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Mattancherry Mix - Publications - Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke

“[T]he impression of what life … looks like in art”. Could there be a more pithy job description of what painting qualified as representational attempts to convey? Coming from Clement Greenberg, famous for his advocacy of abstract art to the exclusion of anything that smacked of the figurative or the descriptive (or worse, the merely illustrative), the formulation might surprise. Less so is its laconism about “life” in that when Greenberg did write about pictorial work that was representational it was to appraise the plastic values (line, colour, modelling) and rarely, if ever, to address the nature of the subject in question, let alone the subjectivity displayed or deflected by the painter. “Picture making, not just picturing or depicting”, reads one of his Detached Observations from 1976, fifteen years after the publication of Art and Culture, the collection of essays that crowned his reputation as the preeminent art critic of his time. But if Greenberg’s exacting formalism was more than perfectly matched to analyzing the purely technical dynamic at work in the abstract painting that he saw as the apogee of modernist art — the artisanal grappling with what he deemed to be the irreducible convention specific to the medium of painting, namely, flatness and the delimitation of flatness — his stress on picture making made picturing or depicting a blind spot when it came to art that was not abstract. As it happens, the year of Greenberg’s “detached observations” also saw the appearance of a manifesto of a very different kind: This was R.B. Kitaj’s gallant, generous and far from detached initiative to reclaim the glorious heritage of the representation of the human form as art historical sustenance for restoring the centrality of “an art in the image of people”, to borrow a phrase from his brilliant Introduction in the catalogue that accompanied The Human Clay, the exhibition he organized in London of a range of stylistically very eclectic works focussed on the depiction of the human figure. At the same time Kitaj was hardly oblivious to the achievements of artists who had pared the world down to its abstract “first principles”, exemplarily in the work of Mondrian, as evinced by a section on one of the tutelary figures of modernist abstraction in his catalogue devoted to figurative art. The Human Clay was a bid to break the stranglehold of the doxa that abstraction had become; for a diehard formalist like Greenberg, however, what mattered was the clay, irrespective of the human forms into which it could be shaped. It was irrelevant if artists so figuratively inclined were as preoccupied with plastic values as those for whom figural depiction was not a concern.

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