Pacific Standard Time LA/LA 2017


Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA Grants Awarded

A complete list of research and planning grants for Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA exhibitions and programs around Southern California supported by the Getty Foundation follows below.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Los Angeles
From Latin America to Hollywood: Latino Film Culture in Los Angeles 1967–2017

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will undertake research for a film series, symposium, and book to explore the work and shared influences of Latino and Latin American filmmakers in Los Angeles. From the 1960s to the present, multiple generations of L.A. filmmakers were inspired by early Latin American cinema, and an exchange of ideas took place among filmmakers in Latin American countries and the Latin American diaspora. Areas of inquiry will include the Chicano film movement, which responded to stereotyped portrayals in Hollywood films and the lack of Latino participation in the industry, and the recent achievements of Latino and Latin American filmmakers, whose work has seen worldwide artistic and commercial success. The Academy will conduct oral histories with notable filmmakers and ultimately present a film series pairing contemporary films with their earlier influences.

Exhibition research support: $100,000

Armory Center for the Arts, Pasadena
Aesthetic Experiments and Social Agents: Renegade Art and Action in Mexico in the 1990s

The 1990s was a period of radical social change in Mexico, marked by increasing violence, the devalued peso, industrial pollution, and political corruption. Against this backdrop, artists in Mexico City and Guadalajara created alternative spaces that nurtured experimental practices and helped gain acceptance for art that was more expansive, ephemeral, and socially based. The Armory will look at several of these spaces, from Mexico City’s Ex Teresa, founded by artists in 1993, to the energetic spaces that emerged in Guadalajara, including Jalarte and Clemente Jacks. Out of the dynamic activities of these local art spaces grew strong relationships with art centers abroad, an expanded dialogue that helped launch the careers of numerous internationally prominent artists.

Exhibition research support: $140,000

Autry National Center for the American West, Los Angeles
La Raza

Published in Los Angeles from 1967–1977, the influential bilingual newspaper La Raza provided a voice to the Chicano rights movement and its images became icons of the era. The Autry will examine La Raza’s photojournalism, drawing on a previously inaccessible archive of nearly 20,000 negatives now housed at UCLA’s Chicano Studies Research Center. The film images range from street and documentary photography to portraiture and relate to many critical issues that persist today, including education, media representation, immigration, and civil liberties. The exhibition will explore the individual contributions of the editors, writers, and photographers in the La Raza collective. Focusing on how a distinctive “Chicano eye” contributed to the struggle for social equality, this exhibition will situate Chicano photographic practices within a larger social, aesthetic, and hemispheric context.

Exhibition research Support: $115,000

California State University Long Beach
David Lamelas: A Life of Their Own

The University Art Museum (UAM) will organize the first U.S. monographic exhibition on the Argentine-born photographer, filmmaker, and conceptual artist David Lamelas. A pioneer of conceptual art in Argentina and beyond, Lamelas gained international acclaim for his work in the 1968 Venice Biennale, Office of Information about the Vietnam War at Three Levels. Starting in the 1970s, Lamelas began living in Los Angeles for extensive periods. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, he produced videos for the Long Beach Museum of Art’s experimental video arts program. The UAM exhibition will feature selected objects, films, performance documentation, media installations, and ephemera from the 1960s and 1970s, and drawings of unrealized architectural “interventions”—one of which will be realized for the exhibition.

Exhibition research support: $100,000

Chicano Studies Research Center at UCLA, Los Angeles

To be presented at LACMA as part of an ongoing collaboration with the Chicano Studies Research Center at UCLA, Home will feature works by approximately 30 U.S. Latino artists from the 1950s to the present. The focus will be on the largest historic groups—artists of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Cuban origin—with Latin American diaspora artists also considered. Home seeks to investigate what the curators call the “betwixt–and–between” of these Latino artists who do not typically find a comfortable home in either American or Latin American art history. Works in a range of media will be examined for their exploration of such timely ideas as belonging, domesticity, and nationalism. The curators’ object driven approach will take into account the stylistic complexities of the artworks and the boundary crossing practices of many of the artists—a departure from previous exhibitions that tended to use individual artworks to illustrate preexisting concepts about Latino culture.

Exhibition research support: $210,000

Chinese American Museum, Los Angeles
Caribbean Visual Culture and the Chinese Diaspora

The Chinese community has been an important part of Caribbean society since the mid-19th century, when island-based enterprises, searching for cheap labor, recruited Chinese workers. This exhibition will bring together modern and contemporary work by artists of Chinese descent working in the Caribbean, or who have emigrated from the region. These artists often had a complicated relationship to their Asian roots, sometimes denying them, as in the case of Cuban artist Wifredo Lam, or enfolding them in a hybrid vocabulary, as in the work of Trinidadian artist Carlisle Chang. This exhibition seeks a richer understanding of Chinese diasporic art and how it relates to the broader spectrum of Caribbean art and culture, the study of which has traditionally been more focused on the region’s African influences.

Exhibition research support: $55,000

Craft and Folk Art Museum, Los Angeles
Design on the Border: Contemporary Design in Mexico and Mexican America

For the past twenty years, designers in Mexico have worked with traditional folk communities to preserve popular art forms. While championing the iconography of popular culture, these artists also infuse the imagery with fresh attitudes, assigning new meanings to familiar cultural symbols. The design collective DFC, for example, creates product lines with traditional crafts people that feature motifs related to Day of the Dead celebrations, celebrities, and Aztec imagery. Others such as Einar and Jamex de la Torre, working between Ensenada and San Diego, question notions of taste and kitsch in installations such as the Borderlandia (2011), with it glass versions of sugar skulls and luchador libre wrestlers. Design on the Border will be the first project to fully explore the work of these designers and the burgeoning cross-border market for their borrowed imagery of stereotypes.

Exhibition research support: $70,000

18th Street Arts Center, Santa Monica

As part of their collaboration with LACMA on A Universal History of Infamy—an exhibition focused on alternative artist practices in Latin America and in the U.S.—18th Street Arts Center will provide eight residencies for Latin American artists over the next two years. Having hosted more than 300 artists from 36 countries, particularly those working in non-traditional performance, social practice, and multi-media, 18th Street is an ideal partner for the project. Artists in residence will interact with local artists, schools, museums, galleries, and community-based organizations, possibly resulting in new site-specific or process-oriented works. The partnership will also help shape the flexible structure of the LACMA exhibition, with segments of the show traveling to alternative venues similar to 18th Street in size and capacity throughout the U.S. and Latin America.

Support for artists’ residencies: $60,000

Fowler Museum at UCLA, Los Angeles
The Roads that Lead to Bahia: Visual Arts and the Emergence of Brazil’s Black Rome

Salvador, the coastal capital of the Brazilian state of Bahia, emerged in the 1940s as an internationally renowned center of Afro-Brazilian culture and an important hub of African-inspired artistic practices in the Americas. The Fowler will undertake the most comprehensive presentation of African-inspired arts of Bahia, looking at a complex group of artists from various racial, ethnic, and national backgrounds, along with their social circles and the arts patrons, government officials, and international development officers who fueled Salvador as a Mecca of Afro-Brazilian culture. The relationship between art and local religious and spiritual practices; prevailing notions of Africanness, regionality, and nationality; and why this art accrued such cultural significance beyond Brazil will all be examined.

Exhibition research support: $170,000

Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
The Political Body: Radical Women in Latin American Art 1960–1985

The Hammer Museum will bring to light the conceptual and aesthetic experimentation of women artists in Latin America from 1960 to 1985, extraordinary contributions that have received little scholarly attention to date. Made during a key period in the women’s rights movement, this work often required heroic acts in the face of harsh repression under military dictatorships. The exhibition will feature work in a range of media, including photography, video, and installation by several better-known Latin American women artists, such as Lygia Clark and Ana Mendieta, alongside lesser-known artists, such as Brazilian Mara Alvares and Argentine Margarita Paksa. With approximately 80 artists from 12 countries, The Political Body will constitute the first genealogy of feminist and radical women’s art practices in Latin America and their influence internationally.

Exhibition research support: $225,000

The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, San Marino
Visual Voyages: Images of Latin American Nature from Columbus to Darwin

Drawing on the Huntington’s Latin American and botanical holdings, Visual Voyages will explore indigenous and European depictions of Latin American nature over a 500-year period. From the time of Columbus through the 19th century, European and American naturalists produced images of fantastic animals, lavish flora, and landscapes of military and spiritual conquest as a means of understanding the natural world in Latin America, including Spanish California. The project will reveal how early explorers and chroniclers portrayed the region as an earthly paradise; how indigenous artists used representations of nature as a site for the study of cultural contact and transformation; and how 19th-century Latin American artists envisioned nature as integral to the creation of national identity.

Exhibition research support: $200,000

Japanese American National Museum (JANM), Los Angeles

JANM will mount the first exhibition on modern and contemporary artists of Japanese or Japanese Latino ancestry in Latin America and Southern California, expanding our understanding of what constitutes Latin American art. From the large wave of Japanese immigrants to Brazil to the influx of Okinawans in Peru, Japanese Latinos have complex cultural identities. Curators will investigate how the work of artists in places such as Lima, São Paulo, Tijuana, and Los Angeles illuminates regional differences, generational approaches, and the impact of transnationalism on individual and communal identity.

Exhibition research support: $100,000

Laguna Art Museum
Mexico/California, 1820–1930

Mexico/California, 1820–1930 is about how Mexico became California. Following the U.S.-Mexican War (1846–1848), lands that had for centuries belonged to New Spain, and later Mexico, were transformed into the thirty-first state in the U.S. This process was facilitated by the visual arts that forged distinct pictorial motifs and symbols to establish its new identity. This exhibition focuses on works that speak to the process of becoming California and to the dialogues and intersections between these two geographic identities. Contents range from a Mexican colonial painting transported to a California mission where it became a beloved icon, to the work of early modernists such as Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, whose Portrait of Luther Burbank depicts the California horticulturalist whose development of over 800 fruits, flowers, and other plants contributed to the state’s agricultural growth. Utimately the exhibition will demonstrate how California evolved a profile distinct from any other U.S. state, which is directly attributable to its unique amalgam of Mexican and Anglo visual traditions.

Exhibition research support: $92,000

LAND (Los Angeles Nomadic Division)
Jose Dávila

LAND plans a mid-career survey of Guadalajara-based artist Jose Dávila (b. 1974). Trained as an architect, Dávila creates sculptural installations and photographic works that use reproduction, homage, and imitation to both explore and dismantle the legacies of 20th century avant-garde art and architecture. Referencing artists and architects from Luis Barragán and Mathias Goeritz to Donald Judd, Dávila explores how the modernist movement has been translated, appropriated, and reinvented in Mexican art. The exhibition will include the artist’s sculptural installations, photographs, studies, drawings, proposals, and models, as well as a new interactive public sculpture. In keeping with its mission to curate site-specific projects, LAND hopes to install the exhibition in a local modernist building, thereby referencing the architectural language so critical to Dávila’s work.

Exhibition research support: $70,000

LA Phil, Los Angeles

The LA Phil will undertake research and planning for bookend contributions to Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, including an opening concert event at the Hollywood Bowl and a closing music festival at Disney Hall. Taken in combination, these events will represent the largest scale and most in-depth exploration of Latin American performing arts ever presented by the LA Phil. Under the direction of Gustavo Dudamel, the LA Phil has already taken an active role in connecting Latin American music with L.A. audiences, but now it will be able to present an even more complex picture of contemporary Latin American musical expression. Exploratory trips throughout Latin America in the coming months will enable the curatorial team to identify and cultivate relationships with leading artists and ensembles. As a result the team will work actively with the artists to create a wide range of new programming.

Programming planning support: $68,000

Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) and Pitzer College Art Galleries, Claremont
Juan Downey: Radiant Nature

LACE and the Pitzer College Art Galleries will mount a two–part exhibition on the early performance work of video art pioneer Juan Downey (1940–1993). Born in Chile, Downey moved to Paris in the 1960s and later to Washington, D.C. where he developed a practice combining interactive performance with sculpture and video. Works such as Video Trans Americas (1973–1976), based on his Amazonian travels, and The Thinking Eye (1976–1977), a meditation on myths, media, and mass culture, highlight the artist’s fascination with perception and identity. While previous exhibitions have focused on Downey’s video work, the current project will consider his extensive body of performance art. Along with drawings, installations, photographs, videos, and ephemera from the performances, LACE and Pitzer will restage some of Downey’s rarely seen, interactive performances, such as the four-day piece Plato Now (1973).

Exhibition research support: $120,000

Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)
For three exhibitions

50 Years of Design in Latin America, 1920–1970

LACMA will undertake the first survey of modern design in Latin America, from Art Nouveau and Pre-Columbian Revival, to mid-century modernist design and its successor styles. During the interwar era, Latin American designers adopted styles from Europe while also emphasizing regional motifs that reflected increasing nationalism. The region embraced utopian ideas of progress, from Oscar Niemeyer’s Brasilia, to Gui Bonsiepe’s work for Salvador Allende’s Project Cybersyn in Chile, and by the 1960s was home to internationally recognized designers and several industrial art schools. 50 Years of Design in Latin America will include a range of media—furniture, ceramics, jewelry, graphic design, paintings, photography, and film—to highlight the interplay between local and international contexts. The ties between Latin American and U.S. designers will also be featured, from pre-Columbian and Spanish Colonial revival styles to mid-century design.

A Universal History of Infamy

Taking its title from a collection of short stories by Jorge Luis Borges, A Universal History of Infamy will present interdisciplinary works at LACMA and in a variety of venues around Los Angeles by some of today’s most compelling Latin American and Latino artists. As part of the project, LACMA will partner with 18th Street Art Center to organize artist residencies from 2015 to 2017, emphasizing process, collaboration, and performance. The culminating exhibition will offer a platform for new projects alongside significant works made in the U.S. and Latin America in the last twenty years.

Playing with Fire: The Art of Carlos Almaraz

Painter Carlos Almaraz was a driving force behind the Chicano art movement in the 1970s, active in the farm workers causa and with Gilbert Luján, Frank Romero, and Roberto de la Rocha, founding the artist collective Los Four. As a politically active Chicano artist, Almaraz’s identity was complicated, and this complex notion of self played out in his work. Almaraz’s images of lush vegetation, vibrant L.A. skylines, fiery freeway crashes, and flaming suburban houses are imbued with beauty and tension. While Almaraz has been the subject of smaller exhibitions since his untimely death in 1989 at age 48, Playing with Fire will be the first large retrospective, comprising some 60 works, including the major paintings, along with pastels, prints, ephemera, and notebooks. Following its landmark exhibition of Los Four in the mid-1970s, LACMA will be a fitting venue for this important artist whose work holds value for multiple communities.

Total exhibition research support: $335,000

Los Angeles Filmforum

With leading scholars from the U.S., Mexico, Argentina, Ecuador, Uruguay, and Spain, Filmforum will research experimental film in Latin America, tracing the web of connections between the pioneering cinema of various countries. Starting in the 1930s with rarely–seen films such as the Brazilian surrealist masterpiece Limite, through the 1970s with collaboratively produced films such as Robarte el arte, to the current day, the series will look at the relationship of experimental film to mainstream entertainment, as well as to other avant–garde art forms. Along with its own film series and publication, Filmforum will also connect with the artists and movements explored in the various Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA exhibitions, creating film programs in collaboration with the other partners.

Research support: $150,000

MAK Center for Art and Architecture at the Schindler House, Los Angeles
How to Read El Pato Pasqual: Disney’s Latin America and Latin America’s Disney

The MAK Center will investigate Walt Disney Studio’s work in Latin America, and its ongoing reception and reinterpretation. An early example is Disney’s 1942 The Three Caballeros, a musical film starring Donald Duck that was the product of a public–relations tour of South America by Walt Disney and his artists, musicians, and screenwriters to promote the U.S. government’s “Good Neighbor” policy. Disneyland itself was inspired in part by the Argentine theme park República de los niños, conceived by Juan and Eva Perón to teach children citizenship. The MAK Center will explore this history of Disney engagement with Latin American imagery, and the ways that Latin American artists have responded to, played with, re-appropriated, and misappropriated Disney iconography.

Exhibition research support: $140,000

Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles (MOCA)
Latin American Abstractions

From the 1930s through the 1970s, a wide variety of artists in Latin America experimented with diverse modes of abstraction. While geometric abstraction has been featured in U.S. and European exhibitions, other strains with which it was in dialogue are less well-known, including lyrical, informalist, gestural, and expressionist abstraction. MOCA will uncover this heterogeneity of non-representational art throughout Latin America, and the ways in which the various forms developed, interacted, and competed over a span of almost 50 years. The exhibition will include the exploration of unfamiliar terrain, such as the work of Japanese artists who came to Brazil in the 1930s, the Grupo Signo in Chile in the 1950s, and the first presentation of the informalist movement in Argentina in 1959, as well as abstract practices in Central America and the Caribbean.

Exhibition research support: $225,000

Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD)
Memories of Underdevelopment

In collaboration with Mexico City’s Museo Rufino Tamayo and the Museo de Arte de Lima, MCASD will examine the ways that artists from the 1960s through the 1980s, primarily in Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, and Mexico, used conceptual and performance art to subvert artistic norms and redefine avant-garde practice outside the established centers of the art world. Searching for alternatives to museum-based exhibition practices, these artists sought to engage directly with local communities, often incorporating popular strategies from film, architecture, and theater, and grappling with political oppression. The exhibition will shed new light on such well-known artists as Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Pape, as well as lesser-known artists in Colombia, Uruguay, Chile, and Peru. Along with paintings, sculptures, and videos, the exhibition will recreate a number of site-specific, ephemeral works in Southern California for the first time.

Exhibition research support: $275,000

Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbara
Art in Guatemala, 1960–present

This exhibition will feature key Guatemalan artists such as Roberto Cabrera, Isabel Ruiz, and the collectives Grupo Vértebra and Imaginaria, and the unique performance and conceptual art strategies they developed under the repressive regimes of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Even during the worst years of war under the presidency of General Rios Montt, these artists produced work, often covertly, that directly engaged the country’s socio-political realities. The exhibition will also include a younger generation of Guatemalan artists who came to international prominence following the 1996 peace accords, revealing an artistic history still largely unknown, and showcasing the country’s vibrant contemporary art scene today.

Exhibition research support: $65,000

Museum of Latin American Art (MOLAA), Long Beach
Spirituality in the Art of the Caribbean

Africans slaves arrived in the Caribbean with a rich artistic and spiritual heritage that has persisted in the art of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. MOLAA will trace the ways that African spiritual practices such as Santería, Macumba, and Voodoo were suppressed, tolerated, or embraced under different socio-political conditions. From Colonial-era Afro-Caribbeans creating equivalents between their “Orishas” (deities) and Catholic saints, to modern Haitian artists Hector Hyppolite and Robert Saint Brice incorporating elements of Voodoo, Caribbean artists have adopted traditional forms of spirituality for their own ends. Other artists such as Wifredo Lam used spiritual elements to promote a new pride in African culture, Ana Mendieta created highly ritualized self-portraits, and contemporary artists such as painter Santiago Rodríguez Olazábal, himself a “Babalao” or priest in the Ifá tradition, are also now incorporating spiritual practices.

Exhibition research support: $95,000

Museum of Photographic Arts (MOPA), San Diego
Displacement: Mexican Photography, 2000–2012

The most recent generation of photographic artists in Mexico came of age in an era of profound political and social change, as the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) ceded power after seven decades. Drug wars, outward migration, and changing attitudes toward religion and traditional gender roles characterized this “post-nationalist” period. Inheriting the social reforms of the 1990s, artists such as Karina Juarez, Jose Luis Cuevas, and Luis Arturo Aguirre used a range of practices, from “straight” photography, to manipulated photographs, installations, and videos, to explore the fracturing of personal and cultural identities in the new Mexico—displacements that were both disorienting and liberating. Located in San Diego’s Balboa Park, MOPA will draw on its strong relationship with artists and organizations across the border for this project, and will also contextualize this work within broader international developments in photography.

Exhibition research support: $100,000

The Music Center, Los Angeles

The Music Center will undertake a survey of performing arts organizations across Southern California to identify programs that could complement the visual arts exhibitions supported by the Getty. As a result of the survey, the Music Center intends to encourage and coordinate participation by a selection of artists, companies, and centers around dance, theater, and opera in support of LA/LA.

Programming planning support: $65,000

Orange County Museum of Art (OCMA), Newport Beach
Kinesthesia: South American Kinetic and Light Art of the 1960s

While L.A. was becoming the epicenter for vanguard sculptural practices in light and space, a separate set of experiments was unfolding in South America and Europe. With roots in 1940s Buenos Aires, two artists groups developed approaches to kinetic sculptures that had strong links to contemporaries in Paris, where many of the artists eventually relocated. These pioneers of optic and mechanical art, the “cinetic” generation, include Jesús Rafael Soto (Venezuela), Julio Le Parc (Argentina), and Carlos Cruz-Diez (Venezuela), and they had a profound impact on the trajectory of South American art. OCMA will showcase these remarkable yet under-known sculptural experiments and explore their dynamic social and political underpinnings, particularly the relationship between artists’ use of new technologies and the region’s political struggles, such as those that followed the 1962 military takeover in Argentina.

Exhibition research support: $170,000

Otis College of Art and Design, Los Angeles
Talking to Action

The Ben Maltz Gallery at Otis College of Art and Design will survey the artistic, social, and anthropological actions of contemporary “Social Practice” artists in Latin America—artists who freely blur the lines between object making, political activism, community organizing, environmentalism, and performance. Creating a participatory art outside the gallery and museum system, these artists and artists’ collectives engage their respective communities in compelling ways. Argentine artist Eduardo Molinari, for example, adopts the strategy of walking—simply traveling and observing—to produce work critical of official historical narratives, while travel is also central to the SEFT (Sonda de Exploración Ferroviaria Tripulada) collective in Mexico, which uses a playfully futuristic vehicle to traverse land and rail, exploring disused railroads. Connections between Social Practice in Latin America and those of Los Angeles artists will also be explored though a series of artist residencies and collective research projects. Talking to Action builds upon the scholarship of Otis’ Graduate Public Practice MFA program.

Exhibition research support: $160,000

Pomona College Museum of Art, Claremont
Prometheus: 1930/2017

In 1930 José Clemente Orozco completed his Prometheus fresco at Pomona College, the first mural painted in the U.S. by one of Los Tres Grandes of Mexican muralism and a work that Jackson Pollock declared the greatest contemporary painting in North America. Drawing on the Greek myth about bringing fire to humanity, Orozco’s mural goes beyond the story’s traditional symbolism to present a complex political work that questions the very idea of enlightenment in a modern world steeped in conflict. For Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, Pomona College will examine the politics of Orozco’s mural through the lens of contemporary Mexican artists who are producing a variety of socially-engaged and politically activist artworks, including forms of public intervention and social practice. Possible themes may include the ways socially-engaged art has been positioned in the public arena in Mexico from the 1920s until today, to the impact of conceptual art and post-minimalist art practices of the 1990s and the emergence of trans-disciplinary actions in more recent years.

Exhibition research support: $100,000

REDCAT, California Institute of the Arts, Los Angeles
Palabras Ajenas–León Ferrari

REDCAT will explore the work of acclaimed Argentine artist León Ferrari who died in 2013 at the age of ninety-two. The voice of a generation, Ferrari is best known for his politically-charged work that challenged authoritarianism of all types, from the Argentine dictatorship and the Catholic Church to the U.S. military’s war in Vietnam. REDCAT will focus on Ferrari’s use of appropriated text, his “deformed writing,” restaging the performance Palabras Ajenas (1965)—the first complete presentation of this landmark piece. This literary collage is an imaginary dialogue among 160 historic figures, composed of fragments from contemporary news-wires and historical texts. The project will be accompanied with an exhibition and publication that will contextualize the performance in its time and in Ferrari’s body of work.

Exhibition research support: $110,000

Riverside Art Museum
Spanish Colonial Revival in the Inland Empire

Spanish by way of colonial Mexico, the Spanish Colonial Revival style in architecture and design has been part of the aesthetic fabric of Southern California’s Inland Empire for 100 years. While claiming ties between Southern California and Colonial Spain and Mexico via their cultural and design traditions, the style was based largely on myth and invention. Influenced by such diverse sources as the 1915 Panama-California Exposition and the popular Ramona novel and pageants, the New California elite adapted Spanish Colonial, Mission, ecclesiastical, and native elements to create romanticized perceptions of California for a burgeoning tourism industry. Landmarks such as Myron Hunt’s First Congregational Church of Riverside (1912–1914) and the historic Mission Inn Hotel are amalgamations of the historic and the imagined. Even today the region’s suburban housing and public infrastructure continue to use an eclectic mix of elements rooted in Spanish Colonial Revival design motifs. The exhibition will use architectural and archival materials, decorative arts, paintings, and photographs to explore the style’s origins and continuing popularity.

Exhibition research support: $75,000

Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery at Scripps College, Claremont
Revolution and Ritual: The Photographs of Sara Castrejón, Graciela Iturbide, and Tatiana Parcero

This exhibition will focus on representative figures from three generations of women photographers in Mexico. From Sara Castrejón, the least known of the three artists and one of the few woman photographers who documented the Mexican revolution, to Graciela Iturbide, who often photographed the daily lives of Mexico’s indigenous cultures, to Tatiana Parcero, a contemporary photographer who splices images of her own body with cosmological maps and Pre-Columbian Aztec codices, the exhibition will trace a broader transformation in notions of Mexican identity. As part of a women’s college, the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery has built its photography collection with a special emphasis on women who have shaped the photographic field.

Exhibition research support: $100,000

San Diego Museum of Art (SDMA)
Indigenismos: Amerindian Inscriptions in the Art of the Americas

Indigenismos—the concern with peoples indigenous to a region—has primarily been studied as a defining characteristic of Mexican modernism, but SDMA will investigate the multiple ways in which indigenismos was a persistent force in Latin American art. From the first appearances of indigenismos in 19th-century figurative painting, to early 20th-century representations of the Indian as a symbol of national identity, to the Surrealists’ fascination with Indian imaginaries, artists have linked indigenismos to political and social concerns, and, above all, to what it means to be Latin American. The exhibition will examine these and later avant-garde practices of the 1920s and 1930s, as well as the re-appearance of indigenismos in the second half of the 20th century in such forms as land art and early performance and video art.

Exhibition research support: $175,000

Santa Barbara Museum of Art
Valeska Soares

Brazilian-born artist Valeska Soares began her career in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, and even after moving to New York in the 1990s, she maintains a deep connection to her home state of Minas Gerais. Soares creates environmental installations that use the phenomenological effects of reflection, light, entropy, and scent to explore how viewers experience time. Her work is often identified with other minimal and conceptual artists, including Eva Hesse and Robert Morris, and with the sensibilities of Brazilian artists from the 1960s through the 1980s, including Lygia Clark, Hélio Oiticica, and Mira Schendel. This mid-career survey will include early works such as Vanishing Point (1999–2000), along with later installations not yet seen in the U.S., such as Narcissus (2005) from the Venice Biennale or Un-Rest (2010).

Exhibition research support: $95,000

Santa Monica Museum of Art (SMMoA)
Martín Ramírez

SMMoA will reexamine the work of one of the most accomplished outsider artists, Mexican-born immigrant Martín Ramírez, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia in the 1930s and confined to California state hospitals most of his adult life. Ramírez produced intricate drawings and collages of horses and riders, the Madonna, and trains and tunnels, whose rhythmic linear qualities and spatial tension have been compared to the techniques of Wassily Kandinsky, Frank Stella, and Sol LeWitt. This first presentation of Ramírez’s work in Southern California will trace the artist’s technical development, his formal connections to mainstream modern art, and the significance of his cultural identity as a Mexican-American. A reexamination of the artist’s psychiatric evaluations may even call his diagnosis into question, recontextualizing Ramírez’s work and contributing to the growing reconsideration of outsider art more broadly.

Exhibition research support: $90,000

Skirball Cultural Center, Los Angeles
Idols & Icons: Anita Brenner and the Visual Culture of Mexico, 1920–1960

Moving often between her native Mexico and the U.S., the Jewish Mexican-American anthropologist, translator, author, and art critic Anita Brenner (1905–1974) was close to the leading Mexican intellectuals and artists, including José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, Jean Charlot, and Tina Modotti. An influential and prolific writer on Mexican culture, Brenner is best known for her critical study of Mexican art from the Pre-Columbian to the modern era, Idols Behind Altars: Modern Mexican Art and Its Cultural Roots (1929). The Skirball will use Brenner’s unique position as a contemporary observer and collaborator to reexamine Mexican modernism, looking not only at the most famous artists of the day, but also at lesser-known artists such as Lola Cueto and the photographer and cinematographer Agustín Jiménez. Befitting the Skirball’s mission, the exhibition will also trace the ties between Jewish intellectuals and the Mexican avant-garde.

Exhibition research support: $125,000

UCLA Film & Television Archive
Classic Latin American Cinema in Los Angeles, 1932–1960

As Los Angeles became a key destination for Mexican immigrants and native film industries developed in Mexico, Argentina, and Cuba, L.A. became the undisputed capital of Latin American cinema culture in the United States. From the 1930s through the 1950s, Downtown movie palaces like the Teatro Eléctrico, California, Million Dollar, and the Roosevelt were a prominent cultural force, presenting vaudeville, live appearances by top stars, and such classic films as La mujer del puerto (1934), Simón Bolivár (1941), and comedies with the Mexican actor Cantinflas. UCLA will conduct research for a film exhibition and related publication that will revive these classic but largely forgotten films from Latin America, painting a full portrait of Spanish-language cinema culture in L.A., from audiences to cinema owners and film critics.

Research support: $80,000

University of California, Irvine (UCI)
Magulandia and Aztlán

One of the founding members and the major force behind the Chicano artists collective Los Four, UCI alumnus Gilbert (Magu) Luján (1940–2011) is known for his colorful large-scale paintings and drawings, outrageous lowrider art, and Día de los Muertos altars. Irvine’s retrospective will focus on two concepts central to Magu’s work: Aztlán, the mythic northern ancestral home of the indigenous Mexican Aztecs that became a charged symbol of Chicano activism; and Magulandia, the term Luján used for the space in which he lived and produced his work, and for his work as a whole. While Aztlán and Magulandia represented physical spaces, together they also symbolized the complex cultural, geographic, and conceptual relationships that exist between Los Angeles and Mexico. Mining several local archives, curators will examine Magu’s background, professional activities, writings, and travels to paint a full picture of the artist’s practice.

Exhibition research support: $75,000

University of California, Riverside (UCR)
Critical Utopias: The Art of Futurismo Latino

The three gallery spaces that comprise UCR’s ARTSblock will host an exhibition on the representation of Latin American artists and Latinos/as in science fiction, and the ways that contemporary Latin American and Latino artists employ science fiction for social, cultural, and political critique. Scholars and writers have begun to investigate the genre’s affinity with histories of colonialism and its power to offer alternative perspectives on history. Drawing on the University’s strong faculty and collections in this area, the project will bring together scholars in science-fiction studies with curators and artists to examine Latin American and Latino science fiction’s capacity to imagine new realities, both utopic and dystopic. While the study of Latin American science fiction in literature and film is well underway, UCR’s focus on the visual arts promises to be groundbreaking.

Exhibition research support: $125,000

University of San Diego
Xerox Art in Brazil and Argentina, 1970–1980

Xerox art flourished internationally in the 1970s and 1980s under the names “Copy Art” in the United States and “Electrographie” in France, and was particularly strong in Brazil and Argentina. As part of a broader interest in the dematerialization of the art object, artists in these two countries experimented with photocopiers, fax machines, and teletext as they explored the intersection between art and forms of communication. The exhibition will explore how the work of Brazilians such as Nelson Leirner, Paulo Bruscky, Regina Silveira, Carmela Gross, and Eduardo Kac, along with León Ferrari in Argentina, developed in reaction to the rise of authoritarian regimes, and as an attempt to produce a truly democratic form of art. Xerox art’s relationship to billboards, artist books, and graffiti art and to international movements such as Fluxus and Mail Art will also be considered as a smaller component of the project.

