Don’t Shoot the Messenger

THE FOREVER NOW:
Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World

Museum of Modern Art | December 14, 2014  –  April 5, 2015


Laura Hoptman is an old hand at finding new talent. Time and again, Hoptman has shown that she has a good eye, a searching intelligence, and a sense of history. Years ago, during her first stint at the Museum of Modern Art, she introduced many of us to Maurizio Cattelan, John Currin, and Luc Tuymans. She also mounted two impressive large-scale surveys: Drawing Now: Eight Propositions at MoMA QNS (2002 – 03) as well as the 2004 – 05 Carnegie International in Pittsburgh. Along the way, she joined the elite community of international curators who travel far and wide by train, plane, and rickshaw, scouring galleries and artists’ studios for emergent movements and creative personalities to showcase in solo shows and group exhibitions. At some point, the rest of us get to weigh in on these findings.

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.

That’s certainly been the case with The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World, Hoptman’s latest effort. Reactions to this survey, which is shoehorned into one of the special exhibition spaces on MoMA’s sixth floor, resemble a free-for-all that has erupted into a firestorm. Because of the widespread accessibility of social media, everyone—and their grandmothers—has seemed to have an opinion regarding the 17 painters on view, a mix of Americans, Germans, and one Columbian who lives in London. For the most part, this disparate group of artists has been treated as if they were abstractionists engaged with the same themes and formal strategies as their brethren who were active during the first and second halves of the 20th century.

Nothing could be further from the truth. We have entered a new chapter in the history of abstract art. At the moment, it appears to be too early to say whether the work being created by these young turks is good or bad. We need time and distance to figure out what’s really going on because this work is so different, neither idealistic nor engaged with formal strategies. Meanwhile, the naysayers have been having a field day. Many reviewers sound as if they have a lot in common with the critic who compared Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” to an explosion in a shingle factory. Or, for that matter, those who coined the terms Fauves and Cubists.

As Hoptman herself points out in her exhibition’s catalogue, “Abstraction [has evolved into] a language primed for becoming a representation of itself.” It’s no longer an issue of abstraction versus representation or variations of the two. Hoptman suggests that with the “avalanche of information” now available, past, present, and future commingle in unexpected ways. Paintings by The Forever Now participant Matt Connors, a 42-year-old who works in New York and Los Angeles, are a case in point. Connors is not so much making abstractions—or, as they might once have been called, nonrepresentational pictures or nonobjective works—as he is creating panels with dimensions ranging from supersized to small that take as their point of departure art by, say, Barnett Newman, John McLaughlin, Jo Baer, and the like. Then there are Julie Mehretu’s latest canvases, which almost every commentator has compared to Cy Twombly’s work, though I would add, C.T. on steroids. Mehretu is knowledgeable enough to know the American expatriate’s squiggles would be brought up, but she doesn’t seem to have much cared. Back in the day, a connection like this would have been fudged, to say the least. That seems to be the point. These days, references function as if they are colors or even pigment brands, yet another item in the toolbox.

Suffice to say, the art in The Forever Now is as different from the canvases in Clement Greenberg’s landmark exhibition, Post-Painterly Abstraction (1964) as the work in Norman Rosenthal’s A New Spirit in Painting (1981) was. Artists in Greenberg’s show had a different mindset. Steeped in the fundamentals, they aspired to a different sort of originality and inventiveness when they became abstractionists. Educated after World War II, they saw themselves belonging to a new world order. The men and women in The Forever Now instead appear to be reshuffling the deck they were dealt. The work isn’t so much new as it is newish. The artists at MoMA are en route. We need to be patient until they arrive at their destinations. 

Current abstractions frequently bring us back to representational practices in one way or another. If you spent a lot of time at Amy Sillman’s last solo show in Chelsea, you get it. If you didn’t see Sillman’s way of developing her work, just consider how during the 1950s, Philip Guston began his abstraction known as “The Clock” by painting a clock on a bare canvas and then covering it over with dark colors and creamy brushstrokes. The art on view in The Forever Now is tethered to figurative imagery in such unexpected ways.

Some of the most satisfying works at MoMA were those by the older artists who have been there, done that. Laura Owens, Julie Mehretu, Nicole Eisenman, Rashid Johnson, Mark Grotjahn, and Amy Sillman stood out from the rest of the pack. They seem more comfortable combining craft, image, and meaning. Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling we’ve caught the artists in this show midstride. Some even look as if they have two left feet. I can’t decide which I look forward to more: seeing where these painters are years from now or looking back and seeing the art in The Forever Now after it’s aged somewhat. Meanwhile, Laura Hoptman has given us the opportunity to rethink the essentials of abstraction.

Contributor

Phyllis Tuchman

PHYLLIS TUCHMAN is currently writing a book on the life and times of Robert Smithson.

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