THE FOREVER NOW:
Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World
Museum of Modern Art | December 14, 2014 – April 5, 2015
In an instance of spectacularly unfortunate programming, The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World shared the first two months of its exhibition life on the Museum of Modern Art’s sixth floor with Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs. Visitors intoxicated with Matisse’s rhapsodic color and cunning simplicity wandered bemused through the thicket of contradictory, restrained, profligate, ambivalent paintings in The Forever Now exhibition.
The exhibition announces its disruptive position outside the entrance to the gallery, where Kerstin Brätsch’s super-sized drawings-as-paintings in monumental wooden frames variously hang on the wall or stand stacked awaiting their turn. These are complex works in which shards of black invade vaporous orbs of light out of Nolde and O’Keeffe, malevolently stealing their glow as though jagged sci-fi creatures were colonizing Brätsch’s customary brash color.
On the evidence of sight alone, the paintings by 17 painters in The Forever Now exhibition do not bear a discernible relationship to one another. Matt Connors pirates and dismembers color strategies from Matisse through Richter with screwball combinations and improbably painted frames. Rashid Johnson incises thick gestural troughs through expanses of black soap and mud. Dianna Molzan unravels her paintings, deconstructs canvas and frame, and repositions both structure and surface as sculpture.
But The Forever Now is not specifically concerned with what the eye sees. Its motivating principle is theory. In the end that theory has very little to do with the actual experience of viewing the paintings. It misunderstands the process of their making and obfuscates the reasons for their selection.
Laura Hoptman, curator of the exhibition, has been called “the canary in the coal mine of contemporary art.”1 The selections she made for MoMA’s Projects series between 1995 and 2001, before she departed to organize the 2004 – 05 Carnegie International and to mount such exhibitions as Brion Gysin: Dream Machine at the New Museum, have since been successfully market tested. As a canary in the coal mine, Hoptman has responded to a very real phenomenon since the turn of the millennium—the upsurge of painters painting and the prevalence of abstraction emerging from studios—and she has guided MoMA on a painting buying spree. As a coal mine canary, she might also appreciate comments of the “my graduate students can do better” variety from an exhibition visitor or two. After all, isn’t one test of advanced art that it takes a while for audiences to get it?
On the contrary, Hoptman argues in her catalogue essay. In this cultural moment of forever now, “thanks to the Internet, all eras seem to exist at once,” a situation that the science-fiction writer William Gibson described as “atemporality” in 2003. The artists whose search engines prowl continents and eras, universes and grains of sand for information and cues “dramatically” challenge “the great, ladder-like narrative of cultural progress that is so dependent upon the idea of the new superseding the old in a movement simultaneously forward and upward,” she writes in the catalogue. The already well-acknowledged artists on the MoMA’s sixth-floor walls don’t hold with the notion of historical progress or make any attempt “to define the times in which we live,” she writes. On the contrary, “it is not progress as such that is at stake in this new, atemporal universe. Time-based terms like progressive—and its opposite reactionary, avant- and arrière-garde—are of little use to describe atemporal works of art.” Instead, she states, images from all times and all places have become malleable materials to mine, manipulate, “reanimate,” “reenact,” and “cannibalize.”
It’s a workmanlike, even plausible, concept particularly since atemporality under various soubrettes has lately been the hot new concept in fiction, fashion, poetry, pop music, and pop culture. Yes, the impulse to name a period is irresistible; yes we live in a Google world; yes information is cheap and phlegmatic. But as a lens for looking at painting—and particularly at some of the most arresting paintings in the exhibition—the Forever Now thesis is as reductive as Modernist Formalism. It leaves out intent, content, biography, the alchemy of transmutation, the hustle and flow of lived life, the conversation between hand and paint—all variously present in works in the show. And most of all it leaves out how painters make and what the eye sees.
“You feel the painting and the reason you read the mark is because you can also feel the mark,” the painter Julie Mehretu has said.2 Her exquisitely layered, often epic encrustations of marks, erasures, fade-outs, superimpositions, and gestures engulf an underlying stratum of maps, grids, and blueprints—emblems of humanity’s attempts at imposing order. Only on the most superficial level does the fierce calligraphy distilled into her new paintings in the exhibition fit the atemporal template.
Mehretu was born in Addis Ababa, where her American mother and Ethiopian father experienced the radical disruptions of decolonization, and she fled with them at the age of seven in 1977 during the Derg terror. “Now we’re all dislocated … and there’s this constant negotiating of place, space, ideals, ideas,” she has said.3 Through painting, she interrogates the news, the contradictions of the moment into which she was born and history as it evolves. That includes 9/11, the Iraq War, and internecine battles everywhere. True, she browses the Internet for information about Tahrir Square, Zuccotti Park, a new shopping center in Africa, et al. But this is hardly promiscuous surfing. It serves core concerns with construction and collapse, order and chaos, utopias and their disintegration, all occurring simultaneously. She also incubates images while watching TV, listening to NPR, riding the subway, traveling, reading, doing all the things that artists do to inhale reality and exhale it as a work of art.
