The “Painting Is Dead” Versus “Painting Is Back” List

by Corinna Kirsch on February 4, 2014 · 8 comments History

We’ve been debating painting’s death for centuries now, and it seems we can’t quit. In 1839 the late French painter Paul Delaroche first dared to say those fateful words “painting is dead.” But even now nobody can agree if it’s dead; painting’s been reborn more times than we can count, thanks to critics who declare that “painting is back.” Is there any point to this seesawing between “painting is dead” and “painting is back”? Well, I did some quick and easy Google research and came up with a brilliant conclusion: My head hurts.

You don’t need to do research to feel art pangs, but anyway, I did some research. First I chose a representative essay from each year which declared the status of painting as either “dead” or “back.” Those are listed below. (A Google search returns approximately 66,300 results for “painting is back” and 175,000 results for “painting is dead.”) Then I made a very unscientific chart of the two Google search terms, featured above. As you can see there’s some back-and-forth between blue (“painting is dead”) and red (“painting is back”), at least in terms of Google search popularity. Take that with a grain of salt.

Now there’s one important irony I dragged out from all this “painting is dead” versus “painting is back.” Art critics often bring up “painting is dead,” but only to say they don’t believe it. Howard Halle and Jerry Saltz for example, are both quite fond of talking about—and dismissing—the “painting is dead” line of thinking. Oddly, it’s hard to find articles where people actually believe that painting is dead. Nobody’s willing to go on the record saying it is finally, truly, and forever dead. Instead, we get an in-crowd of critics attempting to knock down a straw man that nobody really believes in.

Critics, this post’s for you. There’s no better way to gage this absurd, meaningless chatter than looking at how these phrases have been used over the last decade in the articles below. My favorite, by James Kalm in a 2004 issue of The Brooklyn Rail: “Painting is dead. No painting is alive. No it’s dead, no it’s alive, no dead, no alive, dead, alive, yada yada yada.” I think it’s time we shut up now.

Painting Is Dead

2014 – “[Christopher] Wool is not asking if painting is dead or alive, instead he presents ghost-paintings: after-images created out of smoke.”

From “Off the Wall, Through the Surface, and Around the Painting,” Kevin Blake, Bad At Sports

2013 – “The only place painting is dead is the art world.” (Mario Naves)

From “Does Painting Still Matter?” Patrick Neal, Hyperallergic

2012 – “I always had this idea that paintings are zombies, because everybody says, ‘Painting is dead,’ and then they’re walking around happily — dead.” (Charline von Heyl)

From “Painting’s Not Dead: Charline von Heyl,” The Double Negative

2011 – “The history of modernism reads like an esthetic Book of the Dead. At the first glimmering of photography, painter Paul Delaroche fretted, ‘From today, painting is dead.’”

From “After the Drips,” Jerry Saltz, Artnet

2010 – “Painting is dead. Long live painting.”

By Howard Halle, Time Out New York

2009 – “It’s a widely held belief in the art world that painting is dead, one shared, if you accept his utterances on the matter, by none other than Gerhard Richter.”

From “Gerhard Richter,” Howard Halle, Time Out New York

2008 – “Painting is dead. Painting isn’t dead. Painting is dead! No, it isn’t! Yes, it is! Isn’t! Is! Shut up shut up shut up shut up!!!”

From “Some Paintings,” Doug Harvey, L.A. Weekly

2007 – “Except for diehards, the pleasure police, October magazine, pedantic curators and those last few Greenbergian critics who still insist that if painting isn’t about itself it’s washed up, no one thinks painting is dead.”

From “Back From the Brink,” Jerry Saltz, Artnet

2006 –  “For all of the regular pronouncements of the ‘death of painting’ it just refuses to roll over and play dead. Painting as possum. Not dead but just pretending to be as it gathers strength for yet another resurrection.”

From “Cecily Brown at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston,” Charles Giuliano, Berkshire Fine Arts

2005 – “As for the artists themselves, if painting is dead, needless to say, they’re more than happy to drag around the corpse for everyone to see.”

