Monday, 7 February 2011


PaintersNYC was a blog dedicated to painting exhibitions in New York. At first, it dealt only in artists based in New York, later in artists from anywhere. It began in November 2005 and petered out in July 2008, for reasons never explained by its administrator, who used the tag of Painter. It was by far the most comprehensive and popular blog of its kind, achieving impressive hit stats (around 1500 views a day, at its peak), yet resisting advertising, remaining free and open. Its archives remain online, unlike its later London counterpart, London Painting, and offer a fascinating glimpse of the power and potential of an interactive web, the interests and criteria of practising painters.

PNYC began modestly, the first dozen or so posts barely drawing one or two comments each, but the open invitation to comment gradually attracts a long list of regular contributors, many with their own blogs, rapid exchanges and a word-of-mouth reputation for frankness that soon saw even established artists and other art world figures, adopting tags to participate in the lively, often discordant threads. These typically ran to 30 or 40 comments even for a single day. The sheer volume of posts perhaps explains why Painter soon exhausted her interests or tastes – for just November and December of 2005 there are 53 posts, for 2006 there are a staggering 269 posts, after which it sharply declines, 2007 providing just 102, 2008 only 18. Since then, there have been three posts, refusing comment. But Painter’s dwindling enthusiasm was clearly not shared by the shifting ranks of commenters. Even as posts slow, comments threads swell to the hundreds in length. The penultimate, proper post, on Joseph Mallord Turner, posted on the 7th of July 2007, tallies an astonishing 432 comments.

And by 2007, even The Guardian took note. Ana Finel Honigman’s blog there declared PNYC ‘the art world's sharpest forum for critical debate’. PNYC duly registered the compliment. Although just which critical forums it was competing with, was unclear. Honigman offers a contrasting approach in Gawker, but no other completely open forum, and makes a point of acknowledging that certain tags belong to recognised art world colleagues. She is firstly an insider, saluting insiders, before any particular argument for evaluation, any particular work or artist.

From around the same time, there was also an article in The Brooklyn Rail by regular PNYC commenter, James Kalm, whose videos of New York exhibitions on You Tube, sometimes paralleled posts, similarly documented shows that standard press and journals simply would never have the time, space or priority to cover. Kalm was at pains to preserve Painter’s anonymity while at the same time dropping heavy hints concerning her gallery and exhibition record. But unlike Kalm’s reports, PNYC also demonstrated commentary that was occasionally the equal of print criticism for sophistication and perspicacity. Commenting painters were sometimes not only acutely alert to precedent and comparison in assessments, but aware of many broader theoretical issues, philosophical implications to an interpretation. There was, if anything, an anxiety to declare these at such times, to garble or dismiss them in the interests of sheer market promotion, to be both cynic and scholar, painter and critic.

But for most of the time, the open forum revealed severe limitations. Mostly threads roamed too freely, commenters exchanging links to You Tubes, curious JPGs elsewhere, other artist’s sites, when not citing and scrambling song lyrics or doggerel, pasting random chunks of obscure text or disclosing amusing details of their personal situation. The dialogue quickly digressed to something closer to a chat room and a tedious string of wisecracks and putdowns. Part of the reason for this is surely the pace at which posts appeared, and the expectation for rapid or terse judgement. And most threads supply precisely this. But once initial judgements were laid down, perhaps in a matter of minutes, dialogue then arose between differences in opinion, disputing affinities, supplying alternatives, quickly shifting the topic to broader issues. Two good examples are the 2006 posts on Albert Oehlen and Frank Stella, where the issue is soon the state of abstraction, the nature of abstraction, its market appeal (consensus on Stella condemns him as a corporate taste). The sheer momentum of these rapid fire exchanges then invites more remote and tangential implications; quickly exhausts any vestigial theme or issue, splinters discussion into so many monologues. Commenters thus finish with a post long before Painter, no matter how quickly Painter supplies a new one.

