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Terms of Criticism for Contemporary Painting: A note on David Salle on Laura Owens

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I had heard of American painter Laura Owens. I’d seen her name bandied about, but a quick perusal of small reproductions of her paintings did not inspire me to investigate further. Then my latest copy of the New York Review of Books, a publication I take seriously, arrived in the mail. It features an essay by another painter, David Salle, on Laura Owens, whom Salle believes is a major artist. Since David Salle undoubtedly knows a lot more about art in general, and painting in particular, than I do, I decided to read his essay carefully in order to figure out what I’ve been missing in Owens’ art.

Laura Owens Untitled 2013 

Laura Owens, Untitled (2013), Oil, Flashe, charcoal and wheelbarrow wheel on linen, 108 x 84"

The answer is that I don’t think I’m missing anything, which may well mean that I’m now too old to grasp what the younger generations are up to. It may mean something else as well, but if I knew what it is, I’d be less inclined to admit that I can’t think of anything useful to say about Owens’ paintings. So I decided to try to say something about Salle’s essay. Specifically, something about what I think of as the “terms of criticism” used by David Salle in his appreciation of Owens’ paintings.

By “terms of criticism” I do not mean anything technical or esoteric or theoretical. I mean the central concepts that are deployed by an art critic as the basis for judgments of value or quality – what the critic finds to be worth drawing attention to when evaluating a work of art. A good critic will use terms of criticism that are pertinent to the aesthetic experience of persons other than the critic him- or herself. They will be terms that other people – those who take an active interest in art – will find useful in understanding their own experience of the same works, because the terms of criticism provide criteria or standards by which works may be judged good or bad or indifferent. In that sense, terms of criticism may be said to constitute a contribution to the culture of the society in which one exists. For Charles Baudelaire in the mid-19th century, the terms of criticism revolved around the notion of “modernity”, which involved experiences of the ephemeral and transient, being uprooted and anonymous, part of a crowd and so on. For Clement Greenberg at the middle of the 20th century, the terms of criticism involved ideas of taste and discernment, intuition and sensibility, self-criticism and the nature of an artistic medium. Baudelaire and Greenberg were each great critics because their aesthetic judgments articulated terms of criticism that remain relevant and productive today for anyone who seeks to understanding the cultural milieu in which those men lived and wrote and the art it produced. Of course, David Salle is not a critic by profession, and I do not expect his critical writing to be up to the standards found in Baudelaire’s or Greenberg’s work. Nonetheless, it is interesting to notice what terms of criticism actually are used in Salle’s essay on Laura Owens, first of all because they really do seem pertinent to Owens’ paintings, but more importantly because the fact that Salle’s terms of criticism are to the point tells us something about contemporary culture, including the contributions of artists like Owens to our culture, such as it is.

My procedure in this essay is straight-forward and not particularly ambitious: I will simply list the terms and concepts used by Salle in praising or appreciating her paintings and in characterizing his experience of them. The unanswered question, which Salle does not even attempt to raise, is this: why are these terms pertinent as standards of value such that a painting that is accurately characterized in or by the terms of criticism deployed by Salle can or should be considered worthy of praise in the first place? What does the pertinence of Salle’s terms to contemporary American painting tell us about our culture and the role of serious painters in our world?

 Laura Owens Untitled 2016

Laura Owens, Untitled, 2016, Acrylic, oil and charcoal on linen, 32 x 20 inches

Salle strongly approves of Owens’ artistic pedigree. “She developed her skills at summer art camp, going off to college at RISD, and on to CalArts for grad school. This is how artists today are made today.” At CalArts, she survived “the ritual hazing” of group critique under the stern and rigid supervision of conceptualist “arch-enforcer” Michael Asher, and had “made it.” The catalog for Owens’ current show at the Whitney Museum is a “hybrid literary form, a bildungsroman with pictures”, telling the story of “an earnest young woman from the provinces with an appealing straightforward manner who, through luck and pluck and the benevolent intervention of some well-placed patrons, grows up to see her dream of being an artist realized.” Salle’s description could well be transcribed from the celebratory toast to a young politician or CEO at a corporate awards dinner.

Salle is impressed by the 603-page catalog, which includes “a blizzard of faxes, letters, clippings, photographs, and invoices to and from Owens are her dealers and peers, including the artist’s mother, fellow artists, dealers, novelists, curators”, and last (and least) art critics, who all contribute their “shadings” to a catalog that is itself, according to Salle, a literary work that approaches The Brothers Karamazov in length. The catalog amounts to a “hybrid” expression of a contemporary truth, namely, that “any career of real substance is also a group project” involving “the world of professional art schools and the international network of galleries and alternative spaces that are the mechanisms of generational renewal” (not to mention profit-sharing plans and stock options).

As for the paintings, Salle inserts a rumor of gravitas by referring to the great British literary critic William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, although there is no evidence that he has actually read that book. For example, he points to Empson’s belief that “an author could say something in the work that could probably not be said apart from it” – which is a general insight of the New Criticism generally having little to do with Empson specifically and nothing at all to do with ambiguity. Salle goes on to praise Owens’ work on the ground that it incorporates ambiguity, and offers this example:

…a dense field of hot pink slashes on a pale lavender ground, overprinted with fragments of differently scaled grids in cadmium green, turquoise, or black – and that’s just the background. This eye-dazzler is covered with lots of wheels (eighteen!) of different sizes. Rubber tires on metal hubs or spokes – the kind of wheels found on tricycles, wagons, grocery carts, some brightly colored, Day-Glo even – are mounted on the canvas, parallel to its surface with just enough clearance to freely turn. Wheels punctuate the composition in a jaunty, syncopated rhythm – a chariot race without the chariots, a riot of implied motion on top of an already pushy abstract painting, not going anywhere, in perpetuity. Hilarious, breathtaking, circus glamour.

