The Dead Art of Painting-Rejected, Embraced to the End

There’s a lot to distrust about the paintings of Albert Oehlen, not least their venue. With rare exceptions-the photographs of Joel Sternfeld, say-Chelsea’s Luhring Augustine has dedicated itself to the glitzy verities of corporate nihilism and a worldview that’s loathe to admit the complexities of art lest they get in the way of a good, or rather a bad, time. Mr. Oehlen’s canvases fit in the with the gallery’s chilly anti-humanism.

Certainly, any artist touted as a founder of Germany’s “bad painting movement” is likely to have reservations about his chosen art form. Mr. Oehlen’s pictures are big, jumbled repositories of photo-based images: intestines, cheesecake pin-ups, a fuse box, a ladle, the Star of David and-I’m not kidding-the kitchen sink. Yet he isn’t a representational artist. The pictures are, for all intents and purposes, abstract.

The images provide an armature for painterly flourishes-or, to be exact, painterly defacement. Negation is Mr. Oehlen’s M.O. Alternately hasty, lethargic and careless, each painting is a Pop-inflected parody of the conventions of Abstract Expressionism. Like his peers, Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke, Mr. Oehlen spends a lot of energy proving his indifference; painting, that dead and silly thing, isn’t worth bothering with. That’s the pose, anyway.

Yet Mr. Oehlen can’t be dismissed as a Conceptual artist in painter’s drag. Stay with the canvases and you’ll see what I mean. Each composition is rigorously accounted for, its spatial construction tamped-down and complicated. One’s eye is never led astray-the pictures hold. Mr. Oehlen’s take on painting may be equivocal, but he’s wise to its inner workings, seeing each canvas through to the end. He’s more of a painter than we might like to admit.

The pictorial chaos that Mr. Oehlen courts may be a means of wiggling out from under the nihilism that is his postmodern birthright-or so I like to think. I’m probably reading too much into his work. After all, the palette is nonexistent, and the pictures are grating in their insolence. Evasion can be as much an academic exercise as anything else. Still, you never know. Should Mr. Oehlen muster the will to actually believe in something, he might find himself the founder of good German painting.

Albert Oehlen is at Luhring Augustine, 531 West 24th Street, until June 19.

Slim Pickings at MoMA QNS

Would the curators at the Museum of Modern Art recognize a good contemporary artist if he smacked them upside the head? The question nagged at me during a recent visit to the museum’s temporary digs in Long Island City. Walking through To Be Looked At , an adumbrated overview of the permanent collection, I counted one contemporary artist-the sculptor Martin Puryear-worthy of consideration. Make that two: Richard Artschwager’s Splatter Chair I (1992), a “chair” that’s been flattened into a corner of a gallery, has the saving grace of at least being funny.

Otherwise, it’s slim pickings. Overscaled Twombly, super-refined Marden, undercooked Richter and Jasper Johns …. ho-hum. I know it’s unfair to criticize the museum on a fraction of the collection. No one, least of all the curators, pretends that it’s the whole story. There’s got to be good contemporary stuff in the collection, right? Maybe we’ll get to see it once the museum’s 53rd Street home reopens later this year. Or maybe we’ll be subjected to more misguided ventures like Roth Time , a retrospective of the German artist Dieter Roth (1930-1998), now at MoMA QNS.

The introductory wall label at the MoMA show describes Roth as an “iconoclastic individualist” who “obliterated categories and hierarchies” and “subvert[ed] the principle of authorship.” These claims, as laid out by the objects on view, are initially diverting, subsequently bewildering and ultimately tedious. The early work reflects an interest in Cézanne, Paul Klee and Kurt Schwitters; later Roth came under the influence of Max Bill and Richard Paul Lohse, Zurich-based artists espousing a purist brand of geometric abstraction. The constructivist spell didn’t take. Roth’s vision became increasingly impure- Dadaist, to be exact-as did the materials he employed: sausage, ground lamb, rabbit dung and chocolate, to name just a few. Think of Roth as Robert Rauschenberg minus the good will, or a whimsical but only marginally less pretentious Joseph Beuys.

Art, for Roth, was emblematic of the artist’s will, not an object with its own independent vitality. If we’re to believe the MoMA installation, there wasn’t anything Roth touched that didn’t turn to gold-detritus in all of its multiplicity fills the galleries. By the time viewers reach the slapdash assemblages near the end of Roth Time , it’s clear that the diversity of materials was a cover for a poverty of artistic imagination. Roth experimented with everything because he was capable of nothing. If that’s something MoMA deems consequential, we’re in for some difficult times in our already confused culture.

Roth Time: A Dieter Roth Retrospective is at MoMA QNS, 33rd Street at Queens Boulevard, until June 7.

Koons’ World

A colleague recently chided me for shirking my responsibilities as a critic because I hadn’t made a peep about Jeff Koons and the 25-year overview of his art at C & M Arts. The remark suggests that Mr. Koons has something to tell us about art. He doesn’t, of course. An unctuous amalgam of Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol, Mr. Koons has based an entire career on demonstrating that high culture is a sham-hence the oversized, kitschy odes to Spalding basketballs, inflatable balloon dogs, Michael Jackson and (in a particularly unforgivable stroke) Buster Keaton.

Mr. Koons isn’t so principled in his anti-art ways that he declines the prestige accorded a Major Artist-you just know he wears that shit-eating grin all the way to the bank. I’m more curious about the rich folks who buy his stuff. Is it really that exciting to participate in one’s own swindling and debasement? Mr. Koons is a bona fide cultural phenomenon-the most egregious symptom of a scene so obsessed with the sensational that it doesn’t realize when it’s being suckered.

Jeff Koons is at C & M Arts, 45 East 78th Street, until June 5.