JO NATHAN L AS KER
CHE I M & RE AD NE W YORK
SIGNS OF EXPERIENCE Raphael Rubinstein What happens when someone is looking at a painting? This seems like it should be the primary question of art criticism, but in fact it is very rarely addressed. Instead, writers nearly always focus on the art object itself rather than on the experience of the spectator. The chief modes in which art criticism is written—descriptions of the work, accounts of the artist’s life and process, comparisons with other art works—tend to leave out what viewers think and feel as they look at a particular work of art. Now, it could be argued that a description of a painting is an account of how the author of the description has looked at the painting, and that this description, if it is by an informed, perceptive critic, could constitute a version of (or even model for) how any viewer might look at the work. The problem with this argument is that the physical facts of the work remain in charge since nearly all art writers pledge fidelity to the art object rather than to its beholders. An object hanging on a wall or placed on the floor—I’m thinking, here, of mediums such as painting and sculpture rather than conceptual art—can’t really be conflated with my experience of it. My mental activity when looking at an art work, and even more so when I might recall it after I have left its presence, is hardly equivalent to the physical facts of the work. How could it be? On one side is an object, a thing in space; on the other a duration involving the restless cascading of millions of neurons and, as the science of embodied cognition reminds us, the body in which they reside. As Maurice Merleau-Ponty phrased it in Phenomenology of Perception, “What is given [to perception] is not the thing on its own, but the experience of the thing.” 1 Interestingly, it is the domain of literature rather than art criticism that is more likely to offer an account of a work of art which fully acknowledges the role of the viewer. Think of John
Ashbery’s poem “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” Gertrude Stein’s early pieces on Matisse and Picasso, certain passages from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse or, in a different mode, Don DeLillo’s short story “Baader-Meinhof.” Occasionally, art critics engage in such “experiential” writing, as when Leo Steinberg, in his famous 1960 lecture “Contemporary Art and the Plight of Its Public,” confesses how he was left “depressed” by his first encounter with the work of Jasper Johns or when John Berger, in his 1973 article “Between Two Colmars,” describes in detail his thoughts on two visits he made to Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece. But all too often, despite widespread concurrence with Duchamp’s remark that it is the viewer who completes the work, the history of what happens in the mind of the viewer is passed over in silence. I raise this issue here because my experience of looking at the paintings of Jonathan Lasker has long been one that involves not only intense mental activity, but also heightened consciousness of that activity. There’s something about Lasker’s art that leads me to reflect on the experience of looking at the very moment of that looking: what I take away from an encounter with one of his paintings is not only a visual memory, not only the kind of pleasurable afterglow you get from looking at a compelling painting, but also the exhilaration that accompanies a dose of intellectual exertion. Looking at a Lasker painting I feel that I am engaged in something similar to what happens when I am reading philosophy. (Let me say immediately that I don’t mean that Lasker’s paintings are any kind of diagrammatic visualization of philosophical discourse; they are absolutely autonomous visual creations, paintings that address us always as paintings and not any kind of translation from some other realm.) So, what exactly do I think about when I look at one of Lasker’s paintings, these visually bold, exquisitely executed, conceptually fraught canvases that have been exerting a powerful influence—still, I’m sorry to say, barely acknowledged by U.S. museums—on contemporary painting over the past 30 years? One path of thought, one topic, his work often leads me to consider is the relationship between mental images and physical objects: what gets lost or gained between one and the other, and, more acutely, the gap between
