08/11/2014 05:22 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Why You Need Painting to Say That Painting Is Dead

Marc Trujillo '14114 Vanowen Street' 42 x 74 inches oil on polyester over aluminum.

I'm a painter, so of course I find statements about the death of painting annoying, but also sloppy thinking, since painting is what it takes to be able to even make the statement.

Rackstraw Downes 'Demolition and Excavation on the Site of the Equitable Life Assurance Society's New Tower at 7th Avenue and 52nd Street' 32 x 36 inches 1983 Oil on Canvas

Here's a painting by Rackstraw Downes. I highly recommend going to see his paintings which are at the Betty Cuningham Gallery in New York and also recommend his writings, his most recent book Nature and Art Are Physical from Edgewise press has just come out.

Rackstraw Downes 'THE COTTON CLUB FROM UNDER THE VIADUCT AT RIVERSIDE DRIVE AND ST. CLAIR PLACE' 34 x 66 1/4 inches2003 Oil on canvas

Rackstraw Downes gave the best visiting artist talk I had heard while I was at Yale, so I was excited to get him into my studio. While he was in my studio, I referred to painting as a language and he immediately and eloquently called me out, "Painting is not a language, otherwise two different painters could paint a lemon and you wouldn't be able to tell them apart." He was right, and over time I've given more thought and investigation into just why painting isn't a language and what its relation to language is. I've come to see that the primacy of painting is necessary to even be able to make claims about painting as language develops from painting both historically, for our cultures at large and developmentally, for us as individuals.

Rackstraw Downes 'APPROACH TO THE HOLLAND TUNNEL WITH 75 VARICK' 35 1/4 x 60 1/4 inches 1989 Oil on canvas

Why isn't painting a language? In order for something to be a language, it needs three things, syntax, pragmatics and semantics. Syntax is grammar, which painting only kind of has. There is a sort of grammar to painting, but for it to be properly considered grammar, the relation of its component parts would have to maintain a consistent relation to the painting's meaning, so painting fails as syntax. Pragmatics is the relation between the user and the system, which painting definitely has. Semantic meaning is the literal meaning of a linguistic expression. A single brush stroke or a splatter could be considered (and often is) painting, but it completely fails in terms of having semantic meaning. Thinking of painting as language can be useful to communicate about painting, but painting is not a language.

Rackstraw Downes 'Delancey at Suffolk' 19 x 67 inches 2012 Oil on canvas

Language develops out of painting both historically for cultures at large, and developmentally as individuals.


From Lascaux

Historically speaking, the cave paintings in Lascaux and Altamira are about 20,000 years older than written language. These paintings are paintings in and of themselves and also a precursor to language, a necessity for language to develop from 'proto-writing' to 'true writing' which goes through stages from being a picture writing system to being a phonetic system, where graphemes have the kind of fixed uses and meanings to constitute language.


Gilgamesh Tablet

Developmentally, across cultures, mark-making (which we all agree by now that we can call painting) is a way that we start to organize our sensorimotor experience while in our sensorimotor stage which gets us from birth to our use of language. Painting is something we need as an experience to be able to develop the use of language.

So, next time you hear someone say that painting is dead, remember that they couldn't have said it without painting.