MoMA Painting Survey
The tenuous relevance of painting as a visual art medium coupled with its predicted marginalization in the contemporary art world have been debated in all corners of the market for almost a century, from galleries, museums and artist hangouts to almost every arts faculty on the planet.
Not so fast.
Long considered dead by a pocket of self-anointed avant gardists, painting not only has a pulse but is alive and thriving in both the commercial market and at the turnstiles of public institutions. Primary and secondary sales of two dimensional paintings still account for the largest percentage of total art sales each year and it's not even close. Polls frequently show that painting remains the venerable grandfather of all visual art regardless of the growing popularity of technology and other alternative trends in the arts. Painters are showing that there is indeed room for everyone in the contemporary art world. Museums, auction houses and most gallerists agree.
Casual viewers tend to accept change reluctantly. Support for time-tested art forms such as painting and sculpture remains strong for these slowly-evolving masses. In the professional sector of the contemporary art market, the art press machine has long been known to try to manipulate public perceptions. One of their tricks is to imply that painting is not nearly as important as it once was. However, even the leading players —those like the Gagosians and Zwirners involved with packaging cutting edge art for elite collectors — admit that paintings and other forms of 2D work still pay the bulk of their rent. The extravagant exhibitions, mind-boggling installations and multi-media productions undoubtedly create the buzz. Drawing huge crowds into airport hangar sized galleries builds street cred for the artists and galleries alike. Regardless of the noise and perception, the winning formula remains straightforward: Paintings are easier to exhibit, easier to sell, easier to understand and easier to live with. Until that changes, painting isn't going anywhere.
That's how we see it. It's also a suggestion of Laura Hoptman, curator of painting and sculpture at the MoMA Museum of Modern Art in New York who organized the 2014-2015 survey, "The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World."
Hoptman suggests that painting is timeless, independent of eras and all-inclusive in terms of its continued relevance. Painting techniques and concepts from all generations continue to be shared. They are often blended into one body of work to create artwork that neither represents nor can be categorized by any specific movement or time frame.
Whether this is possible or not, or whether it's even a valid premise to separate art from its surrounding references, is for others like Hoptman and each artist to consider. Of more interest to us is that painting is not a spent force and remains not only relevant but groundbreaking in some cases.
There will always be those who disagree that painting has anything left to give. Start with artists who've never bothered to learn to draw or push paint with a brush. It's in their best interests to push the spotlights elsewhere. Even many conceptual painters feel strongly that visual art is humanity's beacon and must relate to or be validated by the society in which it is created. These critiques are out there in full force promoting alternatives to both painting itself and its atemporality.
All well and good, visual ideas are expressed in many forms. We're open to all types of art. But this particular article is about a painting show, not tins of excrement masquerading as art.
The MoMA show ran until April 2015. For those who didn't attend, we've included a link to renowned art blogger James Kalm's video walk-through (Jump to video below.) Background information for all participating artists is accessible through the sidebar. We've added links to excellent reviews by two of New York's leading critics, Roberta Smith in the NY TImes and Jerry Saltz in The New York magazine's Vulture arts section.
Most reviewers agree that the MoMA survey —while well-intended, sound and professional— is often more about what's not there than what is. On the surface, that might appear negative. We prefer to see it as another sign of the current strength and diversity of painting as an artistic medium and as an important vehicle for contemporary expression. There are simply too many good things happening to be limited to one survey about painting.
Narrowing any major painting exhibition to a handful of artists will invite criticism, especially one presented by an institution with the stature of MoMA NYC to which all eyes immediately focus. In a relatively small venue known for its difficult dimensions, Hoptman and her assistants were able to cram almost 100 paintings by 17 artists, a commendable feat if it weren't for the inevitable exclusions. 17 styles does not offer nearly a broad enough sample size to represent even a fraction of the current painting tangents. We'd suggest cutting the number of works per artist down to one or two while raising the total number of artists from 17 to closer to 50+. That would certainly achieve more breadth and leave no doubt about the continued prowess of painting. Admittedly it would further compromise exhibition cohesiveness in a tight venue. Trying to represent all current painting trends would resemble a dinner buffet at an all-inclusive in Negril.
Creating a show celebrating the "atemporal" timelessness of painters is bold. Already provoking doubts as an old-fashioned, out-of-touch pursuit, the suggestion that paintings are not tethered to any specific current time might actually work in reverse by being misconstrued as fancy jargon to side step the dirty D-word, "derivative." Or worse still, it could appear more like a retrospective or homage than a contemporary survey.
