The Painting never dries… Reflections over paintings in the Astrup Fearnley Collection

in these same years there were also important developments in painting — developments due, in part, to late-modernism’s awareness of it being in crisis, together with the current interest in pop-art, surrealistically inspired new figuration and growing conceptualism. In this exhibition we would like to spotlight two directions painting took during this period, and show how it developed, in some measure, along and between these two axis. At the one extreme, we find artists who transfer elements from everyday life directly into their paintings. This conception of art is viewed as it abuts onto the subjective statements of the artist, as to what they intend to communicate: be it an observation, a vision or a life-experience.

Andy Warhol and his play with the everyday icons of our life-world was the point of departure for this direction, which we can follow throughout the 1960’s. It is represented by the likes of Gerhard Richter, David Hockney, Edouardo Arroyo, Patrick Caulfield and Erró. Warhol brought into art the aesthetics of advertisement, film stars and political persons, with the intention of holding up a mirror to modern society. In the painting Multicoloured Retrospective, he has combined several earlier motifs such as Mona Lisa, Marilyn Monroe and Mao, in order to accentuate this intention, while yet still remaining neutral to the motifs.Moving in the other direction was Francis Bacon, whose paintings deal with his own psychological experiences and existential anxiety. He often drew upon literature or philosophy, as in Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus. The dramatic Aeschylus trilogy inspired him to create a complex and intense picture with references to both Surrealism and Cubism. We can make clear connections between Bacon and the Jugoslavian artist Mirodrag Dados’ complex, surrealistic depictions of human suffering and destruction.

At first glance, the paintings of Sigmar Polke can look rather like subjective expressionistic narratives. Yet Polke’s paintings are self-conscious commentaries over Modernism’s painting tradition, where the demand of artistic authenticity was of vital importance. His large triptych Apparizione or Apparition is a sort of ‘ultimate painting’, in the sense that the chemical processes themselves have prevailed and piloted the final result. Polke has merely been the initiator. This work can therefore be interpreted as the telos of representation in painting. At the same time, Polke’s cunning technique can be understood as the final solution to the demand for autonomy in art.

Several of the works in this exhibition find themselves caught in the fray between Bacon’s personal narratives and Warhol’s mirrorings. On the one hand, R. B. Kitaj’s picture Juan de la Cruz is a personal narrative about the fate of an African-American helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War. Meanwhile, Juan de la Cruz is also a well-known Spanish martyr, whose name and fate are contingently tied to that of the pilot’s. On the other hand, the seriousness of the narrative is far from clear. In the picture’s midst, there is a cartoon figure gazing out with an anxious expression. As such, the picture offers an anomaly that refuses to be dissolved into a unified interpretation. The fragmented pictorial grammar quotes and alludes to numerous visual sources; the expression hovers in a no mans’ land between an expressionistic insistence upon subjective, authentic communication and the more distanced and ambiguous sensibilities of pop art.

Today’s art carries an inheritance from appropriative pop art as well as from subjective, expressionistic painting. Yet artists of today will not be subject to conventions dictated by the materiality of painting, the aesthetics of formalism, or the metaphorical or narrative function of the work’s content. Present-day pictorial practice defies limitations and gladly ventures into unknown territory; conventions can function as goals just as well as means, if the artist so wills it. It is often the abject, impure synthesis that is most valid, because it can take nothing for granted. For example, Chris Ofili has no scruples about combining glitter, images of super-stars and dried elephant dung, in an attempt to comment upon his complex multi-cultural reality.

This freedom from rules is also expressed in the painting Don’t Wake Daddy, where Martin Kippenberger‘s point of origin coincides with pop art’s cartoon aesthetics. The story is told in several transparent layers, and the picture lacks hierarchy and logical structure. Matthew Ritchie also attempts to explode his limitations. With the help of computers, his high cosmic painting challenges the laws of physics. In contrast to Mondrian, who sought to discover the truth about the world by employing a limited vocabulary, Ritchie’s models expand in all dimensions. He does not try to establish a traditional scientific epistemology; rather, he seeks to grasp the sum of knowledge available in our time. Although Ritchie prefers to make spatial installations with pictures spread out in sculptural formations, he conceives of painting as the most important and interesting medium because, as he argues, it is that artistic means which most closely parallels cerebral activity.

The artist Mari Slaattelid examines the materiality of painting. In the works Protective and Spegel/Mirror, she moves the pictorial plain of the painting both into and out of the motif, pushing it up onto the outer surface. In this way, the photograph addresses the limits of painting. Alternatively, photographs play a narrative role in the complex paintings of Fabrice Hybert. He photographs himself and his prototypes, and attempts to follow principles of homeopathy in order to make pictures that can function as an antidote to religious and cultural unrest. By contrast, disorder and turmoil take centre stage in Bjarne Melgaard’s watercolours, drawings and paintings. Melgaard protests against established art forms and attempts to artistically extradite his authentic self in a pictorial language which, in spite of its protest against established art forms, has references to well-known artists such as Edvard Munch, an artist who also ruminated over personal feelings in his paintings.

Is it possible to summarize contemporary painting? Can we say anything about its general hallmarks? In a period where many have debated the justification for the continued existence of painting, interesting developments have continued to occur in the medium. Starting from Andy Warhol’s transferred images, painting has developed along with conceptual art, installation, photo, video and graphic art. While the modern painting comments upon its traditions and problems, it consistently offers new solutions, new perspectives and opens up further problems to solve. Artists tell stories and create reflections that reveal an awareness of the conventions and possibilities of painting, while as yet opening new doors and exploding limitations. The methods are exceedingly diverse, but the exhibition ‘The Paintings Never Dries… Reflections over Paintings in the Astrup Fearnley Collection’ shows a modern painting that is self-conscious, reflective and ever willing to be renewed.