THE FOREVER NOW:
Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World
Museum of Modern Art | December 14, 2014 – April 5, 2015
Nothing sums up the ephemeral nature of MoMA’s attempt to make a statement about painting today better than its title, The Forever Now. The phrase implies no history and no future, no past and no evolution. All the right “postmodernist” tendencies are represented—stylistic quotation, simulation, irony, mixed media, self-reference, graffiti, media recycling, text and image, interactivity, multiple overlays—you fill in the rest. In that sense, the works are strictly academic, torn from the pages of the art magazines or taught in the proliferation of M.F.A. programs. However, the dominant tone is not of a rigorous examination of the medium. Rather, the feeling is of the relaxed atmosphere of a mosh pit in a provincial art fair.
The question is, why is this show at MoMA? The answer seems only too obvious: the collectors who own the work are young and affluent potential new donors to the insatiable funding needs of the ever expanding, constantly morphing museum that once prided itself on having its great permanent collection permanently on display. (Now, try and find these fragments on view in hallways and ancillary galleries.) In the show’s favor is the fact that of the 17 painters included, each is represented by several works that when viewed together, could possibly be assessed as a personal style. The collection of oversize, bright paintings on paper by Kerstin Brätsch piled up and flanking the entrance are indeed startling and could possibly have been a credible one-person exhibition. Instead, they are stacked casually on the floor so that few can be entirely seen. The jagged black framing image is bold, as are the brilliant colors that pop like a fireworks display. Unfortunately, the rest of the works in The Forever Now, with the exception of Julie Mehretu’s paintings of dense and elegant calligraphic filigree, seem flaccid and singularly unambitious despite their hugeness, which unfortunately does not correspond to monumental scale.
Making paintings as big as those of the New York School does not equate to anything more than using large quantities of material. In some cases, like that of Michaela Eichwald, her individual works are more impressive than the large mural in the show that lacks concentration and coherence. Matt Connors, too, is better dealing with human rather than architectural scale; it’s too easy to see his tricolor floor to ceiling planks as a Gulliver-size marriage of Ellsworth Kelly and John McCracken. But at least in the smaller, more personal pieces he exhibits interest in perceptual issues and a lack of fear in confronting the past. Nicole Eisenman, once one of my favorite painters, is represented by enormous, thickly impastoed caricatures of goofy heads that seem inexplicably crude in comparison with her earlier work as if she, too, felt the need to join the chaotic din that characterizes this not-so-magic moment.
Among the common denominators of this exhibition is a lack of coherence; an indication perhaps of what post-postmodernism may turn out to be. Presenting this collection of works as a sampling of where painting is now, is as irresponsible as within the current context it is understandable. These artists, after all, are supported by “emerging collectors”—“emerging” being the code word for a non existent avant-garde—courted by powerful galleries who place ads in art magazines, which review shows by galleries who advertise. This self-serving Ring-Around-the-Rosie proves why the exhibition of a work at MoMA is like a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, a much sought-after guarantee of quality that instantly skyrockets prices into the auction house stratosphere.
Some of the choices are clearly more market driven than others. Saatchi and Rubell protégé Oscar Murillo’s hodge-podge of this, that, the other thing, and everything else is particularly vacuous and unconvincing. Murillo’s is not the only work that suggests more is less, seeming to throw everything against the wall to give an impression of excitement, activity, and the spontaneity that is, in fact, entirely absent. The result is like a Chinese master sauce to which new ingredients are constantly added until a thick gluey mixture produces a blurring of distinctions in taste and consistency. One senses a desperate, even nervous need to get the recipe right despite the je m’en fous nonchalance of the Forever Now artists. The problem with the mock-heroic dimensions of many of the canvases is that the inarticulate surfaces look flabby rather than tense. This suggests that the work, rather than trying to stun with super size, should go on a diet.
I remember when “freshness” was the sought after quality in painting. Laura Owens makes a stab at freshness with her wallpaper-like floral motif embellished with oil stick squiggles, but the effect is coy rather than crisp. The artist who most successfully embraces the slacker attitude is Richard Aldrich. His conflated and referential images do have a certain piquant unpredictability. His use of mixed media—including greasy oil, wax, and charcoal on fine linen—belies the sophistication behind his off-the-cuff bricolage style. In the all and anything-at-all current mode, he does it best. Looking casually uncomposed, the work is actually quite consciously structured.
Mark Grotjahn’s “Circus” triptych is a competent evocation of the manic thrill of roller-coaster rides which is at least evocative, demonstrating control and skill, rather than just an empty accumulation of larded pigments and aimless scrawls. Personally, I think Kurt Godwin’s complex carnivals were more original and ambitious, but he had the disadvantage of living on the wrong side of the tracks in Virginia where nary a critic or curator would venture. He painted all his life, immersing himself directly in the alchemical sources of both Duchamp and the best recent German art. He died last fall, age 58, in total obscurity.
It’s not as if there is no ambitious painting today that would not look out of place in a Museum of Modern Art, a name by now inappropriate for much currently featured by the Matrix on 53rd Street. Everyone, of course, has their own suggestion of painters not on the list of conspicuously strategized market darlings in The Forever Now. I would point to the exquisite enlarged miniatures of Shahzia Sikander, the rigorous constructions of R.H. Quaytman, the sophisticated color and compositions of Joanna Pousette-Dart, the tough materiality of Melissa Kretschmer, and the lush, fluid painterliness of Cecily Brown, along with the meticulous warped optical space of Rebecca Norton, the kinky perfection of Julie Speed, or the quiet poetry of Mary Corse. Not only is their painting unhip and uncool, they have the distinct disadvantage that they can’t produce enough to satisfy the needs of international mass production. Their work requires long hours of thought, preparation, and execution, as opposed to the fast-food rehash of Sigmar Polke—whose stunning retrospective, it should be said, MoMA did house—Albert Ohlehn and Martin Kippenburger, the apparent godfathers of The Forever Now. It is as if the unspoken message for young artists is grab the first flight for Berlin; do not pass New York or Paris except in reproduction.
I never thought I would be nostalgic for Marcia Tucker’s 1978 Whitney Museum Bad Painting show. In retrospect, it was a valiant effort to show a group of highly individualistic works that went beyond the boundaries of good taste and current trends. Like Kynaston McShine’s equally aberrant and even more memorable International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture show at MoMA in 1984, Bad Painting made no attempt to find common denominators defining a moment. At the time, McShine was quoted as saying, “I have to go beyond the way work is perceived in New York … a serious public cannot depend upon the whims of commercial galleries. It has to depend upon museums.” Ah, how nostalgic that sounds today. An independent contrarian spirit, McShine curated exhibitions that brought unexpected variety to MoMA’s mainstream program that have not been sufficiently acknowledged as major contributions. Some of the artists he chose were more durable than others, but many in the International Survey proved to become major international figures. And surely one of the “bad painters,” Neil Jenney, deserves to occupy precious MoMA space with a retrospective far more than this collection of forever now, forgotten tomorrow work.
BARBARA ROSE is an art historian and curator who lives in New York and Madrid, Spain.