We don't agree, at least not entirely. Art timelines may seem compressed at present, but in the grand scheme of the planet, 21st century artists referring to work from the mid-20th century isn't really that much of a leap. 60 years is nothing when compared to the relatively slow progression in previous centuries. 300 years from now, the majority of work from about 1880 through 2015 may well be grouped together as one movement with only the occasional outlier. Art that draws from the past and respects history is not a bad thing in our view as long as the artists reframe the discussion in some meaningful way rather than simply emulate previous successes.
That said, any medium that has survived centuries will always teeter on the fine line between timeless and derivative. Many who've moved away from painting did so in the belief that there's no longer enough room for exploring new painting methods and materials and that progress must come instead from content extras and tricks. In an exhibition of this nature that further limits itself by disqualifying "currentness" of conversation and socially poignant engagement, we're not sure "Forever Now" succeeds as a true indicator of the state of painting in 2014-15 since so much of the best work being produced explores precisely what the curators aimed to suppress. By doing so, what's missing is deeper coverage of some of the most important paint movements of our contemporary times.
Okay, but what does Forever Now include? The exhibit spans painting that channels everything from the caveman-like scrawls of Joe Bradley to the current analog/digital mixed-media musings of Michael WIlliams. Atemporal indeed, the entire history of painting is dutifully covered even if very few stops were taken along the journey.
The expansive geometric movement is given a nod from Mark Grotjahn's thick and complex works. Graffiti and semantic painters are forgotten almost entirely, although words dominate some of Laura Owens' collage work. Even the collectible darlings of the decade, Walter Robinson's so-called Zombie Formalists, are all but ignored despite their market prominence. Matt Connors' soaring red, blue and yellow panels resembles a deck pool lounger at a Margarita hotel but It's far too colorful to be truly representative of the Zombie creed's sweetspot of black, white or natural. Rashid Johnson's retro broom swirls carved in all-black soap & wax might be Zombie worthy if not for his wider body of captivating 3D work being fresh in our retinas from other recent shows.
Perhaps Hoptman was due for a break from all the formulaic sameness in today's market. Clearly she was looking for a different aesthetic beyond the most commercially-viable painters of the moment. None of this is criticism, rather an acknowledgement that contemporary painting has solid depth. This leaves many observers scratching their head since it's more difficult to spot trends that in turn to solidify into notable movements.
Also included are works by the following artists in alphabetical order: Richard Aldrich, Kerstin Brätsch, Michaela Eichwald, Nicole Eisenman, Charline von Heyl, Julie Mehretu, Dianna Molzan, Oscar Murillo, Amy Sillman, Josh Smith and Mary Weatherford. (To view assorted works by the named artists, plus links to websites & reviews, click on the names in the right sidebar.)
Notable was the selection of nine females out of seventeen total artists. Notably absent were artists that aren't German or American. Are we to believe that Hoptman couldn't fine one worthy representative of the former British Commonwealth including the UK, Australia, Canada or the Indian sub-continent? Cecily Brown springs to mind. No Scandanavians or East Europeans? Not a single Asian, African or South American? Oscar Murillo cannot be the token Latin American after emigrating to England as a child and Julie Mehretu has never been a spokesperson for Ethiopia through her artwork. At least the U.S. left coast (Grotjahn, Weatherford, Molzan, Owens) hasn't been totally ignored by Manhattan this time around. Good decision. L.A. remains hot and deserves recognition for its input in contemporary painting.
83% of the artists are white. Most of the female artists are on the upper side of the age scale compared to the comparatively younger men. While we're pleased for the ladies, the rest of the demographic breakdowns are alarming in their limited scope given the globalized nature of today's art planet.
Are there any revelatory emerging artists? Not really for anyone who spends time in any of the major markets and fairs. Most of these artists are museum-placed, gallery-represented frequent exhibitors. The great majority have some connection with New York either as origin or current home. Their works have long been included in the finest contemporary collections including those of a fair number of MoMA board members. Let's not forget, this is a survey that was many months in the making by a calculated institution. It is not a trendsetting coming-out party for the bizarre or obscure. Turning spade to new ground is not the intention.
What does ring true is the timeless qualities of the work of many of the participants. Someone unfamiliar with these artists would be hard-pressed to slot the paintings in the correct period of completion, give or take a couple of decades. Maybe this a Hoptman talking point. With few exceptions, much of this show might have seemed current at any point since the 1950s.
