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The Mod Squad

Banished to the sidelines during the art world's post-eighties hangover, painting is finally back in the picture. But the new generation of New York painters is smitten with technology, suspicious of hype, and avowedly sober.

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On a steamy day late last summer, Charles Saatchi, the British advertising baron and one of the world's preeminent art collectors, spent the morning at Deitch Projects on Grand Street, browsing through the work of several new artists represented by dealer Jeffrey Deitch. Saatchi had already bought some paintings by a young British figurative painter named Cecily Brown, whose work, with its suggestive blur of nude bodies, owes considerably more toFrancis Bacon than to Julian Schnabel. Now he was scrutinizing canvases by Casey Cook, a 26-year-old recent UCLA grad who blithely mixes abstract and representational elements in her work.

If a single moment suggested that after half a decade of indifference, painting was making a comeback, it was Saatchi's visit to Deitch, a gallery that until earlier this year had prided itself on representing the cutting edge of installation art -- from Noritoshi Hirakawa's panty-strewn chandeliers (Garden of Nirvana) to performance artist Oleg Kulik's well-publicized residency as a caged dog (I Bite America and America Bites Me).

Though it's not yet a full-blown wave, the burgeoning interest in painting first began at 1997's Whitney Biennial, and intensified after a MOMA show of young painters later that year. But Saatchi, whose renowned art collection was built during the notorious eighties, is to the art world what Warren Buffett is to Wall Street, and his newly piqued interest in these young American artists sent an unmistakable message: After years of critical disinterest and commercial decline, painting was finally back in play.

Deitch, a former Citibank art adviser and sometime critic who promoted many of the eighties' art stars, was one of the first to discover their nineties counterparts. During the past twelve months, he has enthusiastically taken on half a dozen new painters barely out of art school, including Shahzia Sikander, Cecily Brown, Inka Essenhigh, and Damian Loeb. Their work almost instantly garnered both critical and commercial success. While their paintings are hardly expensive, ranging from $5,000 to $12,500, it's not every day that a twentysomething artist sells out a show or makes it into Saatchi's collection. Indeed, the market for their work has become so fevered that last month, two of Deitch's hottest painters defected to uptown galleries: Brown went to Larry Gagosian, and Loeb decamped to Mary Boone.

"When I opened up in 1996, most of the art that I saw was created by performance artists like Vanessa Beecroft and Mariko Mori, and installations where artists create their own private world," says Deitch.

"In the nineties, painting was considered dead. But a lot of the performance art and video art and conceptual art was getting a little academic. The freshest art right now is painting. The ambitious younger artists don't want to do the same sort of imagery as the generation before them. The best new painting is not art about art, and it's not about decoration. It's small-scale and personal -- about communicating the experiences that define the self. There is a different approach to painting -- it's not purely abstract or purely representational. It's both."

When it comes to the new painters, Deitch may have been slightly ahead of the curve, but he's hardly alone. Eager to revive a hibernating art market, a number of galleries, including Pat Hearn, Matthew Marks, Andrea Rosen, Team, Feature, Gavin Brown, and Greene Naftali, have been showing work by painters in their twenties and thirties, including some who came to prominence over the past few years, such as Rita Ackermann, Lisa Ruyter, Elizabeth Peyton, Monique Prieto, Alexander Ross, and Peter Wegner. In late June, Pat Hearn and Matthew Marks mounted a double-gallery show called, appropriately enough, "Painting: Now and Forever Part I." It included some 45 works, from a Kenneth Noland sixties color-field painting to a candy-colored 1998 piece by Sue Williams.


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