A Few Thoughts on Mediums New and Old

I focus on contemporary painting sculpture and architecture, the most traditional, visual art forms. Of course, many observers tell us that these have been surpassed or marginalized by new mediums. And it is certainly true that today there are many visual art mediums besides painting with claims on our attention. There is photography, conceptual art, video art, performance art, earth art, installation art, body art, computer art, internet art and more. The proliferation of mediums is just another manifestation of our expression of freedom. But to me, painting, sculpture, and architecture are still the heart and soul of contemporary visual culture. Only with them does spirit fully possess dead matter. For every doubting Thomas, they provide the most palpable proof of the living spirit.

Jules Olitski,
Jules Olitski, “Bathsheba Reverie”, 2001, 30″ x 40″, Acrylic on Canvas

Painting has a special place. What we call western painting, painting as the expressive statement of a great artistic personality, began with Giotto at the beginning of the fourteenth century. Painting has been the main vehicle for most of the great, visual art geniuses like Leonardo, Rembrandt, El Greco, Van Gogh, Picasso, and Pollock. And in the modern world where there are so many different mediums, painting provides a kind of anchor. For no matter how innovative, the painter must love to paint, to handle that most magical and metamorphic of all substances, and thereby master or invent a complex, craft-like discipline. This process gives paintings a certain aesthetic density, weight, and focus. So too, any new painting, no matter how original, automatically falls into a context including a tradition going back 30,000 years. Painting, like music, is universal, directly available without the barrier of language. Together with its portability and singularity, these features make paintings the ultimate prize in a free, global market place. Paintings are the most expensive and sought after of all objects. So too, the relative speed with which a great painting can deliver its message seems right for our hectic times and our impatience for expression. Anyone who has ever worked in a museum knows how much the public loves to see paintings, and, of course, every child loves to paint. Doubtless there will always be empty walls staring back at us asking for something great to look it. Hand made, intimate, unique, a painting offers a concrete spiritual presence directly expressive of the artist’s mind and body in a way that photography and digital-based mediums cannot. In a world inundated with repeatable, interchangeable and disembodied images, painting might be said to offer a touchstone for the really real.

Some of what I have said above can be said of sculpture too. But sculpture is far more demanding and great sculptures are far rarer. Clement Greenburg wrote that sculpture is the archetypal Modernist art because of its “autonomy”. Perhaps. But painting has usually been dominant. Sculpture lacks painting’s visabiltiy and, unless it be small or outdoor sculpture, is more or less homeless and utopian. Herein lies its grandeur.