Roger White on the Death-of-Painting problem

Roger White, Untitled, 2009, watercolor on paper, 12 x 8 3/4″

Roger White, Untitled, 2010, oil on canvas, 60 x 40″

Roger White, Untitled, 2010, oil on canvas , 60 x 40″

At Idiom, editor Stephen Squibb talks to Roger White, painter, writer, and co-founder of the journal Paper Monument about the evolution of his work, painting and writing. White’s solo show, which was selected as the Critics’ Pick for Best Painting in Time Out last week, opens at Rachel Uffner tonight. At one point, Squibb and White discuss the the mistaken notion that painting is dead. Here’s an excerpt of their conversation. 

Idiom: I�m always curious how the quotidian concerns of everyday living show up in an artistic process. Can you speak about how patterns figure into your work?
RW: Pattern implies both a repeating motif and a plan. You can sew a shirt following a pattern, using patterned fabric. In the paintings in my first show, there was an overlap between the two senses of the word: repetitive designs made using a template.

The recent paintings are based on several different drawings, functioning as patterns in the first sense of the word. But the important aspect for me is that they�re vague and interpretable in a lot of different ways: ie. they�re intentionally not very effective as patterns. Most of them are based on observational notes, beginnings of sketches of objects or spaces. That connection to representation is important to me. I do a series of watercolors from these, going back and adjusting the drawings, until I feel like there�s enough there to start a painting, but not enough for me to know what it will end up looking like.
My grandmother is a quiltmaker, and that was a big influence on early visual thinking. But I also think pattern and the decorative arts provide a good counter-model for abstract painting to the one we�re familiar with in �high� art: endless appropriation and adaptation without anxiety.

Idiom: That�s fascinating. Can you speak more about this contrast? Is it that there is an anxiety at work in the decorative arts? Or is it that appropriation and adaptation are expected in that field to the point the question of anxiety is moot?
RW: This is probably, a grass-is-greener phenomenon for the most part. I�m sure people who design textiles, for example, are as panic-stricken as people who paint abstract paintings. But I like to think they�re at least free from the teleological problem, or the death of painting problem, which we all seem to be morbidly attached to, still, after all these years.

Idiom: Agreed. It would be nice to read just once about the death of paisley, the crisis of plaid� Why do you suppose this attachment persists? Standing at a distance, painting seems very much alive, certainly in the material sense of the marketplace, so its death must always have been discursive, perhaps. And this death is still with us. still immanent, somehow. Is this just the disconnect between what is sold and what is talked about? Or is there something else at work?
RW: I don�t know, but oddly I keep thinking about it in relation to the vanitas theme in Dutch Golden Age painting. Still lives were at the bottom of the hierarchical genre pile. They sold, but were they as meaningful as the portraits, the history paintings? So a little bit of death went a long way towards elevating those domestic scenes, and legitimizing the pleasure the viewer could take in admiring the fruit, the lobsters, the gleaming silver. Similarly there�s a sort of conceptual solidity � and maybe moralism? � in constantly evoking the specter of The End.

Roger White,” Rachel Uffner, New York, NY. Through Dec. 19, 2010.


  1. Thank you for this wonderful article. And I love this site.

  2. "painting seems very much alive, certainly in the material sense of the marketplace"

  3. I think the best thing ever to come of the declaration: "Painting is dead" is it's awesome use as interview questions! What better way to say, "why paint, why now?" thanks again for a good article!

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