MuseumsWeekend

The Death of Painting: All-New, 2014 Edition

Installation view of “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World” at The Museum of Modern Art, New York (December 14, 2014-April 5, 2015). Photo by John Wronn © 2014 The Museum of Modern Art. Foreground: 4 paintings by Kerstin Brätsch; background: 5 paintings by Joe Bradley (partial view).

The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World, the new exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, prompted thoughts of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, though I’m not sure how much acceptance there is in the end.

This particular reaction was due to a particular experience of the show, which began with reading the press release a few minutes before heading up the escalator to MoMA’s sixth floor to see the actual art. The statement, which is a single-spaced, four-page reduction of the catalogue essay by Laura Hoptman, one of the show’s two curators (the other is Margaret Ewing), painted a picture (to use a term advisedly) of an exhibition that seemed nothing if not dry, rigid and academic.

The term “atemporality” is taken from the science fiction writer William Gibson, who used it in 2003, according to Hoptman’s essay, “to describe a new and strange state of the world in which, courtesy of the Internet, all eras seem to exist at once. Since that time, atemporality has been observed in literature, popular music, and fashion, and subsequently called many different names, including retromania, hauntology, presentism, and super-hybridity.”

The exhibition, in turn (according to the press release), is presenting art that embodies atemporality “through the reanimating of historical styles or by recreating a contemporary version of them, sampling motifs from across the timeline of 20th-century art in a single painting or across an oeuvre, or by radically paring down an artistic language to its most basic, archetypal form.”

Old wine in new bottles, some may say. Others might argue that the Museum of Modern Art is throwing its weight behind a narrow bandwidth of contemporary painting practice, one that revolves around the artwork as a mediated object referencing institutionally sanctioned styles. This footnoted approach fits all too well within the historical narrative that MoMA, despite its best efforts, has never been quite able to shake: that after representation was subsumed into abstraction, and abstraction was reduced to Minimalism, painting could only repeat itself. As Hoptman writes in her essay:

Abstraction is a language primed for becoming a representation of itself, because as much as it resists the attribution of specific meanings, the abstract mark cannot help but carry with it an entire utopian history of modern painting. […] It would be difficult to identify a contemporary abstract painter who is not self-consciously referring to that history.

Moreover, to uphold such Postmodernist strategies as “the reanimating of historical styles” and “sampling motifs” while supporting what sounds for all the world like classic Minimalism — “radically paring down an artistic language to its most basic, archetypal form” — is a contradictory stance. It may reflect the crazy-quilt visual environment in which we live, but it’s also a little crazy-making for the passionate observer — a premise that seems to play both ends against the middle while paradoxically ignoring what lies between those two extremes. This is where the stages of denial (of a narrowly parsed take on contemporary art) and anger (over the glibness of same) come in.

Installation view of “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World” at The Museum of Modern Art, New York (December 14, 2014-April 5, 2015). Photo by John Wronn © 2014 The Museum of Modern Art. Foreground: 9 paintings by Josh Smith; background: 2 paintings by Matt Connors.

By associating atemporality, which is admittedly a very cool and potentially useful term, with the reuse or revival of past styles (characterized by neologisms like retromania and hauntology), the exhibition is affirming the inability of painting to do anything surprising or new — aka painting is dead — a mindset reinforced by the subheads and “corollaries” in Hoptman’s essay: Nostalgia; Frankenstein’s Monster; Cannibalism.

But upon reaching the sixth floor, all that changed. The first thing that hits you is the stack of very large, very aggressive paintings by Kerstin Brätsch, which are leaning against the walls on either side of the entrance to the exhibition — compositions that look like Georgia O’Keeffe gone off the deep end, with crabbed, thorny, branch-like forms and other ominous but less definable shapes skittering around a central, intensely pigmented, haloed disk.

Walk through the entrance, and you’re confronted with a double-height black wall filled with Joe Bradley’s casual scrawls of grease pencil on canvas. They look splendid. Turn around, and there are Rashid Johnson’s heavily impastoed and scarified works in black soap and wax, and in your peripheral vision, the playfully brooding paintings of Michaela Eichwald — one small, expressionistic portrait and two large, long, loopy abstractions.

Suddenly, what seemed predetermined to be an infuriatingly categorical exercise in curatorial cherry-picking, all in the service of a constricted thesis, had turned into a rumpus room of contemporary art-making. Nothing seemed to be illustrating a point or, refreshingly, even making a point. You could stay in that first room for as long as you liked without bothering with any formalist or anti-formalist distractions, reveling in the purely visual language of line, color, texture and shape.

We are now at the bargaining stage: okay, MoMA, you can have your teleology and hang these paintings on whatever theoretical scaffolding you like, as long as you are reopening your doors to the medium and allowing its inherent multiplicities to do their subversive dirty work.

But then you venture deeper into the show, and while the visual spectacle makes it is easy to forget (or, more accurately, to be confused about) which one of the four points outlined in the press release (Reanimation; Reenactment; Sampling; The Archetype) is being made among the exhibition’s various alcoves, the work in aggregate begins to wear thin.

