Notes on Painting in Disguise

George Baker

If some painting is still to come, if painters are still to come, they will not come from where we expect them.
— Yve-Alain Bois, paraphrasing Robert Musil#


I want to open up a series of notes—speculative and incomplete—on one trajectory that painting took after its supposed modernist demise. This is a story that today, when painting (especially abstract painting) has definitively "returned," we seem deeply to need. But to tell it, we will have to turn away from the postmodernist obsession with the proclamation of the End of Painting.# We also need to move away from the period's own "return" of painting in an abstract mode, the 1980s developments variously baptized "neo-geo" or "simulation­ism," in which histories of abstraction were programmatically sub­jected to the strategies of appropriation or the readymade.#

Given our focus on institutional critique and appropriation, sidestepping such developments might seem unfortunate. For the pairing—as opposed to the contradiction or opposition—of institu­tional critique and appropriation answers to key dialectics long in place in modernism and twentieth-century art: constructivism and Dada, the monochrome and the readymade, image and object, or painting and sculpture more generally. The coming together, even the precise hybridization, of such strategies in the art that character­ized postmodernism is a dynamic that needs to be traced.# But its key forms do not arrive only with neo-geo. The End of Painting, the "manic mourning"—as the critic Hal Foster once described neo-geo—of and for painting: such discourses have overshadowed and drawn attention away from another story that we might trace. I want to turn to a logic of painting's transformation as opposed to its supercession, repetition, or replication; to a history wherein we can see the beginnings of a larger dynamic involved in the extension of painting, the expansion of painting, the medium's contemporary alteration. I want to tell the story of a painting that went underground, a painting undercover.# I will call this dynamic "painting in disguise"—a form of painting that speaks in a double language, parading as other kinds of objects, erupting in other modes of practice.

Deep Purple, by Tom Burr, installation view at FRAC Champagne Ardenne, 2000
Deep Purple, Installation view at FRAC Champagne Ardenne, 2000
Courtesy of the artist and Bortolami, New York

Deep Purple

Tom Burr's early work engaged the history of minimalist sculpture, reclaiming in loosely adapted ways the objects, forms, and site-specific concerns of that movement's art. Upon the exhibition of Burr's crucial work Deep Purple in 2000, however, viewers were confronted with an inescapable dilemma. Now engaging a specific historical work, Richard Serra's Tilted Arc (1981), Burr meticulously appropriated the sculpture's form but shrank it in scale, transmuted its Cor-Ten steel to wood, and shifted Serra's honest rust to a blush of highly artificial, if not jarring, violet paint. Colliding the most notorious example of the strategy of site-specific sculpture (and perhaps the historical swan song of minimalist aspirations) with the postmodern modality of appropriation—a remake in the tradition of Sherrie Levine—Burr seemed to under­line the irreconcilability of the two key postmodern strategies themselves. Site-specificity and appropriation art, the singular and the multiple, the phenomenological and the semiological, the material object and the photographic copy: the torn legacies of critical art practice in the 1970s and 1980s emerged in tandem with each other, and Deep Purple functioned as an appropriation of a site-specific form now designed paradoxically to move, to be dis­mantled and reinstalled in "one place after another," to use the critic Miwon Kwon's well-known phrase.

Since its first installation in Germany and its reappearance a few years later at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Deep Purple has engaged me continually as a critic, as one of the crucial works of the decade. But my attempts to account for it have been plagued with problems, doubts, recantations. First focusing on the work's dual articulation of site-specificity and appropriation art, I found myself structuring a subsequent and more elaborate account of the work in the mode of Roland Barthes's Camera Lucida, in the form, that is, of what the philosopher called his "palinode." My most developed essay on the work consists of two parts, with the second taking back the conclusions of the first, moving from the engagements of Burr with minimalism and appropriation to the "world" of social reference and meaning that the work supports, a set of camp or queer dynamics and their relation to the avant-garde artistic tactics that I otherwise chose to highlight at first, and single-mindedly.#

And now I find myself looking at the work again. And seeing it differently. For nowhere in my earlier accounts of Deep Purple did I truly confront its coloristic intensity. Fixated on Burr's refer­ences to the history of minimalism, focused on the appropriation of a site-specific form, I was able only to discuss the general tendency of his work to confront images and objects simultaneously, and in their irreconcilability (volumes and surfaces, things and pictures, sculpture and photography). What seems to have eluded me most of all is the possibility that Deep Purple might best be described as a painting—or at least that it could be described as a painting, that it is a work invested as much in painting as in sculpture. "Painted all over a deep violet color," the artist has explained, Deep Purple was intended to be located "within a . . . consciously theatrical space of artifice."# That such artifice emerges primarily from the work's painted color now seems inescapable in several ways.

