Always a Painter: Lawrence Carroll in Bologna
Report from… Bologna
Lawrence Carroll: “Ghost House” was at Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna, December 12, 2014 to April 6, 2015
In the late 1970s, when I was making my way from academic aesthetics to writing art criticism, I was vastly influenced by the magnificently original series of “Iconicity” essays published in Artforum by Joseph Masheck, who then was editor of that journal. Masheck argued that to properly understand contemporary abstraction, we need to revisit the entire history of Western art. According to Clement Greenberg’s account, which remained influential, abstract painting is the ultimate product of the flattening of the deep old master picture space. When there no longer is any room for figurative subjects, then art had to become abstract. Rejecting this analysis, Masheck rather drew attention to the ways in which the Byzantine sacred tradition was involved with literal uses of the stretcher and the picture surface. Guided also, perhaps, by some precedents in the revolutionary Soviet avant garde circa 1917, some contemporary abstract art (what he called “hard-core painting”) embraced that seemingly forgotten tradition which was concerned with the literal properties of the medium.
Masheck’s very imaginative commentary was not easy to follow. And, ironically, the contemporary figures he championed who now are most distinguished — Jonathan Lasker, Thomas Nozkowski and Sean Scully — have developed in ways that have little to do with his concerns. But history can sometimes be surprising, for Lawrence Carroll, who arrived in New York around 1984, has, apparently entirely unconsciously taken up Masheck’s concerns. This ambitious retrospective, in a former bread factory, presents 63 paintings, some of them very large. At the entrance, on the diptych Untitled (1989-90), are the words “I am alone.” Here is a box mounted on the wall, Untitled (1990); the Untitled floor piece (1992-94), the skin of a painting on the corner of the floor; and the Untitled, table painting (2006-2014) a construction on a pedestal which has a slight resemblance to Anthony Caro’s tabletop sculptures. As you walk through the 10 rooms, you can see Carroll taking painting apart in its components, and reassembling it. Mostly his paintings are untitled; when there are titles, often they are descriptive. He inserts one panel into another, as in Untitled, insert painting (1986); constructs a vertical assemble of frames, in Untitled (1988); draws black bands across the surface in Untitled (1986); presents a box on the floor in Yes (Floor Piece) (2000) or, in Untitled Yes bag (2014) as a bag on the floor; installs the painting on the wall, Untitled shelf painting (1985) in one example or, as in Untitled flower piece (2014) leans it on the wall. Occasionally, as in Untitled light painting (2014) a light bulb is attached to the picture plane. Sometimes panels extend off of the wall, as in Untitled hinge painting (2013). One singular work, Untitled No. 51 (1993) consists of canvas folded on the floor. And some of the pictures, Untitled box painting (2006-14) is one example, are wall-mounted boxes. These paintings are very varied.
Carroll is always a painter, never a sculptor, and that’s a statement compatible with the fact that he sometimes works in three dimensions. In the almost 30 years of work on display here, there’s no obvious sense of development. You sense that from the start he’s known how to proceed. He owes something to Carl Andre and Donald Judd, but unlike these Minimalists he always retains a personal touch and is not interested in repetition as such. And although he has some affinities with Robert Ryman, he is a more varied and, I think, a more sensuous painter. Upstairs on temporary display is the collection from Museo Morandi of a very different, very relevant figure, whom he admires greatly — Giorgio Morandi. Interested in the varied qualities of his medium, Carroll almost never is concerned with image appropriation. “I wanted to paint my paintings the color of the canvas I was painting on,” he has said, “so I could always erase myself and start over. I always then had a way out and back into the painting.” This statement does not, I think, entirely explain his ongoing originality. More, perhaps to the point, he speaks of his desire to anchor himself to the world. “I needed to find my own way with the materials I was using.”
Recently MoMA presented “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World,” a much discussed exhibition. According to the curator, when now everything has been done, all that is left to artists is to recycle prior visual discoveries. “The obsession with recuperating aspects of the past,” Laura Hoptman writes, “in the condition of culture in our time.” When I started writing criticism, the same claim was presented: everything has been done, we were told, so artists are doomed to merely recycle. It’s hard not to see this as a very pessimistic worldview — who would care about visual art if genuine originality were in fact impossible? No doubt this is a very New York perspective, from a city in which there are so many competing young artists. But this vision of art is demonstrably false, for much remains to be done. In movies, black-and-white defines a flashback, taking us back to an earlier moment prior to the main narrative. Perhaps this is how we should understand Carroll’s lack of concern with being a colorist — he takes us back to the 1980s. He has said: “I wanted to paint my paintings the color of the canvas I was painting on, so I could always erase myself and start over. I always then had a way out and back into the painting.” Carroll is as good as anyone anywhere I know who is painting right now. Compared with him, almost all contemporary artists are noisy, lacking in trust for their medium. The happiest contemporary painter whose art I have had the pleasure of viewing recently, a very American artist, he’s not had a solo exhibition in New York for 15 years.