Sunday, 8 February 2015

THE FOREVER NOW - Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World - MoMA New York

 December 14, 2014  –  April 05, 2015
[2,943w]

This show is so pathetic I didn’t think it was even worth reviewing. I am persuaded to finally address the topic by issues raised in other's reviews and offline discussion. I can’t believe anyone actually liked the show. The problem is not so much with the works or artists as the curator and ultimately the museum’s administration. What follows is part review, part reflection on current curatorial practice.

The show struck me as gross in every way. The problem is not just that works are relentlessly oversized, overbearing and overwrought, but that the selection displays no notable consistency in origin, generation, reputation or affiliation. It is not a show about anything, or rather, as the oxymoron haunting the title suggests, it is a show that simply doesn’t know what it wants. It is timeless and yet timely, it is American except when it has to scrape together a few surrogates (three German women, one Colombian man). It is principally social or cultural critique, to judge from the catalogue essay, except that it grants precedence to abstraction (of the seventeen artists, nine pursue gestural abstraction, two more hard-edge or biomorphic, one Minimalist stripes). It is a show of emerging talents, except when it favours older and more established artists. Even to say all works are paintings is to beg the acceptance of neon lights, stereo speakers, inkjet printing, bas-reliefs in wax and black soap, charcoal drawing, cut-outs and photo-collage. What is ‘painting’, again? Should we ask an economist or a psychologist? The show does not enlighten on even the basics.

It is a show without pacing or spacing, where almost everything strives for a domineering scale, a shock and awe aesthetic signifying nothing beyond a crowding of egos and a curator just a little too intent on making a splash. And it quickly proves tedious. The overwhelming impression is of conspicuous excess, from the stack of hefty glass-framed works by Kerstin Brätsch leaning against a foyer wall to eight un-stretched canvases by Oscar Murillo strewn on the floor, to the elaborate (and expensive) inkjet printing in the work of Laura Owens and Michael Williams, blithely worked over, the battery of interchangeable black bas-reliefs by Rashid Johnson and the suite of works by Joe Bradley that leave the uppermost elements some four metres above the viewer's eye-line. The message would seem to be place-holders, attention grabbers, strictly for the short term. It is a show for people that don’t actually care about painting or need that closer, longer look, that are just there for a brief diversion, possibly some pseudo sociology in the catalogue essay.

It is just not good enough. But the problem cannot be laid entirely at the feet of curator, Laura Hoptman. MoMA knew what they were getting when they recruited her in 2010 from The New Museum, where although not the curator, she was instrumental in the notorious Younger than Jesus exhibition in 2009 in which aesthetics were all but exchanged for demographics. That kind of strategy is very much in step with the sweeping generalist thinking on ‘culture’, advocated by MoMA director, Glenn Lowry. Hence the museum anticipates a retrospective of Icelandic pop singer Björk next month, fine arts now accommodating the performing arts, bizarrely. So long as it’s all ‘culture’, so long as it’s where the numbers are. The approach is long on expansive policy and marketing, short on expertise and detail. And predictably, Hoptman’s theme, with the obligatory acknowledgement of the internet and a grab-bag of ‘atemporal’ sources from science fiction author, William Gibson, to pop music critic Simon Reynolds to literary critic Douglas Coupland, get her no further than the fairly banal notion that there are always many ways to relate to tradition. What it does not explain is why she should focus on American abstraction in painting, if all and any of painting’s history is supposedly available to today’s painters? Why should atemporality be confined to so few styles and places?

Surely her sample ought to include someone like John Currin, whose work does conspicuously allude to historical styles without slavishly appropriating them? Yet precisely these smaller scaled, more intricate and figurative works are excluded. Or if Currin seems too familiar or old (although he is eight years younger than Amy Sillman, the oldest artist in the show), perhaps someone like Janssen Stegner, whose work echoes Currin mischievously, but also looks to older traditions of portraiture with some refinement and has recently enjoyed greater recognition in Europe? Neo Rauch (five years younger than Sillman), with his distinctive mixture of Surrealism, Pop Art and Romanticism, dated illustration and futuristic themes would seem a more prominent example of the kind of mix-and-match mindset sought, than say, Michael Williams or Laura Owens. And from where does their work supposedly derive, anyway? Someone is just not trying here. Equally, the works by Mark Grotjahn do not recall any particular style of abstraction. Grotjahn incidentally, I think the standout in the show, the one artist whose work looks assuredly at home in a museum. But again, the three large works are hung so closely together, the temptation is almost to treat them as a triptych.