Artifice, of course, has been less crucial to the domain of the sculptural than it has been to painting, given the dalliance with inauthenticity and falseness that the painterly domain of illusionism long maintained. And painting lays claim to Burr's object in ways beyond its luminous chroma. First, Burr's work has fragmented the appropriated form of Serra's Tilted Arc, dividing its scaled re-creation into panels. An intervention into the site-specific object's concep­tion of a sculptural whole, as well as its anchoring into a unique place, these panels seem to emerge from the world of painting formats more than they do from sculptural precedent. A painterly format of panels and their arrangement in space breaks into a sculptural practice, literally breaking it up and carrying along with it other potentially painterly values including artificiality, miniaturiza­tion, and portability itself. Constructed of wood in the place of Serra's Cor-Ten steel, Burr's Deep Purple similarly shifts to a residu­ally craft format in which painting still at times seems mired, as opposed to the industrial paradigms and materials that have fully structured the experience of sculpture in our times. And of course, covered completely in a more or less uniform purple hue, Burr's work appears as a transformed variant of the most radical format of avant-garde painting, a monochrome—though purple ones, secondary- or tertiary-colored monochromes, are indeed rare.

In other words: staring me in the face, and for some time, has been a painting in disguise, an abstract monochrome some eighty-two feet wide. Appearing and reappearing in public space, the work might be described as a roadblock painting dressed up in the form of sculp­ture or, conversely, a painting functioning like a costume for a sculp­ture, a covering, an outfit, or a radiant skin. In this, if Deep Purple might be a painting, it must surely not be conceived in any essential or singular way. Instead, Burr's painting in disguise speaks in a double language. It is a painting only in part, not in whole. It is painting and sculpture, material object and coloristic image simultaneously, formats and mediums hybridized or, better, articulated together, like a duet or an ensemble, multiple (as opposed to singular) in all ways.

It is in this sense that Burr's focus on Serra's Tilted Arc appears to us in another or a new way. Bearing down on a sculpture that creates a hidden space behind it, that became notorious for creating a backside or an obscure nether region, Deep Purple appears as both a barrier and a device for concealment, an artwork with two sides, dividing space and experience in the same manner as it seems to speak with a forked tongue, in a double language. The paradox should be deeply felt: a sculptural form, a historical format from another medium, here carries the message and the logic of a newly emergent kind of painting and its contradictory language. As an art object, Deep Purple might be called two-faced. Such is the covert operation of painting in disguise.

Excerpted from Take It or Leave It: Institution, Image, Ideology. Copyright © 2014 by the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center, Inc. Published by DelMonico Books, an imprint of Prestel. The full essay can be found in the exhibition catalogue, available here.

Yve-Alain Bois, "Painting: The Task of Mourning," in Painting as Model (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990), 244.

The representative text would be Douglas Crimp, "The End of Painting," October, no. 16 (Spring 1981): 69–86.

For a history and critique of such work, see Hal Foster, "The Art of Cynical Reason," in The Return of the Real (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996), 99–124.

And it has a much longer history. For a definition of the neo-avant-garde of the 1950s and 1960s that highlights its combination of formerly separate historical avant-garde paradigms—readymade, constructed sculpture, monochrome, photo­montage, collage, serial grid compositions—see Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, "The Primary Colors for the Second Time: A Paradigm Repetition of the Neo-Avant-Garde," October, no. 37 (Summer 1986): 41–52.

The genealogy of such an understanding of painting has been implicit in a series of my recent essays. I refer the reader to "Paul Thek: Notes from the Underground," in Paul Thek: Diver, a Retrospective, ed. Elisabeth Sussman and Lynn Zelevansky (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art; Pittsburgh: Carnegie Museum of Art, 2010), 190–203; "Viva Hate," in Richard Hawkins: Third Mind (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 2010), 39–59; and "Mike Kelley: Sublevel," in Mike Kelley, ed. Eva Meyer-Hermann and Lisa Gabrielle Mark (New York: Prestel; Amsterdam: Stedelijk Museum, 2013), 345–65.

The essay is George Baker, "The Other Side of the Wall," October, no. 120 (Spring 2007): 106–37. An earlier version was published in Tom Burr: Extrospective; Works, 1994–2006 (Zurich: JRP Ringier, 2006), 57–88, and a different, much earlier text with the same title was published as a brochure on the occasion of the exhibition of the work at the Whitney Museum; see Tom Burr: Deep Purple (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 2002).

Florence Derieux, "A Conversation with Tom Burr," in Extrospective, 18. Burr concludes: "When I was trying to come up with this piece . . . the color preceded the actual form that the piece took. I wanted to create something that used this difficult and somewhat gothic color, and I wanted to connect it to both a particular 19th-century aesthetic, and the culture of the 'aesthete,' and at the same time echo large-scale post-Minimalist sculpture."