to have been executed in the spirit of a quiet collision, a collision repeated until it reaches a point of exhaustion, or, to use a term borrowed more from engineering than from aesthetics, of failure. In an Art & Language series, this point of failure is the point at which the various tensions and balances between a painting and its external aspects break down or are sabotaged. Such works often mark the effective culmination of a series, but at the same time they often also stand slightly outside that series. Two particular works come to mind. Both belong to the long series of large-scale paintings made during the second half of the 1980s, which depicted the (fractured) interior of the Whitney Museurn of Arnerican Art hung with representations of Art & Language work from the previous decade or so. In a number of these paintings the depicted work took the form of an imaginary textual installation, and was structured in such a way that it became relatively unclear as to whether the text was an image in the painting or whether the painted image was somehow obscured by some ‘external’ textual element. The overstated single-point perspective characteristic of each work was in part compromised by the ambiguous position of the text, and in part also by physical disruptions which resulted from one or more different scale canvasses being inserted within the overall work. In short, each work enacted a sometimes awkward but relatively respectful and largely balanced play between painting, text and object; but a play which remained contained, more often than not, within a painting. Index: Incident in a Museum (Madison Avenue) XIV (1986) started its life as one such work, but it is exceptional in that it took that play beyond the point of balance, and towards the point of failure. It is as if the suppressed tension in the series had built up over the previous thirteen works to the point at which they could no longer remain contained. In the finished work, the entire painted surface or, more to the point, the entire painting, is encased in a sheet of plywood. This surface, this material surface, all but obliterates the painting’s surface. All but, but not all: a series of one-inch drilled holes allows the viewer to peer through the ply and glimpse the painting behind. At the same time a schematic perspective box, painted in black lines over the wooden surface, reintroduces the possibility of this wooden box itself being covered over by another painting. This work comes in the series as a surprise, but also as a kind of relief. It doesn’t actually end the series, but it seems to mark its limits. Here the painting-object relation is really uncertain, both in the sense that there is no respectfulness left in the relationship, and in the sense that there is no obvious next step to take. The work remains unique, hors-série, problematic, stark, abrupt, and oddly silent. Only one other work in the series directly takes up the consequences of this work. Index: Incident in a Museum XXV really is the last of the ‘museum’ pictures. In this work text and object erupt in the picture at the same place and as one and the same thing: a series of wooden shelves containing several hundred actual copies of old Art-Language magazines. The literal bulk and weight of the shelves us qualified not just in being framed by the familiar deep perspective of the painted museum interior, but also in being physically sunk into the literal depth of the painting. It is as if the actual but suppressed condition of the painting-as-object allows for the suppression of the literal condition of the bookshelves-as-image. Or nearly. One thing a work such as this shows is how resilient the condition ‘painting’ has become. It suggests that one may do, or might have to do, quite a lot to a painting before its point of failure – and to this viewer its point of real interest – is reached.

Painting is continued and it is blocked. Painting is continued as it is blocked. Painting is blocked as it is continued. Many Art & Language works offer painted views which are partially blocked or hidden from view, sometimes by more paint, sometimes by other materials, sometimes virtually, some times literally. Painted interiors, painted exteriors, painted ladies: all have been obscured, at one time or another and to a greater or lesser degree, by something which stands outside painting: a virtual flag, a sheet of paper with a text printed on it, a reflective but opaque glass surface, a box-like container. Or the painted aspect of a painting has been obscured by turning the painting to face away from the spectator and revealing the painting already as a kind of object. Or paintings themselves are turned into the raw material for the fabrication of other kinds of objects.

It is to this last alternative that Art & Language have turned in the last couple of years, in a series of works which again have made the status of painting highly uncertain, as uncertain as it was in the plywood ‘museum’ of 1986. This time, however, rather than mark the edge or limit of the works, the high level of uncertainty is entirely internal to the series. The results appear less desperate, but more peculiar. The work is less abrupt and intransigent, and more free-flowing: it is easy to imagine the series being added to, more or less endlessly. But where would this continuation lead? Not to a systematic elaboration of the possibilities within or at the edges of painting, but to a room full of domestic-furniture-like-things. Tables, chairs, armchairs, settees, coffee-tables, beds: these works are objects made up of paintings rather than paintings containing objects. Each work is entirely made up of equalsized canvasses, joined back-to-back, butted, or set at right angles. But the modular units are also paintings: individual pictures of specific things. The specific things are, again, texts: double-page spreads from average-sized books. Most are legible, if only just. The individuality of each painting is given by one quality: its singular overall colour. The final shape is obviously, if schematically, that of a piece of furniture. At the same time the modules are obviously little paintings, though more obviously brightly coloured little paintings than paintings of pages. (It depends where you stand. It always depends where you stand when it’s a choice between image and object.) And the results are obviously confusing: when were you last asked to read a settee? And when were you last asked to put your feet up on, or in, a painting?

These works refer less than other works by Art & Language to specific points in the history of modern painting. Rather, they point more immediately to those occasions in the past in which painting had already been heavily corrupted: to Duchamp’s aside about the inverted readymade, about using a Rembrandt as an ironing-board; or to the oeuvre of Don Judd, the painter-turned-object-maker-and-part-time-furniture-designer. Duchamp’s metaphor is sort-of literalised. The beginnings and the end of Judd’s career are sort-of stitched together. In different ways, both Duchamp and Judd problematised the increasingly uncertain relationship between the work of art and mere work, between the autonomy of art and the anonymity of labour, between paintings and objects, between the high and the low. Art & Language’s newer work also revisits these dubious oppositions, by scrambling the apparent distinctions between creativity and carpentry, or between expression and engineering. This is not done just in the assembly line of modular furniture, but in the production of the paintings whose individuality seems entirely mass-produced. Their surfaces are not just smooth but all equally smooth; colours change but they are somehow all equivalent. These works may eventually bring to mind Matisse’s remark about art being an armchair for the tired mental worker, but not before they echo John Latham’s less well remembered remark about art as MFI: a Mental Furniture Industry.


(1) Once Were Warriors, dir. Lee Tamahori, New Zealand, 1994.


(2) Jeff Wall, “Marks of Indifference”: Photography in, or as Conceptual Art’, Reconsidering the Object of Art: 1965-1975, ed. Ami Goldstein and Anne Rorimer, Los Angeles, The Museum of Contemporary Art, 1995, p. 262.