Jerry Saltz’ review of the ‘Forever Now’ show at MOMA is a wonderful example of the difficulties that people with a trained eye find when trying to approach high profile contemporary art exhibitions. At this point, it is very clear that the mechanisms of patronage and the relationship between these institutions and the big corporatised contemporary art galleries is far from transparent. That is why in his review, Jerry Saltz fails to convince us that his ‘highly admired, even loved’ friend, Laura Hoptman, did a good job at curating this show. A very simple question would shatter such an enterprise: Why has Oscar Murillo been included in a show at MOMA?
Saltz’s own contradictions do not prevent him from being honest when saying: ‘Hoptman is nobody’s fool…The roster of artists she has chosen is revealing. Thirteen of the artists in “The Forever Now” are American; all but one of the rest are from Germany. Age-wise, there’s a 30-year spread with Amy Sillman being almost 60 and Oscar Murillo nearly 30. This is not a show to define a generation, since the artists are not of a generation as that term has typically been used. Instead, they are all participants in a cultural moment, in which painting has come to reign supreme, defined by virtuosic newness, of course, but more and more by the basic stylistic sameness valued by the art market and the art fair in particular. To those in the art world, the list of included artists will seem familiar, almost a lineup of acceptable artists and market darlings, many of whom are represented by major spaces or megagalleries like David Zwirner, Hauser & Wirth, and Marian Goodman. (Although a few do not fall into this category.) Many have had museum retrospectives. It’s not the fault of the curator, but most of these artists already fetch enormous prices — some in the millions of dollars — for their work. Indeed, the show’s opening found dealers and art advisers parked in front of artist’s work taking sales orders, as if at an art fair’.
Saltz is right at bringing the discussion to the realm of the formal because after all, we are discussing painting as a medium when saying: ‘There was a panel this week titled “Zombie Formalism,” the term for precisely this kind of look-alike abstraction. Painter Walter Robinson who coined the term, remarked, “If bad abstraction is the problem then the virus spreading it is money.” It’s true — the market loves abstraction as an easy-on-the-eyes investment and surefire sign of being avant-garde and radical. But Hoptman is too good a curator, with too much integrity, to ever follow the whims of the market. Yet so many of the artists in “The Forever Now” are critically or market approved that the exhibition has the feel of the validation of the inevitable. How does this happen, and what does it mean? Maybe it’s that curatorial impulses and market judgments are no longer separate enough that it makes sense to talk about one or the other taking over’. Bingo! Bravo, Mr.Saltz!
With this Jerry Saltz brought us to the real issue here which has to do with the either conscious or unconscious lack of freedom of choice that the market as main source of institutional validation (and funding) offers. When I used to work as an art advisor in Wall Street, I used to get, in front of the paintings, from my clients a sort of reaction that is very similar to (oh surprise!), Jerry Saltz’s reaction in front of these paintings. Since it is impossible to discuss them from within art history, the reaction must always be bodily and uniformed. In that sense, they are deployed as abstractions that provoke an abstract (as in ‘non specific’) response. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves and see how Saltz refers to Hoptman’s idea of ‘contemporary painting’ for, according to him: ‘Hoptman writes in the catalogue that “the seventeen artists in this show are stalwart practitioners of painting qua painting.” For those not conversant in art-speak, “painting qua painting” means, technically, painting as painting. What it seems to mean to those in the art world is painting about painting. Or painting about the processes of making paintings; or about the history of making paintings; or maybe about painting’s modes, compositional approaches, color theories, materials, marks, and subject matters. Or something. Frankly, this is not all that different from what we used to simply call “abstract painting.” Exactly!
This discussion about art reminds me of a discussion about love that I once had with mega-rich NY clients according to whom there was a difference between ‘loving someone’ and ‘being in love with someone’. To me, that is a rhetorical mechanism for injecting the logic of the market into the realm of affections in order to transform love into a currency. If one differentiates ‘being in love’ from ‘loving someone’ is because one wants to create levels of love in order to negotiate that affection. That is why NY people, and Americans in particular, tend to say ‘I love you’ far too easily. Something similar happens here at the highest art institutional level with the word ‘painting’ as a reflection of ‘art’.
Jerry Saltz is on the money when saying: ‘As for what the show says, its subtitle is “Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World.” Atemporal refers to the conceit that all artistic styles — from cave painting to Pop Art back to Impressionism and Chinese ink drawings — are current, because we see them in the present, a present that collapses the sprawling palimpsest of history and geography into the flat screens of our smartphones. In this view, painterly styles, schools, and gestures all exist free from the limitations of time, history, and, perhaps especially, Modernism’s imperious dictate about always having to change style in order to be Modern, novel, and worthy. All art has always come from other art, and artists have always dug into, repurposed, and outright stolen from and made styles, tendencies, and approaches their own. But the conceit of “The Forever Now” is, I think, that something is different now, that Modernism’s incessant ever-forward march seems so last century, so debunked, and with the combined knowledge of the known universe essentially in our pockets, more artists know about more art than ever before. This is probably true. And because of that, the title suggests, they are making art that, for once, isn’t about taking the next step forward in art history. I think’. Looking at the images, it is easy to see the a-historical drive to which Saltz refers. It is as if the use of a modernist medium like painting should happen only if the idea of historical progress inherent to painting as an art form is forgotten. From this point of view, contemporary painting is and should be about nothing and aims at conveying a ‘feeling’ in order to provoke in the viewer ‘an experience’. That is why Oscar Murillo’s paintings are included in the MOMA show. They are not about art because they are not supposed to be serious. They are just very expensive ‘gestures’.
Having said this, I still wonder why the ‘amazing’ Laura Hoptman did not transform this rather fashionable catalogue of wall paperish painted canvases into a more Saltzian discussion of the difficulties that painting faces in the time of Internet collage. J A T
If you want to read Jerry Saltz’s review in Vulture click HERE