By Francesco Bonami
The Kairology and Kronology of Rudolf Stingel
What makes a painting a “Painting”? This question has yet to be answered by art historians, critics, or artists. Maybe through Rudolf Stingel’s work we can find a possible answer.
To paint is to act. Yet this action does not necessarily produce a painting. Most of the time, the result is an approximation of an ideal painting that exists in the mind of the painter. This endeavor increases in complexity, however, when the painter is not the artist. Regardless, what makes a painting a Painting is the capacity of the artist to create either a performance that will be possible to look at forever or to create a void that will blend with the passing of time. This ability to grasp and harness time holds the keys to creating a Painting.
Although I have stated that painting can be an action, it must also be an observation. The mere act of painting does not create a Painting but simply some painting. But if the action of painting is used as a lens to observe reality to create another reality, then we have a Painting. Why? Because observation creates distance and the accompanying threshold that the viewer needs and wants in order to cross over to accept the difference between reality and art. This observation, combined with an understanding of time, moves a painting from a simple painting to a Painting.
Furthermore, it is the understanding, translation, and representation of time that determine whether a painting is figurative or abstract. While all paintings are created in time, figuration is time transformed into a dream, and abstraction is time frozen. Therefore, painting as performance involves figuration when it presents a possible narrative, an endless, evolving theater. Abstraction, on the other hand, produces a stillness, a void, or emptiness.
The Greeks wrote of two kinds of time: kairos, the propitious moment, and kronos, ongoing, or eternal, time. If kairos is an exact moment in time, then figuration addresses kairos, the hundred-meter race of time. Everything is constrained within a moment, and the viewer is gifted, for a moment, with the ability to look with the awareness of the present or with the illusion of being inside the present. If kronos is the time of wisdom, then abstraction addresses kronos, the long-distance-running time. It doesn’t cease but becomes still and allows the image to flow unceasingly into abstraction.
Perhaps this division can be more easily comprehended by thinking about the difference between Christianity and Buddhism. Abstraction does not correspond to a Western idea of time. If you are an abstract painter, you try over and over to deny mortality, because abstraction can survive without the real. If instead you are a figurative painter, you feed yourself with images of both reality and dreams. An abstract painter repeats himself or herself without repeating anything in an endless cycle, recalling the notion of existence in Buddhism. It is an understanding that nothingness is always present and not something to be feared or driven away. The figurative painter, on the other hand, attempts to defer death, since he or she believes that without images there is no time and no existence. A dreamless sleep for a figurative artist cannot be described. He or she either wakes up remembering dreams and images or says, “I didn’t have any dreams”; the sleep was abstract. The images of dreams provide the figurative painter with the knowledge that he or she did not die while sleeping.
For this reason, painters who embrace figuration cannot stop dreaming, cannot stop devouring time, while painters who devote their vision to abstraction fear consuming time, or, better, they fear defrosting time. The painter who can run in both races, who grasps both notions of time, is hard to find. Gerhard Richter, of course, is the champion; few others have been able to build up such resistance and endurance.
Richter’s abstractions are figurative paintings that have exceeded their time. While the blur that goes across and through them appears to make them abstract, it works to overcome the limits of history, swiping across it, across reality and banality, exhausting all of the painting’s narrative time to become a part of memory or dreams. From his figurative painting we can see a way toward abstraction, but to see the other way around appears impossible. Abstraction is a step into the sublime, but it is also a step into death. Can we go back once we die? Once you have destroyed time, you can’t go back to it. Resurrection is not an option for painting, only for eternity. Richter’s abstract works are a series of continued closures within the momentary subject. Each abstraction is a collapsing of an image. There is the disappearance of an image, its death, and finally the image’s sublimation.