Laura Owens Untitled 2013

Laura Owens, Untitled, 2013, Acrylic, oil, Flashe, and wheels on linen, 108 x 84"

Where’s the ambiguity? I do not find ambiguity either in Owens’ painting nor in Salle’s description of it. In fact, Salle’s essay is scattered with serious-sounding words, but he doesn’t take his readers seriously enough to allow the possibility that one might expect him to follow up his introduction of a concept with a discussion justifying its use. He’s like a habitual name-dropper at a pretentious cocktail party who has met a lot of people. But the important point is this: Even if Owens’ pictures did convey ambiguity, why is “ambiguity” assumed to be a value in painting at all? I’m not claiming that good paintings cannot or should not include ambiguity, only that its value is not self-evident. What’s wrong with clarity and directness, with saying what you mean, or meaning what you say? Salle doesn’t bother to ask these questions because he assumes that the answers are obvious.

Salle states that Owens epitomizes the post-modernist sensibility, but it isn’t clear what that means either. For one thing, she “borrows” and “appropriates” images from a wide variety of “lowbrow” sources – children’s books, calendar art, greeting cards, supermarket magazines, and so on. Salle doesn’t explain the significance of that, implying that anyone who asks is too unsophisticated to be reading his essay or looking at Owens’ paintings in the first place. “The ability to be influenced in a productive way, which includes making one’s influences legible to the audience, might be essential to success in today’s art world …” “Might” be? The art of painting, to the extent it’s more than a hobby, is an essentially historical practice. It follows that there has never been a time when “the ability to be influenced in a productive way”, and to incorporate one’s influences in ways that make sense to the viewer, has been less than essential to serious painting.

 Laura Owens Untitled 2014

Laura Owens, Untitled, 2014, Acrylic, oil, Flashe, silkscreen ink, Pantone ink, pastel, paper, and wood on linen, 138 x 104 inches

Other sounds of emptiness ring out in Salle’s essay, for example when he identifies Owens’ work as “the apotheosis of the digital age”. “The defining feature of digital art – of digital information generally – is its weightlessness. Images, colors, marks, text, are essentially decals in a nondimensional electronic space. They exist, but only up to a point. They can excite the mind, but you can’t touch them. An air of weightlessness remains even when they are transferred to the physical surface of a painting. If these images were to fall, nothing would catch them.” It doesn’t take a lot of insight to notice that all “information” per se, not just “digital” information, and in fact all words, concepts, feelings, images, signs, ideas, thoughts, hopes, regrets, forebodings, warnings, implications, data, evidence and every other kind of non-material object that has ever existed are in fact equally “weightless”, and if they were all somehow cleansed from the world’s mass, it would be not one gram lighter. I agree that Owens’ paintings lack weight, but if there is something special about “digital” information, Salle hasn’t identified it, nor has he explained how any of this distinguishes Owens’ paintings.

At the outset I promised to list some of the terms of criticism that occur in Salle’s essay. The following are terms in which Owens’ paintings are praised: “positive can-do energy”; paint is applied “with a pleasing paint-by-numbers quality”, so that one can “feel the hobby store just around the corner”; “like illustrations in a children’s book”; “images that kids find appealing; animals in the forest, princesses, wild-haired children”, “fairy-tale stuff”; “like novel forms of candy seen in a glass jar”, similar to “greeting cards”; an “Alice-in-Wonderland feeling”; “witty and cartoony-weird”; “engaging and fun”; a shade of blue “found in a tea shop or a girl’s bedroom”; drawings of “cats playing with balls of yarn”; a motif “that one might find on a young girl’s flannel pajamas, something a sophisticated seven-year-old would find amusing and a bit arch”; design similar to what one finds in “children’s books and child-friendly graphics”; “this is art that’s comfortable wearing fuzzy slippers”; and so on. If all of this weren’t a bit creepy coming from a man of 66 years, it would be just, well, infantile. But again, why is childishness a term of praise for a contemporary painter? From whence comes the idea that art gets better by way of emotional regression?

At the end of the day, what Salle finds appealing about Owens’ art is exactly its childishness, because it suggests a state of being free of anxiety and fear. (The idea that children are without anxiety is an absurd and destructive idea hatched in the mind of an adult who refuses to grow up.) Owens’ work is without angst or black humor; she “makes being a good citizen into an aesthetic”; it “has no anxiety about being nerdy, or not much anxiety period.” Oddly, near the end of his essay Salle remarks that upon leaving the exhibition, he was left with a “strange and unexpected hollow sensation”. This is odd because one might expect that to the extent one’s experience of art is a “hollow sensation”, the art has failed aesthetically. But Salle seems to regard hollowness as exactly what he’s seeking and finding in Owens’ art. What does it mean for a culture to find value in emptiness?

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