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PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 25.1 (2003) 86-90

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The Premature Burial
Mark Zimmermann and the Death of Painting

R.C. Baker


Mark Zimmermann, L.I.C.K. Ltd. Fine Arts, November 3-December 8, 2001.

How many mediums have gleefully danced on painting's grave, packing the dirt tighter than cement: Photography? Cinema? 4-color printing? Dada? Conceptual art? Earth art? Adobe-Photoshop? And yet the coffin has always been empty, for as Geoffrey O'Brien points out, "Painting, the Lazarus medium, will survive an atomic holocaust." Is painting then the cockroach, the rat, the tough, indomitable survivor of culture? Or perhaps there should be no culture at all, never mind painting. In conversation, J.A. Lobbia—the late Village Voice reporter who routinely exposed landlords of suchludicrous malevolence as to beggar Dickens—would argue that there should be no museums, no theatres, no concert halls, until every human being had decent housing and enough to eat. It is a simple, irrefutable argument, a broader take even than "How can there be art after the Holocaust?"—an argument that neither Giotto nor Manet nor Pollock could answer. But, from that first hand print blown onto a sheltering cave wall, art makes a different argument, that the soul is nourished by other than food and the body is moved by more than a place to sleep or fires to warm it. The physical is nothing without the spiritual, the senses merely blunt receptors if not coupled with creative impulse. So humanity at large has a reason for culture, and yet, considering the sacrifice involved in making art, why paint? And further, how to write about painting when all that is at our disposal is "one damn word after another," as Papa would have it.

The word/image dichotomy is especially strong in Mark Zimmerman's case. He approaches painting from its ass-end; his schooling focused on literature and poetry, those verbal arts that are, on the surface, antithetical to painting, that most emphatic of visual arts. Think of the visual heft a painting must have to live on in history: cinema literally moves, images streaming energetically into your brain; sculpture exists in the round—don't like this side, walk around to the other; all manner of video and electronic imagery alternately bombard or soothe your medulla daily, technology saturating the colors to some plane [End Page 86] beyond nature. But a painting, unchanged, flat and static, sits on the same wall whether in the Met or your home, uncompromising in what it shows the world, the ultimate WYSIWIG: What You See Is What You Get. If it's a good one, it grows and changes and matures over the years (or perhaps, you do).

I can remember the first time I saw Pollock's Full Fathom Five—literally being forced to take a seat because of its power. A not very large canvas (roughly 4 by 2-1/2 feet), it has a clotted, steely luminosity, and a volume and weight worthy of its title. Over the years I would take notice of the studio detritus (cigarettes, nails, coins) embedded in the thick impasto of paint and begin to feel a jaggedness, an anxiety in that canvas, a sense that was borne out at the great '99 retrospective, when many of the paintings I'd once viewed as simply lyrical now seemed suffused with Cold War angst. Some of the hottest moments of that grinding struggle between civilizations coincided with Pollock's most fecund period: 1947-52. Full Fathom Five now felt dense and heavy as plutonium, the artist's signature use of fluid silver radiator paint emphasizing its free radical quality, coalescing emotions and sensations from the most basic materials. As the supremely evocative painter Phillip Guston said: "What am I working with? It's only colored dirt." Words are that elemental too, and as Peter Schjeldahl has pointed out, "There are similarities between poetry and painting. Both are conventionally framed, endlessly ambiguous mediums, capable of...


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