In an “atemporal” age, a new exhibition proposes, painters can—and do—make art from an anything-goes grab bag of styles and attitudes.
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Cultural historians are fond of words that succinctly encapsulate the spirit of an age, which they either choose based on various critical, political or socio-economic points of view or borrow from the names of literary or artistic movements, sometimes with a dash of poetic nostalgia thrown in. Thus, the Romantic Era of the early 19th century was characterized by artists’ and writers’ emotion-filled reactions to the ways in which scientists were coolly rationalizing the forces of nature. At the end of the 1800s, “The Gilded Age,” a term coined by Mark Twain, offered a label for a period in which an elite reveling in fabulous wealth could afford to ignore a rash of severe social problems. More recently, “The Cold War Era” named a time of fear-filled, globe-splitting political tension.
Where are we now? Is there a word that, for the world of art and culture or for the common consciousness, best captures the spirit of the early 21st century? That question and one way of answering it serve as the starting points for “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World,” a new exhibition of works by 17 artists that is on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York through April 5. Organized by curator Laura Hoptman and curatorial assistant Margaret Ewing in the museum’s painting and sculpture department, this colorful round-up features some 90 works in acrylic or oil on canvas, oil on paper and other media, some of which are mundane and some of which are more experimental. All of them, Hoptman proposes, express a particular kind of creative approach to making paintings that is characteristic of this moment, right now.
In her essay in the exhibition’s catalogue, Hoptman writes, “What characterizes our cultural moment at the beginning of this new millennium is the inability—or perhaps the refusal—of a great many of our cultural artifacts to define the times in which we live.” She calls this trend “an unsettling and wholly unique phenomenon in Western culture” and says that “it should come as no surprise that it was first identified by a science-fiction writer, William Gibson, who in 2003 used the word atemporality to describe a new and strange state of the world in which, courtesy of the Internet, all eras seem to exist at once.” The organization and content of “The Forever Now” flow from and are based on the assumption that in our time, when it comes to making art—paintings in particular—anything and everything is up for grabs and may be used in any way. That applies not only to subject matter but to art-making techniques and modes of presenting finished artworks.
At the media preview for the exhibition in December, Hoptman called atemporality “a cultural condition.” MoMA’s announcement of the exhibition states that atemporality is a kind of “timelessness,” which perhaps means the lack of a sense of a specific, recognizable moment in which one is living. Influenced by this “condition,” the press release points out, the works on view “do not represent—either through style, content or medium—the time in which they are made.” Instead, they make paintings “through the reanimating of historical styles or by recreating a contemporary version of them, sampling motifs from across the timeline of 20th-century art in a single painting or across an oeuvre.”
Moreover, referring to the decades-long practice of post-Duchampian, postmodernist artists who have routinely (and tiresomely) taken certain subjects, materials or actual objects out of the settings in which they would normally be encountered and placed them within artworks, galleries or museums and thereby “subversively” altered their original purposes or meanings, Hoptman added that atemporality “is not appropriation.” Except, of course, that it is. It turns out to be just another name for a an approach to art-making—or “strategy,” in pomo parlance—that has been kicking around for the past several decades, even before the Internet made information about and images of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, medieval doorknobs, Matisse’s cut-outs or Andy Warhol’s Polaroid snapshots all easily available in a fraction of a second on the screen of a computer, mobile phone or other powerful computing device.
The press release for “The Forever Now” claims that so-called atemporality also characterizes literature, fashion and popular music today, but the fact is that artists in all of these disciplines have long looked back to the past and ahead to imagined futures to create works that, arguably, were both of their time and not of their time at the same time. Take, for example, the masterworks of composition and music recording of the 1960s of such pop-rock bands as the Beatles and the Kinks, which swooped across, borrowed from and ingeniously brought together the sounds and styles of a wide range of musical and performance genres. Or consider any era’s closet full of “characteristic” clothes. If any creative discipline has long been typified by an unrelenting eagerness to mine, quote, borrow from and unabashedly steal style-source ideas from across a broad historical spectrum, it has been the field of fashion design.
In the works on view in “The Forever Now,” a lot of borrowing, assimilating and reworking of past painting techniques and styles can be discerned, but with few exceptions does the offering of an “atemporal” exercise seem to deliver art with much aesthetic heft or rewarding resonance. “There’s a flurry of gestural abstraction over here!” a visitor might remark, catching sight of canvases by Richard Aldrich or Michael Williams. “There’s some Diebenkorn-like searching for form over there,” she might add, while examining some of Amy Sillman’s paintings (some of the most substantive in the exhibition), or “Check out the affinities with Jean-Michel Basquiat in these Michaela Eichwald pictures and the rehash of geometric abstraction in the Matt Connors paintings.”
