Why Painting Has Been Kept Alive

Painting has been pronounced dead many times. Douglas Crimp, one of the main critics of painting, argues that painting has become old-fashioned. With the use of techniques such as appropriation, quotation and duplication, newer mediums like photography, film, and video are doing what painting has failed to do (Miles, Christopher). Yet, the majority of art history revolves around painting – along with the majority of current art schools, artist studios, and art galleries. The medium may be defined as traditional, elite, and controversial, but contemporary painting’s role is crucial in advancing current conceptual art practices.

Paintings give works of art the distinguishable, physical qualities that make them art objects. If these properties are taken away from them, what qualifies as art is left to the museums and the art market to decide. Benjamin Buchloh states that freedom of conceptual art from medium and traditional criteria of judging art only strengthens the power of the art institutions. They determine whether it is art and what is not (Verwoert 3-4). This institutionalization of art can be prevented through painting, which gives art the visual properties that can be used to critique artistic ability, and gives power to artists rather than the art institutes.

Contemporary painting gives art some solid borders to push, some conventions that keep it from becoming so loose that its ideas become non-sensible. It holds art back from becoming so content based that the visual critique of works becomes completely irrelevant, from becoming cold, robotic, and boxed in theories and words. What is left to define then is, what counts as contemporary? And how a medium so bound with tradition can speak of our time and advance current conceptual art practices.

This curatorial catalogue essay is about the works of Olafur Eliasson, Marlene Dumas and Vija Celmins. Each artist has one work in the exhibition and all works can be defined by Arthur Danto’s definition of contemporary art: “what happens after there are no more periods in some master narrator of art” (Verwoert 5). Without relying on just historical backgrounds, each painting exhibits the importance of contemporary painting in the progression of present conceptual practices and makes Robert Musil’s words in The Man Without Qualities true: “If some painting is still to come, if painters are still to come, they will not come from where we expect them to” (Birnbaum 157). The artists use their historical medium in unexpected ways that analyse their surroundings, their subjects and art critics – rather than, as Bois says, relying “uncritically on the traditional understanding of the medium” (Verwoert 5). They are fully engaged in their work, keeping painting from becoming in Gerhard Richter’s words, “pure idiocy” (Crimp 24) – and all of their works follow Bois’s notion of a conceptual painting; a painting that is self-evident and produces “its own justification by means of continuous formal self-scrutiny and the creation of contextual relations” (Verwoert, 5). They produce dialogue about themselves in the context of the art world and through that, they have an impact on conceptual art practices.

The first painting I will discuss is Olafur Eliasson’s Green River (Tokyo, Japan, 2001, Stockholm, Sweden, 2000, Los Angeles, USA, 1999, Moss, Norway, 1998 and Bremen, Germany, 1998).

In this work, Olafur has taken pigment out of the studio and thrown it into rivers, turning them green, changing urban landscapes at a huge scale, and also changing the relationship between paint and painting, medium and artwork. This painting is described by Daniel Birnbaum as being “a zone of contagion, constantly branching out and widening its scope” (158).

In the interview between Olafur Eliasson and Hans Ulrich Obrist, Obrist describes the significant idea, the goal of this project, to be a vehicle that makes “the city visible for its inhabitants, who no longer take any notice of the way it works or what’s special about it, [and to challenge] their perception of their environment as something changeless and reassuring.” The painting makes the city, for a brief period, an interactive physical space rather than a mental backdrop. Other than commenting on the role of our surroundings, by taking paint outside the studio and making it part of an urban landscape, Olafur has blurred the boundaries between different art forms. By taking pigment out of its familiar setting, he has widened the scope of painting and merged it into other disciplines like performance art and installation. Using this approach, he has opened up more space for conceptual art practices to step over the lines of medium specificity and to engage painting with environments outside of museums and studios.

The second painting in this exhibition is Marlene Dumas’s Feather Stola (Oil on Canvas, 2000).

In this painting, the artist uses quick brush strokes, like the expressionists, to lay out a rough form of a nude woman. The nude woman is a traditional subject in the Western art world as a seductive form, but in Dumas’ painting, the colours make her look more bruised and hurt instead of seductive or appealing. Dumas’s sources for her paintings come from photographs in which the subject has already posed once for the camera. She takes these subjects and instead of painting portraits of them, she paints their faces and bodies to represent emotions, moods, and events. The themes of her paintings revolve around race, sexuality and a strange play between violence and tenderness (Horlock).

In Feather Stola, she has worked up a rough figure with soft brush marks, portraying lust and eroticism but in a way that looks both frightening and vulnerable. The relationship between art and female beauty is explored in this work, challenging Western perceptions of the female body. With self-awareness about the traditional medium and subject in her work, Dumas questions conventions embedded in art practices. Through this image, she has created room for not just painting, but also for the use of traditional subject matter in art works as a practice that is capable of self-critique, not unlike the unconventional and experimental materials often used in the current art world. Feather Stola is an example for conceptual artists who prefer working in traditional mediums, of how a medium does not have to limit conceptuality, and can instead, be used to further it.

