Oil paint is a product of arcane and noble alchemy. To make it, hard elements–titanium, cobalt, iron, lead–are crushed into pigments, then smashed together in an oil suspension where everything swims about flirtatiously. Since it coheres via oxidation rather than evaporation, the oil binder can take a stupendously long time to dry, weeks or months, and as long as it stays loose, the molecules of pigment are in play and alive. Many mustier undergraduate programs are policed by poetic, near-religious appreciation of oil paint as living entity. Synthetic polymer paint, or acrylic as its usually called, does not take a long time, and is not alive. All its kinky chemistry happened long ago, in a lab. It doesn’t smell and it dries very quickly, and it conjures no magic. It doesn’t misbehave or surprise: it simply works. The medium came to consumers after the Second World War and is a phenomenon that changed the parameters of painting. This is the starting premise for Synthetic, a small show presently on the second floor of the Whitney Museum.
Acrylic paint’s deadness, its quickness, and its artificiality are fertile territory, and the exhibition lifts off breezily. A ’62 Warhol (a large monochromatic before-and-after rhinoplasty illustration) and a ’65 Lichtenstein (depicting an enlarged graphic brushstroke) have the pop of advertising. Both recall the narcotic directness of commercial visual idioms: they look like advertising because they are made with the same synthetic materials and the same synthetic eye. They are big and clear, gems from a time before gestural expressionism hit Pop.
A painting by Peter Halley, creator of latter-day Josef Albers geometry paintings in the 1980s that I never remember too fondly, looked great: totally Texas Instruments, totally ’80s. Part of its surface has the character of perfectly puckered stucco, a form of artificiality that’s charmingly twee now, a memory of simpler times. Two Richard Artschwager sculptures, including his iconic 1964 cube Description of Table, are ‘painted’ in the ersatz indestructible sheen of Formica sheeting: spookily eternal wipe-clean miracles, kitsch that threatens to live forever. Linda Benglis’s ’68 Contraband is a long splash of multicolored pigmented latex thrown across the floor, impulsive, matter-of-fact and only slightly unpleasant, like preserved dinosaur vomit.
The show eddies off into two smaller rooms. In one, Chuck Close and Joe Zucker make the argument for an extreme sort of simultaneous immersion and detachment that life in synthetic times can provoke. Kenny Scharf and Cory Arcangel, in the second, show later generations’ understanding of synthetic worlds as parallel universes, video-game fantasies to inhabit. Arcangel is today’s go-to artist for work about growing up in the age of hackable personal computing, while Scharf is a New York space cadet of a rare vintage who’s rarely dusted out of storage, mostly because his work (this one can loosely be described as an 18-foot pan-dimensional space landscape inhabited by sweet-eyed aliens) is gaudy, tweaked, and jaw-droppingly unnecessary. The show ends there.
Synthetic could have been conceived and mapped out by a quorum of the museum’s directors and curators in the time it takes to drink two martinis. Presumably, a vague yet vivid one-sentence thesis was written on scratch paper or cocktail napkin, and following the martinis–or fresh fruit, or bottled water, I wasn’t there–Carter Foster, an in-house curator fluent in the museum’s holdings, picked a tart selection of works (fourteen in total) from the Whitney’s stacks. The iconic might and idiosyncratic depth of the permanent collection is showcased, while new relationships are forged between works. And the exhibition costs nothing to produce. There is no corporate branding from a sponsor in a skyscraper, high as a gargoyle, no timed-ticket entry or banner advertising on telephone poles around the park. Most importantly, there is no pomp. We’re a long way, by the exhibition’s conclusion, from the opening binary–alive versus dead, complicated versus simple–that the 1950s adoption of acrylic over oil presented. But we’re deep into an idea that such a shift to synthetics has presented: Streamlined, simplified methods for production allow ideas to explode. What is lost in grandeur is gained in potential. And lean feels like a fine way to go.-Bones
Synthetic is up at the Whitney, Madison Avenue and 75th Street, until April 19th. The museum is free on Friday nights, and deliciously deserted in the hours immediately preceding that entrance-fee waiver. The cement follies of the Marcel Breuer architecture truly make a visit worthwhile at any time.
Next week, Bones warms up for the insanity of the Armory Show on the Hudson two weeks from now with a stroll through this weekend’s ADAA Fair at the Park Avenue Armory, itself a no-joke global trade show for contemporary art. What are we looking at?