the image I carry around in my mind of a person and the actual autonomous individual. Another field his work—with its endless games of doubled, transposed and translated forms—elicits reflections on is that of identity, the constitution and fracturing of the self. Looking at his paintings I also find myself pondering social relationships, the constant back and forth between integration and isolation that constitutes our daily lives. Lasker may not be the only contemporary painter to stimulate these kinds of meditations, but there is something in the way he deploys his instantly recognizable (yet always surprising) toolkit of scribbled lines, wet-into-wet gestures, grids and solid-color grounds that leads me—and, I suspect, others as well—into these kinds of meditations. I’m not arguing here for some entirely subjective approach to art that marginalizes the artwork in favor of unconstrained subjectivity. As I think my own thoughts in front of a painting by Lasker such as For John Hancock (2013) I am also trying to follow the artist’s thinking, seeking to reconstruct the process, logical or illogical, that might have led to particular juxtapositions, particular singling out or obscuring of details, particular color choices, particular shifts between closed and open forms, between the grid and the tangle. (I’m helped in this by the artist’s practice of leaving visible evidence of his process in the finished painting—look, for instance, at the traces of differently colored paint along the edges of his thick wet-into-wet gestures.) But as I do so I have the sense that Lasker’s painterly decisions are as much the result of his struggles with big Mind-Body-Society questions as with finding solutions to the artistic-technical challenges he sets himself. (In support of this proposition, here’s a sampling of Lasker titles from over the years: NonSequitur Psyche, Ego Worship, Brain Anti-Brain, Formalities of Self, Selective Identity, Collective Singularity.) The content of the work is the fusion or braiding together of these lines of thought, which I experience more or less simultaneously. Ultimately I find myself not so much thinking about the painting as thinking with it. It is not a picture or diagram of thought, it is thought itself, thought that is always already in visual form. One reason that Lasker’s work is so conducive to philosophical speculation may be the way he assembles his paintings from individual entities, endowing every element in his
compositions with a distinct, clearly defined form. The concept of painting as an assembly of many distinct forms is on impressive display in The Universal Frame of Reference (2014), a big painting in which a central enclosed area is surrounded by over 50 separate linear motifs executed in familiar Lasker modes—what’s unfamiliar, however, is the structure itself, which the artist only first used in The Handicapper’s Faith (2011) and then in a pair of 2013 works, Dislocations in a Frame of Reference and Luck or Math. 2 In these “teeming margin” (to hazard a name for the format) paintings, as in Lasker’s entire oeuvre, each form is like an aperçu, a fact, a proposition, insisting that we apprehend it and analyze it and, then, situate it in relation to the other distinct entities nearby. This act of situating means that we have to engage with a central premise of Lasker’s paintings: the suggestion of depth. In his initial rejection of Greenbergian flatness, Lasker began to use relative size to suggest illusionistic space in his paintings; later he introduced heavy impasto, which could also imply, and even achieve, three-dimensional relationships. Because they appear to be composed largely of “flat” elements, and because they always announce their materiality, these aren’t the kind of paintings we expect to imply spatial depth. The artist has often spoken and written about his use of this device. As he explains in the catalogue of a recent museum exhibition in France, “All my paintings have deep space clues in the backgrounds, although they can also be read as flat. This is exactly the idea. I want the images to imply illusionistic space, while, at the same time, grounding the viewer in literal flat painting space and the physical properties of paint.” 3 Lasker was among a number of New York painters who, in the late 1970s, dared to reintroduce illusionistic space into abstract painting. Years before the apostate Frank Stella inveighed against flatness in his manifesto Working Space, artists such as Lasker, Elizabeth Murray, Bill Jensen and Thomas Nozkowski opened up their paintings to an enhanced spatiality. On the subject of dimensionality in Lasker’s work, it’s interesting how often his forms suggest affinities with sculpture, especially the work of postwar abstract sculptors such as Ibram Lassaw and Eduardo Chillida. Contributing strongly to this impression is Lasker’s habit of often positioning his thick black-line forms just above horizontal lines so that they seem to be sitting on pedestals or shelves, or even along the
bottom edge of the painting. This pedestalling of forms is central to two of the larger paintings in this show, The Remnant of Spirit and The Plus Sign at Golgotha, and is also visible in smaller paintings such as Universal Success and The War of Specious Arguments. As I think about the connection between Lasker’s work and the abstract modalities that arose in the late 1940s and 1950s, I can’t help but notice how, quite surprisingly for a New York artist of his generation, his work exhibits strong affinities with the paintings of European artists such as Pierre Soulages, Hans Hartung, Giuseppe Capogrossi and Antonio Saura. This may be partly the result of Lasker spending much of his early twenties in Germany and England, but it’s also because, in some cases, he sought out this kind of work. In a recent conversation, he recalled to me discovering the paintings of Saura, and how the work of this Spanish painter, who excelled in using a limited palette