You are on page 1of 4

Book Review of

The Love of Painting: Genealogy of a Success Medium by Isabelle Graw

Published at Hyperallergic as How Painting Survives in the Digital Era

Isabelle Graw’s loquacious book The Love of Painting: Genealogy of a Success

Medium is easy to esteem but tough to love. Passionate ardor requires none of the
elaborate rationalizations that take place between these covers. If you need to be
convinced to love something called a “meta-medium” through an avalanche of
appeals to art-historical tradition and critical opinion, then that ain’t amour.
That said, by mingling the surface heft and vibrant shimmer that is contemporary
painting, this corpulent German-American-French-centric paperback effectively
blurs the lines between the artist-subject and the sensual painted-object.

The book is thematically organized into six chapters that offer lively evaluations
of various painters’ practices; Graw’s thoughts on Frank Stella’s early black
paintings and Joan Mitchell’s general struggles are topnotch. Other essays offer
valuable insight into the work of Édouard Manet, Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke,
Rachel Harrison, Martin Kippenberger, Avery Singer, Marcel Broodthaers, Jana
Euler, Ellsworth Kelly, and Isa Genzken.

These polished reflections are interspersed with significantly shallower

conversations between Graw and her contemporary artist “friends,” including
Wade Guyton, Jutta Koether, Charline von Heyl, Merlin Carpenter, and Alex
Israel. Through these conversations, Graw tries to refute claims of contemporary
paintings’ mannerist zombie stature. A co-founder of both Texte zur Kunst and
the Institute of Art Criticism based in Frankfurt, Graw seems to view these friends
of hers as the reason why painting now has meta-level relevance within the sphere
of contemporary art — because their work exhibits “unspecific-specific”
attributes of “quasi-people” (don’t ask) while being a “comeback” commodity
exchange chip always popular with the auction houses.

There is no index (which annoys), but each chapter is generously illustrated in

color, which helped me follow along with gabby Graw as she traced the material,
art-historical, and sociological reasons for the “specific status” of painting within
the capitalist system. She posits that the artist’s individual human touch is part of
what elevates painting to this “special status,” but she fails to adequately
demonstrate this: intimate touch and bodily presence usually plays an even more
significant role in most performance art, drawing, and ceramics. But it’s cool that
Graw divines haptic touches even in mechanical artistic processes — for
example, in the scratches and dust on Guyton’s inkjet print paintings.

If Graw was entirely sincere about her love of painting (which she is not: her true
feeling, she eventually confesses, is “love-hate”), she might have skipped the
formalist questions and spent more time investigating sex, love and gender in the
history of the genre, where political content merges with form and materiality in
complimentary communion. Rather, what we hold in our hands is an aggressively
nerdy book inspired by paintings’ brush with death.

Since the 1960s, pampered prissy painting has wrestled with its mortality.
Suddenly, though, it feels more alive than ever. Ensuing Douglas Crimp’s essay
The End of Painting and Ad Reinhardt’s Black Paintings series (1953-67),
supposedly the last paintings that anyone can paint, Graw makes frenemies with
this demise by placing it within the post-medium condition of Rosalind Krauss
and the expanded, networked, ‘transitive’ understandings of painting proposed
by David Joselit. For some reason, she was disinclined to mention Nicolas
Bourriaud’s, Peter Weibel’s and Félix Guattari’s use of the ‘post-medium’ term.
Those additions, and a consideration of the post-media condition, could have
enriched her institutional critique considerably.

Thought-provoking assessments of painting’s death (or near-death) aside, Graw

maintains that “in recent years, painting, after losing its dominant position, has
received much more attention in critical writing and theory, and contemporary
painting exhibitions have been extremely popular, bolstering an increased interest
in the art form.” Fair enough, but she might have raised the question of whether
such popularity places painting on a dangerous path to derivative conformity.

After citing Marcel Duchamp’s reframing of his paintings as symbol-discourse,

Graw gets fascinating as she teases out her idea of painterly “vitalistic fantasies.”
By this titillating term, Graw suggests that painters’ personas manifest in their
paintings, which is how a painting achieves a particular panache, and how
viewers’ perceptions of paintings make these flat objects into “quasi subjects”
saturated with the lives of their creators. This enchanting proposition is very
interesting to me as an artist who amalgamates artificial life with painting,
particularly when Graw insists upon paintings’ “production of aliveness.” This
jubilant, vitalistic view of painting might also relate to viewers’ engagements
with the divinational and phantasmagorical aspects of painting — thus serving as
another key counterpoint to claims that painting is irrelevant within our electronic
wonder world.

Joseph Nechvatal

Related Interests