"What Is Painting?: Contemporary Art from the Collection"

The worst of MoMA.

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Lee Lozano's Untitled

Lee Lozano's Untitled Courtesy The Museum of Modern Art, © 2007 The Estate of Lee Lozano

Time Out Ratings

<strong>Rating: </strong>1/5

Last anyone checked, the Museum of Modern Art still controlled a century’s worth of masterworks. Many are installed on its fourth and fifth floors; untold numbers are parked in its climate-controlled storerooms. Why, then, couldn’t “What Is Painting?” include more than a handful of them?

This fourth in a series of contemporary exhibits culled exclusively from the museum’s permanent collection arranges dull work with mystifyingly counterintuitive logic. MoMA has things any regional institution would kill for, but these 50 pieces might as well have been installed in Iowa, where the pickings are slim.

Anne Umland, curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture, gathered the work, all made between 1960 and the present. Her selection will alienate many, if not most, visitors. Are you looking for paintings that open luminous windows onto another world, hold mirrors to the soul or just revel in their color-rich surfaces? Too bad. Would you like an answer to the exhibit’s titular question? You’ll have to look elsewhere. Umland has more theoretical, and ultimately misguided­, ideas about that, too. To make matters worse, she never clearly expresses them to the public. Instead, she presents what she calls a “kaleidoscopic” (curatorial code for scattered) exhibition “dedicated to the principle of questioning”—i.e., the sloppy postmodern assertion that no question has a real answer.

What you do get is third-rate work by first-rate artists and first-rate work by third-rate artists—with a Cindy Sherman self-portrait as a Renaissance Madonna and Child thrown in for spice. The Sherman comes off as a dismissal of centuries of religious painters dedicated to the Madonna and Child tradition, and with no contextual hint of her reasons for appropriating that, it’s nearly a dismissal of her work. Umland’s curatorial logic may be reductive to the point of absurdity, but her gestures are economical.

It would have seemed an impossible feat to pull off, but the exhibit also unearths a totally uninteresting (albeit early) image by the amazing Vija Celmins. It depicts a hand shooting a gun, and it comes at the entrance to the galleries, where it seems to point at a large close-up of a hammer by Lee Lozano that is nice, but nothing special. One of the few remarkable canvases here, a Gabriel Orozco abstraction called Kytes Tree (all spare geometries of gold, red and blue), gets stuck next to an ornate, flirty decorative work by Beatriz Milhazes with which it can only clash.

Along with the paintings, there is also a bafflingly out-of-place roomful of sculptures by Jackie Winsor, Dorothea Rockburne, Lynda Benglis and Lee Bontecou. It attempts to raise issues of gender, surface and form, and comes closer than the rest of the show to making a point—only to leave it dangling, incomplete and over the heads of all but the most theoretically inclined.

Nearby, a Barbara Kruger graphic looking the worse for wear assaults the eye with what should be the stunningly accusatory phrase, you invest in the divinity of the masterpiece. In this context, viewers can only wish that Umland had made such an investment, or imagined this work as more than the sum of its mundane parts.

The exhibit is laid out in small rooms, hung almost unvaryingly with four works, one per wall. No momentum builds up between those discrete spaces, and none of the pieces ever manage to “talk” amongst themselves across the space. Umland would do well to eschew fours in the future: Two works read as a dialogue of compare and contrast; three works read as a series, a narrative arc; four works beg for closure on that arc, and closure is something she prefers to avoid.

Proof that it is possible to curate a fine, idiosyncratic, thought-provoking show with works culled solely from MoMA’s collection is on record. Luis Pérez-Oramas did it only last year when his “Transforming Chronologies” mixed and matched cool stuff from the museum’s drawing collection across lines of time, taste and style. Christian Rattemeyer, also of the Department of Drawings, attempts a fine but milder second act to Pérez-Oramas’s bravura, with his “Lines, Grids, Stains, Words” currently on view. Same museum. Different eyes.

The Museum of Modern Art, through Sept 17

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