Exhibition research support: $58,000

University of Southern California (USC), ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives, Los Angeles
Mundo Meza

The ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries will organize a retrospective exhibition of Tijuana-born artist Edmundo “Mundo” Meza (1955–1985). Meza grew up in East L.A. as part of a generation of Chicano conceptualist artists that included Gronk and Robert Legorreta/Cyclona, with whom he staged confrontational performances in East L.A. in the 1960s and 1970s. Meza’s multidisciplinary practice encompassed performance, painting, design, fashion, and installation, and his work addressed the social and political upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s with wit and campy extravagance. Many early works also responded to his contemporaries’ use of Mesoamerican imagery, such as his queer “return to Aztlán” that co-opted this revered Chicano visual symbol. The exhibition aims to contextualize Meza within both the Chicano and Gay Liberation movements, and position sexual difference as a crucial, yet largely unwritten, facet of Chicano art history.

Exhibition research support: $95,000

Vincent Price Art Museum, East Los Angeles College, Monterey Park
For two exhibitions

L.A. Collects L.A.

Beginning in the 1920s, legendary Hollywood figures, including Vincent Price, Edward G. Robinson, Kirk Douglas, Otto Preminger, and Natalie Wood collected Latin American art, from Olmec jades to Rufino Tamayo paintings. Starting with Museum founder Vincent Price’s own collection, L.A. Collects L.A. will examine these patterns of collecting and display, as well as the reframing of Mesoamerican antiquities as art objects and the ways collecting was popularized through mass media. Period rooms in L.A. Collects L.A. will evoke this history, including possible reconstructions of Walter and Louise Arensberg’s foyer on Hillside Avenue, a corner of John Huston’s Puerto Vallarta home, and Bernard and Edith Lewin’s furniture store in Van Nuys. Historical photographs, biographical sketches, and ephemera will further illuminate the sensibilities and ideologies that shaped these collecting practices.

Laura Aguilar Retrospective

East Los Angeles College alumna Laura Aguilar will be the focus of the Museum’s second show, organized in collaboration with UCLA’s Chicano Studies Research Center. Aguilar uses startlingly frank portraiture to document social groups typically marginalized in mainstream culture including Latina lesbians. Many of Aguilar’s photographic series are autobiographical, exploring her own bi-national, Mexican American identity, as in her famous work Three Eagles Flying (1990). The exhibition will trace the development of her work from early themes to more recent self-portraits that explore the boundaries between the body and iconic landscapes in the American Southwest.

Exhibition research support for two exhibitions: $150,000

In addition, there will be three exhibitions at the Getty:

Luxury Arts in the Ancient Americas

In contrast with other parts of the world, gold and silver in the ancient Americas were first used not for weaponry, tools, or coinage, but for objects of ritual and ornament, resulting in works of extraordinary creativity. The J. Paul Getty Museum will explore the idea of luxury in the pre-Columbian Americas, particularly the associated meanings of various materials, from 1000 BC to the Europeans’ arrival in the 16th century. The exhibition will trace the development of metallurgy from the Andes to its expansion northward into Mexico, but will also include works made of shell, jade, and tapestry—materials that were considered even more valuable than rare metals. Co-organized by the Getty Museum, the Getty Research Institute, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Luxury Arts in the Ancient Americas will highlight the most precious works of art from the Americas, and provide new ways of thinking about materials, luxury, and the region’s visual arts in a global perspective.

A New Narrative: Constructed Photography from Latin America

Although several previous exhibitions on contemporary Latin American photography have called out the interest in fabricated imagery, no exhibition has been solely devoted to this practice of arranging compositions for the camera with props, models, and other materials. The J. Paul Getty Museum will explore the production of these images for religious purposes, the souvenir trade, propaganda, memorial portraits, journalistic photo-essays, medical diagnoses, identity politics, performance art, self-portraiture, and for narrative tableaux that recreate the pictorial traditions of painting and sculpture. Possibly focusing on one country, the exhibition is expected to include post-modern photography of the past forty years, with key earlier works included for historical context.

Materiality and Postwar Latin American Art

The Getty Research Institute, Getty Conservation Institute, Getty Foundation, and Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros will work together to research the materials and techniques used in key works from the Colección Cisneros—a world renowned collection of modern Latin American art—to inform new art historical interpretations. The team’s work will culminate in an exhibition at the Getty Center, bringing some of the collection’s most canonical works to Los Angeles for the first time. Included will be artists such as those in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela who were experimenting in the 1940s and 1950s both formally with geometric abstraction and through their use of new industrial materials. By considering the works’ social, political, and cultural underpinnings in tandem with the results of technical studies, the project aims to make significant contributions to both the conservation field and postwar Latin American art history.

Camille Henrot’s Mind Altering Visual Poetics: Reviews, Images and Texts


Camille Henrot: Grosse Fatigue

Versatile, solitary, talented, the French artist brings an encyclopaedic video on the history of the universe to the 55th International Art Exhibition — Venice Biennale, which awarded her a Silver Lion at the event.

Art / Federico Nicolao

Versatile, solitary, talented. Born in 1978. For several years now, French artist Camille Henrot has been exploring the multiplication of the illusion of power versus the actual control that is contained in the way we look at the world. Until now, she has done so from the position that France’s art world reserves for its non-militant female artists, which is to say the most uncomfortable one there is.


Women artists receive no forgiveness in this country lying just over the Alps from Italy — nor perhaps do they in most of “Latin” Europe. People smile, often with a bit of arrogance, at their projects, but had they been the work of male artists, they would cry out in marvel. And whenever women artists do finally receive recognition (often from foreign curators from other hemispheres or from northern Europe) people sputter about how their work is becoming weaker — no longer what it used to be when they started out.


Luckily, there are women who continue their work without allowing themselves to be pushed to the margins. If anything, they use the borders of where they have been confined to concede themselves total freedom to explore the fields that interest them most, which are often the most topical and least trite. They travel and often work abroad. They read. Their tastes meet those of the common people. They study. Very rarely do they become polemic.

Top and above: Camille Henrot, Grosse Fatigue, installation view at the Arsenale on the occasion of the 55th International Art Exhibition — Venice Biennale

The list would be long. For one thing, it would bring us to think that the fall of French art on the international market is to be attributed exclusively to the unbearable insistence with which no one dares defend and promote women artists in France. So much so that Louise Bourgeois, vernacular and refined at the same time, has been the only great artist in the last decades to be recognised both intellectually and commercially. It’s not as if things are much better in the rest of the world, but it explains why the broad public of art exhibitions does not know much about Camille Henrot, despite that her several projects in recent years.


Almost as soon as she started working, Henrot decided to “penetrate” into the atelier of the architect-artist-utopian Yona Friedman, but she did it from the point of view of her dog. Then, when she began sculpting strange tribal forms, she made them from plumbing joints and water pipes or airplane wings. In one film projection, she overlapped the three King Kongs of cinema history — Peter Jackson’s 2005 movie, John Guillermin’s 1975 version and the 1933 original, creating a fascinating hybrid that led to a new film, populated by images that were at once in harmony and continuous contrast. These are simple yet powerful ideas, experiments undertaken in answer to the question: What happens when we experiment? To what degree does our conscience become refined and profound? And contemporaneously, how much are we losing attempting?

Camille Henrot, Grosse fatigue. Photo courtesy of the artist and Kamel Mennour Paris

In recent years, Henrot’s projects have all been courageously diverse, defying the constant obstacle of the marketplace. She makes sculptures, films, installations, drawings, pictorial intentions for the future and, recently, even ikebana. The latter became a surprise hit of the last Paris Triennale at the Palais de Tokyo. A trace of each has remained in her “encyclopaedic” video Grosse Fatigue (2013) — about the history of the universe —, which won this year’s Silver Lion at the Venice Biennale.


Grosse Fatigue is a curious hymn to foundation and creation, but above all to death and extinction. The soundtrack was composed by French DJ and composer Joakim Bouaziz — Henrot’s companion — who leads music label Tigersushi, and includes a text that Henrot co-authored with her friend, poet Jakob Bomberg. All combine in what becomes a strange cauldron of myths and thoughts on the state of the world.

Camille Henrot, Grosse fatigue. Photo courtesy of the artist and Kamel Mennour Paris

Like all self-respecting artists, Camille Henrot has two traits that irritate a certain type of art critic and spectator. These traits excite other non-prejudiced people. She has no problem with using popular codes. The use of rap in the prize-winning video at the Biennale receives a mix of enthused and negative reactions. She has no problem with quoting (sometimes explicitly, sometimes cryptically) complex, difficult books that are not read by the broad public but by sophisticated intellectuals. Here, she is demanding (for herself, and thus for artists in general) the right to break open the codes of academic citations in order to allow books to come alive without excessive complications. People have difficulty accepting this from a young woman who is the first to say that she has not yet found what place knowledge and instinct can occupy in the context of art. But that’s a mistake.

Camille Henrot, Grosse fatigue. Photo courtesy of the artist and Kamel Mennour Paris

Grosse Fatigue is a meditation on creation. Who knows if rap aficionados not used to such unusual clips will like it? Thirteen minutes recount the birth of the world and its risk of dying. What does our desire to make a picture of the world bring us to? In a predominantly philosophical manner, Henrot answers this question by overlapping and intersecting different computer pages on one screen. Among other things, she invents a new way of looking at what happens when we navigate different roads on the same desktop.


Here, she does not play Jean-Luc Godard’s card of emotive fusion, but that of cataloguing and separation — of splicing. This time, Henrot is influenced as much by Matisse and his papiers découpés as by the Coupé-Décalé dance; by myths and humans’ compulsive obsession to catalogue the world. Jean Starobinski and his lucid, dramatic examination of the encyclopaedia is not so far away from Henrot’s universe with its Dionysian dismembering, the taking to pieces of the world by means of discovery, the interruption and caesura that become the orgasmic (here masturbatory) sexual love of those who are watching and reflecting upon themselves in the world.

Camille Henrot, Grosse fatigue. Photo courtesy of the artist and Kamel Mennour Paris

What collection are we part of and why do we, in turn, collect? What do we accumulate and how long does what we accumulate live? Each of us is a succession of cross-sections of the world. But what happens to our life when we explore it and reveal it, from window to window? Moments of joy, festivity, colour, but also exertion and death. With love and desperation, Henrot filmed the wonderful and sinister embalmed animals of Paris’s Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Institute, where she spent broad swaths of time. Camille Henrot will continue to elicit excessive approval and instigate discussion. And that’s a good sign. Federico Nicolao

Camille Henrot at the awards ceremony of the 55th International Art Exhibition — Venice Biennale. Photo by Italo Rondinella




Camille Henrot: The Pale Fox

28 February — 13 April 2014, Chisenhale Gallery, London

By Louise Darblay

French artist Camille Henrot has received much attention since she won the Silver Lion at the 2013 Venice Biennale for her film Grosse Fatigue (2013). Translated as ‘great exhaustion’, it consists of a 13-minute video in which a rap voice attempts to tell the story of the universe, combining mythical, religious, historic and scientific narratives, while a flow of images flash by simultaneously on a desktop computer.

Taking over the Chisenhale Gallery, Henrot builds on this previous work to create The Pale Fox, in which a similar narrative unfolds, but into space rather than on a computer screen, and that turns the feeling of exhaustion into a meditative and enveloping experience. The walls and carpet are coloured in a deep soothing blue reminding of Yves Klein’s monochromes, while atmospheric, ambient music plays in the background, periodically punctuated by coughing sounds. In this enclosed cosmos, Henrot presents what seems to be her very own universe, including found images, objects such as books, educational CDs, digital tablets, coloured feathers and a snow globe, some of her ink drawings and sculptures, as well as a polymorphous set of undulating aluminium shelves that run across the walls. Creating an uneven visual frieze, the images and objects cover the gallery walls, occasionally overflowing on to the floor, on which a radio-controlled snake slithers around.

Dogon mythology is central for Henrot as, built on the assimilation of different cultural belief systems, it becomes a philosophical model for the construction of her narrative

Behind this apparent chaos lies what Henrot calls a ‘crazy schematic map’ which, drawing on different systems of knowledge, apparently describes the cyclic creation of our universe. The disparate objects are there to represent both a point on the compass and one of the elements, one per wall. This spatial map also corresponds to stages in the development of human life, technological progress or mythological genesis.

The north wall for instance relates to the element water – the artist informs us in the press release – where objects and images are gathered that are associated with creation and fertility such as gourdlike calabashes, an apple, or Gabagunnu, the womb matrix of the world, as featured in Dogon mythology. Frequently referred to throughout the installation, this West-African mythology is central for Henrot as, built on the assimilation of different cultural belief systems, it becomes a philosophical model for the construction of her narrative.

Further on, there is the unfolding and evolution of human life, bringing about technological progress, as symbolised by the tablets and the accumulation of photographic images, and which leads to photographs of sunburnt bodies, a metaphor for man’s overexposure. Elsewhere a newspaper cutting, on the archaeological discovery of a Greek statue, hangs next to biblical crosswords, while a Silver Surfer Marvel comic is placed alongside an image of a Buddhist ritual.

The logic is sometimes hard to follow, and the references not always easy to decode without a press release to guide us through. Although captivating and absorbing as an environmental installation, it is the different layers of meaning and symbolic references interwoven together that make this complex work interesting, even when those references are cryptic and reliant on the viewer having some familiarity with Griaule and Dieterlen’s anthropological study of Dogon mythology, Leibniz’s philosophy or Henrot’s Grosse Fatigue.

That being said, once you have read the artist’s statement, Henrot does manage to make these overlapping narratives work together in one great cycle, without them seeming contradictory. She reminds us that disorder and entropy are the origin and condition of creation and evolution, just like the ambivalent figure of the Pale Fox in Dogon mythology is both destructive and creative. In a world where we are constantly overwhelmed by images and information, Henrot’s installation is an impressive attempt to make this excess and chaos productive again.

7 April 2014





Camille Henrot, Est-il possible d’être révolutionnaire et d’aimer les fleurs?, installation view at La Triennale “Intense Proximity”, Palais de Tokyo, Paris, 2012
Courtesy: the artist and kamel mennour, Paris. Photo: Alexandra Serrano

Relations de Traduction

by Cecilia Alemani

Is it possible to be revolutionary and like flowers? This enigmatic question is the title of the latest project by Camille Henrot, and it is the practice of Ikebana that removes any reservations about the floral passion: an entire library is translated in arrangements; the reciprocal positionings, the Latin names of species that speak perceptibly of trade, pharmacological properties and history.
Cecilia Alemani meets with the artist to talk about the translative qualities of her work, ranging through anthropology, archaeology and sociology.

Cecilia Alemani: In the last two years you have been focusing on the practice of Ikebana. How do you relate botany and floral decoration to contemporary sculpture?

Camille Henrot: Flowers belong to a time that is not secular (like history) but seasonal.
They address two major expectations of our time. Creating continuity in an era of ruptured temporality, they act like an antidote to the anxiety of living “in history.” At the same time they represent renewal as we wait for change. That’s why I called the project Est-il possible d’être révolutionnaire et d’aimer les fleurs? (Is it possible to be revolutionary and like flowers?).
My initial attraction to Ikebana had to do with how it corresponds to the idea of a healing object. The practice of Ikebana has the role of creating a ‘privileged space’ just as much for the person who views the arrangements as for the person who composes them.
By translating books into flower arrangements in a single gesture, the aim is to concentrate in one object the entirety of a thought, brining together disparate fragments—reconciling opposites in a whole of global dimensions. The approach finds a cohesion (of sorts) in the presentation of several Ikebana. The aim is to build an ‘environment’ within the image of a library that would be simultaneously out of time and connected to the Western fascination with knowledge and its expectations for a revolutionary change.

CA: Your work is bound up with systems of organization and taxonomy. Your Ikebana sculptures are each visualizations of books in your library and your videos often deal with the construction of racial identity. Can you talk about some of these aspects in your work?

CH: I like the serenity brought about by the image of an organized system, but I don’t like simplification and authority. I’m fascinated by unifying systems because they are fragile and appear like ordered complexity.
Regarding categories and racial identities I am interested in ‘Taboo’ objects, the use of which is coded; these can stir a lot of misunderstanding because they continually defy categorization. The idea of culture as “translation relationships” (relations de traduction) was my starting point. We could see the history of Art as a history of misunderstandings. That history would follow the same schemes and patterns as intimate relationships: desire, possession and miscomprehension.

My practice of Ikebana—even though it belongs to a current that is itself non-traditional (the Sogetsu school)—contains interpretive mistakes and naiveties, as well as irregularities in terms of the fundamentals of this art. The presence of such errors is, however, perfectly integrated into my approach. It is even one of the subjects of this project—and more generally of the whole of my work.

I often think of that quote from Frantz Fanon: “As soon as I desire, I am asking to be considered. I am not merely here-and-now, sealed into thingness. (…) In the world in which I travel, I am endlessly creating myself. And it is by going beyond the historical, instrumental hypothesis that I will initiate my cycle of freedom.”

Camille Henrot, Est-il possible d’être révolutionnaire et d’aimer les fleurs? (L’entretien infini), 2012
Courtesy: the artist and kamel mennour, Paris

CA: Anthropology, archeology, and sociology all seem to play a role in your work. How do you see your role as an artist in relationship to these disciplines?

CH: I am very interested in the ‘status’ of objects and the ideas of people like Viveiros de Castro, Clifford Geertz, James Clifford, Monique Jeudy-Ballini, Pascal Picq, Roger Bastide… I find these writers inspiring and sometimes disruptive.

In the case of anthropology, I am compelled by certain almost incompatible desires and undercurrents within the discipline, which for me are also quite present in the artistic process and experience. In this regard, I am consistently more interested in the errors and unsolved problems of anthropology, being a science that takes we humans as both object and subject and our universe and world as both substance and projected meaning at the same time and, like art, continually critiques, overturns and transforms its own findings.

I do not pretend I am handling concepts from anthropology without bias. Somehow one could say I have developed a ‘cargo cult’ for anthropology. (The ‘cargo cult’ originally described cults in the Pacific that emerged after white people arrived; it then became an expression referring to a human behavior that takes elements of other civilizations and integrates them into its own system of thinking sometimes without understanding or shifting the original meaning.)

I am not equating myself with anthropologist; I do not want to claim that authority. I am more interested in the character of Marcel Appenzzell, the anthropologist in check, mentioned in Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual. I know that when I’m in Vanuatu, for instance, I am a ‘white man’ above all, and I am conscious of what this means: the vanity of my motives, the voyeuristic aspect of my attitude, the guilt, the self-disgust and self-mockery, which are actually all the subject of the “Tropics of Love” drawings I started after that trip.

CA: Rites of passages and initiations have a strong presence in your work, such as in Coupé/Décalé and in The Strife of Love in a Dream. Can you tell us a little more about the background for these two videos, how they were realized, what was the subject?

CH: The Strife Of Love in a Dream was a project commissioned by Centre Pompidou in Paris for an exhibition about India. I was pretty afraid to go to India and tried to understand why.

The film’s title comes from a book written in the Middle Ages, Hypnerotomachia.
One of the stories, named “The Strife of Love in a Dream” tells of a monk who crosses The Dark Forest and finds himself facing a dragon. He is tempted to escape, but were he to turn back, the adventure would be over. This tale emphasizes the film’s central notion: the necessity of facing one’s fears.
I was struck by the paradox of India being often imagined as a cure against the Western world’s feverish agitation and at the same time being the number one manufacturer of psychotropic drugs. I imagined the film like a series of hallucinations that would create physical sensations and psychological imprints while showing very physical aspects of reality (the manufacturing of anxiolytics).

Regarding Coupé/Décalé, the project started after I found images by coincidence on the web of the Naghol ritual or “Land Diving,” and it made me think of Le Saut by Yves Klein. Thirty years ago this ritual had inspired bungee jumping and is now practiced as a “performance” for tourists visiting the island attracted by the similarity they see with a practice they connect to modern way of life (and need for strong emotions). There’s a ‘back and forth’ movement within the gesture of the ritual itself as well as in its history. But how to escape archetypes when you bring images back from the other side of the world?
I wanted to tackle that issue by creating a rough patchwork of deconstructed hybrid images in which the idea of ‘reparation’ is visual. The process implemented here is illustrated by the title Coupé/Décalé (literally “cut/offset”).

Camille Henrot, Coupé/Décalé, 2010
Courtesy: the artist and kamel mennour, Paris

CA: You have just started a fellowship at the Smithsonian that deals with systems of knowledge and organization of information; can you talk about it? Can you explain your approach to the research for new works and in general the importance of research within your practice?

CH: As an artist, I have the freedom to browse through ideas with the curiosity of the amateur. I’m allowed to have an irrational approach to knowledge, which is a privilege I appreciate a lot. I see the world as a fragmented ensemble and that fragmentation is harrowing. Through the research implied by my projects, I can establish some continuity.
The more you progress in research the more categories appear to be arbitrary and oppositions collapse. That’s why Zen irrationalism and thirst for knowledge are not contradictory in the end. I think the starting point of a new research or project should always be too broad. That way the research process is not only about aiming at a goal but also about being open to what you can learn by accident, new opportunities of new findings.
My research will be focused on all-encompassing projects meant to achieve an image and/or a history of the universe compressed into a singular object, a total contraction of knowledge within representation.
To my mind, there is a form of over-communication and over-saturation in our efforts to gather and structure knowledge into a completely globalized worldview, which, by all appearances, as subjectivity inevitably creeps in, seems to finally resemble an artistic goal or artistic project. Even though such processes and intentions might border on the irrational, I do feel that they are necessary for an understanding of what (and who) we are. This global approach and aspiration is to me ultimately parallel to a kind of subjective structuring of knowledge—what John Cowper Powys calls “a personal philosophy of solitude”—where the totalizing or universalizing image perhaps bears more the individual desires and consciousness of the one who attempts to complete it.

To the top


The Wall Street Journal

Life & Culture

Arts & Entertainment
Camille Henrot: An Art World ‘It Girl’
Inspired by eBay, turtles and nail polish, a solo show opens at New York’s New Museum

RESTLESS ART Camille Henrot says she’s inspired by eBay, turtles and nail polish, among other sources, for her videos, like ‘Grosse Fatigue,’ above. © Camille Henrot/ADAGP/Silex Films/kamel mennour, Paris
By Ellen Gamerman
May 1, 2014 11:01 p.m. ET

Turtles figure prominently in artist Camille Henrot’s ambitious video chronicling the history of the world in 13 minutes. She sees the creatures as symbols of a prehistoric past and a burdened future. “The turtle, she’s slow because she is carrying this massive round thing—it’s like a figure of Atlas,” she says.

Thinking hard about reptiles—and most everything else—is a hallmark of the 35-year-old French intellectual’s work. On the heels of that video, “Grosse Fatigue,” which won her the Silver Lion award for most promising young artist at the recent Venice Biennale, the artist is unveiling her first comprehensive U.S. museum exhibit. “Camille Henrot: The Restless Earth” opens Wednesday at the New Museum in New York.

The show features her abstract video telling the story of humankind through quick cuts of images like turtles and eyeballs, dead birds and oranges, fizzy water and the cosmos. Other pieces on view include her works on paper and a new installation of literature-inspired Japanese ikebana flower arrangements.

This spring, the New Museum is dedicating separate floors to three young artists rather than doing a group show. “It’s a way to give exposure, to show the artists who are changing how art is being made,” says curator Gary Carrion-Murayari. “Camille was a very easy choice for us in that respect.”

Ms. Henrot created “Grosse Fatigue” during an artist fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington last year. She scoured the collections, filming employees opening drawers of exotic-bird specimens, flipping through files filled with dead bees, and so on. The film advances quickly through time by using overlapping windows on a computer desktop—search results from the Smithsonian’s database. She incorporated her own footage and studio shots of brightly painted fingernails—a nod to her discovery that even the weightiest words in a Google search often seem to match the name of a nail polish.

It wasn’t a solitary effort: Ms. Henrot worked with a cinematographer and film editor, as well as a makeup designer, models and production assistants. A writer created the text, which is performed like a spoken-word poem, and her partner, a musician named Joakim Bouaziz, created the score.

Ms. Henrot finds inspiration from disparate sources including eBay, where her purchases range from firemen’s boots to nude vintage photographs. Sometimes she buys an item just because she likes the picture of its seller. After moving from Paris to New York in late 2012, she says the cargo container with all her stuff was held up by authorities for months—she suspects because its contents were so weird.

As a child, she wanted one day to have a “real job,” eager to distinguish herself from her mother, an artist. Nevertheless, she attended art school in Paris, studying animated film. She took a job in an advertising agency, where she learned tricks like how to shoot a piece of cake to make it look more delicious (blow it with a hair dryer so it seems fluffy). Along the way, she was making films on her own, including an inventive music video for the band Octet in which the musicians were rendered as half-real, half-animated bodies. The film was shown in a 2005 exhibition at the Fondation Cartier, a contemporary art center in Paris, and her career as an artist was launched.

Ms. Henrot didn’t grow up traveling—she says her mother was afraid of flying—but now her experiences in foreign cultures feed directly into her work. The videos featured at the New Museum include “Coupé/Décalé,” an experimental film illustrating a coming-of-age ritual on Pentecost island in the Vanuatu archipelago where young people jump into a void while being held by liana vines around their ankles.

Sometimes her images can be hard to watch. Those turtles in “Grosse Fatigue” are featured with close-ups of their slick tongues and stony eyes. Ms. Henrot, who as a child had a pet turtle named Zoe that escaped through a window of her Paris home, shot the creatures during a vacation in the Seychelles. She filmed a little girl giving a huge turtle a banana and included the footage in her video. “I was interested in the stupidity of man feeding wild animal,” she says.

Ms. Henrot brought home a souvenir from that trip: A scar on her hand from a turtle that bit her when she too tried to feed it.



Issue 161 March 2014 RSS

Known Unknowns


Useful mistakes, ikebana and messy cultural assumptions in the work of Camille Henrot


Sunburns, detail from the exhibition ‘The Pale Fox’, 2014. Previous pages courtesy: © the artist, ADAGP, Paris, kamel mennour, Paris, and Johann König, Berlin

One of the marvels of the universe is that it makes amateurs of us all. Educational qualifications are only a measure of the negative space of how much you don’t know. Expertise is defined by an expert’s limits. Your art history PhD has taken you to a profound level of understanding about abstract expressionism – you can even tell us what bourbon Jackson Pollock liked to drink for breakfast – but you’re a numbskull around runic alphabets. Peter Higgs, of Higgs boson fame, is pretty vague about runes too, but he’s the go-to man for particle physics. Higgs can wax expert about the origins of the cosmos, but can he name the players in the French squad who won the 1998 FIFA World Cup? Neither can I, but one of the team at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN can probably rattle off those names without recourse to Google. Unfortunately that same scientist falls into awkward silence when it comes to cocktail-party conversation about tuning systems in Javanese gamelan music. The composer Steve Reich could tell you a thing or two about gamelan because it’s been a major influence on his work, but he’d be a dead loss in a pub quiz about ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging. I have some back-of-an-envelope knowledge about ikebana only because it’s an aspect of the work made by Camille Henrot, who practices Sogetsu school ikebana. The French artist knows little about me, beyond my job, but knows a tonne more than I do about ikebana. However, she does admit that her approach to it ‘contains interpretive mistakes and naïveties, as well as irregularities in terms of the fundamentals of this art. The presence of such errors is, however, perfectly integrated into my approach. It is even one of the subjects of this project – and, more generally, of the whole of my work.’1

The ‘whole’ of Henrot’s work is a project about the impossibility of ever knowing the whole – the whole universe, the whole story, the whole of you, me, us and them. It’s about the impossibility of plugging the hole in the doughnut. Her project is shaped by alterity, entranced by cultural disconnections and a little gleeful about the shortcomings of anthropology. Her films tell us that a mess of cultural assumptions, projections, fears and desires gets churned around in the unlit spaces between anthropologist and subject, producer and audience. The artist knows that we know that she knows this, as she once said in an interview: ‘I am consistently more interested in the errors and unsolved problems of anthropology, being a science that takes we humans as both object and subject and our universe and world as both substance and projected meaning at the same time and, like art, continually critiques, overturns and transforms its own findings.’2

Coupé/Décalé (Cut/Offset), 2010, 35mm film still. Courtesy: © the artist, ADAGP, Paris, and kamel mennour, Paris

Fig. 1, Coupé/Décalé (2010): 35mm film, duration five minutes 20 seconds. Made in a style that could have been lifted from a 1970s ethnographic documentary – rich colours, a little verité camera shake, a conflicted feeling of voyeuristic fascination and armchair guilt compacted by having little clue about what’s being filmed – Coupé/Décalé is shot on Pentecost Island in the Vanuatu archipelago. It shows young men, their ankles tied by liana vines, jumping from a tall wooden platform. This rite is said to have inspired bungee jumping, and is now performed largely for the benefit of tourists, modified according to Western fantasies of Melanesian culture. The film’s title translates literally as ‘Cut/Offset’, and the image is ‘cut’ into two halves, with the left-hand side of the film running a fraction of a second faster than the right-hand side – the ‘offset’. That slippage is the key to the work: it’s the gap between what we see and what we know – always a step behind the action. Things get even more interesting when you learn that Coupé/Décalé is also the name of a dance originating in the Ivory Coast and imported to Paris by Ivorian immigrants. In Ivorian slang, the title means to cheat someone and run away. Pentecost Island is a long way from the Ivory Coast, even further from Paris. Henrot’s ‘cheat’ is to dress her film in the vestments of anthropological documentary, to ‘run away’ with the aesthetics of the form and repackage them with her own concerns. But it’s more complicated than that. As a white European wielding a camera in the South Pacific, she’s subject to just the same ethical quandaries about the gaze, race and the inscription of identity as the filmmakers that interest her. (Robert J. Flaherty, who bent a few truths in making his beautiful 1934 documentary Man of Aran, is currently a touchstone for Henrot.) It’s less a film ‘about’ anthropology than a film made inside anthropology, operating a couple of clicks out of phase with the discipline itself. And, like the figure of the anthropologist that Henrot tries to emulate, she will never be properly assimilated with the objects of her study.

Is ‘emulation’ the right word? Not quite. Nor is ‘critique’, which affects moral distance. ‘Act’ is better. There is a knowing pretence at play here; acting a part in order to pull focus on a certain aspect of human behaviour. ‘I do not pretend I am handling concepts from anthropology without bias,’ she says. ‘Somehow one could say I have developed a “cargo cult” for anthropology. The “cargo cult” originally described cults in the Pacific that emerged after white people arrived; it then became an expression referring to a human behaviour that takes elements of other civilizations and integrates them into its own system of thinking, sometimes without understanding or shifting the original meaning.’3 Henrot understands the original meaning of her sources perfectly well; she takes them and assigns new roles to suit her own purposes. She uses the symbolism of ikebana arrangements to describe books she’s read (the series ‘Is it possible to be revolutionary and like flowers?’, 2011–ongoing), pulls pictures from eBay to build a delirious essay on the Western imagination’s persistent fascination with ancient Egypt (the silent slideshow Egyptomania, 2009), and fakes anthropology films in order to make a film about anthropology (Coupé/Décalé). For her exhibition ‘The Pale Fox’ (2014), Henrot has used a specific work of anthropology as her starting point: Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen’s eponymous 1965 book, which explains, in great depth, the cosmological beliefs and creation stories of Mali’s Dogon people. (Controversially, it argues that the Dogon possessed detailed knowledge about the orbital patterns of Sirius before Western astronomers did.) Henrot makes associative leaps of imagination using objects and images of eggs, planets, turtles, foxes and flexing biceps. She turns Griaule and Dieterlen’s book inside out, showing that the work of the artist and the anthropologist are not so different: both are looking to find meaning in the world, whether or not it exists there.

Femme allongée et dents de requin (Woman Lying Down and Shark Teeth), from ‘Collection préhistorique’ (Prehistoric Collection), 2009, c-type print, 40 × 30 cm. Courtesy: © the artist, ADAGP, Paris, and kamel mennour, Paris

The promiscuous moves that contemporary visual art pulls on other cultural disciplines make it the most syncretic of the arts, and these days we’re all-too-used to hearing artists tell us how they’re ‘interested in’ this, that or the other. With all her talk of ‘cargo cults’, we could dub Henrot’s work a form of syncretism, creating new rituals from discrete belief systems. Syncretic religions can evolve for a number of reasons: the trace memories of long-gone civilizations; a means of forging cultural alliances or attracting a broad base of followers; a tool of assimilation used by an evangelizing or colonizing power. A cynic might accuse Henrot’s ikebana and quasi-ethnographies of dilettantism. I’ve always liked what Brian Eno has to say about dilettantes: ‘For me the great strength of dilettantism is that it tends to come in from another angle […] an intelligent dilettante will not be constrained by the limitations of what’s normally considered possible; he won’t be frightened, he’s got nothing to lose.’4 Everyone is an amateur at something, and the amateur is, in some respects, a far more liberated figure than the professional.

