MoMA-Adrift, Befuddled-Takes a Look at Drawing Today

I was late not only in seeing Drawing Now: Eight Propositions , an exhibition that closes next week at MoMA QNS, but in getting to MoMA QNS itself. My tardiness had nothing to do with the museum’s temporary outer-borough exile-for a lot of us, Long Island City is closer to home than midtown. Rather, it had to do with anxiety over MoMA’s future. If there’s one thing the pandemic of museum expansion has taught us, it’s that more is often less-big and boffo buildings don’t guarantee an environment conducive to aesthetic experience. And there are other causes for concern, worries about the nature of the MoMA reopening in early 2005: What kind of institution will occupy the expanded, rebuilt 53rd Street location?

MoMA’s great collection of early and contemporary Modernist art will remain its foundation, and the museum will undoubtedly continue to mount important exhibitions of classic 20th-century artists, like the recent Bonnard and Giacometti shows. But that’s history. When it tries to situate itself in a contemporary context, MoMA has been befuddled-when it isn’t diving blindly into the most destructive currents of artistic fashion. Only a museum confused about its purpose would organize an exhibition as self-hating as The Museum as Muse . Only a museum with little regard for the life of art would submit its masterpieces to a series of “narratives,” as in the millennial mishmash that was Making Choices . Only a museum with a spectacular lack of imagination would bet the farm on a painter as fraudulent as Gerhard Richter. Little wonder, then, that many New Yorkers contemplate the prospect of a “new and improved” MoMA with something approaching dread.

MoMA QNS is too transitory a venue to give any sure indication of what the museum’s future will be, though its adumbrated chronological progression-from Matisse and Picasso to Nauman and Ofili-doesn’t augur well. Similarly worrisome is Drawing Now , a survey of contemporary drawing organized for MoMA QNS by Laura Hoptman, curator of contemporary art at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. Featuring 26 artists from around the world and divided into eight different “propositions” bearing titles like “Ornament,” “Vernacular Illustration” and “Cosmogenies,” the exhibition aims for comprehensiveness, though it doesn’t claim to cover “all of the important drawing being made today.” That’s a reasonable concession given limitations of time and space, but Drawing Now is anemic and interesting primarily as an indicator of curatorial prerogative.

Should we ask curators to be statesmen, to lead us with a connoisseur’s eye? Or do we prefer curators who are like politicians, super-sensitive to the directives of their constituency? Ms. Hoptman has opted for the latter, and the result is just what you’d imagine: this, that and the other thing, all artfully contrived, immaculately displayed, tinged with theory and forgettable. If this is evidence of the “renewed importance of drawing,” then I’d hate to see the stuff that didn’t make the cut.

A bold vision is not, perhaps, what we should expect from a survey show, but that doesn’t mean we should have to settle for an absence of principle. Ms. Hoptman has made her choices; she may well derive pleasure from them. But does she believe in anything? Strolling through Drawing Now , one gets a clear sense of the dizzying multiplicity of the art scene. “Fuckin freedom to you” declares one drawing-and, sure enough, each artist is off in a corner, liberated and in isolation.

Ms. Hoptman, in glancing upon her “propositions,” doesn’t stop to question whether they mean anything in the first place. As a consequence, Drawing Now dithers: It’s buzzy and lightweight, ultimately nowhere. The only artist to rise up out of the clutter of trivia is the German painter Neo Rauch, whose sharp and sour pastiches of social realism elbow their way into the memory. Otherwise, Drawing Now underscores just how far this great museum has gone adrift.

Drawing Now: Eight Propositions is at MoMA QNS, 33rd Street at Queens Boulevard, Long Island City, until Jan. 6.

Elusive History

Who was it that said video art is something we tolerate in the name of progress? Was that me? Then let me point out that William Kentridge’s haunting and impressive Zeno Writing , now showing at the Marian Goodman Gallery, isn’t a video, but a film . At least, that’s what the press release tells me, and that fine (not to say fussy) distinction might well illustrate why Mr. Kentridge is the exception to the rule: Film enlivens and brings focus to his often discursive imagination. The work, when not literally moving, is laborious; the drawings on display at Goodman lack the imaginative scope of the films.

Using grainy World War I footage, puppets and the smudgy, animated charcoal drawings that are his signature motif, Mr. Kentridge has created an 11-minute cinematic collage that is equal parts memoir, nightmare and reverie. Not being your typical polemicist, he’s fascinated by how images can turn over on themselves, prompting unexpected twists in meaning. The social conscience that has always informed Mr. Kentridge’s work is still present-apartheid and its legacy have been the constant in the art of this born-and-bred South African-but Zeno Writing is infused with, rather than determined by, politics: The film is flexible without sacrificing its moral starch. History is elusive, it suggests, and never not a burden-a forbidding truth, and Mr. Kentridge makes us feel its weight.

William Kentridge: Zeno Writing (2002) is at Marian Goodman Gallery, 24 West 57th Street, until Jan. 4.