Yve-Alain Bois, "Painting: The Task of Mourning," in Painting as Model. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1990.
(This essay was first published the exhibition catalog Endgame—Reference and Simulation in Recent
Painting and Sculpture
by the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, fall 1986.)
annotation by Harper Montgomery (Theories of Media, Winter 2004)

As in all of the essays in Painting as Model, in "Painting: The Task of Mourning," Yve-Alain Bois limits his discussion of painting to abstract painting. In his analysis, he understands historical moments of what he calls a return to order (such as Picasso’s return to naturalism, the Neue Sachlichkeit painters in 1920s Germany, the Italian Metaphysical painters, etc.) simply as conserve back-peddling, period. Likewise, his analysis of the end of painting during the 1980s—which, in retrospect only signaled the beginning of the end of the millennium—must be understood in response to the rise of neo-figurative and neo-expressionist painting during the 1980s and its incredible success on the booming New York market (art star characters like Julian Schnabel, David Salle, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Sandro Chia, Georg Baselitz, et al. should be kept in mind as off-stage presences).
With this in mind, it cannot be stressed enough that, for Bois, Robert Ryman represents the figure of salvation for painting in contrast with this unspoken context. According to Bois, Ryman is painfully aware of the death of painting—his works proclaim the loss and deconstruction of the "…historical position of painting as an exceptional realm of manual mastery" (231).ons" like self-other, domestic-international, and war-peace (297 and abstract).

Bois locates his reader in 1986 at the moment of the death of painting, contextualizing his analysis of abstract painting in terms of a drive towards death and negation. He emphasizes a fin de’siecle sense of the apocalyptic as opposed to postmodernist deconstruction. Bois shares Greenberg’s desire to reconstitute the artistic medium of painting as a closed, isolated, intrinsic system, consisting of sub-media (i.e. frame, surface, figure, ground, color), but demarcated from the world. But, Bois also incorporates Benjamin’s analysis of the rise of "mechanical reproduction," as well as Duchampian and Marxist critiques of painting as a commodity fetish with the rise of industrialism and the expansion of the international art market, as fundamental to understanding paintings concurrent decline and stubborn survival.

While Bois constructs a complex and compelling argument, his language about abstract painting (which he unquestioningly accepts as the epitome of modernist art) is often willfully obtuse and mystical, and, as a result, mythologizes painting as an artistic medium. His understanding of painting-as-medium is deterministic, and Bois limits moments of agency within the medium to a handful of artists, such as Suerat, Malevich, Duchamp, Mondrian, Pollock, and Ryman. These artistic geniuses are, for Bois, the only agents strong enough to resist the tyranny of painting as a medium. All in all, Bois’ lament on the death of painting, like Greenberg’s argument for pure painting, posits elitist and leftist concepts of painting-as-medium in dialectic discourse with each other.