“One Question” with William Conger

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William Conger is a Chicago-based artist whose work is exhibited in Chicago and nationally. He is represented in the permanent collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, other museums and numerous collections in the U.S. and abroad. The Chicago Cultural Center will present a major 50-year retrospective of his paintings in 2009. William Conger is professor emeritus of art theory and practice at Northwestern University and is former professor of art at DePaul University.

Neoteric Art: Is producing a solid monochromatic painting still relevant today?

William Conger: My immediate answer to the question is to say of course a solid monochromatic painting can still be relevant today.

There are several ambiguities to this question. First, monochromatic. Is there really such a condition since any variation of light would alter how we see a color, and since each of us may also respond differently to a color for both psychological and physical reasons, how do we recognize a color? Second, painting. The word painting means more nowadays than applying pigment. We can paint with computers, digitally, and we can paint with light, or even with appropriated surfaces, etc., so what do we mean by painting? I prefer the broadest definition. Third, still relevant. The implication here is that the relevancy of artworks is tied to time’s arrow. But it’s not necessary that relevancy be linked to transience. Art may have a transient relevance in one context, like stylistic or with respect to an artist’s development, or even in terms of the art market, and yet still retain a stable relevance in other contexts, as with one’s personal valuing, audience reception, or art’s social function, or its historical status, and the like. Finally, today. Here’s another elastic word that doesn’t need to mean simply 24 clock hours. In this context one assumes today means some uncertain period, from perhaps weeks to years, maybe even decades (although the art world seems to prefer its art in decade or half-decade sized lumps). As we all know, there are many today’s going on simultaneously in the art world. One of them is monochromatic painting and similar process oriented art that aims to conflate the literal with the immaterial or object with sensation. Who knows, there may be a way to make or conceptualize monochromatic paintings that we’ve not yet seen (and which echoes the techy age in which more and more variants of anything are offered as progress).

This leads me to wonder if the question is really an art question or a misapplied business/marketing type question. For instance, it seems more in keeping with the implications of the question to ask, “Is a one-color automobile still relevant today?” Was Warhol right when he equated art and business and do the slogans that define and guide business and merchandising also define and guide art?

I am reminded of Delecroix’s comment somewhere in his Journals, which I paraphrase: What has been done has not yet been done enough. So my concluding answer is still yes, all forms of artmaking and all manners, [solid] monochromatic or whatever else, are always potentially relevant in the hands of the right artists—if we recognize that relevance may be necessary but never sufficient to art.

And that begs a harder question: Is art relevant, necessary, and sufficient, particularly when it is indistinguishable from business and marketing theory and practice?