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Out of the box

A painter's call for 'a practical avant-garde.'

The avant-garde isn't what it used to be. In the 20th century, artists thought incessantly about the future, but so far the 21st century seems more invested in the relatively recent past. Emerging artists are described as the love child of so-and-so and so-and-so, and everybody gets called "neo" this or "neo" that. So modernism's major movements are reborn -- as neo-expressionism, neo-Dada, neo-minimalism -- but what that tricky prefix actually refers to is a lack of innovation. Not that we need a new "ism" exactly. It's just that looking back has gotten old.

The artists themselves, in the meantime, have gotten young. They are being sold so young that they have to come with papers to establish their lineage. Legions of culture workers produce wall paragraphs, catalogues, and magazine blurbs to confirm young debutantes. Collectors are thus invited to speculate on promising futures, but the art objects themselves look remarkably retro.

It seems clear to a lot of us that there is a problem, but the various accounts of our condition that I have read strike me as either hysterically reactionary or irresponsibly giddy. People decide that art is either dead or immortal, but no one wants to admit that it might be a little sick.

I am a painter, and I want to be practical about the situation. This means starting with a very simple definition of the avant-garde. I stole it from Fairfield Porter, the great midcentury painter and critic, who said the avant-garde was always just the people with the most energy. The question for us is what should these energetic people do now? What kind of art does the future deserve? How should we advance?

To answer this question, I am going to talk about rectangles.

As the last century thought more and more about painting, it produced more and more plain rectangles. They came in different national flavors. In Russia, Malevich's squares were hung high in the room and compared with icons and revolutions. That was suprematism. In the European North, the rectangles were cold and got turned into furniture. When Mondrian brought them to New York in 1940, they got jazzy, but they still went by a (stylish) Dutch name: de Stijl.

In America, we had the great rigid aphorisms of Ad Reinhardt, and in the middle of the 1960s his black rectangles ended painting. But painting kept ending, and so by the '70s we got Mel Bochner's various conceptual gray grids, followed in the '80s by Peter Halley's more up-to-date day-glo rectangles, which were called neo-geo.

Paintings, apart from the very occasional tondo or altarpiece triangle, all start out as rectangles. But to end up with just a rectangle, you have to keep a whole lot of things out. Like the resultant rectangles, this repudiation also came in different flavors. You could reject the tsarist system, transcend all representational antics, or just have your studio assistants get out the masking tape and go to town.

Over the first part of the last century, photography, or revolution, or atomic weapons had each pushed painting into a zone of near-paralytic self-consciousness. By the late '50s, flatness was enthroned, with zip lines and stripes providing the only variation on the road to minimalism. Everything else -- the body, gesture, ideas, materials, politics, process, and critical dialogue -- was taken out of paintings to make them correct and serene. That was the avant-garde of the rectangle.

Its impolite rival and supposed savior -- which has given rise to the most celebrated art we see today -- is now called post-minimalism, but it has gone by many names: body art, performance art, conceptual art, land art, protest art, process art, anti-art art. Ana Mendieta rolled in mud. Vito Acconci, now an architect, sat under a slanted gallery floor and masturbated for days on end. Chris Burden nailed himself to a Volkswagen, was shot in the arm, and shot at airplanes with real bullets.

Not having been there, we learn about these new art forms from the leftover paraphernalia. Books and museums show us black and white photographs, gallery invites, artists' statements, and manifestos -- all of minimal visual interest -- and the putatively un-rectangular event gets reduced, through a ruse of history, into that very familiar rectangle: the 8 ½ by 11 sheet of copy paper in a course packet.

Minimalism (the plain rectangles) and post-minimalism (everything the rectangles left out) agreed on one thing: eliminate pictures. Painting wanted to retreat to a pure territory of paint that neither represented nor referred to the visible world, while the new art forms wanted the opposite: to enter the world by expanding the realm of art so it would include every other conceivable material, issue, and strategy.

