Painting and Conceptual Art: Notes on the impact of critical theory on 21st century American Art

Modernism/Paris/New York: the impact of critical theory on american art

notes on the impact of critical theory from Paris into New York and Los Angeles

Portrait of chess players 1911 by Marcel Duchamp
Marcel Duchamp: Portrait of Chess Players (1911)

These comments come while thinking through the history of Modernism in Painting via Paris and New York, and the subsequent seizure of American Art by European Conceptualism via the needle injection of French critical theory. It has struck me deeply to think of how both French painting and French theory have been embraced and then rejected by American artists, then embraced once again today. Equally it is strange for me to consider that Conceptual Art no longer dominates art production, but it does its discourse and rational. Contemporary painting today has lived through its various calls for its death. Perhaps it is so smart now because of having had to fight through decades of critical intelligentsia writing it into oblivion. When I think of painting in how it developed from the Italian church and the veneration of God, to it expanding to Paris through Nicolas Poussin and other artists, its regal powers seem to have lived through the ages of painting left reality and closed itself off from the world.  When I recall that Painting separated itself from the church, and became portable, or not portable, but used to paint history – its powers are real and clear. Its countless images continue to dominate our imaginations. Its powers cause artists who do not historically come from painting to take it up. Yet it was the collapse of aesthetic and intellectual rigor surrounding painting that let Conceptual Art say it was the smart art and Painters were blind to the world, dumb in the head, and possibly fools. So here now I write these notes in consideration of the impact of critical theory on American art producton, from Los Angeles. A place where the old ways of working from a century or more ago in Paris are both rejected, refined, studied and loved. Painting seems to carry many of its originary powers. Certainly its capacity to render the beautiful and the marvelous have found new studios to realize its startling powers.

Here is an early example of the Conceptual Art model in music:

John Cage on Schoenberg’s statement to him on harmony : “After I had been studying with him for two years, Schoenberg said, “In order to write music, you must have a feeling for harmony.” I explained to him that I had no feeling for harmony. He then said that I would always encounter an obstacle, that it would be as though I came to a wall through which I could not pass. I said, “In that case I will devote my life to beating my head against that wall.”


“A photograph of Monet in his third studio at Giverny (c. 1924 -25), in front of the Nympheas panel Morning.

Paul Cézanne’s studio in Aix-en-Provence

Paul Cézanne’s studio in Aix-en-Provence

Paul Cezanne’s studio

Paul Cezanne’s studio

Monet in his studio with the Duke of Treviso looking at the central part of the Luncheon on the Grass in 1920.  via

“Monet in his studio with the Duke of Treviso looking at the central part of the Luncheon on the Grass in 1920.”

Fernand Leger, Paris, 1954.  Photo by Mark Shaw.

“Fernand Leger, Paris, 1954.  Photo by Mark Shaw.”

Henri Matisse in his studio in the south of France, 1948

“Henri Matisse in his studio in the south of France, 1948”

Henri Matisse

Henri Matisse in studio

the impact of critical theory on american art

During grad school in Los Angeles in the mid 1990’s,  one of my mentors was a Paris born and bred, Louvre Ph.D art historian, who came to LA to write about Mike Kelley. i also studied with sylvere lotringer, the theorist who brought the major french theorists to america. he continues to write texts and publish some of the major theorists from paris and worldwide now in his publishing platform called semiotext. once i asked my mentor from Paris why critical theory was so dominant, where is the american discourse on art, which has been pushed into the background of the world of ideas by paris. she said “we had to think for you.” we meaning the french civilization, the historic paris intellectual. i recall realizing that it was the truth that i had never engaged so many waves and generations of self-critical razor analysis such as what came from paris. and having read French literature from end to end, understood the artist positions of the authors who were deconstructing the literary texts. as i have said before, critical theory is the self-critical, self-reflexive intellectual wing of the paris avant-garde of the 1950’s and well before that too, translated in the 1960’s. it was taught at only the nova scotia art school – the precursor to cal arts, in the mid 1960’s. then it migrated to cal arts when it opened in 1970, having already made its way to new york in 1968 with the establishment of the whitney independent study program, whose reason for existing was to elevate the american artist intellectual with french thought. here then was the continuation of french cultural theory that extents from diderot to camus through foucault. it is the living embodiment of the most self-critical and analytical of minds, but far more importantly – it is the carrier that injects into the american artist intellectual the height and highlight of french thought on culture and civilization. the whitney program used it to infuse the american artist with the update on what would have been thought through in the salons in paris. theory allowed the school of paris to keep cultural authority even after rise of the new york school through painting and u.s. government intervention, using the new york school as propaganda that the american mind was now superior to paris. as we know from critical theory putting a stranglehold on the american university, americans did capitulate to paris. so even though the u.s. continues to dominate in the current artworld and art market, the one percent of american artist intellectuals exposed to critical theory remain under its influence. and on the curatorial end of the artworld, critical theory and its visual counterpart, conceptual art, continue to reign.

