Reflections on the CONTEMPORARY PAINTERS SERIES - by Barry Schwabsky

Barry Schwabsky, Series Editor of our Contemporary Painters Series, reflects on the place of the series in current art publishing and in the history of the medium, considering the process of writing a monograph and the particular relationship between art and word, artist and author... 

Double page from Contemporary Painters Series: Ding Yi, by Tony Godfrey and Kaimei Wang, Lund Humphries 2020.

What pleased me so much about being invited to edit the Lund Humphries series of monographs on contemporary painters was that it would give me an opportunity to highlight at once two things that give me a lot of pleasure: good painting and good writing. It’s very rare for art critics to have the opportunity to stretch out and write at length about a single artist’s work. An exhibition review might be 600 words long; an article for a magazine, 2000 to 3000 words; an essay for a major exhibition catalogue, maybe 2000 to 5000 words. No one else is asking you to dig into an oeuvre as deeply as you can—as you have to—when you write a text of 15,000 to 20,000 words like the ones we have in the Contemporary Painters Series, and this presents the writer with very different challenges and rewards.

Of course I understood that that would be the case from the beginning, and I knew it was paying off when I read the first manuscripts to come in: Faye Hirsch’s on Lois Dodd and John Yau’s on Thomas Nozkowski, still among my favourites. But I understood it differently when it came time for me to write my own book for the series, on Gillian Carnegie. It took me a lot more time to write than I’d expected, in part because I only realised as I was working on it that my initial assumption that the best way to structure the text would be through a chronology of the artist’s career was mistaken; because of Gillian’s unusual way of focusing mostly on a fairly small repertoire of recurrent images that she incessantly revisits but always in radically different ways, it made much more sense to organise the essay thematically. Doing this helped me see more deeply how Gillian’s intensely analytical re-examination of traditional genres of painting—landscape, still life, the nude, but also abstraction as a by-now-traditional genre—is also an intensely emotional meditation on, as I put it in the book, “the artist’s fascination with representing, her pleasure in doing it, and the impossibility of its ever being the truth.”

Double page from Contemporary Painters Series: Gillian Carnegie, by Barry Schwabsky, Lund Humphries 2020.

The strange thing is that, never having written at such length on a single artist’s work, I don’t feel like I’m entirely over it. The time I spent delving into Gillian’s work, looking and thinking and rethinking and relooking, was some of the most pleasurable time I’ve ever experienced in my life as a writer, and in a way, I miss being “inside” that project now that I am occupied with other things. I loved dwelling inside my thoughts about these paintings and I long to be back there in the painted world Gillian conjured for me. And now I not only have a greater sense of the depth of her work but also of my own ability to keep plumbing those depths. For me, this art is a bottomless resource, and I hope that feeling is communicated to the reader.

My own book aside, I think that this deepening of the reader’s subjective experience of painting is my great goal for the series. Of course I want the series as a whole to add up to something like an overview of the range of possibilities for painting today, internationally, and among several generations—and when I see the volumes lined up next to each other on my bookshelf, I have the proud feeling that this is indeed a compact yet ever-expandable library of painting in our time, something that will stand as a record of this period. But what ultimately makes that important is that it helps readers become better viewers, enabling them to bring more sympathy and insight to their experience of painting.

-- Barry Schwabsky 2020


Find all the books in our Contemporary Painters Series HERE.

Recently published: Ding Yi & Guillermo Kuitca

Coming this Autumn: Gillian Carnegie, Stanley Whitney & Katharina Grosse

Read our other recent BLOGPOSTS on Contemporary Painters Bernard Frize HERE, Gillian Carnegie HERE, and Katharina Grosse HERE


Double page from Contemporary Painters Series: Katharina Grosse, by Gregory Volk, Lund Humphries 2020. 


Artworks shown: 

Ding Yi: Appearance of Crosses 2016-B10, 2016, Chalk and charcoal on Japanese yuu grid paper, 500 × 1185 cm, Private collection, Singapore. © Ding Yi.

Gillian Carnegie: Prince, 2009, Oil on canvas, 45.7 x 50.8 cm, Private collection. © Gillian Carnegie.

Katharina Grosse: Wunderbild, 2018, Acrylic on canvas, National Gallery in Prague, Czech Republic. © Katharina Grosse and VG Bild-Kunst, 2019; Courtesty National Gallery in Prague, Galerie nächst St. Stephen/Rosemarie Schwarzwälder, Gagosian and König Gallery. Photography by Jens Ziehe.