Night of the Living Art

John Haber
in New York City

The Forever Now and Zombie Abstraction

Painting is back, big time. And I mean big.

So too, alas, does the Museum of Modern Art. With "The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World," it wants to floor you with how dramatically painting has returned from the dead. If the exhibition carries a whiff of the past with it, all the better, for its seventeen artists, MoMA insists, "do not represent . . . the time in which they are made." Rather, they draw on styles from the entirety of twentieth-century art to convey the immediacy of the present. But are they actually alive? Maybe not altogether and maybe not all, and they have already fed talk of "zombie abstraction," but never underestimate the bite of a zombie. Charline von Heyl's Carlotta (photo by Jason Mandella, Ovitz Family Collection, 2013)

Think big

"The Forever Now" thinks big. Here even a stick figure, thanks to Joe Bradley, can run five feet long and monochrome panels by Matt Connors eighteen feet high. It will not even settle for the galleries for contemporary art. It demands half the sixth floor, alongside Henri Matisse and his cutouts, only to spill right out the door. Kerstin Brätsch alone has so much that she cannot display it all, not even with glassed shelves apart from the walls. More of her paintings lie unseen in a stack beside the entrance, while more of Oscar Murillo tumbles into loose canvas on the floor.

The jumble is not altogether their fault—and the scale not altogether their creation. The rooms, so suitable for prints by Paul Gauguin, manage ninety works like these only with an ingenious installation. It accords Mary Weatherford two sides of a partition for her synthetic polymer paint and neon lights, while according an alcove apiece to others, including Murillo and Amy Sillman with her space between abstraction and allusion. A three by three grid covering one wall is really nine paintings, each five feet high. That wall does wonders, too, for Josh Smith, who piles on everything from abstract brushwork to a skeleton and palm trees. He calls his career a "single ongoing work."

Laura Hoptman, the curator with Margaret Ewing, claims much the same for contemporary painting. Wall text introduces the show as (deep breath) "poly-chronological crazy quilts of assembled cultural data that have the potential to scramble set notions of historical hierarchies and frustrate rigid regimes of taste." In plain English, anything goes—but you knew that about art after Modernism, with eclecticism in place of an avant-garde. Right? Not so fast, for MoMA has very definite ideas about what goes and what does not. It comes down to that mining of the past as if it had never gone away.

In this account, the entirety of art history has become available, as a virtual catalog of styles. Nothing new there, for artists have always learned from the past. Think of the workshop tradition or of Picasso and Matisse turning to Paul Cézanne. Think of entire periods and movements like the Renaissance and Post-Impressionism—a rebirth and an afterword. I have myself argued for Mannerism as a "Post-Renaissance," and others have dissed Postmodernism as a Neo-Mannerism. The artists here have intelligent and sometimes searing takes on Modernism. Michaela Eichwald sees affinities between the scarred textures and colors of European abstraction, like that of "Group Zero," and the faces of German Expressionism.

Fair enough, but MoMA has something else in mind as well. It presents quotation as neither a tribute nor a critique—meaning a critique neither of Modernism, as with art of the 1980s, nor of popular culture, as with Andy Warhol. Here artists occupy an "atemporal world" quite apart from both past and present. They are, Hoptman explains, reenacting, reanimating, cannibalizing, sampling, and goodness knows what else. They can not only pick and choose past styles and media, but also jumble them up in search of the timeless and the new. What may look like "belatedness" or "nostalgia" is in fact (gasp) "transcendence."

Weatherford, for one, borrows at once from Abstract Expressionism and Dan Flavin. She also moves between even more polar opposites, New York and Southern California, for what she considers the urban landscapes of Coney Island and North Chester Avenue. Michael Williams makes a more convincing case for boardwalk subject matter, with Day-Glo impasto over silkscreens of Bait & Tackle and Dusty's Ice Cream. As he puts it in one title, Does It Hurt to Be Crazy? Nicole Eisenman surveys a century of human faces all by herself, from Alexej von Jawlensky in the Blue Rider to contemporary sports, science fiction, and graphic novels. One can see her seeming masks, sometimes overlaid with smaller totems, as cool, composed, cartoonish, or brutal.

Zombie criticism

Skeptical? You should be, for all their talent and impact. If talk of time travel and transcendence has you thinking more of sci-fi than reality, Hoptman found the word atemporality in William Gibson. And if you can figure out on your own which artists typify reanimating as opposed to reenactment, you are sharper than I. Or maybe the whole narrative is just artspeak, like that interminable sentence for "anything goes." Better yet, make that "martspeak."

If artists can sample anything thanks to the Internet, than why does "The Forever Now" keep coming back to gestural abstraction? Maybe it just reflects a breakdown today between abstraction and realism. Maybe it reflects, too, the continued relevance of America's breakthrough years after the Second World War, although Eisenman was born in France and three of the artists are German. Maybe art needs gesture, in order to call into question notions of originality and subjectivity. If one is going to sample others, one might as well sample their signature. Fair enough, or maybe it has something to do with what sells.

These artists are big in more ways than one. Works have mostly entered hefty private collections, with few from museums, studios, or galleries. Almost all are an artist's latest work, some never exhibited before. For the market, scale promises impact—and new art promises the next big thing. In this company, Sillman or Charline von Heyl is practically an old master, and Murillo may already be peaking at twenty-eight. What looks at first like atemporality turns out to have a lot to do with the moment. Transcending the present may not be so easy after all.