of blacks, grays and whites in the service of gestural-based figuration, was important to him. The most interesting painters are often those who ask the most interesting questions about their medium, and Lasker has been asking intriguing questions about painting for a long time. Unlike many in the previous generation, his questions are not reductive. He doesn’t, say, tack up a piece of canvas, and ask, “Is this a painting?” He also doesn’t get caught up in the doldrums of the abstract/figurative debate, precisely because he lets figural associations freely infect his ostensibly abstract paintings. Nor are his questions about technological novelty. Instead, Lasker takes certain conventions of the stretched canvas (actually, Lasker favors linen) for granted, all the while seeking to undermine assumptions about painting from within. (In this he reminds me of certain post-punk British bands that seek to disrupt rock music within the confines of the short, tightly structured guitar-bassand-drums structure: Wire, The Fall, Gang of Four.) In a 2006 conversation with fellow painter David Reed, Lasker recalled how, in the beginning, for him “it was a question of using a brushstroke and wanting to also make it a thing, which was part of the question: how can I make a painting that is an object unto itself, as well as a picture?” 4
The issue of conventions is a complex one in Lasker’s work. In an interview with David Ryan he acknowledges that certain aspects of his forms can seem derived from the conventions of Abstract Expressionism, but, the artist points out, “they’re rendered in a way that is unfamiliar.” 5 By this, Lasker means that his process, which involves methodically carrying a composition from a sketch to a small oil painting and ultimately to a full-scale canvas, is fundamentally different from the more direct, often improvisatory approach of classic Abstract Expressionism. Lasker’s strategy of defamiliarization also depends, of course, on the relationships among different elements in his paintings. For instance, in The Remnant of Spirit, a somewhat fuzzy pink and gray central form that looks like it might have strayed out of a painting by William Baziotes finds itself hovering between two highly impastoed shapes that seem stylistically antithetical to it. In fact, from the beginning of his career, Lasker, in his quest for a “discursive” rather than “monotopical” art, has relished such disjunctions, assembling his paintings out of elements, visual signs, that had been considered irreconcilable. 6 As he once admitted, “My paintings are definitely meant to be puzzles. They are not meant to be declarative images.” 7 A second and arguably more radical kind of irreconcilability is also present in The Remnant of Spirit and a related painting titled The Plus Sign at Golgotha: cruciform shapes. Given the staunchly secular nature of most contemporary art, and Lasker’s fairly careful avoidance in all his previous work of any motif with such a specific reference, these crosses are startling. (One side effect of this disruptive quality is that viewers may not immediately notice that they are painted with pastel hues, which Lasker has rarely employed so emphatically.) A literal-minded viewer might wonder if these unexpected crosses are signs of the artist’s religious conversion (they aren’t). The cruciform shape emerged more or less unbidden as Lasker played with chopping up one of his recurring motifs, the grid. Realizing that particular grid fragments resulted in cross forms, and curious about the dialogue with art history that would ensue, the artist began to introduce the cruciform motifs into some of his paintings. It’s fascinating to look at these paintings and consider their relation to everything from Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece to postwar crucifixion paintings by Francis Bacon and Graham Sutherland. Also in play, of course, are the bold cruciform
motifs in many of Malevich’s Suprematist abstractions. But art-historically minded viewers should be cautious in reading into the work an explicit spiritual or theological program– Lasker is not pursuing any kind of abstract religious narrative as Barnett Newman did in his Stations of the Cross. He is, however, consciously making things difficult for his viewers, presenting them with a new conundrum. What if these apparitions of the cross are meant to imply that the other motifs in Lasker’s paintings may contain similarly symbolic import, a similar density of feeling? Or, on the contrary, does the artist want us to appreciate the stark difference between the iconic nature of the cross and the kinds of significations conveyed by the rest of his lexicon of forms? Should we, then, read these paintings as critiques of iconophilia? Or maybe are they meant as comedic statements? The title The Plus Sign at Golgotha with its cheeky conflation of math and theology certainly suggests a humorous intention. Although it isn’t sufficiently acknowledged, humor has been a recurrent feature of Lasker’s work for a long time, from the deliberately off-register lines and clichéd palette-knife shapes in his early “Motel” paintings to so many subsequent works in which his blocky forms seem engaged in a kind of Beckettian slapstick, shadowing, imitating, parodying and interfering with one another. Like all great physical comedians, Lasker’s paintings remind us that when human aspirations, be they grand or humble, have to cope with flesh-and-blood bodies (or with the equally earthbound materials of painting), sometimes the only possible outcome is laughter. Yet just as I find myself leaning toward a comedic reading of these paintings, I come across a 1992 text by Lasker that ends: “I feel that the job of the artist in today’s society is not to be radical but rather to work on rebuilding faith in meaning.” 