Modernism, if we need a quick and dirty encapsulation of it, can be summed up in Ezra Pound’s declaration “Make it new!” At its most extreme this imperative leads, insofar as visual art is concerned, to the feeling that one could only begin, “so to speak, from scratch, as if painting were not only dead but had never existed,” which is how Barnett Newman described his ambitions in 1967. Postmodernism, on the other hand, as we came to know it, and love or hate it, in the 1980s, seemed to say that nothing of the sort was possible, or even all that interesting—and to prove it, artists began to devote themselves to appropriation and pastiche. These practices are still very much with us. The recent court battle over Richard Prince’s reuse of imagery taken from a book by photographer Patrick Cariou testifies to the persistence of appropriation (and the legal risks it may invite), whereas the resurgence of George Condo, widely lauded for his slick, jokey twists on familiar Modernist styles, is a reminder of the endurance of pastiche. And there are plenty of younger artists following in their footsteps.

But there are other possibilities in the air. Just as the idea that art could make a fresh start, unencumbered by the conventions of the past, came to seem paradoxically tired and conventional, so too did the idea of the end of history, and of the artist being condemned to what Fredric Jameson, in his celebrated 1984 essay on postmodernism, described as “the imitation of dead styles, speech through all the masks and voices stored up in the imaginary museum of a now global culture.” In retrospect, both the Modernist and postmodernist positions, at least at their most doctrinaire, seem like evasions of the historicity of the present. There are no absolute beginnings or endings, just a continuing entanglement, and dialogue, between the present and the past. More persistent than appropriation is the truth of William Faulkner’s famous admonition, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Faulkner was suggesting that unacknowledged histories are always latent in the present, that things may not be what they seem. His remark can also be taken to suggest that for new art, art that we hope will tell us something about our present and, perhaps more to the point, show us something of its look, things may be more complicated, more ambiguous, than they used to appear. It has gotten harder to distinguish an art that’s truly of the present from one that is more backward-looking. And when art delves into its past, it can be difficult to tell whether it’s doing so in the spirit of postmodernist pastiche or with a genuine historical sense, by which I mean a sense of the sense of the past, of a spirit that however deeply rooted has not yet been named and is still emerging in the present. Somewhat reluctantly, I’ll borrow a phrase from literary studies and call this a new historicism in art.

That such a thing exists—not a movement but a tendency of the time—has become clear to me only gradually, and my understanding of it crystallized after seeing recent exhibitions in London by two of my favorite younger painters, Silke Otto-Knapp and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. It helped that their shows happened to be in the same building, at the galleries greengrassi and Corvi-Mora, respectively; perhaps it was their proximity that allowed me to sense the curious inner congruence between the two bodies of work, despite the lack of any striking visual resemblance. The two artists’ backgrounds are certainly different. Otto-Knapp was born in Osnabrück, Germany, in 1970. She went to London in 1995 to study at the Chelsea College of Art, and has been living and working there ever since. Yiadom-Boakye is a native Londoner, born in 1977, but of Ghanaian heritage. That both artists work in London doesn’t seem crucial: the roots of their art lie elsewhere. I’d be surprised if Otto-Knapp hadn’t been crucially influenced by Karen Kilimnik, for example, though she hasn’t emulated Kilimnik’s fannishness and whimsy; and Yiadom-Boakye has clearly been marked by John Currin, though Currin is still a pasticheur in a way that she’s not. But their work has ulterior sources. And that both artists are painters may not even be that important. I could point out similar qualities in artists working in other media—such as the sculptor Daniel Silver or the American-born filmmaker Daria Martin, to name a couple of other London-based artists who’ve made a strong impression on me in recent years.

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The first piece on view in Otto-Knapp’s exhibition, “Voyage Out,” was Tableau 1 (braiding), from 2011, a large, near-square painting in richly toned grisaille depicting a group of dancers clad in white robes like dervishes and performing in front of a large openwork construction that is somewhat taller than the dancers and of indeterminate use or significance. Behind it are the dancers’ accompanists, playing four grand pianos and a range of percussion. The scene is represented in a highly stylized manner that might have originated in some no man’s land between the Modernism of Georgia O’Keeffe and Art Deco. Detail is reduced to a minimum—the figures are faceless, for instance—and the space tipped forward so that the background figures appear to be above those in the foreground rather than behind them. The musicians look stiff, doll-like; the dancers appear not to have been captured in mid-movement but to be holding their extravagant poses indefinitely.

In contrast to the painting’s austere palette and composition, its smoky half-tones of seemingly infinite gradation are incredibly seductive (I’m thinking of the intangible flickering lights and shadows with which the scene has been rendered), as is its delicate texture, at once sheer and velvetlike. This is all thanks to Otto-Knapp’s use of watercolor and gouache (rather than, say, oil or acrylic) on canvas. Writing about a 2008 exhibition of Otto-Knapp’s in Cologne, the German critic Catrin Lorch shrewdly attributed her restricted palette to the influence of “the dusty-grey medium of photocopy reproductions of old images from ballets.” No doubt, but who would have imagined that the afterimage of the grainy detritus of the library could tug at one’s emotions? Otto-Knapp’s paintings are permeated by nostalgia, but for what: the lost artistry of dances we will never be able to see or the archive that beguiles us with the incommunicative traces of what was or might have been?

