Painting in the Age of The Screen

This essay was first presented at the 102nd Annual Conference of the College Art Association held in Chicago, IL in February 2014 for the session "Painting in the Digital Age: Twenty-first Century Re-contextualization", chaired by Amy Schissel

To be a painter is to be aware of the pale of history that precedes yourself, to act in faith, to embark on a practice that has been executed and been resurrected countless times. To long for an authentic relationship with an entity that is simultaneously an image, an object and an index. It is a connection that is quite different from the one we have with the screen; whether that be television or the computer monitor, YouTube, Vimeo, computer games, or websites such as Instagram, Pinterest or Facebook. This contradistinction was delineated rather poetically by Jonathan Lasker in an interview with David Ryan in 1997: 

I've personally always asserted that in fact it [painting] is one of the most interesting media currently, because of its capacity to engage illusionism, or rather a mediated image, something that doesn't actually exist, and at the same time to present a very actual experience. It's a dialectical situation. In this way, painting presents these two tendencies very clearly, whereas other media do not. In most films for example, you're really not aware of the cinematic process, you go straight 'through’ the medium into the illusion.(1) 

The relationship Lasker alludes to I believe is one that is betwixt and between, and arguably beyond one of the aura. Moreover, I argue it is concerned with time. The screen acts as filter, it flattens out information in both tactile and hierarchical ways. Painting depends on slowness, its ability to be ever-present. As the quote above suggests it works to rather combine experience, to position the viewer into a different space regulated both by her and the object simultaneously. 

Inherently, painting is about the making and storing of time. Time is contained within painting by the mark, which in turn holds the maker into the object as trace through accumulated process. This store of temporal data, marks laid out over time, is ultimately consumed differently in other formats, for example duration in video and the fleeting moment in photography, wherein painting arguably deals with dilation, as David Joselit has suggested.(2)

What sets it apart (and that is actually what we are discussing here, a compartmentalization) is its materialness, as Lasker suggests. But, it is important to stress this need not reinforce dated medium-specific absolutes that privilege discussions of abstraction as the penultimate expression and definition of painting. These qualities of differentiation do not lead to “strategies”, in and of themselves, but rather how they can work in tandem with painting in relation to pictorial theories dating back to the Renaissance, wherein painting was a window into another realm. 

Of course, this agency of yore was replaced with the advent of photography and predicted when Paul Delaroche is credited with stating “from today, painting is dead” upon seeing his first daguerrotype in 1839. Verisimilitude as the pinnacle of painting’s import and purpose had been challenged and thus allowed artists from the surrealists through the cubists and futurists to begin to deal with the depiction alternate realities and dimensions, in other words, realms that were beyond the capabilities of photography to represent. But just as photography “took” from painting, it was artists in the 1970s who identified and borrowed one of the integral components of photography, that of the index, to re-position painting in a landscape dominated by the mechanically reproduced image. As Rosalind Krauss brilliantly described in 1977(3) object-makers, performance artists and interventionists were now using the idea of the indexical trace in a manner that built upon the prevalent theoretical discourse of photography constructed by everyone from Walter Benjamin to Roland Barthes. Artists like Lucio Pozzi were then exploring a terrain first chartered by Duchamp wherein the physical object can also function as a shifter, to use a semiotician’s vocabulary, to bring it back into the realm of the real and away from the dead-end modernist pursuit of autonomy. Then the rise of virtual realities, the realm of the digital, questioned the role the art object and its slippage between realm of the hyperreal and the simulacra. This is of course lead to the rise of the participatory projects of the 1990s, but now after the post-modern era we find ourselves in a landscape resembling more that of the late-modern or altermodern as defined by Nicolas Bourriaud. Our historicist understanding of the world had not be subsumed, rather we are beginning to see the world as a series of intertwined narratives, an archipelago rather than a continent.(4) But, we have yet to shed the progressivist aim of the avante-garde, although our strategies are much more complex and can be better understood by the structural quality of the rhizome as many have suggested. We have moved past the era of perpetual ending and to that of alternative and multiple outcomes.