Burghers of Calais - Auguste Rodin

Auguste Rodin, Burghers of Calais

Claude Monet in his third studio, surrounded by panels of his large Water Lilies series, 1920s. Photo by Henri Manuel, collection of the Musee Marmottan, Paris.

“Claude Monet in his third studio, surrounded by panels of his large Water Lilies series, 1920s. Photo by Henri Manuel, collection of the Musee Marmottan, Paris.”

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in studio

paperimages:Claude Monet in his studio

Claude Monet in his studio

we know that critical theory defamed painting and said painters were the idiots of the artworld. it sees duchamp as its master, who once painted in paris, then stopped to entertain the idea of art as a world not of images but ideas. his geometric thinking overthrew the school of paris painters, including matisse and picasso. after this time america’s abstract expressionism, america’s first cultural product in the visual arts joined jazz on the world stage. it was the parisian intellectuals who told new york that the negro who was eventually renamed the african americans had produced a brilliant new musical form, jazz. paris also told new york that hollywood had in its ranks a handful of auteur film giants, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Douglas Sirk to name a few. abstract expressionist painting continued to be taught in american art schools, then fell away but painting as an artisinal craft continued to be taught across the nation. only a tiny amount american artists, much less than one percent, were invited to study critical theory and philosophy.

“photo:  Rainer Maria Rilke at his desk in the Hôtel Biron in Paris
(now the Age of Bronze room of the Rodin Museum)” Rilke was Rodin’s secretary.

i recall reading that the american artist felix gonzalez torres, who like myself studied at Pratt in its painting department, wrote a scathing letter to the school after attending the whitney progam. he stated that it had taken him a decade to understand the implications of what he had been taught in the whitney program by its deconstructionist scholars. he attacked Pratt for teaching painting, which he then perceived as worthless and a lie. as we know he had a short but brilliant career as a conceptual artist, from miami, florida, trained in new york, and that his work is still used to convey the notion of the gift as an art form.

JSS's Paris studio with Madame X in the original 'missing' gold frame. The painting stayed in his studio for over 30 years until she died. in My Photos by
John Singer Sergeant’s Paris studio with Madame X in the original ‘missing’ gold frame. The painting stayed in his studio for over 30 years until she died.
Joan Mitchell in a Paris studio, 1957Life magazine photo by Loomis Dean

Joan Mitchell in a Paris studio, 1957

Life magazine photo by Loomis Dean

Robert Motherwell in his studio

Robert Motherwell in his studio

texturism:Willem de Kooning in 1952

Willem de Kooning in studio, 1952

Henry Ossawa Tanner in his studio, c. 1900   Smithsonian

Henry Ossawa Tanner in his studio, c. 1900   Smithsonian

Jackson Pollock, photo by Arnold Newman<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
“Abstract painting is abstract. It confronts you.  There was a reviewer a while back who wrote that my pictures didn’t have  any beginning or any end. He didn’t mean it as a compliment, but it  was. “     Jackson Pollock

Jackson Pollock, photo by Arnold Newman

“Abstract painting is abstract. It confronts you. There was a reviewer a while back who wrote that my pictures didn’t have any beginning or any end. He didn’t mean it as a compliment, but it was. “
     Jackson Pollock

Full Screen Image

Romare Bearden in his Long Island City Studio
with a photograph of his paternal great-grandparents,
c. 1980, photo by Frank Stewart”


Jacob Lawrence in corner of studio at 306 West 141st Street, Harlem, 1930s.”