Presumably Tableau 1 represents an actual performance. In the past, Otto-Knapp has derived paintings from documents of productions by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and Ninette de Valois; at Sadler’s Wells, she has been exhibiting a series of etchings based on the ballet Lilac Garden, performed there in 1936 and choreographed by Antony Tudor. There is no written clue to the source of Tableau 1, but the unusual instrumentation depicted in the painting is that of Igor Stravinsky’s Les Noces (1923), which was originally choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska. So maybe those dancers are meant to be not Sufi mystics but Russian peasants.

In any case, some of the other paintings in “Voyage Out” return to a subject that occupied Otto-Knapp a few years ago, before she began focusing on dance performance: landscape—or rather, more specifically, gardens, by which I mean not wild nature but the artifice of a cultivated theater of nature. In Garden (moonlit), from 2011, the luminous disc hardly seems the source of the pale radiance that permeates everything, for the areas of deepest foliage are somehow the least hidden in shadow. And despite the muzzy atmosphere, the painting is richly detailed. Perhaps this is what it’s like to see a garden through the shining eye of a cat prowling at night.

But is a painted landscape really the likeness of a terrain through which animals might roam, or is it merely the image of an image? As Otto-Knapp reminds us, it’s hard to know. The darkest and most mysterious of the paintings at greengrassi was another one featuring lunar light—or so one might have thought. Its title tells us otherwise. Stage (moonlit), from 2011, with its bare, scattered trees, depicts not a real forest but a theatrical backdrop. Its painted moon has only this in common with the real one: it gives reflected light, not its own.

The idea may be that painting detaches an image from any definite connection to its source. Reference to nature and reference to art become indistinguishable. And yet art is not entirely removed from reality; there is a connection, however attenuated, that Otto-Knapp seems to want to retain. Perhaps the most affecting work in her exhibition was an image of another artist, Painter (Marianne North), from 2011. It shows a woman sitting at an easel in a clearing before a dense wood. As usual, details have been reduced to a minimum, and the woman’s costume seems vaguely nineteenth century. Who is she? The name Marianne North meant nothing to me, but thanks to Google I now know that she was an English naturalist and botanical artist who lived between 1830 and 1890. The Royal Gardens at Kew maintains a gallery devoted solely to her paintings that is said to be “the only permanent solo exhibition by a female artist in Britain.” Nothing could be further from Otto-Knapp’s dreamy, aesthetically and conceptually distanced mode of painting than the hardheaded realism practiced by this doughty Victorian maverick, who traveled the world to document its flora in minute detail and intense color. North wanted to show things in the most direct manner possible; Otto-Knapp reminds us obliquely of what may be beyond our grasp. Otto-Knapp’s empathy for her subject has not tempted her to imitate North’s manner of painting. And even if Otto-Knapp wanted to, she couldn’t, at least not without changing everything, right down to her very materials: North painted in oils at a time when ladies were expected to use watercolor; Otto-Knapp uses watercolor, perhaps in solidarity with the generations of female amateurs who might have had gifts worthy of further cultivation if only the times had permitted it. What North wanted to paint was nature; Otto-Knapp wants to paint North’s aspiration.

 

Otto-Knapp’s paintings often probe around the edges of Modernism, both in their subjects—dance performances familiar only to specialists because they can only be reconstructed from documents; an artist who ignored the burgeoning innovations of contemporaries like Manet and Whistler to pursue her own (perhaps inadvertently) visionary take on the vegetable realm—and in their style, which often evokes provincial variants of metropolitan ways of seeing, usually imbued with symbolist overtones. Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings, portraits of imaginary people, awaken an even longer historical memory but are also concerned with art history’s margins. Commentators on her work invariably cite a very specific pictorial heritage—Velázquez, Goya, Manet, Sargent—and rightly so, though we’d do well to remember the less renowned figures who share some of the same artistic DNA, such as Robert Henri and William Nicholson. But think again about Velázquez and Manet: what if Juan de Pareja were not the only black man the Spaniard had painted, and what if not just Olympia’s maid but her mistress had had dark skin? The people Yiadom-Boakye paints are almost always black—people who were marginal to the European tradition of portraiture until the advent of Modernism made the portrait itself a marginal pursuit.

Not that these imaginary figures ever look like they’ve been marginalized. “I don’t like to paint victims,” the artist insists in the press release for her recent exhibition at Corvi-Mora, “Notes and Letters.” For all their vulnerability, her people are proud; they have nothing to prove. Okwui Enwezor, in an essay for the catalog of Yiadom-Boakye’s recent show at the Studio Museum in Harlem, discussed the notion of “cutting a figure” as a way of understanding her imaginary portraits. Enwezor borrowed the phrase from the art historian Richard Powell, the reigning expert on the representation of blacks in Western painting, who used it to describe “an incisive, slashing action or a spectacle created by an all-too-visible person.” But this kind of compensatory self-representation strikes me as exactly what Yiadom-Boakye’s subjects rarely if ever resort to. It’s as if they’ve never been made to feel that their race could count against them, that they are too visible or invisible; one could call them “postblack,” to use the term coined a decade ago by Thelma Golden, the Studio Museum’s director.

