Painting Inspiration - The Endless Quest for Originality

March 21, 2016

Could we say that the painting and originality are now really over, since painting inspiration today seems to lack that ‘new’ and ‘original’ something? In the past 150 years painting has been proclaimed dead, so many times that it has been a heavy task to keep track of its funerals and resurrections. The two most important blows to painting, however, are the invention of photography, and second, the moment when Marchel Duchamp elevated the bicycle wheel, a bottle rack and an upturned urinal to the state of art. Even more than photography, the ready-made object struck at the heart of painting’s self-justification. Photography created a new language to painting, and with its birth marked the relationship of painting to the image. The ready-made object, on the other hand, privileged the world of ideas over the visual.

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Left: Kazimir Malevich - Suprematist Composition White on White, 1918  / Right: Chris Duncan - Offing #1, 2014. Images courtesy of Wikipedia.

Quest for Originality

If we take our world today as governed by the need to have quick and profitable ideas, how can we look at what is happening with painting today? The position of painting today seems to be somewhat ambiguous. On one hand, we are witnesses of the re-birth of abstract and figurative painting style but on the other we are also aware of the numerous copycat artists that pay homage, possibly not even that, that take the past as the governing force behind their work. The popping of such copycat artists is evident all over the place, in a great number of high and low-end galleries in different parts of the world. Regardless if the new painting is made with the appropriation of the past and images of art history, or through the mimicry of the style and themes of the past, artists today are also searching for originality. But, how is it possible to be original and to create something new today? The quest for originality has maintained its value in Contemporary art, despite the widespread acceptance of appropriation first popularized by artists like Richard Prince and Sherrie Levine in the 1980’s. Pop artists were possibly the first to use and intentionally borrow, copy, and alter the preexisting images and objects. This strategy was used to challenge the notions of originality and what it means to be an artist. The self-explanatory reference of Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans or Roy Lichtenstein’s reference to comics was never debated and always quoted by the artists. So, what is happening today?

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Left: Joan Miro - The Diamond Smiles at Twilight, 1947  / Right: Christian Rosa - Balled Eye Face, 2013. Images courtesy of Wikipedia and official site of the artist Christian Rosa.

The Personal

What seems to be different now is hidden in the fact that similarities between other artists are rarely mentioned in the press releases of copycat artists. If they are mentioned, on the other hand, there is a heavy stamp of the ‘ personal style ’ that goes along with it. What do I mean? It seems that today, despite the fact that many paintings look like works made by another artist, many artists justify the reference to the past as the element in the quest for the personal. This quest for originality on one side and the need for personal possibly have finally lost their appeal since recently taking center stage in the art world is the Knoedler trial. What shocked the New York art world was when the city’s oldest gallery closed its doors and was accused of selling paintings it now admits were forgeries. The forgeries at the center of the scandal look like masterpieces of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and other prominent abstract expressionists. On one hand, this trial is just one of many high-end, high-profile scams that seem to come to the light, while on the other, a different group of collectors is focused on starting collections with young artists whose works are similar to the works of old masters, in particular, Joan Miró, Wassily Kandinsky or Mark Rothko. I will not go into much detail about the art forgeries and concentrate on asking here the following questions: Where is the new and the original thought? Where is the driving force of research that decorated the 20th century? Why are we, in most cases, confronted with mimicry in art? Is it possible that consumerism, a powerful force behind almost everything today, influenced the artist today to produce artifacts instead of using them to form the viewer’s experience?

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Left: Lucien Smith - Untitled ( Como Arctic Mud ), 2015 / Right - Lucien Smith - Untitled ( Como Pink ), 2015. Images courtesy of

Zombie Formalism as the New Painting Inspiration

The research, the search for the ‘new’, and the need for the modern, marks the avant-garde of the past. What we have today, some qualify as the transformation of the avant-garde into the ironic, self-conscious and purposely quiet. The critic Walter Robinson was the first that noted the reductive, straightforward, essentialist, present in the new school of young abstract, semi-abstract artists that play it safe by saying little, yet have great commercial success. Giving this school a name that has stuck, Zombie Formalism, we are more than ever made aware that the world that the painting resides in today is very much the world of the grim reality where we need to know the rules and need also be aware of the figures of power that play. We can clearly see, that the avant-garde of the past, due to the consumerism, is flipped and made into commercial objects. Yet, there is a current of believers that call upon the re-birth of the representational in the painting. There is a current that seems to call back the intellectual content that allowed for the abstract, process driven minimalism. There is a current that requires authentic works of art that will produce the past reference with a twist.

Throughout its history, art and paintings have always been placed with heavy burdens and tasks. Today, the governing rules of our society dictate what is also happening in the art world. The new kids on the block bombarded with new images all the time, and the overwhelming need to be the new, to have the new, influences the time that is offered to art today and also shortens the concentration and the focus of the viewer. The few seconds glance that paintings and other works of art receive from the audience, influence and frustrate many artists. Through such a frustration a deep need for authentic and profound art will emerge but for now, in most cases the ego and the search for the personal, regardless of the cost, seems to prevail.

Editors’ Tip: From Giotto to Cezanne: A Concise History of Painting (World of Art)

This book, considered by many of its readers, as possibly the best introduction to the history of painting, is a great source of information for art students or art patrons. Focusing on the works of the major artists and major art movements it is stunningly illustrated with accompanying critique to each of the reproduced image. A concise history of the Western Art, this book for sure offers its readers both full-color illustrations that feast the eyes and historical development of the painting medium.

Featured image in slider: “The Radiants”, 2015, Bortolami Gallery , New York, Installation view. Image courtesy of Bortolami Gallery. All images used for illustrative purposes only.

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