April Gornik, <em>Dune Sky</em>, 2007.

In the manner of Manifest Destiny, Cole’s landscapes challenge beholders to survive their representations of the sublime in nature, and they offer viewers a position of security from which to do so. Their “I dare you to experience” is met by our ability to experience. Gornik’s landscapes invite, rather than challenge. Her landscapes open toward the viewer. In Red Desert (2008) a play of color, light, and form invite me to move from the lower right corner to the low dunes at middle distance. In Storm Field (2008), undulating brushstrokes beckon me into the interior. The low dunes in Red Desert, like the trees in Storm Field and Dune Sky (2007), render the immensity of the landscape as if human in scale. These forms also lend my eye and body a hold in the midst of vastness.

A hold, but where, exactly? On the one hand, dunes and trees at the center of the paintings provide a resting place, and signal that a landscape has been arranged into a view. On the other hand, the eye and body hover, and the manner in which the depicted landscape is cut off at left and right indicates a world beyond the frame. The Horizon (2008) purports to provide landscape’s signal feature—a separation of earth and sky, and with it, an indication of where I stand in the landscape, visually and phenomenologically. Yet I hover at too far a distance to take in this view and the sky presses in much too closely from where I am suspended. The dark shapes on the crest of the hill stand out clearly, yet they are too insignificant in form and scale to remedy my suspension. In contrast to the rapturous physicality of the sky, the horizon is a flat line, not visible as such at first but insistently so, once I have made the necessary perceptual and bodily adjustments. I appear to be on the horizon of the nineteenth-century romantic landscape, separated from naturalism’s territory by a stroke.

April Gornik, <em>Red Desert</em>, 2008.

Where landscape has traditionally been associated with the transformation of the canvas into a window onto a world made “real,” Gornik’s landscapes press into the service of painting a world that is simultaneously real and oneiric. The play between naturalism and abstraction, real and invented or dream-like, is subtle in the artist’s landscapes (a paint stroke here, a loosening of form there). It can also be uncanny. Dune Sky’s composition and naturalism seem straightforward until it dawns on me that the abstract shapes etched in the dunes by a punishing sun, though plausible in Namibia, are disturbing when viewed from the territory depicted in the painting’s lower register. The taut play between naturalism and invention in Gornik’s artwork lures us in like old-fashioned illusionism and subtly reminds us that this is a painted world, a representational space separate from our own.

In defiance of tidy, generic artistic categories, Baudelaire defined romanticism as a “modern art.” Just as one country’s romanticism was not another’s, so was romanticism itself a fluid term—“a mode of feeling,” the outcome of the individual artist’s temperament, memory, and time.7 Baudelaire’s time was “modernity,” an epoch and an experience too new, too near to hand, to have been released from its scare quotes. Reinhart Koselleck observes that modernity designates a break between one chronological period and another, as well as a qualitative transformation in the sense of time itself.8 As a chronological marker and a signature of experience, the concept of modernity thus marks the difference between the character of its own time and the time that preceded it. Moreover, since modernity opens out onto an open-ended future, it carries within itself its own past and present: the coinage, at the end of the eighteenth century, of the phrase “newest time” attests to a separating out of the newest time—the contemporary—within the time and experience of modernity.

In 1863, Baudelaire situated the experience of modernity along a fault line between past and present, tradition and the new: “By ‘modernity’ I mean the ephemeral, the fugitive, and contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable.”9Even as Baudelaire’s knowledge of what constitutes modernity is recent enough to require scare quotes, his definition makes clear that modernity entails a break between past and present and an uncoupling from tradition—precisely the features that make modernity “new.” Baudelaire’s “modernity” might comprise the contingent and the immutable in equal measure. Yet by the time the experience of modernity is established enough to lose its scare quotes, Baudelaire’s balance between past and present is upset in favor of the “newest time,” and with it, of the ephemeral, the contingent, the “new” in art. Tradition, the inheritance the past offers the present, cannot be inherited. Failure to inherit is, then, not simply an “identity-establishing” feature of the modern but its very condition. “[We] stand within—we are—the discontinuity in question,” Gregg Horowitz declares. “It is our knowledge of what we cannot remember that shapes our identity.”10 Writing from within this condition of discontinuity, Yve-Alain Bois demonstrates why modernist painting bears the task of an inescapable mourning.11

Footnotes

  1. Charles Baudelaire, “The Salon of 1846,” 44, 43.
  2. Reinhart Koselleck, “’Neuzeit’: Remarks on the Semantics of the Modern Concepts of Movement,” in Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, trans. Keith Tribe (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1985), 231-66.
  3. Charles Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life” (1863), in Modern Art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology, ed. Francis Frascina and Charles Harrison (New York: Harper and Row, 1987), 23.
  4. Gregg Horowitz, Sustaining Loss: Art and Mournful Life (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), 19.
  5. Yve-Alain Bois, “Painting: The Task of Mourning,” in Endgame: Reference and Simulation in Recent Painting and Sculpture, by Bois, et. al. (Boston: Institute of Contemporary Art; Cambridge: MIT Press, 1986), 28-49. See also Thomas Lawson, “Last Exit Painting,” Artforum 20 (October 1981), 40-47.
Further Reading