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The Painting Factory at MOCA

There's a lot going on, politically, it seems, at the MOCA lately. So, I wandered into the downtown galleries to check it out. Do their politics got in the way of art?

Coinciding with Andy Warhol's 84th birthday (if he were still alive), the current exhibition, The Painting Factory, Abstraction After Warhol, explores the recent transformation of abstract painting into one of the most dynamic platforms in contemporary art. The exhibition attempts to address a painting tradition that was once seen as essentially reductive but has now become expansive, merging popular culture and current technology into its vocabulary, and includes works by Tauba Auerbach, Mark Bradford, DAS INSTITUT (Kerstin Brätsch and Adele Röder), Urs Fischer, Wade Guyton, Glenn Ligon, Julie Mehretu, Seth Price, Sterling Ruby, Josh Smith, Rudolf Stingel, Kelley Walker, Andy Warhol, and Christopher Wool.


Mark Bradford. Ghost and Stooges, 2011. Mixed media collage on canvas. Courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., NY.
Ironically, one of the places where this fresh approach to abstraction was germinating was the studio that might seem the farthest from the practice of the abstract tradition, Andy Warhol’s Factory. A haven for all sorts of brilliant artistic misfits, the Factory was a laboratory where historical and contemporary innovations in art and culture would be remixed and reconstituted. After Warhol turned back to painting in the late 1970s and 1980s with series like Shadows, Oxidations, and Rorschachs, he transformed pure abstraction into work that opened up new directions. Thriving on the increasing confusion between high art and progressive popular culture, Warhol challenged conventional methods of painting using techniques of mechanical reproduction - confrontations that simultaneously undermined and expanded the accepted approaches to painting.


Julie Mehretu. Black City, 2007. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, NY.
My favorite works were by Tauba Auerbach, Mark Bradford, Glenn Ligon, Julie Mehretu, and Kelley Walker (I'm kicking myself that Auerbach's work escaped my collection when it was so affordable early on). I love the visual trickery she employs with dimension, and still find myself looking at her paintings from the side to check whether they really are flat.

Ever since Mark Bradford's retrospective at the SFMOMA, I can't get enough of his work. Part of the attraction, admittedly, is the story. How a poor man from humbling circumstances could come so far. I love his use of personal history in his work, as well as the immense scale. This is work that needs a lot of room for the viewer, as part of the fascination is seeing it in context of lots of interior space, as well as examining the small details. Visually, it's a feast.

Glenn Ligon is a big artist. We know this from all the attention he's received at the Whitney, in NY, and internationally lately. His coal-dust paintings are luscious. That's all I can say. Using backgrounds of pure white or deep black painted canvas, Ligon somehow adheres layers of velvety coal dust on a series of canvases. The effect is seductive, dark, and beautiful.

The kinetic action of Julie Mehretu's work reminded me of Jackson Pollock energy with Alexander Calder shapes. Did she mean to reference them? Using extremely large painting surfaces, Mehretu's work activates the eye with visuals that leap from one side of her surface to the other. Likewise, Kelley Walker's work, with its layers of poster imagery and deep solo colorings were irresistible, thoughtful, and wholly in keeping with a nexus to Andy Warhol's Factory.

I can't tell you whether their politics got in the way of anything. Visually, the exhibition looked well planned and, except for the slide show (and slight new media nod), it was thoughtful. All the news referencing the MOCA these days is unbelievable: accusations by Eli Broad that the MOCA has a cash stash over $2 million sitting in exhibition reserves (they are so lucky!), and refusing to continue to fund until the fund reserves are spent down the way they were meant to - for exhibitions, grants and residencies, among others; and who hasn't heard about the imploding Board of Trustees? Perhaps that's why only 10 pieces from the permanent exhibition were available for viewing, with the remainder shuttered away.