KUNSTMUSEUM, MUSEUM FUR GEGENWARTSKUNST, KUNSTHALLE, BASEL
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 fur Gege nwartskunst, and Kunsthalle in Basel.
The title's clear reference to the cult of progress immediately signals curators Bernhard Mendes Burgi 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 view er bounced from Cheri 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 fur 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. …