Unquestionably the most enthusiastic for this spiralling digression was the commenter using the tag, Zipthwung. His remarks are characterised by a blithe indifference to spelling, grammar or correcting typos, frequent endorsement of rich coffees, beers and wines, an attention to the investment and marketing worlds, an impressive knowledge of kitsch and low culture, and a near permanent presence on the web, probably betraying a position in web design. Zipthwung becomes the bête noir of the purist or serious critic on PNYC (and elsewhere on the New York web-scape) the cynic’s cynic, ready to put a price on everything, disregarding the value of anything. It is unlikely that he was a dedicated painter, because dedication itself seemed anathema to his attitude. Yet, even Zipthwung’s initial comments usually attended to the work at hand, noting details of acrylic and watercolour technique, glaze and brush technique, for example. He was by no means indifferent to painting. But one senses he really found his element in freely expanding upon an interpretation, making leaps to history and literature, ideological and religious issues, giddily plunging down to K-Mart catalogues before soaring to psychotherapy and drug cults, detouring via the cost of Ivy League MFA programmes and recent software developments. Needless to say, many quickly grew impatient with his torrent of contributions. And Zip was, most assuredly, not one of Honigman’s trolling insiders.

The blog is interesting now for its intriguing mix of familiar and obscure artists, doubtless reflecting Painter’s circle and favourites, but also, the surprising variety available in commercial galleries in New York. Beyond that, the wealth of informed comment documents local loyalties, tastes and attitudes as well as underlying issues for criticism and its place on the web. PNYC’s broad sample of painters and roster of commenters make these matters difficult to dismiss as mere clique or peer group.

An abiding issue was firstly the reliability of photographs as presentation, or of judging strictly from reproduction. Since so much acquisition is now done purely on the basis of web presentation by galleries, this is a vital point, not just for painters. On one side, commenters insist that criticism cannot be valid if the work or show has not been actually visited or experienced, that reproductions are too misleading on points of scale, colour, facture and detail to larger works, to allow proper assessment. On the other hand, commenters regularly attest that their understanding based on JPGs, or image files of photographs, in most cases proves reliable upon an actual visit and that information of size and materials are often provided on gallery websites, as well as installation views and occasional details to works, adequately supplementing virtual presentation. Additionally, arguments are made that an actual encounter is no guarantee of sufficient insight in any case, that reflection and research often modify first impressions and that conditions for viewing (say, at a crowded opening or during a school excursion) do not always allow for a full grasp of works. Indeed, just what constitutes optimum or perfect conditions for viewing a work, remains controversial in aesthetics, as well as criticism. To insist that the work be experienced fully, in every respect, before criticism, proves chimerical.

Because PNYC in effect practises an accelerated form of criticism, the traditional issue of placing the work or of detecting salient precedents, also achieves new prominence. Threads very quickly dispute resemblances to established works, with kindred artists or influencing styles. And differences essentially fall between those that find similarities greater, and the work weaker for being thus derivative; and those finding differences greater (even according to the same resemblances) and the work stronger for its originality. This is, as noted, very much a traditional issue for criticism, but on PNYC we see it played out in hours where in older formats, it may have been a matter of months or years. Not that PNYC’s findings prove conclusive in these matters; of course. It merely illustrates a crucial debate.

Attendant to this issue are appeals to art history and the framework of styles for period, place and person. These help the critic build a tradition, make sense of the present. In PNYC, it is notable how few of these, recent art history can provide. At one point a commenter (possibly No Rush or Closeuup) complains that art history in this sense, has stood still for twenty five years, so that the critic now grasps at shop-worn terms like Neo-Expressionism or Post-modernism, that are really too vague or remote to detect significant changes or differences by. For example, there is no style name for what Jeff Koons does, (beyond the personal), apart from Conceptualism, although clearly, Koons is some distance, in all respects, from 60s proponents such as Dennis Oppenheim or Robert Smithson. Does Conceptualism permit no finer distinctions for period? How does one define Conceptualism, anyway? Similarly, there is no group style for what John Currin or Luc Tuymans, Lari Pittman or Albert Oehlen do (which is not to say they all do the same thing) apart from the lazy catch-all of Post-modernism, for which many commenters seem to believe signals the end of art history, or no more than an ‘ironic’ revisiting of arbitrary points in art’s history.

PNYC is not alone in voicing these beliefs of course, and in fact they follow from an entrenched academic doctrine, shared by many nations. But obviously it robs the critic of valuable leverage, or insight into new work, pretty much robs artists of a future. If nothing else the blog demonstrates the full implications of such views. These views are not unanimous or even in the majority on PNYC, but their position there does offer a particularly vivid demonstration of the problem for criticism generally. For its many indulgences and excesses, the blog accurately reflects issues that have been with us for some time; show no sign of improving any time soon.

On a final note, I should acknowledge that I participated in many of the threads on PNYC, from April 2007 onward.

A shorter version of this article appears @