8 I have no doubt that Lasker was fully aware of how unfashionable such a stance was in 1992, and it’s probably even more so now. How, after decades of post-structuralist, deconstructive critique, could an artist profess “faith in meaning”? Lasker could sincerely take this position because for him the “death of painting” was so fully a fait accompli, and, admirably, he was more drawn to “rebuilding” than engaging in some mopping-up operations or stubborn pursuit of “last
paintings.” Or, as Arthur Danto famously phrased it in an April 1993 Artforum article—for which Lasker’s painting Invective Decor (1990) served as the cover image—“Art After the End of Art.” It made sense at the time for a Lasker painting to serve as the emblem of Danto’s article, but I wonder, now, if the kind of “death” or “end” Lasker is more concerned with is our own. Along with the margin-and-center structure and the appearance of the cross, there is still a third new development to be seen in Lasker’s recent work: the incorporation of his initials or stylized signature into the paintings. In the small oil on canvas-board painting Repetitive Identities, for instance, the intials JL appear twice (everything in this brilliant little painting is doubled, and with devilish complexity). A similarly sized painting, Signatory Powers, incorporates signature and date (“J Lasker 2015”) written with the same fluid red line that has been used for the scribbled-line motif that fills most of the composition. Initials also appear in Illusions of the Self and Abstract Picture with Monogram (2011); in 2012 a small work titled Personal Intervention includes (in purple, green and orange impasto) “Lasker 2012.” The earliest signature paintings are Proof of Identity (2008) and Drawing Blanks (2003), but the artist appears to have put the idea to the side until recently. The history of monograms and signatures becoming part of the content of art is a long one, from Dürer’s distinctive AD monogram to Francis Picabia’s economically subversive act of signing his own signature to Stuart Davis loading increasing compositional importance onto his painted signature in the late 1950s to Supports/Surfaces artist Louis Cane rubberstamping his name hundreds of times onto large canvases in the late 1960s. As anyone who has read Jacques Derrida’s “essay + R (Into the Bargain)” about Valerio Adami knows, a signature in a drawing or a painting can play multiple roles. 9 Lasker’s introduction of his initials and name into his paintings was unplanned. As he recalled in a recent email, “The initials came about accidentally. I was doing my scribble drawing on the painting’s surface and somehow an area shaped like an L was blank. This made me think of the last initial of my name. After using initials, using full signature was a natural progression.”
For me, and for many others, especially many other painters, Jonathan Lasker is an emblematic artist of our time. To the degree that any of his painting is instantly recognizable, it seems superfluous to tag them with a signature. What these letters do tell us, however, or remind us of, is that the artist is present in a work, and that as time goes on that presence makes itself felt more and more until, ultimately, the artist and the work are a single entity. Except that with Lasker it has never been a question of single entities.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith, London and Henley, Routledge & Keegan
Paul, 1962, p. 325. 2
During a studio visit in the fall of 2015, Lasker explained to me how he developed this format when he found himself having
to work on an unusual paper size while in Germany. Using the margins of the paper to try out forms for what he imagined would be the final composition in the center, at some point he realized that combining the wide bands of peripheral forms with the central rectangle might lead to a new way of organizing a painting. 3
“Interview of Jonathan Lasker by Marie Griffay,” in Jonathan Lasker, Museé d’art moderne et contemporaine de Saint-
Étienne Métropole, Saint-Étienne, 2015, p. 49. 4
“Discussion Between Jonathan Lasker and David Reed on June 28, 2006 at the Studio in Manhattan,” in Jonathan Lasker,
Gallery Alain Noirhomme, Brussels, 2006, p. 11. 5
“Jonathan Lasker in conversation with David Ryan (1997),” in David Ryan, Talking Painting: Dialogues with Twelve
Contemporary Abstract Painters, Routledge, London and New York, 2002, p. 150. 6
See Lasker’s 1986 statement “After Abstraction,” reprinted in Jonathan Lasker, Complete Essays 1984-1998, Edgewise,
New York, 1998, pp. 20-21. 7
Ibid., p. 15.
