Forever Young or New Zombies? MoMA on Painting Today

Dec 11, 2014 5:39 pm

As its paradoxical title cautions, an upcoming survey of contemporary painting at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World,” is full of contradictions. Organized by MoMA curator Laura Hoptman, the show (Dec. 14, 2014-Apr. 5, 2015) is packed with up-to-the-minute, acrylic-still-wet canvases that reference both the art of yesterday and that of 100 years ago.

Hoptman’s 17 artists—from Richard Aldrich and Kerstin Brätsch to Mary Weatherford and Michael Williams—aren’t so much creating new forms as recycling and repurposing old ones, especially when it comes to the tropes of modernism. They cull and rehash the cornucopia of images available in our Internet era and seem to be enjoying the fruits of their laptop-enabled journey through time.

Using William Gibson’s writings on atemporality as a point of departure, Hoptman culled canvases registering traces of earlier styles and times—from Kazimir Malevich’s utopian abstraction to Barnett Newman’s heroic zips to the title of a Lucio Fontana painting—in sometimes overt, sometimes clandestine ways. Many of these artists hold a mirror to the world that exists rather than pushing the boundaries of image-making.

Hoptman recently spoke with A.i.A. by phone about the relationship between Internet and canvas, the hoary notion of progress and the thirst for the next new thing.

JESSICA DAWSON Though you chose artists who touch their canvases in some way, and none who do exclusively digital work, a touchstone of this exhibition is the non-tactile world of the Internet and its endless stream of images. How do you square that apparent contrast?

LAURA HOPTMAN The thing that I’m interested in vis-à-vis the digital world isn’t the look of the Internet but the information that it delivers. It doesn’t have to look like a digital painting to be profoundly impacted by the Internet. You can make an expressionist painting in a digital age—or a primitivist scribble. I think the Joe Bradley paintings are a very neat summing-up of things because they’re hand-drawn emoticons. And the origins of the emoticon are pictographs. The notion of atemporality is based on the availability of information; it’s about being able to see things at the same time, synchronically. You don’t have to paint a picture of nine windows open on an iPad in order to understand the implications of having all these different things on the same plane at the same time.

DAWSON Your essay says that the artists practice a “super-charged art historicism” that is “closest to a connoisseurship of boundless information.” Are these artists paring down the barrage of images for us, showing us what we need to see?

HOPTMAN Most of these artists are really good researchers and really good art history wonks. These are amateur art historians who have a visual vocabulary of the history of modernism. In the case of Matt Connors, he has a deep visual vocabulary of geometric abstraction and he uses that to create his hybrids of geometric abstractions. Take Connors’s Variable Foot [a work made up of three red, blue and yellow rectangles]. It’s Barnett Newman and Ellsworth Kelly. And it’s probably Malevich also. He’s mining all these levels of modernism and picking the pieces he needs and putting it back together to create a kind of Frankenstein monster—in a good way.

DAWSON A wall text speaks of the “infinite possibilities created by reevaluating, remixing and retrofitting” images in an Internet-flattened art world. That sounds very optimistic about the Internet’s influence on art. Any caveats?

HOPTMAN I’m working within a thematic parameter of atemporality that I did not create—it’s something others have written books and fascinating screeds about. What I’m answering in this debate is a longing for serial originality that can wash our sins away. Within that notion of progress we have this idea that we can get better and better and reach some kind of perfection. None of us seem to think we’re going to reach that moment, but all of us for a long time have been going that way. We’re hanging on the next new thing. What if that’s not the way it’s working anymore? What if there is no next new thing? Do we sit around and mourn the fact that we’ve seen it before? There’s a way to look at creativity that doesn’t necessarily have to do with creating something we’ve never seen before. It can be about reinterpreting or misinterpreting the world that’s already around us.

DAWSON Your essay brings up the notion of “zombie formalism,” and you’ve inserted a footnote mentioning artist/critic Walter Robinson‘s essay on the subject. Your note explicitly states that Robinson did not mention any of the artists in your show. Are you distancing yourself from his essay?

HOPTMAN I had already written my essay when I read Robinson’s article, and I knew that I had to acknowledge his use of the term, and to bring people to this article, which is interesting. It isn’t that I disagree with him. As I interpret what Robinson was saying, a painting is a zombie painting if it’s dead on the wall. It doesn’t need to exist. It’s empty. It’s scary. That’s one way of looking at it. But there are other words you can use for a zombie: a reincarnation of the dead that brings something back, which can be a very positive thing. A lot of artists can reawaken past styles and appreciate them—let’s use the monochrome as an example—for their utopian content, for a kind of hopefulness and for its connection to politics. That’s the way I am thinking about zombie painting—in a positive sense.

DAWSON You talk about these works as refuting the possibility of chronological interpretation, but isn’t today-ness inescapable, just as we can’t halt the passage of time? Surely there is something very 2014 in these pictures?

HOPTMAN The paradox of our today-ness is that it’s a mix of lots of yesterdays. In our today, people have license to pull from all kinds of sources. It doesn’t mean that it will be like this in five years. I don’t know what will happen in five years. Maybe Kim Kardashian really will break the Internet.