Since all painters draw upon the past with greater or lesser distinction, the notion of timeless variety or freedom fails to identify anything from the present, by definition. Timelessness, necessarily, has been with us for some time. It is usually called tradition. Again, the thesis here comes to nothing. The atemporal is never properly illustrated by the selection of works. The selection of works is not concerned strictly with the atemporal. What does that leave for a selection criterion? At best, it reflects Hoptman’s peculiar tastes to which one might promptly conclude “Poor her” and move on. Except that this is MoMA, NYC, and the show is supposed to reveal something about the state of painting – and not just in New York or America, but globally. Hoptman can jump to some pop sociology and invoke all sorts of trends but what she cannot do is convincingly link these to her sample of paintings. And the reason she cannot do this is because she cannot be bothered looking beyond the big splashy impact, to some old school stylistics, discerning specific shared traits, art historical links, with some precision. Atemporality is supposed to excuse her of this chore, or to perhaps trivialise it, but the concept itself is not strictly coherent. For example, she supposes ‘At this moment in time we can look back at the condition of postmodernism and say, “Yup, that happened”. And then we can observe, “Now there’s this” (p.15 of catalogue essay). But surely in an atemporal world that is precisely what we cannot do. We might say of postmodernism that it is happening, and that, as well, there are other things, but there can be no sequence to timelessness, by definition. But then, it is hard to know why we would be looking at postmodernism in particular, since atemporality supposedly offers a bewildering array of options. Little wonder that the selection is such a mess. The curator scarcely understands her own concept, much less complies with it.

Critical response in New York has been predictably tactful. NYT critic Roberta Smith smoothly noted the inadequacy of atemporality as a distinctive concept for the present and skirted around the cramped hang to admire contrasting walls. She also allowed that Nicole Eisenmann’s giant heads are no more than ‘contemporary’ scale, but this I dispute. While this scale may be standard in Chelsea galleries and many art fairs, my experience in smaller commercial galleries and artist-run spaces in various centres is that artists now, largely of necessity, are content to work at easel scale. The retreat is refreshing, the perspective telling; the work no less bold. This most assuredly, is a real and recent development with which the curator would do well to reacquaint herself. Smith finds Dianna Molzan’s works ‘improve upon the French Surface/Support group of the 1960s’ Really? On the strength of a declared stretcher? And we are presumably to ignore the heavy impasto and encrusted surface that is decidedly not shared by Pierre Buraglio, Louis Cane, Daniel Dezeuze, Noël Dolla, Jean-Michel Meurice or Claude Viallat? Some ‘improvement’. Smith quibbles about which women were included, their ages, race and reputation, but essentially buys Hoptman’s calculated demographics and tokenism over questions of quality or meaning. But then, Smith is an old friend.

Jerry Saltz, husband of Smith, is fulsome in his praise for the curator although critical of familiar choices. He wants new names, basically, for a floor-worked lyrical abstraction, big on spills and stains, delivering the requisite struggle. He does note the cramped hang and the fact that atemporality here only captures one strain of contemporary painting, and suggests that the theme is best understood as ‘making art that, for once, isn't about taking the next step forward in art history’. But this just seems like a plea for lack of ambition or mediocrity, when not recycling Post Modernism; and just as unsatisfactory as a theme. He zeros in on Hoptman’s claim for ‘painting qua painting’ – painting in itself - but does not press what formalist programmes might be entailed and it is doubtful Hoptman wants to go beyond platitudes anyway. He attempts to retrieve the theme noting ‘the conceit of "The Forever Now" is, I think, that something is different now, that Modernism's incessant ever-forward march seems so last century, so debunked, and with the combined knowledge of the known universe essentially in our pockets, more artists know about more art than ever before. This is probably true.’ And this probably makes it Post Modernism, if anything. But whether or not it is true, it does not make discovery in art any less necessary, invention any less prized, if anything, more so.

A more resigned assessment was made by Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker where he usefully pointed out that it has been all of fifty-six years since MoMA mounted a survey dedicated to contemporary painting (a survey in 1984 was of contemporary painting and sculpture) and that the seemingly arbitrary choice of seventeen artists in fact mirrors the number of artists included in The New American Painting show of 1958. Such a long interval is a little ominous though and the fact that the present show is squeezed into an awkward sixth floor gallery suggests that even now it is not a priority for the museum, far from it. Schjeldahl glossed the theme as just another version of the death of painting (his article is titled Is There Anything Left to Paint?) and added that the present show is unlikely to enjoy anything like the prestige of its predecessor and that painting and the museum perhaps reach a parting of the ways, in the interests of both parties. That may be a little drastic but given the curatorial acumen demonstrated here, an understandable conclusion.

It is as well to remember that such surveys have others options these days. The growth in new museums, such as The New Museum and collections with public programmes such as The Saatchi Gallery and the swelling circuit of biennales mean that these surveys occur more frequently and steadily defuse their impact upon art history, the market and careers. It is not fatal for artists like Mark Bradford, Barnaby Furnas, Ryan McGuiness, Wade Guyton or Chris Martin to be excluded from something like The Forever Now. If anything, their absence questions the wisdom of confining the number of artists (but not works) to seventeen in the interests of an obscure and unfortunate comparison. Then there are books that undertake similar surveys, such as Phaidon publishing’s Vitamin series beginning in 2002 and continuing up to 2011, in which vast committees of curators nominate artists from all over the world in a bid for an authentically international perspective. Obviously one can only judge the works through reproductions there and it is notoriously unreliable for large works, but many salient features are preserved and at least a rough idea conveyed. Growing numbers of surveys and accompanying publications both highlight a tendency to stress novelty over preceding efforts, so that the more surveys occur, the more anxious curators become about registering even slight developments, or as a frenetic series of fads.