Rudolf Stingel’s work represents a new approach, a new attempt to open up this closure and fill the gap between abstraction and figuration. At once performances and gestures, Stingel’s paintings constantly negotiate a truce between kairos and kronos. His abstractions and portraits look into each other, forward and backward, to fill the void left by Richter’s abstraction and figuration. Stingel creates a transitive way to recede from abstraction into the subject and to push the subject into a different kind of time. While Richter’s blur is an anticipation of a forthcoming, more radical disappearance of the subject, Stingel’s impressions left by the pattern of the fabric or the soles of the boots are the same as the impression left by the subject on the canvas. Either the pattern can lie underneath the subject or the subject can be hidden within the pattern. In this way, the pattern can be seen as the fabric of history. Since history is constructed by documents, images, stories of the past, it can hide the subject of the present. Yet at the same time, because history is written in the present with an eye to the future, it can also reveal visions and dreams of the future. These documents, images, and stories are the focus of figuration, while abstraction has the privilege of looking into dreams, visions, the future and its void waiting to be filled by history.
While we might say that a figurative painting, which blends with passing time, is mundane, like old men passing time sitting on a park bench, this cannot be said of the German master’s paintings. Richter stresses the mundane; he exposes the banality of images through their subjects, to create a total equivalence between blandness and emotion, portraying over and over the face of reality standing still. This notion of the mundane is far different from that used by a painter like Thomas Kinkade, who indulges in the mundane to ideologically exploit the banal. Richter creates a painting that objectively becomes a veil over the real without a hierarchy. His barn becomes an anonymous, hence universal, barn. Kinkade, while presenting himself as the master of light, mocks the Sunday painter, showing a craft that is the mockery of content. Kinkade’s cottage is a cottage from a fairy tale, an ideal, dream cottage, like something out of Disney’s Celebration community in Florida, a fiction of normality designed as an artificial truth. Neither his paintings nor his “Kinkade-inspired” homes in California aspire to be universal but instead aim to create an escapist nostalgia and a false morality. While we inhabit the world painted by Richter, no one lives in the world painted by Kinkade, even those who live in Kinkade-inspired homes. Here is where Stingel merges the two, suggesting that perhaps we inhabit a mixture of both worlds, as in a fictional documentary.
Combining these two ways of using the mundane—Richter’s manipulation and Kinkade’s moral sentiment—Stingel creates an objective yet bland painting. For Stingel, both manipulation and fantasy exist in the act of painting, and for this reason his self-portrait in front of a birthday cake, Untitled (Birthday), 2006, reveals the essence of his production. Stingel’s achievement is to present the practice of painting today not as an escape from any of these elements—history, universality, morality, cheapness, middle-class banality, objectivity, romanticism, and sappiness. Using black and white paint, Stingel strives to reach both the objectivity of Richter, with his cool, detached use of history, and the morality of Kinkade, with his use of painting as the bible of the mundane, leading people toward the path to redemption by preaching and celebrating trite middle-class desires and cheap dreams. It is as if Stingel takes The Magdalen with the Smoking Flame by Georges de la Tour, c. 1636–38, and processes it through the filter of Richter’s refusal to celebrate any image and through Kinkade’s warped ambition to determine the chosen images for worship. Similarly, Stingel’s birthday cake is a staged, fictional image, and yet a very possible real image and situation. It is the archetype of the modern sinner celebrating himself.
Something more than the traditional self-representation, Stingel’s self-portrait is the autobiography of a painting through its own author. Through the portrait of the painter, painting is telling its story, entangled in both Richter’s endless world of subjects and Kinkade’s delusional world of frustrated desires, combined with abstraction’s freezing of time. Stingel leaps into total blandness, an uncommitted relation with the surface of the painting, an anti-expressionism, and at the same time dives into the depth of the ultimate subject: himself, his self-portrait.
Richter purposely denies his own presence, his own authorship, and his own representation by declaring the ownership of the surrounding reality, and hence he sees each image as a self-portrait because it is seen through his own eyes. By observing himself and the world in a different way, Stingel declares the impossibility of identifying one’s own identity with nothing other than the void of his own persona. Through denying his own representation, he allows these paintings to embody kronos and to address the history and future of modernity declining, while he simultaneously continues the autobiography of painting in a relentless multiplication of his own self.
Although Richter and Stingel approach the world from different perspectives, they share the sense of the absurd brought forward in the mid-twentieth century by the French writer Albert Camus. They understand the idea that we cannot do anything against the world that surrounds us. We look at it, we see it, and that’s it. Destiny is simply the result of looking and seeing the world unraveling with us inside, like a wire lying on the ground, where power runs from a positive pole toward a negative one, carrying and consuming energy. Richter’s paintings, which seem to symbolize the role of Meursault, the main character of Camus’s The Stranger, are the result of this way of accepting the world as either irrelevant or negative.