The last painting to be discussed in this essay is Vija Celmins’ Untitled (Ocean) (Oil on Linen, 1990-95).

Vija Celmins’ work is a painting of a photograph. The photograph was taken in an instant, however the painting itself took five years to complete. One can feel the passing of time while viewing the piece, not just because of the length of time it took to paint it, but also because of the repetitiveness of the waves, stilled in their movement.

In addition to this piece, Celmins’ work is greatly influenced by Clement Greenberg, a Modern art critic. Her paintings are shaped by his theories about abstract works: “there are no longer centres of interest, highlights, dominating forms, every part [is] equivalent in stress to every other part” (Birnbaum et al. 82). She uses his criteria for painting in a way that works for a realistic painting so that her paintings lie in between abstraction and photorealism and describes her goal with her own work as “multidimensional, going back and forth in space while remaining true to the flatness of the surface” (Celmins, 85).

Her painting is flat, yet it depicts the fluidity of waves, but despite the illusionistic style of painting, it comes from Greenberg’s definition of abstract paintings. While following the rules established for painting by Greenberg, Celmins changes them to do the opposite of what they are for so that even with a flattened picture plane, her paintings have areas of depth. With the use of a much debated medium, she manages to intelligently criticize Greenberg’s writings about painting as a flat surface, while still following his opinions in her paintings, in his beliefs in a movement that could turn around and question “its own foundation, not to subvert it but to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence” (1). Through this thoughtful way of thinking about the inspiration of her work, Celmins’ paintings both follow and defy Greenberg’s ideas. They break through traditional modes of thinking about abstraction versus realism and develop new areas of exploration in conceptual art.

Olafur Eliasson, Marlene Dumas, and Vija Celmins, each use paint in innovative ways that involve self-analysis. All the works in this exhibition portray the way painting’s role has changed over time and how a traditional medium can be used in a contemporary way so that it becomes a source of inspiration and advancement for current conceptual art practices. Instead of a window leading us into another world, paintings have become a mirror reflecting their time. They have turned into a network of thoughtful ideas instead of pictures created for aesthetic enjoyment. With the use of paint, metaphors come back into use and create a break from literalism that ties down art with the use of other more immediate mediums (Brisman, 1-2). By bridging conceptuality and painting together, art can be saved from the museums and art markets, painting can play a useful role in the current art world, and conceptual art can gain new perspectives by becoming more open to the history and traditions of painting.














Works Cited

Birnbaum, Daniel, et al. Defining Contemporary Art: 25 Years in 200 Pivotal Artworks. London: Phaidon, 2011. Print.


Birnbaum, Daniel, Vija Celmins, Douglas Crimp, et al. Painting: Documents of Contemporary Art. London: Whitechapel Gallery, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2011. Print.


Brisman, Avi. “Blindfolding The Muse: The Plight Of Painting In The Age Of Conceptual Art.” CAA Reviews (1999): 1-2. Art & Architecture Complete. Web. 15 Mar. 2013.


Celmins, Vija. Untitled (Ocean). 1995. Sotheby’s New York. Sothebey’s. Web. 22 May 2013.


Danto, Arthur. “INTRODUCTION: Modern, Postmodern, and Contemporary.” After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History (1996): 5. Print.


Dumas, Marlene. Feather Stola. 2000. Saatchi Gallery,London. Saachi Gallery. Web. 22 May 2013.


Eliasson, Olafur. Green River. 2001, 2000, 1999, 1998. Japan, Sweden, USA, Norway and Germany. Web. 22 May 2013.


Greenberg, Clement. Modernist Painting. Np, nd. Web.


Horlock, Mary. “Marlene Dumas | Tate.”Home | Tate. N.p., 11 June 1997. Web. 30 Mar. 2013.


Miles, Christopher. “The Death of Painting and The Writing of Painting’s Post-Crisis,Post-Critique Future by Christopher Miles | ART LIES: A Contemporary Art Quarterly.” ART LIES: A Contemporary Art Quarterly. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Apr. 2013.


Obrist, Hans Ulrich. Conversation between Olafur Eliasson and Hans Ulrich Obrist. In Olafur Eliasson: Chaque matin je me sens différent. Chaque soir je me sens le meme. Edited by Joseph Jacquet. Exhibition catalogue. Paris: Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 2002: 17-37. Translation by John Tittensor. Web. 15 Mar. 2013.


Verwoert, Jan. “Afterall • Autumn/Winter 2005 • Why Are Conceptual Artists Painting Again? Because They Think It’s a Good Idea.” Afterall. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2013.


Published on: May 4, 2013

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