The scene seemed wild, but there were simple rules all along. You were given a white room in a Big Art City for a month. You had to do something in that room to generate attention beyond that month. You had to be written about, bought, or at least widely discussed. Then you would get to have the white room again for another month, and so on. If you did this enough, you had what was called a career. This generated what is perhaps this century's biggest art movement: careerism.

But back to our schematic. This white room of the gallery was really a box, so the avant-garde of the rectangle led in a strange way to the avant-garde of the box. And a box with things in it is pretty much a picture -- which is weird because the picture, you remember, had been eliminated.

But never mind, because the whole thing worked out very well: These days, it is hard to find people who don't feel a direct and lively connection to contemporary art. We download inspiring artists' statements and argue passionately in front of wall paragraphs. We are improved by repeated confrontations with oblique titles, obscure maps, and obsessive doodles. The rigorous inspection of art objects has armed us against the ruses of late capitalism, and our political art unites us in effective struggle. Strict formalism, for its part, has given museum visitors a sense of deep spirituality. When we see the grids of rocks in stark rooms, we are moved. Our eyes are soft from weeping.

Just kidding. Actually, I think the game in the box has gotten the best of us. Almost everyone would agree that the art world has become a kind of spectacle. Much of the work is repetitive and derivative in a way that starts to resemble planned cultural obsolescence.

A strange cycle has set in, whereby the most valuable attribute an artist can have is "promise." With a lot of big bets being placed, the artist has to be both young and verifiable. In other words, marketable. But almost none of our superstar artists have delivered on their promise. The big investments from the last art boom in the '80s, for example, have not matured in any sense of the word. Like the society-at-large, the art world is turning into teenagers and aging teenagers.

To really grow up, we have to be able to decide what is really good. Art world insiders have trends but few criteria. The word they most often use to describe art is "interesting." Reactionaries have criteria, but no art. Their favorite art word is "bad."

So the people with the most energy, a.k.a. the avant-garde, have a particular responsibility in this kind of situation. They have to find a way to use the word "good." After that, we can talk again about something being great.

As an avant-garde, we have to be willing to say goodbye to the plain rectangles and to the game in the box. We do this by bringing them together. Painting is, miraculously, both a rectangle and a box. It is pure and still, but at the same time, it can hold anything.

Great painting has always been extremely self-conscious and incredibly involved in the world. There was no need, in other words, to break up the party.

As painters invite back all that was banished -- sunsets, flowers, history, philosophy, the body -- they have a responsibility to painting's special powers. Painting is, I think we can now admit, a very effective way to play the game of the box and the rectangle. Unlike the gallery box, a good painting does not disintegrate after a month. Some have held our attention for hundreds of years. A good painting also does not depend on textual support and can thus cross national and linguistic borders and communicate over time. In a word, good paintings are autonomous.

Therefore, a practical avant-garde should measure itself. It should not wait for schools, publications, galleries, or even museums to measure it.

A practical avant-garde is post-careerist. It seeks out low rent and private time, and it concentrates on powerful objects.

A practical avant-garde experiments, but is honest about the results, displaying only the work that is full-fledged and generous. It surveys past achievements with similar honesty, looking at past experiments with an eye for what was truly strong. It knows that images are ubiquitous and coercive, while real pictures are rare.

All of this means that the practical avant-garde has a lot of work to do. It knows that manifesto is the weakest genre and that promises are irrelevant, so it will use words but not hide behind them.

Finally, the practical avant-garde is grateful to the impractical avant-garde, but we will not defer to it.

Dushko Petrovich, a painter, is currently artist in residence at the Royal Academy in London. He is the art critic for the journal n+1 and the founding editor of Paper Monument, an art journal launching in the spring. This essay is adapted from a talk given as part of a panel discussion on the avant-garde at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in Queens, N.Y. The discussion, hosted by n+1, has just been published as "P.S. 1 Symposium: A Practical Avant-Garde" (n+1 Research Branch Pamphlet Series #1). For more information, see