Holland Cotter: Unadventurous painting is everywhere (at least in New York)

Chris Martin, The Record Painting, 2006, Oil, acrylic gel, and collage on paper, 54 x 49 inches, On extended loan from Private Collection

“The Jewel Thief,” installation view at the Tang Museum

In the NY Times Holland Cotter reviews “The Jewel Thief,” an exhibition that explores new ways to think about and experience abstract art at Skidmore’s Tang Museum. In the introduction he writes that despite the ongoing cry that we need more painting, there is in fact no dearth, which is true. But when he suggests that NYC painting is unadventurous, or that the installations are lacking, he’s just wrong. Shows like Greater New York at MoMAPS1 managed to select some of the most enervated painting in town (with a few notable exceptions), but surely that reflects the curators’ ideas about contemporary culture rather than a specific idea about the state of painting today. Has Cotter been to any shows in Bushwick or the LES lately?

Of course, if Cotter is talking about Brice Marden’s current show at Matthew Marks, I’d have to agree. In his first solo exhibition since his MoMA retrospective four years ago, and despite a trip around the world, his basic brand has remained intact. In the new issue of Art in America, Jeff Frederick inexplicably hailed Marden’s single innovation, a border on the edges inspired by a Chinese poem seen in a scrapbook, as “brilliant.” The paintings may be beautiful (they always have been), but doesn’t it seem like he’s in production mode? Where’s the imagination, the risk?

Brice Marden, “Second Letter (Zen Spring),” 2006-2009, oil on linen, 96 x 144″

But I digress. What would Cotter consider adventurous? “Painting is everywhere,” he writes. “Much of the plenteous new work, while expertly schooled, looks unadventurous, like so many slightly rearranged cover versions of hit styles from the past: Geometric Abstraction, Surrealism, Hallmark Cards Expressionism, etc. Maybe we�re wrong to expect more. Maybe that�s all that painting, in New York at least now, can yield. Or maybe we have a display problem. Exhibitions, which are intensely calculated events, can make powerful arguments for art. Ambitious, imaginatively conceived group shows in particular can significantly raise the interest level of even ordinary material and make the better than ordinary soar….

“The Tang show is a hybrid so carefully shaped and thought through that it becomes something more. It�s essentially a big piece of Conceptual Art, one that messes with given definitions of painting, drawing, sculpture and architecture, and by doing so breaks those forms open….Such shows, whatever flaws they may have in execution, make art history, past and present, bigger and richer. They bring more guests � some still strangers � to the table. And they assure that art in its many forms is productively refreshed and promoted. Given all of that, a dogged push for painting-only-painting, as if painting were the only art that�s really art, seems like an unnecessary, and deeply conservative crusade.” Read more.

Wait a minute. Who’s pushing for “painting-only-painting as if painting is the only art that’s really art?” Is he talking about me?

More installation views.
The Jewel Thief,” curated by Tang curator Ian Berry and the sculptor Jessica Stockholder. Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, NY. Through Feb. 27, 2011.

Artists include Anni Albers, Polly Apfelbaum, Gary Batty, Alex Brown, Richmond Burton, Kathy Butterly, Patrick Chamberlain, Stephen Dean, Dorothy Dehner, Anne Delaporte, Francesca DiMattio, Cheryl Donegan, Roy Dowell, Brad Eberhard, Rico Gatson, Joanne Greenbaum, Joseph Grigely, Christopher Harvey, Elana Herzog, Jim Hodges, Peter Hopkins, Jessica Jackson Hutchins, James Hyde, Betsy Kaufman, May Kedney, Martin Kersels, Bill Komoski, Nicholas Krushenick, Lisa Lapinski, Liz Larner, Michael Lazurus, Barry Le Va, Sherrie Levine, Charles Long, Virgil Marti, Chris Martin, Andrew Massulo, Jane Masters, Allan McCollum, Joan Mitchell, Carrie Moyer, Victoria Palermo, Jorge Pardo, Janet Passehl, Marion Pease, Jerry Phillips, Ann Pibal, Josh Podoll, Richard Rezac, Ednah Root, Nancy Shaver, Cary Smith, Joan Snyder, Jessica Stockholder, John Torreano, Rosemarie Trockel, Andy Warhol, Stanley Whitney, Lawrence Weiner, and Richard Woods.

Brice Marden: Letters,” Matthew Marks, New York, NY. Through January 27, 2011.

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  1. Good post Sharon, thanks for helping to keep me in the loop, there's always something I need to know on your site.

  2. I think a lot of it comes from the teachers of these painters. They don't try to make you into a painter with a distinct method for themselves. Used to a teacher would tell you that this and that are all copies of DeKooning, Pollock etc. Nowadays they tell you to be like the rest of the crowd. Which does nothing for the artists, except makes them have less of a career.

  3. I have to agree with Jeffrey's comments about teachers– adding —
    If you have a teacher (Jessica Stockholder) who is tired of her job; who never took her own art past
    it's colorful, cornucopia plateau of decorative Rauschenberg; co-curating a show of abstract art-you will get a vapid rehashed product.

  4. Old Cotter is showing his age. The problem is not lack of adventure on the part of the painters, but rigor and sensitivity on the part of the critic. For Holland everything is starting to look like pale imitations of the past � this is the first symptom of critical �over-sight� or blindness. He�s seen it all and can�t see any farther. Time to take a long rest Holland. The useful critic will discern differences with past styles; will be able to articulate seemingly subtle but crucial changes. This is how change works. It doesn�t announce itself as utterly different or incomprehensible � it�s always classifiable to some extent, the magic is seeing how it fits with the past, enlarges our categories or options.

    Artists just do what artists have always done � look for a spin on things, reflect the things that impress them most. The real problem here is critics who want it all laid out for them, to just check boxes and append superlatives. But critics all have their use-by dates, a bit like artists. It�s no good complaining that Marden doesn�t break away and try something radically new, when he�s spent a lifetime building a style that now requires only minor adjustments and inflections. Marden is a creature of his times (Late Minimalism, really) and so is Holland. The difference is Marden continues to create work of substance, Cotter now just takes up word space.

  5. I think he is talking about his fellow NY Times art critic Roberta Smith, who recently complained that MoMA wasn't showing enough contemporary painting. Yes, there are a lot of rehashed styles being seen over and over, but that's true for video and installation, too!

  6. Cotter winning the Pulitzer has emboldened him, which is a shame. He hates the market, he sees painting as an extension of the market, and his response to painting shows has turned into a shtick in which he assails conservatism, unaware that he is practicing a form of it.

  7. Old age, or years of experience is no excuse for boring painting or bad writing! Goya, Turner, Poussin, all made there best work at the end of there lives. Bernard Berenson's late writings are his most illuminating. The best Artists take the greatest risks after a lifetime of experience.

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