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September 1983.

In these pages twenty years ago, Thierry de Duve reframed Barnett Newman's question "Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue?" in the context of the early '80s "Death of Painting" debate. Artforum senior editor ERIC BANKS looks back at de Duve's germinal essay, which no doubt meets the Belgian theoretician's own criterion for valid art-historical judgment.

THIERRY DE DUVE isn't easy to pin down. His ranging interests, allusively packed prose, and daunting critical armature (which draws heavily on Kant, Duchamp, Greenberg, and Broodthaers) are, technically, those of the art historian, but putting a label on his approach is not so simple. His work doesn't exactly correspond to a particular school or genre of writing. Is he a critic? An aesthetician? Or, more broadly, a philosopher of art? Maybe it's best to think of de Duve as a latter-day oracle.

In "Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue?," published in these pages twenty years ago this month, the answer de Duve gives to the question posed in the title of his article is positively Delphic. The original querier is, of course, Barnett Newman, writing about his paintings of the same name and about the "purists and formalists who have put a mortgage on red, yellow and blue, transforming these colors into an idea that destroys them as colors." De Duve, returning to Newman's text fourteen years later--seemingly light-years away from the painter's aesthetic moment--responds by posing two new, paradoxical questions, with a pair of historical addressees: the pioneers of modernism who broke with Western painting's past in the turn to nonobjective painting, on the one hand, and those artists, critics, and historians in the present of 1983 over whom modernism no longer held sway, on the other. To the former, Newman's question is translated as, "Does abstract painting still have a past?" To the latter, "Does painting after abstraction still have a future?"

De Duve was reparsing Newman at a time of crisis, the moment at which the "Death of Painting" talk and the chatter around the return to expressionism--reached fever pitch. De Duve didn't disagree that these were dire times. (Indeed, he makes much of the "who's afraid" conceit in Newman's question to get at exactly what fear in the present entailed. Addressing the encounter with the "mortgaged" colors led to a double bind: To answer "I am still afraid of red, yellow, and blue" was to reaffirm the failed project of the historical avant-garde in willful ignorance of the realities of that failure. To respond "I am no longer afraid of red, yellow, and blue" risked courting the historicist pastiche seen in the frictionless neo-expressionist eclecticism then in vogue.) De Duve believed that no one had yet identified precisely what the crisis was about. The curators and critics rallying under the antimodernist or antiformalist banners were simply replacing one orthodoxy with another while effectively ducking the issues they attempted to raise. What is it exactly, he asks in response, that makes us so anxious not to be modern any longer? Describing the "manic-depressive syndrome" that characterized the art world of that time, he writes, "We don't even know what it is that we have to mourn."

What history, then, can emerge in place of historicism to offer a courageous reply to Newman's question, in a different epoch, and to recognize the fear de Duve identities in the present? His proposed answer hinges on his position that, for artists, critics, and historians, everything "begins and ends in esthetic judgment." For artists, that act of judgment is inherent in practice, for all work is a response to and a comment on (even a critical interpretation of) other works, whether explicit or not. For the critic or historian, all interpretations are ipso facto judgments as well, since they always entail a valorization of one artist at the expense of another. "It is [critics' and historians'] job to produce a rationale for their verdicts, with the imminence of another verdict to be rendered in their own case, of which they must know they run the risk." Therein lies the rub: In de Duve's notion of criticism, to judge is also to be judged. The court is always in session.

In short, there can be no final judgment, only a rehearing of cases in which judgment has already been passed down. (In contrast to revisionism or orthodox modernism, de Duve identifies his criterion for the "correctness" of art-historical judgment to be fecundity and notes that historical fertility can only be assessed at some point after the event.) If there is a hint of arbitrariness in de Duve's idea of judgment, it is mediated by the fact that his "court" is not in the business of overturning verdicts. "The artists of the future will have the same interlocutor that artists have always had, that is to say, tradition. So what if the word has become suspect, monopolized as it is by those who deploy it against modernity? We must take it back from them."

De Duve didn't mince words. "Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue?" is an angry polemic against postmodernism as it was taking hold in the '80s art world and underwriting, willy-nilly, every retrograde painting practice it touched. Fear may not have been fashionable then, but for de Duve it was the crux of the crisis, the very thing the art world had to fear--and face up to.

In this ongoing series, Artforum looks back on an essay of note from our pages ten, twenty, thirty, or forty years ago to the month. Visit to view the contents of all four issues and read selected articles from each.
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Title Annotation:present day interpretation of Thierry de Duve's essay "Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue?" published 20 years ago; 10 20 30 40
Author:Banks, Eric
Publication:Artforum International
Date:Sep 1, 2003
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