Critic Peter Schjeldahl at The New Yorker dates the last contemporary painting show at MoMA to 1958, over 50 years ago. Which is to say, an exhibition of contemporary painting seems timely, if not overdue. Enter “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World,” an exhibition of recent work by 17 contemporary painters up through April 5. Yet reviews of the show are hardly celebratory. Instead, they ring a death knell.
Schjeldahl writes of “dismay,” the “plight of painting,” and “crisis.” Thomas Micchelli, in his Hyperallergic review titled “The Death of Painting: All-New, 2014 Edition,” argues that the show affirms “the inability of painting to do anything surprising or new—aka painting is dead.” Schjeldahl, on the other hand, argues that painting is not dead, but rather that it has “lost symbolic force and function in a culture of promiscuous knowledge and glutting information.” Oh, well, great. From such statements, one can see why there have been no surveys of contemporary painting at MoMA. Painting is on its deathbed; somehow the medium has exhausted itself and is merely preparing to die, safely archived in the depths of MoMA’s warehouses where it can be brought out and examined as a historical curiosity.
However, if you visit “The Forever Now,” you might not glean that painting is dead–at least I didn’t. The works on view are big, bold paintings that are not afraid to embrace the medium and use color and size to declare their presence. Jam-packed as they are, they overwhelm MoMA’s space, and, unfortunately, each other. Sticking true to MoMA’s modus operendi to canonize taste, the show’s safe roster includes current art world favorites, such as the Germans Charline von Heyl and Kerstin Bratsch, Americans Julie Mehretu, Rashid Johnson, Mark Grotjahn, and Amy Sillman, and a new-favorite, the young (28-year-old) Columbian Oscar Murillo. Within them, there are some great paintings, and certainly a lot to talk about, but the curation fails to provide a good context for doing so.
More than review after review carping on the death of painting, what irks me most about the exhibition is its subtitle: “Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World.” “Atemporal” seems a vague, but much cooler way of saying post-modern, while avoiding the complex burden that using the much-debated P-word would entail. Curator Laura Hoptman took the word “atemporal” from Sci-fi writer William Gibson, who, per the exhibition catalog, “in 2003 used the word atemporality to describe a new and strange state of the world in which, courtesy of the Internet, all eras seem to exist at once.” Sci-fi and the Internet would indeed provide a great context for a show of contemporary painting, but they are not strongly in evidence here. Hoptman glorifies the painting on view as zombie painting, half-dead and half-alive. While, again, the terminology is cool, the concept is thin, and all it does is reinforce the notion that nothing new can be done in painting (while presenting the acceptance of that as a new freedom).
“Atemporality” seems like purgatory, sentencing painting to the ennui of repeated gestures. But to freely use elements of art historical tradition does not have to equate to a death sentence, or even a half-death sentence. It is glib to say that these works are “atemporal,” that is, post-modern, and leave the relationship to the past with a mere reference to the Internet (capital “I”). Atemporality, zombies, and the Internet feel like a jargon-y sidestep that puts off dealing with what happens to art history when we discard the Modernist progress narrative and cult of originality. Certainly, of all places, MoMA could do a little better by the breadth of work being made today.