Jenny Saville, Hyphen, 1999. Courtesy: Gagosian Gallery.

Paint and Performance:

Mark Scala, in Dialogue with Philip Auslander

During a recent visit to Nashville, Tennessee, I visited the Frist Center for the Visual Arts. The Frist's Chief Curator Mark Scala very kindly took me on a personal tour of the exhibition Paint Made Flesh (January 23 to May 10, 2009, then traveling to The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, and the Memorial Art Gallery, University of Rochester, NY) during which he told me he could imagine a different version of the exhibition that would extend the exhibition's focus on representations of corporeality in post-war painting to other forms, such as performance. This began a conversation between us around questions concerning paint and performance as media and aesthetic forms that we continued by e-mail, for The Art Section. –PA

Mark Scala:
As we discussed, thirty years ago there seemed to be a tremendous divide between painting and performance art. While there was a recognition of the precedent of Pollock as a "performer" of action paintings, particularly as this influenced Happenings, I would say that the prevailing view of leading critics and the artists they supported in the 60s and 70s was that painting's performative dimension was irrelevant, clearly not the end in itself, the thing that is meant for audience consumption. Painting's slowness and its mediation/filtration of reality, its being anchored to the past, its arm-length distance from the body of the maker, the taint of its commodity status all outweighed any sense of its being as legitimate a way to directly express such subjects as the abject body as a crucible of outer conflict as, say, performance work by Carolee Schneeman or Hannah Wilke.

Now, of course, it is easy to see that all mediums intrinsically involve construction (material and/or conceptual), whether conceived in the privacy of the studio, or as in performance, the privacy of the mind; and that there is power embedded in any significant visual object (to toy with the word a bit, one might consider the visual/auditory experience of a performance, like any image-generating force, as the "object" of one's attention, which after viewing resides in the mind's eye with all those other memorable objects one has seen).

A video or photographic documentation of a performance is also a physical object; its relationship to the artist's action is indexical, just as the brushstroke is an index of the artists hand and mind working in concert with tangible material. Whether viewing a tape of Schneeman's Meat Joy or de Kooning's painting Woman Accobonac, one inevitably is drawn back to the artist, the maker, and the action of making; looking at Meat Joy, my mind has me rolling nakedly around on the floor, smearing bloody chickens (and what a lovely image that is!); looking at the de Kooning, I rebuild it with my hands, metaphorically scooping the "human paste" (as Jenny Saville calls paint) off of the model, with all the implicit sexuality and violence that contains, and then rebuilding it with emotional pitch instead of anatomical structure.

This idea of the stroke of the brush as a conduit of the artist's flesh (by this I don't mean physical flesh, but the desires and forces that we refer to as "things of the flesh") is carried through in other paintings in the "Paint Made Flesh" exhibition; it is shown in the CoBrA painting of Karel Appel, who claims to be striking out, attacking the canvas, in atavistic fury at the inhumanity of the Holocaust, concentration camps, Hiroshima, etc; and again in the ideogrammatic work of A. R. Penck, which evokes a precognitive state, proposing an alternative to rational language (visual, written, or spoken)as an instrument of ideology, with the idea that the arm that applies the paint is the action-maker of the body, which has its own autonomic imperatives and psychic memories that defy conceptual articulation.

Philip Auslander:
I agree with your suggestion that performance be thought of as a medium commensurable with other media. It seems to be the case that the critical orthodoxy you cite is the product of a very brief moment, probably between about 1968 and 1972 or so, when the anti-object rhetoric was at its height. Just before that, Michael Kirby had taken a rather different approach in his book on Happenings, published in 1965. Kirby defines the Happening as a work by a single artist (such as Robert Whitman or Claes Oldenburg) and the bodies used in them essentially as raw materials, akin to paint, whose presence and deployment are entirely determined by the artist and constitute the realization of his artistic concept (I say "his" because all of the artists Kirby discusses are male). After 1972, a number of the artists in the vanguard of body art turned (or, in some cases, returned) to making objects. Vito Acconci is a good example, as he progressively disappeared from his work. He began with performances and participatory works in which he put himself and his body on the line, but then moved to installations featuring his recorded voice but not his physical presence, and finally to sculptural pieces and installations that do not reflect his corporeality in any direct way. Beyond that, of course, some performance artists ultimately engaged in a wholesale embrace of the object and of commodity culture, particularly Laurie Anderson, whose work appeared in galleries, movies, mainstream performance venues, on records and in books published by a large media conglomerate, and so on.