The exhibition may feed the hype, like Albert Oehlen at the New Museum, or it may feed skepticism of abstraction everywhere, and no wonder: for all the raiding of styles, much of it could come from a single artist. Walter Robinson has coined the term "zombie formalism" to describe contemporary art and the collectors and art advisors who flip it. It captures the revival of painting, years after cries that "painting is dead," along with the feeling of many painters that a savage revived market excludes them. Jerry Saltz has complained, too, about a quasi-official style—of canvases filled to the edges, lots of brushwork, token signs of geometry, and bare stretchers. Sure enough, Dianna Molzan at MoMA wraps one stretcher in canvas and exposes another behind a gorgeous veil of canvas threads speckled with oil.

O.K., but is the cure worse than the disease, especially when critics are calling for MoMA's director and chief curator to step down? At the very least, the diagnosis is missing something. "Zombie formalism" is plainly too narrow to encompass art today, with its decidedly informal breakdown of genres and media, and it has a way of labeling whatever among the multitude of abstract artists one does not happen to like. Robinson applies it to Jacob Kassay, who for all his shortcomings is anything but a formalist. Kassay has painted with photographic emulsion and let its silvery hue develop where it may. Saltz, in turn, is plainly too broad, like a pocket history of abstract art, with more strategies than even Hoptman can count.

Abstraction is alive and well, thank you, if not at the wealthiest dealers—and if not always urgent and original. I have been chronicling it since the days when a show of "Abstraction Since 1970" had few visitors in a park on Staten Island. I have watched it return from the dead, including coordinated summer solo and group shows featuring one of the best artists now at MoMA, Mark Grotjahn. I have seen it struggling with the label derivative and taken Sillman as typifying its dismantling of formalism—and I have seen how big can be beautiful, as for Jackie Saccoccio, Ellen Berkenblit, and Stephen Maine. Painting truly is back big time, and it has my thanks. Yet that still leaves the question of its future.

Forever not

"The Forever Now" is big, but still only a sliver of the present. One could cite individual after individual and group show after group show. "My Big Fat Painting" on the Lower East Side, curated by Rick Briggs, showed how bold gesture on a small scale can achieve a quiet radiance, with such artists as Andrea Belag, Judith Linhares, Lauren Collings, and Harriet Korman. "Freak Flag," at the same gallery's midtown outpost curated by Kim Uchiyama, aims for scale, but not to exclude fragile painting and feelings. Amy Sillman's Blue Diagram (Sikkema Jenkins, 2009)Wax specks on fabric by Ann Shostrom hang across from a loose scrim by Craig Fisher and next to shaped canvas by Al Loving, as if to point in two directions. A grid of colored diamonds by Stephen Westfall near black and white by Gwenn Thomas and Kim Uchiyama reminds one why artists returned to formalism in the first place.

"Abstraction and Its Discontents" in East Williamsburg did hint at a zombie formalism, with subjective geometry that approaches a house style for Brooklyn. But hey, collectors there were definitely not flipping. And Jo Baer, Anne Neukamp, and Diane Simpson in Chelsea could almost exemplify Saltz's rule book. They work, respectively, with washes of imagery, geometry that hovers between Giorgio Morandi and Philip Guston, and sculpture akin to chairs or stretchers. Yet each is suggestive and elusive, where MoMA and abstraction's critics alike are shouting. They are also a reminder of how much midlevel artists and dealers matter when all critics see are the stars and the fringes.

"The Forever Now" is like none of these, but that, too, is an encouraging sign of diversity, even when it fails. von Heyl embeds a face in patterns akin to wallpaper, as if in the process of coming out or hiding. She declares and subverts an affinity between a woman's perceived image and surfaces. Williams has his silkscreens and Smith whatever strikes his fancy. Laura Owens paints messages found online, clichés and misspellings intact, and I could relish them or live without them all. Yet the show's heart is in abstraction.

That is a good thing, too, and it leaves science fiction behind. For all the talk of sampling, Richard Aldrich contributes the only actual appropriation from past art—by appropriating himself. He takes shards of paintings that he never quite completed and allows them to protrude out of new ones, so that his ideas literally leap off the canvas. He and several other artists also have the guts to stand apart from big art and big markets. Bradley gained attention on the Lower East Side, and his loaded symbols still have the raw edge of spare outlines, bare canvas, and a cultural battlefield. Rashid Johnson appeared among emerging artists at the Studio Museum in Harlem, and his traceries in black soap still evoke memories of home and African American identity along with sand painting and earthworks.

The past is not just available for quotation. It also had some pretty good ideas all along. Does Weatherford find inspiration in landscapes without approaching representation? So did Joan Mitchell, although better. Does Brätsch oppose smears of black to the sheer radiance of a dark sun? So did Adolph Gottlieb.

Even the brand new work adds more than just market value. Sillman retains her soft blues, seen here from 2009, but with a greater translucency and more traces of Cubism, while Grotjahn layers arcs of color with a palette knife, like cables of the Brooklyn Bridge in an uncanny sunlight. Julie Mehretu is breaking up her ambitious painterly architecture as well, more akin to calligraphy. Maybe one can do without the big time after all, along with claims for it and against it, in order to remember painting. A "forever now" is a forgetting. Zombies are only sci-fi, too.

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"The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World" ran at Museum of Modern Art through April 5, 2015. "My Big Fat Painting" ran at Brian Morris through November 23, 2014, "Freak Flag" through January 11, 2015. "Abstraction and Its Discontents" ran at Storefront through November 23, 2014, and Jo Baer, Anne Neukamp, and Diane Simpson at Mitchell-Innes & Nash through January 24, 2015.


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