Representational Painting and Punk

David Johansen, Dee Dee Ramone and Alan Vega in the Foreground at Max's Kansas City, 1974 Courtesy of the artist and Steven Kasher Gallery

Painting may never have died completely but there was a moment, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when its dominant conventions felt hopelessly inadequate.  Abstract Expressionism, with its emphasis on autonomy and the sublime, held little interest for a radicalized avant-garde; conceptual art, which could more easily incorporate music and performance, seemed like a better way to respond to new political currents and the counterculture.  Moreover, for many intellectuals energized by the New Left not only abstraction, but all painting, fell under suspicion.  Whereas Clement Greenberg and his formalist cohort had emphasized the revolutionary potential of Modernism, a new generation of art historians with Marxist inclinations, such as T.J. Clark and John Berger, saw the entire tradition of oil painting, with rare exceptions, as a means to reinforce state power and celebrate bourgeois acquisition.   As Berger famously lamented, there was little difference between the language of oil painting and the language of advertising.

It was only a matter of time, however, before artists began to see this parallel, between the visual language of painting and that of commerce—between the visual language of painting and that of commerce—as the point of departure for a new kind of art.  One important element of this transition was the convergence between the art world and the world of popular music that started in the late ‘60s.  In downtown New York venues like Max’s Kansas City, prominent art-world personalities encountered radical musicians working within the generic conventions of Rock-n-Roll, such as the New York Dolls, Blondie, Iggy Pop and The Velvet Underground.  As punk music emerged in the early 70s, painters began to embrace popular culture, shirking the formalist proscription on representational content.  Painters such as Chuck Close and Audrey Flack played with the visual language of photography, while other artists such as Cynthia Carlson embraced an aesthetic centered on “decorative” commodities, like floral wallpapers and textiles.  By incorporating mass-market imagery into painting, these artists reinvigorated their art form.

Of course, Andy Warhol and the Pop artists of the ‘60s had mined this territory before.  But their concern had rarely been the tradition of oil painting since they tended to focus on techniques of mass-production, such as lithography.  A more prescient figure was Philip Guston, who abandoned Abstract Expressionism during the 1960s in favor of eerie images of hooded klansmen.  His paintings drew on both comic books and photojournalism, pleasure and politics, thus anticipating some of the most vibrant art of the Seventies.  Like a proto-punk garage band, he was an early avatar of an emergent sensibility.

The circles of people associated with punk rock and with New Image Painting were hardly identical, but there was some overlap.  Many of the representational painters spent time at CBGB, where Patti Smith, Richard Hell, Tom Verlaine, and many others were pursuing divergent strands of the new kind of music.  Thomas Lawson, an expansive, articulate champion of representational painting, consciously channeled the spirit of punk in his influential paintings.  In a lecture given at The Glasgow International Symposium: Painting as a New Medium in 2006 Lawson recalled that during the 1970s he conceived of his painterly technique as being, “analogous to a very fast song by the Ramones… a very simple idea that could be executed very quickly with minimum fuss.”  Like the songs of the Ramones, Lawson’s paintings, which often re-created tabloid photographs, were brutal but accessible.  Both Lawson and the Ramones assumed a stance towards mass culture that was uncomfortably ambiguous, just a few steps away from the sensationalism and bubblegum pop that they ostensibly critiqued.

In many ways, both punk musicians and the New Image Painters were responding to the same synchronic tensions. Both sensed that the dominant artistic paradigms were decadent; punk musicians who reviled arcane psychedelia bore a similarity to the emerging painters who defined themselves in opposition to Abstract  Expressionism.  As a way of distancing themselves from these outdated norms, both punk musicians and the new representational painters prized intensity over technical proficiency; they delighted in the amateur handling of brushstrokes and instruments alike.  In terms of affect, both embraced pleasures that were not sanctioned by the sunnier elements of the counterculture, including rage, power, and crudity.  At the same time, neither punk nor the new painting were joyless; they found success in part because they were often a lot of fun.  Punk shows were famously collective, cathartic experiences; similarly, 1970s painters like Lawson created art that was easily comprehensible and alluring.

Like the punk bands that shared members and provided audiences for one another’s shows, the New Image Painters also benefited from a sense of comeraderie.  At first, they exhibited together in small galleries in Soho.  Then, in the late seventies, their representational canvases were featured in a series of large-scale group shows uptown, including “New Image Painting,” a 1978 exhibition at the Whitney.  But like punk music, this new painting retained a critical, antagonistic spirit even after its consecration by the establishment.  Developments in the ‘70s made a lasting impression on the tradition of oil painting.  As an art form, painting was no longer an exercise in the tasteful sublime; the new painting approached vernacular idioms with an avant-garde thoughtfulness.

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