Once we start talking about performance documentation, a hot topic these days, we risk getting lost in a thicket! For example, many would disagree with your comparison of the performance document to the painting (without necessarily disagreeing with you that they both point indexically back to the action of the artist in making the thing). Strictly speaking, it could be argued, the live performance is analogous to the painting, in that it is the product of the artist's action, and the performance document is analogous to a reproduction of the painting. 

I would not say that painting and the documentation of a performance are each the primary expressions of an artist; only that they are both indexes of mental decisions and bodily actions, one recorded in paint, which isthe painter’s primary medium, the other documented in film, which, while not the primary medium shares enough of the properties of the performance, and brings its own aesthetic properties, so that it might be comparable to a painting in being a work of primary authorship.

The usual assumption is that performance documentation gives us, at best, an impoverished experience of the original performance. But the more I think about it, the less credible I find this privileging of the live event. You mention that images from documented performances stick in your mind the same way a painting can. I believe this to be true, and it suggests that one can have an experience of the performance itself as an aesthetic object from its documentation. We have seen that often reproduced images from performance documentation, such as the one particularly famous one from Schneeman's Interior Scroll, become iconic images that, over time, come to represent that performance not just in personal memory but for purposes of scholarship and analysis. The question of just what the image actually indexes becomes less and less important even to the point, I argue, that it may not matter whether or not the performance ever actually took place! For example, Yves Klein's famous Leap Into the Void, a doctored photograph that shows him flying out of a window into the street below, from which the safety net that was present has been removed, is just as iconic a piece of "performance" documentation as the image of Interior Scroll and provides the same visceral identification you describe in your response to images even though what we see in the photograph never took place in the way we see it.

I think you are right. Several questions arise: when is documentation just archival, and when does something new, different, interpretive, engaging, or expressive happen in documenting a performance that makes the responding work a distinct artistic expression? And for artists who work in performance and video, is there any reason to draw a line between the two, even when the second captures the first? Does it matter if the performance is being done “for” the camera, or for the live audience? I would say not. Any distinction does not necessarily alter the aesthetic validity of the work—if the experience of each is different, as I have said, it’s because every medium has its gifts.

Upon reflection, I don't think documentation is ever just archival: the document always becomes a work (of some kind) in itself, even when the intention is to produce a more or less transparent archive of an event. I tend to think of these matters on the analogy of musical recordings. A bootleg recording of a concert is intended as a pure document, as opposed to commercially produced live recordings, which are frequently cleaned up and altered. Certainly, the bootleg does not participate in the aesthetics of sound recording in the same way as the commercial recording and does not avail itself of the expressive possibilities of the medium. But it is nevertheless governed by a "bootleg aesthetic" that is tied indexically to both the action of the bootlegger (the person who made the recording) as much as those of the musicians, and participates in powerful ideologies of authenticity. I think of the photos of Chris Burden's Shoot, for instance, in much the same way. They aren't much as photos, but their authority and authenticity as objects is produced in part by that very fact, like a bootleg recording of a rock concert that doesn't sound like a professional recording but is perceived as more authentic for that reason. In any case, except for the miniscule number of people who were actually in the gallery, the photos are the event.

The analogy I mentioned between the performance document and the reproduction of a painting breaks down because, in principle, the original painting remains available to be experienced. If the reproduction is indexical, we can actually have a direct perception of the thing it indexes. The performance document, by contrast, is akin to a reproduction of a painting that no longer exists--its indexical function has been sundered because we cannot access the thing it ostensibly indexes. Therefore, the only experience we can have of the "performance" is the experience of the document (and this is true whether the document records an event like Meat Joy or one like Leap into the Void). All of this is a roundabout way of saying that I think the parallels between performances, performance documents, and paintings and other art objects go even deeper than you suggest once one starts to think about both as processes of image-making. 

