Charlene Heyl, Carlotta (2013), oil, synthetic polymer paint and charcoal on canvas, 6’10” x 6’4″; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art
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I met a sculptor for coffee recently, and the subject of noteworthy exhibitions came up for discussion—as it invariably does for artists working in New York City. The inescapable show on the agenda was “Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs” at the Museum of Modern Art. Yes, the show was a blatant sop to the box office, but the French master’s late manner is among the most sumptuous achievements of twentieth-century art, and MOMA did Matisse proud, crowd control and all. Woe betide the seventeen artists included in “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World,” an exhibition sharing the museum’s sixth floor with “The Cut-Outs.” My sculptor friend observed that these painters must be humbled by having their work adjacent to that of Matisse. How could any serious artist not be? After visiting “The Forever Now,” a different question demands to be asked: Are the featured painters even capable of recognizing Matisse’s greatness? Their art is, on the whole, absent the rigor, clarity, and joy inherent in even the least of the collages. A better title for the mish-mosh that is “The Forever Now” might be “Dazed and Confused” or, given that it follows on the heels of “The Cut-Outs,” “Buzzkill.”
That isn’t what Laura Hoptman and Margaret Ewing, respectively the Curator and Curatorial Assistant of MOMA’s Department of Painting and Sculpture, would like us to believe. “The Forever Now,” they insist, captures a moment in which our cognizance of history has been transformed beyond understanding, largely because of the internet. “What characterizes our cultural moment,” Hoptman writes, “is the inability—or perhaps the refusal—of a great many of our cultural artifacts to define the times in which we live.” Atemporality, a phrase coined by the science-fiction writer William Gibson, denotes a world in which history has been rendered static and diffuse through technological advances. “The atemporal song, story, or painting contains elements of history but isn’t historical; it is innovative but not novel, pertinent rather than prescient.” Utilizing the “connoisseurship of boundless information,” the curators posit the atemporal aesthetic as optimistic, a “hopeful, even invigorating quest . . . [for] a broader, bolder notion of culture.” The irony the curators miss (or ignore) is how temporal their ideas are. The exhibition has hardly been mounted and it already feels out of date.
Joe Bradley, Man Made Dirigible (2008), grease pencil on canvas, 5′ x 8′; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art
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“The Forever Now” is MOMA’s first overview of contemporary painting in thirty years. (That it’s taken the premier museum of modern art that long to get its act together vis-à-vis the artform is its own disheartening statement.) The curators are desperate to prove painting relevant by top-loading it with up-to-the-moment nomenclature and references. Scan the catalogue and wall labels; you’ll come across a daunting amount of heady thinking and sweeping statements. Were you aware that we collectively suffer from “teleologically programmed brains” or that zombies “are perfect embodiments of the atemporal”? The latter is a telling and trendy ploy. Rather than stick their necks out to prove that painting continues to be a viable means of artistic expression, the curators provide themselves with an out. The dead-but-alive trope is beyond convenient, allowing for wiggle room in which to hedge bets about the choices that have been made. Forget William Gibson: the real inspiration here is Vladimir Botol, the Slovenian author who coined the phrase “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” So much for connoisseurship and optimism. “The Forever Now” is an unwitting exercise in, you know, whatever.
Of course, any institution attempting to provide a coherent overview of a cultural moment is asking for trouble, and, in that regard, Hoptman and Ewing should be cut some slack. Who doesn’t want to grab a handle, any handle, in these slippery times? Forget artists; everyone is alternately entranced and befuddled by our technological moment. It’s not so much that history is in flux—come on, history is always in flux—but that its reach has become so encompassing and immediate. In a world overrun by virtual imagery, it’s little surprise that makers of pictures and objects have become antsy, looking over their shoulders lest the tide passes them by. This doesn’t mean, however, that an overweening degree of self-consciousness—the chief characteristic defining “The Forever Now”—qualifies this-or-that painter as an oracle or mirror. How does “squatting in [the] foreclosed real estate” of art history qualify as a peculiarly contemporary phenomenon? With the exception of our forebears painting on the cave wall—who, after all, started the whole thing from scratch—artists of every epoch have relied and thrived on the fluidity of history. Sure, the world was once a smaller place. But to conclude that its increasing rapidity and breadth put a stop on culture is to indulge in a short-sighted brand of historical arrogance.
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Then again, perhaps MOMA’s crystal ball is clear in its reflections. If so, our permanent future is blatantly second-hand. Pastiche is the coin of the realm. The artists included in “The Forever Now” can’t see a hard-won individual style for a distracting grab-bag of visual tics. Slacker professionalism is the atemporal rule. Josh Smith has nothing to paint about so he paints everything, including rehashes of Neo-expressionism which was enough of a rehash the first time around. Joe Bradley’s scrawled stick figures make Jean-Michel Basquiat look like Michelangelo; Laura Owens employs Photoshop as a means of resurrecting Abstract Illusionism—you remember, the floating brushstroke school of painting long consigned to the dustbin of kitsch. Oscar Murillo is, I am told, the artist of the moment; the expert riffs on Rauschenbergian assemblage take second place to his unstretched canvases piled on the floor, through which viewers are welcome to rifle. Such gimmickry is typical, and connotes nothing so much as a loss of scope and invention. The lone exceptions are Amy Sillman, Mark Grotjahn, and, maybe, Charlene von Heyl and Michael Williams, each of whom possesses an engagement with the medium that hints at some kind of forward momentum. How well they’ll follow up on it remains to be seen, but, in at least this one pivotal respect, their work exposes the ready-made obsolescence at the core of “The Forever Now.”
© 2015 Mario Naves
This review was originally published in the March 2015 edition of The New Criterion.