Let me start with what first drew me to this exhibition in particular. In part it was the artists being exhibited (Richard Diebenkorn and Robert Rauschenberg are among my favorites), but as for the primary cause I’d point to the fact that almost regardless of genre I have an abiding interest in art about art– not only in the visual arts, but arts of all kind: paintings about painting, plays about acting, novels about storytelling. I think if anything the interest grew out of reading postmodern literature. There’s no dearth of novels that are in some way about the art of writing, even texts in which the author inserts themself into the narrative, from Don Quixote to Paul Auster’s City of Glass. And to these novels I found a visual parallel in this Gagosian exhibition, in which some paintings feature images of their own artists, and in general staged expertly a collection of artworks about the circumstances of artistic creation itself.
The show seeks to highlight the trope of the artist’s studio as represented in art, and in the works we see variations on the trappings of this studio—the materials, the models, the works-in-progress, and of course the artists themselves. If we think about it, it might seem a rather postmodern artistic focus. But while this idea of art about art was raised to great effect in 20th century literature, painting, etc., it’s certainly not a new concept; knowing that the exhibition’s time period sweeps back to the 16th century makes this clear. In fact, the idea of the artist-in-studio-painting could probably be made into a trope by the existence of one painting alone dating hundreds of years ago—Velazquez’s 1656 Las Meninas, arguably the most famed instance of this genre. (Though this work isn’t part of the exhibition, I felt like the show was in a sense shaped by or even around it, as if it were an ancestral specter presiding over the other pieces displayed.)
But what is it about this kind of meta-commentary that’s proven enduringly interesting to artists and writers? To me there’s something very emblematic of the human experience in this self-reflexivity. It’s alluring. It’s the idea of an artist seeing him or herself creating art, with the self-awareness then manifested in the work, so that in a sense the art is looking at and thinking about itself. It’s the creation of a self-conscious art object, and you can’t say that’s not amazing.
The exhibition’s description labeled it a “visual essay” that traces early instances of the artist-in-studio theme and then elaborates on its principal modern and postwar developments. The trajectory of the exhibition space was such that viewers entered in the 20th century (with two Picassos in the first room, no less), then moved on to a range of pieces from the 16th-19th century before shifting again to the 20th century. This curatorial choice first drew visitors in with the oft-thrilling esotericism of 20th century art and the fame of Picasso, then plunged them into previous centuries, a move that gave the viewer an understanding of the context and longstanding history of the artist’s studio theme. In these choices the curator was able to really convey the theme as something that transcends bounds of artistic era and style. The naturalism of earlier centuries placed alongside the sometime-abstraction of the 20th made for, in my view, a more robust exhibition.
This show certainly met the level of quality I’d hope to see at Gagosian. I was pleased to see different dimensions of the artist’s studio subject skillfully brought to light. The curator seemed to have generally grouped paintings of similar subjects together, such as paintings depicting the studio window (perhaps a metaphor for the canvas with its illusion of another world?). In another context this grouping might have seemed contrived but here I found it fruitful. There were also conceptual threads to be traced more loosely in the show. For instance, in several of the pieces were flat white surfaces formed with visible brushstrokes, something that often stood in for both the studio wall and the surface of the canvas, thereby calling attention to the illusion of the painting. In a few works I noticed that the artist seemed to present the appearance of stepping outside the bounds of the canvas, for instance with a figure breaching the edge of a painting within the painting, or through an extension of the otherwise rectangular canvas. These techniques, too, disrupt the illusion in a different though equally intriguing way. Another of these sub-themes I discovered was in how many paintings, to different extents, created a sense of actually bringing the viewer into the studio, whether through composition (as in the naturalistic paintings) or by incorporating real objects from their workspace (like paint cans or real photos from the studio).
One of the works I thought really brought to light the complexity of the exhibition’s premise was Jasper Johns’ 1982 piece In the Studio (encaustic and collage on canvas with objects). Here, Johns plays with both artistic illusion and the artist’s acute awareness of it. You might say the work acts as a physical excerpt of the artist’s actual studio; in this interpretation, the viewer is facing the studio wall (which is simultaneously the canvas surface), on which there are other paintings by the artist seemingly nailed to it in trompe l’oeil fashion. One of these is a painting of an arm, and then beside it is an actual sculptural human arm attached to the canvas. In the center foreground, there is what seems to be an easel supporting a canvas turned away from us. The canvas is rendered in paint (and is also simultaneously the actual canvas surface), while the rod of the easel is a real piece of wood that casts a real shadow. To summarize, there’s a lot going on in this piece.
What stood out to me about the work was the way it (quite conspicuously) created layers of perception and yielded ambiguity. With each element of the painting the viewer almost seems to exist in a different level of reality. In particular, I love the fact that there is a canvas within the canvas and paintings (seemingly nailed to the studio wall) within the painting—something that activates the mise en abyme and makes the art object self-aware. With the painting of the arm and the actual arm object placed side by side, Johns raises issues of representation vs. reality, reminding us that a painting remains a flat object regardless of how realistic the illusion may be. Overall I see in this Johns piece a deep sense of playfulness, not unlike others in the exhibition.
In the Studio: Paintings was curated by John Elderfield, Chief Curator Emeritus of Painting and Sculpture at MoMA. The exhibition is on view at 522 West 21st Street.
Katie Fung is a member of the editorial board of The Columbia Review.