But Mr. Cotter, most painters paint because they love painting

A couple days ago in the NYTimes, Holland Cotter, extremely agitated by the sorry state of the art world, ranted about the detrimental effect big money has had on art production, the lack of cultural diversity, the failure of art schools, the high rents, museums’ focus on the box office, conservative art criticism, and more. He even took a swipe at abstract painting as the most salable and least adventurous type of art being made:

Outside auctions, the marketing mechanics buzz on. Roughly since the end of the multicultural, postmodern 1990s, we�ve watched new art being re-Modernized and domesticated, with painting the medium of choice, abstraction the mode of preference. Together they offer significant advantages. Paintings can be assembly-line produced but still carry the aura of being hand-touched. They can be tailored to small spaces, such as fair booths. Abstraction, especially if color is involved, can establish instant eye contact from afar. If, in addition, the work�s graphic impact translates well online, where stock can be moved eBay style, so much the better.

Other traditional forms � drawing, photography, some sculpture � similarly work well in this marketing context. But an enormous range of art does not, beginning with film, performance and installation, and extending into rich realms of creative activity that defy classification as art at all. To note this dynamic is not to dismiss painting or object making, but to point to the restrictive range of art that the market supports, that dealers are encouraged to sell, and that artists are encouraged to make.

I agree with much of what Cotter says, particularly the lack of adventurousness among the top art collectors and the need to support independent art writing, but I would argue that most artists aren’t really being encouraged to make anything, and many painters, in an age of relational aesthetics and hybrid painting practices (painting+sculpture, painting+installation, etc.), are sheepish about the fact that they still make traditional paintings. Aside from a handful of super-successful stars or careerist up-and-comers, most abstract painters, if their work is at all difficult, are not painting because that’s where the money is, but, rather, because they love the process and challenge of painting.

Image at top: Mary Heilmann, Sunset Waves, 2013, oil on canvas, 18 x 24 inches. Courtesy of Hauser and Wirth.

Related post:
Holland Cotter: Unadventurous painting is everywhere (at least in New York) (2011)


Two Coats of Paint is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution – Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. For permission to use content beyond the scope of this license, permission is required.


  1. Yes. Well written, Sharon.

  2. Frank Gavere , MFA

    Yup, Ditto; everyones a Critic,& Everyone has an opinion..There IS much to decry,& equally much good work being done,You just have to look.

  3. Yes, I completely agree!

  4. Sadly this always needs to be said. Thanks!

  5. You can't just say artists use color to sell. That's like saying writers use adjectives to get attention. And making things tailored to fair booths just means something is human-sized.

    He dismisses abstract paintings with color as assembly line money-grubbers, and then says he's not being dismissive. Maybe I just took it personally – ha!

  6. I think Holland is right and this is why: Yes, there are a bunch of abstract painters working furiously to find a place for themselves visually that is challenging and fresh. I don't think Holland is discrediting those people. And I think a number of those who deserve credit here are of an older generation (40's-up). However, there are many more younger painters graduating each year who were never confronted with the existential challenges that the 20th century offered these painters. I'm not saying the younger generation doesn't have their own crosses to bear. It's quite difficult to push past the idea that everything has been done and is valid. Now students are mostly interested in how visually impressive can a painting be. And why not? In an age where a cultural fungus seeps between the layers of meaning, how can one avoid the flash. I would even implement my own work in this category, sadly. How many political artists like Leon Golub or Nancy Spero are out there? I don't think the argument is about abstraction, I think it's about content and honesty.

  7. Holland begins by highlighting a facet of how abstract painting functions in the market. It is an opinion and not the rule. I think it is a disservice to everyone involved in art to not question the mode one chooses to create within, especially if it has as much power through visibility as abstract painting. Focusing on being offended by an opinion of how one way of working is missing the forest for the trees, additionally I would also hate for the conversation to be sensationally colored to seem as though Holland blames the artist over market strategy.

    That being said there are extraordinary political and economical circumstances that can shape an artists ability to create work or even dream of its existence. On the educational initiative, students are not told, "Make work like X.", but they are told to make work that participates in a contemporary dialogue. The most accessible mode to unlock what this means is to look at what the galleries are showing (ie. selling), what people are blogging about (supporting their own agenda), and what the magazines are (being paid) to print. Sustainability is another thought that is bred; that one may have to compromise their vision because of a lack of financial or spacial support.

    To garner support artists share work in the hopes of connecting with other artists, galleries, and curators through digital images, and sometimes a blog like this. But what happens if an artists work is distorted or untranslatable into an image of the internet because it is too large, too small, too black, too white, too shiny, too dull, too offensive, too experiential, too unfamiliar. For some, extreme problems lead to compromise and repeating outdated modes of success.

  8. I started reading this article and got half way through and thought what the heck are you talking about, gave up on reading the rest.

  9. I'm not an intellectual. I wholly admit that. But what Mr Cotter is talking about is something that has existed for ever in art production. My own home is filled 99 percent with two-dimensional artwork. And I myself am a steel sculptor. It takes commitment to live with art that is overly large, heavy, rusty, and potentially injurious. I get that. And nobody is knocking my door down begging for my work. but it doesn't matter. I love to make sculpture. I'll keep making it as long as I'm physically able. And financially able to. It's extremely expensive to keep a steel shop running. And I lose money, I don't make money doing what I do. Again, I make what I like, and I fill my home and my yard and my life with what I love. And I think most people do as well regardless of what experts say to influence people and the art market. I think there's a middle ground between living with art and making art your life and that has been the case certainly longer than I've been alive. Trust the creative spirit to prevail over experts I suppose.

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