I’d argue that it has almost always been thus. The Internet may be faster than the mind can comprehend, its reach further and less discriminating than once imaginable. But Willem de Kooning created his mash-ups from cartoons, movies, magazine pinups, art historical training, 10th Street talk, Louse Point water-gazing, and East Hampton evenings on his orange leather couch paging through artbooks in the interests of problem-solving.
In the exhibition, Mary Weatherford is represented by neon tubes affixed like slashing lines to dark washes of color (for New York) or sunny hues (for Bakersfield, California). Memory and experience trumped Internet when she recited the backstory of the Bakersfield paintings for W Magazine in a “breakneck monologue that touches on the Dust Bowl, the oil rush, The Grapes of Wrath, Dorothea Lange, Merle Haggard, honky-tonks, the Tea Party, the Ku Klux Klan, and dinosaurs. Thrown in are an impression of Jackson Pollock and a rendition of a Beatles song.”4 Even more important than such sources, is what, in the actual making, she left out.
The Internet collapses time and space, alters world views, influences consumption, and disrupts economic sectors. It lets artists’ fingers do some of the walking. It certainly wields its influence on painting, but so did the newfangled tools of the telegraph, the automobile, the radio, photography, and television, not to mention technological advances in the materials of canvas, oil paint, acrylic, video, and—thank you David Hockney—the copying machine and the smart phone. In the end, painting and drawing are handmade, their recombinant DNA resulting from an intimate interface between artist and process. Many of the artists in the exhibition engage in multiple practices, venturing periodically into photography, performance, installation, sculpture—each medium with its own history, demands, and possibilities.
The strength of The Forever Now exhibition lies in the macro/micro nature of so many of the paintings, which demand multiple viewpoints, with close-up examination of details and passages slowing things down to pre-fiber-optic pace. Visual satisfactions are often labor intensive. Even here, Hoptman diminishes the rewards by installing mostly color affinities, dark to light. Palettes of tamped down greens and golds, dour purples, grays, and blacks inhabit the opening galleries, periodically interspersed with antic shout-outs of color by way of Nicole Eisenman’s riffs on portraiture, modernism, and masks. (There’s comic relief, partway through, in young-artist-of-the-moment Oscar Murillo’s sophisticated takes on graffiti, rendered in underplayed urban colors. Viewers are invited to interact with a selection of his canvases heaped on the floor. One afternoon I watched four dapper men drape the paintings neatly over their suits and request the guard to shoot them the old-fashioned way before selfies.) The exhibition’s tone brightens in the back galleries, culminating on the end wall with Michael Williams’s resort-wear hued, allover compositions of air-brushed washes, and computer-generated painted incidents.
This literal arrangement of works manages to diminish the force of Rashid Johnson’s black soap and wax paintings, which could easily have held the whole gallery on their own. The black-on-black paintings induce an aftereffect in the manner of Ad Reinhardt, as the eye attempts to focus. Gouged with a broom handle, his whole body implicit in the gesture, the paintings suggest bomb sites, itinerant paths, the mellow wail of jazz on a summer night. In the grand humanist tradition, he holds that “Art should be about the bigger issues in life. Life, death, sex, taxes, race, gender. The best art has something to say about the human condition.”5
As with so many of the artists, it wasn’t necessarily from the Internet that Johnson learned sampling. His influences are as apt to be tangible as digital. “I’ve collected so many things that there are so many crosscurrents of language and contradiction throughout my studio, whether it be a rap album next to W.E.B. DuBois’s Souls of Black Folk, or a gold rock that I painted next to a brass urn. It’s all this language that, when combined, produces a complicated kind of narrative.”6
A good place to end here, is with a poem that is a kind of road map to the ways in which so many artists—and poets—make art. Frank O’Hara wrote “The Day Lady Died,” on a typewriter in 1964:
It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me
I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness
and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it
and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing.
- Julie Halperin, “The Curator as Canary or Crony,” The Observer (Oct. 20, 2010).
- Julie Mehretu, “To be Felt as Much as Read,” Interview by Susan Sollins, Art21 (Oct. 2009).
- Jason Farago, “Julie Mehretu … from Tarhir Square to Zucotti Park,” The Guardian (June 20, 2013).
- Fan Zhong, “Mary Weatherford: Brushes with Greatness,” W Magazine (Dec. 11, 2014).
- Andrew Goldstein, “Rashid Johnson on Making Art ‘About the Bigger Issues in Life,’” Artspace (Dec. 31, 2013).
AMEI WALLACH has written or contributed to more than a dozen books. Her articles have appeared in such publications as the New York Times, The Nation, and Art in America. She is in production for “1964: Rauschenberg Wins!” her third feature-length art documentary. She is founding program director of The Art Writing Workshop, a partnership between the International Art Critics Association (AICA/USA) and the Arts Writers Grant Program.