“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.

Unlimited Metaphor: Robert Gober at MoMA

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At least one person I know hates the way American artist Robert Gober’s work is displayed at his current retrospective at MoMA (up through January 18). Granted, she knows his work far better than I do, but I beg to differ. Perhaps because this exhibition was my first introduction to Gober’s strange sculptures, I appreciated the installations in themselves, not least because they often mimicked the highly specific way that works were originally displayed. The visitor gets a hint of this dynamic in MoMA’s atrium, taken over by a plywood enclosure, resembling a house’s unfinished walls, whose interior is only accessible from inside the exhibition.

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Inside the show, careful facsimiles of sinks, impossible cribs, and anonymous limbs are the order of the day. It’s no wonder that Jerry Saltz describes how critics often have no idea what it means. The show’s title–“The Heart is a Metaphor”–speaks to the logic of dreams by which Gober seems to operate. Although it is difficult to nail down any specific meaning, certainly notions of home are evoked by his utilitarian constructions, and of the body by those limbs, often sprouting out of walls seemingly at random. A gay artist in the 80s, his works (such as the non-working sinks or Untitled (1989) featuring an empty wedding dress) are often seen as responding to issues such as the AIDS crisis or gay marriage, and certainly pieces like the chapel interior (Untitled, 2003-2005) in wake of September 11 attacks would also support a socially engaged reading. At the same time, his tubs and sinks suggest a more general cleansing just as his candles might suggest spirituality or hope. Such metaphors are multivalent, and it is hard to limit the possible significances.

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What I found most moving about both sinks and limbs is the care with which the artist replicated both. On close inspection, they are clearly handmade, imperfect, but great care was taken with them. It produces an uncanny resemblance to the real, as if the artist was trying to create some Platonic ideal of a sink. At the same time, returning to this mundane object again and again in his work suggests some kind of idée fixe. Like a murderer who revisits the scene of a crime, I wonder what obsession brings Gober back to these things–what sort of totemic status must they have? Humble. Clean. Functionless. Yet there lurks some darker implication and some deeper function. But like in a dream after one wakes, it is unclear what that function is. Rat bait suggests something ugly but unseen. Bars on windows suggest home might be a prison, or a prison a home.

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Some of the more complex works, such as an open briefcase on the floor through which flowing water, moss, rocks, and a tiny bit of bare feet can be seen, suggest the elaborate visual pun of Duchamp in Etant Donnes. What is evoked is the Surrealist language of Magritte et al. in contemporary and mundane guise. The domestic objects of sinks and cribs that formed the beginning of Gober’s career are circled back around to at the end of the roughly chronological exhibition, where a dollhouse sits in the middle of the room, a token from Gober’s initial livelihood in New York. The painting below, the final work in the exhibition, continues to focus on houses and interiority, echoed on a larger scale for the viewer, who is inside an exhibition space painted the pale blue of a baby’s nursery. Throughout, the contained spaces suggest a continued interiority of the mind rather than actual space, and these general symbols, rather than feeling like tropes, seem both personal and poetic, if not immediately fixed in specific meaning.

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Three New York Exhibitions to Catch Over the Holidays

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In New York over Thanksgiving, I saw so many great shows, much of which I want to write about in more depth, and missed so many that I wanted to see. To save you from a similar fate of missing shows in the holiday chaos, allow me to point out three exhibition that will be closing soon after the New Year. Of the shows that I did see, these three stuck out as being well-worth the effort of seeing over the holidays.

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Chris Offili: Night and Day was the biggest (pleasant) surprise for me. I was familiar with the British artist’s work, from his original controversial dung paintings to his red, green, and black makeover at the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, but I hadn’t realized how lush and sensuous his large, detailed paintings could be. This gorgeous visual quality was apparent overall, and highlighted by the way they were installed in the museum. Especially in his most recent blue paintings, the viewer gets the rather rare experience of painting as one would with Rothko: an intense bodily confrontation and visual experience that grows over time. However, the subject matter quickly pulls it away from the sublime and into the lyrical.

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I, being an ignoramous, or perhaps merely too young, was not familiar with Gober’s work and wasn’t sure what I would make of the artist’s sinks and other examples of warped domesticity at Robert Gober: The Heart Is A Metaphor. What I found was pleasantly tactile work whose logic proceeded like that of dreams, intuitively making sense. It was odd, touching, bizarre–and images of it stick. I only wish I could walk through it again.

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Finally, Egon Schiele: Portraits is a beautiful and thorough show of this Viennese Expressionist painter’s work. The collection overall makes clear the stark break a young Schiele made with Gustav Klimt’s decorative style in favor of the psychological, in a city where Freud was doing his pioneering work in psychoanalysis. Remaining stylized, Schiele veered toward an expression of the inner mind, in ways that feel freshly startling. Similarly, his drawings, sometimes conventional, show his precocious skill as a draftsman.