What an odd thing.  A painting is not finished when it is finished to look like something.  Not until the painting can speak with its own tongue, and say what the painter thinks it should be saying, is it done.  That moment may never come.

This is a complicated matter, one of provision.  Once a painting leaves a studio (or any work of art, for that matter) what little control the artist had drops to nothing.  Then what will the painting convey to its future witnesses?  How can we possibly predict this, when we are signaling from history (we are always signaling from the past) to a future wide and dark, and one that grows even murkier as the days and years from production to viewing grow greater, and greater?

John Berger writes:

All finished paintings, whether a year or five hundred years old, are now prophecies, received from the past, about what the spectator is seeing in front of the canvas at the present moment.  Sometimes the prophecy is quickly exhausted – the painting loses its address; sometimes it remains persistently true.

To the Future

But how can a painted image, mute, predict, and imagine into the future?  Berger thinks, and I am inclined to agree that “the stillness of the painted image speaks of timelessness.”  As long as we can see the object, be with the object in its entirety (or, for monumental works of art, at least have the idea that it exists in its entirety, if such is not immediately available) then we can rest safe in the belief that there can be a space that is available to past, present and future, one grounded some where outside of time.

What this says about artworks today is inflammatory.  Those works that require a background in contemporary events will fade into insignificance once the public has forgotten the root cause of their birth.  Polemic and outrage can be quite satisfying, but in the end, this is propaganda whose objectives are gained by bullhorn – if there is nothing inherently satisfying in the object as itself, if it cannot speak a painterly language in addition to its news of the day, it will be discarded.

Even more scathing would be the reaction, were this criticism to apply to “conceptual art.”    Consider the Walton’s “Untitled,” by Felix Gonzales-Torres, which is a rectangle of green hard candies, wrapped in cellophane.  The museum justifies its $7.7 Million purchase thusly:

In its use of everyday materials and simplified form, “Untitled” (L.A.) appropriates the minimalist approach developed by artists already included in the Crystal Bridges collection like Donald Judd and Dan Flavin,” said Crystal Bridges Curator Chad Alligood. “Gonzalez-Torres expanded on this vocabulary to address critical issues in the United States during the 1980s and ‘90s, such as the AIDS crisis, individual social responsibility, and the divide between the public and private spheres. The artist asked the public to take responsibility, to become a part of the work: this is art you can touch, take, and taste. Like many of Gonzalez-Torres’s works, its open-endedness incorporates the viewer’s interaction, both physical and conceptual, to make meaning. In its spirit of generosity, this acquisition particularly dovetails with Crystal Bridges’ mission to welcome all to celebrate the American spirit. And, because “Untitled” (L.A.) is a major work by one of the most important and influential Latino artists of the 20thcentury, it helps us tell an expanded story of American art.”

But of course, tasting one of these candies ($5,000 a sucker, on the cheap end) would be out of the question, now that they have been canonized by the curator.  Green sugar, inviting the visitor to “make meaning.”  And how is a visitor to know that a carpet of candy on the Walton’s sacralized floor is a commentary on “the AIDS crisis, individual social responsibility, and the divide between the public and private sphere…”  if that “meaning” wasn’t made for her by Chad Alligood from the Museum’s helpful academic staff?  Another example of an emperor without clothes.  If you need to justify a work with such commentary (and so employ an overly-educated art history graduate), then the work itself is limping, quite possibly already dead.

Claiming kinship between Gonzalez-Torres and Dan Flavin, for example, is … well, Flavin was trained and worked as a painter, journaled intensely throughout his life, and was intimately aware of the surroundings in which he put his light sculptures. They were unique to each enclosure, and a great deal of work went into the design, testing and production of each of his 750 works. Flavin was deeply concerned about effect and environment, he cared not a wit for political statement.  Comparing these to “Untitled,” is a bit like comparing a bird whistle to a transverse flute.  They each can make a noise, but which would you want to hear, and for a prolonged period of time?

Conceptual Art that Works

So when does conceptual art work?  Perhaps when the objective reality of its product and produce that sense of presence that touches on deeper, more universal themes. Doris Salcedo’s work with chairs, for instance – empty, evocative, we know what we know, when we look at them.  But in an imagined, hoped for future, when all is at peace, what will her installations say to the children at that time?  In their juxtaposition, their placement and their coloring, they are artful.  Attention has been paid to the presence of the object.  The artwork is overdetermined, not the shallow \ dimensionality of Gonzalez-Torres, it can breathe in itself, it is collected, it has presence, monumentality.

Which is all that we can wish.