From “A New Lease on Painting,” Nichole Davis, Artnet

2004 – “Painting is dead. No painting is alive. No it’s dead, no it’s alive, no dead, no alive, dead, alive, yada yada yada. Actually painting is not dead; it’s more like Neil Young’s “Rust,” in that… it never sleeps.”

From “Cynthia Hartling,” James Kalm, The Brooklyn Rail

Painting Is Back

2014 – “Painting is back!” gasps Patrizia. “The medium is returning to the center of the international art stage!”

From “Star-tissima: The Grande Donna of Contemporary Turin,” Simon Hewitt, The Huffington Post

2013 – “Painting seems to be back in fashion.”

From “British Painting Is Back,” David Killen, Prospect Magazine

2012 – “Painting is back, big time, but the late modern dream of pure painting is not.”

From “Ecstatic Dots and Dashes,” John Haber, Haber Arts

2011 – “A prominent curator in the U.K. recently said that she thought the 2004 Whitney Biennal was effectively proposing that “painting is back.”

From “Why Nothing Can Be Accomplished in Painting, and Why It Is Important to Keep Trying,” James Elkins (From 2004, Revised in 2011)

2010 – “Now painting is back, but with an unfocused anger that from week to week may target busy installations or empty ones, political or conceptual art, new and old media.”

From “Distinction or Dichotomy,” John Haber, Haber Arts

2009 – “Stop the presses! Hold that headline! Run a retraction! All of two pages ago I doubted whether painting would ever be ‘back.’ But yes, Virginia. Painting is Back.”

From “Beyond Hard-Edge,” James Panero, the New Criterion (originally published in 2005)

2008 – “After two visits to Pace Wildenstein Gallery, the site of the recent Thomas Nozkowski exhibition, I am willing to place my bet that abstract painting is back in the saddle not because of the market, but that it means something.”

From “Meaning in Art,” Robert C. Morgan, The Brooklyn Rail

2007 – “Abstract painting is back.”

From “The New Abstraction,” Barbara A. MacAdam, ARTnews

2006 – “Though once declared dead, painting, and especially figurative painting is back in fashion, and prices for these artists confirm that.”

From “Market News: Princess Margaret’s Collection and More,” Colin Gleadell, The Telegraph

2005 – “There’s certainly a lot of talk about painting being back,” says Pablo Lafuente.

From “Why Painting Is Back in the Frame,” The Telegraph

2004 – “Shunned for two decades as ‘decorative,’ works on canvas resume their place.

From “Painting Is Back,” The Christian Science Monitor


kim bunchalastnames February 4, 2014 at 7:59 pm

alternatives: “painting not dead, just old and tired and can’t find its slippers”; “painting is undead”; “we still haven’t settled ‘what is art?’ so the whole dead or back issue just needs to shut up and keep walking.”

Den Hickey February 5, 2014 at 12:45 am

Painting is for Necrophiles.

charlesrkiss February 6, 2014 at 1:50 am

Painting is only dead for those who lack creativity and imagination; and for whom will use “avant garde” materials and methods simply as crutches.

R. Emora February 6, 2014 at 9:29 am

I suggest it was Mr. Green, in the Hall, with the revolver.

GiovanniGF February 6, 2014 at 6:33 pm

Painters are dead.

charlesrkiss February 7, 2014 at 2:24 am

August, 2009: The Peak of the “Glorious Three Months” when Nobody Cared.

Ben Steven Kosak Laden July 20, 2014 at 11:27 pm

Without painting there’d be nothing for rich people to put in their dining/living rooms. Maybe retro movie posters, but they don’t cost enough. No only paintings are expensive enough to be appropriate.

Art January 3, 2015 at 11:39 pm

The reason that I think painting is “dead” is because in the last 40 years or so, there hasn’t been a movement that has delivered anything new and exciting to the evolution of art. Since abstraction, pop art and minimalism, all I see are rehashes of past styles and concepts. Painting is an exhausted medium. There’s really no way to open peoples’ eyes anymore with paints and brushes. In fact, now, the act of painting itself seems rather quaint and anachronistic in our 21st century digital world.

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