Jonathan Lasker, “Comments on Clement Greenberg’s ‘The Avant-Garde and Kitsch,’” in Jonathan Lasker, Complete
Essays 1984–1998, p. 37. It’s interesting to compare Lasker’s use of the terms “faith” and “discursiveness” with how Thomas Lawson employs them in the conclusion of his 1981 Artforum essay “Last Exit: Painting.” Despite their shared vocabulary, Lawson and Lasker arrive at very different visions for the future of painting. 9
See Jacques Derrida, The Truth in Painting, trans. Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod, University of Chicago Press,
Chicago and London, 1987. Although Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological writing is probably much better suited to Lasker’s art than Derrida’s deconstructive approach, there’s an essay in The Truth of Painting (“Parergon”) about the concept of the frame that might be worthwhile to read in relation to Lasker’s painting The Universal Frame of Reference.
Untitled 2013 graphite and india ink on paper 22 x 30 in 55.9 x 76.2 cm
Untitled 2013 graphite and india ink on paper 22 x 30 in 55.9 x 76.2 cm
Untitled 2013 graphite and india ink on paper 22 x 30 in 55.9 x 76.2 cm
For John Hancock 2013 oil on linen 75 x 100 in 190.5 x 254 cm
Commercial Cults 2014 oil on canvasboard 12 x 16 in 30.5 x 40.6 cm
Commerce and Darkness 2014 oil on linen 60 x 80 in 152.4 x 203.2 cm
Universal Success 2014 oil on canvasboard 12 x 16 in 30.5 x 40.6 cm
The Universal Frame of Reference 2014 oil on linen 90 x 120 in 228.6 x 304.8 cm
Pictorial Objects 2014 oil on linen 60 x 80 in 152.4 x 203.2 cm
The Plus Sign at Golgotha 2014 oil on linen 60 x 80 in 152.4 x 203.2 cm
The Spirit Life of Things 2015 oil on canvasboard 12 x 16 in 30.5 x 40.6 cm
Trust over Truth 2015 oil on canvasboard 12 x 16 in 30.5 x 40.6 cm
Repetitive Identity 2015 oil on canvasboard 12 x 16 in 30.5 x 40.6 cm
The End of Relevance 2015 oil on linen 60 x 80 in 152.4 x 203.2 cm
Signatory Powers 2015 oil on canvasboard 12 x 16 in 30.5 x 40.6 cm
The Remnant of Spirit 2015 oil on linen 75 x 100 in 190.5 x 254 cm
Democratic Beauty 2015 oil on linen 30 x 40 in 76.2 x 101.6 cm
Lasker was born in Jersey City, New Jersey, in 1948, and currently lives and works in New York City. In the late 1970s, after studying at the School of Visual Arts, in New York, he attended the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, California. Lasker has had recent exhibitions in France, Norway, Sweden, and the UK, and has shown at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, Documenta IX in Kassel, and the Reina Sofia in Madrid. He has lectured extensively in the United States and Europe, and received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1987 and 1989. Lasker’s work is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art; The Broad Art Foundation, Santa Monica; Fundacio La Caixa, Barcelona; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris; and Moderna Museet, Stockholm, among others. Lasker is represented by Cheim & Read, New York.
Published on the occasion of the 2016 Cheim & Read exhibition, Jonathan Lasker, 1/7–2/13/16. Design John Cheim. Essay Raphael Rubinstein. Editor Ellen Robinson. Photography Ron Amstutz, Brian Buckley and Christopher Burke. Portrait Barbara Probst. Printed in the United States by GHP Media. ISBN 978–1–944316–01–3.
CHE I M & RE AD
Exhibition catalogue for Jonathan Lasker at Cheim & Read. January 7 - February 13, 2016.