All flavors of realism are excluded. The show is almost all abstraction, save for a few works like the close-up figurative-abstract portraits by Nicole Eisenman. Beyond that, there's Bradley's one-liner cave scrawl iconography and the occasional representative squiggle by Josh Smith. There's nothing particularly challenging or political... by curatorial design. We're not supposed to be able to put this show in its time and place. No zeitgeist references nor social commentary. For the most part the show is clean, smart, well dressed and form-fitting... more Park Avenue than lower east side.
Laura Owens work is fresh even with its references to pop-collage-anotation heritage. Always interesting Charlen Von Heyl hits numerous genres within each frame; it's not all current but it's never tiring. Eichwald's surfaces are compelling but start to feel as if we've been here before after the first few. Molzan and Aldrich may be the most underrated of the group with the highest upside of any artists in this exhibition, even if the most interesting characteristics of their work have nothing to do with painterliness.
Indeed, one peculiarity of this contemporary painting survey — and perhaps our only criticism — is that many of the selected participants are not "paint-first" artists. After his mercurial rise a couple of years ago, Oscar Murillo seems bent on distancing himself from his highly-sought grunge works that beckon references to Schnabel and Basquiat. While they continue to sell briskly out of back rooms, Oscar's recent focus has been the massive installation happenings such as his class-free party at the Serpentine, his open studio in South London and the recent candy factory at Zwirner's in NYC.
Joe Bradley is a painter, but the selected works from his Schmagoo series were designed, in the artist's own words, "to be less than paintings." We love Bradley's body of work, but those selected for this exhibition are mark-making drawings that just happen to be rendered with greasy paint sticks. We do not classify these as paintings, nor apparently does the artist.
Dianna Molzan is primarily a deconstructionist who uses fabrics as much or more than paint. Robert Aldrich assembles a menagerie of objects from wood mannequins to suitcases. Michael Williams' compositions are as much embellished digital prints as they are paintings. Michaela Eichwald's best works in our opinion are her small sculptures made of resin and other materials that for obvious reasons are not included in this "painting" show. Mark Grotjahn is now very involved with sculpture and 3D installations. Rashid Johnson, like Murillo, using brooms to slosh and carve soap and wax rather than paint. Both are just as deeply involved with their installation work. Would Mary Weatherford's abstracts be MoMA-worthy if it weren't for the non-paint retrofit neon? Even Julie Mehretu -- before her current earthy monochromatic ventures into Twombly Land -- was best known for projecting computer files for tracing and taping. We love Mehretu, but is she really a painter?
Single medium concentration is rare, We'd be less concerned if the artists selected for a show about painting were at least PFAs (Paint-First Artists) so that the dialogue might revolve around the majesty and integrity of the medium rather than time. Our rough tally concludes that over half of the artists are not primarily painters. This is not disqualifying by any means since they're all top-flight artists and they actually paint sometimes, but isn't this a show about painting's place in visual art? It almost begs us to ask the question everyone wants to suppress, "What's wrong with just being a painting?"
Also worth mentioning is that the show tends to lean backward rather than forward. Similar to other reviews, revered artists like Amy Sillman and Grotjahn can't seem to break away from 20th century underpinnings. Sillman's otherwise appealing abstracts suffer from a dull palette thatnow looks surprisingly staid in the 21st century. Grotjahn's work — while highly textural and captivating when viewed up close — can appear dark and confined from a comfortable viewing distance. Connor's tricolor panels could have been produced at any time since the sixties, as could the work of Murillo, Smith and Johnson.
Is this the point of atemporality, that all is still well and good and invited to the party? Or could it be that many modern art lovers aren't yet willing to cut the umbilical cords from their beloved 20th century art? We can certainly see where all of this work came from. What's missing is a hint of where painters might head if left to make their own decisions sans market influences.
Most reviewers speak of opportunities squandered and risks not faced as much as the quality of the presentation. All suggest equally-worthy lists of alternative artists who might have given the survey a wider aesthetic footprint, better demographic coverage and perhaps more bite. No disagreement from us, however we need to remember that this is a survey from a small curatorial team with a rigidly-defined mandate. It's not intended to be an all-star game nor to ruffle feathers. Instead, it's safe and nice.
The great news for painting and the visual arts? There is no shortage of great painters. Rarely do the same artists' names appear from one list to the next.
James Kalm's video tour of the show.
For more video tours of galleries and museums, visit James Kalm's website and YouTube channel.