Fig. 2, ‘Is it possible to be revolutionary and like flowers?’: mixed media, dimensions variable. (The title is borrowed from Leninism under Lenin, written by Marcel Liebman in 1973. The Belgian historian went on to answer his own question by arguing that: ‘You start by loving flowers and soon you are seized by the desire to live like a property owner, stretched out lazily and reading French novels in a hammock set amid a magnificent garden while being served by obsequious servants.’ Liebman must’ve been a laugh at parties.) Ikebana is a highly codified art form, based upon the idea of objects consoling the soul. It’s a complex interplay between the shape of container, stem heights, the angles at which flowers or branches stand, and the harmony of lines created by the plant materials and their arrangement. Over the past two years, Henrot has made more than 100 arrangements, some of which she then exhibits and photographs, reassigning traditional ikebana codes in order to make a series of homages to books in her library. (‘To make my formal language I use the Latin and common names of the flowers, the names designed for their commercial exploitation, their pharmacological power and sometimes even the history of their travels.’)5 It is an act of translation, of recoding literature and giving it a form that privileges impermanence, the everyday and the domestic. Her approach to ikebana has been one of mastering codes, then breaking them in order to make the arrangements her own.

Anthropology has been a hotbed of arguments about essentializing difference, about controlling the Other, so isn’t it dangerous to start making the codes of that discipline one’s own? Let’s move to fig. 3, Le Songe de Poliphile/The Strife of Love in a Dream (2011): video, duration 11 minutes 40 seconds. Shot in France and India, the film braids vivid imagery of pilgrimages and ritual theatre with comic books, statues and pharmaceutical laboratories synthesizing anti-anxiety drugs. A work about fear, including Henrot’s own anxieties about visiting India, its soundtrack marries serpentine drones to thunderous kettledrums, evoking atmospheres of dread and climaxing in hedonistic abandon. Throughout, the snake is used as a metaphor to symbolize both fear and healing. We see snakes crawling across rocks, snakes represented in classical sculpture, snakes wriggling through hands, snakes sliding through Tintin books and Fritz Lang’s Indian Tomb (1959).

Heart of Darkness, 2012, from ‘Is it possible to be revolutionary and like flowers?’, 2011–ongoing, ikebana arrangement, dimensions variable. Courtesy: © the artist, ADAGP, Paris, and kamel mennour, Paris; photograph: Alexandra Serrano

Opening with psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar’s line that ‘India is the unconsciousness of the West’, Le Songe de Poliphile … at first seems to herald a troubling Orientalism both old and new, as ‘spiritual’ India is juxtaposed with scenes of technological, business-minded India. (The country is one of the major suppliers of psychopharmaceuticals to the West.) In some respects, the film skirts a lyrical universalism that privileges generalized similarities over the specific historical, economic or cultural conditions under which a group of people are acting. Henrot produces an entrancing parade of images, ‘assembled in a network of meanings, somewhat based on the principles in Mnemosyne [1924–29] by Aby Warburg, by merging them into an atlas of images of different cultural and worldly references, all according to the principle of elective affinities’.6 Magnetic as the imagery is, the experience of watching Le Songe de Poliphile … is a dangerous seduction. The audience is never allowed to know what kind of rituals we’re looking at, what pharmaceutical drugs are being made or where the snippets of found source material come from. Only Henrot knows its inner workings. Le Songe de Poliphile … is about privileged knowledge. It moves and feints as if it were documentary, but it conceals risky subjectivity.

But artists who are working with risky subjectivities strike me as far more interesting than those picking over land that has been thoroughly mine-swept by scholars and dealers alike – those who collect the metadata that enables them to predict patterns and relationships. ‘If you like Arte Povera then you’ll love Mono-ha!’ ‘Customers who bought Francis Bacon also bought a large Caribbean island.’ Who knows what, and who you tell it to, is the name of the game in 2014. Measuring, listing, annotating, networking, storing, referencing rather than producing: the quantified world seeks to turn our subjectivities into objectivities of data sets, from which can be extrapolated behaviour patterns. Knowing how to game the knowledge industry and lighting firewalls around personal knowledge – rather than giving up to the world, like spoiled narcissists, information about what’s on our playlists – is a political act. As Morrissey put it in The Smiths’ ‘Cemetery Gates’ (1986): ‘There’s always someone, somewhere, with a big nose, who knows.’

Grosse Fatigue (Dead Tired), 2013, video still. Courtesy: © the artist, ADAGP, Paris, and kamel mennour, Paris; photograph: Alexandra Serrano

Right now, that big nose is Big Data. With that in mind, there is something poignant about watching fig. 4, Grosse Fatigue (Dead Tired, 2013): video, duration 13 minutes. Set entirely on a computer desktop, Grosse Fatigue begins with a Final Cut Pro file being clicked open against a backdrop photograph of the Milky Way. Two windows pop onto the desktop: each shows a large coffee-table book on a yellow tabletop – one depicts native tribespeople, the other a contemporary art catalogue – being leafed through by a woman’s hands wearing bright green and red nail varnish. The scene cuts to a young woman in a grey institutional corridor opening a locker. The corridor is in the bowels of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. In the top right of the screen appears another window showing the phrase ‘the history of the universe’ being typed into Google. A kick-drum punches in groups of three and a voice-over begins: ‘In the beginning there was no earth, no water – nothing. There was a single hill called Nunne Chaha.’

There follows an elegant dance of windows popping in and out, layered and scaling back and forth on top of each other. They open onto a succession of extraordinary images shot in the Smithsonian’s collections: drawers full of neatly arranged toucans and macaws, ancient fertility statues, X-rays of seahorses. We see turtles burrowing into sand, naked bodies showering, ostrich eggs being peeled, a frog sat on an iPhone, a man looking at the inside of a bomb then a telescope photograph of the universe, a glass eye, eyedrops falling onto a real eyeball, a woman masturbating, someone doing calligraphy, an iguana, a man falling over, the back of a bald head, a zebra, a boulder, an angry chicken, paintings of fish, a photo of Lee Harvey Oswald doctored to make it look like he’s in a band with his murderer Jack Ruby, an orange, an inflatable Earth. The voice-over continues over sparse hip-hop rhythms. It synthesizes creation narratives from all over the world, moving chronologically from the beginning of time to the origin of planets and life, through to their death. Each vignette is framed by a computer window. There to be stopped, started, opened or closed, these windows represent knowledge packaged flat – the reference not the thing.

Grosse Fatigue is a powerful work about the vertigo of information, about how too much knowledge turns it weightless, turns it into image and evacuates experience and substance. It is profoundly of the moment, and profoundly sad. But what do I know?

Camille Henrot is a French artist based in New York, USA. In 2013, her work was included in the 55th Venice Biennale, where she was awarded the Silver Lion, and she had solo shows at the New Orleans Museum of Art, USA, and Slought Foundation, Philadelphia, USA. Her solo exhibition, ‘The Pale Fox’, is at Chisenhale Gallery, London, UK, until 13 April. It will then tour to Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen, Denmark; Bétonsalon, Paris, France; and Westfälischer Kunstverein, Munster, Germany. Her exhibition ‘The Restless Earth’, is at the New Museum, New York, US, from 7th May to 29th June.

1 Cecilia Alemani, ‘Relations de Traduction’, interview with the artist, Mousse, issue 35, October–November 2012
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 Brian Eno, ‘Interview’, from the album From Brussels with Love, 1980, Les Disques du Crepescule, Brussels
5 Camille Henrot, talk given at the Department of German and Romance Languages and Literatures, The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, 3 December 2012
6 Camille Henrot, Le Songe de Poliphile/The Strife of Love in a Dream, director’s note for 2011 Cannes Film Festival

Dan Fox

is co-editor of frieze and lives in New York, USA.


-yerba buena san francisco


Mar 30, 2014

'The Pale Fox' (2014), Camille Henrot. Installation view, Chisenhale Gallery, London, 2014.

In Pursuit of an Idea: Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery

French artist Camille Henrot’s first solo UK exhibition at Chisenhale Gallery is like asking a question and receiving a million answers. She’s trying to get to the bottom of things – the show is full of references to origins – but this seems at odds with the dizzying array of stuff that fills the gallery space; abstract sculptures, glossy images torn from magazines, second-hand books, tacky postcards, puzzle pens, kitsch mugs, stacks of National Geographic, retro movie posters, a remote controlled snake. A deliberately overwhelming and seemingly random installation, the result is an excessive theatricality. It’s a hoarder’s paradise and a minimalist’s nightmare.

The title of Henrot’s show, The Pale Fox, is borrowed from a 1965 anthropological study of the West African Dogon people, whose complex mythology – incorporating astronomy, mathematics and philosophy – informs Henrot’s own convoluted study. Here the artist is anthropologist, only her subject is the whole of human evolution, the universe, knowledge itself. This whistle-stop tour through the history of the world takes in art and culture, science and myth. Here are books, the internet, babies, eggs, foxes, wolves, cities, global warming. Wikipedia gone mad.

Yet this totalising project and its chaotic barrage of objects and images – made more fractured by the discordant, looped soundtrack – is not without structure. Each wall corresponds to an element and there’s a timeline of sorts that sees objects arranged along a constructed metal grid. So in the midst of chaos is an evolving order, albeit with many knowing narrative asides.

In this way, Henrot looks to the archive and its attempts to categorise and make sense of the world. In Grosse Fatigue (2013), the film that won her the Silver Lion for most promising young artist at the 55th Venice Biennale, Henrot attempts to process the overwhelming collections held in the Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC – one of the largest museums and a vast repository of knowledge. Her almost childish desire to capture it all means bombarding the viewer with a mix of quick-fire spoken word and disparate, disconnected imagery. No wonder it’s titled Grosse Fatigue; it must be a tiring experience trying to tell the story of the world’s creation in just 13 minutes.

Both this and The Pale Fox obsess over how we store information, how we retrieve it, and how we understand the objects around us. And in Henrot’s storytelling there are no hierarchies; she exhaustively admits multiple thought systems and accepts myriad ways of comprehending the world. The archive, it seems, is much more productive in its very falling apart.

So if Grosse Fatigue is the script then The Pale Fox is the performance. In the Chisenhale, the thoroughly immersive experience of seeing Henrot’s work is made more intense by the blue paint that covers the gallery’s walls. Like being underwater or in the sky, it feels endless. And blue is often associated with calm, which is a necessary antidote to the jumble of disparate works assembled here. It’s also impossible not to think of Yves Klein, and in fact Henrot is deliberate in her references to creativity and art history. Her abstract brush drawings conjure Picasso and in the midst of the second-hand images and eBay purchases are Henrot’s own bronze and ceramic sculptures that draw inspiration from both tribal art and 20th-century modernism. If she turns to creation myths she also looks to the act of creation more generally, to that elusive and age-old creative impulse. It reminds me of how it feels to write – to frustratedly attempt to say everything and to capture something totally.

I write down a quote from a page that Henrot has torn out of one of the National Geographic and stuck on the wall: ‘I am in pursuit of an idea, a story, a chimera, perhaps a folly. I am chasing ghosts.’ Written by journalist Paul Salopek, it refers to his journey retracing the route taken by ancestors who discovered the Earth 60,000 years ago. Salopek’s desire to return to the beginning and his compulsion to connect with a world that is now defined by speed, technology and inattentiveness seems also at the heart of Henrot’s project. In attempting to unravel the history of the universe, we are left with just that – an unravelling. A blue room that, in the end, throws up more questions than answers. It’s a lot to take in. But that, it seems, is the point.

‘Camille Henrot: The Pale Fox’ runs at Chisenhale Gallery, London until 13 April 2014.


The Pale Fox. Camille Henrot

Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_09When Heinrich Wölfflin makes concluding observations on the nature of history in Principles of Art History (1932), in spite of himself, he cannot help reaching for images of complexity. How do we account for cessation and recommencement of art historical periods? ‘Only a spiral would meet the facts,’ he writes. How do we speak of the relations between art of different nations? ‘Not the line but the web of lines,’ he admits. ‘Not the established single form but the movement of form.’ There is tension between linear ways of telling and complex, multiple being. The old and the new, the historian tells us, ‘dovetail’.
These are a few of the ‘big questions’ — unfashionable in contemporary art — French, New York-based artist Camille Henrot poses in her exhibition The Pale Fox, installed at Chisenhale in London’s East End. With The Pale Fox, a commission that developed out of her film Grosse Fatigue (2013) (for which she was awarded the Silver Lion at the Venice Biennale for most promising young artist), Henrot poses perhaps the biggest question of all: ‘what is creation?’ From the macro to the micro, the artist’s studio, to the universe, how do things come into being, live, and die away?
The title of Henrot’s exhibition is taken from an influential anthropological study of the Dogon people of Mali, co-authored by Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen, and published by the latter in 1965. Through his multiple initiations by an elder, Griaule exposed the Dogon’s world view, cosmology, and philosophical system with unparalleled completeness. For the Dogon, he learnt, a creation myth served as a blueprint for all facets of society. Within this myth a fox, borne of thwarted intercourse with the earth, represents disorder and chaos but also creation, bringing about the formation of the sun.
At Chisenhale Henrot has painted the walls a rich blue; these are matched in colour by the carpeted floor. For Henrot the blue references Yves Klein and his eponymous tone of blue, but also, as a ground, enables an ambivalent relation between intimacy and universal distance. Upon entry ambient music envelops the viewer, initiates them into this total environment. (Sinologist François Jullien on blandness comes to mind: blandness is ‘the embodiment of neutrality… at the point of origin of all things possible’.) Following the space’s walls is a band — a more or less continuous structure — that twists, turns and flattens out into shelves. Uneven accumulations of E-bay found objects, loose Chinese ink drawings, ‘primitive’ Surrealist bronze and ceramic sculpture, and digital prints and images, often by Westerners looking at non-Westerners, displayed on tablet devices cluster at the foot of the shelves, or are displayed on its polished surfaces.
The shelf is a timeline, activated to represent periods in cosmic and human history according to Henrot’s alignment of the gallery to points of the compass. Each point is further associated with the four Classical elements of air, water, earth and fire. The West wall Henrot names ‘The principle of being (air): How things start.‘ The North wall, immediately in front as you enter the gallery, ‘The law of continuity (water): How things unfold.’ The East wall is ‘The principle of sufficient reason (earth): Where the limits are.’ And, finally, the South wall is ‘The principle of the indiscernible (fire): How things disappear.’ ‘I decided that there would be a different age of humanity attributed to each of the different walls,’ Henrot explained in the gallery interview. ‘I was already very interested in how the age of humanity can be related to the age of the universe.’
Henrot’s accumulation of objects and images achieves a global image willfully reminiscent of the great museum collections of the world. However, against an accumulation that might dedifferentiate, produce a kind of ambivalence to things, Henrot seeks to particularise, to emphasise unresolved complexity in heterogeneity. There is a will for objects and images to retain their aura, their special powers within a field of others. ‘Synthesis,’ Henrot says, ‘is never really interesting, it’s almost like a bourgeois solution. It’s the dynamic between thesis and antithesis that is interesting.’
For Henrot the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s notion of the fold is an ideal image of complexity. Speaking of the fold Deleuze invokes a world of superabundance, with no boundary between the organic and the inorganic. Each folds into the other in a continuos ‘texturology’. Henrot’s assembly of images and objects — her art — is able to evoke a span far exceeding the limits of art history’s knowledge, while, irresistibly, holding a mirror to contemporary Western society.

Jonathan P Watts

The Pale Fox by Camille Henrot
Chisenhale Gallery, London
Through April 13
Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_00 Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_01 Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_02 Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_04 Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_05 Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_07 Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_07b Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_08 Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_10 Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_12 Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_13 Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_14 Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_15 Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_16 Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_17 Camille Henrot at Chisenhale Gallery_Andy Keate_18
Camille Henrot, The Pale Fox, 2014, installation view, Chisenhale Gallery. Commissioned and produced by Chisenhale Gallery in partnership with Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen; Bétonsalon – Centre for art and research, Paris and Westfälischer Kunstverein, Münster. Courtesy kamel mennour, Paris and Johann König, Berlin. Photo: Andy Keate. © ADAGP


A Savage Mind: Camille Henrot’s Primitive Thinking

Camille Henrot, Grosse Fatigue (video still), 2013

By Anna Watkins Fisher, as published in Camille Henrot, éditions kamel mennour, 2013.

There is something ‘out of time’ about the world of Camille Henrot, something the artist readily admits. “My relationship with reference has always been very traditional. I’m sorry!” she says, adding with Latourian irony: “I should be more modern.”

The artist’s œuvre visualizes an acute and resplendently beautiful sense of historical dislocation, her syncopated aesthetic conveyed through a set of representational paradoxes that repeat across her intermedial recombinations of film, sculpture, photography, performance, and drawing. Such work formalizes Henrot’s steadfast embrace of old-world craftsmanship recast with high production value and a cool attention to detail. Its disjunctive effect is also largely the result of her persistent examination of non-Western subject matter through an optic of polished cosmopolitanism.

Her soft spot for expressly utopian projects, like Esperanto or Henri Van Lier’s anthropogénie, is apparent in her recent films (especially Psychopompe and The Strife of Love in a Dream), which were inspired by French experimental filmmakers like Germaine Dulac, Jean Epstein and Abel Gance and the idea of cinema as a ‘total art.’ It should come as no surprise then that Henrot spent her tenure as a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellow in Washington, D.C. working on what she describes as “a project about everything.” The result was Grosse Fatigue, a 13-minute short film the artist made for the 2013 Venice Biennale International Exhibition. A mashup of cross-medial forms — part film, part slideshow, part computer animation — the project draws on her extensive research into the various strategies that African, Western, Melanesian, and Asian cultures have sought to tell nothing less than the history of the universe. Grosse Fatigue visualizes this impossible task in its explicit enactment of screenal psychosis. The film intercuts images of artifacts from the Smithsonian collection and everyday objects (e.g. chromatic scales, early personal computers, sponges, a glass eye) with oversaturated images that highlight procedures of archiving, systematizing, and exhibiting (online databases, screenshots, image searches)1. Unleashing the infinite capaciousness of the historical catalogue, Henrot gives us a taste of the archival sublime in the ecstatic age of digital media.

Her engrossment with the “total work of art,” however, should be read less as an interest in the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk (the comprehensive or all-encompassing capacity of the work), than an imaginative attachment to systematicity as utopian fantasy, as a “timelessness” and “spacelessness” that could accommodate incommensurable orders. One perceives her aesthetic preoccupation with such zones of contact or sites of mutual attachment in works like the Janus-headed Arrivals/Departures or Tevau. Her mischievous testing and breaching of epistemological boundaries may be most apparent in Tropics of Love and Collection préhistorique. In both series, the artist splices up and reassembles images from ethnographic archival imagery and pornography — signifiers of geography, gender, sexuality, ethnicity and special difference — for her drawings, multimedia collages, and photographic still-lives. These works visualize Henrot’s preoccupation with the nature/culture divide, particularly with the increasingly ambivalent status of nature in our hypertechnologized moment as what we mean by ‘natural’ has become ever more uncertain.

Some grappling with her deconstructive approach to totalizing systems is crucial for resolving the postcolonial politics of her work. Her practice explores an aching desire for cross-cultural connection, across geopolitical differences and platitudes, historical epochs and orders. The artist has said that she finds methods of knowledge acquisition that tend toward globalizing or universalizing “both absurd and moving”2. With this in mind, her art practice would seem to be indistinguishable from what she has described as her abiding attachment to objects. Camille Henrot doesn’t like to throw anything in the trash3.

These works are typical of her process: research-intensive and ambitious, yet winning. Henrot — an obsessive researcher, collector, and bibliophile — strikes a balance between the epistemophilia and archivistic inclination that drives her. Approachable and unaffected, her work rests at the interstice of erudition and naïveté. For each new work, she produces copious notes — diagrams of intellectual histories and genealogies of the mythological, historical, literary, and philosophical themes she sets out to explore. These rhizomatic “thought drawings” constitute an important, if undisclosed, archive of her artworks.

Given her inclination toward aesthetics of abundance and forms of seriality, it is fitting that the only stand-alone piece that Henrot, a self-described accumulator, has made is nevertheless a replica. Upon seeing a small anthropomorphic sculpture of Le Balafré in the Louvre, the artist felt a strong urge to possess it. Knowing this was not possible, she decided to make one for herself, only to find that she was disappointed by the result because it looked nothing like the original. Touching it more forcefully, she began making marks with her fingers on his face and torso, only to realize that these imprints captured what the original sculpture was about in the first place: “Balafré means ‘the scarred,’ a person who has a scar on the face… The scar has been made by a very important goddess [who decided] not to kill him but just to make him weaker, to teach him to be less powerful… I kind of like this kind of ‘in-between’ solution,” she says. “I like that it is a small man. It reminds me of a photograph of Matisse in his bed that I love. He is in his bed, and he is making a very small woman.”

Concerned with epistemological practices, Henrot’s works attest to a relationship to knowledge that is characterized by an unquenchable desire for more. Her interest in accumulation is, in many ways, a countervailing force to her fascination with totality. The drive toward a total work is never finished and perhaps more accurately reflects her investment in the work of failure in impossible projects. For the artist, a good work has to be extremely difficult, close to impossible, “or maybe even better if it’s impossible.” “I like approaching anthropology in a critical way precisely because anthropological thinking, in its somewhat tenacious aspiration to connect different cultural spheres or knowledges seems to me to index a ‘pensée sauvage…” she has said4.

The keystone to Henrot’s aesthetic philosophy, the concept of pensée sauvage is one she imports from the writings of Claude Lévi-Strauss, the founder of modern anthropology, who argued, contra progressivist dogma, that “primitive thinking,” rather than a pre-logical stage, is profoundly rationalist5. What is most striking about her yearning for the mythical potentialities of totalizing endeavors — such as those exemplified in postcolonial critiques of the discipline of anthropology — is how the artist seems to have found, in her aestheticization of these, a counterintuitive point of entry into an important conversation about the ambivalent forces of postcolonial fantasy (developed by figures like Frantz Fanon and Édouard Glissant with respect to the French context). Moving between Paris and New York City, Henrot is attuned to the cultural differences that have marked the reception of her work and most significantly, the relatively wider institutionalization of postcolonial critique in the United States.
When I first showed [Coupé/Décalé in France] few people really understood what it was about. People were telling me ‘Oh the music is good,’ ‘Oh the images are beautiful,’ ‘It’s a nice film you shot of Africa.’ The film was not shot in Africa but in Oceania. This idea of the vision from the outside and the construction of the identity of the other… I was thinking it was a little too obvious.

Her practice may thus be described as one of recontextualizing and disseminating Lévi-Strauss’ insights into a contemporary visual vocabulary — coupage et décalage. Her appropriation of pensée sauvage from the anthropological lexicon encapsulates the artist’s conceptual stake in the interdependence between man and things and compulsion to explore the structuring causality that links actions and events in the world6. Anthropology is thus the structuring ethos of her artistic praxis, and “primitive thinking,” or the idea that everything has a meaning, is the ethical imperative of her work (one that remains consonant with her interests in Eastern philosophy and the posthumanist turn).

The French title of Lévi-Strauss’s La Pensée sauvage (1962), which many consider to be his most important work, contains a pun that is untranslatable in English. The Savage Mind fails to capture the polysemy of the French pensée, which means both ‘thought’ and ‘pansy,’ the flower, whereas sauvage translates less equivocally as ‘wild,’ ‘savage’ or ‘primitive.’ The French edition still retains a flower on the cover, and Lévi-Strauss is said to have suggested Pansies for Thought for the English title, a reference to a speech by Ophelia in Hamlet. The problem of failed translation offers an insight into an artist who appears to thrive in the space of the untranslatable. Henrot has said, “I think it is always good not to be understood very well. Especially for people like me who have a tendency to complication, it’s better.”

In 2011, Henrot began Is It Possible to be a Revolutionary and Like Flowers?, a two-year-long intensive period of making ikebana, a virtuosic Japanese practice of meditative and studied floral arrangement. Henrot describes the project as an elegiac ritual that she invented in response to the deaths of several loved ones. The artist, who claims she is a bad cook, was tasked instead with organizing flowers for the bereavement. As a result, she grew to feel revolted by what she calls “the consoling power of flowers.” “They are consoling you,” she explains, “but why should we be consoled? Maybe we should just be angry, you know?” The project’s title — a reference to Marcel Liebman’s book Leninism Under Lenin in which one of Lenin’s lieutenants asks, “Is it possible to be a revolutionary and like flowers?” — alludes to this compensatory promise of flowers.

Around the same time as the funeral, Henrot became interested in ikebana. She had just moved to New York and ikebana seemed a way for her to remain connected to the books from her personal library still in Paris. Over the course of two years, she composed 150 ikebana arrangements, paying tribute to volumes such as Roland Barthes’ Fragments d’un discours amoureux, Gustave Flaubert’s Salammbô, André Gide’s L’immoraliste, and Charles Schultz’s Peanuts. She also made ikebana inspired by books that she hadn’t yet read, such as Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Voyage au bout de la nuit.

For Henrot, the flower — with its manifold significatory power (as a symbol for vanitas, revolution, beauty, mystery, and so on) — symbolizes the ambiguity of aesthetics, as subversive potential and/or apolitical consolation prize. “I don’t mean I want to do revolution and stop making bouquets,” she explains. “I just want people to be aware also that beauty has this perverse effect. You think it is nice, but maybe it’s not nice. Maybe you should just not look at art or flowers and you should just be acting against something.” For the artist, a good work of art resembles a flower in that it “has to be like a prism, like a fan. It has to be as open as possible.” Is It Possible to be a Revolutionary and Like Flowers? thus maintains the ambivalence that the project explores as an open question: “You can think it is ironical and you can think it’s not and this is good because flowers can be seen as a luxury, a capitalist symbol, but they can also be seen as a symbol of revolution…,” she says alluding to a number of civil resistance movements that have adopted the flower as their symbol (e.g. the Jasmine Revolution, the Carnation Revolution, the Rose Revolution, the Tulip Revolution, etc.).
“One ikebana is consoling (it is the sacred ritual to do one ikebana in the house), but what happens if you have many ikebana in just one single room?” Taking Lévi-Strauss at his word, Henrot literalizes pensée sauvage in her intensification of the elegiac dimension of ikebana, turning it into something else, “something more obsessive.” Not interested in just one ikebana, she creates rooms full of them. Her manic accumulation actualizes the pun of Lévi-Strauss’ title. Bringing together flowers and thoughts (ikebana and her personal library, the intimate ritual of mourning and the public practice of art making, nature and culture, East and West), she engages in primitive thinking as an exquisite work of untranslatability.

1. Camille Henrot, Email to author, 30 April 2013.
2. Camille Henrot, Notes sur mon travail, 30 Mars 2011.
3. Camille Henrot, Interview with author, Skype, 3 April 2013.
4. Ibid.
5. Alan Barnard, Jonathan Spencer, “Claude Lévi-Strauss,” Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology. Routledge, p. 335, 1996.
6. Camille Henrot, Notes sur mon travail, 30 March 2011.

Camille Henrot
Grosse Fatigue, 2013
Vidéo (couleur, sonore) / Video (color, sound)
13 min
Musique originale de / Original music by Joakim
Voix / Voice by Akwetey Orraca-Tetteh
Texte écrit en collaboration avec / Text written in collaboration with Jacob Bromberg
Producteur / Producer : kamel mennour, Paris ; avec le soutien du / with the additional support of : Fonds de dotation Famille Moulin, Paris
Production: Silex Films
Lion d’argent – 55e Biennale de Venise / Silver Lion – 55th Venice Biennale, 2013
Projet développé dans le cadre du / Project conducted as part of the Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship Program, Washington, D.C.
Remerciements particuliers aux / Special thanks to: the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
© ADAGP Camille Henrot
Courtesy the artist, Silex Films and kamel mennour, Paris



CAMILLE HENROT The Restless Earth


Camille Henrot’s solo exhibition The Restless Earth made full use of the New Museum’s second floor, leading viewers through a loop of rooms with diverse characters, plots, and settings. A sharp contrast to the gestalt experiences presented by Ragnar Kjartansson and Roberto Cuoghi on the surrounding floors, Henrot covered broad expanses of time and space in four videos, 46 flower-assemblages, a 135-plate adaptation of a jewelry auction catalogue, numerous mixed media drawings, engravings, and two sculptures. All works were accompanied by extensive wall labels that traced and analyzed each project’s evolution, providing facts and details usually absent from the works themselves that added useful layers to a progressive unfolding of meaning. Without names, dates, and places, our assumptions and associations run wild, as they are wont to do in today’s media landscape where seductive pictures are often detached from, or misaligned with, factual information.  Consider Google image searches, Facebook, Instagram, and even, where a slow load or a pop-up ad might obscure or stagger our absorption of the most reputable journalism. These questions of how stories are told, how information is gathered and assembled into knowledge, and how rapidly this process is changing, are central to Henrot’s project.

Camille Henrot, “Coupé-Décalé,” 2010. Video (color, sound), 3 min 54 sec, © ADAGP Camille Henrot. Courtesy the artist and Kamel Mennour, Paris.

“Grosse Fatigue” (2013), which earned Henrot the Silver Lion at this year’s Venice Biennial, is an epic film compressed into 13 minutes. Its title, translated as “Dead Tired,” is shared with a 1994 French satire about celebrity identity theft. In Henrot’s opening sequence, the phrase “in the beginning” introduces a torrent of interwoven creation myths presented in response to a Google search: “the history of the universe.” This dream-like composite is accompanied by a succession of images: flowing veils of ink, rushing water, the Milky Way, a “Buddha’s Hand” citrus fruit, all of which send us thinking back eons in pursuit of the ultimate beginning. The familiar Biblical phrase repeats again toward the middle of the film while an image of an early computer lingers on screen. Here, “the beginning” is connected to a cumbersome machine that feels as ancient as an early species. This artifact illustrates the origin of the digital age, which has accelerated in its relatively short history, and will only accelerate more. Even the Energizer batteries neatly lined up by fingers with matching blue-polished nails are like an archival display, once marketed to “keep going and going” on a scale that shrinks in comparison to today’s unbroken connectivity, at least for parts of the world’s population.

Camille Henrot, “Is It Possible to be a Revolutionary and Like Flowers?” 2012. Installation view. Courtesy New Museum, New York, 2014. Photo: Benoit Pailley.

But Henrot is no stranger to other parts of the population. Many of her films are set in locations remote to Western society where rates and patterns of acceleration are different. “Coupé/Décalé” (2010) records a tribal ritual on 35mm film, giving it the appearance of historic footage. While watching N’gol land-diving (a precedent to Western bungee jumping), the viewer is lead to make many half-conscious assumptions about the subjects and the environment, all of which are called into question when a girl in a T-shirt and jeans with a digital camera comes into view. “The Strife of Love in a Dream” (2011) offers a similar moment of surprise, when a bonfire ritual begins and hundreds of glowing screens pop up to document it. Only when assumptions are refuted do we become aware of them: why do Western viewers often confuse distant places and distant times? And what happens when we realize, as we must, that one or the other is not so distant after all? Most of the exotic objects showcased in “Grosse Fatigue” are in fact located right here in our nation’s capital at the Smithsonian Institute, where Henrot held an Artist Research Fellowship last year. The debris shown resting at the bottom of the ocean off the Vanuatu island Espiritu Santo, which couldn’t be farther from our shores, was actually left by American troops during World War II.

Notions of otherness are further complicated in “The Strife of Love in a Dream” as the footage, shot in the southern Indian province of Tamil Nadu in 2011, offers conflicting associations. While crowds climbing a mountain for a ritual seem set back in time, factory workers packaging the anti-anxiety drug Atarax feel flung into a dystopian future. These scenes have the eeriness of a science fiction film: all characters covered entirely in white except for their eyes; gloved fingers operating controls on plastic-wrapped dashboards; larger-than-life machinery; masses of white pills; expressionless faces. The factory, shown in fast-moving, clinically anonymous fragments, recalls the immaculate outer-space interiors of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the line between human and machine famously dissolves.

Camille Henrot, “Grosse Fatigue,” 2013. Video, color, sound, 13 min. Original music: Joakim; Voice: Akwetey Orraca-Tetteh; Text: written in collaboration with Jacob Bromberg; Producer: Kamel Mennour, Paris, with the additional support of Fonds de dotation Famille Moulin, Paris; Production: Silex Films. © ADAGP Camille Henrot. Courtesy the artist, Silex Films, and kamel mennour, Paris.

