The big medium

“Put a screen in a museum and nobody wants to look at the paintings any more.” These are Gerhard Richter’s opening words in the catalogue to his superb new retrospective, just opened at Tate Modern. Does painting, therefore, need special treatment? If so, do the pluralistic, multi-disciplinary approaches of Frieze and the other art fairs and biennales that increasingly dominate the 21st-century art world help or hinder its cause?

When Frieze Magazine celebrated its 20th anniversary last year, a search through two decades of issues revealed that the word “painting” appeared around four times more often than “photography”, “film”, “drawing” or any other genre. Telling me this with wry amusement just before Frieze 2011 opened, the fair’s co-director Matthew Slotover added – it did not need saying – that he approached all media as equals, allowing no hierarchy between them. And certainly, while there are distinguished examples – David Hockney at Pace’s debut stand this year, inventive French-American Jules de Balincourt at Thaddaeus Ropac – painting is regularly dwarfed by other media at Frieze. Its frequent mentions in the magazine, though, underline how it remains, as a centuries-old discipline, a reference point.

“Too boring to discuss, the brush is now everything,” said Iwan Wirth of Hauser & Wirth, whose stable includes conceptualist Martin Creed, installation artist Paul McCarthy and videomaker Pipilotti Rist, when I once asked him if painting had a particular role. I know no significant gallerist who would answer differently. Yet the collapse between disciplines that characterises the contemporary art world has, paradoxically, made painting a case apart, because its formal qualities do not allow it that easy cross-over with other genres, and its contemplative pleasures risk being crushed by louder media. “What do we do with this thing called painting? It’s almost become its own category: there’s art, and then there’s painting,” This is what New York abstract painter Jacqueline Humphries, on show this year at Greene Naftali and at Stuart Shave, said recently in a call to “reinvent the discourse of painting”.

Albert Oehlen’s ‘Conduction’

Weighted by tradition and concerned with unchanging issues of form, structure and colour, painting itself moves on a slower timescale than other media. But Humphries is on to something, because the discourse around it is changing in the 2010s, with pronounced attempts in museums and commercial galleries both to show it in installation-influenced contexts, often alongside work in other disciplines, and to draw attention to its conceptual credentials.

London’s two current must-see museum shows both do this provocatively, in hangs that demonstrate influences from the jumbled aesthetic of the art fair. The Royal Academy’s Degas and the Ballet focuses on the great impressionist’s relationship with photography, with installations of 19th-century cameras and equipment, and a rare film of Degas, interspersed with his celebrated paintings. And Tate’s Gerhard Richter: Panorama juxtaposes Richter’s canvases with large-scale glassworks to create a dialogue about what does or does not make painting distinctive.

At commercial gallery level, the repositioning of painting is yet more marked, and is illustrated by several London gallery inaugurations and openings this week. In Savile Row, Luxembourg & Dayan launched its new space on Sunday with the European instalment of an ambitious two-part transatlantic exhibition – the gallery has larger premises in New York – called Grisaille: an assembly of works dominated by a grey tonality, whose starting point is to contest Delacroix’s assertion that “the enemy of all painting is grey”.

The London show begins with an altarpiece from Dürer’s workshop depicting four saintly figures, dramatising the formal uses of grisaille in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, alongside Picasso’s 1939 “Nu Debout et Femme Assise”– a classic wartime grisaille painting whose sombre linearity echoes the Dürer.

Picasso: ‘Nu Debout et Femme Assise’

As in many scholarly dealer shows, the context of old and modern masters adds gravitas (and dollars) to the new – here including an oil, enamel and latex abstraction by 28-year-old Ryan Sullivan, and fresh work by Piotr Uklanski and Dan Colen. Grisaille’s juxtapositions, though, go further.

Rob Pruitt’s “Pjätteryd Oil Painting: Flatiron NYC II”, for example, a cityscape in oil on Ikea inkjet canvas, is displayed alongside one of Richter’s 1968 “Stadtbild” pictures and, unexpectedly, an early cubist Fernand Léger, “Les Fumées sur les Toits” (1911) – exactly a century older than Pruitt’s piece and already prioritising a monochrome palette to emphasise structure and the city’s grid-like form. All three works play around ideas of figuration and abstraction, flat surfaces and the nature of representation, presence and absence – ideas made more striking by the lack of distracting colour. Grey, says Richter, “has the capacity no other colour has, to make ‘nothing’ visible”. From such a perspective, curator Alison Gingeras argues, “Delacroix’s snubbing of grey can be understood as an attack on more cerebral or socially engaged approaches to art making ... Grisaille reclaims the restricted palette as a potent pictorial method and a protean conceptual signifier.”

In Duke St, Thomas Dane inaugurated his elegant new gallery on Tuesday with the playfully titled Painting on the Möve, another attempt to situate the medium in an emphatically conceptual context. Dane represents fashionable British conceptualists including Michael Landy and Steve McQueen, but chose to launch with a double show of German painter Albert Oehlen’s charcoal and acrylic “Conduction” series, abstract monochrome doodles that reference computer art, alongside the urban, gritty, garish pop paintings, such as Karl Wirsum’s “Jazz Man” and Art Green’s “Sick Head”, by the little-known 1960s group the Chicago imagists. Oehlen’s and the imagists’ aesthetics are superficial opposites but a fascination with bad taste, and with it a bid for painting’s cultural and social radicalism, unites them, as well as concerns with process, method, humour – starkly cerebral approaches.

Oehlen is among several mid-career European conceptual painters with London openings this week: all must be seen in the context of Tate’s retrospective of Richter, an inescapable towering influence for this generation. Like Richter, Amsterdam-based Marlene Dumas, for example, makes paintings that question the nature of iconography and its political power and exploitation – Forsaken, opening at Frith Street on Friday, includes “Crucifixion” paintings and “Osama”, a portrait about the ambiguities of representation, painted in sickly but glowing subterranean hues.

‘Roy Orbison 1’ by Wilhelm Sasnal

The opening I most eagerly anticipate is Whitechapel’s retrospective of Wilhelm Sasnal (from Friday to January 1, then Haus der Kunst, Munich, February 3-May 13). Sasnal’s lively, unpredictable handling of paint – impasto, flat, hot, cool – makes him one of Europe’s most accomplished, interesting artists.

Born in Poland in 1972, he shares with Richter a traditional east European training and unremitting concern with contemporary possibilities of history painting; works at Whitechapel range from the near-abstract swirls of green, almost shockingly sensual, of “Shoah (Forest)” (2003) to “Agathe Kanziga Habyarimana” (2010), an ambivalent, photo-derived portrait of a beautiful young woman implicated in the Rwandan genocide.

But unlike Richter, Sasnal grew up when photography and film were already an uncontested part of an artist’s toolbox. He uses rather than argues with them – Whitechapel is showing four of his films – and it is almost as if they license painterliness. “The role of painting is different now because we are flooded with images,” Sasnal says in a catalogue interview. “Maybe it is somewhat of a paradox but I think that because of this deluge of images, painting, which is hand-made and unique, takes on a new significance.”

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