Stingel moves painting one step further, understanding that painting carries energy and consumes it, and abstraction happens when the power goes off momentarily. Darkness and blindness replace the world of images. Nothingness and infinity surround us. Stingel, the one who unplugs the cord, personifies the rebel, the other side of Camus’s vision, the one who can defy destiny with a simple gesture. Yet for both Richter and Stingel, painting is irrelevant; it is not a subject but something else. In that striving to perceive and create something else, their differences appear. One accepts painting as a way of seeing the world, while the other accepts painting as a way of feeling the world.
Referring once again to Camus’s writing, painting as it pertains to art is like the myth of Sisyphus. Never has an artistic practice been as endless an endeavor as painting. Attempting to evade the restriction and the rules of painting, Stingel uses any possible material to tell us that painting is just a symbolic surface, the first layer of the skin of the world, and tries to reveal its meanings. Painting is just the protection under which the muscles and bones of the real keep moving, living, and dying.
If a painting is seen as an autonomous idea, it is useless, like a cell of our tissues is useless if taken as an autonomous being. It is in the connection between each cell or between each painting that meaning can be produced. That is why Stingel’s body of work cannot be analyzed with an autopsy but instead needs to be seen as a series of connections, a chain reaction of possible paintings created to produce a comprehensible body of ideas and feelings. Like Richter’s paintings, Stingel’s work could not live in a vacuum. And yet each work contains all the rest of all the other works, their memory, their struggle to remain attached to each other as part of the DNA of the artist. Each painting is an act of rebellion, but also one of the many parts of an ongoing revolution to free painting from the tyranny of mundane representation or Color Field annihilation. We could say that Stingel invented two parallel tracks on which to insert his work. He invented a kairology, the track where each work can be seen as a gesture that contains all the other gestures, and a kronology, a track where each work is a step into a long, unforeseen future of painting. In kairology, each work is conclusive, it defines a space or a place, while in kronology, each painting is inclusive of all the other paintings. If we use these two tracks to look at Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, 1912, for example, we could say that Stingel’s kairology shows each movement of the nude, and his kronology reveals the complete descending movement.
If Richter left a crack open for Stingel to cement the chasm between the failing spirituality of abstraction and the quicksand of images, Duchamp, along with Kinkade, is necessary to comprehend why Stingel’s practice is not painting as a medium, or painting for the sake of painting, or even the self-mocking of painting, but the celebration of painting as the derma, or skin, of reality, a very thin surface where we can leave our marks, which are not necessarily always art. Stingel’s art is not Stingel’s painting. Stingel’s art is the understanding of painting as the impossibility of creating a Painting and only and endlessly creating, like Sisyphus, an infinite series of paintings, an infinite series of self-portraits, and painting itself infinite. It is around this idea of painting as a self-portrait of painting that Marcel Duchamp, Gerhard Richter, Thomas Kinkade, and Rudolf Stingel gather and share the same frustration. While they may not always share the same successful frustration, it is in understanding painting as a frustration that these artists are serving the ultimate purpose for the idea of painting to exist. Negotiating despair in different ways, Stingel looks deeply inward, while Kinkade transforms the outward into a fairy tale, and Richter hides within that gray area between inwardness and outwardness; Duchamp, meanwhile, refuses to care about all of this, substituting the rules of art and painting with the rules of chess, a game not a play, what painting needs to be in order to necessitate change.
Marcel Duchamp used to say, “bête comme un peintre” (stupid like a painter). The literal translation would be “beast as a painter,” but we know he meant “stupid.” In fact, to avoid being stupid, he stopped painting. In reality, he never truly gave up painting, he just avoided brushes and canvases. The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (the “Large Glass”), 1915–23, is the ultimate painting, and his last work, Étant Donnés, 1946–66, is nothing but a painting kept at a distance from the viewer. The three-dimensional aspect of Étant Donnés is just symbolic, but when we peek through the barn’s door, we see a regressive painting. While I am not Duchamp, I also stopped painting, and yet I too always return to painting, grappling with its problems and its solutions. Perhaps the painter’s ultimate desire is to be able to quit painting and yet to remain a painter. Hence Stingel’s attempt to distance himself with his installations, his carpets, his mirrors or reflecting construction material, tempted by Duchamp’s attitude to always be a painter without the need of a painting. Like Duchamp, Stingel repeats this nocturnal, onanistic fantasy.
