Discussion Following The Forever Now @ MoMA

Discussion Following The Forever Now @ MoMA

Postby CAP » Mon May 18, 2015 1:41 pm

There are a couple of You Tubes of a panel discussion that took The Forever Now as its starting point to a more general discussion of contemporary painting. One video is by James Kalm (in two instalments) the other by David Surnam. The discussion was organised by Brooklyn Rail and Hunter College and held at the Hunter College Gallery on Hudson Street, Tribeca, on 25th March. The panellists were Phyllis Tuchman (critic), Alex Bacon (curator and Brooklyn Rail critic), Carrie Moyer (Head of Painting at Hunter), Greg Lindquist (artist and critic at Brooklyn Rail) and Amei Wallach (critic). Unfortunately, The Forever Now dominated discussion between panellists and invited comment from the floor and the exchange never really reached more general issues for painting.

But the composition of the panel effectively pre-empts the course of discussion. Three ladies of a certain age, while acknowledging flaws in main curator (and peer), Laura Hoptman’s presentation, are there really to plead for redeeming features or circumstances. And the grounds sought pretty much condemn the occasion to raking over a fatally flawed rationale. Wallach attempted to sideline the problem by saying that the concept to The Forever Now is actually “a red herring”; that treating the show as just a timely survey is sufficient. But how timely? Of whom and where? These matters too are wrapped up in the confused babble of the catalogue essay. There is no excusing the very rationale and terms of the show in the hope that the selections make sense in other ways. Similarly, Tuchman, when not confessing complete bewilderment at the catalogue and wall captions amid repeated visits, recalled that another survey she saw some thirty years earlier (not the 1984 MoMA survey, as far as I could follow) looked better to her in retrospect. Had she some firmer grasp of the issues, then or now, this may be some consolation but the anecdote can comfort few, if any others.

The issue of internet or web influence supposedly prompting painters to more derivative work is dealt with at length. Interestingly, Hunter Students, the very generation supposedly to have known no other world, instantly see the flaws in the proposition. Painting is not especially or exclusively subject to this influence and a show pursuing this would have done better to look elsewhere, at digital video, photography and other printing, for instance. As for the professed variety urged by the web’s encyclopaedic options, why should so much of the selected work then be abstraction? And not just by American artists but by New York-based or represented painters? This is neither consistent with the ‘world wide’ ambit of the web nor a catalogue essay urging devotion to (all) painting. Had the show been titled something like New York in The Forever Now, there may be a case, but that still leaves the matter of why figuration is so scantly served by the selection. The claim is that the web offers the whole of art history as equally relevant and given that most of art history is dominated by figuration, The Forever Now ought by rights be predominantly figurative. What happened? Clearly the curator’s interests are not with the whole of the web’s resources, nor the whole of art history, anymore than it was the whole of America’s abstraction, much less the rest of the world’s.

Of course, in practical terms, the argument for the web’s variety is flawed from the outset. Even if the web offers endless options, particularly for the painter, that does not make the painter equally curious about them all. To rehearse a familiar theoretical point – no one comes to the web with an innocent eye or a disinterested mind. They come (already always) looking for something, pursuing deeply entrenched lines of inquiry. The web may be easier than going to a library or museum, finding it on television, radio or a newsstand, but that does not make us better researchers or experts. Using the web a lot does not even mean that we will master HTML or Java, much less myriad other skills available there. The web serves our prior interests, consolidates them. The web is a great resource, but it does not change the way we look at art history or what we make of it, because the web is only echoing inherited ideas on art in the first place. Those seeking contrary views will seek them out, just as they did in the pre-digital era and this too is not necessarily easier. Actually, on anecdotal evidence, younger users are even less curious than their older brothers or sisters when it comes to exploring the web. They are far more content to comply with social media, play the games, record the scores and accept the tedious customising options. If anything, variety has bred indifference. They take too much for granted, but they may simply be too innocent as yet. So, while the web is an obvious feature of life in the 21st century, it is too sweeping, too diffuse to really define a particular style of painting. That needs other factors.

The conspicuous derivation that Hoptman detects, might be seen as a symptom of the greater conformity or compliance noted above, except that such deliberate citation or recycling of styles was also prevalent in the 80s, before the emergence of the digital era, where it was labelled Post Modernism. There it dealt in distinctly Pre-Modernist styles. A case might be made for the trend in recent abstraction as completing that cycle and returning to Modernist sources, but again that would require The Forever Now to confine its scope, to something like Zombie Formalism, for which it has neither the nerve, social or stylistic commitment. There are issues here, but they need a different sort of curator, possibly a different sort of museum director.

The web has clearly changed the way art dealers and collectors do business. Jerry Saltz’s claim that it favours works that look good on Tumblr or Instagram, that is, in vertical format and modest scale, fails to account for the market success of artists like Oscar Murillo, Petra Cortright or Parker Ito whose scale and format is less web-friendly, indeed, the versatility of holding a cell or mobile phone. It also drastically simplifies the intense networking and speculation now involved. The panel were uninterested in pursuing market implications when raised by the floor, even while allowing the influence of the web, a tricky point. As noted, discussion never really broadened to ask, say, whether this seeming re-engagement with abstraction does more than cling to an exhausted doctrine of Minimalism, what it adds, if anything? Whether the moment does not amount to a disturbing conservatism or recidivism in the face of increasing uncertainty? I suspect the fact that the talk does not reach beyond the flaws of The Forever Now will in some way vindicate the circling of the wagons amongst critics of a certain vintage.

This article also appears on the Art Reviews forum.
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