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The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World is the rather ominous title of a sprawling exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). The title alone almost seems to threaten the very existence of any and all future endeavors in painting. Seventeen artists from just three countries (nine women and eight men), all born after 1954, make up the group selected by Laura Hoptman, curator of the Department of Painting and Sculpture at MoMA, to carry the banner of painting into the future and, perhaps, back into the past. The term “atemporality” was coined by science fiction writer William Gibson in 2003 to describe “a new strange state of the world in which, courtesy of the Internet, all eras seem to exist at once” (quoted by Hoptman in the exhibition catalogue, 13).
Historically, the Museum of Modern Art, as the “cathedral of modernism,” has been an excellent platform for these kinds of surveys, but in this case, the cathedral is clearly still under construction, as evidenced by Kerstin Brätsch’s glass-encased works on paper from the Blocked Radiant (for Ioana) series (2011) that greet the viewer outside the entrance of one of the sixth-floor special exhibition spaces. The nine works are stacked, leaning like flying buttresses against the gallery wall, one in front of another. The sheets of paper are suspended inside their dark wood frames. Held in place by magnets, they curl at the edges like giant decorated pages of an illuminated manuscript that has been separated from its binding. At about eye level, each sheet has a radiant form that is eclipsed, but still aglow. Around each circle of the blocked sun flutter ribbons of serrated brushstrokes that bring to mind the patterns often associated with Chinese rainbow calligraphy. The brushstrokes thread their way around a border of hard-edge, pastel-colored lines that act as scaffolding. The placement begs the questions: Are these works meant to be installed inside the gallery at a later date? Or are they intended to be viewed on the floor leaning against the wall? A theme of “painting: under construction” is intentionally or inadvertently introduced.
While Brätsch’s work makes reference to the church, she is clearly not alone. A number of artists delve into things spiritual, whether through the floor plans and elevations buried under thin veils of ink and paint in the work of Julie Mehretu, or the stigmata of open wounds found on the body surface of the canvas in Richard Aldrich’s Slide Painting #3 (looking origin) (2010). It is no accident that upon entering the gallery space proper viewers are first greeted by two painters working in a minimalist style: Joe Bradley and Rashid Johnson. Bradley’s beige monochromes from his Schmagoo series (2008), a slang term for heroin, are made of crudely drawn singular gray pictographs in the simplest of marks on loosely stretched unprimed cotton-duck-canvas drop cloths. Each canvas presents a single symbol: a cross, the number 23, a floating horizontal stick figure, a fish, a lone horizontal line, and a shield bearing the letter “S”—each in its own way a spiritual symbol.
On the other hand, Johnson’s monochromatic works are made of rich, dense, dark blacks and browns. The material Johnson paints with is a combination of black soap and wax that has its roots in West Africa. This mixture is then poured horizontally into a rectangular lattice frame support, not unlike the gold-capped lattice used to frame abstract paintings in the 1950s or 1960s. While the material dries, Johnson makes looping gestural marks by drawing into the waxy mixture with a broom handle. The use of the non-utilitarian end of the broom becomes an act of labor defiance. What is left after the work dries is akin to the surface of an Abstract Expressionist painting cast in bronze with a blackened patina. It is as if Johnson has used the lost wax process to make a work in which what has been “lost” during casting is the white experience of Abstract Expressionism. Titles such as Cosmic Slop “The Berlin Conference” (2011) and Cosmic Slop “Black Orpheus” (2011) speak specifically to the Black experience of slavery and forced labor. The broom handle creates a series of marks that part the wet, waxy surface and when dried at times resemble open cuts and wounds to the paint surface made by a lash.
Following this initial sequence, the first true evidence of the brush in the gallery space proper comes in the monumental heads by Nicole Eisenman, which bear a striking resemblance to the head of the Colossus of Emperor Constantine in Rome. Some have photographic images of African sculptures collaged to the paint’s surface, while the centralized heads fill nearly the entire compositions with small vignettes kept mostly to the sides. In Beach Runner (Clara) (2014), the eyes of the runner are disengaged from the viewer while listening to music on ear buds painted with pigment deftly squeezed straight from the tube. The painting divides between night and day, ocean and beach on either side as the portrait head looks a little like a Fernand Léger in the tropics, with its highly stylized economical features and subtle modeling.