In the late 1980s, painting became stuck, like a body fallen into quicksand. During those years, Stingel and many other artists of his generation were trapped between Conceptual art, Minimalism, and a reactionary attitude toward art. In their return to painting, they faced a dilemma: Embrace the new wave of appropriationists, neo-geos, and photography-based conceptualism, or insist on the shrinking path of neo-expressionism, which was receding if not disappearing completely. Neither was an appealing option to Stingel. With a hubris similar to that of Albrecht Dürer, who in 1525 published his Painter’s Manual, Stingel produced his own “painting’s instructions” (Instructions, 1989), a series of photographs collected into a small manual explaining, step by step and in several languages, how to make a real “Rudolf Stingel” silver painting. What was interesting and intriguing was the fact that if you had followed the artist’s instructions, you would not have produced or created your own “Rudolf Stingel” but would have instead made a painting for Rudolf Stingel. The idea of instructions was misleading; they were not teaching you how to paint, but were tricking you into learning how to do a painting for someone else. The instructions were so mechanical that they did not jeopardize Stingel’s authorship or the authenticity of his work. Stingel’s feat was to reverse Walter Benjamin’s theory, creating a chance to teach the mechanics of producing the aura of his artworks. He erased the very idea of the copy because every painting, following his instructions, would have come out as a true original. In doing so, it could be said that he challenged Kinkade. Both use other hands to do their paintings, but Stingel does not ask that those hands act like his or pretend to be his. Unlike Kinkade, Stingel is not concerned with convincing the viewer that he is producing an original. Kinkade’s art uses painting as a Trojan horse to sell the viewer the illusion of the original, the illusion of the “true” work of art. Unlike Kinkade, Stingel was not ambitious to sell truth together with ten million of his cottage paintings, but rather to imagine ten million people making his paintings for him. Kinkade’s megalomaniacal dream of being everybody’s “painter” was crushed by Stingel’s unappealing, orange book of instructions, which provided everyone the opportunity to create his paintings. I like to indulge in the perverse idea that the silver paintings that could be created following the small, “stupid” booklet, printed by Stingel likely in a moment of creative despair, could sublimate the very idea of Kinkade’s cottage paintings into the purest glimmer of light. The reflected glow of the silver paintings would burn off the trashy light of Kinkade’s paintings in a bright, intense light, and a Kinkade collector, perhaps on the way to Damascus, blinded by the light of a glimmering lantern, would become converted by Stingel’s mechanical abstraction.
Stingel, not Kinkade, understands the true nature of the idea of a cottage painting, and Richter understood that even cottage paintings are simply a surrogate of life to escape our fear of death. Stingel’s work is the ambush of aura over the artificiality of the picturesque. Kinkade subdues wonder to taste, bad taste, while Stingel’s process manufactures wonder. Wonder makes the difference between just a painting and a Painting, between the light of the lanterns on Kinkade’s evening lanes and the light of the candle of de la Tour, between Kinkade’s petals of hope and the hopelessness of Richter’s Baader-Meinhof corpses, between Kinkade’s good shepherd’s cottage and the decadence of Stingel’s birthday cake. Painting is the endless struggle between stupidity and shrewdness, between wonder and taste. Kinkade’s paintings are a biography of taste; Stingel’s are an autobiography of wonder. Richter’s are diaries of an atheist. Stupidity is, after all, the incapacity of resisting wonder. Shrewdness is the obsession of controlling wonder through taste. Painting can either aim for the picturesque, the cheesy cottage, the plurality of bad taste, the underdeveloped childhood inside the average viewer, or strive to be a great work of art, hence the triumph of resolution, the monological and mature expression of a single artistic intention.