2001 was made in 1968, a prophecy of the future that is now the past. That same year, Leo Steinberg gave a lecture at MoMA introducing the “flatbed picture plane,” a change of “psychic address” in which the painted surface was “no longer the analogue of a visual experience of nature, but of operational processes.”* He cited newspapers, maps, tabletops, and studio floors as models of pictures that collect data instead of representing worlds. This theory may be as easily applied to “Grosse Fatigue” as to Rauschenberg’s work of the early 1950s, only we might now replace the flatbed with the screen, our new interface that addresses the body from any position. By moving between the physical desktop (with drawing tools, rulers, and X-acto knives) and the computer desktop (with icons, folders, and windows, and windows, and windows), Henrot explores this same matter of “psychic address” and its relation to perception. Phones, GPS devices, tablets, and TVs address the body/mind at increasingly close range. With the rise of Google Glass, the “desktop” (or picture plane) merges directly with vision itself. Data-collecting surfaces have evolved and proliferated since Steinberg, and Henrot shows us the results in 2013: somewhere between euphoria and madness, empowerment and exhaustion.

Upon entering The Restless Earth, one is immersed in an installation of flower-assemblages that translate texts from Henrot’s library into the language of Japanese ikebana. It is a poetic play on the shifty relations between text and object; to identify the logic of each match demands close reading and looking, which might be Henrot’s mandate for all forms of interface.


Fantasy Formalist Painter Nicole Eisenman: Interviews, Images & Texts



W magazine

Culture » Art & Design » Nicole Eisenman: Brushes with Greatness

Eisenman with works in progress.

Nicole Eisenman: Brushes with Greatness

One of eight women artists who are storming the boys’ club.

“I take downtime seriously,” Nicole Eisenman says over the phone from her summer house on New York’s Fire Island a week after the seasonal hordes have cleared out. “It’s lovely when no one’s here.” For the Brooklyn-based painter, the moments between exhibitions are often when her brain opens up to new strategies—like when, in 2009, she traded elaborate storytelling in the form of classically painted scenes of, say, a convivial beer garden for simpler, masklike works similar to those included in the MoMA show. “For me, it was really a different approach,” Eisenman, 49, says of the paintings, which hover somewhere between figuration and abstraction. “These portraits are about color, shape, balance, symmetry. It’s as close to pure formalism as I’m probably ever going to get.” Not that she’s entirely forsaken narrative: Recently, Eisenman moved out of the Williamsburg house she shared with her then-partner and their two children—whose bedroom there is covered with murals she did years ago—and into an apartment nearby. “The kids have a whole new mural now.”

The Jewish Museum

Masterpieces & Curiosities: Nicole Eisenman’s Seder at the Jewish Museum

View of Masterpieces & Curiosities: Nicole Eisenman’s Seder, The Jewish Museum, New York. Photo: David Heald.

Masterpieces & Curiosities: Nicole Eisenman’s Seder at the Jewish Museum

Masterpieces & Curiosities: Nicole Eisenman’s Seder
On view through August 9, 2015

The Jewish Museum
1109 Fifth Ave at 92nd St
New York, NY

In the latest installment of the Masterpieces & Curiosities exhibition series, Nicole Eisenman’s Seder (2010), a painting commissioned by the Jewish Museum as part of Shifting the Gaze: Painting and Feminism (2010–11), is presented with portraits and objects from the institution’s vast holdings. Eisenman infuses her work with dark humor, contemporary fears and desires, and knowing critiques of pop culture and art history. This exhibition offers a rare opportunity to view Eisenman’s Seder in context with seldom-seen yet important collection works that help illuminate her painterly approach and her chosen subject. Paintings by Leon Kossoff, Hyman Bloom, Raphael Soyer, and Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, among others, complement an array of Seder plates from the 18th century to the present, two of which were created by Eisenman for this exhibition. Also on view are two paintings by the artist’s great-grandmother, Esther Hammerman, on loan from the Eisenman Family. Through this varied display of artworks and historical objects in dialogue, Eisenman’s Seder can be seen as both responding to and advancing a storied visual and material tradition of Jewish culture.

Nicole Eisenman was born in Verdun, France, and received her bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts from the Rhode Island School of Design. In 2005, she and the artist A. L. Steiner cofounded Ridykeulous, an artist-run collective that focuses primarily on queer and feminist art and produces exhibitions, performances, and publications. Eisenman was awarded the Carnegie Prize in 2013. Eisenman lives and works in New York.

Public programs

A Closer Look gallery talks
March 30; April 6 and 20; May 4 and 18; June 8 and 22; July 6 and 20; August 3

This in-depth exploration of select works of art in the exhibition galleries occurs Mondays at 1pm.
Free with museum admission. Find out more here.

Masterpieces & Curiosities: Nicole Eisenman’s Seder is organized by Joanna Montoya Robotham, Neubauer Family Foundation Assistant Curator. The series is organized by Jens Hoffmann, Deputy Director, Exhibitions and Public Programs, and Daniel S. Palmer, Leon Levy Assistant Curator.

Public programs at the Jewish Museum are made possible by endowment support from the William Petschek Family, the Trustees of the Salo W. and Jeannette M. Baron Foundation, Barbara and Benjamin Zucker, William W. Hallo, the late Susanne Hallo Kalem, the late Ruth Hallo Landman, the Marshall M. Weinberg Fund, with additional support from Marshall M. Weinberg, the Rita J. and Stanley H. Kaplan Foundation, the Saul and Harriet M. Rothkopf Family Foundation and Ellen Liman.

Additional support is provided by Lorraine and Martin Beitler and through public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.

Jun. 15, 2012

Nicole Eisenman’s Prints and People

Nicole Eisenman working at Harlan & Weaver, New York.

Eight months ago, Nicole Eisenman locked her paints away and turned exclusively to prints. Operating feverishly in four different workshops, both alone and in collaboration, the Brooklyn-based artist has produced a trove of works in various mediums—etching, lithography, monotype and woodcut. Her large, inventive monotypes—colorful works focusing a big head, or on a single figure or two in playful combinations—were her contribution to the most recent Whitney Biennial, often singled out for praise in reviews of the show. Eisenman is currently exhibiting her prints in all mediums at Leo Koenig Gallery in New York, through June 30.

Eisenman first achieved notoriety in the early 1990s for her graphic brilliance, as demonstrated in drawings that she produced in profusion, at small and grand scale. The irreverence of her content—what was newly being called “queer” art—was at that time something unprecedented. Drawings ranged from one-off sight gags on tiny scraps of paper to giant murals depicting all-female scenes—shipwrecks, desert islands, an under-water film shoot—replete with sex and violence. In a wall drawing at the 1996 Whitney Biennial, she depicted the destruction of the Whitney Museum itself. While over the years she has tempered the excesses of her subject matter, Eisenman has returned to graphic exuberance in her recent prints. Her tone has darkened in these works, but she is no less experimental in her exploration of form and content.

With one of her collaborators, Andrew Mockler of Jungle Press, Eisenman took a trip to the Metropolitan Museum and looked at dozens of historical prints. One senses the ghostly presence of printmaking artists from the past—Beckmann and Picasso, Goya and Munch—in the works on view. But, as Mockler observes, “she’s just able to digest all that stuff and make it an Eisenman.”

A.i.A. caught up with Eisenman on the heels of her Koenig opening.

FAYE HIRSCH: I remember a conversation you and I had a few years ago about prints. You were getting ready for a collaboration at Yale—Rochelle Feinstein’s program of getting an artist and a master printer to collaborate.

NICOLE EISENMAN: Yeah, I was asked to pull some prints out of the Yale University Art Gallery’s collection and talk about them to the students. Then there was a separate visit—they invite artists to make a print in the print shop, and then the printer gets one, the artist gets one and Yale gets one, which is a brilliant idea. I don’t know why every school doesn’t do that. And they got [master printer] Craig Zammiello to come do the etching.

I’d toyed around with etching here and there. I learned how to do it in college when I was in Rome—really basic cross-hatching techniques and stuff like that. But it takes a concentrated effort to get to know a material as complicated as any of these processes are.

Especially lithography: still after nine months of doing it, I am as at much of a loss as I was when I first started. Etching I get. You throw acid on the metal and it burns the metal. But try to explain to me how water and oil etch a rock. I don’t get it. I can’t even frame my questions about it.

HIRSCH: I am very struck by how, with each of those processes, you do something completely different. And also by how historically savvy they are. Do you think about Beckmann or Munch?

EISENMAN: I do. As I started this project I read a lot of books and made trips to museums. Andrew took me to the print collection at the Met. I was getting a crash course in the history of printmaking. Munch is someone I looked at a lot, and Picasso was absolutely the number one man for etching. I can’t get enough of Picasso’s etchings. You don’t really understand how fucking brilliant they are until you try to do it yourself. It’s a little bit of the frustrating thing about printmaking—it kind of looks easy, and it’s really not. The level of density he gets—it came as a beautiful surprise.

HIRSCH: You really made a decision to concentrate on printmaking for a period of time.

EISENMAN:  I’ve been working in my studio for seven years painting, but in August I packed up my oil paints in a big strong box with a lock. I whitewashed the walls and the floor. And I scrubbed and disinfected every inch of it. So I had this beautiful white cube, and I started a yearlong works on paper and prints project.

HIRSCH: Why did you decide to do that?

EISENMAN: I don’t know. I think I went to the [IFPDA] print fair [in New York], I don’t know. I’m trying to remember where it came from.

HIRSCH: It seems like such a natural fit.

EISENMAN: That’s what it is. I like works on paper. My origins, back in the ’90s, were in works on paper. I was going back to that place, but not directly. I would have these processes sort of mediate the drawing.

HIRSCH: You’ve also been working at workshops—in lithography with Andrew Mockler at Jungle Press in Brooklyn, and in etching with Felix Harlan and Carol Weaver at Harlan & Weaver on Canal Street. Those are really high-end collaborators. What about the monotypes?

EISENMAN: I did those myself at the amazing Women’s Studio Workshop in Rosendale, in upstate New York. I rented time on their press. It’s a women’s collective, just beautiful. Anyone can go there, and they give grants to some people so they don’t have to pay anything. It’s a good old-fashioned women’s collective, really well run, with really good equipment. I made the monotypes I’m showing at the gallery there. The ones at the Whitney I did in Brooklyn on a press I rented from [artist and master printer] Lothar Osterburg.

And there’s another press I’ve been working with in Brooklyn on the woodcuts, called Ten Grand Press, which is Marina Ancona’s—she’s kind of a new kid on the block. She has a great little shop.

HIRSCH: Those woodcuts are incredible. I’ve never seen anything quite like them.

EISENMAN: Really? That’s so nice.

HIRSCH: How did you and Marina get those strange colors? The values are close, but the hues so unexpected.

EISENMAN: All this stuff is so much a result of collaboration.

HIRSCH: Did that draw you to prints specifically?

EISENMAN: Part of the appeal of prints for me was getting out of the solitude of my studio. I was going through a difficult breakup. Being able to go to a shop—having standing appointments with three different shops and three different sets of people three times a week—really kept me going through the fall and winter.  Having that company, that distraction and camaraderie, was kind of a life-saver.

HIRSCH: Technically those prints are amazing, and you have always just known how to draw. But I did find the subject matter to be rather dark—even though there’s still all this clowning around and playfulness, especially in the monotypes. It seems a lot about loneliness, about going out to bars and crying.

EISENMAN: Part of this came from looking at Picasso’s prints. He was able to siphon raw feeling—his reactions to a drama he created, really, between his mistress and his wife. He poured it all into his Suite 156 etchings. They’re so gorgeous and heartfelt and heart-wrenching. And looking at those I felt free, like permission had been granted  to let it be as personal as I needed it to be.

HIRSCH: Well it definitely works. Have you found you work very differently in the different studios?

EISENMAN: The personalities definitely affect what’s going on. When I work alone, or with Marina, it’s easier for me to open up the queer and sexual subject matter. But what all three have in common, which is so much fun, is the willingness to experiment, to push the limits. Harlan and Weaver were just incredibly patient; there’s such a learning curve in etching. The stuff I did at the beginning was pretty straightforward, but the last—that beer garden—there are a lot of complex, different processes going on in that print.

All the shops present different atmospheres. Each is really a reflection of its [proprietors’] hearts and brains, and you’re walking right in and making yourself at home. Harlan and Weaver have a really beautiful, almost gentle, old-world style—so gorgeous and civilized. We have lunch everyday at noon, and all the interns, everyone working there—we all eat together. They touch a different era. Andrew is just a nut, he’s really fucking hilarious, he sings a lot, and the atmosphere at Jungle Press is fun and goofy.

The tough part is that you’re working in front of people; there’s an awkwardness of having to think on the spot. That’s why there are a lot of scenes of people drinking.

HIRSCH: What do you mean?

EISENMAN: When you don’t know what to do, draw people drinking. [Laughs] It’s become a never-ending subject matter for me, with all sorts of variations—something I’ve been doing for a long time. There used to be a little more violence than there is now. People are not cutting and stringing each other up as much as they used to, but they’re drinking together, which is nicer. Though it’s the same idea.

HIRSCH: When I see your bar and dinner scenes, I think about the “Café Deutschland” paintings by Jörg Immedorff. I think of your beer gardens, which have portraits of your friends in them, as a latter-day society of creative people that you’re a part of, an homage to that queer, bohemian culture.

EISENMAN: The pictures of people drinking together show an aspect of a community I feel part of, but it’s also a fantasy showing the best of times. There is something that already seems past tense about those scenes—they are a nostalgic fantasy, which is a feeling I get sometimes even in those moments [when we’re together].

I was looking at Bonnard a few years ago. All those beautiful paintings where the centerpiece of the painting is this big white dinner table. That was a big inspiration.

HIRSCH: You’ve also mentioned—much to my surprise—Renoir.

EISENMAN: He was my favorite Impressionist by far, if I had to pick a favorite. His paintings are really gorgeous. There’s just something joyful about showing people celebrating together.

(The following is a conversation between Butt Johnson and Nicole Eisenman.  Butt underwent the grilling process by David Kennedy-Cutler, who had been previously grilled by Ruby Sky Stiler, who had been interrogated by Talia Chetrit, who was thrust into the spotlight by yours truly, Johnny Misheff.  You see what’s going on here by now, right?  Yes, you’re right!  Eisenman will now get to pick someone to interact with about whatever she chooses.  See?  It’s FUN!)


I first met Nicole Eisenman when I was an undergrad at RISD….she gave a talk about her work and I was immediately drawn to her sense of humor and the way she was able to use a myriad of techniques to create different images and ideas. As an impressionable young artist I found her approach liberating but also saw a sincere commitment to a thorough exploration of painting — I’ve been an avid follower of her work ever since. Her recent show at Leo Koenig seemed to me to exemplify this, and I really felt the impact of that as a bold statement about making paintings in the contemporary art world. So when she agreed to be interviewed about her work, I decided to jump right in: 

BJ: Do you see the act of painting as an intellectual pursuit, and does the object of virtuosity interest you? Do believe in the idea of the masterpiece? 

NE: I’m not that interested in virtuosity. That makes me think of Michelangelo’s David… couldn’t care less, Sir! I do believe in The Masterpieces though, like this or these: 


NE: (continued) Virtuosity (we’re talking about the ability to handle paint here) can help to make a masterpiece but it’s not a necessary element. There are lots of different elements that make a masterpiece in various combinations like humor, touch/texture, pattern, conception, color, passion – for starters. Yes, painting is an intellectual pursuit; it’s also an emotional and spiritual pursuit, a kind of reckoning with the infinite possibilities of the universe. The pursuit is for an understanding of the deep patterns that make up our lives and that go beyond intellect and into the realm of the body – via paint. It’s the internal reacting to the external; the paint expresses the former and representing the latter. The payoff is the moment when you bring something to life that has never existed before anywhere else.

BJ: I’m with you that masterpieces can take many (or any) form (and love Picabia)…it’s such a weighty concept, was curious to hear (or see) your thoughts. Looking at your work over the years, you have hit so many different directions in how you paint, I think in asking about virtuosity I was trying to get at ways you are able to switch it up – seems to me that your skills as a painter have helped you really nail some ideas and generate such powerful images because you can work in all these different languages.  Is that something you think about?  Or maybe you just feel comfortable taking risks in your studio and kind of winging it that way? 

Some examples:


NE: That’s a pretty great compliment.  Thanks, man!  I’ve put the focus in the last few years on buffeting homogeneity in my work and only in the last 2 or 3 years has it come together. I had a mini retrospective a few years ago at the Kunsthalle Zurich; it looked like a totally disjointed group show!  I realized that the slipperiness of my so-called style was at the heart of the show and it was interesting bouncing around all these differing realities.  I began thinking about how within a painting, different things want to be painted different ways.  I can’t imagine its very FUN to continue to work at a process you’ve gotten comfortable with or mastered, so you push into unknown territory to work out new ideas.  Paintings inevitably get good when you give up hope, then it’s easy to take a risk because there’s nothing to lose. It’s all about ruining shit and thus saving it from predictability.  Not to say I don’t have a studio overflowing with broken paintings that are beyond redemption.

BJ: How do you think about the idea of the one liner in your work… (i.e. Jesus Fucking Christ, Alice in Wonderland) lots of jokes in paintings of yours from the 90s and maybe less so in newer paintings. Is that something you have thoughts about? 


NE: Yeah, at some point around ’01-’02 I got tired of jokes, of trying to be funny.  I wanted to focus on painting.  Painting isn’t a great medium for jokes.  It can be, to an extent.  Kippenburger made funny paintings.  Maybe some of my paintings are slightly funny but it’s a different kind of humor, not one-liners.


BJ: and a follow up — how does that mean you are now able to explore more complex themes?  Or be more open about your interior life in your work?

NE: Maybe I am more open, who knows?  In the 90’s I was often the subject of my work, I really put myself out there.  Now the paintings feel more connected to my subconscious and dream life, and the themes are more personal and complex — actually they’re so complex I don’t know what they are half the time. The emotional range of my early stuff is fairly one dimensional; it was all about anger.  Now my anger is punctuated by rage… and joy and sadness and whatever else there is. 

BJ: You grew up in Westchester right?  As a former suburbanite, have ideas about the “city” entered your artistic consciousness in a way you ever think/thought about?  How has your perception of NYC and yourself as a New Yorker affected your work over your career?

NE: Yup, I grew up in the suburbs.  I was born into that universe and as a kid, as far as I knew, it was good.  When I was old enough to come into the city to hang out, I immediately hated the bullshit agenda of the suburbs.  I guess I was 15 when I started checking out the art world, the clubs, music… it was a fun and raw scene in the east village in the 80s; I became enlightened to the possibilities.  I guess the city wrenched me out of my cocoon of childhood.  Well, it depressed me too, because the difference between normative suburban culture and freaky punk fucked-up city culture where there seemed to be this amazing smorgasbord of ideas was stark!  Such was life before the internet.  Now everybody has access to everything.  There were obvious advantages to being in NY after college, I met a lot of artists and curators who where hugely influential.  It’s hard to sort out what the city’s influence has been on my work, it’s like asking what the temperature’s influence is on my work.


BJ: Yeah, true, I guess it could be chalked up to an “everything in life” type thing – but was wondering how/ if you see yourself as a NY artist — especially because you’ve been painting scenes from the city recently — seems like its become a subject in your work? 

NE: I don’t really see myself as a New York City artist.  That makes me think of the Ashcan school or Abstract Expressionists.  I draw so much from European painting, I see myself more aligned with German art culture.  However, yes, the city (mostly bars in the city) turn up in my work.  I have been painting stuff from my life, people I know, places I frequent. 


BJ: You had a pretty well-read blog (ha, or I read it in any case) in the early wild west days of blogging, but ended it in like 2006(?) or so…how did blogging affect your work and do you miss that presence? 

NE: Oi, the blog.  I loved that activity… at first.  Creating a little zine for a handful of friends who were mostly blogging as well was amazing; we’d have these hilarious conversations with each other.  In its own little way it caught on and I realized the extent to which I was exposing myself so I pulled back.  I enjoyed scouring obscure corners of the Internet, but that hobby wore itself out.  It gets tiresome reading and forming opinions on every damn thing: what’s cool, what’s interesting, what’s pathetic… this movie, that piece of trash on the ground, who cares.  Right? 

BJ: Ha!  Well if your opinions are good and you post interesting/funny things, people will read it…especially if they are bored and at work…  And facebook?  Does that scratch some of those itches but limit it to your friends? 

NE: That’s funny.  While all my blogger friends were doing it at their soul sucking jobs (which is totally reasonable), I was doing it instead of painting!  The problem with FB is it’s SO socially complicated!  I’m always struggling with who to accept/ignore while trying to hold on to a small shred of privacy.  I’m self-conscious on FB so I end up limiting how much I use it.  The anonymous audience on the blog was freeing.  That’s funny that you read my blog.

BJ: So how do you see the act of making oil paintings in a digital era — with an infinite amount of images circulating on the internet?  Do you think about the digital life/afterlife of your paintings?

NE: The over abundance of disposable and meaningless images gives oil painting more value.  It’s shocking to go to a museum now and be reminded of the power a painting can have after surfing the internet all day.  A good painting completely resists assimilation.  90 years after Monet painted the waterlillys at Giverny, they still confound me – I was looking at those recently.  Painting carries within it the spirit of the painter; it is an artwork’s physicality through which a deep connection with the viewer occurs.  It’s the realization that you’re not just looking at a painting, say, Van Gogh made, one can actually commune with his spirit, just by looking, and time collapses.  Sometimes when I look at paintings I love I almost feel like I’m breathing through my eyeballs.  Does that ever happen to you?  Also, the paradox of not having that connection is interesting as David Humphrey said in his brilliant book Blind Handshake…”The lack of connection between the artist and the viewer must be part of the artworks enduring and distinct appeal. The Paradox of detached connection might have fetish-like powers that could help explain the persistence of such an inefficient form of pleasure.” 

BJ: Yeah I’ve had sublime experiences when looking at paintings for sure, I’ve fallen prey to big grey Agnes Martin grids in such a way, the Rothko chapel in Houston shut my brain off completely the first time I went, and there’s some Edward Hopper maneuvers in painting sunlight on the sides of lighthouses that I carry around in my head with me every day… 

Speaking of detached connections… do you think your paintings as they exist in jpeg form are “diluted” then?  Or do you see them as inhabiting a different kind of environment? 

NE: Yes, it’s a different environment and I have no control over it.  It’s definitely diluted.  Computers can’t represent texture, subtleties of color, the affect of scale etc… You can never see how thick a painting is painted and if you can, then you can’t see something else, like the whole image at once.  That said, once the image enters into the sea of images on the internet, it has a life of its own, but it’s not art anymore.  I pull images off Google all the time and mess with them and those images end up back in circulation, an endless loop of corrosion/creation.  And of course there are plenty of paintings I’ve only seen in reproduction some I chase down to see in real life.






Notes on Queer Formalism

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In a recent conversation with Amy Sillman at the opening of Leidy Churchman’s provocative solo show, Lazy River, at the Boston University Art Gallery, I asked Sillman about the state of painting. In 2011, Artforum considered the “The Ab-Ex Effect,” thereby attempting to take the pulse of a simultaneously revered and reviled hallmark of modernism in the visual arts. Where had painting come since then? It was a question that had plagued me ever since my first encounter with Nicole Eisenman’s paintings, prints, and sculptures.1 Eisenman’s investment in art history, when combined with her penchant for absurdity and subversion, seemed to upend everything I knew about contemporary art. The same shock occurred when I thought about Sillman and her inscrutable mixture of pigment and perversion—and iPhones. With Amy Sillman: one lump or two opening at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, Boston, and Nicole Eisenman appearing in both the 2013 Carnegie International and Nicole Eisenman: In Love with My Nemesis at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis in 2014, it seems that we are on the verge of a new definition of artistic practice.

I had attempted for a while to characterize this charged moment, but it was not until Sillman answered, “It’s almost a queer formalism” that I found the necessary words.2 The phrase captures something revolutionary, a sense of palpable anticipation for much-needed transition that is just around the corner. The move toward queer formalism prefigured by Sillman and Eisenman, as well as artists Elise Adibi and Leidy Churchman, cannot be fully explained in a single article or with one analytical lens. It is my hope here to offer a set of disjointed thoughts that will coalesce into a question or a basis for further investigation, but never an answer.

1. Queer formalism is a paradox. Formalism requires the centrality of an object, whereas queer rejects authorship and universal concepts. Queer subverts singularity while the medium requires it. To find meaning in the internal factors of the medium is to invest in its selfhood, its ability to signify. But isn’t this what queer accomplishes? Is this not what we have fought for—the ability to express one’s self, to speak, to be legible to others as a unified agent? Queer rejects unification, however. It advocates for a “queer subject” while attacking the notion of “subjecthood.” Where is the balance?

2. It is exactly in the immiscibility of the terms queer and formalism that queer formalism finds its power. Queerness “represents” an unsure mixture of singular embodiment and a passionate ownership of one’s identity with the refusal of singularity.3 So too does the medium.

3. If the medium is the “essence” of the art object, its internal logic, it becomes a sort of aesthetic identity politics. Formalism’s investment in the medium has, throughout art history, suffered from a limited historical awareness and a tendency to privilege normative patriarchal values. Clement Greenberg’s assessment of Jackson Pollock, a legacy Sillman and her contemporaries have inherited, is exemplary of the mid-century valorization of medium specificity and artistic heroism. Paint became analogous with the (straight, masculine) psyche of the artist, his authority to express himself. Hence the urgent need to move toward conceptualism and institutional critique, right?

4. Still, being an artist requires a direct engagement with a medium. I firmly believe that art is not purely a product of external constructs, no matter how forcefully (and rightfully) it has been used to expose capitalism, commodification, and institutionalized oppression. In some indefinable sense, art is resistant to the outside. We cannot escape materials, and while it should not be venerated, technical skill (or an intimate connection with one’s brush or sponge or pencil) should not be discounted as not “postmodern” enough. Likewise, we cannot escape the medium of our bodies, even as that medium has become increasingly described in terms of social construction, artifice, and performativity.

5. Queerness and the medium are thus parallel. They never meet, but the path they carve out engenders an incredibly productive landscape for discussing identity and the visual arts.

6. In working toward an understanding of queer formalism, it is essential to engage with the modes of being, description, and expression unearthed by “queer.” Most obviously, it is a slur that has been “reclaimed.” Some find it shamefully unspecific; others consider it beautifully and necessarily open. Queer is in-between; that goes without saying. Formalism is, in some circles, a dirty word that is reminiscent of many years of a masculinist, heteronormative tendency in modernism. Being a formalist, however, does not place anyone in danger.

7. One cannot “queer” things. No matter how fervent your search for a gay character in Othello, you are not “queering” Shakespeare. Queer is not the grafting of a theory upon an unreceptive source, and queer formalism is not the queering of formalism or the formalism of queers. Queer does not require someone to “interpret” or “find” it. But if no one does, who will?

8. Queer is not a catch-all term to rack up points for political correctness, though it does touch many more people than one might expect. It affects and engages with issues of race, class, imperialism, and politics. Its function, however, is not endless; it must be tethered somewhere. But where?

9. Queer is not something beyond gay or lesbian or transgender, nor is it more “enlightened” than the identity politics of gay liberation or second wave feminism. Queer is informed by history; it is at once conceptual and contemporary and the product of countless years of physical work. We vainly consider it a product of our present moment, but it belongs to no moment.

10. The phrase “queer community” is both necessary and deeply fraught with exclusionary tendencies. Community implies accord, and has often effaced essential differences that unwittingly perpetuate institutional biases. However, the only people who can understand a specific form of oppression are those who have lived it, and finding a community is essential for many people’s coming out process.

11. Eisenman’s Beer Gardens series is exemplary of queer formalism’s brand of solidarity, which she described in an interview with Brian Sholis as a diverse, anti-utopian group of misfits: “Last year, when I painted my first beer-garden scene, I immediately wanted to keep painting them, to paint them for the rest of my life…It’s where we go to socialize, to commiserate about how the world is a fucked up place. It is healthy to look at sadness in the world, and in yourself, and to dwell on it for a little while.”4 Queer formalism does not exist for itself. It lives for others while retaining a precarious independence.

Nicole Eisenman, Beer Garden, 2007
Oil on canvas, 65 x 82 in (165.1 x 208.3 cm)
Courtesy the artist and Koenig & Clinton, New York.

Amy Sillman, Williamsburg Portraits, 1991-92
Ink, gouache, and pencil on paper
Set of 32: 8 x 11 inches each
Courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co.
Photo: John Berens

12. Queer is within and outside the masculinist, homophobic confines of our world, phenomena to which the art object is not immune. Queer requires a not-queer, or “straight,” in order to exist. Homosexuality has been understood as not only a perversion, but also an inversion—what appears when you lift the mossy rock of proper social relations and look at the terrifying flora and fauna underneath. Queer defines itself in opposition to not-queer, but it need not always be in a state of antagonism.

13. Queer is not a mode of being or a means of deconstruction, and one who is queer need not constantly be in a state of rehearsing or living their sexuality. Queer is not always against; sometimes it just wants to sleep in and cuddle on a Sunday morning. Sometimes the pressure is too much to handle. It is, at times, deeply frustrating to “be” queer, a nuisance even. Must I always explain myself?

Amy Sillman, Untitled Cartoon from Amy Sillman: Visiting Artist, 2002
Ink and gouache on paper
9 1/2 x 9 3/4 inches
Courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co.
Photo: John Berens

14. Queer necessitates bodies, but it also rejects the solidified nature of bodies. It insists on specificities, even as it acts as an ever-expansive force. Queer is bounded by skin, but not contained by it, like the ink, pencil, and gouache in N & O v3 (2006). Sillman’s marks bleed and seep within and among bodies, yet the image retains a particular morphology, epitomized by the architectural forms that emerge from the sitters themselves. Or maybe, conversely, the bodies originate in Sillman’s scaffolding. Sillman’s bodies somehow subsume and resist the gesture, prompting an unanswerable question – Where does the medium begin and corporeality end?

Amy Sillman, N & O v3, 2006
Ink, colored pencil and gouache on paper
17 x 14 inches
Courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co.
Photo: John Berens

15. Queer is a connective force and a merciless severing, a relational action and a rejection of the world outside the self. The medium can be made to serve both purposes as well; it is both intimate and filled with lonliness. As Helen Molesworth said of the works in Amy Sillman: one lump or two, there is an element in Sillman’s work of “trying to connect with a thing that we cannot connect with.”5 Sillman echoes this sentiment, “I’m so interested in things that split in two.”6 Like the explosion of energy that results when atoms join or break apart, Sillman’s interest in pairs transforms the body, the gesture, and the structure of the medium into a conjoined power source. She depicts art and identity at a moment of simultaneous recombination and destruction.

16. In Shade, for example, paint becomes the body and delineates the body. True to its function, paint flows and mixes, but Sillman arrests its motion. She leaves paint destitute; its final iteration is two figures devoid of individuality. Though the figures perhaps desire to lose themselves in each other, they cannot reach across the expanse of the canvas. Sillman’s paint becomes Lot’s wife, doomed to live forever as a pillar of salt for doubting God.

Amy Sillman, Shade, 1997-98
Oil and gouache on wood
50 x 60 inches
Courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co.
Photo: John Berens

Nicole Eisenman, Sloppy Bar Room Kiss, 2011
Oil on canvas, 39 x 48 in (99.1 x 121.9 cm)
Courtesy the artist and Koenig & Clinton, New York

17. Queer can be a deeply held conviction, a passionate self-appraisal that informs one’s daily, bodily, erotic life. Still, queer expands into culture, and in Sillman’s work, it becomes implicated in the artistic process itself. Sillman drew various couples she knew and reimagined the drawings as abstract paintings on canvas, such as C (2007). C approaches the realm of concept and limitless expressivity while maintaining the outlines (not confines) of “real” bodies. As Ewa Lajer-Burcharth points out in her text to accompany Amy Sillman: one lump or two, “Through repeated re-presentation, figuration was transformed into abstraction, bodies—reduced, voided—turned into shapes, lines, colors, and forces,” an operation that one can see throughout Sillman’s and Eisenman’s careers.7 Sillman presents a kind of painterly sadomasochism. Though the body is reduced to pulp, its integrity remains. The (queer) body is reincarnated as paint.