Ritual performance and vestments enter the conversation in the sewn, assembled canvases of Oscar Murillo. Murillo offers two distinct presentations of his work. In one, he allows the audience to participate in building a composition from his loose unstretched stacks of paintings on the floor of the gallery. His finished works, those stretched and hung on the wall, are the same as the ones on the floor, which the viewer was encouraged to handle. Murillo’s surfaces of sewn collage might be seen as paying homage to the Italian Arte Povera artist Alberto Burri, who began his career as a surgeon before the Second World War. Murillo’s sewing, much like Burri’s, acts as a way of repairing or healing the painted canvas as skin and surface. By utilizing rags and printed material, Murillo’s canvases (as with Johnson’s broom handle) stress the utilitarian object over the aesthetic one.
More of Arte Povera’s influence may be found in Charline von Heyl’s Concetto Spaziale (2009), a title borrowed from Lucio Fontana’s series of the same name. Von Heyl’s version, with its layered interlocking patterns of stitched black and yellow lines, conceptually attempts to mend the slashes Fontana made directly into the canvas. Von Heyl’s work also plays a role in one of the most beautiful curatorial arrangements in The Forever Now, in which Hoptman uses Brätsch’s Sigi’s Erben (Agate Physics) (2012) stained glass, agate slices, and aluminum piece as a semi-transparent room divider. As a result, Brätsch’s work links three generations of German artists in a stunning arrangement: her own piece, the agate-slice remains from Sigmar Polke’s stained glass window project of 2006 for Zurich’s Grossmunster Cathedral which it incorporates, and von Heyl’s grouping in an adjacent alcove.
The Veil of Veronica, arguably the greatest monoprint in Christianity, makes a ghostly appearance in the saturated color fields of Mary Weatherford and Matt Connors. By soaking paint into the canvas in the manner of Morris Louis and Helen Frankenthaler, Weatherford and Connors advance the canvas itself to the forefront of suspended belief in the power of painting. In Connors’s Variable Foot (2014), three separate panels, one for each primary color and twelve feet tall, are butted together and lean against the wall. Staining the material removes the hand and the brush, creating a sense of mystery in the work’s creation. But as otherworldly as the work appears, small imperfections and flaws in the color give a sense of the artist’s hand.
Weatherford adds bent gestural lines of fluorescent light tubes and electrical wiring in an arranged marriage of 1950s Color Field painting and 1960s Minimalist light works to extend the surface of the painting away from a flat, saturated ground. The new infusion of cool, artificial light visually battles with soft, delicate stains of Flashe vinyl paint and influences the viewer’s perception, as it becomes difficult to get a clean read of the applied color. Weatherford’s light both advances and recedes in the gallery space. Light as an object also clearly defines a spiritual nature.
While Connors and Weatherford create pieces that mostly remove the hand and individual brushstroke, Dianna Molzan, Laura Owens, and Michael Williams all craft work that represents a sleight of hand. Evoking the ethereal atmospheric distance of midcentury German painter Julius Bissier, Molzan’s work uses the painting’s surface transparency as an emotional escape hatch. Her work allows us to escape through their descriptive clarity of material. Wood becomes “poplar” or “pine” or “fir.” Viewers see the skin and bones of the painting support and are allowed to take part in assembling its beauty conceptually as well as visually. The canvas is cut away in an untitled work from 2009, revealing worn and paint-dripped stretcher bars. Yet for all the works’ openness and transparency of process, the wall labels reveal a different story: dishonesty. Molzan circumvents material honesty by using trompe l’oeil techniques seen in the u-shaped “velvet rope” loosely hanging from the wooden stretcher-bar top and sides of an untitled work from 2011, which is actually made of paint that has been sprayed, stippled, and stuffed into a cylindrically sewn canvas, or else in the woven string openwork grid of another untitled work from 2010, which is in fact threaded lengths of canvas knotted at their intersections.
Trompe l’oeil effects also appear in Owens’s and Williams’s contributions. For Owens and Williams, natural light is replaced by the internal sun found in the belly of an inkjet printer. While both artists use large-scale printouts of words and images as a ground to paint upon, each then enhances these machine-produced words and images with the handmade by applying paint, allowing the viewer to float back and forth between painted and printed, human and mechanical. But for Owens, the “good book” comes with a series of misspellings and typographical errors.
While it would be easy to quibble with some of the artist choices and omissions in the exhibition, I think the more important question is the “where” rather than the “who.” Why did Hoptman shrink the community of painters by including so many from the United States? Viewers would have been well served to know what’s going on in Asia, Africa, and Australia. Add the fact that the majority of artists in the show were graduates of the U.S. or European art-school system, and the view seems even more circumscribed. If one of the premises of the exhibition was to reveal the open circuits of information exchanged across space and time, why this narrowness? I am not asking for the Art Olympics, but a little more balanced approach was in order. That said, a smile crossed my face when I realized that the Museum of Modern Art had decided to close The Forever Now on Easter Sunday. What better way to resurrect the conversation on the relevance of painting today?
artist and critic