There’s something else to be noticed about these figures: the absence of markers of class in their depiction. Most portraits show their subjects in the midst of their possessions—props that define their station in life: sometimes their profession, more often their wealth and status. And even in the absence of other such accessories, clothing is usually enough to show whom you’re dealing with. Think of the sumptuous gowns worn by the women painted by Sargent or Ingres. You’d be hard put to say if Yiadom-Boakye’s people are rich or poor; it might be tempting to split the difference and say they’re middle class, but even that would be unwarranted. Their costume, often close to styleless (consider for contrast the flamboyantly mannerist attire sported by the portrait subjects of Barkley Hendricks) is strictly unidentifiable as anything but vaguely modern: plain brown sweaters, casual slacks, at best a little black dress. Nothing flashy.

There’s more to be said about this plainness. It has to do with Yiadom-Boakye’s extreme reservations about the use of color. There’s a strong use of red for the figures’ garments in one work in “Notes and Letters”; green provides the background for two others. But otherwise, the paintings are mostly brown with a bit of white: brown skin, brown clothing, brown backgrounds, the whites of their eyes. In the most literal sense, most of these figures are at one with their world, which is nothing other than that of painting, or rather—because the substance of paint is everywhere in evidence here—of paint: its physicality, its uncanny life. Their faces are nothing other than paint having taken on legible features.

At the same time, there is something knowingly generic about these imaginary portraits. Not that each subject doesn’t have his or her own quirks of pose or expression; even knowing that these subjects are invented, it’s easy to imagine that they represent people we might have seen or met. They elicit empathy. But the paintings also always present themselves as examples of portraiture, as “tokens” (to use Charles Sanders Peirce’s nomenclature) of a type of representation. We see the people they represent as individuals, but the people do not bother to exteriorize or dramatize their individuality, and something similar could be said of the paintings. Maybe we should think of them as portraits of portraiture—which they probably could not be if they depicted real people.

A few of Yiadom-Boakye’s recent paintings, however, seem to represent a retreat from the notion of portraiture. “Notes and Letters” included a pair of full-length figures in which the subject’s face is turned away—a young man in Aftersong (2011) and a middle-aged woman in 11 am Monday (2011). They are figures with “lost profiles.” Yet these characters seem hardly less knowable than those who face us directly in some of the other paintings. The woman is seen amid the nebulous light-grayish atmosphere of what could well be an overcast morning; however the day might turn out, her wide-brimmed hat would provide protection from either sun or rain. Little more than a few darker horizontal brush strokes at the bottom of the canvas establish a reflection: she seems to be standing in shallow water, one foot resting on a rock, perhaps gazing out at the ocean. Though we barely see her face, her contemplative mood establishes itself vividly enough. Whatever we can know about the subjects of these paintings is to be known indirectly, yet we feel we do know something, and in relation to this something, everything we don’t know contributes a sense of untold depth.

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Of course, that depth is in the eye of the beholder. Contemporary painting is “conceptual” in just this sense: the effects it aims to create take place in the viewer’s mind and not on the canvas. That’s not to say that some curious and difficult things don’t have to happen on the canvas to produce the desired effect. The viewer completes the work, as Marcel Duchamp famously said—but he or she doesn’t complete it in just any old way. The artist cannily, inexplicitly shows you how. The painters Yiadom-Boakye evokes, the likes of Velázquez and Manet, were masters of the unfinished who knew how to coax the eye and mind of the viewer to animate the raw physicality of paint by breathing life into it through gaps left for just that purpose. She’s been going to the right school.

At the same time, Yiadom-Boakye is learning how to give the viewer more information while still keeping things open-ended, and how to remind the viewer, as well, that the way one completes a picture through perception is always open to revision. The largest painting in “Notes and Letters,” strangely titled Curses (2011), is, unusually for her, more of a genre painting than a portrait. Two girls, robed in red, are seen striding from stone to stone across a river. The background is not depicted in any great detail, but it is nonetheless much more concrete than her usual nebulous fields of colorless color. The careful energy invested in the girls’ steps is beautifully drawn out. So is the concentration on their faces. And this despite the fact that, in the midst of all the seemingly effortless lyrical painting by which she has adumbrated the girls’ environment, she has rendered their faces with blunt, awkward, at times almost harsh gestures. These features that read so naturally from a certain distance come to seem masklike, arbitrary, even grotesque if you get too close—and yet gorgeously so.

Yiadom-Boakye’s art, like Otto-Knapp’s, is pervaded by an exquisite historical consciousness, yet their work avoids the academic and histrionic. I suppose it’s the wise incompletion of their paintings that makes this possible. Go back to Otto-Knapp’s portrait of Marianne North: notice how the painting she’s shown making is nothing but a rectangle filled with a few liquid strokes of watercolor. Everything around it tells us what the picture might be. But we have to fill it in for ourselves, now and always in the present, knowing whatever we might of the past—and not only that of art.