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William T. Williams's Elbert Jackson L.A.M.F. Part II (1969), at MoMA.Photo: © 2007 William T. Williams/Courtesy of MoMA

A sad fact of life lately at the Museum of Modern Art is that when it comes to group shows of contemporary painting from the collection, the bar has been set pretty low. “What Is Painting?,” the crowded 50-artist, 50-work exhibition that opened quietly in July (and closes September 17), has been a welcome exception, especially if graded on the MoMA curve. It is better than all of the second-floor installations of the permanent collection that have taken place since MoMA’s reopening three years ago, because it defines a polemic about a single medium and then cogently explores it.

Curator Anne Umland has divided the 7,000 square feet of this space into twelve boxy galleries. Each cubicle contains four paintings from the museum’s collection, one work per wall. If I were an artist in the show, I’d be put off by the crowded conditions, the way the installation renders everything equal, and how you can never step back to contemplate anything. But “What Is Painting?” isn’t really about contemplation. Not only does it bring artists from the margins into MoMA’s center, but each gallery becomes a condensed chapter in the cliff-hanger story of painting through the sixties and seventies, when Minimalism and Conceptualism both presumed it dead, and its subsequent journey to the multifarious shores it occupies now.

More than a third of the show’s artists are women, and it begins with Vija Celmins’s 1964 salmon-and-gray rendition of a handgun being fired. Immediately you see that Umland isn’t on the approved art-historical path—Abstract Expressionism to Johns-and-Rauschenberg to Pop and Minimalism. In 1964, Celmins was already crossing Pop with Minimalism, photography, conceptual art, illustration, and what twenty years later would be called appropriation art. It’s a hazy, mazy little picture, as fervid and flat-footed as it is clairvoyant. It makes sparks with Lee Lozano’s hammer hitting a surface, a 1963 painting that emits animal energy and the revolutionary power of women’s anger. Rounding out this room are Philip Pearlstein’s alluringly unsexy pair of nudes from 1967 and Philip Guston’s 1977 painting of a head with a hole in it. The gestalt of the gallery crackles: Celmins and Lozano are blowing holes in the head of painting, Pearlstein is investigating ways to make it simultaneously fevered and frigid, and Guston is subjecting painting to metaphysical brain surgery with a spatula while embarking on one of the weirder visionary trips of the era. This gallery is a perfect start for a show about the violence, force, ingenuity, audacity, desperation, oddness, and speed with which painting has moved over 40 years.

That said, the question-and-answer debate behind the show can turn annoyingly literal and didactic here and there. There’s a room of all-white paintings, and other cubes are stocked with portraits, grids, comic-y figuration, and appropriation. (Why do curators love to make art make sense by constantly grouping like-unto-like? One of the best things about art is that its logic is nonlinear.) Nevertheless, many of those juxtapositions are satisfying. There’s an interesting gallery of artists who generally don’t paint, including Barbara Kruger, Marcel Broodthaers, John Baldessari (who does paint), and Elaine Reichek, whose needlepoint sampler with a stitched quote from The Odyssey has Penelope speaking of a process of constantly remaking, creating and destroying and beginning again. Not only is this the way Penelope saved her life—weaving and unweaving her tapestry until Odysseus returned—but it’s also a wonderful analogy for the way in which painting was turned inside out, deconstructed, and revised in order to keep it alive.

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.

Another gallery shows how women in the seventies echoed Penelope, tearing painting apart and putting it back together in order to insert themselves into the men’s club of art history. Lynda Benglis ties canvas in knots, Jackie Winsor lashes logs together with twine to make a Paleolithic stretcher, Dorothea Rockburne creates chipboard grids (a Rockburne survey is overdue), and Lee Bontecou quite simply presents what looks like the mouth of hell, the eye of a Cyclops, the surface of the moon, and a vagina dentata in a relief painting that still has the power to terrify, entice, and awe.

Vija Celmins's Gun With Hand #1 (1964), at MoMA.Photo: Courtesy of © 2007 Vija Celmins/MoMA

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.

ALSO: More Shows to See in Their Final Days

What Is Painting?
Museum of Modern Art. Through September 17.


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