Michael Reafsnyder: Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood by Dave Hickey
Michael Reafsnyder is a radical artist; he is also a radical painter, and we haven’t seen one of those since the early 1970s. He is radical because he is less concerned with how we look at his paintings than with how we look at paintings in general. Like most of the Minimalists, he is a radical revisionist. As a painter of gestural abstraction, he is all too familiar with the geriatric language of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud—repression and resistance, dance and performativity—ideas which continue to inform the painting and the critique of gestural painting. So, Michael Reafsnyder’s project has always been to cut away opportunities for antique readings. He would keep what he likes and dispense with all the rest to revivify the practice. What he likes about his paintings, he can do; anything that might be misinterpreted is suppressed.
Reafsnyder’s first principles are easy. (1) Postwar American-style painting was brand-new and celebratory. (2) It was not a continuation of World War II or the Depression, but rather a refusal of it. (Postwar paintings, in their spontaneity and waste, were a repudiation of what had come before them.) (3) The Postwar movement was not ironic, not repressive, not crazy, and not personal. (Willem de Kooning at dinner one night: “Ach! You make a painting about a crazy world, they call you a crazy man.”) The central problem, as Reafsnyder sees it, is that “history”—Marxist and Freudian history, weathered by the Depression and the war—grabbed Abstract Expressionism much too quickly and recast it as the bitter exhaust of World War II.
This interpretation illustrates one of the problems with historicizing the present. Abstract Expressionism was grabbed so quickly out of the fire that no one noticed that a boundary had been crossed—from the abjection of war and poverty into the Postwar giddiness of American culture. American-style painting was the first evidence of this optimism, and this fact was ignored. Someone let the dogs out, and nobody noticed. For my own purposes, I have traced the heart of this radical skew to a remark made by a professor at an opening of an exhibition of Arshile Gorky’s paintings. “What a mess,” the professor said. “You’ve got to believe that an American painter would make a tidier painting than this if he had a chance.” Translation: An American artist has to be crazy or enslaved by some demon to make a “messy” painting. I let this madness slide at the time, and today I admit to myself that my “Abstract Expressionism,” like Reafsnyder’s, arises in the West in the 1970s with de Kooning’s great paintings.
I have also imagined a teleology for Michael Reafsnyder’s artistic progress that is pretty close to the truth. The artist was born in Southern California, where he still lives. He enrolled at Chapman University and attended an art class with an older painter, Bill Boaz, who had studied with Hans Hofmann. The young artist was innocent of art but had a certain talent for composing seemingly spontaneous dribbles, splashes and smears on the canvas. His professor told him that these markings looked OK and showed him a Cy Twombly book. Something clicked. Not long thereafter, he encountered a 1970s painting by de Kooning that was almost giggling with élan and sprezzatura. The painting looked like something that would be fun to make, something joyous.
So that was a goal, although, almost immediately, everyone started telling the young artist that de Kooning was not about joy. De Kooning’s paintings, he was told, were about his existential struggle with angst and despair, with the whole cosmology of repression—a notion the young artist did not believe. He still doesn’t, although no one has agreed with him yet. His closest colleagues believe the “wrong things,” just like everybody else. Eventually, with the advice of his graduate professors, Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe and Mike Kelley, Michael Reafsnyder set out to remedy the catastrophic misapprehensions that have plagued American gestural painting from the beginning—because, sadly, Americans seem to require certain attributes to be “American.” The abstract, supposedly reflecting the negative upheaval of the time, became personal, and the past just ate up these Postwar paintings, which were, in fact, newer than new.
Today, Reafsnyder keeps an example painting from every series he has painted. He hangs them around the studio when he starts a new series to remind him of gaps and redundancies. Then he takes out tubes, jars, or cans of Golden Acrylics. For Duck Divinghe pulls out red, blue, and white, as well as some green and yellow. He stretches Belgian brown linen on a 22” x 26” x 1” aluminum stretcher support. He primes the canvas white—thick enough to suppress the grid, light enough so the linen retains some drag. Once the canvas is white, he applies blue tape to the edges to be pulled away when the painting is finished. At this point the painting proper begins, although it is more like fresco than painting.
Reafsnyder uses a wide selection of Plexiglas blades. No color is “carried” by these shaping devices. He plops a selection of colors on the linen beginning with red, which constitutes the base coat. Once the red is dry, he pours on the other colors and rakes them in a swath from the edges of the linen toward the center of the canvas, thus occluding the so-called “problem of the edge,” and inferring circularity like Jasper Johns and Kenneth Noland. In this process, a little ball of various colors gathers itself at the lower center of Duck Diving. Since gestural abstraction does not love the bottom of the canvas, Reafsnyder pours a pile of white paint at the top of the canvas and scrapes it into a “U” shape, suspending the surface of the painting from the top, as Arshile Gorky liked to do, demoting the cluster at the bottom to secondary relevance, like a pendant. The surface of the paint deploys itself inward and swirls like the crinkly, flat water out beyond the surf at Huntington Beach. The acrylic paint hardens into a surface. Unlike the corporeality of oil paint, acrylic paint does not set like skin, and this suppresses the false affect of the gestural paint and human skin, both the artist’s and the beholder’s. So the paintings are not painted, not pictorial, not personal, and not associated with the body. Nothing that might infer spiritual magic is invoked.