In this regard it is instructive to compare The Forever Now with The Saatchi Gallery’s Abstract America, as a book in 2008, and a somewhat modified exhibition in 2009-10. Abstract America in book form has the advantage of including forty-one painters, each represented by several works and concentrating on just abstract painting by Americans, unencumbered by a pretentious theme. Four artists are shared between the shows – Joe Bradley, Mark Grotjahn, Amy Sillman and Josh Smith. But the kind of gestural abstraction they are identified with in The Forever Now was hardly foremost in Abstract America (Bradley’s work at the time was a series of sleek planar wall-mounted sculptures reading as schematic figures). A more prominent trend, casually called a ’tribal’ style at the time, included Bart Esposito, Baker Overstreet, Scott Reeder and Dan Walsh, dealing in simple centred icons vigorously worked in the main, variously semi-abstract, claiming local mythic or pictogram currency. That strand has disappeared off the radar for The Forever Now. Similarly, Dana Frankfort’s text-based gestural abstractions and a whole array of precise and hard-edge geometric work by Mark Swanson, Garth Weiser, Jacob Hashimoto, Mark Bradford, Mark Handelman and Ruth Root no longer figure. Hoptman will not be unaware of such work, naturally, and it is as easily accommodated under her theme as anything else, but these strands have been relegated to the mid-noughties, merely to assert distinction.

She is perfectly entitled to do this of course, in a sense it is expected. And it reminds us that similar passing fancies in The Forever Now are unlikely to survive the next curatorial sweep. If I had to bet, it would be on Joe Bradley, Matt Connors, Richard Aldrich, Michael Williams, Oscar Murillo and Laura Owens not making the next cut. Mary Weatherford, I suspect may be today’s Kristin Baker. But this group are too thin or gimmicky, too local or parochial or too married to their moment to hold much for another curator. But wherever the short-term influence may fall, we have a right to expect more from a curator than local variation or private favourites. Curating enjoys greater prestige these days and exerts considerable influence on judgements in contemporary art, virtually superseding art criticism. But this development has been accompanied by an increasingly feeble grasp of its art history, reliance upon the inflated period of Post Modernism, understood as not much more than sprawling eclecticism. There are no new movements or ‘isms’ because Post Modernism is conceived so loosely or lazily it accommodates anything in recent art and because curators turn from formal or stylistic analysis to social or cultural issues, expecting artists to provide their own art history and definitive interpretation of work. And while many artists will obviously have opinions on these things, they are hardly in a position to anticipate an informed viewer’s response. That is the job of the critic. Artists might try and ensure a favourable response, but that is quite another thing. By the same token, many artists will not feel qualified or inclined to wear another hat. Their job is difficult enough. So what we have for the most part is a stand-off. Curators concerned with social implications, artists concerned with artistic or formal issues but neither capable of bridging the gap or building a more convincing interpretation of work, a more discriminating art history.

To be fair, curators are not entirely to blame for this situation. But they are the most obvious means to remedy it. A curator ought to frame such surveys with a more rigorous analysis of art history, a more effective revision where necessary. What is not acceptable is to claim a rejection of art history in the name of art history, as occurs here. To frame such a recess from the turn of the millennium (p. 13 of the catalogue) begs greater stylistic discrimination. What evidence in works is there for this greater attention to derivation at that point? Hoptman characterises it as a more knowing, yet not critical, ironic or nostalgic insight, more of a connoisseur’s appreciation for detail (p.14) – a fairly bleak prospect but not really getting the job done in any case. We need names and works from the turn of the century. Actually the early noughties were the high tide mark for the New Leipzig School and particularly Neo Rauch, but as noted, he is excluded. Then again, by page twenty-one of the catalogue, crucial differences are measured against eighties appropriation (presumably someone like Philip Taaffe or Peter Schyff). But this is to shift the goal posts or beg the true span of the atemporal turn. And none of these qualifications gets us any closer to explaining why gestural or painterly abstraction should dominate a show dedicated to painting in general, or why Americans should dominate there. Had the scope of the survey been suitably confined, there may well be an interesting insight into some recent trends. But this is scarcely enough to recommend The Forever Now.

REVIEWS

Roberta Smith – ‘The Paintbrush in the Digital Era’ - The New York Times
Jerry Saltz – ‘MoMA’s Market Moment’ – The Vulture (New York Magazine)
Peter Schjeldahl – Is There Anything Left to Paint? – The New Yorker
James Kalm –a brief but useful walk-through for the show on You Tube.
Christian Viveros-Faune - The Forever Now Forever Sucks - Village Voice
Jason Farago - Calling Time on The Avant-Garde - The Guardian

This article also appears on Worldwidereview.