here we are now years later in the 21st century and Painting has burst back onto the scene, having pushed back critical theory to where it dominates in the curatorial world but not in the art market. Paintings rise in the past decade can be traced to the taste for it by the collectors who decide what art will be art. Art Basel Miami Beach which debuted in full in 2002, was one major date of paintings return. In London the Saatchi Collection’s the Triumph of Painting shows began in 2005 just after the tragic fire in a London warehouse destroyed Saatchi’s entire collection of YBA Conceptual Art. This mimicked John Baldessari burning up most of his paintings and becoming a Conceptual Artist. Yet even Baldessari, who once taught Post-Studio Art courses, had returned to making traditional art by using fabrication. Twenty-first century collectors went wild for painting and sculpture, traditional art forms, over non-visual and information style Conceptual Art projects. Yet in Documenta, the Whitney Biennial, and other survey curatorial shows, Conceptual Art retained full power. Something also happened to Conceptual Art. The fabrication of sculpture using techniques from the 19th and early 20th century in Paris and Rodin’s studio returned. Collectors desired to see Conceptual Art sculptures that were to the standard of traditional museum art. Whereas in painting, that desire did not manifest itself, but allowed for painting to return to full force as an artifact of the height of western civilization culture. It was no longer marginalized and ridiculed and thought of as being the carrier of negative master narratives that had caused the world’s problems. Art in general no longer needed to be “emptied out” of its narrative content. the idea that narrative had to be destroyed was itself destroyed. Now we see art again being made in every possible way, without the conditions and restrictions or the domineering eye of Paris. MoCA in LA has three consecutive shows on painting. There are major curated painting shows in the works in London and Paris, some by world-class curators that will be in enormous commercial gallery shows. The other stranger in the room is this phenomenon called Conceptual Art Painting. It would be the child of a Painter and a Conceptual artist were it a person. Somehow, despite all the 40 plus years of railing against painting by Conceptual art, many formally trained painters who were then trained as Conceptual Artists have returned to pure painting. This is an area I would like to understand further and explore, while asking the question about how did this happen, or is it merely the obvious – the market kicked open the doors and the ghost of Conceptual Art shot away.  In the back of my mind is the London and New York based group know as Art & Language, who published major theoretical treatises that served to invalidate Painting in every possible way and regard. That they also explored both anti-painting and real painting is part of my immediate concerns. Also here I would like to point out that none other than the Italian Conceptual Artist Pierre Manzoni opened a gallery to show paintings by his friends. Manzoni also published a magazine that was a defense of the works shown in his gallery. I ask: how then did it become the case that American artists chose the strain of Conceptual Art that denigrated painting. As a serious joke I had asked this question almost 2 decades ago – surmising that it was because artists not born with the native talents of museum artists found Conceptual Art to be a way into art history. This of course would be impossible in music, where a music theorist or music historian who had no native talent but enjoyed a huge capacity for criticality, would be considered a musician by contracting actual musicians to produce every aspect of his work. except for the idea itself. Yet in visual art the notion of Artist as Producer was pushed to its limits by artists hiring talent and then showing the product as their own. Various logic was enjoined to produce answers to how this could be art by saying that architects do not building the buildings. my response was that when I visited the Art Institute of Chicago, and saw not only drawings by Le Corbusier, but paintings by him of his architectural ideas, and volumes of texts by him, that is not remotely like having an idea and then having others execute it. And that is the point – they are not similar, they work in a Conceptual Space not defined by the hand of the artist with the idea. I studied with Jack Goldstein, who was an artist as producer. I knew his paintings well before meeting him. When I saw them years ago I had no idea that he had not personally created them. Yet they were marvels of visual virtuosity. Yet now the individual hand is again highly valued, while contracted paintings continue to be made and shown as that from the Artist’s Studio. The reason for this in the cases where the artist did initially render their own work, is that they can no longer satisfy their collector market in a timely manner by making each work without an army of assistants. So here we return to where August Rodin was at the end of the 19th century. His studio had 50 assistants. Yet it is Rodin’s work that is seen as a major model of the true historical artistic achievement today.

“It has been speculated that Rodin had as many as fifty assistants working for him during these decades. (1900-1917).  In 1908, Rodin moved his studio and showroom to the Hôtel Biron in Paris. The rent was very low and Rodin was able to occupy much of the ground floor. Several other famous or soon-to-be-famous tenants were there, including writer Jean Cocteau, painter Henri Matisse, and dancer Isadora Duncan.” Cantor Foundation

“Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) seated beside his work in his studio (b/w photo) by Dornac (Paul Francois Arnold Cardon) (1859-1941) Archives Larousse, Paris, France”
Sam Francis in his Paris studio working on  his work entitled “Painting”, 1956
[Sam Francis in his Paris studio, working on his painting titled Painting]

duchamp’s paris studio 1917

Marcel Duchamp, Paris 1960. Photo by Vera Mercer

Paul Cezanne in 1904<br /><br /><br /><br /><br />photo by Emile Bernard

Paul Cezanne in 1904, photo by Emile Bernard

Duchamp: bride-stripped-bare-by-her-bachelors-the-large-glass

-Vincent Johnson

Los Angeles, California

July 29, 2012

Vincent Johnson is an artist and writer in Los Angeles

Vincent Johnson: The October Paintings

October Painting 1 and 2, Los Angeles, California by Vincent Johnson

The October Painting 1 and 2, Los Angeles, California by Vincent Johnson

The October Paintings - numbers 3 and 4

The October Paintings – numbers 3 and 4 – The October Paintings (a new paintings project by Los Angeles based artist Vincent Johnson) – the paintings are at the underpainting stage. They will be allowed to dry in my studio and then a layer of white glaze will be added. That will dry. Then I will work on each work, layer by layer, allowing each layer to dry, or be worked or added to as I desire. Our car Roxy is in the background, her back arched as she defies a mushroom to move.

October Paintings 3 and 4 - three of three

The October Paintings (a new paintings project by Los Angeles based artist Vincent Johnson) – paintings 3 and 4. Taking advantage of the fabulous weather in LA.

October Paintings 3 and 4 - two of three

The October Paintings – paintings 1 and 2 (a new paintings project by Los Angeles based artist Vincent Johnson) – with our cat Roxy playing in the back yard.

October Paintings 5 and 6, underpainted on October 31, 2013. Van Nuys, CA

October Paintings 5 and 6, underpainting – layer one – October 31, 2013. Van Nuys, CA

October Paintings 5 and 6.on 11.01.13 no .3 October Paintings 5 and 6.on 11.01.13

The October Paintings, 2013, under painting layers, Los Angeles, California, by Vincent Johnson

The October Paintings, 2013, paintings one and two, under painting layers, Los Angeles, California, by Vincent Johnson

The October Paintings (a new paintings project by Los Angeles based artist Vincent Johnson)

The October Paintings – paintings one and two (a new paintings project by Los Angeles based artist Vincent Johnson)

The October Paintings are comprised of nine 4×4 foot oil on canvas paintings. These are the largest canvases I’ve worked on since my return to painting after two decades of working with photography. I was trained as a representational painter at Pratt Institute and at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. My graduate degree is in critical theory and painting from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. The works are a continuation of my exploration of the history of art materials, combined with using the layering techniques of representation to create singular new abstractions. This is my first time working on several large-scale canvases at once. What I’ve noticed over the years is that every significant work I’ve made eventually finds its way into the world, often through unanticipated opportunity.  The works are visceral, visually rich, emotively engaging. They follow the six large-scale paintings in the COSMOS SUITE that is also ongoing and was started in 2012, and the NINE GRAYSCALE PAINTINGS in LOS ANGELES that I completed in 2011. In my work I have always sought to reach for and produce imagery that lends itself to a serious consideration of the ideas that come to the mind when approaching the image. For me these works seek to substantiate themselves in the world, to be both evocative and provocative, beautiful and remarkable in both concept and realization. As these works are fully developed I will continue to record the journey am taken on with them, until they are complete.

OCTOBER PAINTING - Scumble glazing, second phase of the paintings.

OCTOBER PAINTING – Scumble glazing, second phase of the paintings.

 october-paintings-scumble-glazed-and-drying-in-studio.

October Paintings – scumble glazed and drying in studio.

During the scumble glazing layer of the painting, where I knock down the underpainting colors so that the next layers can deliver a fabulous punch, I thought about the magnificient, enormous paintings I saw this summer at the Menil Collection in Houston, by Cy Twombly and Mark Rothko. The high seriousness of Rothko’s chapel paintings was amazing. Yet on that day it would be my discovery of the excellence of Cy Twombly as a painter of the primordial and playful sublime that captivated my attention in his purpose built stand alone large gallery space that showcased his work far beyond the circular swirls I know but care nothing for at all. It seems that when Twombly switched to specific subject matter – whether it be abstract landscape paintings, where he had simply marvelous deep rich green works, or his overall giant abstractions, filled with playful and powerful singular and exciting moments, both satisfied in wonderful ways. I was fortunate to make two trips to Houston this summer. The Late Byzantine to Today was a marvel to behold; I also had no idea that the Menil is a world class repository of Surrealist art. I was also privileged to see the James Turrell retrospective at the MFA Houston, which itself will be expanding soon with a major new building devoted to modern and contemporary art. The Menil Collection itself will be adding seven new individual artist showcase galleries, which combined with their traveling shows will make Houston as important a center for seeing art as anywhere in the US outside of New York. I am looking at the nine 4×4 foot October paintings in my studio. Its the largest body of work I have ever produced as a painter. I can see so many possibilities in this new direction. It gives me reason to continue to push to get my work into the world, despite all of the difficulties I have experienced. Painting makes me see beyond my own being.