When Reafsnyder was painting with oil, he marked each painting with a smiley face, like a chop, to emphasize material and the absence of angst—to tell you that this was a painting and not a crime scene. When he switched to acrylic, this made it possible to wipe the surface and execute invisible corrections and suppress the scuff and over-lay of improvisation. It also allowed the smiley face to take on different roles. Painting with oil, there is a lot of waiting, and the artist’s pace is broken. Acrylic, on the other hand, is very fast. You are painting wet into wet. So if things go really wrong, Reafsnyder reconceives the whole painting as a single entity. He paints it again and throws away the first version. Wastefulness is part of the tradition.
One might well ask why an artist would indulge in all these procedural maneuvers. The answer is both big and simple. Reafsnyder hopes to discredit some of the most astonishing critical misprisions in the history of western art. He wants us to see his paintings as he (and I) once saw those 1970s de Koonings, as smooth sites of bacchanalian celebration, as inventions rather than symptoms. Symptoms tie art to the past and to its audience. Inventions destroy the past and its traditional beholders. My late friend Willard Midgette used to argue that an artist’s work is best kept alive by its detractors because negative responses encourage new, more nuanced, readings. It is killed by its admirers who only see what they came to see, and a hundred years from today, artists and critics will look back in dismay at the damage that critics, fans and scholars did to American-style painting and its inheritors, simply because all the narratives that have accumulated around gestural painting are wrong—and, in the present moment, only Joan Mitchell survives on the energy of her ruthless temperament.
In public chatter, this first bouquet of free American painting reminded American critics that they were unfamiliar with abstraction and the language of form. Most of them thought abstract painting was “abstracted” from something, so there was always a hidden picture whether you liked it or not. As a consequence their criticism was freighted with literary narratives of pain and conflict. Based on negligible empirical evidence, tragic Marxism and Postwar Freudian angst found its “picture-book” in these paintings. Critics found visual codes in the images abstracted, because secret codes were all the rage in Postwar America. None of this was actually there, but a fictionalized Promethean image of the artist arose. It was constructed on the premise that the artist would be making tidy, ingratiating paintings if they were not so “upset.”
This is why a dealer friend of mine remarked that he was in the business of selling pain, which would have been easier to do were it true. In the intellectual world, Freudian and Marxist critics began writing about Abstract Expressionist painting in the 1940s and 1950s. The freedom and ebullience of these artists was read as repression of the tidy pictures that American artists really wanted to paint. Their freedom became tyranny. The painters were making ebullient paintings, but the “world” was looking at angry paintings. Abstract paintings were being created and the world was looking for secret codes.
Thus, the painter’s ludic gesture became a sword swung by a puny discombobulated artist against the over-powering force of bourgeois history or the family romance. Under this regime, paint became blood, the canvas surface skin. The stretched canvas became a boxing ring—as if this style of painting was not a liberation from World War II but a memorial to it. The tattered mark stood for painful, insecure gestures made against overwhelming odds that were shared purportedly by the artist and beholder. This false affect arose from the analogy between the painter’s mark, the painted mark on the canvas, and the painted mark as perceived—as if the mark were some kind of transmission device, a rhyming analogy between the painter painting and the viewer viewing. A great deal was made of this intimacy between the artist and the beholder, to which a great many artists took exception, although it would have been a good sales pitch if it were true. The simple fact was that beauty and delight were not options in that moment, and the contemporary inappropriateness of certain images at a certain time is pretty much what avant-garde means. Given these “tragic presumptions,” American gestural painters for the next fifty years have worked to make paintings devoid of sprezzatura and affect, with nothing much to offer in their place.
The mirror trick of calling works of art ironic if you don’t like them was born here. The “ironic slap,” I call it, and the point of all this, vis a visMichael Reafsnyder, is that Reafsnyder has found a way to make paintings where nobody’s home and something is actually happening, purged of Sturm and Drang. By simply skipping the ideologies of the gestural American painting that arose in the wake of Abstract Expressionism, the field felt clear but in need of redesign—something like the magic Eugene Delacroix discovered in the Louvre. One might imagine Reafsnyder dropping into a wave and slipping into the tube of it in 1950 and re-emerging at the turn of the century, with no one but Joan Mitchell and de Kooning as guiding lights.
Dave Hickey, formerly an executive editor of Art in America, has written for many publications including Artforum, Art News, Harper’s Magazine,Rolling Stone, and Vanity Fair. Hickey is the author Art Guitar: Essay on Art & Democracy (1997), Andy Warhol Giant Size(2006), The Invisible Dragon: Essays on Beauty, Revised and Expanded(2012), and Pirates and Farmers(2013). He was the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship award in 2001. Hickey lives and works in Santa Fe, NM.