Creative Destruction Once More: Donald Kuspit on Graham Wilson’s Paintings

Graham Wilson, Installation View,Anna Zorina Gallery, New York, NY

Graham Wilson
Every Which Way But Loose
Thursday, October 26, 6-8pm 
Anna Zorina Gallery
33 West 23rd st, New York, NY


A picture used to be a sum of additions.  In my case a picture is a sum of destructions.  I do a picture—then I destroy it.  In the end, though, nothing is lost.                                                             Pablo Picasso, 1935

But what is gained—that’s the issue of making a picture that is a sum of destructions, in Graham Wilson’s case, a representational painting that ends up as an abstract painting after it has been destroyed. In Picasso’s case we end up with a quasi-abstract Cubist painting—a number of fragments, strewn around the canvas, nominally signifying some figure or object (barely recognizable as such), as in Analytic Cubism, at other times converging and cohering, the figure or object more or less reconstituted (and recognizable as such), as in Synthetic Cubism.  Thus the picture disintegrates, reducing it to its material and formal essentials, and is reintegrated, “producing the sensation of newness,” as Baudelaire said.  

Graham Wilson, Installation View,Anna Zorina Gallery, New York, NY

Since Picasso made his famous statement, “the use of destruction for creative ends has become commonplace in modern art,” as Destruction, a collection of statements by the many artists using the method of creative destruction to produce works of art, makes abundantly clear.  (The book is one of the Whitechapel Documents of Contemporary Art.)  It is worth noting that the idea of “creative destruction” was conceived by the famous economist Joseph Schumpter.  “The gale of creative destruction” describes the “process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.”  Since industrialism art also has been incessantly revolutionizing—a gale of destruction has also revolutionized it.  The process of artistic mutation coordinates with the process of industrial mutation—certainly tries to keep up with it--which is why the business of being revolutionary (“avant-garde,” “experimental”) has become a staple of contemporary art, and perhaps one of the reasons for its economic appeal as well as aesthetic credibility.  Creative destruction art, with its aura of revolution and undercurrent of nihilism, offers us ever-new sensations of newness.     

Wilson’s creatively destructive technique is ingenious, labor intensive, and experimental, that is, the result is unpredictable, however clearly the works are painterly abstractions, richly gestural and colorful, and also ingeniously geometrical, as the rectangular strips on which the paint rushes, an everchanging impassioned Heracleitean stream.  Is Wilson simply paying homage to the medium, indicating that he’s a neo-Greenbergian modernist—is his work a reprise of modernist painting, and a rather ingenious one at that(1)--or is something more at stake, the medium not being the message but a means to an emotional end, indicating that Wilson is a neo-romantic painter, romantic art being “a mode of feeling,” as Baudelaire wrote.  Even Greenberg acknowledged that pure abstract art—for him art devoted exclusively to the manipulation of the medium for aesthetic effect—didn’t “work” unless it expressed and aroused “unconscious and preconscious feeling” (Freud’s terms from the topographic model of the mind), although Greenberg said they remained inarticulate, which is nonsense (as Freud’s analysis of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa and Michelangelo’s Moses make clear). 

Graham Wilson, Installation View,Anna Zorina Gallery, New York, NY

I think the expressive power of Wilson’s paintings comes from the fact that he has flayed the skin of the painting, ingeniously making it feel more alive by destroying it.  His works are composed of strips of painterly skins on a decomposing painting.  The surface of a painting is its skin, and the skin of Wilson’s paintings is torn to pieces.(2)  The piecemeal character of his paintings gives them a tragic poignancy, the black informing and mixing with—and at times blotting out—their libidinous color, suggesting the death instinct, certainly conveying decay and rot.  The black sometimes seems to jump out of the painting, at other times sink into it, bringing with it a sense of bottomless depth.  Whichever, to my eye the black makes its presence known—seems more prominent, conspicuous, intrusively evident—than the colors, which seem peculiarly diluted, however urgent their gestural character makes them seem.  The painterly strips move rapidly, and seem at odds with each other, but sometimes form a simple geometrical shape, as though finding stability or anchor within the flux. 

The art historical importance of Wilson’s works has to do with the fact that they carry to a climactic conclusion the modern attempt to violate and destroy the seamlessly smooth picture-containing surface of the traditional Renaissance picture—a picture, as Castiglione wrote, in which the painter shows no trace of his hand(3)—that began with Impressionism (more pointedly, when Ruskin angrily said that Whistler was flinging a pot of paint on the canvas, which was not to make a picture) and reached a transgressive extreme with Abstract Expressionism.  Wilson’s paintings carry this destructive “tendency” to an absurd extreme, for by repeatedly deconstructing and reconstructing the canvas—the ground or fundament of the painting--they imply that destruction and creation are in fact antithetical and irreconcilable, thus giving the death blow to the “avant-garde” tradition of creative destruction to which his paintings belong.  One might say they cut the Gordian knot that ties destruction to creativity—the core idea of avant-garde art (every new “advanced” art negates the old “advanced” art, a point made explicitly clear by Alfred Barr’s famous diagram of the “advance” of modern art to abstraction, where it dead-ends after canceling out the “advances” leading to it)--even as they exemplify it.  That paradoxicality is their brilliance. WM


(1) According to the gallery, “Wilson’s paintings begin as representational pieces made up of thick impasto strokes.  However, these are never to be seen, the artist quickly tears the canvas into many strips that are soaked in paint stripper until only faint traces of the original texture, color and tone remain.  These vestiges are given a second life through being woven and stretched back onto a frame creating a new, latticed surface on which to paint again.  This time, pigment is applied from the back in a thick wash that seeps through the many layers towards the front of the painting.  Hints of the initial gestural work are down embedded within layers of paint applied experimentally in drips and spills harkening back to Modernist methods employed by Abstract Expressionists and Color Field painters.”  I think Wilson’s method undermines their Modernist methods even as it acknowledges them.    

(2) I am alluding to the psychoanalytic idea of the skin ego, derived from Freud’s emphasis on the fact that the “ego is ultimately derived from bodily sensations, chiefly those derived from those springing from the surface of the body,” that is the skin.  See Didier Anzieu, The Skin Ego:  A Psychoanalytic Approach to the Self (New Haven and London:  Yale University Press, 1989), for a thorough account of the skin ego.   One might say that a painting is an assertion of the artist’s ego and projection of his feelings about his body, and the surface of the painting—the most sensitive part of it—is the skin that contains it.  That skin has been repeatedly torn in modern art, and completely destroyed in Abstract Expressionism, its raw gestures being its ragged remnants. 

(3) In The Book of the Courtier Castiglione argues that true art involves sprezzatura, the art that conceals art.   


Donald Kuspit

Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.

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