may/june 2010


“A painting is not about an experience, it is an experience.” So said Mark Rothko in an article printed in LIFE magazine in November 1959. At the time, Rothko was already grappling with the psychological after-effects of his own, fairly recent success, which he wore reluctantly, like an ill-fitting suit; Abstract Expressionism had been ascendant for a decade, while Pop Art was already emerging on the horizon, soon to dethrone AbEx as the dominant school of its generation. Indeed, by late 1959 abstraction itself was just some fifty years old. But Rothko resisted definition as an abstractionist; more than simply color and form, he saw his painting as addressing “basic human emotions-tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on.”

Although Rothko’s grandiose invocations of the purpose of painting may seem archaic to today’s far more cynical post-modern art jockeys, a half-century later, and a century after the emergence of painterly abstraction, the gist of his 1959 statement still holds. A painting is an experience. And an awesome painting is an awesome experience. You want to dive into it and immerse yourself in it.

In the larger story of how New York became the capital of the post-war art world, the West was often given short shrift. San Francisco of course had Diebenkorn, Park, et al., while Los Angeles had the so-called “hard-edge” abstractionists, and its own burly brushmen such as John Altoon. (The Northwest had Mark Tobey; the West, O’Keeffe.) But they were at best deemed supporting players in the grand narrative of post-war American painting. With the emergence of Pop, painters such as Ed Ruscha and Wayne Thiebaud gained new renown; in fact, it was Walter Hopps’ 1962 exhibition at the Pasadena Art Museum, “New Painting of Common Objects,” that crystallized the movement. Yet the perception still holds today that painting out west is somehow less informed or significant; that conceptually-minded LA just ain’t a painting town.

We beg to differ. Thus, this issue of art ltd. focuses on painting. To start, we feature William T. Wiley, the elusive, prolific, highly versatile Bay Area artist, who recently celebrated five decades of making art with a retrospective at the Berkeley Art Museum. To examine sources, we asked a dozen leading SoCal painters which other painters inspired them, and why, and set aside several pages for their answers. In addition, we provide a portfolio of eight painter profiles to display the range of paint arising from the West Coast and Western states. (These boundaries are, naturally, porous, as many excellent painters extend their craft to other mediums, or eventually set up studios in New York, for all the obvious reasons).

Although painting as a medium, with the canvas as its central arena, has long since ceded its primacy, it has not lost its vitality. And while paint on a canvas–like words in print, on paper–may be under siege by emergent forms and formats, neither one is disappearing, at least not yet. With this issue, we celebrate them both. Feel free to splash around.