There are two ways to review a popular art exhibition today: alone and with everybody else. That goes double for a fashionable show like the Museum of Modern Art’s “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World,” which opened to large crowds in December. Since then, MOMA’s first survey of up-to-date painting in 30 years has garnered hundreds of critical column inches, most of it negative. Now that the dust has settled, it’s time to reconsider the show on its actual merits and to reflect on a second crucial
issue: the widening rift between MOMA and its growing number of critics, as evidenced by what is one of the museum’s most predictable, institutionally orthodox, least nervy exhibitions ever.
A show of seventeen painters selected to represent contemporary art’s white-hot present, “Forever Now” is the sort of exhibition MOMA cut its teeth on. In the Forties, Fifties, and Sixties, led by legendary director Alfred H. Barr and curator Dorothy Canning Miller, the museum introduced some 90 mostly unknown artists to the world through half a dozen displays
of new art it titled simply “Americans.” Among the artists on view were Grace Hartigan, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Jackson Pollock. The roster of artists exhibited during that period also included a host of now-unfamiliar names: Octavio Medellín, Alton Pickens, C.S. Price, and Sally Drummond — proof (if any were needed) that having one’s paintings
installed at MOMA is no guarantee of
joining art history’s walk of fame.
Much, of course, has changed in the
intervening years. Among the transformations: Contemporary art has become an $826 million business (up twentyfold from $41 million in 2000). Museums like MOMA, once among the leading herbivores of the art world’s Cretaceous period, have evolved the necessary teeth and claws to thrive in our financialized Jurassic.
The fact that MOMA is a culture-industry
tyrannosaurus means the institution competes aggressively in the marketplace with other mega-museums for visitor and donor dollars (MOMA’s 2013 operating budget was $125 million, its endowment $870 million). One of its few rivals in that area is the gigantosaurus-like Metropolitan. An institution with a $1.7 billion endowment, a recent $1 billion gift of 81 Cubist masterpieces, and an impending move to the Whitney-vacated Marcel Breuer building, the Met now threatens to upstage MOMA on its own turf. How? According to Met
director Thomas Campbell, by relaying “the narrative of the twentieth century and contemporary art in the context of 5,000 years of history.”
Contrast that with the claims made by “The Forever Now,” which deliberately pushes a retread end-of-history agenda purportedly derived from the term “atemporality,” a 2003 coinage by sci-fi novelist William Gibson. In the exhibition catalog, curator Laura Hoptman defines the concept as “a new and strange state of the world in which, courtesy of the internet, all eras seem to exist at once.” Leaving aside for a moment the notion’s utterly passé nature — run-of-the-mill postmodernism has entertained fantasies of simultaneity since the 1970s — “atemporality” provides flimsy theoretical cover for this disparate group of painters. Besides pigment, canvas, and a finicky taste for
abstraction, nothing connects the thirteen Americans, three Germans, and lone Colombian who make up this anemic show. Except, that is, for one epoch-defining
detail: Each of these artists’ works is the art-fair equivalent of collector catnip.
Showroom-tested and market-
approved, the artists in “Forever Now” don’t so much constitute an artistic style as embody so-called zombie formalism. (Critic Walter Robinson recently coined the term to describe faux-original painting that attempts to revive the “walking corpse” of Abstract Expressionism.)
Despite consisting of lookalike paintings that are wan, derivative, and decidedly contentless, this kind of work has nonetheless recently cornered the market on up-and-coming collectors. It has also achieved a rare critical consensus. Most judicious commentators think it’s absurd to compare this sort of painting with past historical art movements like Pop, Minimalism, or Capitalist Realism — until now. Fronted by Hoptman’s abracadabra, MOMA has endorsed the 2015 painterly equivalent of Design Within Reach.
With important exceptions — namely Laura Owens’s elegant fugues in silkscreen and collage and Amy Sillman’s crabbed but handsome grids — the above describes the majority of the safe decorator wares on view in “Forever Now.” Take Joe Bradley and Matt Connors, for example. If the
former consists of large-scale stick figures on raw canvas that suggest the formal
complexity of emoticons, the latter’s work mixes one part Ad Reinhardt squares to two parts Newman stripes and cheekily calls it original painting. Other examples
of unacknowledged borrowing include
the work of two of the show’s Germans,
Michaela Eichwald and Kerstin Brätsch. Where Eichwald’s horizontal paintings channel the still-unresolved cosmogonies of New York School painter Richard Pousette-Dart, Brätsch repeats Color Field–inspired orbs and wavy lines, then relies on a collaborator to build ginormous metal frames to give her otherwise thin works a heavy-metal sculptural presence.
Elsewhere in “Forever Now,” Brooklyn artist Richard Aldrich enacts dopey instances of borough-wide slacker painting — in one canvas, thin applications of black, red, and blue ostensibly conjure connections between Franz Kline and Kanye West. The ubiquitous Josh Smith does what he does at every art-fair outing: paint daftly bright canvases of palm trees or, failing that, his own squiggly signature. And then there’s the case of art-market wunderkind Oscar Murillo. Copycat 1980s-style rejoinders to zombie formalism, Murillo’s shameless and repeated Basquiat ripoffs should be sufficient,
on their face, to stop taking “Forever Now” seriously for — well, forever now.
Except for one thing. Hoptman’s airheaded exhibition doesn’t merely ignore critics and criticism, it enshrines mediocrity by explicitly rejecting Alfred Barr and Dorothy Miller’s pioneering critical spirit. Unlike the “Americans” shows, “Forever Now” turns its back on art history and the idea of the cutting-edge (or cutting-edges). But what’s really objectionable goes much further than staging a show
of bad commercial painting. It involves MOMA finding yet another formally elaborate justification for following the money. With this power-hungry museum, one
increasingly feels like art and culture are its highest calling only so long as these don’t interfere with joining the winning side (cue the museum’s amusement-park expansion plans and the Museum of
Folk Art demolition). No matter how big MOMA gets, it’s a shell of its former self, and this show proves it.