Given my interest in painting, I found myself going to Milwaukee to see an exhibition that promised to be taking the pulse of contemporary American painting—all the works in it had been made in the last five years. A show of fifty paintings by fifty different painters who the curators claimed were defining the field of contemporary painting seemed a bold move, amidst the general confusion that has been generated by AI, market manipulation, auction house publicity, critical pronouncements, and a general cultural malaise that has lingered since the 1990s. How could any critic resist such a challenge; what could an exhibition indexed to the simple subject of “Painting,” offer? Whatever the curators’ intentions, 50 Paintings seemed to be a brave attempt to bring some discernment to a confused situation.
On the same day I was to leave for Milwaukee, in the morning, I went to the press preview of Retinal Hysteria curated by Robert Storr at Venus Over Manhattan, which endeavors to map the mash-up of expressionism, surrealism, pop, and comics culture. These two exhibits are structurally similar in that they both form indexes, but aesthetically Retinal Hysteria turned out to be the antithesis of 50 Paintings. Storr’s exhibition is trippy and agitated whereas 50 Paintings is nearly polite. What I realized is these two exhibitions mark the present-day manifestation of the polarity between theatricality and absorption, which the critic and art historian Michael Fried pitted Minimalism’s staginess against the classicism of Formalism in his rhetorical formulation of this opposition in the 1960s.
What also made 50 Paintings intriguing was that although since the 1970s, we have heard repeatedly that painting is dead, the art market continues to be dominated by painting—it remains the quintessential form for both domestic and institutional collecting. Paint as a medium can be used to portray diverse subjects and produce fictive spaces, while its processes span the range from the highly polished to the slap-dash. What seems to be exhausted is how artists think about painting—they seem to be weighed down by a historicity that is committed to a limited gene pool and narrative. Truly, there seems to be a lack of understanding of paintings’ potential.
The survey format of 50 Paintings allows the curators to underscore the many concepts and strategies present-day painters employ. The show is co-curated by Margaret Andera, Senior Curator of Contemporary Art, and Michelle Grabner, artist, curator, and Chair of Painting and Drawing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The recognizable names on the list of artists they have chosen promise neither scandal nor a new generational trend. Obviously, from their selection they did not intend this exhibition to be encyclopedic, but merely to demonstrate the wide range of approaches being applied to painting primarily as a medium. As a subtext it seems to a lesser degree, they want to make an argument for the persistence of various thematic traditions and painterly practices.
As I wandered through the exhibit, the curators’ criteria, and ulterior motives slowly revealed themselves. The works in 50 Paintings are all relatively modest, none apart from Lisa Yuskavage, David Diao, and Raul Guerrero are what one might call signature works. For instance, I did not recognize Amy Sillman or Nicole Eisenman pieces, and consequently as I walked through, I was often left guessing, especially in the cases of such artists as Dan Walsh, or Sarah Morris where style and aesthetics are either generic, or simply another compositional device.
For the most part everything in 50 Paintings adheres to painting’s traditional format and processes, with the exception for Peter Halley’s shaped canvas, Torkwase Dyson’s relief painting, and Jacqueline Humphries’s use of stenciling. As such much of the work in 50 Paintings reaches back and reflects the revisionism of the 1980s that accompanied the end of modernism’s various prohibitions. All that is missing is a strong dose of Neo-Expressionism and Neo-Geo. Beyond those movements and the popularity of appropriation—painting became pluralistic—neither abstract, abstraction, nor the mimetic were privileged. It’s good to note that among the name artists who are in this exhibition such as Mary Heilmann, Cecily Brown, Judy Ledgerwood, April Gornik, Amy Sillman, Charline von Heyl, and Pat Steir, many are of that generation of the 1970s and ’80s who grappled with the so-called postmodern crisis in painting. Subsequently, their works here have more to do with their pictorial sensibility rather than formal or material inventiveness. Ultimately, apart from Matt Connors’s somewhat trompe l'oeil painting that looks as if it might be a collage, the works gathered for this exhibit focus more on the trace of the presence of the artists than that of the self-reflective viewer.
We often forget the plurality of practices and the competition of styles that take place within a given era, due to the way these are filtered and ordered in general by art historians. Given such historicism and its progressive bias, many artists who are influential in their own time have come to be judged as insignificant and subsequently erased, yet it is these unrecorded struggles and debates that influence the course of art. Other contributors are outliers such as Cora Cohen and Jack Whitten (neither of whom are in this exhibit) who are held in reserve only to be posthumously recognized for their contributions. I could complain that such artists are not presented here, but then again, they do not fit the implied brief for 50 Paintings. So, I’ll leave it at the obvious—beyond the artists and styles included in this exhibition, there could be a list of fifty other young, mid-career and senior painters whose works could or should have been included (such as David Reed, Valerie Jaudon, Jonathan Lasker, and Joanne Greenbaum) in this list of artists who have been chosen to define the field of contemporary painting. Nonetheless, this ambitious exhibit is a family snapshot of who came to the reunion, and of course there is always someone missing.
Another general observation is that the exhibit appears to subversively embrace such postmodernist principles as questioning grand narratives, blurring traditional boundaries, and focusing on individual experiences. This is subtly done, in that there are not openly ideological or political statements to be found here, or radical mashups of popular culture elements. Instead, there is just more or less straight painting and a bold claim made that the nearly traditional genres and forms presented here remain vital in our post-historical era. This is not an exercise in nostalgia or conservativism, but one rooted in critique. In this context, through juxtaposition and comparison the curators make their argument as to how each artist in this exhibition seeks to sustain and revitalize painting by using it as a vehicle for self-expression, thematic inquiry, or reflection. The irony is that it is postmodernism’s dictums that have given the curators their license to rethink painting and perhaps sincerity in this manner. In doing so it is clear why they had to forgo the inclusion of works that rely on popular culture, irony, pastiche, or language, though the presence of David Diao, Peter Halley, Philip Taaffe, and Jacqueline Humphries acknowledges that within their conception these too remain possibilities. Subsequently, the curators’ objective appears to be to recuperate what has been critically rejected or deemed minor and in doing so they align themselves with another postmodernist ethos: that of challenging established norms and embracing diversity. 50 Paintings reflects a nuanced engagement with painting as a practice, while offering a distinctive perspective on the role aesthetics and presence may play within the broader context of cultural experience of the postmodern as it is increasingly subsumed by the technologies of replication, simulation, and spectacle. Regardless of if these observations are true or not, such speculations are what make this show both contemporary and polemical.
The conclusion that I have drawn from all of this is that we now await the next big thing—the last one being the excited flurry of the market around Zombie Formalism. 50 Paintings purports that the next big thing has been right there in front of us all along, and we have not recognized it because it has been precluded by our viewing habits and how we have been conditioned to think about what constitutes the new and the next. What 50 Paintings suggests is that the “next-new” recognizes that individualistic sensibilities approach existent themes and practices.John McLaughlin, Fairfield Porter, Paul Feeley, Alice Neel, Anne Truitt, Milton Avery, and Perle Fine are among a slew of painters who reflect the model of the painter 50 Paintings proposes are now defining their field. In the past we were told such work was minor, insignificant because a critical standard could not be deduced from it. Yet it is just such works that in our present system the curators of 50 Paintings advocate for.