The Estate of Walter Darby Bannard
I was brought up in an atmosphere with a lot of music in it. In the early 1940s, when I was seven years old, we lived in the country, at the top of a hill. At the bottom of the hill was a church where the black farmworkers went on Sunday.
One Sunday, I wandered near the church and heard music that was like nothing I had ever heard before. It was utterly compelling. It froze me to the spot, and I actually went during the week, broke into the church to look at the pump organ, and tried to play it. I thought the machine was making all the music, singing and everything. All I knew was how mesmerized I had been.
Painting survives because it retains the power to do what that church music did to me, and it has that power because it has spent hundreds of years building conventions around a simple, supportive expressive process—using colored materials to organize a visual image on a flat surface with four edges.
For decades, the art world has doted on something called "Postmodernism," which is Modernism's insistence on innovation taken to destructive extremes (I like to describe it as Modernism with Alzheimer's), and has bitterly insisted that "painting is dead."
Of course, painting is not dead. If it were dead, it wouldn’t have so many practitioners, and pictures wouldn't bring millions of dollars at auction. Modernism tells us that art should be new to be good; absolute freedom is a paralytic blur of possibility that amounts to nothing. When you destroy all the barriers, you get a pile of rubble. Innovation should not be toxic; when it destroys conventions, it should be refreshing.
Good art does not break with the past. It breaks with the present by emulating the best of the past. Good art looks new because the artist has recombined something old to make something better. It does not break rules. It makes rules.
Limitation in any human endeavor is essential for any clear expression of human excellence. Creative freedom relishes its limitations because it builds on them. Restriction of means releases inhibition, stimulates the imagination and clarifies choice. Unfortunately, innovation is now obsessively misused and has collapsed into deliberate weirdness, deliberately unsupported by stable conventions. I recall a story told me by the jazz musician Rex Stewart. When Stewart first heard Louis Armstrong in Chicago back in the 1920s, he laid down his horn and declared he was never going to play again. He just sat there at the table and cried. It had taken him five seconds to recognize how good Louis Armstrong was because the cultural structure around the conventions of jazz music of the time forced him to immediately recognize how good he was, not how new, how different, how "shocking," how "far out," but how good.
People think change in art is very fast these days, because the art world is now so big that there's lots of churning on the edges as thousands of artists "innovate" for attention. But grabbing attention is not the same as rewarding attention. History does not work itself out in the short term, and the short term is fifty years. Fundamental change is very slow.
Painting is not only not dead, it is far from exhausting its basic conventions. The mechanics of color have never been thoroughly exploited. Neither have the new polymer mediums. There is still a lot to invent.
When what later came to be called "Minimalism" was introduced in the late 1950s and early 1960s, it seemed that much was being eliminated from painting. We were seen as referring back to Albers, the Bauhaus, and the Russian Constructivists, but instead we were making painting on completely different terms. Instead of Cubist-inspired simplification for the sake of relational expression, we were simplifying for the sake of "presentation," using an element such as color and encouraging the viewer to simply take it as it is, in your face, as if the painting was staring back at you. Frank Stella expressed that attitude of finality when he said that his painting was based on the fact that only what can be seen there is there: "What you see is what you see." The best way to present color is to simply present it—make it into a painting, but just barely.
Painting will not "die" as long as good painting is being done, and, for the time being, good painting is being done in quantity, and it is more than clear that there are many who love it, understand it and support it.
Walter Darby Bannard, 2016