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“Comic Abstraction: Image-Breaking, Image-Making”

Art Review | 'Comic Abstraction'
Visions That Flaunt Cartoon Pedigrees By Roberta Smith
(reprinted from the NY Times with some additional images)

The trouble with too many museum theme shows is that they begin with a viable idea and, through lack of institutional commitment, curatorial imagination or old-fashioned connoisseurship, fail to fulfill their promise.

This untitled 1990 painting below by Michel Majerus is among the works in MoMA's new exhibition:

So it is with “Comic Abstraction: Image-Breaking, Image-Making,” a sometimes perky but inoffensive and ultimately dispiriting exhibition of recent artistic endeavor at the Museum of Modern Art. Organized by Roxana Marcoci, curator of the department of photography, it brings together nearly 30 works in drawing, painting, sculpture, video and installation made over the last 16 years by 13 artists who borrow one way or another from comic strips, cartoons and animation.

The motor behind this show is a big idea: the lively and essential contamination of abstract art by popular culture that began with the Surrealists but has greatly expanded during the last 30 years. It could be argued that most new abstract art since the late 1970s has had comic aspects. After all, ironic self-awareness is one way that abstraction has dealt with the resurgence of representation and the splintering of the modernist trajectory.

A wall text outside the show’s first gallery lies in wait. It announces that the works on hand use the conventions of comics “not to withdraw from reality but to address perplexing questions about war and global conflicts, the loss of innocence and racial stereotyping.”

But in the end the works here are mostly cute, neat and perfectly pleasant, implying a view of contemporary art as mildly titillating but basically toothless entertainment. Thankfully there are some exceptions. For example, “Crazy Conductor,” a 1993 drawing on chalkboard by Gary Simmons, conveys the nasty racial caricature implicit in many animated cartoons. (Mr. Simmons’s 1996 “boom,” however, is simply a big, beautiful explosion — too close to its source, merely lifted without comment.)

Four paintings by Ellen Gallagher skewer Minimalism in general and Agnes Martin in particular with expanses of bug eyes and blubbery lips. At once gorgeous and barbed, these works are the most sustained and substantial efforts here, but their motifs are most potent in the smallest and earliest canvas; the others are elegant dilutions.

Sue Williams’s all-over paintings look similarly benign from a distance. Draw near, and you discover that her attenuated Pollock-like patterns roil with suggestions of body parts, bodily fluids and sexual couplings. Whether this payoff compensates for the emaciated effect of the work as a whole is debatable; it certainly lacks the punch of Ms. Williams’s nonabstract, savagely comical early feminist paintings, one of which appears in the catalog.

But otherwise too much here operates in some kind of vacuum, far from the madding crowd of ambition, recent art history, life or a deep engagement with the primary vehicle of visual experience, which is form. In little of it can you sense the force of a first-rate, profoundly engaged, here-for-the-duration artistic sensibility. This is because too many of the selections are early, sometimes promising work that never amounted to much, or are transitional, anomalous, derivative or tangential to the show’s theme.

In the case of Inka Essenhigh, Arturo Herrera and Julie Mehretu you have early works of limited promise that has so far not been fulfilled. In the case of Franz West and Polly Apfelbaum you have works that are charmingly whimsical but irrelevant to the show’s focus. Mr. West’s four small plaster and iron sculptures, called adaptives, are available for handling. Fun. “Blossom,” Ms. Apfelbaum’s stained-velvet Process Art floor piece, is named for one of the superheroic cartoon Powerpuff Girls and can therefore be construed as feminist. So what?

Like Ms. Gallagher, Philippe Parreno excerpts and repeats, but uncompellingly. His helium-filled Mylar “Speech Bubbles” from 1997 hover overhead, a dour, derivative meld of Claes Oldenburg and Yayoi Kusama plus Andy Warhol’s silver pillows. The caption rationalizes: They were once used as signs by protesters who wrote slogans on them.

Speech balloons also figure in Rivane Neuenschwander’s altered comic book pages, where they are blanked out with white (or occasionally blue) and the rest of the panels are bright monochrome colors. They provide some welcome if relatively pure visual intensity, regardless of what the label says about the cultural significance of the comics used. They might be better bigger, but then that would invite comparisons with Roy Lichtenstein, early Warhol and John Wesley.

Which is the problem with the efforts of Michel Majerus, a German artist who died in a plane crash at the age of 35 in 2002, especially if you factor in early Peter Saul and Albert Oehlen. A series of small canvases from 1996 have their comic moments, the best being a strange cross between an eye and an explosion. But the painterly fragments of images, words and letters of “Eggsplosion,” from 2006, could have been made in the 1950s or early ’60s. Best known for large, scrappy painted installations, Mr. Majerus clearly had talent, but not the time to find himself.

The megastar Takashi Murakami is represented by two paintings that feel like excerpts of his own work. “Cream” and “Milk” (seen below) are sparse, mural-size cartoon renderings of flung liquids that function best as backdrops to anime-inspired male and female figures that are present only in the catalog. Their markedly unabstract bodies are shown expelling the liquids implied by the paintings’ titles.

More comic installation than comic abstraction, Juan Muñoz’s “Waiting for Jerry” consists of the soundtrack of a “Tom and Jerry” animated cartoon: a cacophony of inferred chases, sneaks, skids, crashes, plops and general hysteria. Emanating from a lighted mouse hole cut in the old-fashioned molding of a small, dark room, it echoes throughout the show. The work is a refreshing anomaly, given the usual heavy-handed humanism of Mr. Muñoz’s figurative sculpture, but notice what engages you. I’ll bet it’s the appropriated soundtrack. Wonderfully complex, it bounces back and forth between descriptive and abstract, and represents the kind of concentrated thought and work that is missing from too much of this show.

“Comic Abstraction” would have benefited from more space, nerve and historical awareness. The catalog establishes no context for the origins of the comic in art, which gained speed with Pop Art. Also worth mentioning if not including in the show itself are artists like Mr. Oehlen and Carroll Dunham, both of whom are younger than Mr. West.

Especially pertinent is Mr. Dunham, whose automatist, Disneyesque excursions into the hormonal sublime, made in the 1980s and early ’90s, may be our moment’s richest, most disturbing, most perplexingly real works of comic abstraction. The efforts of several artists in this exhibition are nearly unimaginable without Mr. Dunham’s precedent.

Below is an example of Carroll Dunham's work:

Other artists whose work would have vitalized this show include Lucy McKenzie, Pipilotti Rist, Amy Sillman, Gary Hume, Josh Smith, Thomas Nozkowski, Chris Ofili, Monique Prieto, Joanne Greenbaum and, finally, Udomsak Krisanamis, whose work from the mid-’90s has a stand-alone power, even if it has yet to develop.

Beyond the big solo retrospectives that MoMA handles with expert aplomb, too many of the museum’s recent exhibitions have a veneer of political piousness that limits and shortchanges everything: art, artists, the public and the institution itself. In MoMA’s efforts to go beyond a formalist, linear view of modernism, the museum often seems to confuse sincere political intent with genuine, groundbreaking artistic quality.

No wonder it ends up showing shallow, label-dependent art rather than work that offers deeper, more contradictory encounters. Art becomes a kind of one-liner. The viewer looks a little, reads a label, says “I get it” and shuffles on. If you are new to art, you don’t know what you are missing. If you aren’t, you feel had.

“Comic Abstraction: Image-Breaking, Image-Making” continues through June 11 at the Museum of Modern Art, (212) 708-9400.

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