To Make the Minor Major: On Giorgio Morandi

by Bret Schneider


Giorgio Morandi was always considered a minor painter. He was canonized as such in the Art Since 1900 textbook, which was probably influenced (consciously or not) by Greenberg’s criticism of a group of ‘minor’ Italian painters in which Morandi was included. Despite attempts to rewrite modernism and make of Morandi something more significant than he was in his own moment, he will always be a minor figure in the development of modernist painting that contemporary art can’t help but react to. The recent attempts to canonize Morandi as a major artist is really a reflection of our own moment, and the needs that ‘minor’ painting appeal to today. Such minor art forms are far-reaching and relevant, evidenced by Roberta Smith’s observation on small painting, provisional painting, and extending into neo-modernist musical études. At the time of the Morandi exhibitions at Zwirner and the Center for Italian Modern Art there is an exhibit up at the SVA galleries curated by the trendy Brooklyn Rail that examines small paintings, underscoring their importance in contemporary art. Minor artworks fulfill a current need and inevitably conform to what might be termed a ‘minor consciousness’ of our contemporary era. What the term minor means, however, is still open to critique, as it has not really been used much since the midcentury. The concept itself has been pulled out of the dustbin of history.

What modernist critics like Greenberg meant when they categorized something as minor was not reducible to scale, as Greenberg thought Klee, for example, was a major artist specifically because he worked on small scales, and in doing so clarified a broad historical lineage reaching back to illuminated manuscripts. Likewise, the minor was not defined by hermetic qualities either, since hermetic contemplation was a significant factor in modernist artworks. What was meant by minor was a form of academicism, or what Nietzsche called ‘antiquarianism,’ in the midst of historical crises. When used, the term was not simply meant pejoratively, but rather used to describe a new type of sensibility that challenged ideas of historical progress instead of raising historical crises to an acute pitch. To modernist critics minor artworks were not the most radical, but still inherently modern because they were produced in the midst of aesthetic crisis nonetheless. There was an idea that what mattered was not that an artwork be ‘good’, the result of skill, talent, or so forth, but rather be important. Major, more critical paintings had a sort of vulgarity to them caused by complicated orientations to historical newness, as they chased after new techniques and modern material, or, on the contrary, sought to fulfill age-old techniques. The academic (or antiquarian) sensibility evidenced in minor works, regardless of how talented the artist was, was more content to operate within the painting tradition. New exhibitions of Morandi seem to question whether or not he deserves to be placed in the minor category.

We can only speculate why Greenberg didn’t care much for Morandi’s dun-colored paintings, but the time in which he looked at them coincided with the development of purely abstract painting and the consequent liberation of color. To see the grays and browns in the early-20th century would have appeared to have regressed into the pre-impressionist, nationalist salon painting of the mid-19th century. Today, the dun coloration of Morandi’s paintings appears beautiful in its subtlety in a way greys and browns were not consciously regarded in the 19th century. Morandi’s paintings perhaps could not have been seen in their own moment, because they were too close to the 19th century, and dun colors were part of a canon of prohibitions in modern art—something to be avoided at all costs. But with the successful liberation of color, grey can now be seen for the first time by modern consciousness as a byproduct, or important augmenter, of color: something formally requisite, overlooked, and consequently to be taken on its own terms. Not unlike the way Ryman’s ‘white’ paintings act as a foil for color in general, Morandi’s grey paintings draw attention to color.

Morandi falls into the troubling group of painters like Agnes Martin that make beautifully subtle works, but not really self-critical works. There is something about their allure that seems un-painterly in an uncritical way, or external to the crisis of painting by appealing to a romantic worldview with antiquated notions of beauty or transcendence. With artists like Martin the ‘transcendental’ discourse is enough to distract from the purely medium-based crises. Critical, major painters followed the historical unfolding of the painting medium wherever it may lead, without capitulating to extrinsic concepts. Morandi is a different case, one which is analytic in the Cezanne tradition, yet still dabbles unnecessarily in a reality extrinsic to art, if only because he is perceived this way today.

Because of this ambiguity, Morandi is appealing today because he is a relatable example. Moreover, he is highly skilled, talented, and educated, but, despite all his talents, cannot be an important painter. The situation writ large in contemporary art is the same: countless talented artists and highly erudite thinkers who understand the critical discourse around painting, none of which are important or significant. This is not an attack on any one individual or group of individuals, but is an insight into the lapsed concept of a critical art history itself and what I would call a crisis in the faculty of interpretation. In the 21st century history is regarded as one damn thing after another. But In 19th and early 20th century art history was a philosophy, and the history of art was something to be written. It was not, as we regard it today, an objective archive of events, but rather a form of imagination that contextualized and formed otherwise random aesthetic experiences by giving art history an idealized plot. The result was that the history told of painting very practically shaped the actual manifestation of modernist artworks, as they were nudged in different directions by abstract ideals in artists as well as critics. It begs the question, since art institutionalization (e.g. David Zwirner Gallery) is insufficient to legitimize Morandi, in what historical imagination would Morandi be a character on the world stage of art history? In what consciousness in such a social situation could Morandi become as important as our eyes suspect him to be? The question must be answered via actual artworks that try to redeem Morandi from the dustbin of history, but also by an openly ideological art historical project. The bulwark to such a project is the sense that what people actually like about Morandi is his irrelevance to the history of modernist painting, that he fell by the wayside and wasn’t able to be used. Such a sensibility shares something in common with Marxist conceptions of history—if in Benjamin’s philosophy historical knowledge should be sought not in the victors but in the vanquished, Adorno’s philosophy stressed attention to all those things which fell outside of such a ‘rectilinear’ view of history, the blindspots so-to-speak. It led Adorno to consider artists like Satie in a way similar to how Nietzsche favored Bizet over Wagner. Morandi is an artist who may have been regarded by modern critics this way. But can he now? The problem is that Morandi is also a painter’s painter. He ultimately presents a contradiction in that, on one hand, he is considered an exemplary self-critical modern painter, whereas, on the other hand, he is not considered a modernist at all, but a painter who falls outside of modernism. On one hand, highly self-conscious artists look to Morandi as one of the few examples of a painstakingly sensitive practice, on the other hand, the Morandi exhibition fits perfectly well into the mindless sartorialism the art world promotes. One can easily see hoards of dilettantes with affectations like, "isn't it exquisite". Any painting project taking up Morandi will have to expose such contradictions and politicize Morandi’s inherent sensitivity of looking.

Natura morta (Still Life)  , 1952   Oil on canvas   14 3/16 x 15 11/16 inches (36 x 39.8 cm)   Private Collection   © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SIAE, Rome

Natura morta (Still Life), 1952
Oil on canvas
14 3/16 x 15 11/16 inches (36 x 39.8 cm)
Private Collection
© 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SIAE, Rome