Amy Sillman, C, 2007
Oil on canvas
45 x 39 inches
Collection of Gary and Deborah Lucidon
Photo: John Berens

18. It follows that queer is both immaterial and corporeal. It is conceptual and reliant on the medium. It is deconstructive and authorial. It is the Self and the Other, together in perpetuity but not mapped onto each other. It is a multiplicity of media that lack a hierarchy, but it is not post-medium. The oeuvre of the queer formalist, like queerness itself, is invested in the interspace between and among paradoxes. Sillman has said, “I’m interested in simultaneity—the copresence of abstraction and figuration, deep space and shallow space, high and low, recognizable, literate, narrative, mythic things and dumb, vernacular, kind-of-stupid, jokey things—all these dialectics.”8

19. After all these attempts at a definition of queer, can we predict what results when “queer” and “formalism” collide?

20. To begin, in the same way that queer does not require “coming out” or “identification,” queer formalism need not exteriorize itself, or expose its contents to the world. It is somewhere between discovering and proclaiming itself and investing in what Lajer-Burcharth calls “intangible, unlocalizable interiority.”9 What might it mean to “come out” in the medium?

21. Androgyny or fluidity cannot capture the emotional, historical, sociopolitical, and artistic plenitude of queer formalism. The term androgyny advances a monolithic vision of queerness that relies upon normative visual decidability. Queer is not a project of counting the number of figures in a work of art whose gender is indeterminate. Fluidity is as bad as androgyny when used as a weasel word to give the illusion of progressive scholarship. Queer formalism is not about scrambled gender roles. For some queer people, gender roles are central to their sexual experience. Furthermore, gender/sexual identity can be as important as life itself—trans* pioneers have taught us that. Fluidity, when used irresponsibly, can negate lived experience.

22. Assessing the sexuality of the artist is not enough to establish queer formalism, though it may be a relevant factor. Queer formalism does not only apply to “queer” artists, and it is certainly not equating art made by queer artists with “queer art.” Moreover, sexuality is not something that must be constantly embodied by an artist. While it is a moral imperative to acknowledge gender and sexuality (the personal is political, and it always will be), the character of an artist must not be imprisoned by biography. One might create a work of art “as” a gay artist one day but not “as” a gay artist the next.

23. Elise Adibi, who does not identify as queer, has worked to understand, appraise, and take apart the monolithic history of the grid by assaulting it (or paying cautious homage to it?) with dripped paint, plant oils, and rabbit skin glue. She combines long-entrenched modernist discourses, such as the expressive gesture and the determinist grid, that are as consecrated as the gender binary itself. In so doing, Adibi points to the possibility of the Self and Other coming together without the specificities of either being extinguished. Adibi approximates a space described by Gayle Salamon in Assuming a Body: Transgender and Rhetorics of Materiality, that is, “the place where I confront the otherness of the other without annihilating or canceling that difference or replicating the other in my own image.”10 Is this not a project of queer formalism?

Elise Adibi, Aromatherapy Painting, 2013
Rabbit skin glue, graphite, oil paint and blue tansy essential plant oil on canvas
20 x 20 inches
Courtesy of the artist and Churner and Churner
Photo: Heather Latham

24. Brief intermission. Is queer formalism only conceivable to queer critics? Is it morally tenable to discuss queer formalism if and only if the historian or critic is queer? I hope not. Am I only writing this because I myself am gay? I have no privileged access to issues of gender and sexuality. No one does, irrespective of one’s gender or sexual expression.

25. Queer formalism is tragic and destructive and vile; it wrecks our understanding of respectability and order. It is dangerous and sexy and angry and spiteful and ridiculous. In the July 3, 1906 edition of the Lewiston Daily Sun, the author reports on a lethal train crash:

Salisbury, Eng., July 2 — The embalmers are busy tonight and by tomorrow the majority of the bodies of the score of Americans who lost their lives in the wreck of the Plymouth express Sunday will be prepared for their return for burial in the land they so recently, in the fullness of life and hope, left . . . The inquest today was a prolonged and tedious formality . . . a strange proceeding to the many Americans present but which is thought to be due to the queer formalism that seems characteristic of such cases in this country.11

Queer formalism is exactly the opposite of formality, but it is not frivolous or secondary to “serious” criticism. All honest scholarship is based in passion, desire, rage, and obsession; it is always ready to brush with death, perhaps its own destruction. According to Bob Nickas, “Doubt, then, is one of [Sillman’s] most reliable and trusted subjects.”12 This is not, however, tentativeness or timidity. Indeed, queer formalism’s insecurity is a radically courageous act, a fearless celebration of the precariousness of life. Love, bodies, paint, paper, and canvas all disintegrate only to be reborn.

26. Sillman assaults her chosen medium and its support, be it paper, ink, oil paint, canvas, or an iPhone touch screen, in order to access its internal logic or confusion. Returning to Lajer-Burcharth, who describes a series in the late 1990s and early 2000s that combines humanoid figures with abstraction, it is evident that Sillman locates this (queer) physicality within the medium itself:

Violence is implicit in both the final form of these paintings—bold, sweeping, rectilinear trajectories of chroma cutting through the representational field—and the preparatory drawings showing bodies deformed by the slashes of black ink, to say nothing of the very logic of subtraction, or evisceration, that defines the process Sillman adopted in this series.13

27. Likewise, in his video project Painting Treatments (2010), Leidy Churchman equates canvas and body bag, sculpture and corpse. For Churchman, everything is a kind of medium—skin, office folders, tree branches. Bodies and paint bleed together, at times creating a beautiful sculpture, but more often a cluttered, fecal mess. There is no room for idealism in Painting Treatments—aesthetic, sexual, or otherwise. Pollock’s immortalized ejaculatory dance becomes an unassuming display of flippant eroticism that is simultaneously arousing and sickening. Sillman recalls,

They [Churchman and his associate Anna Rosen] did excessive, polychromatic things to our bodies, like dipping a banana into a can of orchid-lavender paint and pressing it against our asses, or dragging a rake with green and brown paint in its combs across our legs, or letting chrome-yellow enamel dribble off random pieces of plywood onto the smalls of our backs, or tossing some green-gray grit on us.14

Queer formalism is messy while maintaining a perverse beauty. It acknowledges the uncertainty of artistic discourses and of life itself. It is not afraid to cry or get beat up. Like my mom always said, if you’re not bleeding, you’re fine. There’s something wonderful about queer formalism’s ability to be not fine, to hurt, to expose the abjection inherent in both the paintbrush and the body.

28. Queer formalism understands history and pays homage to it. It has its own history; it fought for its own history, but in doing so, destroys history. Sillman evokes the legacy of camp in relation to Abstract Expressionism:

I would argue that this is because AbEx already had something to do with the politics of the body, and that it was all the more tempting once it seemed to have been shut down by its own rhetoric, rendered mythically straight and male in quotation marks. AbEx’s own deterioration into cliché was a ripe ground, a double-edged challenge that, to quote [Susan] Sontag again, “arouses a necessary sympathy.” AbEx was like a big old straight guy who had gone gay.15

29. Eisenman, also deeply aware of the history of art and culture, pointed out the absurdity of classical heroism in her contribution to the 2013 Carnegie International. Sometimes you have to take a break from posing and have a smoke. Standing on a pedestal all day must be tiring. Additionally, in the Beer Gardens, Eisenman draws on the style of French impressionists, her brush creating a swirling optical event.16 Despite her homage, she is no flâneur, and this is not Bal du moulin de la Galette. Free of the pretentious spirit exhibited by much of contemporary art, Eisenman plays with art historical truisms with a strange combination of reverence and frustration.

Nicole Eisenman, Prince of Swords, 2013
Plaster, wood, burlap, ceramic and crystal, 77 x 46 x 27 in (195.6 x 116.8 x 68.6 cm)
Photo: Greenhouse Media
Courtesy the artist and Koenig & Clinton, New York

30. It is not clear, however, if queer formalism is “campy,” though it does engage with the legacy of camp as Sillman astutely theorizes. We live in an age entirely run by irony, wonderfully gaudy performativity, and cultural naïveté—a veritable campy culture industry. Pop culture icons from Lana Del Rey to Lady Gaga have come to embody the neuroses of the Millennial generation, whose difficulty creating a culture of its own has left it permanently adrift in the Digital Age. Camp has become as entrenched within American culture as the capitalist regime itself, and may have thereby lost its subversive quality. In the spirit of 30 Rock, it is hip to be an outrageously uncool, yet somehow enviable, outsider. But Sillman is nevertheless spot-on. Camp retained its revolutionary sincerity in queer formalism when, all the while, camp became mainstream. Queer formalism is neo-camp and post-camp.

31. Queer formalism is not entirely theoretical, but it knows theory like the back of its hand. “Theory” is largely anti-feminist and anti-queer, but queer formalism must engage with theory in order to take it apart. Even Freud would love the grotesque, bitterly hilarious psychosexual vision in Eisenman’s Sunday Night Dinner.

Nicole Eisenman, Sunday Night Dinner, 2009
Oil on canvas, 42 x 51 in (106.7 x 129.5 cm)
Courtesy the artist and Koenig & Clinton, New York

32. Queer formalism can be represented both at the level of subject matter and at the moment of signification. It falls somewhere between representation and theory, sociopolitical effects and aesthetic origin. For example, Sillman’s Me and Ugly Mountain (2003) is perhaps a representation of the baggage of many years of “feminine hysteria” or “homosexual inversion,” as well as the reflection of those biases in the visual arts. Still, queer formalism represents the opportunity to ease that history when it becomes a burdensome assumption about the “meaning” of an artwork. One must look beyond an initial interpretive assumption about content without rejecting what is “represented.” Queer formalism is childishly truthful, but is nevertheless filled with lies, dreams, and possibilities.

33. Alongside its personal, embodied, human aspects, Me and Ugly Mountain also recalls the tumultuous erotics of paint itself. At once an abstraction and a landscape, the mountain is filled with orgiastic ideas, lines, and colors. It literally erupts on the face of the most essential mark—the horizon line—like a newly formed pimple. As a result, the mountain is not just a personal, psychoanalytic representation, but also a disruptive force buried within and essential to the material constructs of the scene.

Amy Sillman, Me and Ugly Mountain, 2003
Oil on canvas
60 x 72 inches
Collection of Jerome and Ellen Stern
Photo: John Berens

Nicole Eisenman, Conscious Mind of the Artist
(Subconscious Decision and Actions in Progress)
, 2007
Oil on canvas, 39 x 48 in (99.1 x 121.9 cm)
Courtesy the artist and Koenig & Clinton, New York

34. Above all, queer formalism is not limited to one artist, group, or medium. It represents the possibility of a new way to discuss art in a nuanced, inclusive fashion. Art history and criticism require reinvigoration, and Sillman, Eisenman, Adibi, and Churchman, among others, are at the vanguard of a necessary transformation that is decades in the making. All queer formalism requires is a willingness to listen and see and feel. Venturing into the unknown is a terrifying process; queer formalism asks us to embrace unfamiliar ways of relating to our bodies and those around us. It begs us to think critically about how we define ourselves. A willingness to begin that journey, however, can have exciting and unexpected results.

Amy Sillman: one lump or two is on view at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, Boston until January 5, 2014. Nicole Eisenman: In Love with My Nemesis will run from January 24, 2014 to April 13, 2014 at the Contemporary Art Museum, St. Louis. Elise Adibi: Metabolic Paintings is on view at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in Cambridge, MA until December 20, 2013. The author would like to thank Amy Sillman, Nicole Eisenman, Leidy Churchman, and Helen Molesworth for their overwhelming kindness. This article has especially benefitted from conversations with Elise Adibi, whose passionate dedication to the arts has been a source of inspiration.

[1] For a further discussion of Eisenman’s evolving relationship to lesbian identity politics, please see my essay “’Queered in Every Sense of the Word’: Sexual Multiplicity in Nicole Eisenman’s Beer Gardens“, published in Tuesday Magazine, Spring 2012.
[2] Literary scholar Eric Savoy has used the term queer formalism to describe the work of Henry James and the nuanced relationship between sexuality and criticism. See, for example, Savoy, Eric. “The Jamesian Turn: A Primer on Queer Formalism.” In Reed, Kimberly and Peter Beidler, eds. Approaches to Teaching Henry James’s Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 2005. “Queer formalism” has also been employed by Robert Sulcer to describe the ambivalent, shifting nature of the gay male critic in nineteenth century literature. See Sulcer, Robert. “Ten Percent: Poetry and Pathology.” In Dellamora, Richard ed. Victorian Sexual Dissidence. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1999. The usage of the term in the context of literary studies is certainly worthy of further consideration as it relates to the visual arts.
[3] The role of ownership with regard to gender and sexuality was brought to my attention by Ashley Temple and Stephanie Garland.
[4] Eisenman, Nicole and Brian Sholis. “Nicole Eisenman.” Artforum (6 September 2008).
[5] Molesworth, Helen. Press preview for Amy Sillman: one lump or two. ICA/Boston, 1 October 2013.
[6] Conversation between Amy Sillman and Helen Molesworth, The Institute of Contemporary Arts, Boston. 21 November 2013.
[7] Lajer-Burcharth, Ewa. “The Inner Life of Painting.” In Molesworth, Helen ed. Amy Sillman: one lump or two, exh. cat. New York: Prestel Publishing; Boston: Institute of Contemporary Arts, 2013. 85. See also Molesworth, Helen. “Amy Sillman: Look, Touch, Embrace.” In Molesworth, Helen ed. Amy Sillman: one lump or two, exh. cat. New York: Prestel Publishing; Boston: Institute of Contemporary Arts, 2013. 51, 53.
[8] Richards, Judith Olch ed. Inside the Studio: Two Decades of Talks with Artists in New York. New York: Independent Curators International and Distributed Art Publishers, 2004. 247.
[9] Ibid, 91.
[10] Salamon, Gayle. Assuming a Body: Transgender and Rhetorics of Materiality. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2010. 140.
[11] Accessible via Google news archive.
[12] Nickas, Bob. Painting Abstraction: New Elements in Abstract Painting. London and New York: Phaidon, 2009. 224.
[13] Lajer-Burcharth, 85.
[14] Sillman, Amy. “AbEx and Disco Balls: In Defense of Abstract Expressionism.” Artforum, Summer 2011.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Eisenman and Sholis.

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Great and Devastating Reviews of MoMA’s The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World






Reviewing the Responses to MoMA’s Divisive Painting Survey

Installation view of 'The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World' at the Museum of Modern Art (photo by John Wronn, © 2014 The Museum of Modern Art)

As talk of art fairs and Björk took the spotlight at the beginning of the month, I lingered on the Museum of Modern Art’s The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World, up through early April. In mulling over its status as either a landmark statement on contemporary painting that demonstrates the museum’s cultural leadership, a taste-making stunt for collectors, or just another group show, I turn to six thoughtful reviews out of the many written about the exhibition. Four are by painters: Sharon Butler, Brian Dupont, Thomas Micchelli, and David Salle; two are by critics: Jason Farago and Christian Viveros-Fauné. There are several possible entry points into the debate: the show’s premise — “atemporality … in which, courtesy of the internet, all eras seem to exist at once,” as eagerly laid out by curator Laura Hoptman in the hardcover-only catalogue; the works themselves; or the show’s timing and venue.

I’ll start with the premise. Salle finds Hoptman’s ideas distracting, “like someone talking too loudly while you’re trying to think.” “Audacious,” is Farago’s take on the essay. Others are irked by Hoptman’s claim that the premise reflects a “new and strange state of the world.” Viveros-Fauné says her ideas have an “utterly passé nature [since] run-of-the-mill postmodernism has entertained fantasies of simultaneity since the 1970s.” Micchelli calls Hoptman’s concept “old wine in new bottles.” Finally, most question the soundness or even existence of the link between the premise and the paintings selected for the show. “The work has no common denominator outside of generalities of abstraction or a certain sense of scale,” according to Dupont. Viveros-Fauné says the premise “provides flimsy theoretical cover for this disparate group of painters.” Once in the museum’s galleries, Micchelli finds that “nothing seemed to be illustrating a point or, refreshingly, even making a point.” So much for a convincing, relevant, and effective organizing principle.

Nicole Eisenman, "Guy Capitalist (2011), oil and mixed media on canvas (collection Noel Kirnon and Michael Paley; courtesy of Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects; photo by Robert Wedemeyer)

Premise or no premise, how does the actual artwork fare? Out of all the work by the 17 selected artists, Farago favors the pieces by the women in the show. “Not one of the eight male artists here comes anywhere close to the intricacy or complexity of [Amy] Sillman, [Laura] Owens, [Nicole] Eisenman, and others,” he writes. The practitioners in my reviewer group bring a hands-on, maker’s understanding to their evaluations of the paintings. Each reveals his or her own personal and aesthetic values as much as each conveys his or her impression of the show. Butler finds pleasure in Josh Smith’s grid of loosely composed paintings, but says the rest of the work displays “a dispiriting interest in strategy and finish over experimentation and heart.” Dupont and Salle work the hardest to parse the art, with gratifying results. Dupont earnestly considers the show within a modern art historical context, focusing on Twombly’s legacy. He is underwhelmed by Rashid Johnson’s monumental, scratched surfaces of black soap and wax, which leave him wondering “just how much really is needed to make a painting?” Salle values paintings with a “sense of structure” that is best exemplified by Mark Grotjahn’s palette knife paintings of colorful, webbed arcs, and Richard Aldrich’s varied collection of works based on a deconstruction of abstract painting. Within the wordy environment of Hoptman’s premise, Salle’s crisp insights on appropriation, Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, Walter Benjamin, and West Coast aesthetics as they relate to the work in the show are welcome and easily put to use.

In several cases the critics under consideration have polar opposite reactions to specific pieces. Julie Mehretu’s large, grey-and-black, calligraphic work, for instance, is rated by Dupont as the most related to Hoptman’s notion of atemporality, whereas Farago, while admiring her as an artist, asks: “What on earth is Julie Mehretu doing in this show?” Sillman’s layered color improvisations in oil are a favorite among most, while Oscar Murillo’s dark, graffiti canvases — including the interactive work on the floor — are almost unanimously dismissed. An overarching complaint is that most of the work in the show seems shallow — Salle’s word is “unconvincing”; “safe, decorator wares,” according to Viveros-Fauné; Butler’s phrase is “command-z aesthetic.”

Installation view of 'The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World' at the Museum of Modern Art (photo by John Wronn, © 2014 The Museum of Modern Art)

From my perspective as a painter, the show’s pinball game-like layout helps to disguise a pervasive and telling sameness of surface. Forever Now makes a punchy first impression. The drama is superficially heightened by having some paintings hung too high and some placed on the floor, leaning against the wall, while others are grouped in batches. Walking through the compactly installed show, I spent time looking at each work in relation to its neighbors. Since you have to walk back through the show to exit, an alternate version of these juxtapositions is available on the return trip. Despite the initial intrigue with scale and color, starting with Kerstin Bratsch’s monumental, high-contrast, framed works on paper propped against the exterior of the exhibition gallery, I eventually noticed a dead-eyed lack of variety in paint application in works throughout the exhibition. Neither Smith nor Mehretu vary their brush width, Grotjahn’s palette knife stripes are nearly identical, Mike Wilson’s compositions are covered with uniformly murky goo, Johnson scores his surfaces with the same tool, and Joe Bradley’s stick figures in grease pencil have virtually no surface at all. In contrast, Sillman, Bratsch, and Charline von Heyl offer a richer visual reward. Even if painters avail themselves of the entire stockpile of art historical references — digitally or by other means — it is the vagaries of individual subjective experience, translated through the mind, eye, hand, and more visceral organs of the painter, that make a painting worthwhile.

It has been 30 years since MoMA’s last milestone painting exhibition. We can only guess at why the museum has let such a long gap in time occur in its participation in the conversation about painting. The delay adds to the pressure to perform with this show. The significant conceptual flaws in Hoptman’s atemporal premise are a misstep and make me suspicious of her motives. That she equates the internet with simultaneity is just plain wrong. As Salle notes, “Hoptman wants to make a point about painting in the internet age, but the conceit is a red herring — the web’s frenetic sprawl is opposite to the type of focus required to make a painting, or, for that matter, to look at one.” It’s as if Hoptman is trying to sell us on the openness of content sources as an appealing, “no strings attached” lifestyle. There may in fact be oceans of digital information available online, but it still enters our consciousness through a variety of knowable sorting mechanisms that are not so different from attaining knowledge by sitting in a library with a book. Hoptman is siding with the machines.

Charline von Heyl, "Carlotta" (2013), oil, acrylic and charcoal on canvas (Ovitz Family Collection, Los Angeles; courtesy of the artist and Petzel, New York; photo by Jason Mandella)

If Hoptman’s misdirection is unintentional, I suppose that could be forgiven, but given her position and MoMA’s status as an institution, it’s a disappointment. Viveros-Fauné suggests that MoMA has a more self-serving basis for the show’s inflated concept and distracting execution. He proposes that, in place of embracing the “pioneering critical spirit” of the museum’s prior directors and curators, Hoptman’s Forever Now is pandering to collectors and donors who support the museum financially — especially now, as it prepares for another expansion. MoMA’s motive for the show could be to support painting as an “asset class,” to use Dupont’s phrase, as opposed to dealing in the realm of ideas. “In all, much of the work is so attuned to art’s interior conversation that it entirely tunes out the clangor of the street,” Micchelli writes. We don’t need more art that masks the effects of our society’s calcified and coercive patriarchal structures. We don’t need more instances of institutional conflict of interest disguised as leadership.

Ultimately, I can’t help comparing Forever Now to a Super Bowl halftime show: hotly anticipated, splashy, mainstream entertainment packaged with a story for corporate sponsors and those in the VIP suites. It’s as if Hoptman sees painters as the ultimate mash-up artists, with the emphasis in her show being on style over content. While the bloodsport of fine art — and the goings on of the actual world — rage on around it, no head injuries or body blows occur within the exhibition’s snug, stage-like realm. I can’t decide if Forever Now’s shortcomings represent a tragic lost opportunity, or if the distance between the show’s over-reaching premise and under-performing artworks is part of an art world joke on the larger museum-going audience.

Amy Sillman, "Still Life 2" (2014), oil on canvas (courtesy the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York; artwork © 2014 Amy Sillman; Photo by John Berens)

The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through April 5.





Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World

Museum of Modern Art | December 14, 2014  –  April 5, 2015

In an instance of spectacularly unfortunate programming, The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World shared the first two months of its exhibition life on the Museum of Modern Art’s sixth floor with Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs. Visitors intoxicated with Matisse’s rhapsodic color and cunning simplicity wandered bemused through the thicket of contradictory, restrained, profligate, ambivalent paintings in The Forever Now exhibition.

Rashid Johnson. Cosmic Slop “Black Orpheus” (2011). Black soap and wax. 96 × 120 × 13/4 ̋. Collection of Richard Chang. Photo: Martin Parsekian.

The exhibition announces its disruptive position outside the entrance to the gallery, where Kerstin Brätsch’s super-sized drawings-as-paintings in monumental wooden frames variously hang on the wall or stand stacked awaiting their turn. These are complex works in which shards of black invade vaporous orbs of light out of Nolde and O’Keeffe, malevolently stealing their glow as though jagged sci-fi creatures were colonizing Brätsch’s customary brash color.

On the evidence of sight alone, the paintings by 17 painters in The Forever Now exhibition do not bear a discernible relationship to one another. Matt Connors pirates and dismembers color strategies from Matisse through Richter with screwball combinations and improbably painted frames. Rashid Johnson incises thick gestural troughs through expanses of black soap and mud. Dianna Molzan unravels her paintings, deconstructs canvas and frame, and repositions both structure and surface as sculpture.

But The Forever Now is not specifically concerned with what the eye sees. Its motivating principle is theory. In the end that theory has very little to do with the actual experience of viewing the paintings. It misunderstands the process of their making and obfuscates the reasons for their selection.

Laura Hoptman, curator of the exhibition, has been called “the canary in the coal mine of contemporary art.”1 The selections she made for MoMA’s Projects series between 1995 and 2001, before she departed to organize the 2004 – 05 Carnegie International and to mount such exhibitions as Brion Gysin: Dream Machine at the New Museum, have since been successfully market tested. As a canary in the coal mine, Hoptman has responded to a very real phenomenon since the turn of the millennium—the upsurge of painters painting and the prevalence of abstraction emerging from studios—and she has guided MoMA on a painting buying spree. As a coal mine canary, she might also appreciate comments of the “my graduate students can do better” variety from an exhibition visitor or two. After all, isn’t one test of advanced art that it takes a while for audiences to get it?

On the contrary, Hoptman argues in her catalogue essay. In this cultural moment of forever now, “thanks to the Internet, all eras seem to exist at once,” a situation that the science-fiction writer William Gibson described as “atemporality” in 2003. The artists whose search engines prowl continents and eras, universes and grains of sand for information and cues “dramatically” challenge “the great, ladder-like narrative of cultural progress that is so dependent upon the idea of the new superseding the old in a movement simultaneously forward and upward,” she writes in the catalogue. The already well-acknowledged artists on the MoMA’s sixth-floor walls don’t hold with the notion of historical progress or make any attempt “to define the times in which we live,” she writes. On the contrary, “it is not progress as such that is at stake in this new, atemporal universe. Time-based terms like progressive—and its opposite reactionary, avant- and arrière-garde—are of little use to describe atemporal works of art.” Instead, she states, images from all times and all places have become malleable materials to mine, manipulate, “reanimate,” “reenact,” and “cannibalize.”

It’s a workmanlike, even plausible, concept particularly since atemporality under various soubrettes has lately been the hot new concept in fiction, fashion, poetry, pop music, and pop culture. Yes, the impulse to name a period is irresistible; yes we live in a Google world; yes information is cheap and phlegmatic. But as a lens for looking at painting—and particularly at some of the most arresting paintings in the exhibition—the Forever Now thesis is as reductive as Modernist Formalism. It leaves out intent, content, biography, the alchemy of transmutation, the hustle and flow of lived life, the conversation between hand and paint—all variously present in works in the show. And most of all it leaves out how painters make and what the eye sees.

“You feel the painting and the reason you read the mark is because you can also feel the mark,” the painter Julie Mehretu has said.2 Her exquisitely layered, often epic encrustations of marks, erasures, fade-outs, superimpositions, and gestures engulf an underlying stratum of maps, grids, and blueprints—emblems of humanity’s attempts at imposing order. Only on the most superficial level does the fierce calligraphy distilled into her new paintings in the exhibition fit the atemporal template.

Mehretu was born in Addis Ababa, where her American mother and Ethiopian father experienced the radical disruptions of decolonization, and she fled with them at the age of seven in 1977 during the Derg terror. “Now we’re all dislocated … and there’s this constant negotiating of place, space, ideals, ideas,” she has said.3 Through painting, she interrogates the news, the contradictions of the moment into which she was born and history as it evolves. That includes 9/11, the Iraq War, and internecine battles everywhere. True, she browses the Internet for information about Tahrir Square, Zuccotti Park, a new shopping center in Africa, et al. But this is hardly promiscuous surfing. It serves core concerns with construction and collapse, order and chaos, utopias and their disintegration, all occurring simultaneously. She also incubates images while watching TV, listening to NPR, riding the subway, traveling, reading, doing all the things that artists do to inhale reality and exhale it as a work of art.

I’d argue that it has almost always been thus. The Internet may be faster than the mind can comprehend, its reach further and less discriminating than once imaginable. But Willem de Kooning created his mash-ups from cartoons, movies, magazine pinups, art historical training, 10th Street talk, Louse Point water-gazing, and East Hampton evenings on his orange leather couch paging through artbooks in the interests of problem-solving.

In the exhibition, Mary Weatherford is represented by neon tubes affixed like slashing lines to dark washes of color (for New York) or sunny hues (for Bakersfield, California). Memory and experience trumped Internet when she recited the backstory of the Bakersfield paintings for W Magazine in a “breakneck monologue that touches on the Dust Bowl, the oil rush, The Grapes of Wrath, Dorothea Lange, Merle Haggard, honky-tonks, the Tea Party, the Ku Klux Klan, and dinosaurs. Thrown in are an impression of Jackson Pollock and a rendition of a Beatles song.”4 Even more important than such sources, is what, in the actual making, she left out.

The Internet collapses time and space, alters world views, influences consumption, and disrupts economic sectors. It lets artists’ fingers do some of the walking. It certainly wields its influence on painting, but so did the newfangled tools of the telegraph, the automobile, the radio, photography, and television, not to mention technological advances in the materials of canvas, oil paint, acrylic, video, and—thank you David Hockney—the copying machine and the smart phone. In the end, painting and drawing are handmade, their recombinant DNA resulting from an intimate interface between artist and process. Many of the artists in the exhibition engage in multiple practices, venturing periodically into photography, performance, installation, sculpture—each medium with its own history, demands, and possibilities.

The strength of The Forever Now exhibition lies in the macro/micro nature of so many of the paintings, which demand multiple viewpoints, with close-up examination of details and passages slowing things down to pre-fiber-optic pace. Visual satisfactions are often labor intensive. Even here, Hoptman diminishes the rewards by installing mostly color affinities, dark to light. Palettes of tamped down greens and golds, dour purples, grays, and blacks inhabit the opening galleries, periodically interspersed with antic shout-outs of color by way of Nicole Eisenman’s riffs on portraiture, modernism, and masks. (There’s comic relief, partway through, in young-artist-of-the-moment Oscar Murillo’s sophisticated takes on graffiti, rendered in underplayed urban colors. Viewers are invited to interact with a selection of his canvases heaped on the floor. One afternoon I watched four dapper men drape the paintings neatly over their suits and request the guard to shoot them the old-fashioned way before selfies.) The exhibition’s tone brightens in the back galleries, culminating on the end wall with Michael Williams’s resort-wear hued, allover compositions of air-brushed washes, and computer-generated painted incidents.

This literal arrangement of works manages to diminish the force of Rashid Johnson’s black soap and wax paintings, which could easily have held the whole gallery on their own. The black-on-black paintings induce an aftereffect in the manner of Ad Reinhardt, as the eye attempts to focus. Gouged with a broom handle, his whole body implicit in the gesture, the paintings suggest bomb sites, itinerant paths, the mellow wail of jazz on a summer night. In the grand humanist tradition, he holds that “Art should be about the bigger issues in life. Life, death, sex, taxes, race, gender. The best art has something to say about the human condition.”5

As with so many of the artists, it wasn’t necessarily from the Internet that Johnson learned sampling. His influences are as apt to be tangible as digital. “I’ve collected so many things that there are so many crosscurrents of language and contradiction throughout my studio, whether it be a rap album next to W.E.B. DuBois’s Souls of Black Folk, or a gold rock that I painted next to a brass urn. It’s all this language that, when combined, produces a complicated kind of narrative.”6

A good place to end here, is with a poem that is a kind  of road map to the ways in which so many artists—and poets—make art. Frank O’Hara wrote “The Day Lady Died,” on a typewriter in 1964:

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness

and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing.



  1. Julie Halperin, “The Curator as Canary or Crony,” The Observer (Oct. 20, 2010).
  2. Julie Mehretu, “To be Felt as Much as Read,” Interview by Susan Sollins, Art21 (Oct. 2009).
  3. Jason Farago, “Julie Mehretu … from Tarhir Square to Zucotti Park,” The Guardian (June 20, 2013).
  4. Fan Zhong, “Mary Weatherford: Brushes with Greatness,” W Magazine (Dec. 11, 2014).
  5. Andrew Goldstein, “Rashid Johnson on Making Art ‘About the Bigger Issues in Life,’” Artspace (Dec. 31, 2013).
  6. ibid.

Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World

Museum of Modern Art | December 14, 2014  –  April 5, 2015

Nothing sums up the ephemeral nature of MoMA’s attempt to make a statement about painting today better than its title, The Forever Now. The phrase implies no history and no future, no past and no evolution. All the right “postmodernist” tendencies are represented—stylistic quotation, simulation, irony, mixed media, self-reference, graffiti, media recycling, text and image, interactivity, multiple overlays—you fill in the rest. In that sense, the works are strictly academic, torn from the pages of the art magazines or taught in the proliferation of M.F.A. programs. However, the dominant tone is not of a rigorous examination of the medium. Rather, the feeling is of the relaxed atmosphere of a mosh pit in a provincial art fair.

