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Art & Skepticism

In response to:

The Perils of Painting Now from the September 24, 2015 issue

To the Editors:

While I am pleased to be quoted by Jed Perl in “The Perils of Painting Now” [NYR, September 24], I’m not sure I recognize his description of me as “bemused” and “bewildered” by “a lot of contemporary painting.” The problem may come from a loss of nuance when he quotes the following sentence from my 2009 Art in America article “Provisional Painting”: “Why would an artist demur at the prospect of a finished work, court self-sabotaging strategies, sign his or her name to a painting that looks, from some perspectives, like an utter failure?” One aim of this sentence was to put myself in the place of a viewer coming for the first time on the work of Raoul De Keyser, Mary Heilmann, or Albert Oehlen, a viewer who might have difficulty reconciling these “self-sabotaging” paintings with more conventional displays of skill and mastery. Since I immediately go on to link this approach to Cézanne, Picabia, Giacometti, and other exemplars of what I call the “foundational skepticism” of modern art, I imagined it would be clear to readers that I believed there were excellent reasons for such approaches. My identification of “provisional painting” issued out of my great admiration for the artists in question, whereas the more recent coinages Perl cites (“Crapstraction” and “Zombie Formalism”) are expressions, merited or not, of disapproval and snark.

Raphael Rubinstein
New York City

Jed Perl replies:

Perhaps it is Raphael Rubinstein who has given my words an insufficiently nuanced reading. He himself explains that he began his essay “Provisional Painting” by putting himself in the position of a skeptical gallerygoer. Which would seem to be his way of dealing with precisely the widespread bewilderment I was reporting. I never said that Rubinstein didn’t like the work of De Keyser, Heilmann, or Oehlen. As for his connecting their work with what he calls the “foundational skepticism” of modern art, this brings us to a fundamental disagreement. The thrust of my essay is that what Rubinstein calls the skepticism of Cézanne and Giacometti—and Maurice Merleau-Ponty memorably referred to as Cézanne’s “doubt”—was grounded in a sincerity that is alien to many (but by no means all) contemporary painters.