Built upon the holdings in the Museum of Contemporary Art’s (MCA) permanent collection and augmented by loans from galleries and collectors, “Constellations,” curated by Julie Rodrigues Widholm, organizes the practice of painting into a series of themes. Rather than a historical lineage approach, although that can still be read in the groupings, the show places artists together based on concept or working method. There is a lot of good work in the show and a lot of old favorites. But if you’ve been to the MCA a fair amount of times over the years you probably won’t be able to withhold the bitchy judgment, “not the Magritte with the snuggling fish people made of stone again! Why don’t they just deaccession it anyway, it’s not even contemporary.” [seen above] That’s a problem for contemporary art museums that collect. What is to be done with the things that are no longer contemporary? Curiously, while to me the 1953 Magritte and the neighboring Mel Ramos from 1970 seem stuck in their moments, the Robert Ryman of 1960 and the Ad Reinhardt of 1962 (both found elsewhere in the exhibition) seem very relevant and vibrant. There is something to be said for pairing the past with the present, and there is always an interesting shift in seeing how, at varying points in time, artists re-enter the discourse. I think of the Joseph Kosuth quote, “art ‘lives’ through influencing other art, not by existing as the physical residue of an artist’s ideas. The reason why artists from the past are ‘brought alive’ again is because some aspect of their work becomes ‘useable’ by living artists.”
However, another Kosuth quote from that same essay, “Art After Philosophy,” (1969) relates to a problem that haunts this show:
“Being an artist now means to question the nature of art. If one is questioning the nature of painting, one cannot be questioning the nature of art. If an artist accepts the nature of painting (or sculpture) he is accepting the tradition that goes with it.”
With a few exceptions, the painters in this show are fully committed to exploring painting but only well within the established boundaries of that medium. There seems to be a confusion that discussing painting is the same as discussing art. That is just no longer the case. What is most curious is how every work in the show is emphatically a traditional painting, not just in the material, acrylic, oil, canvas linen or panel, but in a restriction to rectangular format and two-dimensionality. Even works by Mark Bradford or Albert Oehlen, as layered, textured and thick as they are, never eschew the frame or leave the pictorial zone. The work most pushing the boundaries of painting is Purple Octagonal (1967, seen below) by Richard Tuttle, it’s got eight sides, it’s not stretched and it’s stained rather than painted. But that is hardly nudging the membrane.
Richard Tuttle, Purple Octagonal, 1967. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Gift of William J. Hokin
So what to make of this? There are two concepts in the air these days: a reassessment, recycling or repurposing of Modernism and the question of specificity. Could one read this show, then, as a statement on medium specificity and a resurgence of Modernism? The physical nature of almost all the work being nothing but painting, not even flirting with the object or the sculptural is incredibly Modernist in the Greenbergian conception. But I don’t get the sense that much of the work on view has ever for a moment doubted its’ painting-ness or its’ vision of carrying on with Modernism. Even works that wouldn’t necessarily fit into that reading, like Martin Kippenberger’s canvas which is a great work in all the ways you would want from a Kippenberger, can’t escape the downward pressure of the institution. But Kippenberger was a bad boy genius in the Modern tradition, no matter how self-effacing. The problem with the show, which isn’t necessarily the fault of the MCA, is symptomatic of the way art is being institutionalized ever faster these days, that everything ends up radiating a sense of safety.
Maybe it isn’t always time for a medium to question itself, and maybe that is where the murky term “specificity” is headed. But I think the job, or one of the jobs of contemporary art from the maker’s point of view, is to push things and ask questions. In the world of art, where everything is so hashed out—it’s all been done!— that is of course a challenge, but there is always room to grow. There are always moves to be made, especially in regards to one’s context, situation and position. It’s all about taking one’s circumstances and givens and testing them, finding the edges, the boundaries.
Francis Bacon, Study for a Portrait, 1949. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Gift of Joseph and Jory Shapiro. © 2009 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London
There are many amazing pieces in this exhibition and familiar faces. Francis Bacon’s Study for a Portrait (1949, seen above) and Sigmar Polke’s Ashes to Ashes (1992) for instance. Or Christopher Wool’s Bad Dog (1992). Laura Owens’s untitled (1998), Scott Reader’s double take on what a tall igloo might look like. Even the frenetic angst of Wesley Kimler’s Umurbrogol (2009) overseeing the room of “where abstraction and representation meet” has its charm in color and physicality. Nearby in the final gallery, a room full of High Modernismt works by Josef Albers, Jules Olitski and Morris Louis give way to those seemingly carrying the torch: a gaudy and gorgeous copper black and bronze Rebecca Morris, untitled (#04-04) (2004), a shiny blue-black Mark Grotjahn with a hint of glowing lava peaking through, untitled (mag blue butterfly over red) (2004) and a brilliant pure red Garth Weiser, the single most memorable piece in the show, untitled (red figure #1) (2008), channels Barnett Newman in a fresh way, thoughtfully pared with one of Michelle Grabner’s white dot mandalas on black, untitled (2005).
Despite these highpoints, all the work seemed resigned to the given boundaries of painting. This was odd in the cases of Glenn Ligon, Karen Kilimnik and Kai Althoff to name a few, as the extent of their work goes far beyond painting. The aforementioned work by Ad Reinhardt, Abstract Painting (1962), is also in that final room, shunned the Modernist notion of progression, siding with a Zen attitude of repetition and meditation. That’s what the “black paintings” were about, having reached the ultimate painting why go further, what else is there? So maybe it is not necessary to call for the practice of painting to examine itself. But investigation and growth can go in any direction and it needn’t be along the lines of Modernism’s ideals. I’m reminded of something a favorite professor of mine told me: he and I were talking about struggling to “get it right” in your painting practice, and the moment that comes right after you figure out what you are doing; it loses it’s flare, it feels too easy. “That,” said Ted Halkin, “is when you know it is time to move on and find the next thing to struggle with.”
(top image: Rene Magritte, Les merveilles de la nature (The Wonders of Nature), 1953. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Gift of Joseph and Jory Shapiro. © 2009 C. Herscovici, London / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)