The question is, why is this show at MoMA? The answer seems only too obvious: the collectors who own the work are young and affluent potential new donors to the insatiable funding needs of the ever expanding, constantly morphing museum that once prided itself on having its great permanent collection permanently on display. (Now, try and find these fragments on view in hallways and ancillary galleries.) In the show’s favor is the fact that of the 17 painters included, each is represented by several works that when viewed together, could possibly be assessed as a personal style. The collection of oversize, bright paintings on paper by Kerstin Brätsch piled up and flanking the entrance are indeed startling and could possibly have been a credible one-person exhibition. Instead, they are stacked casually on the floor so that few can be entirely seen. The jagged black framing image is bold, as are the brilliant colors that pop like a fireworks display. Unfortunately, the rest of the works in The Forever Now, with the exception of Julie Mehretu’s paintings of dense and elegant calligraphic filigree, seem flaccid and singularly unambitious despite their hugeness, which unfortunately does not correspond to monumental scale.

Matt Connors, “Divot,” (2012). Acrylic and pencil on canvas. 48 × 36 ̋. Collection Richard and Monica Weinberg. Courtesy of Herald St, London. Photo: Andy Keate.

Making paintings as big as those of the New York School does not equate to anything more than using large quantities of material. In some cases, like that of Michaela Eichwald, her individual works are more impressive than the large mural in the show that lacks concentration and coherence. Matt Connors, too, is better dealing with human rather than architectural scale; it’s too easy to see his tricolor floor to ceiling planks as a Gulliver-size marriage of Ellsworth Kelly and John McCracken. But at least in the smaller, more personal pieces he exhibits interest in perceptual issues and a lack of fear in confronting the past. Nicole Eisenman, once one of my favorite painters, is represented by enormous, thickly impastoed caricatures of goofy heads that seem inexplicably crude in comparison with her earlier work as if she, too, felt the need to join the chaotic din that characterizes this not-so-magic moment.

Among the common denominators of this exhibition is a lack of coherence; an indication perhaps of what post-postmodernism may turn out to be. Presenting this collection of works as a sampling of where painting is now, is as irresponsible as within the current context it is understandable. These artists, after all, are supported by “emerging collectors”—“emerging” being the code word for a non existent avant-garde—courted by powerful galleries who place ads in art magazines, which review shows by galleries who advertise. This self-serving Ring-Around-the-Rosie proves why the exhibition of a work at MoMA is like a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, a much sought-after guarantee of quality that instantly skyrockets prices into the auction house stratosphere.

Some of the choices are clearly more market driven than others. Saatchi and Rubell protégé Oscar Murillo’s hodge-podge of this, that, the other thing, and everything else is particularly vacuous and unconvincing. Murillo’s is not the only work that suggests more is less, seeming to throw everything against the wall to give an impression of excitement, activity, and the spontaneity that is, in fact, entirely absent. The result is like a Chinese master sauce to which new ingredients are constantly added until a thick gluey mixture produces a blurring of distinctions in taste and consistency. One senses a desperate, even nervous need to get the recipe right despite the je m’en fous nonchalance of the Forever Now artists. The problem with the mock-heroic dimensions of many of the canvases is that the inarticulate surfaces look flabby rather than tense. This suggests that the work, rather than trying to stun with super size, should go on a diet.

I remember when “freshness” was the sought after quality in painting. Laura Owens makes a stab at freshness with her wallpaper-like floral motif embellished with oil stick squiggles, but the effect is coy rather than crisp. The artist who most successfully embraces the slacker attitude is Richard Aldrich. His conflated and referential images do have a certain piquant unpredictability. His use of mixed media—including greasy oil, wax, and charcoal on fine linen—belies the sophistication behind his off-the-cuff bricolage style. In the all and anything-at-all current mode, he does it best. Looking casually uncomposed, the work is actually quite consciously structured.

Mark Grotjahn, “Untitled (Circus No. 1 Face 44.18)” (2012). Oil on cardboard mounted on linen, 8 ́5 1/2 ̋ × 72 1/2 ̋. Collection Donald B. Marron, New York. Courtesy of Mark Grotjahn. Copyright Mark Grotjahn. Photo: Douglas M. Parker Studio.

Mark Grotjahn’s “Circus” triptych is a competent evocation of the manic thrill of roller-coaster rides which is at least evocative, demonstrating control and skill, rather than just an empty accumulation of larded pigments and aimless scrawls. Personally, I think Kurt Godwin’s complex carnivals were more original and ambitious, but he had the disadvantage of living on the wrong side of the tracks in Virginia where nary a critic or curator would venture. He painted all his life, immersing himself directly in the alchemical sources of both Duchamp and the best recent German art. He died last fall, age 58, in total obscurity.

It’s not as if there is no ambitious painting today that would not look out of place in a Museum of Modern Art, a name by now inappropriate for much currently featured by the Matrix on 53rd Street. Everyone, of course, has their own suggestion of painters not on the list of conspicuously strategized market darlings in The Forever Now. I would point to the exquisite enlarged miniatures of Shahzia Sikander, the rigorous constructions of R.H. Quaytman, the sophisticated color and compositions of Joanna Pousette-Dart, the tough materiality of Melissa Kretschmer, and the lush, fluid painterliness of Cecily Brown, along with the meticulous warped optical space of Rebecca Norton, the kinky perfection of Julie Speed, or the quiet poetry of Mary Corse. Not only is their painting unhip and uncool, they have the distinct disadvantage that they can’t produce enough to satisfy the needs of international mass production. Their work requires long hours of thought, preparation, and execution, as opposed to the fast-food rehash of Sigmar Polke—whose stunning retrospective, it should be said, MoMA did house—Albert Ohlehn and Martin Kippenburger, the apparent godfathers of The Forever Now. It is as if the unspoken message for young artists is grab the first flight for Berlin; do not pass New York or Paris except in reproduction.

I never thought I would be nostalgic for Marcia Tucker’s 1978 Whitney Museum Bad Painting show. In retrospect, it was a valiant effort to show a group of highly individualistic works that went beyond the boundaries of good taste and current trends. Like Kynaston McShine’s equally aberrant and even more memorable International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture show at MoMA in 1984, Bad Painting made no attempt to find common denominators defining a moment. At the time, McShine was quoted as saying, “I have to go beyond the way work is perceived in New York … a serious public cannot depend upon the whims of commercial galleries. It has to depend upon museums.” Ah, how nostalgic that sounds today. An independent contrarian spirit, McShine curated exhibitions that brought unexpected variety to MoMA’s mainstream program that have not been sufficiently acknowledged as major contributions. Some of the artists he chose were more durable than others, but many in the International Survey proved to become major international figures. And surely one of the “bad painters,” Neil Jenney, deserves to occupy precious MoMA space with a retrospective far more than this collection of forever now, forgotten tomorrow work.


Barbara Rose BARBARA ROSE is an art historian and curator who lives in New York and Madrid, Spain.


Features Reviews

Structure Rising: David Salle on ‘The Forever Now’ at MoMA

What the flawed survey tells us about painting today

Installation view of “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (December 14, 2014-April 5, 2015). JOHN WRONN/©2014 THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART

The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World” is MoMA’s first survey of recent painting in over 30 years. In the museum’s crowded sixth-floor galleries, curator Laura Hoptman has corralled 17 artists who have come to notice in the last decade or so, and collectively they give off a synaptic charge. There are a fair number of clunkers, but the majority of the painters here display an honestly arrived-at complexity, expressed through a rigorous series of choices made at what feels like a granularly visual level. Their work rewards hard looking.

The good artists in the show are very good indeed. Charline von Heyl, Josh Smith, Richard Aldrich, Amy Sillman, Mark Grotjahn, Nicole Eisenman, Rashid Johnson, Joe Bradley, and Mary Weatherford have all developed tenacious and highly individual styles. Each makes work that engages the viewer on the paintings’ own terms and that shakes free whatever journalistic shorthand might, in passing, get stuck on them. What drives these artists is resolved in works that are self-reliant and unassailable while remaining open and undogmatic—it’s the ebullience of secular art freed of any ideological task.

Two words one should probably avoid using in exhibition titles are “forever” and “now,” and Hoptman uses both. “Atemporal” comes from a William Gibson story, and Hoptman worked it into a youthful-sounding phrase, but it’s just distracting, like someone talking too loudly while you’re trying to think. She wants to make a point about painting in the Internet age, but the conceit is a red herring—the Web’s frenetic sprawl is opposite to the type of focus required to make a painting, or, for that matter, to look at one.

What does “atemporal” mean, in the context of painting? Judging from Hoptman’s catalogue essay, it’s the confidence, or panache, to take what one likes from the vast storehouse of style, without being overly concerned with the idea of progress or with what something means as a sign. Today, “all eras co-exist at once,” Hoptman writes. She goes on to say that this atemporality is a “wholly unique phenomenon in Western culture.” Big news. The free-agent status accorded the artists in her show is something I take as a good thing—maybe “minding one’s own business” would be a better way of putting it—but her claim for its uniqueness is harder to swallow; it’s more or less what I’ve been advocating for the last 35 years. Not that I take any credit for the idea; within a certain milieu it’s just common knowledge.


In her desire to connect everything to a narrative of the digital future, Hoptman misses the salient difference between the best work here and its immediate antecedents: a sense of structure. By structure I don’t mean only relational composition—though that plays a part—but more generally the sense of a painting’s internal rationale, its “inside energy,” as Alex Katz would say, that alignment of intention, talent, and form. Hoptman wants to make a clean break for her crew from the mores of “appropriation,” but again, the emphasis seems misplaced. Appropriation—as a style—had a tendency to stop short, visually speaking. The primary concern was with “presentation” itself, and the work that resulted was often an analog for the screen, or field, something upon which images composed themselves into some public/private drama. Appropriation pointed to something—some psychological or cultural condition outside of the work itself—that was the basis of its claim to criticality and, at its best, excavated something deep in the psyche. But there are other things in life. At present, painting is focused on structure, discovering and molding pictorial form for its own sake.

Atemporality, then, is nothing new. Most if not all art reaches backward to earlier models in some way; every rupture is also a continuity. The “reaching back” might be to unexpected sources, but imprints of earlier achievements are what give art its gristle and grit. What’s different is the mode of seeing. As an example, Weatherford places tubes of colored neon in front of fields of paint-stained canvas. In the old, appropriationist mind-set, one might get hung up on a list of signifiers along the lines of, say, Mario Merz or Gilberto Zorio meets Helen Frankenthaler; this reductiveness was, from the beginning, an unsatisfying way to see. Pleasantly, reassuringly, more like an old friend showing up after a long absence, arte povera echoes through Weatherford’s work, but it doesn’t feel like a self-conscious reference. Her works clear a space where they can be taken on their own terms. They do, as Ben Jonson said in a somewhat different context, “win themselves a kind of grace-like newness.”

In a related, refreshing development, Warhol’s gloomy, vampiric fatalism is no longer dragging down the party. Duchamp, too, is absent. What a relief. Nothing against the two masters as far as their own work is concerned, but they have exerted such an outsize gravitational pull on generations of artists that finally being out from under them feels like waking from a lurid dream. There is camp in “The Forever Now,” to be sure, and imagery, and irony, and “presentation,” but they are not the main event.

Painting also seems to have shed its preoccupation with photography; here you will find only the faintest nod to “the age of mechanical reproduction.” Even for Laura Owens, who blithely tries on the visual conundrums of the digital world, photography isn’t really part of her DNA. It turns out that much of the art-historical hand-wringing of the last 40 years over Walter Benjamin’s famous prophecy was either misplaced or just plain wrong. Painting is not competing with the Internet, even when making use of its proliferative effects.


Imagery is present to varying degrees in many of these artists’ works. It’s front and center in Eisenman’s paintings, exuberantly evident in Smith’s, lambent in Bradley’s. Drawn forms, some with a goofy, cartoony quality, are often the basis of Sillman’s muscular lyricism. Sillman is a great picture builder; her evocative and gemütlich paintings give the show some real gravitas. Representation even shows up in the trenchant cerebral complexities of von Heyl, but none of these artists is involved with the tradition of realism. They are not translating what can be seen into what can be painted. While everything, even abstraction, is an image in the ontological sense, and there are snatches of imagery in most of these paintings, these artists are simply not imagists; their images are more like the folk melodies in Bartók—present as understructure, there but not there.

The overall tone of “The Forever Now” has a West Coast casual feel about it. Five of the artists in the exhibition—Grotjahn, Weatherford, Owens, Dianna Molzan, and Matt Connors—are based in Southern California, and their work has some of Los Angeles’s take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward materiality. It’s a feeling I remember from living in L.A. in the ’70s: a slightly secondhand relationship to the New York School pieties. The alternative to sober, grown-up painting was an emphasis on materials, often industrial or non-art materials, and on the idea of process itself. The work embodies a youthful vigor without visible strain—in a word, cool. When combined with an internal structural core, the result has a kind of multiplier effect; it wins you over.

(The situation in literature today is not so different; while still avoiding straight realism, the parodists, inventors, miniaturists, and tinkerers are now coming into prominence, taking over from the arid metafictionists. Writers like George Saunders, Ben Marcus, Sam Lipsyte, Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner, and Chris Kraus have clear parallels with painters von Heyl, Weatherford, Bradley, Aldrich, Chris Martin, et al. Painting and advanced writing are now closer in spirit than at any time in living memory.)

But I want to return to that quality that sets apart certain painters in this show—that sense of structure. Like diamonds, Grotjahn’s paintings are the result of great pressure brought to bear on a malleable material over a protracted period of time. His work is a good example of the way in which many artists today are using imagery and history—which is to say, the way that artists mainly always have. Grotjahn manages to simultaneously invoke Cubism, Futurism, Surrealism, and Abstract Expressionism—everyone from Malevich to Victor Brauner—and translate those impulses into an intensely focused, schematic composition that leaves just enough room for his hand to do its stuff.

Much has been made of Grotjahn’s Picassoid heads, but the overall looping structure of his paintings produces an effect closer to Joseph Stella’s 1920s paintings of the Brooklyn Bridge. Grotjahn reimagines Stella’s swooping catenaries into arched ribbons of impasto paint. Because the chunks of color are small and contiguous, they tend to blend together in the viewer’s eye, giving the paintings an alternating current of macro and micro focus. His colors are dark red and burgundy, forest green, warm white, cobalt blue—the colors of silk neckties. They are preppy in a nice way, with a whiff of the 1940s. More importantly, Grotjahn’s color intervals are exacting. They put the painting in a major key. Their simple, clear visual forms—arcs, circles, lozenge and ovoid shapes, like segments of an orange—sometimes overlap and cut into one another, creating a space of increasing, sobering complexity. Grotjahn’s paintings do a funny thing: they achieve great scale through the linear arrangement of small areas of paint, and their structural and imagistic concatenations are in good alignment with the color and paint application. The what and the how are in productive sync. These paintings are tight, shipshape, and very satisfying to look at. At 46, Grotjahn is close on to a modernist master.

Aldrich has been making interesting and surprising paintings for a while, and one of his works here shows great panache. Two Dancers with Haze in Their Heart Waves Atop a Remake of “One Page, Two Pages, Two Paintings,” from 2010, is Aldrich at his least gimmicky and most in tune with the spirit of abstract painting as deconstruction. The painting’s success lies in its loose-limbed sense of structure: a grid- or ladder-like armature along which an array of painted shapes and brush-drawn lines alternate with the interstitial white spaces to form a syncopated rhythm. Its painterly touch calls to mind Joan Mitchell and Philip Guston, and also Robert Rauschenberg’s Winter Pool from 1959—two canvases joined in the middle by a ladder—as well as Rauschenberg’s later Combines. Aldrich’s palette here is sophisticated, just shy of decorator-ish; he takes eight or nine hues and nudges them into perfectly tuned intervals of cream, white, Pompeii red, burnt umber, and a grayed cobalt green—colors that feel at once Mediterranean and Nordic. This particular painting touches on a number of visual cues without leaning too heavily on any of them; the four irregular black rectangles framed by cream-colored bands suggest darkened windows in a cracked plaster wall.

Richard Aldrich, Two Dancers with Haze in Their Heart Waves Atop a Remake of “One Page, Two Pages, Two Paintings,” 2010. FARZAD OWRANG/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND BORTOLAMI GALLERY, NEW YORK/PRIVATE COLLECTION, NEW YORK

That Aldrich’s painting is reminiscent of earlier paintings while maintaining a clear sense of contemporaneity is perhaps what Hoptman means by “atemporal.” But this is what painting is always about, in one way or another. Rauschenberg’s work of the late ’50s and early ’60s was itself a deconstruction and reconstruction of Abstract Expressionism, freed from its self-importance. Aldrich has taken a lot from that period in Rauschenberg’s work, but his tone is lighter; it has Rauschenberg’s insouciance, without the urgent nervousness. The stakes are different. This is now. Though informal, at times almost flippant, Aldrich’s work is sturdier and more tough-minded than it first appears. His painting says, “Lean on me.”

Susan Sontag observed nearly 50 years ago, in her essay “On Style,” that no self-respecting critic would want to be seen separating form from content, and yet most seem drawn to do just that, after first offering a disclaimer to the contrary. Make that double for curators. The real problem with “The Forever Now” is that it’s two shows: there are the painters who make stand-alone paintings—we don’t need no backstory—and those who use a rectangular-ish surface to do something else. The artists in the former group are the raison d’être for the show; their work has formal inventiveness and pictorial intelligence; it lives in the moment. As for the latter, they are artists who make tip-of-the-iceberg art. What’s on the canvas is the evidence, or residue, of what happens offstage. There’s nothing at all wrong with this in principle, of course, but it can result in an arid busyness that masks a core indecisiveness or, worse, emptiness.

Here is another way to see this: there are pictures that repay our attention with interest and others that simply use it up. The qualities we admire in people—resourcefulness, intelligence, decisiveness, wit, the ability to bring others into the emotional, substantive self—are often the same ones that we feel in art that holds our attention. Less-than-admirable qualities—waffling, self-aggrandizement, stridency, self-absorption—color our experience of work that, for one reason or another, remains unconvincing. By “unconvincing” I mean the feeling you get when the gap between what a work purports to be and what it actually looks like is too big to be papered over.

Such is the case with several of the most celebrated artists included in “The Forever Now.” The problem of grade inflation has been with us since at least the 1920s, when H. L. Mencken, in his American Mercury magazine, coined the term “American boob” to mean our national variant of philistinism. The flip side of “boob-ism,” in Mencken’s formulation, was the wholesale enthusiasm for everything cultural, lest one be thought a philistine. It’s created a hell of confusion ever since.

George Balanchine once complained that the praise had been laid on a little thick. “Everyone’s overrated,” said the greatest choreographer in history. “Picasso’s overrated. I’m overrated. Even Jack Benny’s overrated.” He meant that once it’s decided that someone is great, a misty halo of reverence surrounds everything he or she does. The reality is more prosaic: some things, or some parts of things, will be great and others not. It’s annoying to be overpraised; it’s like showing your work to your parents. The lack of criticality is one of the things that give our current art milieu the feeling of the political sphere (I don’t mean political art). Politics, as a job, is the place where the truth can never be told; it would bring the merry-go-round to a halt.

I decided a long time ago not to write about things I don’t care for. So much work is deeply and movingly realized, and so many artists of real talent are working today that it’s just not worth the time to take an individual clunker to task. There’s an audience for everything—who cares? Besides, one can always be wrong. However, I’m compelled to make an exception in the case of 27-year-old Oscar Murillo. While it’s not his fault for being shot out of the canon too early, I feel one has to say something lest perception be allowed to irretrievably swamp reality. There have always been artists who were taken up by collectors, curators, or journalists; artists who fit a certain narrative but are of little interest to other artists. So why get worked up over it now? Of course it’s not just him. The problem is really one of what constitutes interpretation; it’s the fault line of a deepening divide between how artists and curators see the world. Though it may seem unfair to single out Murillo, the best way to explain why the distinction matters is to describe his work.

Murillo seems to want to say something with his work about palimpsest and memory and being an outsider, but he lacks, to my eye, most of what is needed to make a convincing picture of that type. His grasp of the elements that engage people who paint—like scale, color, surface, image, and line—is journeyman-like at best. His sense of composition is strictly rectilinear; he doesn’t seem to have discovered the diagonal or the arabesque. Worse, he can’t seem to generate any sense of internal pictorial rhythm.

Murillo’s paintings lack personality. He uses plenty of dark colors, scraping, rubbing, dripping, graffiti marks, and dirty tarpaulins—run-of-the-mill stuff, signifiers all. The work looks like something made by an art director; it’s meant to look gritty and “real” but comes across as fainthearted. This is painting for people who don’t have much interest in looking, who prefer the backstory to what is in front of their eyes. Murillo is in so far over his head that even a cabal of powerful dealers won’t be able to save him. He must on some level know this, and so he tries to make up for what’s missing by adding on other effects. One piece in “The Forever Now” is a pile of canvases crumpled up on the floor that viewers can move about as they choose. It’s interactive—get it? MoMA visitors with a long memory will recognize this as a variation on early work by Allan Kaprow, the inventor of Happenings, who wished to mimic the “expressionist” impulses in ’50s paintings and channel them into little games that invited viewer participation with the result that what had once been pictorially alive became pure tedium. To quote Fairfield Porter, writing at the time, “[Kaprow] uses art and he makes clichés….If he wants to prove that certain things can’t be done again because they already have been done, he couldn’t be more convincing.” You can kick Murillo’s canvases around from here to Tuesday—there is no way to bring them to life, because they never lived in the first place.

The real news from “The Forever Now,” the good news, is that painting didn’t die. The argument that tried to make painting obsolete was always a category mistake; that historically determinist line has itself expired, and painting is doing just fine. Painting may no longer be dominant, but that has had, if anything, a salutary effect: not everyone can paint, or needs to. While art audiences have gone their distracted way, painting, like a truffle growing under cover of leaves, has developed flavors both rich and deep, though perhaps not for everyone. Not having to spend so much energy defending one’s decision to paint has given painters the freedom to think about what painting can be. For those who make paintings, or who find in them a compass point, this is a time of enormous vitality.

David Salle is an artist living in Brooklyn and East Hampton.

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Antenna More paint, less ‘isms’

Antenna: More paint, less ‘isms’

Sampling is in which, according to Meredith Etherington-Smith,
might just lead paint out of the cul de sac of the conceptual

Forget conceptual, let’s talk timeless

The earliest years of the 20th century were a tale of ‘isms’ — from the dying fall of Impressionism to Post-Impressionism to Cubism, Surrealism and on to Abstract Expressionism; all convenient labels which defined and promoted artists in different schools of art.

In the earliest years of the 21st century, however, something very different is going on. Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World at MoMA in New York could be taken as long-hand for ‘anything that smacks of an ism is irrelevant to contemporary art’. This is a show of work by 17 artists (see our interview with the curator), none of whom represent through style, content or medium the time in which they work.

Left: Matt Connors, Divot, 2012. Acrylic and pencil on canvas. 48 × 36” (121.9 × 91.4 cm). Collection Richard and Monica Weinberg. Courtesy Herald St, London. Photo: Andy Keate

Right: Mark Grotjahn, Untitled (Circus No. 1 Face 44.18), 2012. Oil on cardboard mounted on linen. 8’ 5 1/2” × 72 1/2” (257.8 × 184.2 cm). Collection Donald B. Marron, New York. Courtesy Mark Grotjahn. Copyright Mark Grotjahn. Photo: Douglas M. Parker Studio

Put another way, sampling is in. That means historical references to the ism schools of 20th century art or earlier and general sampling of popular motifs — all at the same time. It’s the same thing that’s happening now in literature, fashion and popular music. The Seventies are back? Yeah! So are the Cubist Twenties, and so, for that matter, are the Abstract Expressionist Fifties, Sixties, and so on.

Charline von Heyl, Carlotta, 2013. Oil, acrylic and charcoal on canvas. 82 x 76” (208.3 x 193 cm). Ovitz Family Collection, Los Angeles. Courtesy of the artist and Petzel, New York. Photo: Jason Mandella
In fact, the only thing that the artists in this exhibition have in common is paint. And maybe that’s the giveaway — the common denominator — even if it isn’t an ism: that this whole sampling exercise, this banishment of isms, is a way out of the cul de sac paint got itself into which led to the ‘conceptual decade’ at the end of the last century.

Rising stars like Oscar Murillo, established stars such as Matt Grohjahn, Charline von Heyl and Richard Aldrich are painting, not welding. So forget conceptual; talk timeless.

Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World is at MoMA until 5 April 2015.



Mary Weatherford, La Noche (2014)

Mary Weatherford, La Noche (2014)

From the 1940s through the early ’60s, the Museum of Modern Art mounted a series of group shows that offered many viewers their first glimpse of some of the most vital new American painting and sculpture of the day. Curated by Dorothy C. Miller, the exhibitions never claimed to capture the zeitgeist, but rather to do nothing more than display new art worth considering. Even the titles of the shows were modest: “Sixteen Americans,” “Twelve Americans” and so on. As Miller explained in 1959, “Differences rather than similarities in point of view, as well as in age, experience and fame, have been emphasized in these exhibitions at the Museum…bringing together distinct and widely varying personalities.” Yet the shows were often controversial. “Congratulations, Dorothy,” her boss, Alfred H. Barr, quipped at the opening of one. “You’ve done it again. They all hate it.”

Yet the “Americans” exhibitions are legendary because Miller was discerning in her choices. In 1946, the second of these shows, “Fourteen Americans,” included such exponents of the new abstraction as Arshile Gorky, Isamu Noguchi, Robert Motherwell and Mark Tobey. Among those in “Sixteen Americans,” in 1959, were Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Rauschenberg and Frank Stella, not to mention the West Coast assemblagists Jay DeFeo and Wally Hedrick; and the last in the series, “Americans 1963,” included the budding Pop artists Robert Indiana, Claes Oldenburg and James Rosenquist among the fifteen selected, as well as young and older abstractionists such as Lee Bontecou and Ad Reinhardt.

Miller decided to start the series because she’d realized that there was no other way for many artists, in the New York of the 1940s, to get their work seen. “I had this terribly sad job of seeing all these artists who were starving,” she later said. “There were no galleries to send them to.” By the mid-’60s that was no longer true. Accompanying the emergence of Pop Art was a boom in the market for contemporary art, and the number of galleries mushroomed along with it. Fifty years on, New York is so thick with galleries that it’s impossible to immerse yourself in all of them, and so many cities around the world have thriving gallery scenes (and art fairs) that you couldn’t possibly visit them all. Maybe the museum should be the public’s filter again—surveying all the galleries and selecting the best work for an audience that wants to explore contemporary art without hacking a path through the jungle. Except that the population of artists has increased even more rapidly than the number of galleries, so that there are still plenty of talented artists whose work is hard to see even for die-hards of the scene.

One of the current shows at the Museum of Modern Art (through April 5) could have been called “Fourteen or Fifteen More-or-Less Americans, Three Germans and a Colombian Who Lives in London.” That’s an unwieldy title, but also as accurate and straightforward as it could be. The “More-or-Less” would be necessary because the show includes some foreign-born New Yorkers, and the qualification also has the virtue of not pretending that the exhibition is other than it is: a gathering of “distinct and widely varying personalities” with not much more in common than that they’re all at work right now and the curator (in this case, MoMA’s Laura Hoptman) thinks they demand attention.

Sad to say, MoMA has done something different: it has saddled the exhibition with the unjustified goal of thematic coherence. With good reason, the museum has lost faith in its competence to pick the cream of contemporary painting without ulterior rationale. What’s on offer instead is another nebulous effort to take the temperature of the zeitgeist. But guess what? It’s the zeitgeist of no zeitgeist, so anything goes. The show is called “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World,” and, according to the museum’s press release, the remarkable thing about the works is that “they paradoxically do not represent—either through style, content, or medium—the time in which they are made.” How is that even possible? Hoptman, in her catalog essay, attributes the word “atemporality” to the science-fiction novelist William Gibson, for whom it means “a new and strange state of the world in which, courtesy of the Internet, all eras seem to exist at once.” But long before the invention of the Internet, Jorge Luis Borges imagined an infinite library in which all the books that could ever be written would already exist. What’s new and odd is the urge to characterize a phenomenon of apparent timelessness with the distinctly temporal designation “new.” Neo retro, anyone?

In any case, the feeling hazily conjured at MoMA is far from new. “All ages are contemporaneous,” Ezra Pound wrote in The Spirit of Romance in 1910. He might have seemed, at the time, to be speaking for the great cultural movement about to emerge—for James Joyce, with his layering of classical myth and the profane reality of early-twentieth-century Dublin in Ulysses; for Picasso, whose postwar art of pastiche seemed to disassemble and recombine historical styles just as his earlier work had taken apart and reconstructed pictorial space; for Stravinsky, whose music had found a sense of modernity in both primitive ritual (The Rite of Spring) and the mincing artifices of the eighteenth-century ballroom (Pulcinella), and who sought for his Oedipus Rex “a medium not dead but turned to stone.” And decades later, the postmodernism of the 1980s—above all in architecture but also in the quotationism of neo-Expressionist and “transavantgarde” painting—sought atemporality with a vengeance.

* * *

For Hoptman, all this history is bunk. “Forever Now” does not mean, as it did for Gibson, that “all eras seem to exist at once,” but that the present is all, and no one knows when that is. Her only point of comparison is with the practice of “appropriation in the 1980s,” by which she presumably means Sherrie Levine’s quotations of famous photographs or Richard Prince’s Marlboro Man. She might have thought back to the 1960s and Elaine Sturtevant’s remakes of works by contemporaries like Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns, the subject of a retrospective elsewhere at MoMA (“Sturtevant: Double Trouble” is on view through February 22). Levine, Prince and Sturtevant are the artists who, as Hoptman says, “lifted images and styles from art history and pop culture and dropped them in the arena of contemporary art as if they were toxic ready-mades, stripped of their auras of power and persuasion through decontextualization.” By contrast, according to Hoptman, her atemporalists draw on history guiltlessly, one might even say uncritically. Maybe so, but wouldn’t she say the same of artists as different as Nancy Spero, Francesco Clemente and Julian Schnabel, each of whom has ranged through time and space in pursuit of the sources of his or her art?

If anything, Hoptman’s artists du jour have a shallow sense of tradition. One of Richard Aldrich’s paintings has a certain redolence of the Philip Guston of the early ’60s; Matt Connors is showing a twelve-foot-tall triptych of red, yellow and blue monochromes that can’t fail to remind you of Ellsworth Kelly and Barnett Newman; Nicole Eisenman’s stylized heads have discreet echoes of Paul Klee and Alexej von Jawlensky as well as of the ’80s neo-Expressionists themselves; Mark Grotjahn’s densely layered concatenations of shimmering, thickly textured lines recall Joseph Stella’s Americanized Futurism as reinterpreted by way of Richard Pousette-Dart’s hypnotic tactility; Amy Sillman sometimes uses still life as an armature for abstraction in ways that would not have seemed alien to Hans Hofmann; Rashid Johnson and Julie Mehretu draw very different conclusions from Cy Twombly—in Johnson’s case, an influence productively united with that of the matterism of ’50s Europeans like Antoni Tàpies and Alberto Burri.

I could go on, but you get the point: for inspiration, Hoptman’s atemporalists rarely look beyond European and American modernism, and most often postwar modernism—which is not surprising, because most of them are abstractionists. Less easily explicable is the restricted geographical reach of Hoptman’s choice in an era when ideas, like people, pass so easily from continent to continent. The time traveling behind Spero’s fascination with the archaic or Clemente’s with Indian miniatures or Schnabel’s recourse to the religious iconography of Spanish and Mexican Catholicism—this is absent from “The Forever Now.” As it is, the best paintings in the show are the least dependent on citation: in a set of gloriously luminous works, depicted light is confronted with the literal light of bent neon tubes that Mary Weatherford has stretched like drawn lines across the canvas. Almost miraculously, it’s the depicted light that wins out.

* * *

What MoMA has offered is hardly a state-of-the-art report on painting in an age when the Internet has supposedly made all the information in time and space available to us simultaneously. But how would the exhibition look to the innocent viewer who walks into the museum without reading the catalog or text panels or giving a second thought to the title? How would it be, in other words, for the viewer who sees the show for what it really is, a sort of “Seventeen Mostly Americans”?

A little better, but not a lot. The usual MoMA tendency to shoehorn too many works into too little space is partly to blame. At least Kerstin Brätsch is lucky enough to have her massive “Blocked Radiant” paintings on paper installed in the hall outside the show’s first room, where they can breathe a little; and the strongest of an otherwise thin batch of paintings by Laura Owens, combining silk-screened appropriated imagery and freehand gesture, broadcasts loud and clear from the wall above the ground floor ticket desk. But in the rooms housing the bulk of the show’s art, the works elbow each other irritably. More important, Hoptman’s choices are questionable—not only her selection of artists, but also her selection of works by some of them. Eisenman, Grotjahn and Sillman are among the most interesting painters at work today, but the canvases of theirs on view give little sense of their range and adventurousness. Owens, Aldrich and Brätsch, like Charline von Heyl and Josh Smith, have always been hit-or-miss (in Smith’s case, where Stakhanovite productivity is the name of the game, the misses must number in the thousands, and for all I know maybe the hits do too), and while a daring inconsistency is often in itself attractive, the selection here makes it less so.