In terms of economics, Thomas Kinkade was definitely not stupid, but that’s also why he was not a painter, while Rudolf Stingel is both stupid and a painter. That’s why Kinkade was doomed to the cottage and to the canvas, while Stingel, like Duchamp, can escape both and still be able to create painting, as he has done with carpet, rubber, tinfoil, and Styrofoam. My insistence in comparing these unlikely figures—Stingel, Kinkade, Richter, and Duchamp—who belong to completely different visual worlds is an attempt to stress that the mechanics of painting can lead to several different outcomes: one belonging to the realm of wonder and desire; another defined by the rule of taste and the exploitation of frustration; yet another belonging to the equivalence of any image; and the last one to the rejection of all these problems, stating that “there are no solutions because there are no problems.”1 Painting is definitely no solution, and it is definitely a big problem. Painting is the symbolic battlefield where many ideas of art confront each other. To deny Kinkade’s vision and his ten million collectors the right of an artistic legacy would be self-defeating arrogance. After all, in a hotel in Shanghai above my bed hung a cottage painting signed by Thomas Kinkade, not a silver painting by Stingel or a Richter landscape. Yet the subversion and invention of the mechanics of the aura in Stingel’s booklet of instructions inform us that artistic practice and painting are quite a different matter from the simple pleasing of an uninformed, or deformed, eye by the tyranny of taste and the addiction to the familiar and to the picturesque. In his stupidity, Rudolf Stingel has, at the same time, been able to defeat the retinal experience, so much despised by Duchamp, and to defeat the physicality of the conventional painting, through the use of not so much unlikely but unstable surfaces, just as Duchamp did with his “Large Glass.”
This subversion, embedded in all of Stingel’s work, is a delaying process, which is something Duchamp professed throughout his career. The instructions book is about delaying—the act of painting, the manifestation of aura, and the awareness of authorship. His Styrofoam footprint paintings are also about delay. The footprints descend on the surface in a manner that calls to mind a bird’s-eye-view rotation of Nude Descending a Staircase, and at the same time, they transform the heroic frenzied footwork of Jackson Pollock’s dripping into a mundane act. Like David Cronenberg’s film A History of Violence (2005), Rudolf Stingel’s History of Painting builds up to the climax of his work through a series of delayed experiments on various surfaces. While Cronenberg’s main character, Tom Stall (played by Viggo Mortensen), is delaying the viewer’s awareness of his deep and disturbing capacity for violence, Stingel’s journey similarly delays the viewer’s understanding of his amazing control over the traditional language of painting.
The apogee of Stingel’s work is reached with his series of self-portraits. The subject is not what we see. Creating an abstraction out of an image and the repetition of the same subject suggest that even an image can be endless. And this is why the subject is not the artist himself but the bipolar state of the subject of painting. These new series could be described as the history of melancholia or of depression—not melancholia or depression of the individual in an indulgent, existential, narcissist sense but the indulgence of the Western world in celebrating its own decline through the melancholia and the depression of its own modernity.
To look at these self-portraits as a departure from Stingel’s earlier work is a mistake. These works represent one of the many parallel paths of his continuation of the autobiography of painting. The early silver paintings and the recent self-portraits are the two poles of the bipolar nature of the artist and the bipolar nature of painting, torn between the limitless sublime and the suffocating boundaries of the mundane. With the self-portrait, Stingel strikes the final blow to the impossible argument of Kinkade’s art. The dictatorship of mediocrity cannot survive the basic survival instinct of any human being to confront wonder while abandoning the raft of taste. Maybe we don’t yet have the right answer for what makes a painting a Painting. Maybe there is no answer, or maybe the answer is to question painting, as Stingel does, over and over, looking deep and shallow at the same time, scratching the surface or collapsing under the weight of one’s identity. For painting can be either a revolving new beginning or a final act stuck like a record on the same word or note. There is in Stingel’s birthday cake a distinct feeling of a falling empire or the atmosphere of Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape (1959), with even the edge of Harold Pinter’s recent interpretation of the play. There is in this simple cheesy image of a man celebrating himself, probably alone, the weight of art history, the weight of generations of painters asking the same question and never finding the right answer, the responsibility to be in charge of Painting, maybe for the last time, maybe, and more tragically, forever.
1 Harriet and Sidney Janis, “Marcel Duchamp, Anti-Artist,” View, series V, no. 1 (March 1945): 24.