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Ross Neher’s recently published book, Blindfolding the Muse: The Plight of Painting in the Age of Conceptual Art, has all the makings of a curmudgeon’s acerbic longing for the days when painting was the only game in town, before “ideas” were privileged over the visual. Not short on wit and one-liners, Neher’s book envisions a solution for painting’s return to the unique status it once held. But the author refrains from excessively condemning Conceptual art for bringing down painting. Not written in the dialectical fashion popular with many critics and historians, his is a lucid account of what does and does not constitute a painting.
Integral to his definition of painting is the distinction that must be made with drawing: “drawing is concerned with the relationship of line to the second dimension, painting with mass to the second dimension . . . and mass is always a mass of color” (pp.12,16). In a painting, the surface is replaced, rather than “marked,” as is the case in drawing. The viewer, upon encountering a drawing, does not expect the same kind of visual homogeneity that is characteristic of a painting. It is not necessary for the background in a drawing to be rendered—the paper is the background and the viewer fills in the space between the marks in order to determine depth. In painting, everything is represented in pigment. Thus, “in a drawing, a line divides areas; in a painting the edge is what serves as a means of demarcation . . . a drawing that has no lines, only edges, would be a painting” (pp.12,13).
Neher is careful not to attribute qualitative valuations in distinguishing the two media, citing drawing’s significance in historical, practical, and pedagogical terms. His purpose is to reveal what are ostensibly drawings done in paint. However, rather than criticizing a slew of contemporary “painters” for their drawings on canvas, Neher chooses to look at Cy Twombly, who has struggled with and succeeded (albeit, not all the time) at blurring the boundaries between the two disciplines. Paying homage to Twombly’s Ferragasto V (1961), Neher notes the scale of the brushstrokes in relation to the scale of the work. The result provides the reader with a paradigm of painting done well, rather than a means to stigmatize others.
Indeed, the book as a whole is much more nurturing and supportive of what Neher calls “real painting” than it is a tirade against Conceptual art. Neher tries to protect the ideas of inspiration and craft in painting. Conceptual artists, he claims, have blindfolded the muse. While not exactly removing her presence entirely, they have taken significant steps to limit her active participation. However, rather than dwelling on how the muse has come to be marginalized, Neher tells painters how they might cope with the predicament.
In his introduction, “War of the Wor(l)ds,” Neher cites Clement Greenberg’s reductive definition, along with the legacy of Cubist collage, as forcing artists to blur the distinctions between “art” and the “real world” and subsequently the boundaries between the individual media by using real world materials. By decreeing an end to illusion in favor of the flat plane, Greenberg encouraged artists not interested in the equation of medium with subject matter to search elsewhere. Though Neher returns to an account of the flaws of Greenbergian formalism in his brilliant chapter on Jasper Johns, the ways in which Greenberg’s legislation precipitated Conceptual art are not given prominence.
Neher cites two other means by which Conceptual art has hurt painting’s uniqueness. First, in a chapter on Brice Marden and color, he writes: “to know a work is a painting, we no longer need look at it; we need merely to know whether it is so deemed by the artist and/or the art world. . . . For painting to be taken seriously by the New York art world, it had to both be and not be painting as traditionally defined; tribute to its ‘objecthood’ had to be paid” (p. 35). While he deems further attacks on the elitism of the art world to be unnecessary, Neher shies away from analyzing how the art world’s performative declaration “it is a painting because we say so” has hurt the medium. Second, Neher laments Duchamp’s victory: the insistence of the importance of language in art. Language, as used by the Conceptualists, has diminished the significance of metaphor, leaving in its place the literalism of the immediate installation and performance art.
Perhaps Neher is fearful that by equating literalism with the ephemeral and prosaic, his preference for metaphor will seem overly romantic. But in avoiding confrontation with specific Conceptual artists, he places the burden of responsibility on painting. This is both refreshing and dangerous. On the one hand, he refrains from the petty attacks one would expect a formalist painter (not in the Greenbergian sense) would make on Conceptual art. Rather than promote painting at Conceptual art’s expense, he challenges painting to be better. He calls on painting to embrace its tradition, unlike Greenberg who saw history in evolutionary terms only. And in looking at the work of Catherine Murphy and Rackstraw Downes, he praises two artists for being innovative within the restraints of pictorial convention, rather than resorting to novelty.
Neher’s attempt to rescue painting is like a boxer who hires a strength and conditioning coach, but not a trainer. In order to succeed, one needs strength, purpose, and vision, but one also needs to be able to throw some punches. One also needs talent and knowledge of craft, two things that Neher alludes to briefly in his last two chapters. Perhaps feeling that he covered the issue of talent in his 1989 article for Arts Magazine entitled “Van Gogh and the Problem with Tradition,” Neher mentions only that “anyone can smear paint or have an ‘idea’ and call it art. Neither requires any appreciable talent” (80). Knowing that craft has pejorative connotations in today’s society, Neher broaches the subject conservatively. He dismisses the notion of craft as lying solely in the realm of blue-collar work by evoking the name of Leonardo. But instead of really promoting it over “concept,” he chooses to discuss painting’s victory over photography, which is akin to today’s Braves fans celebrating their 1914 World Series trouncing of the Athletics.
Though Neher’s book is too short to provide a full assessment of the plight of painting in the age of Conceptual art, this does not diminish the pleasure or significance of the text. Neher, writing as a practicing painter, and a darn good one at that, desires his book to be read in one sitting. While he may overestimate the attention span of some of his audience, Blindfolding the Muse reads as a 90s The Painted Word—focused, accessible, and entertaining, especially his chapter “Dead Egyptians, Lively Greeks.” While it is ironic that a book that claims “there is no substitute for seeing” contains only three pictures in the back (this is perhaps due to publishing costs, and should not be construed as a fault of the author), the book is significant for its pedagogical lessons in how to see. A successful painter must know how to look at painting (whereas a successful Conceptual artist must know how to read). Whether it is Marden or Mondrian, de Kooning or Degas, Neher teaches seeing. His insights into specific works and artists in general are exquisitely phrased and beautifully clear. For Neher, description is privileged over theory.
Lastly, and perhaps paradoxically, Neher’s book will positively affect Conceptual art. Since Neher does not see painting’s success and Conceptual art’s success as mutually exclusive, his account allows for Conceptual art to improve the foundation upon which it stands. All media tend to encroach on one another’s territory. When one chooses to redefine itself, the others are forced to do the same. In many ways, Conceptual art has gotten sloppy by simply calling itself such whenever it chooses not to be painting. This has hurt Conceptual art as much as it has hurt painting. By defining and refining the medium of painting, Neher has called Conceptual art to the stand. It must explain why it has blindfolded the muse.