"POST MoDERN" at Greene Naftali
14 January – 19 February 2005
Over the past forty years, painting has been dealt more body blows and stays of sentence than any other artistic medium, each time accompanied by rhetoric more hyperbolic than the last. The absence of acute polemical edges in "POST MoDERN," then, is somewhat remarkable and not entirely unwelcome. Here is neither the triumphal declaration of painting’s end nor the mourning of its passing, neither an insistence on its continued formal evolution nor the assertion of its historical irrelevance. If the works possess a pervading attitude, it is one of acceptance, of letting go and moving on. This is what painting would look like on a strong, stabilizing dose of Prozac.
Opening the show is A Ha, 2001, by Michael Krebber, who in recent years has emerged from under the shadow of Martin Kippenberger, to whom he was an assistant. A gessoed off-the-shelf canvas with a few bluish-green scribbles of paint, the painting provides the barest intimation of a winking face. This laconic gesture – subtle, self-confident, flirtatious – is an appropriate introduction to "POST MoDERN," whose best artists approach the conventions of painting with an attitude barely more carefree than careless. (The small ‘o’ in the title, a reference to the MoMA, is the show’s own wink.) This is not to say that their works do not hold their own as paintings. Krebber’s modulation of rich color on cheap canvas results in a surprisingly replete composition that would satisfy the stodgiest of formalists. Likewise, a quartet of works from Josh Smith, best known for paintings based on his signature, redeem a not-too-original concept – exhibiting used palettes – with pure visual verve: mountains of congealed purples and browns abut dried rivulets of reds that dissolve into semi-translucent pinks.
Krebber’s and Smith’s works (and to a lesser extent Helmut Bohl’s Shogun and Vase with Table, both 2005, consisting of a canvas and table/vase ensemble respectively decorated with strips of paper in a bamboo pattern) are striking precisely because they seem free from the constraints of their medium. This freedom, more youthful than cynical but too sophisticated to be naïve, distinguishes these painters from 1980s pasticheurs like David Salle and outsider artists like Henry Darger alike. It also distinguishes them from their female counterparts in "POST MoDERN," who more explicitly reference modernist painting (or, in the case of Mary Heilmann, exemplify it), whether through manifest painterliness (Jacqueline Humphries, Charline von Heyl); focus on the human figure (Dana Schutz, Makiko Kudo); large scale (Sophie von Hellermann); or chromatic luminescence (Amy Sillman, Laura Owens).
One explanation for this gender divide is that "POST MoDERN" was in part intended to address the dearth of female representation at the recently reopened Midtown MoMA. The Oedipal anxiety of influence is traditionally the purview of sons, and that this show points out that daughters can feel its burden too is a corrective of sorts. This victory is belated and possibly Pyrrhic: as the exhibition’s best works indicate and its overall direction suggests, a respite from this anxiety might be, at least for the moment, as productive as working through it.