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


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.


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.

9 canvases of Josh Smith FOREVERMOMA-slide-8XOE-jumbo

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).


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.

Off-kilter Occult: Hernan Bas

I was excited to see that Hernan Bas’s had a new show up at Lehmann Maupin after first seeing his work at their downtown location in 2009. Even if I hadn’t, I would have been a sucker for the Baudelaire quote in the press release; “The loveliest trick of the Devil is to persuade you that he does not exist.” The Miami-born, Detroit-based painter examines lore and legends of the devil in this new group of paintings.

Tartini’s Dream (The Devil’s Trill)
I really enjoy his dense compositions, like the one above where intersecting branches cover every part of the picture plane, as if they are trying to force their way out. His works tend to suggest complex narratives, suggested by the strange landscapes and dramatic little figures as much as their titles.

A Devil’s Bridge
The rainbow of colors used here is representative of his work, and the very bright and light hues he uses manage to seem subsumed into his overall dark composition. I love the figure in the foreground looking out over the water, while a shadowy figure lurks under the bridge behind him. It’s cliche, perhaps, but it exists in a vividly colored and slightly off-kilter alternate world.

Detail, A Devil’s Bridge

Detail, A Devil’s Bridge

Recently in a interview Bas said of his more recent work:

The best way that anyone has described the work so far was in an interview with Maurizio Cattelan titled “Something Off,” which really sums up these thoughts again on how I view the more successful aspects of the work—there’s always something off about them, and I strive towards that off-ness whenever I’m painting. It can come from how I render the figures or skewing the scale; something just always has to be a little wrong. I don’t want to make right painting. 

More from his interview with Art21 here.

A Satanist on a Tuesday

“Occult Contemporary” is up at Lehmann Maupin Gallery in Chelsea through April 21.

Pat Steir’s Winter Paintings at Cheim & Read

I wish I had had a camera with me for the opening of Pat Steir’s Winter Paintings at Cheim & Read, so that I could show you up close how well the layers of rich colors overlay each other in these two-tone canvases.

Her latest waterfall paintings–note the textured drippage–use a lot of metallics. The gold felt especially luxuroius. Waterfalls where paint is dripped and poured down the canvas have been a signature of the artist’s since the 80s. The layering gives a real saturated and deep coloring to these large canvases, and the waterfall effect encourages contemplation.

Compared to the Nearly Endless Line exhibition of the artist’s I saw about a month ago, these seem remarkably traditional works, but they remain immersive and focused with an in interest in subtle manipulation of one or two elements.