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A tightly organized presentation of just those five artists might have made for a rewarding show in itself—an examination of how what looks like eclecticism can sometimes amount to a determinate artistic strategy. On the other hand, Oscar Murillo and Michael Williams still look like promising, slightly too energetic grad students, and it seems a little cruel to expose their weaknesses in public when some good might still come of them if they are left to develop at their own pace, undisturbed. The jury is still out on Connors, Michaela Eichwald and Dianna Molzan. But Mehretu, like Joe Bradley, is wildly overrated. Rashid Johnson, better known as a photographer, assemblagist and installation artist than as a painter, comes on strong with his “Cosmic Slop” paintings (their title borrowed from the 1973 George Clinton/Bernie Worrell song about doing what you’ve got to do to survive)—monochromes made of black soap mixed with wax and vigorously incised. Along with Weatherford, Johnson will be the surprise bonus for many viewers of ”The Forever Now.”

I owe to Roberta Smith’s New York Times review of the exhibition the “demographic detail”—which I have to admit I’d overlooked—that almost all the male artists in the show are younger than almost all the women. That tells us something about time and history that Hoptman’s notion of atemporality leaves out: that men can still find institutional and market acceptance far more quickly than their female peers. I’m getting sick of it. Unfortunately, Smith, who certainly knows better, falls into the trap of pitting women against women, pointing out some midcareer women painters who she feels might have been worthier inclusions than those in the show. More to the point would be to mention the young women artists who might have been there instead of the young guys. Sticking to New Yorkers, I’d trade Bradley and Williams for Amy Feldman, Julia Rommel, Kianja Strobert or Wendy White any day.

* * *

What “The Forever Now” fails to offer is painting that, in its curator’s words, is “inspired by, refers to, or avails itself of styles, subjects, motifs, materials, strategies, and ideas from an array of periods on the art-historical timeline.” To see such work, amble downtown to the New Museum, where Chris Ofili’s midcareer retrospective “Night and Day” is on view through February 1.

Although Ofili, now in his mid-40s, is one of the most prominent figures in the British art scene (despite his having deserted London for Trinidad), New Yorkers still probably know him best, unfortunately, for the 1999 controversy over the Brooklyn Museum show “Sensation: Young British Artists From the Saatchi Collection.” There, Ofili’s 1996 painting The Holy Virgin Mary became an object of extreme contention; like most of his paintings at the time, it used elephant dung as one of its materials. It was denounced in the pages of the Daily News, then by the Catholic League and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who threatened to cut off municipal funding for the museum and evict it from its city-owned building. Catholic groups picketed the museum, and the painting itself was eventually vandalized by a protester who smeared it with white paint—the black Madonna had to be whitewashed to be made less offensive—though conservators were able to successfully remove the paint before it dried.

The Holy Virgin Mary is here again to bless us, and I still agree with Peter Schjeldahl in his review of “Sensation” for The New Yorker, where he wrote that “Ofili’s lightning-rod canvas is gorgeous, sweet, and respectful of its subject.” Ofili’s art of the 1990s is mostly joyous and extrovert, and designed to catch the eye, as much by wild patterning as by the employment of porn and pop-cultural imagery and the symbolism of black nationalism. At the New Museum, there are a few works from the period that are more overtly serious in their demeanor, like The Holy Virgin Mary or No Woman, No Cry, from 1998, but they are exceptions. (The latter painting was a response to the murder in London of a black teenager; it was subsequently found that the haphazard way in which the crime was investigated was a result of institutional racism on the part of the Metropolitan Police.)

Around the middle of the last decade, Ofili’s art suddenly changed. Out went the elephant dung, the glitter, the riotous patterning, the map pins, the often raw and attention-grabbing subject matter—though the religious overtones remained. What came in is harder to characterize, and that seems deliberate. In 2005, Ofili moved from London to Port of Spain, Trinidad. To some degree, the move seems to have been a calculated effort to distance himself from the London art scene, where he had become the object of attention and where he was rapidly becoming something like an establishment figure. He’s chosen rural life over his urban origins, but also a locale where, as a foreigner who is black, he can blend in, becoming an observer who looks on from close quarters without attracting attention.

Strangely enough, some of Ofili’s more recent works all but rebuff the viewer’s attention. The “Night” segment of “Night and Day” is a group of paintings done mostly in shades of blue, and shown in a room with dark walls and lowered lights. Even after your eyes adjust to the darkness, it’s still hard to detect the forms in the paintings. One depicts the hanged Judas; another, a man set on by policemen. In a few cases, I was never quite able to tell what it was I was trying to see. But even in other recent paintings that are not so hard to decipher, the imagery can be difficult to interpret. Ofili seems to evoke what might be a coherent narrative or at least a metaphor, only to dissolve it into ambiguity. Stylistically, too, his reach has become broader, more unpredictable. Robert Storr, in his catalog essay for the New Museum, notes that “the work’s pictorial frame of reference has changed dramatically from that of the earlier works to a sleek, semisilhouetted semiabstraction reminiscent in some respects of the cutouts of Henri Matisse, and in others of Art Deco murals, while evoking the fusion of these influences in the marvelous rhythmic hybridity of Romare Bearden’s collages and prints.” Tribal art is recurrently evoked too. Ofili’s subject matter ranges from biblical tales to Greco-Roman myth to Afro-Caribbean folklore to the artifice of daily life in what is also, after all, a tourist destination. He seems to be questioning, more and more, who he is—what he’s made of and what he cannot absorb. He doesn’t always succeed in making his images and influences cohere, but his self-questioning has its own coherence that transcends mere thematic or even pictorial consistency. It’s a communion with the unknown.






Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World

14 Dec 20145 Apr 2015 at Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York

Nicole Eisenman. Guy Capitalist. 2011. Oil and mixed media on canvas. 76 x 60” (193 x 152.4 cm). Collection of Noel Kirnon, New York, NY. Courtesy of Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer

Paintings by 17 artists working today will be the focus of The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World at The Museum of Modern Art from December 14, 2014, through April 5, 2015. These works are united by a singular approach that characterizes our cultural moment in the early years of this millennium: they paradoxically do not represent—either through style, content, or medium—the time in which they are made. This “atemporality,” or timelessness—also present in contemporary literature, fashion, and popular music—is manifested in painting 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, or by radically paring down an artistic language to its most basic, archetypal form. The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World is organized by Laura Hoptman, Curator, with Margaret Ewing, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Painting and Sculpture, MoMA.

The Forever Now includes nearly 90 stylistically disparate, and often visually dazzling, large- and small-scale paintings made in the last several years by Richard Aldrich, Joe Bradley, Kerstin Brätsch, Matt Connors, Michaela Eichwald, Nicole Eisenman, Mark Grotjahn, Charline von Heyl, Rashid Johnson, Julie Mehretu, Dianna Molzan, Oscar Murillo, Laura Owens, Amy Sillman, Josh Smith, Mary Weatherford, and Michael Williams. Several artists—including Connors, Eisenman, and Owens—are producing new work for the exhibition.

The featured artists utilize a wide variety of styles and impulses, but all use the painted surface as a platform, map, or metaphoric screen on which genres intermingle, morph, and collide. Their work represents an engagement with traditional painting, however each artist tests those traditions with a view towards reshaping the various languages of abstraction, redefining strategies like appropriation and bricolage, and reframing more metaphysical, high-stakes questions that surround notions of originality, subjectivity, and spiritual transcendence.

The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World will be accompanied by a catalogue featuring an introductory essay by curator Laura Hoptman and illustrated sections on each of the 17 artists.




New Yorker magazine
The Art World January 5, 2015 Issue
Take Your Time
New painting at the Museum of Modern Art.
By Peter Schjeldahl



Struggling to tame a wild mental landscape: Laura Owens’s “Untitled” (2013). Struggling to tame a wild mental landscape: Laura Owens’s “Untitled” (2013). Credit Courtesy MOMA and Enid A. Haupt Fund

“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? / Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” Those lines, from T. S. Eliot’s “Choruses from ‘The Rock,’ ” published in 1934, came to mind at “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World,” a challenging show of seventeen mid-career artists at the Museum of Modern Art. The note of dismay resonates generally today, when another of Eliot’s prophetic laments—“distracted from distraction by distraction,” from a year later, in “Burnt Norton”—might be this morning’s spiritual weather report. But consider the signal plight of painting. The old, slow art of the eye and the hand, united in service to the imagination, is in crisis. It’s not that painting is “dead” again—no other medium can as yet so directly combine vision and touch to express what it’s like to have a particular mind, with its singular troubles and glories, in a particular body. But painting has lost symbolic force and function in a culture of promiscuous knowledge and glutting information. Some of the painters in “Forever Now,” along with the show’s thoughtful curator, Laura Hoptman, face this fact.

Don’t attend the show seeking easy joys. Few are on offer in the work of the thirteen Americans, three Germans, and one Colombian—nine women and eight men—and those to be found come freighted with rankling self-consciousness or, here and there, a nonchalance that verges on contempt. The ruling insight that Hoptman proposes and the artists confirm is that anything attempted in painting now can’t help but be a do-over of something from the past, unless it’s so nugatory that nobody before thought to bother with it. In the introduction to the show’s catalogue, Hoptman posits a post-Internet condition, in which “all eras seem to exist at once,” thus freeing artists, yet also leaving them no other choice but to adopt or, at best, reanimate familiar “styles, subjects, motifs, materials, strategies, and ideas.” The show broadcasts the news that substantial newness in painting is obsolete.

Opening the show, in the museum’s sixth-floor lobby, are large, virtuosic paintings on paper by the German Kerstin Brätsch, which recall Wassily Kandinsky and other classic abstractionists. Brätsch encases many of her paintings in elaborate wood-and-glass frames that are leaned or stacked against a wall. The installation suggests a shipping depot of an extraordinarily high-end retailer. Next, there is a wall of six canvases by the American Joe Bradley, who, at the age of thirty-nine, has been hugely successful with dashing pastiches of circa-nineteen-eighties Neo-Expressionist abstraction. His pictures here are swift sketches in grease pencil that a child not only could do but has likely already done, such as a stick figure, the Superman insignia, a number (“23”), or a lone drifting line. How little can a painting be and still satisfy as a painting? Very little, Bradley ventures. After straining for a sterner response to the works, I opted to relax and like them.
Kerstin Brätsch, “Blocked Radiant D (for Ioana)” (2011).
CreditCourtesy the artist and Gavin Brown’s Enterprise

Disarming, too, is the show’s youngest artist, the twenty-eight-year-old Colombian art-market phenomenon Oscar Murillo, who shows stitched-together, furiously scribbled and slathered, uncannily elegant abstractions somewhat in the vein of early Robert Rauschenberg. In addition to the canvases that are stretched and hung on the walls, several lie loose and heaped on the floor. Viewers are encouraged to rummage through them, pick them up, and inspect them. (This provides a definite frisson—you’re playing with paintings by someone whose works sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars—enhanced by the clayey odor of fresh oil stick.) The American Josh Smith, a year younger than his friend Bradley, joins him in testing the world’s tolerance for shambling improvisation. Fantastically prolific, he creates series of bravura paintings, all of them five feet high, four feet wide, with motifs that include monochromes, kitschy tropical sunsets, kitschy memento mori (skulls and skeletons), and his own signature. What is painting for? Smith’s answer stops a winsome step short of nihilism: something more or less lively to hang on a wall. As with Bradley, resistance to Smith is understandable but, in the end, too tiring to maintain.

Painters of a more conventionally serious stamp are on hand. The most distinctly original is the forty-six-year-old American Mark Grotjahn. His palette-knife patterning, packed and energized in smoldering colors, yields tensions that you can feel in your gut. Grotjahn’s art may not be about much beyond the pleasures of his mastery, but it is awfully good. More symptomatic of Hoptman’s thesis of “atemporality” are works by the Americans Julie Mehretu and Amy Sillman. Mehretu, forty-four, rose to fame, and a MacArthur Fellowship, in the past decade with exhaustingly complex compositions of overlaid marks and diagrams, which seemed bent on mirroring our cybernetic age in total. To my relief, she appears to have abandoned that conceit in order to liberate her inner abstract lyricist, with skittery gray paintings that pay candid and exhilarating homage to Cy Twombly. Sillman, fifty-nine, revisits modern-arty looks, from around 1940, by the likes of Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning, to which she adds mainly the assurance of knowing, as they could not, that they were on a right track.

If one modern master haunts “Forever Now,” it is Sigmar Polke, who, from the early nineteen-sixties until his death, in 2010, ran painting through wringers of caustic irony and giddy burlesque. He hovers at the shoulders of the two most impressive painters who befit Hoptman’s theme of present pastness, the German Charline von Heyl, fifty-four, and Laura Owens, forty-four, from Los Angeles. Heyl’s mixes and matches of elements of many styles forswear irony but take Polke’s restless eclecticism as a rule. Each stages a more or less successful struggle to tame a wild mental landscape. The quicksilver Owens contributes two rather precious new works—bagatelles, really—that feature perfunctory touches of paint on silk-screened reproductions of an advertisement for bird feeders and of a notebook page bearing a sarcastic fairy tale written out in a child’s guileless hand. But be sure to spend time with her large abstraction, an untitled work from 2013, hanging in MOMA’s ground-floor lobby: gestural glyphs and splotches in white, black, green, and orange on a ground imprinted with a blown-up page of newspaper want ads. It is almost off-handedly majestic and preternaturally charming, and my favorite work in the show. It suggests Polke mistaking himself for Joan Miró.

It will surprise many, as it did me, that “Forever Now” is the first large survey strictly dedicated to new painting that MOMA has organized since 1958, when “The New American Painting,” a show of seventeen artists, including all the major Abstract Expressionists, went on to tour Europe and to revolutionize art everywhere. Hoptman clearly considered the echo, presenting the same number of painters—except that this group bodes little change in art anywhere, that being a melancholy mark of its pertinence today. But even more arresting is the mere occurrence of the show at MOMA. Hoptman strives to shoehorn painting back into a museum culture that has come to favor installation, performance, and conceptual and digital work. The effort seems futile, at least in the short run.

You can see the painters in “Forever Now” reacting to the dilemma of an image-making art struggling to stand out in an image-sickened society—“Filled with fancies and empty of meaning,” as Eliot went on from his line about distraction. The artists’ tactics include emphases on gritty materiality and refusals of comforting representation. It’s a strong show, and timely. But its own terms make it more expressive of honest discontent than of inspiring invention. Painting can bleed now, but it cannot heal. ♦



Reshuffling, Not Reinventing

Breaking no new ground, a show at the Museum of Modern Art merely recycles received wisdom, with artists who are market-vetted and gallery-approved.

New York

In the Museum of Modern Art’s long-anticipated exhibition “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World,” a showcase of about 100 works by 17 living artists, you will encounter Richard Aldrich’s “Angie Adams/Franz Kline” (2010-11). A mixed-media muddle roughly 7 feet tall by 5 feet wide, the mostly white painting comprises a big, derisively Franz Kline-like black rectangle, adjacent to two smaller splotches of pale red and violet, with some drips, smudges and squiggles.

‘Angie Adams/Franz Kline’ (2010-11), by Richard Aldrich. ENLARGE
‘Angie Adams/Franz Kline’ (2010-11), by Richard Aldrich. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Bortolami Gallery, New York. Photo: Farzad Owrang

According to the show’s curator, MoMA’s Laura Hoptman, Mr. Aldrich’s “Angie Adams/Franz Kline” exemplifies the zeitgeist of the new millennium’s Internet-driven “atemporality,” a term coined in 2003 by science-fiction writer William Gibson. Her theory is that in our globalized, “atemporal” world—in which artists always have access to everything on the Web—hierarchies, timelines, meanings, distinctions and histories dissolve. Today’s irreverent, ransacking artists, Ms. Hoptman explains in the show’s catalog and wall text, are “self-identified cultural pirates…contemporary Dr. Frankensteins” who, “taking advantage of this avalanche of information…reanimate, reenact, or sample elements from the past without a trace of parody or nostalgia, challenging them to be relevant again in our ‘endless digital Now,’ as Gibson has described our time.”

How does open-ended “atemporality” rear its head in “Angie Adams/Franz Kline”? The wall label clarifies: The painting refers to “pop culture and art history simultaneously, in effect leveling any hierarchy between them. Angie Adams is a name Aldrich misheard in a Kanye West song that he listened to while making this painting.”

Elsewhere, Mary Weatherford slaps bright neon tubes over pastiches of Color Field painting. According to the catalog, these derivative artworks supposedly “reanimate” American abstraction and the “neon-flecked nights in New York.” Joe Bradley’s childish linear scrawls—of a cross, a stick figure, the number “23” and the Superman logo, respectively—in grease pencil on large white canvases, are said, by Ms. Hoptman, to “thwart time,” as they sample Abstract Expressionism, Carl Jung’s archetypes, Paleolithic cave painting, comics and emoticons.

Matt Connors “reenacts” painting styles “plucked” from abstract sources as diverse as Barnett Newman, Ellsworth Kelly and Morris Lewis. Imagine enormous hard-edged planes of pure color, fudged here and there with splatters and drips. Also mashing up styles is Nicole Eisenman, who borrows from African art, German Expressionism and pop culture. Catalog text explains that her large “Feminist” paintings of masklike male heads riff on tribal art, as they subvert early 20th-century Modernists and today’s “masculine archetype, preoccupied with technology, money, and status.” Ms. Eisenman’s “Breakup” (2011) depicts a cartoonish, clownish man staring at his smartphone.

Performing what Ms. Hoptman refers to as “a kind of self-cannibalism,” Oscar Murillo recycles his own work, cutting up and sewing together remnants of earlier paintings, refuting notions about progress. Three of Mr. Murillo’s stretched canvases, influenced by graffiti and Jean-Michel Basquiat, hang on the wall, while eight more lie, unstretched, in a heap on the floor. Viewers are encouraged to unfold and examine, move and manhandle the floor works, which, we are told, “are indistinguishable from the ones on the wall in terms of quality.” (I won’t argue with that.) This process purportedly “breaks down the border between the studio and the outside world.”

‘Untitled (Circus No. 1 Face 44.18)’ (2012), by Mark Grotjahn. ENLARGE
‘Untitled (Circus No. 1 Face 44.18)’ (2012), by Mark Grotjahn. Photo: Courtesy Mark Grotjahn/Douglas M. Parker Studio

To anyone who has consistently followed contemporary painting, a medium that has been under attack as irrelevant for decades now—increasingly so recently, in the wake of digital art—none of this work will come as a shock. The artists in “Forever Now” superficially recycle ideas that go all the way back to Dada, Pop art—especially Robert Rauschenberg’s “Combines”—Neo-Expressionism, Neo-Dada and Postmodernism. To her credit, Ms. Hoptman has chosen artists who actually touch their paintings—as opposed to producing them mechanically or digitally. But she has created a show neither visually nor conceptually engaging. Worse, the most compelling paintings here, Mark Grotjahn’s energetic abstractions that rehash the work of American Modernists Marsden Hartley, Joseph Stella and Alfred Jensen, are pigeonholed to illustrate the curatorial proposition—which is inherently flawed.

It contends that artists today are different from 20th-century artists. Ms. Hoptman believes that past artists thought of art as progressing linearly—evolving—that they looked at art history in terms of a timeline. This viewpoint strikes me more as that of an art historian than of an artist. Let’s not forget that it was Picasso who said: “To me there is no past or future in art. If a work of art cannot live always in the present it must not be considered at all. The art of the Greeks, of the Egyptians, of the great painters who lived in other times, is not an art of the past; perhaps it is more alive today than it ever was.”

Picasso, the first and greatest-ever mashup artist, took from other artists, too. But he did not borrow, sample and remix. He stole. Stealing—as opposed to borrowing—stresses ownership. “The Forever Now” artists merely reshuffle, rather than reinvent, the art of the past.

The other major problem with this exhibition is that it breaks no new ground. Almost all of its artists are blue-chip gallery- and market-approved. In effect, “The Forever Now” is a recycling of the perceived wisdom of New York’s most prominent galleries, as well as that of other museums. This show, the first survey of new painting MoMA has mounted since 1958, says a lot about the museum’s stance on contemporary painting—which is grim, to say the least. It may seem backward—nostalgic—to pine for the old days, but MoMA’s Alfred H. Barr Jr. and Dorothy Miller trawled artists’ studios, building shows from the ground up. “The Forever Now” feels top-down.

When MoMA reopened a decade ago, after the enormous renovation, expansion and reinstallation of its stellar permanent collection, it was made perfectly clear that its curators wanted to weigh in more on contemporary art. The big question for some of us was how, exactly, the museum with the greatest holdings of Modern art in the world would balance that collection against contemporary art. What would happen when Modernism and Postmodernism collided?

“The Forever Now,” which identifies contemporary strategies, not great contemporary paintings, turns its back on—if not mocks—MoMA’s superb permanent collection. This is not a show that values, deepens and extends excellence in art, but one, instead, that celebrates lessening attention spans, careerist trends and a blatant, blanketing dismissal of the past. This exhibition identifies, celebrates and panders to contemporary art’s lowest common denominator. “The Forever Now”—hell-bent on the moment—repositions MoMA as a follower, not a leader. Forever “now,” it is a show that tomorrow most likely will forget.

Mr. Esplund writes about art for the Journal.



January 5, 2015 6:23 pm

The Forever Now, Museum of Modern Art, New York — review

MoMA’s survey of contemporary painting is a depressingly inert experience
Left, Amy Sillman, 'Still Life' (2014). Right: Charline Von Heyl, 'Carlotta' (2013)

Left, Amy Sillman, ‘Still Life’ (2014). Right: Charline Von Heyl, ‘Carlotta’ (2013)

In The Forever Now, Museum of Modern Art curator Laura Hauptman takes the pulse of contemporary painting and finds it dangerously weak. You can sense the desperation masked in her upbeat analysis, her frustrated desire to extract some excitement from all those studio visits. Weighed down with depressingly inert material, the show follows a line back to the past where it peters out in confusion. Hauptman is a perceptive museum-world virtuoso and if this is the best she could come up with, the situation must be dire.

Gloom is in the eye of the beholder, of course, and on the day I saw the exhibition, a wet grey light filtered into MoMA’s galleries, dampening spirits even indoors. Yet, as a fellow critic pointed out, the best art renews the world around it. That would have been a good time for an infusion of artistic joy or a blast of inventiveness. MoMA’s handpicked highlights offered neither. They returned my curious gaze with a deadpan stare and a knowing mash-up of art-historical precedents.

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In her pop anthology “Carlotta”, Charline Von Heyl adorns a Warholesque Marilyn type in black lipstick with a band of Lichtenstein Ben-Day dots. In “It’s Vot Behind Me That I Am”, she experiments with a smear of abstract expressionist angst, drips and all. Von Heyl’s eclecticism invokes a whole catalogue of forebears with an arched eyebrow, as if to hint that even her mix-and-match technique is a reference to the postmodern past.

For his series “Cosmic Slop”, Rashid Johnson covered large canvases in a thick impasto of black soap and wax, then scratched them with a stick. You can practically deduce the recipe: two parts Stella to one part of each of Reinhardt, Twombly and Pollock. Even his titles have a pedigree. Just as Stella named his works with Nazi phrases such as “Die Fahne Hoch!” and “Arbeit Macht Frei”, Johnson dresses up his abstract studies with cool historical consciousness. “Cosmic Slop: The Berlin Conference” refers to the 1885 meeting where the colonial powers carved up Africa among themselves.

Hauptman doesn’t just acknowledge these parrotings: she celebrates them, building the whole exhibition around the theory that imitation is the new originality. She marshals plenty of evidence. Dianna Molzan channels Kandinsky; Amy Sillman prays at the altars of Matisse and De Kooning; Matt Connors’ bold geometric abstractions imitate the colour-field painters of the 1950s and 60s, by way of Josef Albers. All this recycling, according to Hauptman, accumulates into the fascinating phenomenon of “atemporality”, a word popularised by the novelists William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. The term refers to the internet’s great whirl of information that has come to replace a sense of linear history. Ask not “What happened in the 14th century?” Sterling exhorts, but “What does Google do when I input the search term ‘14th century’?”

Hauptman is excited by this development, this “new and strange state of the world in which, courtesy of the internet, all eras seem to exist at once”. She detects an unprecedented weirdness in the oil paintings she has hung on MoMA’s walls. I’m not sure that “super-charged art historicism”, as she calls it, is quite as thrilling or new as she claims. Artists have rampaged through the past before, wrangling with their predecessors, conflating eras and violating chronology. Picasso retrofitted Manet who reworked Velázquez. Long before the internet, the performance artist Meredith Monk was already stirring together antiquity and futurism, treating time like a pack of cards to be endlessly shuffled.

Still, Hauptman is right that in the past 20 years, the cultures of other periods and continents have come clamouring for attention like never before, leaving artists of all kinds overstimulated and reeling. New York magazine music critic Justin Davidson has pointed out that young composers are often burdened by too many sources, stifled by too much freedom. YouTube, he writes, offers “an infinite thrift store of influences. A century ago, Bartók had to haul his gramophone through the mud of Moravia to learn about folk music. Now a curious kid in Brooklyn can track down an Azerbaijani song in seconds. Today’s styles need not be born of deep experience; they form out of collisions that bypass history and geography.” We no longer need to sift, select, and organise knowledge; the internet has made Collyer brothers of us all.

The fashion writer Vanessa Friedman, formerly the FT’s fashion editor, noticed a similar ragpicker phenomenon on the runway: “I sat through fashion show after fashion show and saw yet more yet more ‘reinventions’ and ‘homages’ to 1960s rock chick dresses and 1970s flared trousers, 1980s power jackets and 1920s flapper frocks, and wondered, ‘How do I explain this lack of new ideas among so many extremely talented designers?’ Her answer was a scathing label: The New Mediocre.

Maybe it’s fusty to feel distress at the atemporal present, but in art it yields a regurgitated mash-up that leaves me feeling sour. And it occurs to me, as I cruise through MoMA’s old-timey galleries and look at pre-digital handmade paintings encrusted with minced bits of movements past, that Hauptman’s Forever Now will soon seem hopelessly dated — the expression of a naive belief that humanity is done with unidirectional history. We have developed a whole lexicon to describe the culture of neo-everything timelessness: retromania, hauntology, steampunk, presentism, super-hybridity. But these terms all paper over the same uninspired and superficial revivalism, a bankrupt excuse for having no fresh ideas.

Until April 5,

==== > Life&Arts > Arts >
Visual Arts

January 5, 2015 6:23 pm
The Forever Now, Museum of Modern Art, New York — review

Ariella Budick
MoMA’s survey of contemporary painting is a depressingly inert experience
Left, Amy Sillman, ‘Still Life’ (2014). Right: Charline Von Heyl, ‘Carlotta’ (2013)

Left, Amy Sillman, ‘Still Life’ (2014). Right: Charline Von Heyl, ‘Carlotta’ (2013)

n The Forever Now, Museum of Modern Art curator Laura Hauptman takes the pulse of contemporary painting and finds it dangerously weak. You can sense the desperation masked in her upbeat analysis, her frustrated desire to extract some excitement from all those studio visits. Weighed down with depressingly inert material, the show follows a line back to the past where it peters out in confusion. Hauptman is a perceptive museum-world virtuoso and if this is the best she could come up with, the situation must be dire.

Gloom is in the eye of the beholder, of course, and on the day I saw the exhibition, a wet grey light filtered into MoMA’s galleries, dampening spirits even indoors. Yet, as a fellow critic pointed out, the best art renews the world around it. That would have been a good time for an infusion of artistic joy or a blast of inventiveness. MoMA’s handpicked highlights offered neither. They returned my curious gaze with a deadpan stare and a knowing mash-up of art-historical precedents.

IN Visual Arts

Homage to Manet, Norwich Castle Museum and Gallery, Norwich, UK
Cornelia Parker at Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester
‘Staying Power’ at Victoria and Albert Museum
Pioneering art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel

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In her pop anthology “Carlotta”, Charline Von Heyl adorns a Warholesque Marilyn type in black lipstick with a band of Lichtenstein Ben-Day dots. In “It’s Vot Behind Me That I Am”, she experiments with a smear of abstract expressionist angst, drips and all. Von Heyl’s eclecticism invokes a whole catalogue of forebears with an arched eyebrow, as if to hint that even her mix-and-match technique is a reference to the postmodern past.

For his series “Cosmic Slop”, Rashid Johnson covered large canvases in a thick impasto of black soap and wax, then scratched them with a stick. You can practically deduce the recipe: two parts Stella to one part of each of Reinhardt, Twombly and Pollock. Even his titles have a pedigree. Just as Stella named his works with Nazi phrases such as “Die Fahne Hoch!” and “Arbeit Macht Frei”, Johnson dresses up his abstract studies with cool historical consciousness. “Cosmic Slop: The Berlin Conference” refers to the 1885 meeting where the colonial powers carved up Africa among themselves.

Hauptman doesn’t just acknowledge these parrotings: she celebrates them, building the whole exhibition around the theory that imitation is the new originality. She marshals plenty of evidence. Dianna Molzan channels Kandinsky; Amy Sillman prays at the altars of Matisse and De Kooning; Matt Connors’ bold geometric abstractions imitate the colour-field painters of the 1950s and 60s, by way of Josef Albers. All this recycling, according to Hauptman, accumulates into the fascinating phenomenon of “atemporality”, a word popularised by the novelists William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. The term refers to the internet’s great whirl of information that has come to replace a sense of linear history. Ask not “What happened in the 14th century?” Sterling exhorts, but “What does Google do when I input the search term ‘14th century’?”

Hauptman is excited by this development, this “new and strange state of the world in which, courtesy of the internet, all eras seem to exist at once”. She detects an unprecedented weirdness in the oil paintings she has hung on MoMA’s walls. I’m not sure that “super-charged art historicism”, as she calls it, is quite as thrilling or new as she claims. Artists have rampaged through the past before, wrangling with their predecessors, conflating eras and violating chronology. Picasso retrofitted Manet who reworked Velázquez. Long before the internet, the performance artist Meredith Monk was already stirring together antiquity and futurism, treating time like a pack of cards to be endlessly shuffled.

Still, Hauptman is right that in the past 20 years, the cultures of other periods and continents have come clamouring for attention like never before, leaving artists of all kinds overstimulated and reeling. New York magazine music critic Justin Davidson has pointed out that young composers are often burdened by too many sources, stifled by too much freedom. YouTube, he writes, offers “an infinite thrift store of influences. A century ago, Bartók had to haul his gramophone through the mud of Moravia to learn about folk music. Now a curious kid in Brooklyn can track down an Azerbaijani song in seconds. Today’s styles need not be born of deep experience; they form out of collisions that bypass history and geography.” We no longer need to sift, select, and organise knowledge; the internet has made Collyer brothers of us all.

The fashion writer Vanessa Friedman, formerly the FT’s fashion editor, noticed a similar ragpicker phenomenon on the runway: “I sat through fashion show after fashion show and saw yet more yet more ‘reinventions’ and ‘homages’ to 1960s rock chick dresses and 1970s flared trousers, 1980s power jackets and 1920s flapper frocks, and wondered, ‘How do I explain this lack of new ideas among so many extremely talented designers?’ Her answer was a scathing label: The New Mediocre.

Maybe it’s fusty to feel distress at the atemporal present, but in art it yields a regurgitated mash-up that leaves me feeling sour. And it occurs to me, as I cruise through MoMA’s old-timey galleries and look at pre-digital handmade paintings encrusted with minced bits of movements past, that Hauptman’s Forever Now will soon seem hopelessly dated — the expression of a naive belief that humanity is done with unidirectional history. We have developed a whole lexicon to describe the culture of neo-everything timelessness: retromania, hauntology, steampunk, presentism, super-hybridity. But these terms all paper over the same uninspired and superficial revivalism, a bankrupt excuse for having no fresh ideas.
Until April 5,


The Death of Painting: All-New, 2014 Edition

The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World, the new exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, prompted thoughts of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, though I’m not sure how much acceptance there is in the end.