I suppose it could go without saying that a photo-based record of an actual, tangible experience fulfills most viewers' habits of conflating the two (it’s why documentary movies can trigger such empathy), or at least thinking the two might yield a roughly equivalent experience. Whereas a photograph of a painting is generally understood to be a shade of a constructed fiction, in which the experiential triggers—textures, transparencies, malleability in response to changing light, etc.--that distinguish it from other types of image are not always so evident. We have only the image. So with regard to this exhibition, a point that I try to make is that each medium has its gifts and limits, some that can be captured via documentation, some that cannot; the thing that distinguishes painting is its metaphorical capacity to tactilely, viscerally, and visually suggest multiple states of being all at once. One need only look at Francis Bacon to see how flesh, blood, sinew, semen, bones, eyes, asses, photographs, rooms, beds, lust, anger, and fear are all mashed therein; this is to me a very close approximation of the unsortable nature of the human mess.

The question I would like to raise here is: If painting is able, as you say, to convey multiple states at once metaphorically, what about performance? Does the presence of "real, live" bodies in performance limit its ability to function metaphorically? Is a single body capable of representing multiple states, or is it limited to whatever its present state may be?

I cannot think of a resonant expressive medium—painting, film, literature, theater—that cannot engage or evoke multiple conditions simultaneously. Clearly, bodies in a performative relation to the viewer can function metaphorically and sometimes in complex, contradictory ways—through language, posture, bodily adornment, interaction with others, facial expressions, costume, stagecraft, etc. And yes, the single body, especially through time, can represent multiple states.

What I am saying is that the visual experiences that paintings proffer can have a different quality of tactile associations—not just skin on skin or eyes on skin (does a performing body enable one to feel that he or she is looking within, through the skin of the performer?). Instead, a particular kind of painting, say by Bacon, suggests skin on flesh, with the eyes as the proxy for the fingers feeling the slippery, rubbery, sinewy, meaty interior. The historical vocabulary of painting has the capacity to evoke two kinds of internality—this anatomical/visceral kind, and the emotional (evoked by color, gesture, texture)--and two kinds of externality: the appearance of the body and its social role. It does so in a fixed fashion, which might encourage us to think about paintings as a counterpart to physically present bodies, which we also imagine to be fixed (as opposed to a faster, or more temporal, expression like performance). 

I find this very interesting, though I may have some difficulty in formulating my thoughts clearly. What strikes me may be a paradox: that performance, whose material is living bodies, cannot give us access to the interiority of bodies and subjects as effectively as painting. (I think performance can, and does, foreground the two kinds of externality you mention.) Those invested in performance (of all kinds—not just performance art) want to believe that we can access those levels of experience by witnessing performance, but the reality is we can't. (There is a distinction to be made here between the experience of the audience and that of the performer—I don't doubt that performers can use the act of performing to explore their own interiority, both physical and psychic. But I'm not sure how much of that actually translates to the audience, even in the face of the audience's belief that it does.) The presence of performers as living, human beings (whether live or in recordings) before us heightens both the desire to get inside their heads and skin, and the belief that performance somehow permits us to do so. But the reality is that although performance encourages the illusion of exposure, it inevitably frustrates the desire for it. I don't mean this as a negative comment: this dynamic is one of the things that makes performance compelling and keeps us coming back for more. But it also means, as you point out, that Bacon can get us inside the body and the subject in ways that performance seems to promise but never accomplishes.

It would be interesting to re-make the exhibition someday, adding counterpoints in which flesh is "not paint"--one thinks not just of photographic, performance, and video/film work, but also works by such artists as Kara Walker, for whom the depicted void where flesh should be is a contemplation of the muting of identity (especially as defined by the tangible body) pitting the power of one's physical and sexual being against the social structures (relating to race and gender in particular) that have been contrived to deny such power.

But Paint Made Flesh hones in on the subject of paint's palpability as an extension of the things of the artists' flesh, and through empathy, our flesh. Partly because it functions within a recognizable historical code that is the inheritance of Titian, Rembrandt, Goya, and Soutine, and partly because of its mutable material characteristics, the medium of paint provides a ready-made language for the exploration of the discourse between presence and absence, desire and repression, memory and death, and artistic process and visual consumption.

Willem de Kooning, Woman Accabonac, 1966. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

Mark Scala is the Chief Curator of the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, TN.

Philip Auslander is the Editor of The Art Section.