It is now important that we make a further distinction between painting and the screen. Addressing the “vast image population explosion” in his recent text After Art, David Joselit concludes that the proliferation of visual data in our age lead to the breakdown of the modernist “era of art”. It is no longer necessary to argue for the autonomy of art, nor is it possible for anyone now to maintain that visual art alone has the capacity to produce alternative realities in our age of the screen. Instead, he addresses a different type of agency, “...‘art’, defined as a private creative pursuit leading to significant and profitable discoveries of how images may carry new content has given way to the formatting and reformatting of existing content - to an Epistemology of Search.” He continues on to state that “the major consequence of this shift is that art now exists as a fold, or disruption, or event within a population of images”.(5) This is counter to the match, set and game modernity played out on an endless loop.(6)

It is in this “fold”, this interstice, where painting now finds its home. Not necessarily in opposition to the screen but rather in relation to it, it is more of a symbiotic relationship. Painting as a window functions differently, as Lasker suggests. It is a disruption, a passageway that is also a storage bin of information and experience. It is a space between, and an activity that is inherently about expansion and accumulation of experience. Today we fully understand that we reference a reality that is always already image. Not purely in a Bergsonian sense, rather it is one that is intertwined with the idea of the “detachable” image as it has been discussed by Barry Schwabsky.(7) Our understanding of the “image” today is that it is nomadic, able to rapidly change scale, location and context. A thing never fixed in any given material form. Therefore, I ask when taking about painting today how can we consider the slowness of painting without the speed of the digital image?

Time and the need to physically confront the art object does not necessarily have to deal solely with the aura, it is rather the manner in which painting confronts the duality of the “ever-present”(8) that is worth discussion today. Perhaps, we can find this space between the screen and painting by considering the formers material status, as Lane Relyea describes it, “the space of the monitor is neither physical or illusionistic, neither like a body nor an envelope; it’s instead an interstitial space, always between, relaying input and feedback, command and performance, facilitating the call and response of communication.”(9) The interjection of the physicality of painting in concert with the mimetic and scopic array only achievable with pigment and its infinite range of color possibilities is how we can find a way for painting to engage in a dialectic with digital media and wherein with the latter we can explore its foibles and boundaries.(10)

These “limitations” can be best described by referring to the work of Lev Manovich who describes the essence of the digital image thusly, “…in terms of its code [its material status], an image exists on the same conceptual plane as other computer objects.”(11) The screen is obviously a physical presence or object, but what it conveys is “inherently immaterial”. Physically the screen is flat and finite, whilst as a window it is expansive and boundless in the space-time continuum.

How then can we discuss painting in relation to the screen? It is also a flat and finite surface, but its difference is that the time it depicts is one that is frozen. Yet, it is different than the way photography depicts “the fleeting moment” as I mentioned before. But how? I would put forward the argument that the way the hand of the artist and the physical marking of time accumulated on the surface of the painting act as a filter through which we view the image/object dialectic described by Jonathan Lasker moves painting into another space, one where the network of the human touch repositions painting as a hybrid object, one capable of depicting time through the depicted space and the trace left on its surface. It can borrow from the strategy of the screen, but move to a space that cannot be duplicated by reproductive technology, or as Lance Winn describes into the need to be seen.(12)

To explore this state, let us examine the recent work of Monica Majoli, in particular her “Black Mirror” series discussed at length by Bruce Hainley in the May 2013 issue of Artforum. These paintings much like those of Ad Reinhardt defy reproduction, to perceive the image one has to stare at the image for a prolonged time, it forces the viewer to slow down to enter the time of painting. These are images that counter the speed of the digital image, ones where the painted surface acts as camouflage to conceal the depicted. In the case of Majoli, it makes the viewer linger in this voyeuristic realm long enough to become aware and uncomfortable perhaps of being viewed while viewing. This, call it performative aspect of the physical condition of painting, is inherent in delivering the content of the image. This experience, much akin to the one you feel when viewing Étant donnés is fundamental to understanding this work. Additionally, it simultaneously mimics or duplicates the time it takes to create such an image, and thus calls to attention the way painting stores time.

