On September 11, 2001, Dana Schutz was an MFA student at Columbia University. She was already making the first of the paintings for which she would soon become well-known: images of a man she called Frank constructing a life for himself as the last survivor in a postapocalyptic landscape—the last, that is, except for whoever was painting him. After the towers fell, Schutz told Robert Enright of the Canadian magazine Border Crossings a couple of years ago, she thought about abandoning the painting. “At that time any kind of representation felt up for grabs and I didn’t know how it would land,” she recalled, “or if I could deal with certain subject matter.”
History shows that Schutz did continue work on the painting, which the next year became part of her first one-person show, “Frank From Observation,” held at the now-defunct LFL Gallery in New York. What captured her imagination, she noted at the time, was the idea of “a world without anyone to check reality against.” This unverifiable world was what Schutz called “an open space for painting.” It allowed for an art neither naturalistic, since it can’t be measured against the standard of a visible model, nor abstract: a kind of painting in which speculative ideas could be followed through logically and experimentally. As Enright points out, Schutz’s idea of the painter is of someone “who has to figure out how to imagine and then render a world.” But, to paraphrase Marx, she can’t render it just as she pleases. It’s in the gap between what can be imagined and what can be represented that art’s capacity for surprise is revealed, which is always related to what Schutz calls “some problem within the subject.”
“Subject” is a funny, ambiguous word—I think Schutz was using it there in the sense of “subject matter,” but it also means something like “self,” the bearer of subjectivity. That ambiguity was apparent in her statement for “Frank From Observation” 15 years ago, where she observed that in her work “the subject is composed and decomposing, formed and formless, inanimate and alive” and added that her interest was not in narrative but “in the man as a subject.” And that ambiguity is also entirely the point of Schutz’s work, which looks for problems in the realm of painting—problems about how a painting is made and what it is made out of—that are also psychological problems: ones not necessarily specific to the painter as an individual, but that might be encountered by anyone trying to construct a life out of the ready-made materials of the world we’ve been thrown into.
None of those early “Frank” paintings are included in Schutz’s current show (through November 26) at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA). Curated by Eva Respini with Jessica Hong, this concise selection includes 17 paintings and four drawings made between 2009 and this year. But it’s still true that Schutz’s subjects (in all senses) and the paintings themselves are simultaneously constructing and dismantling themselves, amalgamated from disparate parts and consuming themselves at the same time.