The idea that painting can save your life crescendos in a deeply moving installation, one in which you grasp the dilemma of being a young German painter at a time when your language is anathema, your parents are outcasts, and your country is hated. Seeing these artists fight their way back into the story of painting can take your breath away. Anselm Kiefer’s 1972 picture of an empty wooden room isn’t only a painting of receding interior space; it’s the 27-year-old clearing the psychic skeletons from the attic and dreaming of an undiscovered room in the house of painting. Georg Baselitz’s Frankensteinian figure is a perfect stand-in for what it must have felt like to be a German artist at the time. Sigmar Polke’s 1972 portrait of Mao surrounded by cover girls, crowds, newspaper headlines, and ads is jacked up on so many historical, stylistic, and consumerist hormones that it makes Pop Art seem quaint.
In the portrait gallery containing works by Chuck Close, Gerhard Richter, and Cindy Sherman (does Sherman have to be in every show?), and John Currin’s 2001 Norman Rockwellish picture of an elderly couple gardening, Umland misses a chance to show a recent pivotal point. MoMA has long wrongfully ignored the American neo-Expressionist artists of the eighties. Not only was outstanding work made by some of these artists, but a figure painting from the early eighties by Eric Fischl near the Currin would have revealed that while both artists investigate figurative styles initially deemed controversial, Fischl’s figuration is psychological and earnest. Currin’s, by contrast, is sincerely insincere and insincerely sincere. You can vividly see that in the space of fifteen years, an aesthetics of ardency and drama was being reshaped on the anvil of irony.
As told by the final room in this exhibition, this crucial shift informs much art today. Wade Guyton’s quasi-Suprematist 2006 rendition of smudged black Xs is about Warhol, the negation of the hand, writing as art, marking time, the machine-made touch, and the notion that printing is painting. Nearby, a brightly colored, hard-edged Sarah Morris of a modernist building façade shows how artists are circling back to sixties geometric abstraction in order to reconnect it to the world.
In the end, “What Is Painting?” deftly puts the lie to one particular art-world bromide. Except for diehards, the pleasure police, October magazine, pedantic curators, and those last few Greenbergian critics who still insist that if painting isn’t about itself it’s washed up, no one thinks painting is dead. “What Is Painting?” establishes once and for all that no one thoughtful has actually believed this since the Nixon administration.