What Next for Art and the Artist?

The Development of Painting: What Next?

The question of what direction painting should take next has been gnawing at me. As a painter, I am not satisfied with learning a set of skills and simply applying them to make a pretty picture; this is easily done. I am concerned with making a contribution to the development of art, and with moving it in some direction. But these days that is not easy, and may not be possible, and it may not even be relevant. Painting has gone from realism to total abstraction and back. Is there a “direction” in which painting can be taken, or is it simply a matter of finding a unique and interesting style?

Western painting over the centuries before the impressionists was concerned with trying to make accurate representations of things and people. This is understandable, as there were no cameras, and such things needed to be drawn or painted to preserve their images. Some artists varied the way that was done, such as el Greco and Caravagio, and some artists did it better than others, but the point was still to create a recognizable image.

The impressionists used a looser painting style to manipulate light, which bordered on the abstract, but which always had the goal of producing an image. These painters broke from the tradition and opened a door to Picasso and his contemporaries to move on and try other things. Picasso, who, by the way, could paint and draw like the old masters from the time he was a child, worked for years to develop painting beyond what the impressionists had done. His early works reflect an impressionist influence, but quickly moved to a distinct style in the blue and rose periods. If Picasso had continued in this style, he would have been looked at as mere extension of the impressionists. He did not, and with Les Mademoiselles d’Avignon (1907), he single-handedly marked the beginning of cubism.

Picasso’s paintings, and all that came after (with one or two exceptions) were still intended to represent something. At the same time Picasso was working, other artists were making paintings ranging from those with abstract imagery, to those with no imagery. I do not know when all imagery was first taken from painting, but the most notable event was the invention of the “all over” paintings and the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock.

Pollock’s paintings are interesting to look at, and I like them, including those made before the drip paintings. He only made the drip paintings for a short time, and then went on to try and find something else, a quest that was largely unsuccessful before he died. But with the drip paintings he set painters free. There were no longer any rules of composition, and it was the act of painting that was important. The only resemblance these works have to anything that came before is that they consisted of paint on canvas. He only used a brush to cause the paint to drip, and painted on the floor, rather than an easel.

What is really important about the painters from the impressionists through Pollock, is that they were consciously working to find something new. Not just a unique style, but a new way to represent things and light, and a new direction for painting. Can we do that today, that conscious searching for a new direction, or are we reduced to simply finding a unique signature style and sticking with it?

Consider that in painting anything goes. We can paint (and sell) photo realistic work. We can paint (and sell) minimalist work. We can do the same thing with work in an impressionist style, and work that is purely abstract. So what is the challenge for the artist? The challenge is to find a unique style that is identified only with that painter, while not being an imitation of others. This is all we can do.