Anne Imhoff, Angst III performance set, La Biennale de Montréal

The more painting dies the more it comes alive. Or perhaps it only rises now and then, like the undead. I googled the phrase “painting is undead” and surprisingly didn’t find much. Given the Zombie Formalist blip that flitted across our screens recently, it seemed too catchy a phrase to have been passed up. Painting has a different status than simply dead or alive. We say it’s dead when there isn’t any good new painting happening anywhere, and alive when there is. You could say that it’s always alive, if only because it resonates through everything. It shares a common ancestor with all of our disciplines, and so its DNA can be found in the tissues of every other art form.

Anne Imhoff, Angst III, Still, La Biennale de Montréal

The question then is how exactly do we trace this lineage in a non-painted artwork? I could choose any non-painting artist for this exercise but, in the name of brevity I’ll just cut to the chase and present to you the operatic performances of Anne Imhof. Incidentally, she does make actual paintings, with paint on canvas, but they are by all accounts nothing special. The more interesting question is, what sort of painter is Anne Imhof when she is making a performance piece like Faust, which caused a sensation at the recent Venice Biennale? Or Angst III, a similar performance that came to my hometown of Montreal a few years ago for La Biennale de Montréal.

Anne Imhoff, Angst II

Unfortunately there don’t appear to be any videos online of the Montreal performance, but you can get a pretty good idea of it from other videos. Listless young people loiter about and perform curious gestures in a smoky room. Drones hover above, adding to an already foreboding ambience. Other strange objects populate the space with which the cast members will every so often interact: sleeping bags and bongs, flats of cola, and blindfolded falcons, not to mention numerous Biennale visitors standing about, imbibing the spectacle or perhaps staring at their own phones in symmetry with Imhof’s performers. At times the scene is nearly inanimate, taking on the stillness of an actual painting, where the audience is invited to lean in and study the picture’s minute details; a striking tableau vivant, reminiscent of the slow-motion videos of non-painting painter Bill Viola.

Bill Viola, The Raft

You could make a case for these performances mimicking classical oil painting. They oftentimes appear to do so, especially when a figure is posed in such a way in relation to his or her collaborator as if to frame a striking composition. It is not difficult to see the odalisques of Ingres recumbent on thin blankets; the anguished expressions of Francis Bacon; the languid, aggressively youthful sexuality of Balthus’ figures; or flaneurs from all manner of fin de siècle painters all the way up to Elizabeth Peyton, all as components of traditional painting. You can call the smoke that fills the room a perfectly rendered sfumato, fuzzing the edges of everything. An operatic score gives the scene a Baroque gravitas. It may be going too far to point out that the dogs stationed outdoors of the Venice performances of Faust are among the animals most represented in all of Western painting, although I suspect Imhof was thinking more of Nazi guard dogs. (Hitler had the German Pavilion at the Giardini modified to reflect the aesthetic ideals of the Nazis in 1938.)

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, The Grand Odalisque, 1814, Oil on canvas, 35 in × 64 inches

Francis Bacon, Self Portrait, 1973, Oil on canvas, 35.5 x 30.5 cm

Balthus (Balthasar Klossowski), Terese Dreaming, 1938, Oil on canvas, 59 x 51 inches

Elizabeth Peyton, Craig, 1997, Oil on canvas, 14 x 17 inches

Performances are unique because in their presence you witness a thing in the process of creation. Not so with paintings, for which you generally only get to see the final moment. Before the emergence of photography people must have looked at paintings much differently. Up until then art provided the only visual material we had of the past, outside of architecture. The past was literally what we made of it, and how it was made was scarcely visible to the eye. The manufacture of a painting was complex, took months to make and often involved the labors of many artists. It was slow and did not unfold before your eyes. That changed with the emergence of new media, to which Picasso’s films of live painting can attest. He performs for the camera in a way that I doubt he behaved when he was alone, but the style is clearly recognizable. If he gave us one thing, it was the idea that painting could be performed with startling immediacy. It could be made “before your eyes”.

