The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World has, as the critics have said, been “a long time coming” and “long anticipated.” The art world has been waiting for MoMA to take a position on contemporary painting now that worry over the “death of painting” in the 1980s and 1990s has been more or less settled by the medium’s persistence in both artists’ studios and the (much-maligned) painting-heavy art market.
Indeed, it’s been 30 years since the last group exhibition of new paintings at MoMA, when Kynaston McShine curated a survey of recent painting and sculpture (titled International Survey of Recent
Painting and Sculpture) for the first exhibition following the Museum’s 1984 expansion, in a show that spanned two floors and 165 artists, including painters from Jean-Michel Basquiat, Elizabeth Murray, and David Salle to Gerhard Richter and Anselm Kiefer. As MoMA’s then-director Richard E. Oldenburg put it, “We felt it was very important to reaffirm the Museum’s continuing commitment to contemporary art.”
MoMA’s exhibition history is, in fact, rich with shows of contemporary painting. Right from the beginning, in 1930 (the year after the Museum’s founding), Alfred H. Barr, Jr., organized Paintings by 19 Living Americans, which featured Georgia O’Keeffe, Edward Hopper, and John Marin, among others. A decade later, the idea developed into a recurring event. Dorothy Miller, a curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture from 1934 to 1969, organized the seven “Americans” shows between 1942 and 1963, most of which had a preponderance of painters. These surveys introduced the artists who would define American painting in those decades, from Arshile Gorky and Robert Motherwell in 1946 to Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still in 1952; Philip Guston, Grace Hartigan, and Franz Kline in 1956; Jay De Feo, Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Rauschenberg, and Frank Stella in 1959; and Ad Reinhardt, James Rosenquist, and Robert Indiana in 1963.
Like Dorothy Miller’s shows at midcentury, The Forever Now presents established artists who remain lesser-known to a wider public. What’s different, however, is the exhibition’s attention to just one thread of painting today, which leaves ample room for future exhibitions to cut through the field to very different effect.