Raphael Rubinstein revisits Provisional Painting

Thank you, Art in America, for posting “Provisional Painting Part 2: To Rest Lightly on the Earth,” Raphael Rubinstein’s eagerly anticipated update to “Provisional Painting,” online this month.  Rubinstein takes a more experimental, philosophical approach, attempting to explain the why of provisional painting in nine numbered paragraphs and four interludes.

David Hammons, 2011 installation at L&M Arts, New York, NY.

Citing roots in Giacometti’s post-war portraits, an interview with Philip Guston, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, Tang dynasty historian Chang Yen-Yuan’s praise of the incomplete, and of course, the writings of Samuel Beckett, Rubinstein concludes that it’s the apparent nonchalance of abstract painting and the lack of pretense or fussiness that mark paintings as NOW. Here are a few of my favorite excerpts from his thoughtful article.

What are the consequences if a work of art is produced under the sign of
abandonment, negation, impossibility? Until very recently, these
questions sounded very old-fashioned. The existential selfquestioning, the doubt, the anguish, all those
hallmarks of mid-20th-century art, have been long put aside, superseded,
forgotten, laughed out of the room. With the eclipse of Abstract
Expressionism circa 1960, new modes of artmaking were discovered in
which the kinds of doubts that troubled artists from C�zanne to
Giacometti became largely irrelevant. They were replaced by a solid work
ethic, by an emphasis on production, by attention to surfaces (in both a
material and a psychological sense), by coolness, by social rather than
individual identity; in short, Giacometti’s gloomy, doubt-filled studio
was replaced by Warhol’s Factory.


Visiting the Brooklyn studio of one of the artists I wrote about in “Provisional Painting,” I get into a discussion about “impossibility.” The artist
thinks I’ve misunderstood something fundamental about his work. For him,
painting is never impossible�just the opposite. I realize that I have
committed one of the worst, if most common, critical (and curatorial)
sins: recruiting an artist into a compelling critical narrative while
missing something fundamental about his or her work.


And what if provisional painting is an implicit critique of human ambition, a kind of vanitas?

what if provisional painting is a response to the renewed
dematerialization of art that has accompanied the rise of digital
mobility, a way for painting to say “I, too, am just a momentary image
on a screen?”

But what if provisionality is nothing more than a
stylistic trope, rather than a matter of profound artistic conviction
and philosophical reflection? I keep rereading a sentence I came across
in one of Frank O’Hara’s art reviews: “It is simply a property of
Bonnard’s mature work, and one of its most fragile charms, to look
slightly washed-out, to look what every sophisticated person let alone
artist wants to look: a little �down,’ a little effortless and
helpless.” Could provisional painting, or at least some of it, be merely
the medium on a casual Friday?

Related posts:
Abstract Painting: The New Casualists
Reader Response to The New Casualists
Claude Viallat: Exploring Casualist abstraction in 1960s France
Are the days of a “casual, wonky posture” numbered?


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  1. How did I miss this? Thanks for posting.

  2. I have tried to connect provisionalism to the notion of Vattimo's "weak thought" where the ambitions of the Modernists is referenced without the power claims.But how long can this winding down go on?http://martinmugar.blogspot.com/2014/01/the-nihilist-condition-and-provisional.html

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