Between 1942 and 1963 Dorothy Canning Miller was the curator of the highly perceptive and ultimately influential Americans shows at the Museum of Modern Art. Beginning with Americans 1942: 18 Artists From 9 States and ending with Americans 1963, Miller presented the work of artists such as Hyman Bloom, Robert Motherwell, Jay DeFeo, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Lee Bontecou, and Frank Stella—artists who would ultimately be the defining contributors to the mid-century American art historical canon. After a gap of nearly a half-century, MoMA once again is reviving this tradition with Laura Hoptman’s The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemoporal World, an exhibition of 17 artists representing current trends in painting.
In contrast to Miller's US-centric exhibitions of the past, The Forever Now emphasizes the concept of “atemporality,” as defined by the science fiction writer and cultural theorist William Gibson, who used the term to describe "a cultural product of our moment that paradoxically does not represent through style or content, or through medium, the time from which it comes." According to Hoptman, “Atemporality, or timelessness, manifests itself in paintings as an ahistorical free-for-all, where contemporaneity as an indicator of new form is nowhere to be found, and all areas coexist.”
Installation view of The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World at The Museum of Modern Art, New York (December 14, 2014-April 5, 2015). Photo by John Wronn © 2014 The Museum of Modern Art
It is an interesting conceit to an exhibition to, largely, evade the criticism of categorization by pretty much saying “everything is in play here.” However, if there is one overarching theme that patinates the work in this exhibition, it is the effects of the late eighties blue chip Neo Expressionism (read: Basquiat, Schnabel, Penck) and post-internet image reproduction, largely the currency of the moment. While much has been made of the fact that most of the artists in this exhibition are currently enjoying a moment of market rush: Mark Grotjahn, Untitled (Circus No. 3 Face 44.20) (2013); Joe Bradley, Man Made Dirigible (2008); and the punching-bag of this sort of painting, Oscar Murillo, 7+ (2013–14)—these artists and their work are made almost criticism-proof, as most of the discussion of their works focuses on the market rather than the works themselves. In fact, judging by the paintings in this show, these works support the benign sort of response that Peter Schjeldahl gave in The New Yorker magazine, a capitulation that they weren’t really bad enough to bother talking about. (On Joe Bradley, Scheldahl opined, “How little can a painting be and still satisfy as a painting? Very little, Bradley ventures. After straining for a sterner response to the works, I opted to relax and like them.” On Josh Smith: “As with Bradley, resistance to Smith is understandable but, in the end, too tiring to maintain.”)
Charline von Heyl, Carlotta, 2013, Oil, acrylic and charcoal on canvas, 82 x 76” (208.3 x 193 cm). Ovitz Family Collection, Los Angeles. Courtesy of the artist and Petzel, New York. Photo: Jason Mandella
There is good painting here, though—and it shows that work that flies below the radar of the contemporary fascination with auction prices is being made. Amy Sillman's Untitled (Head) (2014) and Charline von Heyl's Carlotta (2013) are excellent examples. Yet these two artists seem out of place in an exhibition of “atemporal art.” In fact, both these painters are very much of their time. Their use of tropes and methods are both in reaction to and a result of a deep understanding of art history, the place of painting in it, and a careful response to it. By saying that their work represents a sort of free-flowing, dissociated activity does a great disservice to work that is both necessary at the moment and of historical value to the future.
Michael Williams, Wall Dog, 2013, Inkjet and airbrush on canvas, 8′ 1 1/4″ x 6′ 6 1/8″ (247 × 198.4 cm). Private collection, New York. Courtesy CANADA
Ultimately this show hinges on the work of two painters: Michael Williams and Nicole Eisenman. Williams and Eisenman have a preternatural grasp of the contingency of painting and use humor and intelligence to critique painting while expanding the uses of it. Williams, like von Heyl, is what we might call a student of the Martin Kippenberger school. While von Heyl understands completely the politics of painting, Williams appropriates from Kippenberger the idea that the art process does not end at the art made. His works are remnants of a process that best resembles a frat party of the art making process. His works defy criticism, or at best, elicit formal responses. This completely misses the point. His use of children’s digital paint programs, blue-collar tools like air-brushes and spray cans, and “Bad Painting” circa 1978 styles, show a wealth of techniques—an arsenal with which to undress the Emperor.
Nicole Eisenman, Guy Capitalist, 2011, Oil and mixed media on canvas, 76 x 60” (193 x 152.4 cm). Collection Noel Kirnon and Michael Paley. Courtesy of Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer
In Eisenman’s "big head” paintings (Guy Capitalist, 2011), one perceives a deep understanding of the history of both "art" and perhaps what we call "art history," as well as a sense that humor, on the level of High Satire, is the tool most appropriate for returning the artist as critical thinker, as well as maker, to the arena of painting. While many of the artists in Forever Now use reproduction, appropriation, and stylistic role-play in their work, we do not get the sense that there is an end game. In Eisenman’s work a variety of elements come together, and the idiosyncratic humor (for example, the little African figure collages and the mid-period Picasso hand smoking a cigarette) are attempts to bring ideas into play through stylistic absorption rather than through mere appropriation. Eisenman says about the work: “Some objects/approaches resonate and work themselves into the fabric of your think/feeling, it's not a choice, it's a condition. And then there are works that become benchmarks of influence. I've got a shitload of those.”
There was a time, not all that long ago, but in a period now obscured by art movements with names like “relational aesthetics” and “zombie formalism,” when a punk aesthetic was necessary to the making of paintings. One defined one’s own work largely by showing what it was not. For want of any better term, we might call this The Poetry of Hating Shit. There is an abundance of painters today who still adhere to this practice (Albert Oehlen, Nicola Tyson, and Mira Schor leap to mind), and one hopes that future atemporal painting shows at MoMA will show us, through some art historical wormhole, paintings, like Williams' and Eisenman’s, that are more poetry than prose.
(Image at top: Installation view of The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World at The Museum of Modern Art, New York (December 14, 2014-April 5, 2015). Photo by John Wronn © 2014 The Museum of Modern Art)