The Anxiety of Influence

MOMA does its reputation—and utopian wealth of material—a grave disservice. Again.

As the saying goes, a museum is only as good as its collection. So it must follow that the Museum of Modern Art stacks up as the world's best. But does it? A museum can't be better than its contents, but can it be worse?

MOMA owns the history of 20th-century art like the Vatican does Jesus paraphernalia, and remains the leading contender in the ongoing race to identify and capture the treasures of this century. To this end, the museum has recently bulked up like Barry Bonds eyeing a home-run record: The recipient of $858 million in fresh brawn, it has during the past three years added significant square footage, remodeled exhibition spaces, brought in new curators, and generally polished up its timeworn image, now favoring a ruddier, more sculpted look.

So why, then, is MOMA suffering through a debilitating identity crisis? Why does it repeatedly fumble basic museum fundamentals: say, putting on a winning art show? Why can't this museum titan—arguably the most powerful art institution in the world—bear down on a meatball of an exhibition pitch and slug it out of the park?

Cindy Sherman's Untitled #216, reduced to a useless bystander
photo: Cindy Sherman
Cindy Sherman's Untitled #216, reduced to a useless bystander

Details

"What Is Painting? Contemporary Art from the Collection"
The Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street
Through September 17

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Such clod-footedness now imperils the kind of exhibition that should come as second nature to this museum. "What Is Painting?" is the fourth in a series of installations designed to show off the embarrassment of riches populating MOMA's well-fed storage racks, a mythical utopia of hidden treasures that compelled New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl to fantasize about the world's most zanily perfect exhibition: a vision wherein he'd array every storehoused Cézanne, Picasso, Richter, Gurky, et al. along New York City's miles of lobbies and plazas.

No actual art show can possibly compete with this major-league wet dream, but the earthbound "What Is Painting?" fails even to approximate it, hitting every minor-league note with the insistence of a metronome. Organized in the current footloose curatorial style, the exhibition—officiously put together by Anne Umland—presents 50 wall-hanging artworks deposited around 12 "open-ended galleries" designed, as the wall text declares, "to encourage the discovery of visual connections, unexpected juxtapositions, shifting relationships, and accessible contrasts from many different vantage points."

At once edgy and academic, Umland's "loosely chronological" exhibition of painting since 1960 swaps historical arguments for thematic correspondences—the use of text in painting, for example—that lead, more often than not, to theoretical blind alleys with the grim precision of a tax collector. The exhibition's first room, for example, is front-loaded with a Philip Guston painting of a stitched scalp, a Philip Pearlstein nude, a Vija Celmin picture of a hand firing a gun, and a monumental Lee Lozano image of a hammer. This, quite naturally, would be the Violence and the Body Room. (Check). Four more walls follow a similar beads-on-a-string formula: Objects in steel, wire, wood, and twine by artists Lynda Benglis, Dorothea Rockburne, Lee Bontecou, and Jackie Winsor all add up, with the curatorial logic of Lincoln Logs, to the Wall-Sculpture-as-Painting Room. (Check.)

But wait! There's more! Other examples include the Painting Surrogates and/or Body Snatchers Room (Andy Warhol, Sherrie Levine, Richard Pettibone, and Allan McCollum); the Cartoon Room (Elizabeth Murray, Martin Kippenberger, Carroll Dunham, and Robert Colescott); the New Abstraction Room (Sarah Morris, Wade Guyton, Gabriel Orozco, and Beatriz Milhazes); and the White Room (Karin Sander, Agnes Martin, Robert Ryman, and Shirazeh Houshiary).

Oh dear Lord, not another White Room! It's emotionally draining to play this game with Umland, particularly as her fussy four-works-to-a-space schema lends (deliberately) zero context and (quite accidentally) little insight to the value of these and other individual pieces. These predictable combinations, at their best, only suggest cold, arbitrary connections, as time-bound as any chronology that Alfred Barr—MOMA's far more decisive founder—invented circa 1940 to trace the influence of Cubism. For further proof, observe the meeting between Gerhard Richter's self-portrait (in which the artist is depicted with the theorist Benjamin Buchloh) and John Currin's The Gardeners—an encounter that should rightly produce fireworks. Instead, flanked as they are by a Chuck Close portrait and a Cindy Sherman print in an attempt to score muddy points about the figure and photography, the blustery confrontation between these two contemporary masterpieces fizzles into an awkward colloquy, an elevator how-do-you-do, while two other perfectly good works of art are scandalously reduced to useless bystanders.

Much less than the sum of its parts, "What Is Painting?"—despite a provocative title shared with a John Baldessari piece—is an exhibition conceptualized, if not actually curated, by committee. It offends no one (because it takes no risks), squanders the museum's deep and rich catalog (because it cherry-picks to illustrate not the best contemporary painting but contrived ideas about painting), and most egregiously apes curatorial models developed by other, younger institutions with a fraction of MOMA's artistic, financial, and authorial acumen.

Since the 2000 exhibition "Modern Starts"—the museum's last show before closing its flagship 53rd Street space for renovations—MOMA has desperately attempted to imitate the success of other powerful institutions, most notably London's Tate Modern. "Modern Starts," in fact, was a direct forgery of Tate's handling of its own meager permanent collection. Whatever the actual drawbacks, it laid down the conceptual flagstones upon which "What Is Painting?" now clumsily trods. The new rules—insofar as they apply to temporary exhibitions (though, thankfully, not to MOMA's bread-and- butter permanent displays of isms: Impressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, Dadaism, Abstract Expressionism)—are, like pig Latin, coded and yet childishly simple. No history but historicity. No to verifiable associations or influences shared by distinct pieces; Yes to trendy postmodern juxtapositions. And ideals of curatorial authority need not apply.

Obviously, with museums, as with bats and gloves, one size does not fit all. Tate has every reason to reject historical style—it simply does not own the goods. MOMA, however, is soaking in them. Which brings us to what's really, terminally wrong with a show like "What Is Painting?" Not just a capitulation to ill-fitting curatorial ideas, this exhibition proves yet another instance in which the museum refuses to elucidate why contemporary art matters in the 21st century, routinely sidestepping its authority and influence in favor of lobbing repeated softballs at a mostly stupefied public (both the general and specialized kind). With "What Is Painting?", MOMA once again crowds the plate and desperately swings for the fences in what should have been an ambitious, age-defining, reputation-building exhibition. Then it chokes.

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