Francesca Gabbiani, The Wave, 2002, mixed media, 6' 6 3/4“ x 19' 8 1/4”.

Francesca Gabbiani, The Wave, 2002, mixed media, 6' 6 3/4“ x 19' 8 1/4”.

“Painting on the Move”

Museum für Gegenwartskunst, mit Emanuel Hoffmann-Stiftung

To examine the history of painting during the past century as a whole is a daunting task, fit only for the historian or curator with kamikaze fantasies. While the definition of painting as a medium is still relatively clear—despite numerous technical innovations and self-inflicted wounds—it seems futile to speak of painting as such without isolating specific issues and practices. Successful single-medium exhibitions tend to break down their subject into bite-size morsels (e.g., Paul Schimmel and Donna De Salvo’s “Hand-Painted Pop” at LA MoCA, 1992, or Laura Hoptman’s timely matchmaking in her three-way marriage of figurative painters John Currin, Elizabeth Peyton, and Luc Tuymans at New York’s MoMA, 1997), scouring specific historical moments or mapping out distinct strategies. Nonetheless, the urge to chart the entire development of a single medium persists within the museum world, and it found an incarnation in the three-part exhibition “Painting on the Move,” organized by the Kunstmuseum, Museum für Gegenwartskunst, and Kunsthalle in Basel.

The title’s clear reference to the cult of progress immediately signals curators Bernhard Mendes Bürgi and Peter Pakesch’s conviction that the history of painting is linear and continuous. Constructed in three acts, the show adopted an almost classical theatrical structure. The key dramatis personae from 1900 to 2000 were introduced at the Kunstmuseum in a survey that, driven by the notion of painting’s ceaseless innovations, never strayed far from a consensual, if somewhat Europhilic, assessment of modernist art history. Glossing over the wonderful mess of European painting circa 1945–55 (only a 1947–48 Wols painting nodded to Ecole de Paris abstraction) in order to avoid any sense of caesura, the exhibition’s smooth trajectory suggested that it is possible today to draw an unwavering line between modernism’s “achievements” and postmodernism’s “critiques.” This overtly stable account made the show’s conclusion, a radically disparate group of works from the 1990s, all the more disturbing. The uninitiated viewer bounced from Chéri Samba to Neo Rauch, from Damien Hirst to Richard Prince, without any tools to differentiate pictorial strategy, tone, subject, or historical context. Instead, ten canvases installed in an oval-shaped gallery declared themselves heirs apparent to “painting now” with about as much conviction as an auction catalogue roundup aimed at wooing potential collectors.

Addressing the myth of painting’s demise, the Museum für Gegenwartskunst’s “There Is No Final Picture” charted critical strategies of painting since the late 1960s with a succinct presentation of exemplary works by artists such as Andy Warhol, On Kawara, Robert Ryman, Gerhard Richter, and Martin Kippenberger. Providing this genealogical platform, the exhibition argued that an eclectic range of more recent painters, from Gary Hume to Laura Owens, Bernard Frize to Renee Levi, have built practices by contesting the authenticity, autonomy, and pathos of the painted canvas. The installation’s elegant flow deserved applause (especially a grouping of Tuymans, Raoul De Keyser, and Frize), yet the narrative concluded with an unreserved embrace of pluralist heterogeneity—as if heterogeneity as such were contemporary painting’s primary quality. According to a wall text, artists today demonstrate that “painting is charting new territory between abstraction and figuration . . . the vocabulary of painting is available without taboos.” Marshaled to justify an open-ended selection of younger artists in this portion of the show, such curatorial jargon implicitly contradicts the exhibition’s motivating assumption about the medium’s continuity. The problem here, of course, is that individual painters are indeed confronted with the historical weight of painting each time they face a canvas, but this does not mean that painting is an autonomous entity with a predetermined and ineluctable logic.

The Kunsthalle Basel’s “After Reality” considered figurative painting with works by twenty-three mostly emerging international artists. Citing precursors who engaged painting’s relationship to photography and mass-media imagery—Richter, Chuck Close, and Kippenberger among them—this presentation was hampered by a loose premise and disjointed selection. Neither individual paintings nor their arrangement implied a rationale beyond the observation that painting often feeds off the “proverbial flood of images” in contemporary society, something which is true of most media today. While certain artists stood out (Lucy McKenzie’s self-consciously chic reworking of social realism; Francesca Gabbiani’s lush landscapes), “After Reality” articulated little more than the existence of a trend.

This ambitious trilogy might seem like a drame bourgeois: an incarnation of the eighteenth-century theatrical genre in which middle-class values and problems were dramatized with blunt, happy endings. “Painting on the Move” affirms a fashionable set of beliefs and values: Painting is far from dead. The old sparring partners, Abstraction and Figuration, are no longer at odds. Diversity of style and pictorial strategy has replaced ideological antagonism. Such conclusions are designed to seduce the public and convince the cynics.

If considered in the tradition of a different theatrical genre—the commedia dell’arte, in which individual actors (or artists) surpass the playwright’s (or curator’s) vision of stock characters through unexpected improvisation—the exhibition becomes more gratifying. This problematic show offers some spectacular performances: Sigmar Polke’s thick white squares painted on an ordinary wool blanket; Owens’s quirky yet poetic moonlit landscape with japoniste branch; De Keyser’s phantasmic “abstractions” of real-world landscapes. “Painting on the Move” contributes to an understanding of painting in which individual artworks outfox the curatorial scenario, when visual and conceptual force overrides the stale, progress-obsessed narrative that often accompanies such kamikaze curatorial enterprises.

Alison M. Gingeras is curator for contemporary art at the Centre Georges Pompidou.