Adam, Eve, by Philip Taafe (Taafe is one of several undervalued painters mentioned in Roberta Smith’s Sunday Times piece)

Roberta Smith secured the premier position in the Sunday Times Arts section, above the fold and in the center. The visual arts rarely show up in the top slot these days. Her article, Post-Minimal to the Max, is great reading in its totality. In it she addresses the state of museum shows of contemporary art, particularly in New York, and her viewpoint is strongly stated.

Referencing recent shows at the MOMA and the Guggenheim, her bottom line is similar to my point of view:

Regardless of what you think about these artists individually, their shows share a visual austerity and coolness of temperature that are dispiritingly one-note. After encountering so many bare walls and open spaces, after examining so many amalgams of photography, altered objects, seductive materials and Conceptual puzzles awaiting deciphering, I started to feel as if it were all part of a big-box chain featuring only one brand.

The goal in organizing museum exhibitions, as in collecting, running a gallery and — to cite the most obvious example — being an artist, should be individuation and difference, finding a voice of your own. Instead we’re getting example after example of squeaky-clean, well-made, intellectually decorous takes on that unruly early ’70s mix of Conceptual, Process, Performance, installation and language-based art that is most associated with the label Post-Minimalism. Either that or we’re getting exhibitions of the movement’s most revered founding fathers: since 2005, for example, the Whitney has mounted exhibitions of Robert Smithson, Lawrence Weiner, Gordon Matta-Clark and Dan Graham. I liked these shows, but that’s not the point. We cannot live by the de-materialization — or the slick re-materialization — of the art object alone.

I too have noticed a particular aroma that seems to permeate most contemporary exhibits in major museums, in New York City as well as other major metropolitan areas. Many art observers have made the case that a small coterie (cartel might be too strong a term) of art gatekeepers is determining the curriculum of graduate programs, defining curatorial trends and coming to way too much confluence about which international art superstars are show worthy. It’s a little like eating at a chain restaurant. Not the Olive Garden mind you, definitiely something better. Since the first visit is pretty good, you go back again. But after a while every meal tastes the same. It is unexciting and predictable which is what happens when the menu and food prep result from following instructions rather than inspiration.

But the killer passage in Smith’s piece comes a bit later on:

After 40 years in which we’ve come to understand that dominant styles like Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism and Pop are at best gross simplifications of their periods, it often feels as though an agreed-upon master narrative is back in place.

What’s missing is art that seems made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand. A lot but not all of this kind of work is painting, which seems to be becoming the art medium that dare not speak its name where museums are concerned.

Nothing says it better: “Art that seems made by one person out of intense personal necessity.” I sat with that thought all day yesterday, and last night it brought on one of the most extraordinary dreams I have had in some time. It was the kind that just can’t be described in language but leaves you with a sweet penumbra of time-release wisdom.

Smith goes on to identify her favorite undervalued painters. Her list isn’t mine although there are some overlaps. But her point is so well taken and so timely. I hope her article is read and considered seriously.

Her closing paragraph offers a particularly pointed challenge to contemporary curators:

They have a responsibility to their public and to history to be more ecumenical, to do things that seem to come from left field. They owe it to the public to present a balanced menu that involves painting as well as video and photography and sculpture. They need to think outside the hive-mind, both distancing themselves from their personal feelings to consider what’s being wrongly omitted and tapping into their own subjectivity to show us what they really love.

These things should be understood by now: The present is diverse beyond knowing, history is never completely on anyone’s side, and what we ignore today will be excavated later and held against us the way we hold previous oversights against past generations.

Message to curators: Whatever you’re doing right now, do something else next.

Bravo RS.


Man dressed as Bat, by Peter Doig (Doig is also mentioned by Smith as a working painter whose early work deserves more attention.)

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