Visit to Picasso, Documentary by Paul Haesaert, 1949

Anne Imhof’s totem spirit is more of an Abstract Expressionist in this sense, to indulge in a superficial comparison. There is more Pollock than Pontormo – more action painting than academic. Her performers are not guild-trained craftspeople, taught to hide their brushstrokes. Pollock wished us to see his struggles on the canvas, to see the ghost in the machine. This logic of exposing the innards of an artwork fed eventually into the idealistic candor later hailed in Conceptualism. Imhof, a descendent of Conceptualism, continues in this spirit of openness but, instead of pronouncing a call to action, as the Modernists did, she lets us come to our own conclusions. Her canvas is Harold Rosenberg’s “arena in which to act”, and she throws her cast onstage to enact anything that strikes its fancy. Or, as more extravagantly put in Texte Zur Kunst, they perform “a kind of rhizomatic or cybernetic choreography, with connected but decentered movement transpiring extemporaneously according to the dancers’ collective intelligence, sensitivity, and care of the group”. As Imhof has said in interview, there is “a certain hailing of surfaces as such.” Drones zipping about the white room slash through the murky air like paint strokes on a fresh canvas, as the violent head-banging movements of one longhaired performer calls to mind the whipping gestures of spattering brushes. Cola poured down the walls and pooling on the floor below echoes Helen Frankenthaler’s cascading paint, and is left afterwards like smears on used clothing. Spray paint is gesturally applied in streaks to a white wall. The distribution of action around the space, the direction of its subjects, the balancing of these movements, and the general rhythm are all artfully rendered. The room itself is a canvas, and everything in it is potentially paint, or a brush.

Photograph of Hellen Frankenthaler in her E 83rd St Studio, Photo Edward Youkilis

Imhof’s spontaneity echoes post-war Abstraction, and she admittedly says of her performances, “Here I willingly relinquish control”. What is not clear is who exactly takes up that control. If there is one thing that is evident in a painting it is the degree to which the artist has controlled the process. Pollock is often someone cited as a painter who relinquished control by letting gravity play a part – but that’s a red herring. Where there is a hand there is control and the Modernists were anything but yielding, added to which they had pretty lofty notions of their own metaphysical profundity. Are Imhof’s performers in control? They certainly don’t give that impression, nor do they care to be especially profound; they are relatively passive, and for long stretches don’t appear to be participating much at all. None of them operate the drones and even when performing actions they do so with zombie-like disaffection like flies stunned by a bug lamp, jerking sporadically into and out of states of repose. If everything in the room is a brush, and the human objects there are only sub-participatory, then no one is truly in control. It has been written that the dreadful atmosphere of Imhof’s work represents the Neo-liberalist world order- the water we swim in – and so perhaps the painter here is a non-physical intelligence, the ghost in the machine.

Hans Namuth’s photograph of Jackson Pollock painting Autumn Rhythm; Number 30, 1950 MOMA BULLETIN, VOL. XXIV, NO. 2, 1956–57

Berlinghiero, Madonna and Child, ca. 1230, Tempera on wood, gold ground, 31 5/8 x 21 1/8 inches

In his book The Wake of Imagination, Richard Kearney describes three periods of art and provides a metaphor for each: pre-modern art is mimetic, and represented by the mirror; modern art is productive, represented by the lamp; and post-modern art is parodic, represented by a labyrinth of self-reflecting looking glasses. One might naturally choose to put her into this last category although, as David Foster Wallace famously described post-modern irony as “the song of the bird that has come to love its cage,” there is no irony in Faust or Angst, no inside-joking and certainly no love for this bleak cage. Of these categories, Imhof probably belongs to the first, to the mimetic, and at this crossroads parts company with Pollock. Imhof does not propose a better way, but holds up a mirror so that we may be reminded of ourselves. She paints portraits like medieval icons; they (we) are symbols of Neo-liberalist melancholy, personifying an orthodoxy of transparent blankness, dutifully bankrupt of imagination. This is a call to inaction. Inaction painting. It is painting that is not painting, but performs its influence behind the scenes, as a practice that takes shape in the guise of an other. Like a wandering spirit it takes possession of other bodies.

Dil Hildebrand, The Peddler, 2017, Acrylic, nylon fibre and resin on acrylic panel in wood frame, 180 x 127cm

Dil Hildebrand is an artist living and working in Montreal, Canada.