Daniel Birnbaum

"Before and After Painting" fromClay Ketter, (exhib. cat.) 1995 and from Art + Text, #54, 1996

Since the tubes of paint used by the artist
are manufactured and ready-made products,
we must conclude that all the paintings in
the world are ”readymades aided” and also
works of assemblage.

Marcel Duchamp
1962

 

The art of Clay Ketter traverses constantly redrawn boundaries.  At times his spackled surfaces seem to be engaged in a dialogue with abstract painting; in an instant they have been transformed into sculpture.  They may seem to struggle to fuse with the architecture of the room, yet in the very next moment they have turned into independent objects within this very same space.  At any point, the viewer risks being locked on to any one of these transmutations, producing a statement such as : ”These works are about the intermediate state between craft and art!”  That, however, would be jumping to conclusions - soon enough another progression follows and new zones of meaning become manifest.  In his work, Ketter is invariably scouting about for new territory, endlessly branching out.
        
One point of entry to Ketter’s work is by way of the conventions of the art exhibit.  A work of art is displayed hanging on the wall, resting on a pedestal or base, sitting on the floor, or suspended in the air in a neutral space.  The white cube has become a given predicament - something to refer to, exploit, or defy.  As far as Ketter’s work is concerned, the entire system of visual surfaces normally considered to be the sine qua non  of the aesthetic encounter has metamorphosed into a field of enquiry and incidental experimentation.  He is far from being the sole explorer of the material preconditions of art display, but I do find his persistence unique.
        
In one initial phase, this work seems to be surveying and exposing  the support systems of the gallery space: the wall, the pedestal, the floor.  What we habitually disregard, and concurrently take for granted, now becomes conspicuous and of material importance: the pedestal ceases to be a subservient, ”invisible” prop and becomes a sculptured form, tangible and touchable: the drywall sheets spackled according to building codes emerge as abstract painting - as ”realistic” works of art in Robert Ryman’s sense of the word.  Suddenly, the material underpinnings of art seem to coincide with the very last of our latter-day positions.  Ketter’s work takes place before and  after painting. 
                                              
Is it possible to set down the tenet of Ketter’s modus operandi?  Perhaps this: Pragmatism.  The world is brimming with elaborate and serviceable (functioning) devices.  The constant efforts of art to invent new levels of meaning have led it into the void.  Why not, instead, stick to the wealth of useful interrelations all around us?  In Ketter’s own words:
        
”Perhaps the primary purpose of the artist is not to make  art, but to recognize it as already consummated in the world around him.  By this recognition, the artist can baptize these ready manifestations as art.  To conceive of an idea which does not have a manifestation in the material world would be a justification for the making of art.  I personally find very few ideas without ready manifestations and, consequently, much art superfluous, if not unjustifiable.”
        
This is the basis for what Joshua Decter has termed Ketter’s ”visionary pragmatism”.  Among the mass of usable paraphernalia lie an abundance of artworks waiting to be seen.  Ketter highlights structures which are easily passed by in everyday life and which are clearly related to recent argumentation in painting and sculpture.  A kitchen in an empty apartment turns out to have unsuspected possibilities.  It offers a running discussion on the sly: Piet Mondrian has left unmistakable traces among the shelves, Donald Judd has put his unequivocal stamp on the doors of the cupboards - alert viewers are soon able to recognize yet more participants in the symposium.
        
Art lies ready-made in the things that surround us: the trick is to make it evident.  By emphasizing the frontal nature of the kitchen, Ketter highlights its ”painterly” aspect: a many-sided sculptural object forced to submit itself as a painting.

Let us return to a terminal point which today has come to serve as an inevitable first step.  Emile di Antonio tells the story of a visit with Warhol:
”He had painted two pictures of Coke bottles about six feet tall.  One was just a pristine black-and-white Coke bottle.  The other had a lot of abstract expressionist marks on it.  I said, ’Come on, Andy, the abstract one is a piece of shit, the other one is remarkable.  It’s our society, it’s who we are, it’s absolutely beautiful and naked and you ought to destroy the first one and show the other.’”
        
What is happening here?  An ending and a new start.  The distance between the artistically expressive and the actual appears to have been bridged: the real  has become equivalent to art.  This gesture is anticipated by Duchamp and others, but Warhol´s performance marks the canonical ”End of Art”. 
        
Other tales lead to similar outlooks.  According to Greenberg´s formalist reading of modernism, all art forms are working their way towards their pure, perfect form.  In painting, the supreme manifestation is American abstraction.  Part of its achievement is a clear definition of the essentials of painting: ”flatness and the delimitation of flatness”.  What would be the crowning glory of the art of painting, the state which, ultimately, all modernist pictures has sought?  If Greenberg is to be taken seriously, the answer has to be: the empty canvas. 
        
There, everything redundant is removed.  More focused, more to the point than any other picture, the untouched canvas articulates the ”irreducible essence” of painting.  Attempting, in ”After Abstract Expressionism”, a comprehensive definition of the innermost nature of painting, Greenberg unwittingly calls upon an object that can be purchased in a store by anyone – a length of raw canvas.  Thus, the purity of abstraction is congruent with something that couldn´t be more concrete: a piece of merchandise that is sold by the meter, a commodity, a ”readymade”.  This would seem to imply that a perfected art of painting is synonymous with a dead one. 
        
That´s where we stand today.  The pictorial arts have doggedly labored to obliterate themselves; in this, they have almost succeeded.  The visionary pragmatist, however, moves in the opposite direction – it does seem possible to reclaim art, not by virtue of nostalgia and reminiscence, but through an amplified corporeality.  The objects Ketter presents are part of the patently ”real” world: no more, no less than bodies sufficient to themselves, freed from the obligation to illustrate or represent a world outside themselves.  They sit on the fence: on this side of painting and beyond.  Ketter’s altered ”kitchen” stands before us as something both familiar and uncanny.  Pure display: factual and aloof.