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Painting in the Age of Digital Reproduction

Screenshot of Google image search of “painting,” 2013

There is a conversation I keep finding myself in when I am with other painters.  It is the discussion of digital reproduction.  Take, for example, the following that a painter friend of mine said (paraphrased):

 

I live in New York, a city that has many painters.  In fact, it wouldn’t be unrealistic to say there are more painters in this one city than any other city at any other time in human history.  I visit my friends and see work in their studios all the time.  Every week, I go to gallery openings and art museums.  Not only am I surrounded by painters, but I have nearly unlimited opportunities to see paintings in person.  But – here’s the problem:  most of the paintings I see are not in person.  Instead, they are digital reproductions that I see online, on my computer and on my phone.  If someone like me experiences most painting virtually, there isn’t much hope for any painter.  The biggest audience for my paintings is now the digital audience, no matter how many shows I am in nor how well trafficked they are.  I think all painters are reaching a point where the virtual world is eclipsing the physical world of paintings and they are not sure exactly how to respond or sure what the real implications of this change are.

 

Yes, we are talking about the painting’s fear of technology, perhaps.  It is no secret that painters can be Luddites at times.  Were we not, we might have gone into new media already!  Here we are, still pushing oil paint on canvas, or doing something similar, when the option to work in pure digital mediums dangles right in front of us.  Most painters will rightly insist that there really is no substitute for seeing a painting in person.  All manner of things are lost in the translation to digital reproduction:  hyped contrast, temperature shifts, loss of factura, and disassociation of scale.  Also missing is what Walter Benjamin referred to as aura, that exotic quality of authenticity that causes you to walk up to the work with just a little more reverence and to look at it with just slightly more attentiveness.  The aura that comes from the physicality of the painting can inspire something spiritual.  When a painter goes on the Piero Trail, they are doing something quite different from googling images by Piero della Francesca.

 

Digital reproduction and, more generally, photoreproduction was not always this slick.  When Ad Reinhardt made his “Black Paintings” in the 1960s, he knew that reproductions of the works in art magazines of the day would all be simplified into solid black rectangles.  He was essentially saying, “See my works in person or not at all!”  True comprehension of how the size of Reinhardt’s paintings related to human scale or how the composition broke down into small changes of value and temperature were only accessible when viewing the paintings in person.  Today, while the size relationship is still problematic, there are digital reproductions of Reinhardt that start to capture the slight color contrasts.  The reproduction has gotten closer and closer to the original with time.

Ad Reinhardt, Abstract Painting, oil on canvas, 60 x 60 inches , 1960-1.

Besides Ad Reinhardt, there is another painter I can think of that has a decidedly strange relationship with photoreproduction.  I recently saw Ed Ruscha’s “Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Fire,” a large, varnished oil on canvas, at the Hirshhorn’s Damage Control exhibit.  I had seen it many times in reproduction and at this point must have run into dozens of Ruscha’s paintings in museums.  In short, I was familiar with his work.  The gap that normally exists between the original and reproduction in painting was essentially nil in “Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Fire.”  It was disappointingly exactly as I had imagined it.  The flatness of the paint and the uniformity of edges clearly led me to believe that Ruscha was in fact painting so as to make the work photogenic in an optimal manner similar to those of commercial graphic designers.  Norman Rockwell paintings for the Saturday Evening Post have a similar quality:  a oneness between the copy and the original that anticipates mass distribution through print.  Ruscha, Rockwell, and perhaps many other pop art and realist painters seem to suffer the least from reproduction but simultaneously reward gallery visits the least, as well.  Nothing is lost in translation.

Ed Ruscha, Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Fire, oil on canvas, 53 ½ x 133 ½ inches, 1965-1968.