Perhaps this is due in part to the backward-glancing criteria of the selection (that everything in the show is allegedly based on — or at least related to — something else), which disregards and even, in an indirect way, countermands vitality as a qualifier. All that matters is that the chosen works, again from the press release, “paradoxically do not represent—either through style, content, or medium—the time in which they are made.”

In the Western tradition, the pattern of art history is a continual cycle of ossification and regeneration, with form-breakers like Giotto, Caravaggio, Manet and Pollock arriving every now and then to shake things up, adapting strains of an inherited style to what they knew of experiential existence. What the exhibition proposes is that, in our forever now, “an atemporal painter,” as Hoptman writes in her essay, would “see and utilize style, as if it is a bit of iconography; some even use specific stylistic gestures and strategies in a manner akin to a medium.”

Julie Mehretu, “Heavier than air (written form)” (2014), ink and acrylic on canvas; 48 x 72 inches (courtesy the artist, Marian Goodman Gallery, and carlier | gebauer, Berlin. Copyright Julie Mehretu Photo: Tom Powel)

In its insistence that painting is a closed system, the exhibition falls apart. This is the fourth stage, depression. Julie Mehretu’s big canvases in acrylic, ink and graphite may relate to automatic writing and “seem to channel mid-century calligraphic abstractions by artists like Michaux and Twombly.” But even if they achieve “a result as distinct from theirs as one person’s signature is from another,” as the essay claims, the works do not make much of an impression. Nor do Michael Williams’ busy, cartoonish amalgams of digital printing, airbrushed lines and loaded, meandering, Terry Winters-esque strokes. In all, much of the work is so attuned to art’s interior conversation that it entirely tunes out the clangor of the street.

But then you look around again, and certain paintings stand out, not for any other reason than their presence as worked-over objects. And this allows for a degree of acceptance, the fifth of the five stages, although the constant echo of the show’s restricted premise makes those pieces feel as beleaguered and isolated as they are individuated.

There’s Charline von Heyl’s “Concetto Spaziale” (2009), titled after Lucio Fontana’s series of slashed canvases, but in its dazzling array of lines and wedges in yellow and black against a purplish gray field, it’s miles away from the Italian painter’s reductive gestures (which are in fact recapitulated in the show by the deconstructed canvases of Dianna Molzan).

Mark Grotjahn’s untitled “Circus” paintings from 2012 and ’13 — complexly tessellated, dazzlingly colored, high-speed collisions of spirals, loops and arcs — are highlights of the show, but their references to faces or masks (evidenced by indications of nostrils sprouting in the lower midsection of the canvases) signal a weakness in my view — they would be much more resonant as pure abstractions — but the allusions are what the show wishes to underscore, with Grotjahn’s wall of three “Circus” works facing off with Nicole Eisenman’s wall of three moon-headed “Guy” portraits, “Whatever Guy” (2009), “Guy Racer” and “Guy Capitalist” (both 2011).

Mark Grotjahn, “Untitled (Circus No. 1 Face 44.18)” (2012), oil on cardboard mounted on linen; 8’ 5 1/2” × 72 1/2”. Collection Donald B. Marron, New York (courtesy Mark Grotjahn. Copyright Mark Grotjahn. Photo: Douglas M. Parker Studio)

Matt Connors’ enormous (216 × 132 inches), tripartite “Variable Foot” (2014) in red, blue and yellow (shades of Barnett Newman and Jasper Johns), along with Kerstin Brätsch’s large-scale installation, “Sigi’s Erben (Agate Psychics)” (2012), comprised of agates, glass, masks, and painted aluminum, go a long way toward supplying the exhibition’s wow factor, though Connors’ other works are contrarily, exceedingly modest in their ambitions.

Amy Sillman turns to Neo-Cubist semi-abstraction in her four contributions to the show, but one of them, “Still Life 1” (2013-14), goes beyond the blunt, linear forms of the other three, wandering into a place that’s weightier, darker, more layered and mysterious. Richard Aldrich is another artist with one painting that leaves his other, more desultory work behind: it’s a small, aqua, scraped and scarred oil and wax on panel from 2006, “Blue Sea Old Wash.” At 14 1/2 × 11 inches, it’s the smallest thing in the room, but it pulls your eyes immediately toward it.

With his renderings of palm trees, insects, fish and his own outsized signature, Josh Smith makes a splash in the final gallery with nine, big, juicy, colorful paintings on a single wall (painted black, like Joe Bradley’s at the entrance, forming a kind of bookend to the show), while Laura Owens’ text-based works seem to retreat into hermeticism. Neither Mary Weatherford nor Oscar Murillo appear able to escape their antecedents (Mario Merz, Dan Flavin and Bruce Nauman for Weatherford; Robert Rauschenberg for Murillo), but in the exhibition’s inverted logic, that may be a plus.

And yet, there’s acceptance. The Forever Now is a show that should be seen and argued with. Its highly specific focus provides a flint to strike sparks and sharpen nails, a useful “this, not that,” which helps to clarify issues even where its assumptions are mistaken. For an exhibition like this, the trick is to light a path without erasing the shadows.

The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through April 5, 2015.

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