Vincent Johnson

Los Angeles, CA

New Abstract Paintings: The Cosmos suite (2012)

Golden Dream (2012), part of the Cosmos Suite of paintings

California Toilet, Filthy Light Switch (2010) by Vincent Johnson. Archival Epson print (Private Collection, Miami, Florida). I provided this image as I realized its clear similarity to Golden Dream, which I completed a week ago in my studio in Los Angeles.

Two at Night (2012) from the Cosmos suite of paintings, Oil on canvas, 30×40 inches

Cosmos. Oil on canvas  2012 by Vincent Johnson

Cosmos Red Yellow Green. Oil on canvas 2012 by Vincent Johnson

Green God. Oil on canvas 2012 by Vincent Johnson

This new painting series is part of my ongoing exploration of painting materials and techniques from the history of painting. The works combine knowledge of painting practices of both abstract and representation paintings. The works concern themselves purely with the visual power that paintings can do through the manipulation of paint. Some of the underpaintings are allowed to dry for months; some of those are built dark to light, others light to dark. None are made in a single setting. Most are worked and reworked using studio materials. Each new series takes a different approach to the painted surface from how the paint is applied, to varying the painting mediums. This suite concerns itself with the layering of paint by building up the surface and altering and reworking the wet paint with studio tools.

Two larger paintings will be completed and photographed on Sunday, July 15, 2012 and posted here.

Vincent Johnson, Grayscale painting: The Storm (2012). Oil on canvas, 30×40 inches, created in studio in Los Angeles, California

Vincent Johnson, Grayscale painting, Snow White/White Snow (2012). Oil on canvas, 30×40 inches, created in studio in Los Angeles

Vincent Johnson is an artist and writer in Los Angeles

Vincent Johnson, Nine Grayscale Paintings, Beacon Arts Center, Los Angeles, (2001). Oil on canvas. Each panel is 20×24 inches.
photograph of silver paint on my hands in studio, Los Angeles, during the creation of Nine Grayscale paintings.
Vincent Johnson – in Los Angeles studio working on Nine Grayscale Paintings, 2011

Vincent Johnson

Los Angeles, California

Vincent Johnson received his MFA in Fine Art Painting from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California 1997 and his BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is a 2005 Creative Capital Grantee, and was selected for the Baum: An Emerging American Photographer’s Award in 2004 and for the New Museum of Contemporary Arts Aldrich Art Award in 2007 and for the Art Matters grant in 2008, and in 2009 for the Foundation for Contemporary Art Fellowship, Los Angeles. In 2010 he was named a United States Artists project artist. His work has been reviewed in ArtForum, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, Art in America, Art Slant and many other publications. His photographic works were most recently shown in the inaugural Pulse Fair Los Angeles. His most recent paintings were shown at the Beacon Arts Center in Los Angeles. His painting The Cosmos Suite: Celestial Storm was featured on Paddle 8 for the LAXART auction, November, 2013. Johnson also recently exhibited in the Open Project, Palace of the Inquisition, Evora, Portgugal, summer of 2013.
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5 thoughts on “Painting and Conceptual Art: Notes on the impact of critical theory on 21st century American Art

  1. Pingback: notes on the impact of critical theory on american art « fireplace chats | Nova Scotia Art | Scoop.it

  2. Pingback: notes on the impact of critical theory on american art « fireplace chats « larrymatthews

  3. Joseph Nechvatal (born 1951) is a post- conceptual art digital artist and art theoretician who creates computer-assisted paintings and computer animations , often using custom-created computer viruses .

  4. he defined the sublime as a combination of the grotesque and beautiful as opposed to the classical ideal of perfection. He also dealt with how authors and artists could create the sublime through art. Both the Hunchback and Notre Dame Cathedral can be considered embodiments of the sublime as can many elements of Les Misérables.

  5. In Conceptual Art and Painting, a companion to his Essays on Art & Language, Charles Harrison reconsiders Conceptual Art in light of renewed interest in the original movement and of the various forms of “neo-Conceptual” art. He discusses developments in the Art & Language movement since 1991, during which time there have been major retrospectives of its work at the Musée du Jeu de Paume in Paris, the Antonio Tapies Foundation in Barcelona, and PS1 in New York. Harrison also addresses larger issues of painting as an art, the representation of the female body, and the relation of art to its audience.

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