This particular reaction was due to a particular experience of the show, which began with reading the press release a few minutes before heading up the escalator to MoMA’s sixth floor to see the actual art. The statement, which is a single-spaced, four-page reduction of the catalogue essay by Laura Hoptman, one of the show’s two curators (the other is Margaret Ewing), painted a picture (to use a term advisedly) of an exhibition that seemed nothing if not dry, rigid and academic.

The term “atemporality” is taken from the science fiction writer William Gibson, who used it in 2003, according to Hoptman’s essay, “to describe a new and strange state of the world in which, courtesy of the Internet, all eras seem to exist at once. Since that time, atemporality has been observed in literature, popular music, and fashion, and subsequently called many different names, including retromania, hauntology, presentism, and super-hybridity.”

The exhibition, in turn (according to the press release), is presenting art that embodies atemporality “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, or by radically paring down an artistic language to its most basic, archetypal form.”

Old wine in new bottles, some may say. Others might argue that the Museum of Modern Art is throwing its weight behind a narrow bandwidth of contemporary painting practice, one that revolves around the artwork as a mediated object referencing institutionally sanctioned styles. This footnoted approach fits all too well within the historical narrative that MoMA, despite its best efforts, has never been quite able to shake: that after representation was subsumed into abstraction, and abstraction was reduced to Minimalism, painting could only repeat itself. As Hoptman writes in her essay:

Abstraction is a language primed for becoming a representation of itself, because as much as it resists the attribution of specific meanings, the abstract mark cannot help but carry with it an entire utopian history of modern painting. […] It would be difficult to identify a contemporary abstract painter who is not self-consciously referring to that history.

Moreover, to uphold such Postmodernist strategies as “the reanimating of historical styles” and “sampling motifs” while supporting what sounds for all the world like classic Minimalism — “radically paring down an artistic language to its most basic, archetypal form” — is a contradictory stance. It may reflect the crazy-quilt visual environment in which we live, but it’s also a little crazy-making for the passionate observer — a premise that seems to play both ends against the middle while paradoxically ignoring what lies between those two extremes. This is where the stages of denial (of a narrowly parsed take on contemporary art) and anger (over the glibness of same) come in.

By associating atemporality, which is admittedly a very cool and potentially useful term, with the reuse or revival of past styles (characterized by neologisms like retromania and hauntology), the exhibition is affirming the inability of painting to do anything surprising or new — aka painting is dead — a mindset reinforced by the subheads and “corollaries” in Hoptman’s essay: Nostalgia; Frankenstein’s Monster; Cannibalism.

But upon reaching the sixth floor, all that changed. The first thing that hits you is the stack of very large, very aggressive paintings by Kerstin Brätsch, which are leaning against the walls on either side of the entrance to the exhibition — compositions that look like Georgia O’Keeffe gone off the deep end, with crabbed, thorny, branch-like forms and other ominous but less definable shapes skittering around a central, intensely pigmented, haloed disk.

Walk through the entrance, and you’re confronted with a double-height black wall filled with Joe Bradley’s casual scrawls of grease pencil on canvas. They look splendid. Turn around, and there are Rashid Johnson’s heavily impastoed and scarified works in black soap and wax, and in your peripheral vision, the playfully brooding paintings of Michaela Eichwald — one small, expressionistic portrait and two large, long, loopy abstractions.

Suddenly, what seemed predetermined to be an infuriatingly categorical exercise in curatorial cherry-picking, all in the service of a constricted thesis, had turned into a rumpus room of contemporary art-making. Nothing seemed to be illustrating a point or, refreshingly, even making a point. You could stay in that first room for as long as you liked without bothering with any formalist or anti-formalist distractions, reveling in the purely visual language of line, color, texture and shape.

We are now at the bargaining stage: okay, MoMA, you can have your teleology and hang these paintings on whatever theoretical scaffolding you like, as long as you are reopening your doors to the medium and allowing its inherent multiplicities to do their subversive dirty work.

But then you venture deeper into the show, and while the visual spectacle makes it is easy to forget (or, more accurately, to be confused about) which one of the four points outlined in the press release (Reanimation; Reenactment; Sampling; The Archetype) is being made among the exhibition’s various alcoves, the work in aggregate begins to wear thin.

Perhaps this is due in part to the backward-glancing criteria of the selection (that everything in the show is allegedly based on — or at least related to — something else), which disregards and even, in an indirect way, countermands vitality as a qualifier. All that matters is that the chosen works, again from the press release, “paradoxically do not represent—either through style, content, or medium—the time in which they are made.”

In the Western tradition, the pattern of art history is a continual cycle of ossification and regeneration, with form-breakers like Giotto, Caravaggio, Manet and Pollock arriving every now and then to shake things up, adapting strains of an inherited style to what they knew of experiential existence. What the exhibition proposes is that, in our forever now, “an atemporal painter,” as Hoptman writes in her essay, would “see and utilize style, as if it is a bit of iconography; some even use specific stylistic gestures and strategies in a manner akin to a medium.”

In its insistence that painting is a closed system, the exhibition falls apart. This is the fourth stage, depression. Julie Mehretu’s big canvases in acrylic, ink and graphite may relate to automatic writing and “seem to channel mid-century calligraphic abstractions by artists like Michaux and Twombly.” But even if they achieve “a result as distinct from theirs as one person’s signature is from another,” as the essay claims, the works do not make much of an impression. Nor do Michael Williams’ busy, cartoonish amalgams of digital printing, airbrushed lines and loaded, meandering, Terry Winters-esque strokes. In all, much of the work is so attuned to art’s interior conversation that it entirely tunes out the clangor of the street.

But then you look around again, and certain paintings stand out, not for any other reason than their presence as worked-over objects. And this allows for a degree of acceptance, the fifth of the five stages, although the constant echo of the show’s restricted premise makes those pieces feel as beleaguered and isolated as they are individuated.

There’s Charline von Heyl’s “Concetto Spaziale” (2009), titled after Lucio Fontana’s series of slashed canvases, but in its dazzling array of lines and wedges in yellow and black against a purplish gray field, it’s miles away from the Italian painter’s reductive gestures (which are in fact recapitulated in the show by the deconstructed canvases of Dianna Molzan).

Mark Grotjahn’s untitled “Circus” paintings from 2012 and ’13 — complexly tessellated, dazzlingly colored, high-speed collisions of spirals, loops and arcs — are highlights of the show, but their references to faces or masks (evidenced by indications of nostrils sprouting in the lower midsection of the canvases) signal a weakness in my view — they would be much more resonant as pure abstractions — but the allusions are what the show wishes to underscore, with Grotjahn’s wall of three “Circus” works facing off with Nicole Eisenman’s wall of three moon-headed “Guy” portraits, “Whatever Guy” (2009), “Guy Racer” and “Guy Capitalist” (both 2011).

Matt Connors’ enormous (216 × 132 inches), tripartite “Variable Foot” (2014) in red, blue and yellow (shades of Barnett Newman and Jasper Johns), along with Kerstin Brätsch’s large-scale installation, “Sigi’s Erben (Agate Psychics)” (2012), comprised of agates, glass, masks, and painted aluminum, go a long way toward supplying the exhibition’s wow factor, though Connors’ other works are contrarily, exceedingly modest in their ambitions.

Amy Sillman turns to Neo-Cubist semi-abstraction in her four contributions to the show, but one of them, “Still Life 1” (2013-14), goes beyond the blunt, linear forms of the other three, wandering into a place that’s weightier, darker, more layered and mysterious. Richard Aldrich is another artist with one painting that leaves his other, more desultory work behind: it’s a small, aqua, scraped and scarred oil and wax on panel from 2006, “Blue Sea Old Wash.” At 14 1/2 × 11 inches, it’s the smallest thing in the room, but it pulls your eyes immediately toward it.

With his renderings of palm trees, insects, fish and his own outsized signature, Josh Smith makes a splash in the final gallery with nine, big, juicy, colorful paintings on a single wall (painted black, like Joe Bradley’s at the entrance, forming a kind of bookend to the show), while Laura Owens’ text-based works seem to retreat into hermeticism. Neither Mary Weatherford nor Oscar Murillo appear able to escape their antecedents (Mario Merz, Dan Flavin and Bruce Nauman for Weatherford; Robert Rauschenberg for Murillo), but in the exhibition’s inverted logic, that may be a plus.

And yet, there’s acceptance. The Forever Now is a show that should be seen and argued with. Its highly specific focus provides a flint to strike sparks and sharpen nails, a useful “this, not that,” which helps to clarify issues even where its assumptions are mistaken. For an exhibition like this, the trick is to light a path without erasing the shadows.

The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through April 5, 2015.



‘The Forever Now’ Is MoMA’s Market Moment

The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal WorldInstallation view of “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World” at MoMA. John Wronn/© 2014 MoMA, N.Y.

“The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World” at the Museum of Modern Art arrives, curated by Laura Hoptman, at a moment when painting is in an astonishingly conflicted but promising abysm of wakefulness. A group show about this stirring medium, atthis moment and in the very House of Modernism, sends shock waves through the art world — anointing artists, starting arguments, performing operatically contested desires and new standards. It’s the kind of thing that friends stop being friends over. Or that’s what shows like “The Forever Now” used to be — when time moved slower, information wasn’t instantly accessible everywhere at once, museums were codifiers and curators defending their absolute power positively, or ridiculously. I’m not nostalgic for the dreaded age of curator-bullies, and now that galleries and biennials do most of the codifying, I love that museums have the luxury of time to sift through things rather than react to every twist of aesthetic fate (although too many museums are trying to be like galleries — more on that later). “The Forever Now” is handsome, professional, well intentioned, and has moments that take the breath away. I’m a fan and was an early advocate of a third of its 17 artists. Yet, overall, “The Forever Now” doesn’t capture enough of painting’s pangs, conflict, promise, or current astonishment at its position. Most of all, with a handful of exceptions, the show fails to make a case for the exceptional quality, or truly new character, of contemporary painting; For long stretches, it instead settles for showcasing its ubiquitous presence. If MoMA is the Ferrari of Modernist museums, “The Forever Now” is driving it like a Prius: something made to have minimum impact on the environment while making people feel okay about something troubling.

How did this happen? Hoptman is nobody’s fool. Highly admired, even loved in the art world, she is a lucid thinker and writer and has long been a remarkably perceptive curator, among the first proponents of early-1990s artists like John Currin, Luc Tuymans, Elizabeth Peyton, Gabriel Orozco, and Chris Ofili. I count myself lucky to call her a friend and to have known her for more than 25 years. 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.

That feels odd. The job of forging art history over the last 100 years has probably always been in the hands of galleries and artists more than in museums. But it’s in galleries (and art fairs) more now than ever. This is how it should be, but it has had a deleterious effect of late, causing some curators to transform themselves into Grand Guignol showmen specializing in big productions and spectacle, arriving at every art event, moving on to the next, and in between making atrium exhibitions, film screenings, and the like. Other curators contract, demonizing anything successful or of the art world and embrace a kind of Curatorial Correctness — specializing in the rediscovery of the assistants of famous artists or other overlooked makers of the recent past (in other words, safer, quieter projects that make fewer grand claims about what is new or newly important). Some say that the market has taken over everything. 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.

“The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World.” John Wronn/© 2014 MoMA, N.Y.

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 paintingmeans, 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.” And in fact, it’s not hard to see the painting collected here, and the broader painting universe from which it’s drawn, partly as an expression of some nostalgia about earlier eras, when experiments with form seemed to offer something like truly radical content. (There are numerous gestural similarities to the painting of the Abstract Expressionists and the Neo-Expressionists.) Not to say these painters would necessarily acknowledge any of that; I suspect that each one of the included artists would emphatically say that his or her work is not “qua” painting but just painting.

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.

But let’s put aside the rhetoric and look at what the show itself tells us. As is often the case with MoMA these days, “The Forever Now” is wedged into too little space. Paintings are hung salon-style, wedged in, given attenuated spaces and little bins, or installed near the top of tall walls meant only for showing the work of Richard Serra. It would have been better had Hoptman been allowed to do 17 one-month one-person shows of each one of these artists somewhere in MoMA to really drill down into their own ideas and make a real statement.

Looking around at the statements made by what has been hung, Laura Owens, Nicole Eisenman, Michael Williams, Michaela Eichwald, Kerstin Bratsch, and Joe Bradley all impress. (Josh Smith does, too, although this may have to do with all of his work being jammed together on one wall and generating this massive graphic impact.) Bradley’s gigantic squiggles and doodles really have grandeur while simultaneously producing a shock of incredulity at how simple and unfinished looking art is, but how powerful of presence. Similarly, Bratsch’s giant paintings on paper encased in steel and glass frames leaned against the walls outside the show’s entrance look like grossly enlarged book end-papers adorned with crenellated turrets of iridescent paint and colorful aigrette crowns gone mad. I love them. Ditto Eichwald’s pliable brown and black Formica-like surfaces of stains, marks, shapes, and scrapes, which have the feel of having gone through excremental fire and survived.

I relish the ropy sluicing surfaces of Mark Grotjahn, but his great paintings seem more excellently old-school than newly atemporal. Stalwarts like Amy Sillman, happy inclusion Mary Weatherford, and Charlene Von Heyl come off well. Von Heyl is, to my eye, the most influential artist in art schools today (almost every student loves to mix up different styles, spaces, and gestures in individual canvasses), but one who is falling into the predictable habit of making all the parts of her painting different. Sillman supplies brushy mid-century-like figurative-abstractions à la de Kooning, Diebenkorn, and Guston. It is a style that is easy to be bad at, and one I don’t often pay much attention to, but in Sillman’s accomplished hands looks strong and also original of color. There are the physically powerful, otherwise bland, almost-monochromes of Rashid Johnson. And some pulled-apart paintings by Dianna Molzan — certainly not a “market approved” artist, as I don’t think she even has a New York gallery — are placeholders for all the generic deconstructivist art (torn or otherwise attacked canvases, exposed stretcher bars, etc.) that’s all the rage. And endlessly boring. Matt Connors, whom I’m usually not a fan of and who is the show’s token Zombie Formalist, looks fantastic here with a gigantic, leaning three-panel painting that is Ellsworth Kelly and Brice Marden made by Richard Serra. It is painting as architectural fact. International art star and market phenom Oscar Murillo shows his impressive Schnabel-like touch and wonderful color in works that are warm and would look lovely in any living room. Beyond that, they are only elegant. Speaking of which, Julie Mehretu, whose handsome work strikes me as merely decorative, makes a welcome move here. Brava. The problem is that now she’s making sooty Cy Twomblys.

“The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World.” John Wronn/© 2014 MoMA, N.Y.

So: There is good painting in “The Forever Now.” Very good. Some great. (The show’s last wall of Michael Williams finds an artist so adept at creating complex surfaces that it’s hard to even fix our focus on them.) But it is far too narrow in its focus, giving us only one known strain of contemporary painting that, while shadow-dancing with various methods of reproduction and processes, is all more or less handmade and mostly abstract. That’s it. What does all this abstract atemporality and gestural painting add up to? In the case of the artists I don’t like, I’d say that dipping into any and all styles of painting and abstraction is a way not to address the anxieties that now exist around painting in general and abstraction specifically. It’s become a kind of shelter and sanctuary where instead of making old ideas new (as many artists do now), these artists make old ideas palatable, unthreatening, un-conflicted. Or they make paintings that look like edgy hard-core abstraction, deploying fields of black or monochrome paint; Polke, Richter, or Oehlen–like effects; splashes; all-over composition; switching styles willy-nilly within works. These are all familiar signals that say to viewers and buyers, “I know I’m an abstract painting, but the fact that I know that means that I’m cool and you knowing that I know it makes you cool too. Plus, I’m not crass like Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami. Like me.” It’s both too confident and too needy. I call this assertive negative content — art whose primary content is what it’s not. And it’s a startling statement that this negative content is so appealing to people (collectors especially) right now.

But what is truly missing here is the sense of painterly anxiety. Not enough of “The Forever Now” lets us in on the storms gathering in the medium, where there is an epic struggle going on, not in spite of the disappearance of modernism’s teleology but precisely because painters working today have had that universe of possibilities collapse on them. On the one hand, artists are ultra-aware of and therefore in an ironical position to painting’s processes, endless tropes, styles, ideas, and, therefore, their own work. Perhaps it’s been ever thus, but it’s more thus than ever. An artist using Day-Glo color today is also using Warhol; every brushstroke references a hundred other artists; painting on fabric might be Polke, Kippenberger, Salle, Oehlen. And so on — not absolutely, not every time, not intentionally, even, but it’s there. History and style are now extra-active content.

If that were that, we’d be dealing only with self-conscious work. The complication is that while artists are in this ironical position to painting, to them their work is not ironic at all — in fact, it is completely, utterly sincere. Today, artists have an almost Romantic relationship to their own work — even if it is made in a time when they are as self-aware as almost never before. This is because the need to make art and the drive to be an artist still run as deep as ego and insecurity towers high. The tension that now exists between these two previously opposed, now concurrent states, is fusing in some new powerful emotion of being at once sincere and ironic. It is a new interior emotion and the tremendously productive chasm and chaos alive in painting and much art today. I’m thinking, for example, of the blasted-looking abstract paintings of Lucy Dodd; the scorching color and rash repeating orders of Katherine Bernhardt; the erratic organization and Eros of Keltie Ferris; the maybe-too-pretty but hobbled Modernism of Patricia Treib; the all-out discontentedness and retinal attack of Bjarne Melgaard; the insane glutted flat surfaces of Borna Sammak.

While I like a lot of the artists in this show, the exhibition as a whole fails to deliver up the restless interiority, forming intellectual constructions, and exigencies that this split is producing. There are places beyond just using abstraction as a cruise ship or tasting menu. These places can be glimpsed in “The Forever Now.” But the show doesn’t venture far enough into this charged, pathos-filled, maybe magisterial arsenal of internal and historical anxiety, insatiable introspection, and outward amplitude. If art really has broken free of time and history — more of the art in “The Forever Now” would not cling to or look like so many of its known safe lifelines. More of this art would not look like what more and more art looks like. That’s why I love the artists I love in this show, and even more why I love all of the artists I love who are not in this show. I almost don’t know what to call what they’re making now or how to see it — except with my nerves.



This weekend allows members of MoMA (the Museum of Modern Art) with a first look at “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemportal World.” The show officially opens on December 14, 2014 and continues through April 05, 2015 on the sixth floor of the museum in the International Council of The Museum of Modern Art Gallery. The show presents the work of 17 artists whose work manifests a timeless that alludes qualities that could identify the work as being of a specific or current time period, according to the museum.

The condition of atemporal (or timelessness) was first noted by science fiction writer William Gibson, who used the term to describe a cultural product of our moment that paradoxically doesn’t represent the time from which it comes, according to MoMA. In painting, the concept results in a “historical free-for-all, where contemporaneity as an indicator of new form is nowhere to be found, and all eras co-exist.”


"Blocked Radiant D (for Ioana)" by Kerstin Brätsch. 2011. Oil on paper, 110 × 72 inches. Tony and Elham Salamé. Courtesy the artist and Gavin Brown’s Enterprise. Copyright the artist. Photo by Filippo Armellin.


"Divot" by Matt Connors, 2012. Acrylic and pencil on canvas, 48 × 36 inches. Collection Richard and Monica Weinberg. Courtesy Herald St, London. Photo by Andy Keate.


This mixing of past styles and genres is a hallmark of our “moment in time” in painting with artists reanimating historical styles or creating contemporary versions, sampling motifs from across 20th-century art and comingling in a single painting or an oeuvre, or paring their visual language to archetypal forms, explained MoMA.

The exhibition presents works by Richard Aldrich, Joe Bradley, Kerstin Brätsch, Matt Connors, Michaela Eichwald, Nicole Eisenman, Mark Grotjahn, Charline von Heyl, Rashid Johnson, Julie Mehretu, Dianna Molzan, Oscar Murillo, Laura Owens, Amy Sillman, Josh Smith, Mary Weatherford, and Michael Williams.


"Carlotta" by Charline von Heyl, 2013. Oil, acrylic and charcoal on canvas, 82 x 76 inches. Ovitz Family Collection, Los Angeles. Courtesy of the artist and Petzel, New York. Photo by  Jason Mandella.


"6" by Oscar Murillo, 2012-14. Oil, oil stick, dirt, graphite, and thread on linen and canvas, 7' 2 ¼” x 6’ 13/16." Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York/London and Carlos/Ishikawa, London. Photo by Matthew Hollow.


The artists represent a wide variety of styles and impulses but all use the painted surface where genres intermingle, morph, and collide. “The work represents traditional painting, in the sense that each artist engages with painting’s traditions, testing and ultimately reshaping historical strategies like appropriation and bricolage and reframing more metaphysical, high-stakes questions surrounding notions of originality, subjectivity, and spiritual transcendence,” states the museum.

“The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemportal World is organized by Laura Hoptman, Curator, with Margaret Ewing, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Painting and Sculpture, MoMA.


Installation view of The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World at The Museum of Modern Art, New York (December 14, 2014-April 5, 2015). Photo by John Wronn © 2014 The Museum of Modern Art.




‘Forever Now’


‘Forever Now’

CreditHiroko Masuike/The New York Times


“The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World” has been a long time coming. The Museum of Modern Art has steadily been acquiring new painting, as a visit to its website will confirm. But for years it has disdained actually saying anything about the state of the medium in exhibition form, and all the while painting has developed actively on numerous fronts.

“The Forever Now,” which opens Sunday and is organized by Laura Hoptman, curator of painting and sculpture at MoMA, considers some of those changes, and it does so with a normal combination of successes and shortcomings, including a lack of daring. Its thesis hinges on the word atemporal, inspired by “atemporality,” which was coined by the science fiction writer William Gibson in 2003. The idea is that, especially in the digital era, culture exists in a state of simultaneity, where all of history is equally available for use.

It could be argued that simultaneity is nothing new: It was once the definition of postmodernism; it also describes the ways artists selectively consider past art alive and useful, and can be a cover for simple derivativeness — a condition not entirely absent from the exhibition.

The terrain the show stakes out is diverse and fairly recent, but also very familiar: The 17 artists represented here are all known, mostly market-approved entities familiar to anyone who follows contemporary art even casually. Nearly all the participants possess résumés dotted with solo shows in smaller museums and at blue-chip galleries, here and abroad; 12 of the artists are already represented in MoMA’s collection.

In short, this exhibition looks far too tidy and well behaved, much as you might fear a show of recent painting at the Modern would look: validating the already validated and ready for popular consumption. For the majority of the museum’s visitors who rarely set foot in commercial galleries, the show may hold surprises and even mild frissons of shock.

And this exhibition may also exceed the expectations even of gallery-scene regulars. Against the odds, it is surprisingly engaging. It gives you plenty to look at, which has become something of a rarity with shows of recent art at the Modern. (It’s when you consider what else could be here that the problems begin.)

The show is actually less predictable than the list of names would imply. It helps that there are new works by several artists. Some, like Julie Mehretu, have pushed into new territory (in her case, from drawing closer to painting, of a decidedly Twombly-esque sort).

If you focus intently, you can get an expanded appreciation of some of the artists. The much ballyhooed young painter Oscar Murillo, for example, shows several reasonably promising new paintings, albeit all lent by one of his galleries, which should have been avoided.

Although it occupies galleries that are too small for close to 100 pieces, the show has been smartly installed. The sequence of works and the conversation about current painting that it presents in real space is one of its primary strengths. It is arranged in largely contrapuntal exchanges between extremes: spare and labor-intensive; little or no color and lots of it; improvisation and deliberation; and riffs on Minimalism and reconsiderations of Expressionism, both abstract and figurative. And in plotting this conversation, Ms. Hoptman makes highly effective use of the narrow, dead-end space at her disposal, dividing it crosswise with walls, including four free-standing ones.

Consequently, artists drop in and out of sight, and different ones are prominent, when you retrace your steps, as you must. The work of Josh Smith, possibly the most rough-edged artist here, is (perhaps deliberately) invisible until you reach the show’s final space and turn around. Mr. Smith’s nine canvases insouciantly sum up the show’s no-holds-barred attitude, tripping the light fantastic with works variously monochrome, gestural and figurative, as well as a kitschy sunset and the artist’s signature, writ goofily large.

The contrasts among artists are sometimes so glaring they seem sure to set even a novice’s mind in motion. At the entrance, the large elaborately textured and tinted, latently Symbolist paintings on paper by Kerstin Brätsch — which suggest masses of rustling silks or feathers — flank a wall of works from which they could not be more different: Joe Bradley’s emblems simply outlined in grease pencil on raw canvas, redolent of children’s drawings. But the rich detail of Ms. Brätsch’s works attunes you to the unexpected subtleties of Mr. Bradley’s bare-bones approach. The rudimentary perpendicular forms of his “On the Cross,” for example, are enhanced by repeated diagonal creases in the canvas, intimating the wrapping of a bandage, a shroud or swaddling.

Rashid Johnson’s voluptuous black paintings, whose thick graffitilike marks are scrawled into a mix of wax and black soap with a broom handle, confront the more delicate and colorful improvisations of Michaela Eichwald, which look impressive but more decorous than usual.

After that comes a conversation about carefully but thickly applied paint that is one of the show’s best face-offs. To one side: Mark Grotjahn’s palette knife loops of color, which define a deep space but are also scattered with oblique features, and Nicole Eisenman’s forthright, masklike faces, laid on in thick, textured slabs of color. They recall the early modernist visages of Alexej von Jawlensky, but on a contemporary scale and with references to our political present: a raised (white) fist here, collages of African sculpture elsewhere.

Sometimes the show makes such clear points, you can get the impression that artists or works were chosen to fill slots, to demarcate positions as much as for themselves. You almost imagine Ms. Hoptman going down a punch list.

Interactive? Check: Mr. Murillo has an additional eight unstretched canvases on the floor that visitors can unfold and look at, like rugs at a bazaar.

Minimalism? Check: Matt Connors is represented by an immense three-panel work in sharp, non-primary hues of red, yellow and blue. Purposefully made so tall it can only lean against the wall, it evokes everything from Barnett Newman’s “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue” painting to Richard Serra’s steel plates.

Painting as deconstruction? Check: Dianna Molzan’s piquant explorations of canvas, stretcher and paint improve upon the French Surface/Support group of the 1960s.

Abject-art deprivation and the trendy “de-skilling”? Check. Richard Aldrich’s elegantly offhand works, one of which has strips of painted wood and canvas at right angles to the canvas.

His spare works face the excessive but smooth-surfaced paintings of Michael Williams, whose crazed, partly printed tapestries of color, cartoons and airbrushed lines make the digital and the handmade all but indecipherable. Mr. Williams ends the show on a very promising note.

There’s one way that “The Forever Now” is something of a landmark: Nine of its 17 artists are women. A large-group show that is over 50 percent female is beyond rare and sets a standard for other museums (and commercial galleries) to match.

Less cheering is this demographic detail: With one exception, all the older artists are women, all the younger are men. And only three are not white.

And yet it’s not just about numbers. This show also reminds us that a more open art world allows male and female artists alike to have inflated reputations, which I think is the case with Amy Sillman, Charline von Heyl and Ms. Mehretu. They’re perfectly good painters, but no better than, say, Joanne Greenbaum, Dona Nelson, Sadie Benning and Katherine Bernhardt, any of whom might have disrupted the conversation here a bit more.

Another possibility would have been the irrepressible Mickalene Thomas. It’s great to think of her extravagant depictions of proud black women in this well-done but too-safe show.

It makes you wonder what’s so scary about surveys of current painting.



10 questions about contemporary painting

10 questions about contemporary painting

Florence Waters quizzes Laura Hoptman, the curator of MOMA’s newest exhibition

A new MOMA exhibition, The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World, takes the pulse of painting right now, and explores how new techniques are colliding with old ideas and vice versa. Art Digest asked the curator, Laura Hoptman, what she’d learned from working with the show’s 17 carefully selected contemporary painters.
1. What is the first painting we see in the show?

Laura Hoptman: ‘The show begins with a display of a group of paintings by Joe Bradley, juxtaposed with two Cosmic Slop paintings by Rashid Johnson, and two mural size paintings by Michaela Eichwald. The first works one actually sees are a group of nine large paintings called Blocked Radiants by Kerstin Bratsch that serve as a kind of explosively beautiful introduction to the show and are located in the entrance area.’

2. Which painter from art history feels most present in the show?

‘I can’t say one, but certainly artists from the Modern period: from Kazimir Malevich and Picasso during his Cubist period, through the era of the 1960s hard edge abstraction.’

3. Can you sum up the thesis of the show in 10 words?

‘An exhibition of work that reminds us of many eras past, and because of that, offers a very contemporary take on the culture of the ‘aughties.’

Julie Mehretu. Heavier than air (written form), 2014

Left: Nicole Eisenman, Guy Capitalist. 2011.
Right: Oscar Murillo, 6, 2012-14.

4. That’s 26 words but we’ll let that slide. Is expressionism dead?

‘Of course not!’

5. Ok, so is painting having a moment?

‘Artists are always painting, and the public is always looking at what people paint. Painting might be having a moment in the art market, but I wouldn’t say that there are any more (or fewer) artists making wonderful, life changing paintings now, than say, 10 or 15 years ago.’

6. Are painters currently looking inward or outward?

‘That’s the beauty of an atemporal cultural universe. You’ve got it all: inward, outward, Warhol, Pollock, Picasso, Polke, all at the same time.’

Michaela Eichwald, Kunsthalle St. Gallen, 2012.

Left: Laura Owens, Untitled, 2013.
Right: Matt Connors, Divot, 2012.

7. Does painting now always require paint? We’re thinking of Hockney’s iPad pictures in particular.

‘Of course not, though in this show, everyone touches the canvas at least a little bit.’

8. From your discussions with the painters, could you write a new dictionary of painting — the ‘i-brush’, for example?

‘Using technological means to ‘paint’ goes back almost 30 years to Paintbox technology that was developed in the 1970s. Some artists use airbrush on their paintings, and this is a similarly old technology, one brought to great heights by automobile, motorcycle, and surfboard makers.’

9. Are these ‘future directions’ directions of aesthetic beauty?

‘I think so. Others are free to disagree.’

Mary Weatherford, La Noche, 2014.

10. Finally, did any thematic contradictions arise?

‘Sure; some artist re-enactors are also re-animators. Some who use so-called ‘primitive’ imagery are also deploying it in very complex ways that are in no way like cave painting. These are just two examples. There are plenty more. The show is meant to be porous and inquisitive. It is an argument but not like one that is presented in a court of law.’

The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World is at MOMA, New York from 14 December to 5 April, 2015

Main image: Installation view of The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World at The Museum of Modern Art, New York (December 14, 2014-April 5, 2015). Photograph by John Wronn © 2014 The Museum of Modern Art

Julie Mehretu. Heavier than air (written form), 2014. Ink and acrylic on canvas. 48 x 72 ins. (121.9 x 182.9 cm). Courtesy the artist, Marian Goodman Gallery, and carlier | gebauer, Berlin. Copyright Julie Mehretu. Photograph by Tom Powel

Left: Nicole Eisenman, Guy Capitalist. 2011. Oil and mixed media on canvas. 76 x 60 ins. (193 x 152.4 cm). Collection Noel Kirnon and Michael Paley. Courtesy of Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects. Photograph by Robert Wedemeyer
Right: Oscar Murillo, 6, 2012-14. Oil, oil stick, dirt, graphite, and thread on linen and canvas. 86 1/4 x 72 13/16 ins. (219 x 185 cm). Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York/London and Carlos/Ishikawa, London. Photo: Matthew Hollow

Michaela Eichwald, Kunsthalle St. Gallen, 2012. Synthetic polymer paint, oil, crayon, and lacquer on cotton. 109 15/16 × 51 3/16 ins. (330 × 130 cm). Private collection, Rome. Courtesy dépendance, Brussels. Photograph by Gunter Lepkowski

Left: Laura Owens, Untitled, 2013. Flashe paint, synthetic polymer paint, and oil stick on canvas. 115 3/8 x 119 7/8 ins. (349.3 x 304.8 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Enid A. Haupt Fund. Photograph by Jonathan Muzikar
Right: Matt Connors, Divot, 2012. Acrylic and pencil on canvas. 48 × 36 ins. (121.9 × 91.4 cm). Collection Richard and Monica Weinberg. Courtesy Herald St, London. Photograph by Andy Keate

Mary Weatherford, La Noche, 2014. Flashe paint with neon lights and transformer on linen. 117 3/8 × 104 1/4 × 5 7/8 ins. (298.1 × 264.8 × 14.9 cm). Collection Mandy and Cliff Einstein, Los Angeles. Courtesy David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles. Photograph by Fredrik Nilsen

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