The Armory Show: "Apocalyptic Wallpaper"

Tina Rivers Ryan
Mar 2, 2013 5:26AM
Skyfall, 2012

In his 1952 essay "The American Action Painters," critic Harold Rosenberg defined the nascent field of "action painting," and also coined an evocative phrase that defined action painting at its worst, when made without deliberate effort:

"Works of this sort lack the dialectical tension of a genuine act, associated with risk and will...Satisfied with wonders that remain safely inside the canvas, the artist accepts the permanence of the commonplace and decorates it with his own daily annihilation. The result is an apocalyptic wallpaper."

As art historian Elissa Auther has pointed out, "wallpaper" has long served as an epithet for paintings that depart so far from the codes of realism that they seem unfinished or, worse, merely decorative: unmoored from the appearance of the world, these paintings lack motivation as works of art and float off into the groundless world of abstraction. (The paintings of both Monet and Whistler, for example, were condescendingly compared to wallpaper in their day.) While Rosenberg accepted that abstract paintings were works of art, he insisted--like many other apologists of abstraction--that a painting prove itself as art by manifesting a particular trait; for Rosenberg, this trait was the artist's "genuine act."

This long-standing tension between art and design, or painting and wallpaper, dates back to the birth of modern art, but inspires many artists today. Using bold colors and geometric or biomorphic lines to create patterns that expand across the picture plane, these works playfully toe the line between high and low, putting our expectations of art into relief. As viewers, the question we must answer is not only whether these works possess the formal or emotional rigor that Rosenberg thought separated art from "apocalyptic wallpaper," but also whether such a distinction even holds any meaning for us today.

Tina Rivers Ryan