Some of the more interesting paintings on display in “The Forever Now” include the German artist Kerstin Brätsch’s large works in oil on paper and Mylar, within whose compositions modeled, multihued, curling forms; sun-like, hovering, colored discs; and floating rectangular frames bring to mind everything from Wassily Kandinsky’s rhythmic, sound-into-form abstractions to Hans Hofmann’s “push/pull” theorizing about pictorial space. Brätsch presents her finished works in unconventional ways. A group of her paintings appears at the entrance to the exhibition’s galleries, each one under glass in a massive metal frame. To one side, several of the frames lean against a wall, stacked one in front of the other.
Julie Mehretu, an American artist who was born in Ethiopia, is well known for multi-layered compositions that in various ways, with references to architectural or urban-layout plans, tombs or ruins, map the histories or physical characteristics of real-world places, such as Tahrir Square in Cairo or Iraq’s capital, Baghdad. In “The Forever Now,” Mehretu presents what she has called “more personal” gestural-abstract paintings in moody gray palettes, whose thickets of scratchy, thrusting strokes seem to grow right out of each picture’s surface in smoky, monochromatic mists. They recall both the Sturm und Drang of classic abstract expressionism and the calligraphy of ancient East Asia, which inspired some of its best-known purveyors. Mehretu’s paintings are made with ink, graphite and acrylic on canvas or linen.
The Brooklyn-based Sillman is known for taking a long time to create an image as she applies layer upon layer of paint and elaborates passage after passage of mark-making, finally arriving at a composition that is a palimpsest of color and form. (More recently, on her iPhone, she has created more loose-spirited animations.) Her paintings on view in “The Forever Now” are full of gusto for the act of painting and, even after many productive years in the studio, an abiding, palpable sense of wonder about the expressive power of paint. In this way, her work shares something of the spirit of that of the Dutch modernist Bram van Velde (1895–1981), who is still not very well known in the United States; his vigorous abstractions were also full of muscle and verve.
In the audioguide that accompanies the current exhibition, Sillman says, “I was trained in the ’70s, when the goal of making art was to question the art that you were making while you were making it. […] The longer I’ve been making paintings in this slow, developmental way, the more I’ve realized that what I’ve been interested in partly [has] always [been] the issue of time — that the work changes and changes and changes and changes again. […] [T]he pleasure of seeing it change is partly the pleasure of painting.”
Some of the most unusual works on view in the show are the black American artist Rashid Johnson’s tableaux in a series titled Cosmic Slop. Made with black soap and wax, they are large, solid-black rectangles etched with swirling loops and overlapping, random lines. In the past, Johnson has made photo portraits of homeless black men and created mixed-media installations featuring bowls of shea butter (a fat extracted from the nut of an African tree), assorted found articles from Africa, and record albums by such musical stars as Al Green and Miles Davis. In using African black soap, which is made from the ash of plants and barks, he makes a powerful allusion to his ancestors’ cultural history. Johnson, who is interested in the work of emblematic abstract painters of the past, brings a most unexpected new material to the making of his abstract works.
In Johnson’s audioguide remarks, he says, “I consider the Cosmic Slops to be paintings.” The soap and wax he employs, he observes, melt and solidify “in front of my eyes as I’m gesturing with [them]. So I have a finite amount of time in which to participate with the material.” As with most gestural, abstract-expressionist works, Johnson’s tableaux are at once expressive statements in their own right and tangible records of their own making.
In the exhibition’s catalogue, Hoptman asserts that “there is an ethics to making art in an atemporal way.” She adds, “Unlike a road with mile markers and a line down the middle enforcing the single direction of its lanes, atemporality allows us to imagine the cultural landscape as [what the German filmmaker and visual artist Hito Stereyl has called] a ‘stream of endless recombination’ into which contemporary artists can dive from many directions.”
Whether or not, as in “The Forever Now,” what artists concoct from “atemporal” waters or as the result of other creative approaches can be neatly squeezed into a theoretical framework to illustrate a proposed critical model is not as important as the quality of their realized works themselves and of their expression, along with the efficacy and resonance of whatever their creations might intentionally or unintentionally convey.
A lingering effect of doctrinaire postmodernist critical thinking is the notion that “quality” in the production and results of art-making is something passé, dismissible and insignificant. In this show’s audioguide, the artist Josh Smith, the maker of some embarrassingly forgettable paintings, says, “I think proficiency or competence is the destroyer of creativity. […] I believe that an artist or a painter shouldn’t be an authority on something.”
The relevance or, well, timeliness of “atemporality” as a way of looking at contemporary art-making notwithstanding, what is true about finished artworks is as true now, in this supposedly unanchored-in-time cultural moment, as it has ever been. That is that the very best artists’ creations will become forever resonant and, in effect, immortal, achieving a kind of timelessness and enduring meaningfulness of the kind that was “atemporal” long before “atemporal” had a name.