These reproductions extend painting into new valences.  The painting can be a canvas, a postcard, a print in the paper, or a jpeg online.  Sometimes the jpeg is given star billing on a minimalistic artist website.  The image is large and centered with a neutral ground to frame it.  Below the image is a small caption with the title, year, medium, and size.  This presentation is not really so different from a white box gallery.  A few artist websites even present the jpegs as if they were framed canvases on a wall.  They even cast a virtual shadow!  Sometimes the jpeg is thrown into the river.  On a Pinterest or Tumblr wall, the image can lose all traditional context, presented in a kind of postmodern salon-style exhibition.  Finally, the jpeg might be viewed not just on a standard computer monitor but also on a tiny mobile device screen or blown up on a digital projector.  My main concern here is less of other painters but of the general public.  They become helpless to understand the physicality of the painting.  Show them a painting on a phone with the dimensions omitted from the caption and each person will have a different assumption as to how big the painting really is.  Actually, professional painters may not be much better.  Only recently did I discover I had grossly overestimated the size of some Stuart Shils drawings, after having viewed them exclusively online.

Stuart Shils, untitled drawing, graphite on paper, approximately 8 x 10 inches, ca. 2013.

That physicality, as painters know, is quite important.  We have a haptic knowledge of the paint.  We favor one pigment over another of the same essential hue just because one is more or less opaque than the other.  We favor acrylic or oil in part because of the different rheologies when they are brushed out.  It changes how big the marks will be and how the marks sit on and next to each other.  We argue over white paint!  These material and tactile concerns ultimately have a big impact on how the paintings actually look in the end.  If we could have found a way to make the same images in photoshop, with a camera, or really with any other medium, we probably wouldn’t be painting, but instead would be using that other medium.

 

For better or worse, digital reproduction is making painting feel more like a form of variable printmaking.  The actual painting is increasingly a kind of master file to be conserved, archived, documented, and re-documented every time the technology improves.  The painting is becoming like an oak woodblock or copper etching plate.  It alone is the source of the final image and the idiosyncrasies of the material and the painter’s hand are baked into the image.  Like all printmaking, the possible audience is now larger and the artist’s control of viewing conditions decreases.  Increasingly, paintings need to be successful and arresting not just in person, but also in all the valences of reproduction.  One of the things I do when I am near finishing a painting is to take a snapshot of it on my phone.  Part of my current criteria for a resolved painting is that it look appealing even when it is the size of a postage stamp on an LCD screen.  For painters applying for teaching jobs, fellowships, grants, residencies, and juried shows, these jpegs are currency.

 

Finally, there is a social dynamic.  I keep up with my painter friend in New York mostly through the internet.  I have few opportunities to see his work in person, so I visit his web site.  His actual life and artistic progression is documented on the site through the reproductions.  Similarly, he keeps track of me through my web site.  We may not post all the work we make and may be cautious to post new work that has not yet been physically exhibited somewhere, but unlike the generation of painters before us, the idea of posting nothing at all does not seem to be an option.  Also, it is becoming increasingly common for me to meet fellow painters in person only after a prolonged period of time of seeing their work mentioned in blogs and their comments on other people’s Facebook posts.  Eventually, one will run into these painters in a gallery or museum and do a double-take.  “Isn’t that so-and-so, who is friends with so-and-so, who I once liked a comment by a few weeks ago?” you’ll think to yourself.  Not only are the paintings becoming more and more an online entity, but the actual social network between artists that used to be limited to individual cities is expanding and fragmenting simultaneously.  Walter Benjamin, when talking about the aura around original paintings, claimed it was rooted in ritual.  These were rituals that recognized community.  On the internet, the painting community revolves around these digital reproductions.  They are not merely disseminated, but commented on and discussed.   Just as in a brick-and-mortar gallery, this is how artists of similar interests can meet each other.  Also, it certainly feels like a ritual to visit art blogs like Painters’ Table as if it was a kind of daily bread.  What better way does a contemporary painting have to ritualistically say, “I exist,” than to upload new jpegs?

 

Digital reproduction poses real limitations and challenges to painting, but it also allows the scope of what painting is to expand.  Unfortunately, there may not be a way to avoid the downsides of digital reproduction.  The materiality of painting is not really in a state of existential crisis, just compromise.  I still am unsure exactly what the long-term impact of digital reproduction will have on painting.  What I do know is that painters have been largely proactive with embracing digital reproduction as a way of sharing painting and this sharing has only strengthened social ties between painters, especially ones who live great distances apart.

 

Bibliography

 

Benjamin, Walter, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1936.

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