Dumb Question

Recommendations by R.C. Baker

This big, brightly didactic survey of painting movements since roughly 1965 feels a bit like the Astor Place Kmart—blocky white spaces filled with disparate goods of mixed quality. Culled from MOMA's collection, the paintings are generally hung in groups of four so that affinities or clashes between artists and styles come at you from all points of the compass. Some artists, such as '60s oddball Lee Lozano, shine amid this hurly-burly. In her diptych of a huge claw hammer, the tines bend back over the wooden handle, seemingly forced down by the canvas edge; grays, umbers, and olives predominate, but the claustrophobic composition is warmly animated, as if the contorted tool is caressing itself. Lozano's piece forms a ménage with a Philip Pearlstein, featuring two elegantly juxtaposed nudes, and a Phillip Guston head, flayed and stitched like a cartoon medicine ball—canvases as lush as the flesh they represent.

Elsewhere, Francis Bacon's final triptych is not his most scintillating work (especially when compared to his masterful 1946 Painting, with its slabs of meat and bureaucrat's rictus under a black umbrella, which hangs a few floors below). However, the desiccated surface speaks to Bacon's own body at the time—82 and a year shy of death. The artist's parched but expressive brushstrokes and the black squares his figures step out of are testament to a lifetime of designing space in two dimensions. Other works in this room—debris clouds by Luc Tuymans and a prone female head by Marlene Dumas—feel thin and callow by comparison. Perhaps when these artists reach the far end of life and their arms and torsos are imbued with the muscle memory of untold swipes of the brush, their paintings will feel as lived-in as Bacon's. "What is painting?", though, is a thorny question. Take the nasty phrase "Cats in bag/bags in river," which Christopher Wool adapted from the noir film Sweet Smell of Success. Somehow, the sinister associations are made absurdly beautiful by the stark form of black, billboard-size letters stenciled onto a sheer white ground (where passages of black overspray add tactile bravado). Can mere words pack a visual punch? These certainly do. And John Baldessari's own text painting could be an epitaph for this column or any other critique, reading in part: "Art is a creation for the eye and can only be hinted at with words." Amen, brother.


Not Bacon yet: Marlene Dumas's Jen, 2005
photo: The Museum of Modern Art
Not Bacon yet: Marlene Dumas's Jen, 2005

Details

'What Is Painting?'
The Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street
Through September 17

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'21 Positions'

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