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What Is Painting? Contemporary Art from the Collection

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The Museum of Modern Art
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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.

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