Published in Art Review, September 2018
The title of Isabelle Graw’s essential new book scatters anachronisms (‘love’, ‘success’) like mousetraps. While her definitions of such terms are both historically contingent and only ever cautiously meant, that wilful dissonance with the standard critical language on art is of a piece with her book’s unorthodox proposals on what painting might mean today. Even more striking is the cover itself, a wraparound reproduction of Antoine Watteau’s 1720 The Shop Sign of Gersaint, details of which are studded through the book, chorus-like, as chapter divisions. Graw’s book situates painting as a nexus of commercial and conceptual interests, just as Watteau’s painting-as-shop-sign served as both representation of the picture trade and its embodiment. The eighteenth century, during which both ‘painting’ and ‘love’ became institutionalised through art academies and Romantic discourses respectively, serves as one of the book’s historical touchstones. For Graw, it’s the portability of the painted canvas that makes it an ideal commodity, though of a special kind, whose uniqueness finds a perverse echo in the market for luxury goods.
Structurally, The Love of Painting embodies its own discursive strategy. Citing the significance of social networks for the authors of the medium’s ur-texts – from Leon Battista Alberti to Giorgio Vasari and André Félibien – Graw’s book intersperses interviews with prominent living artists (among others Charlene von Heyl, Merlin Carpenter and Jutta Koether), previously-published reviews and new essays. The implication of all this is to restage Renaissance notions of painting as a distinctively intellectual practice. There’s no chance, however, of Graw being taken for a traditionalist. The term ‘painting’, here, is framed as a Foucaultian formation, in other words a historical structure that changes over time, despite retaining certain essential and unchanging characteristics. Painting’s ability to absorb into itself elements of the very media that get blamed for its murder (photography, installation, conceptualism and so on) makes it both definitionally slippery and culturally and commercially vital. For Graw, it’s a two-way street, with ‘painting’ turning up, Zelig-like, as a rhetorical device in other media, whether it’s a tableau format in a video, or applied colour in three-dimensional work by Isa Genzken or Rachel Harrison. That this somewhat belies the term ‘medium’ in the title is of a piece with her positioning of painting as gathering force through contradiction.
All of which begs a question that Graw herself repeatedly addresses to her interlocutors: what exactly is painting? Central to her analysis is her discussion of the medium’s ‘vitalistic fantasies’ from which its singular commercial and conceptual powers derive. This ‘impression of animation’ is, as Graw argues, the real reason for painting’s regenerative abilities. From the quality of liveliness strived for by painters of the Renaissance, to the high modernist trope of the painting that paints itself, these effects of life force are, in a way, just that: mere effects that impute liveliness into dead matter. Yet Graw goes further, asking the ‘yes, but’ question that is the book’s crucial divergence from orthodoxy. Given that painting’s liveliness is mere effect, what accounts for its success? It’s in her analyses of ostensibly affectless painting practices, such as Wade Guyton and Gerhard Richter, that Graw’s argument is teased out most compellingly, as paintings tend to trigger vitalistic projections regardless of the artist’s intentions. Attempts to point up the deadness of the medium are, in other words, doomed to fail, due to the pesky viewer and her vitalistic fantasies. These, of course, are especially helpful in the market, and it’s a credit to this book that the lessons of commerce are brought to bear on Graw’s analysis, since the medium’s history is unthinkable without them. Painting’s illusions of vitality illustrate the capitalist fantasy of a commodity’s intrinsic value: that it is somehow alive. After all, it’s not a painting you’re buying, it’s “a Richter.” It’s love, I suppose, that makes it feel that way.