To approximate the physical experience of seeing these paintings, the photomechanical reproduction has to be altered and tweaked. A computer monitor or projector has to be specially calibrated to present an approximation of the painting. This, like the work of Reinhardt and Anish Kapoor, to some extent, calls attention to the limits of the digital, it causes a sense of longing in the viewer who must only encounter these objects through reproduction. This yearning to see, to engage in another space, is how painting can work in concert with the screen to rediscover a way of being. Our knowledge of the limits of the screen to depict reality is multitudinous. “Whether or Tumblr or Instagram, ‘Real Housewives’, or ‘Hoarders’, reality, or what stands in for it frequently seems to exist for the reason of being filmed” as Bruce Hainley describes, “…Reality now appears to be already elsewhere, existing only as a distraction.”(13) Is this our understanding of what the screen imparts? Do we intrinsically believe it always depicts a hyperreal space - a falsehood? If that in fact is the way we see images on the screen, not only as approximations, but as something to perpetually suspect, then perhaps a longing to return to direct observation and a longing for protracted relationship with objects is not far off. We passively “take in” images through the screen, wherein we need to actively view paintings in order to appreciate the complexity of their experiential quality.

We have all been at museums where people snap photos of the works on view, and sometimes only look at the painting through their smartphone’s camera: “collecting” these images as David Joselit has described it.(14) Perhaps, in its struggle to be seen painting can strive to be invisible or irreproducible as a strategy to engage the viewer, by demanding them to be looked at without the filter of the screen coming between the object and its interlocutor. 

This strategy is present in the work of Maaike Schoorel, whose subjects can only be perceived after a similarly protracted process to the aforementioned. They also draw on subtlety as a strategy of engagement. Let me interject that I do recognize the irony and theoretical disconnect that I am presenting these images to you today only as poor, limited reproductions. But, this is exactly my point, that in seeing these paintings in this way we are all aware that we cannot fully see them. This brings about a melancholic longing, or perhaps a feeling of indifference, but regardless it calls attention to the tenuous relation of painting to the screen. Making one aware of the limits of one and the infinite possibilities of the other; where the physical embodiment of the image is once again viable. 

In conclusion, perhaps in this quest to be seen paintings do have to strive to be unseen. Similar to the manner in which photography freed painting to expand and morph into something else, we are now at a place in time where the dominance and omnipresence of the screen allows painting to define itself anew.


1. from “Jonathan Lasker in Conversation with David Ryan (1997)” in Talking Painting: Dialogues with Twelve Contemporary Abstract Painters, David Ryan. (p. 147), Routledge, 2002. ISBN 978-0415276290.
2. from a lecture in the session Painting as Subject, moderated by Joseph Koerner at the symposium Painting Beyond Itself: The Medium in the Post-medium Condition at Harvard University, April 12, 2013
3. As discussed by in the essay “Notes on the Index: Seventies Art in America”, published in OCTOBER in two parts in Volume 3 (Spring, 1977) and 4 (Autumn, 1977)
4. Referring to one of the major themes of the catalogue essay “Altermodern” by Nicolas Bourriaud, from Altermodern, Tate Publishing, 2009. ISBN-13: 978-1854378170.
5. from After Art, David Joeslit, Princeton University Press, 2013. ISBN 978-0-691-1504404. (page 89)
6. This idea references the key argument presented by Yves-Alain Bois in the chapter “Painting: The Task of Mourning” from the text Painting as Model, MIT Press, 1993. ISBN-13: 978-0262521802.
7. as discussed in “An Art That Eats Its Own Head: Painting in the Age of the Image” from The Triumph of Painting, The Saatchi Gallery, 2005. ISBN-13: 978-0224075992.
8. long examined by Barbara Maria Stafford in relation to Hubert Damisch
9. excerpted from the essay “Virtually Formal” published in Artforum International, Vol. 37, No. 1; September, 1998
10. see the chapter “Iman[in]ing the Digital” from After Modernist Painting, by Craig Staff, I.B. Tauris, 2013. ISBN-13: 978-1780761800. (page 149)
11. excerpted from The Language of New Media, MIT Press, 2002. ISBN-13: 978-0262632553. (page 289)
12. from “The Work of Painting”, by Lance Winn presented at the 102nd Annual Conference of the College Art Association on the same panel.
13. excerpted from the essay “Painted Veil” published in Artforum International, Vol. 51, No. 9; May, 2013.
14. from a lecture in the session Painting as Subject, moderated by Joseph Koerner at the symposium Painting Beyond Itself: The Medium in the Post-medium Condition at Harvard University, April 12, 2013