The critics respond: What is painting?

‘What Is Painting?” curated by Anne Umland. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY. Through September 17

In New York Magazine Jerry Saltz writes his own narrative for the exhibition: “The revisionism of this show works partly because it is so seamless. Except for one or two cases�a generically decorative canvas by Beatriz Milhazes and a conventional monochrome by Shirazeh Houshiary�inclusions don�t feel too forced or political. One room contains a handsome Minimal painting from 1969 by William T. Williams, an African-American artist not often on view at MoMA; in the same gallery, there�s a vivacious geometric configuration by the overlooked Japanese artist Atsuko Tanaka. These paintings predict work by artists like Gary Hume, Sarah Morris, and Odili Donald Odita. Their inclusion helps establish that modernism�s creation myth is wrong: The history of painting didn�t only happen in New York in the Cedar Bar among aging white alcoholic men.”Read more.

In The Village Voice, Christian Viveros-Faune laments: “It’s emotionally draining to play this game with Umland, particularly as her fussy four-works-to-a-space schema lends (deliberately) zero context and (quite accidentally) little insight to the value of these and other individual pieces. These predictable combinations, at their best, only suggest cold, arbitrary connections, as time-bound as any chronology that Alfred Barr�MOMA’s far more decisive founder�invented circa 1940 to trace the influence of Cubism. For further proof, observe the meeting between Gerhard Richter’s self-portrait (in which the artist is depicted with the theorist Benjamin Buchloh) and John Currin’s The Gardeners�an encounter that should rightly produce fireworks. Instead, flanked as they are by a Chuck Close portrait and a Cindy Sherman print in an attempt to score muddy points about the figure and photography, the blustery confrontation between these two contemporary masterpieces fizzles into an awkward colloquy, an elevator how-do-you-do, while two other perfectly good works of art are scandalously reduced to useless bystanders. Much less than the sum of its parts, ‘What Is Painting?’�despite a provocative title shared with a John Baldessari piece�is an exhibition conceptualized, if not actually curated, by committee. It offends no one (because it takes no risks), squanders the museum’s deep and rich catalog (because it cherry-picks to illustrate not the best contemporary painting but contrived ideas about painting), and most egregiously apes curatorial models developed by other, younger institutions with a fraction of MOMA’s artistic, financial, and authorial acumen.”Read more.

In Time Out, Sarah Schmerler calls the show “the worst of MOMA”: “Unland’s 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.” Read more.

In The Village Voice, R.C. Baker recommends the show: “This big, brightly didactic survey of painting movements since roughly 1965 feels a bit like the Astor Place Kmart�blocky white spaces filled with disparate goods of mixed quality. Culled from MOMA’s collection, the paintings are generally hung in groups of four so that affinities or clashes between artists and styles come at you from all points of the compass….John Baldessari’s own text painting could be an epitaph for this column or any other critique, reading in part: ‘Art is a creation for the eye and can only be hinted at with words.’ Amen, brother.”Read more.

Daniel Kunitz in the NY Sun: “The delightful proposition of “What Is Painting?” � a broad survey of art from the 1960s to today, drawn from the Museum of Modern Art’s contemporary collection � is that we have utterly lost our way: We no longer have any idea what painting is, and we are much better for it. Loosely chronological and with an equally relaxed thematic structure, the show makes its argument largely through the variety and quality of the work on view.” Read more.

Dan Bischoff writes in The Star-Ledger: “”What Is Painting?” is a summer show at the Museum of Modern Art, a discrete sampling of the museum’s vaults that has hung 50 paintings in a series of 12 open galleries, sort of like a party held in a hotel hallway. A really expensive party, of course….The open ar rangement of mini-“galleries” is meant to allow the visitor to make visual correspondences across time and styles, but it also suggests a certain continuity of cultural confusion that arcs across the entire post-modernist era.” Read more.

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