“The Forever Now” at MoMA: Death, Atemporality, and Zombies

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Installation shot with works by Kerstin Bratsch

 

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.

Installation view of The Forever Now Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World, The Museum of Modern Art

Installation view including works by Oscar Murillo, Kerstin Bratsch, and Mary Weatherford, from left to right.

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.

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Installation view with Variable Foot (2014) by Matt Connors and Carlotta (2013) by Charline von Heyl.

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.

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Nine canvases by Josh Smith.

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).

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Installation view with three paintings by Mark Grotjahn on left.

“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.

The Monuments of Skopje 2014: Constructing Macedonian National Identity

main square from the Stone Bridge

It’s been a busy time lately as I’ve been preparing to give a talk at a conference, “The Rhetoric and Aesthetics of Memory,” at the Meadows Museum in Dallas this weekend. I’ll be presenting a portion of my thesis research on Skopje 2014, a building project in Skopje, Macedonia.

Cultural memory and memorialization is often a contested issue in the post-socialist countries of Central and Eastern Europe, despite (and because of) the fact that government-mandated art policies designed to support a regime’s power have disappeared from the region with the fall of Socialism. However, this current building project recalls the authoritarian monuments of those ideologically controlled policies. “Skopje 2014” is a current urban renovation project in Macedonia’s capital designed to emphasize a strained connection to a classical past through extensive new building and over forty new monuments in the city center.

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A striking example is Warrior on a Horse, a sculpture of Alexander the Great on a rearing house atop a triumphal column that towers over Macedonia Square. ‘Alexander,’ as it is generally called, is 48 feet tall on its own, and it sits on top of a cylindrical column that is 33 feet tall. Three large ivory battle friezes wrap up the column. At the base of the column are eight bronze soldiers, each ten feet tall. The enormous structure is underscored by the fountain it stands in. Eight bronze lions surround the pool of the fountain and four of the lions spray water from their mouths. The fountain periodically shoots water in choreographed streams, tinged by multi-colored lights, in time with classical music blasting from enormous megaphones raised on poles around the square, channeling ancient Rome via Las Vegas.

Egon Schiele at the Neue Galerie

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Up through the holiday weekend, “Egon Schiele: Portraits” at the Neue Galerie was a surprising favorite show of mine last time I was in NYC: surprising because it’s not my era or area of interest. But Schiele’s portraits stand in graphic, psychological counter to the museum’s stunning portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer by Gustav Klimt. Klimt’s ornately decorative mode gives way to a bare, introspective style by Egon Schiele, who looked up to the older artist as both a father figure and a rival who he must supplant, as is appropriate given the theories Freud was elaborating on, also in Vienna, at this time. Room after room of portraits provides insight into Schiele’s interests (people, preferably lean and contorted) and working methods (a traditional command of draftsmanship and anatomy pointedly given over to more expressive lines). Well-worth a look if you have a chance this weekend.

Gustav_Klimt_Portrait of Adele Blauch Bauer