Is It Art, Or….

What Is Painting? asks the title of a new exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. It’s a provocative question, if only in that MoMA feels it’s worth raising. You’d think the curators would have some idea of what makes a painting—the museum is chock-full of the things, after all. Where does it leave the rest of us if the experts are scratching their heads?

It’s not exactly a new question—painting is nothing if not a self-critical enterprise, and so it’s been throughout history. But such uncertainty has become peculiarly ubiquitous since the ascendancy of Dadaism and conceptualism. Both movements cast doubt on the legitimacy and self-sufficiency of art, and both inquire whether the artist should bother to create an art object at all. Examining existing conventions is all to the good—nothing dulls the power of art like complacency. But what’s a question worth if the answer is muddled beyond recognition?

The exhibition takes its cue from What Is Painting (1966-68), a work on canvas by the conceptual artist John Baldessari. The interrogative title is printed in acrylic on the canvas, as is a response of sorts: “Do you sense how all the parts of a good picture are involved with each other, not just placed side by side? Art is a creation for the eye and can only be hinted at with words.” Fair enough, but Baldessari’s text is an example of what is not painting. It’s simply a commentary on the clichés attendant to the medium.

Clichés reiterate stale truths, but they’re truths all the same. Mr. Baldessari can’t or, more likely, doesn’t want to imagine an art form independent of literature. An artist with little use or feel for painting is a curious figure on which to base an exhibition about painting. But curator Anne Umland uses Mr. Baldessari’s statement merely as a starting point. She culls disparate examples from MoMA’s collection, gathering together pieces by 50 artists to explore “ongoing debates over the practice of painting and its place within contemporary art.”

What Is Painting? is an overview, not a manifesto. Ms. Umland isn’t interested in one concrete or comprehensive definition of the art form. Instead, the exhibition is open-ended and “multifocal”—a tack that is, on the whole, disappointing. MoMA has had an incalculable influence on international art, on how we look at modern art and how artists continue to make art. Favoring vagueness over discrimination forsakes the museum’s history and its ostensible purpose: to make finely tuned, if not inflexible, distinctions. Acquiescing to pluralism tiptoes around hard and important questions.

The show’s 12 sections present a variety of approaches to putting paint to canvas or, in some cases, not putting paint to canvas. The featured works “share an element fundamental to painting … dependence on a wall or planar surface, requiring viewers to approach them from a relatively fixed frontal vantage point.” Works by Lynda Benglis, Jackie Winsor, Dorothea Rockburne and Lee Bontecou are, yes, placed against a wall—Ms. Winsor’s primal construction Bound Square (1972) leans against it. But none of these artists, as seen here anyway, are painters. They’re sculptors who refer to painting, but only tangentially and largely not at all. If these are paintings, then everything is a painting.

This is the exhibition’s thesis and its downfall. For the most part, the “paintings” on display aren’t really visual. They’re objects made with paint; they provide something to look at but nothing to see. They exploit painting as a means for something else, primarily language and theory. Glenn Ligon stencils phrases in oil stick—“the invisibility of whiteness” is one—to the point where words become an indecipherable and gritty physical surface. Sherrie Levine employs wax and casein to investigate the nature of originality. Utilizing a photograph of Michelangelo’s Adam and God, Barbara Kruger posits “the divinity of the masterpiece” as sheer commodity. Cindy Sherman, sporting period costume and a fake tit, poses as the Virgin.

Neo-Expressionism is resuscitated only to prove how lousy recent German painting has been; the inclusion of a work by Gerhard Richter shows how numb, portentous and obtuse it can be, too. Agnes Martin and Robert Ryman paint almost nothing as a kind of spiritual enterprise. A corner of the installation is given to unseemly things gleaned from photographs. Marlene Dumas paints the head of a dead woman. Wilhelm Sasnal paints the crotch of his wife’s pants. Luc Tuymans aestheticizes horror and trivializes history by painting, in his signature wan and affectless style, a dust cloud from the 9/11 attacks.

What’s missing, largely and markedly, is painting as a world unto itself—a sensually shaped fiction through which the eye travels, discovering aspects of experience to which we’ve become oblivious, inured or ignorant. What Is Painting? only intermittently reveals painters grappling with their medium—its limitations and possibilities—in ways that are expressly visual. Works by Philip Guston, Philip Pearlstein, Al Held, William T. Williams and Robert Colescott fulfill that daunting challenge. The young abstract artist Gabriel Orozco knows a thing or two about painting, though touch isn’t yet one of them.

What the exhibition does all too well is underline the contempt painting suffers from the headier quarters of the art scene. It’s a discipline to be referred to rather than practiced, an antiquated and elitist medium to be analyzed and parodied. What Is Painting? isn’t a cynical exhibition, but it illustrates how prevalent cynicism has become. There are better inspirations for young painters than Mr. Baldessari—inspirations are supposed to encourage forward momentum, after all. What Is Painting? exemplifies the dead end in which so many artists have sequestered themselves.

What Is Painting? Contemporary Art from the Collection is at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, until Sept. 17.

Is It Art, Or….