If you follow the sweep of the painting exhibitions at MOMA just before and after this show (What is Painting?) you can see a larger critique of Modernism and abstraction developing. Anne Umland as well as Ann Temkin were actually screwing with MOMA’s history of Modern art and challenging the institutional idea of how painting progresses – and so they took us through a different history of Modernism. And after reading the reviews of this particular show – you can see that Umland was poking at the expectations of the suits and conservatives that run the middle-brow Art World.
The absolute truth of art in the 21st Century is that so far it’s all been about redefining Painting. And because everything in painting is up for grabs all kinds of artists have been vying for dominance – much like the technocrats in our changing society. The only unifying principle in all of this mishigas is that painting (so far in this century) has been deeply involved in deconstructing and recombining its own history and re-using this history as a kind of painting technology. It’s like painting in the “cloud” – in other words – a grand depository of information floating through and accessed by all kinds and types of programs…
OK – this may be a “classic” Postmodern situation of appropriation and “fair use”, but by the end of the 90s we had left Postmodern irony and critique out of the equation. Something different was afoot.
For example the work of Sarah Morris uses classic Modernist hard edged abstraction without stepping back or engaging in a critique of style. Here the abstraction is taken at face value – as a way to paint a different sort of portrait. The painting doesn’t step back from the technology or the history – it uses it as given:
“For me, the paintings are not depictions of space, although you could possibly view them as that. They become some other form of space. They’re not virtual space, because a painting is a built thing, obviously. I subscribe to that Frank Stella notion that what you see is what you see. That said, I try to incorporate elements of the films into the paintings, usually through composition, the titles, or even the use of certain colors—I often play with the psychology of colors. I view all space as public, in a sense.” [Sarah Morris in conversation with Taylor Dafoe]
Artists like Cindy Sherman and Elizabeth Murray challenge the authority of Modernist principles. In Sherman’s case it was through the use of photography while she upsets our expectations of historical imagery – like this idea of a Madonna that looks contrived and false (with stage make-up and studio lighting). Sherman questions Modernism through a highly contrived Renaissance studio model that comfortably references painting history while bypassing Modernist Surrealism. Elizabeth Murray’s painting “Dance” takes Hanna Barbera cartoon imagery out of the Pop canon and brings it into Modernist figurative abstraction referencing Picasso’s later Cubist landscapes and Matisse’s Dance.
“Elizabeth Murray’s “Do the Dance” is a late painting, made in 2005 after she had received the diagnosis of the brain cancer that would kill her two years hence, at 66. Made of five separate shaped canvases that create the illusion of scores of individual smaller canvases percolating momentarily into a rectangular cluster, it is obliquely autobiographical, as all convincing art probably must be to some extent. Most of Murray’s paintings can be read as tallies of both the private emotions and events of her life and of the visual sources that fed her art throughout her career. Her vocabulary was built on elements from the work of Braque, Picasso, Miró and Malevich, as well as Jim Nutt and R. Crumb. Like my other choices here “Do the Dance” operates in the lavishly appointed gap between the actual and the abstract.” [Roberta Smith on Elizabeth Murray’s Do the Dance]
“What is Painting?” happened the year before the crash of 2008. Painting was having a massive monetary renaissance in the markets at the time, and there was a lot of grousing about the influence of money in determining what painting was being seen, what painting was becoming, and how we were supposed to interpret what we were seeing. And the truth is this Economy HAD to be taken into account. – Our art world had changed. – The vehemence of a lot of the criticism for this show is telling. It had become apparent that something different was upsetting a lot of those eyes and voices that were upholding the foundations of Modernist “history”, “meaning” and “quality”. But what wasn’t being discussed in these reviews was made obvious by this exhibition – the older institutional standards for judgments of meaning, history and quality HAD to become different in this new era.