Goodness! – The critics really did not like this show, and they took Anne Umland to task. For instance – “crowded”, “boxy” & “cubicle” – terms used by Jerry Saltz – implying a perfunctory business-like presentation of the works. And it’s fairly damning that he also says, “‘What Is Painting?’ isn’t really about contemplation.’ A painting show that’s not about contemplation? Ouch!
But then Jerry seems to get the larger implications of the reason for this exhibition: “Not only does it bring artists from the margins into MoMA’s center, but each gallery becomes a condensed chapter in the cliff-hanger story of painting through the sixties and seventies, when Minimalism and Conceptualism both presumed it dead, and its subsequent journey to the multifarious shores it occupies now.” [Jerry Saltz on What is Painting?]
“Anne Umland, curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture, gathered the work, all made between 1960 and the present. Her selection will alienate many, if not most, visitors. Are you looking for paintings that open luminous windows onto another world, hold mirrors to the soul or just revel in their color-rich surfaces? Too bad. Would you like an answer to the exhibit’s titular question? You’ll have to look elsewhere. Umland has more theoretical, and ultimately misguided, ideas about that, too. To make matters worse, she never clearly expresses them to the public. Instead, she presents what she calls a “kaleidoscopic” (curatorial code for scattered) exhibition “dedicated to the principle of questioning”—i.e., the sloppy postmodern assertion that no question has a real answer.…
Nearby, a Barbara Kruger graphic looking the worse for wear assaults the eye with what should be the stunningly accusatory phrase, you invest in the divinity of the masterpiece. In this context, viewers can only wish that Umland had made such an investment, or imagined this work as more than the sum of its mundane parts. The exhibit is laid out in small rooms, hung almost unvaryingly with four works, one per wall. No momentum builds up between those discrete spaces, and none of the pieces ever manage to “talk” amongst themselves across the space. Umland would do well to eschew fours in the future: Two works read as a dialogue of compare and contrast; three works read as a series, a narrative arc; four works beg for closure on that arc, and closure is something she prefers to avoid.” [Sarah Schmerler on What is Painting?]
When I saw the show it left me a bit confused until it occurred that the show was in line with the post-historical nature of painting in the 90s and 2000s. The installation of the show was also in line with the way we were beginning to engage with art online. Umland’s examination of the pluralism and scattershot thematics in painting showed how changed our relationship to both painting and the history of Modernism had become. Mario Naves’ telling line below says it all, “If these are paintings, then everything is a painting.“
“What Is Painting? is an overview, not a manifesto. Ms. Umland isn’t interested in one concrete or comprehensive definition of the art form. Instead, the exhibition is open-ended and “multifocal”—a tack that is, on the whole, disappointing. MoMA has had an incalculable influence on international art, on how we look at modern art and how artists continue to make art. Favoring vagueness over discrimination forsakes the museum’s history and its ostensible purpose: to make finely tuned, if not inflexible, distinctions. Acquiescing to pluralism tiptoes around hard and important questions.
The show’s 12 sections present a variety of approaches to putting paint to canvas or, in some cases, not putting paint to canvas. The featured works “share an element fundamental to painting … dependence on a wall or planar surface, requiring viewers to approach them from a relatively fixed frontal vantage point.” Works by Lynda Benglis, Jackie Winsor, Dorothea Rockburne and Lee Bontecou are, yes, placed against a wall—Ms. Winsor’s primal construction Bound Square (1972) leans against it. But none of these artists, as seen here anyway, are painters. They’re sculptors who refer to painting, but only tangentially and largely not at all. If these are paintings, then everything is a painting.” [Mario Naves on What is Painting?]