As talk of art fairs and Björk took the spotlight at the beginning of the month, I lingered on the Museum of Modern Art’s The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World, up through early April. In mulling over its status as either a landmark statement on contemporary painting that demonstrates the museum’s cultural leadership, a taste-making stunt for collectors, or just another group show, I turn to six thoughtful reviews out of the many written about the exhibition. Four are by painters: Sharon Butler, Brian Dupont, Thomas Micchelli, and David Salle; two are by critics: Jason Farago and Christian Viveros-Fauné. There are several possible entry points into the debate: the show’s premise — “atemporality … in which, courtesy of the internet, all eras seem to exist at once,” as eagerly laid out by curator Laura Hoptman in the hardcover-only catalogue; the works themselves; or the show’s timing and venue.
I’ll start with the premise. Salle finds Hoptman’s ideas distracting, “like someone talking too loudly while you’re trying to think.” “Audacious,” is Farago’s take on the essay. Others are irked by Hoptman’s claim that the premise reflects a “new and strange state of the world.” Viveros-Fauné says her ideas have an “utterly passé nature [since] run-of-the-mill postmodernism has entertained fantasies of simultaneity since the 1970s.” Micchelli calls Hoptman’s concept “old wine in new bottles.” Finally, most question the soundness or even existence of the link between the premise and the paintings selected for the show. “The work has no common denominator outside of generalities of abstraction or a certain sense of scale,” according to Dupont. Viveros-Fauné says the premise “provides flimsy theoretical cover for this disparate group of painters.” Once in the museum’s galleries, Micchelli finds that “nothing seemed to be illustrating a point or, refreshingly, even making a point.” So much for a convincing, relevant, and effective organizing principle.
Premise or no premise, how does the actual artwork fare? Out of all the work by the 17 selected artists, Farago favors the pieces by the women in the show. “Not one of the eight male artists here comes anywhere close to the intricacy or complexity of [Amy] Sillman, [Laura] Owens, [Nicole] Eisenman, and others,” he writes. The practitioners in my reviewer group bring a hands-on, maker’s understanding to their evaluations of the paintings. Each reveals his or her own personal and aesthetic values as much as each conveys his or her impression of the show. Butler finds pleasure in Josh Smith’s grid of loosely composed paintings, but says the rest of the work displays “a dispiriting interest in strategy and finish over experimentation and heart.” Dupont and Salle work the hardest to parse the art, with gratifying results. Dupont earnestly considers the show within a modern art historical context, focusing on Twombly’s legacy. He is underwhelmed by Rashid Johnson’s monumental, scratched surfaces of black soap and wax, which leave him wondering “just how much really is needed to make a painting?” Salle values paintings with a “sense of structure” that is best exemplified by Mark Grotjahn’s palette knife paintings of colorful, webbed arcs, and Richard Aldrich’s varied collection of works based on a deconstruction of abstract painting. Within the wordy environment of Hoptman’s premise, Salle’s crisp insights on appropriation, Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, Walter Benjamin, and West Coast aesthetics as they relate to the work in the show are welcome and easily put to use.
In several cases the critics under consideration have polar opposite reactions to specific pieces. Julie Mehretu’s large, grey-and-black, calligraphic work, for instance, is rated by Dupont as the most related to Hoptman’s notion of atemporality, whereas Farago, while admiring her as an artist, asks: “What on earth is Julie Mehretu doing in this show?” Sillman’s layered color improvisations in oil are a favorite among most, while Oscar Murillo’s dark, graffiti canvases — including the interactive work on the floor — are almost unanimously dismissed. An overarching complaint is that most of the work in the show seems shallow — Salle’s word is “unconvincing”; “safe, decorator wares,” according to Viveros-Fauné; Butler’s phrase is “command-z aesthetic.”
From my perspective as a painter, the show’s pinball game-like layout helps to disguise a pervasive and telling sameness of surface. Forever Now makes a punchy first impression. The drama is superficially heightened by having some paintings hung too high and some placed on the floor, leaning against the wall, while others are grouped in batches. Walking through the compactly installed show, I spent time looking at each work in relation to its neighbors. Since you have to walk back through the show to exit, an alternate version of these juxtapositions is available on the return trip. Despite the initial intrigue with scale and color, starting with Kerstin Bratsch’s monumental, high-contrast, framed works on paper propped against the exterior of the exhibition gallery, I eventually noticed a dead-eyed lack of variety in paint application in works throughout the exhibition. Neither Smith nor Mehretu vary their brush width, Grotjahn’s palette knife stripes are nearly identical, Mike Wilson’s compositions are covered with uniformly murky goo, Johnson scores his surfaces with the same tool, and Joe Bradley’s stick figures in grease pencil have virtually no surface at all. In contrast, Sillman, Bratsch, and Charline von Heyl offer a richer visual reward. Even if painters avail themselves of the entire stockpile of art historical references — digitally or by other means — it is the vagaries of individual subjective experience, translated through the mind, eye, hand, and more visceral organs of the painter, that make a painting worthwhile.
It has been 30 years since MoMA’s last milestone painting exhibition. We can only guess at why the museum has let such a long gap in time occur in its participation in the conversation about painting. The delay adds to the pressure to perform with this show. The significant conceptual flaws in Hoptman’s atemporal premise are a misstep and make me suspicious of her motives. That she equates the internet with simultaneity is just plain wrong. As Salle notes, “Hoptman wants to make a point about painting in the internet age, but the conceit is a red herring — the web’s frenetic sprawl is opposite to the type of focus required to make a painting, or, for that matter, to look at one.” It’s as if Hoptman is trying to sell us on the openness of content sources as an appealing, “no strings attached” lifestyle. There may in fact be oceans of digital information available online, but it still enters our consciousness through a variety of knowable sorting mechanisms that are not so different from attaining knowledge by sitting in a library with a book. Hoptman is siding with the machines.
If Hoptman’s misdirection is unintentional, I suppose that could be forgiven, but given her position and MoMA’s status as an institution, it’s a disappointment. Viveros-Fauné suggests that MoMA has a more self-serving basis for the show’s inflated concept and distracting execution. He proposes that, in place of embracing the “pioneering critical spirit” of the museum’s prior directors and curators, Hoptman’s Forever Now is pandering to collectors and donors who support the museum financially — especially now, as it prepares for another expansion. MoMA’s motive for the show could be to support painting as an “asset class,” to use Dupont’s phrase, as opposed to dealing in the realm of ideas. “In all, much of the work is so attuned to art’s interior conversation that it entirely tunes out the clangor of the street,” Micchelli writes. We don’t need more art that masks the effects of our society’s calcified and coercive patriarchal structures. We don’t need more instances of institutional conflict of interest disguised as leadership.
Ultimately, I can’t help comparing Forever Now to a Super Bowl halftime show: hotly anticipated, splashy, mainstream entertainment packaged with a story for corporate sponsors and those in the VIP suites. It’s as if Hoptman sees painters as the ultimate mash-up artists, with the emphasis in her show being on style over content. While the bloodsport of fine art — and the goings on of the actual world — rage on around it, no head injuries or body blows occur within the exhibition’s snug, stage-like realm. I can’t decide if Forever Now’s shortcomings represent a tragic lost opportunity, or if the distance between the show’s over-reaching premise and under-performing artworks is part of an art world joke on the larger museum-going audience.
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.