One Fine Show: ’50 Paintings’ at the Milwaukee Art Museum

This inviting group show of contemporary paintings is on view through June 23, 2024.

Welcome to One Fine Show, where Observer highlights a recently opened exhibition at a museum outside of New York City—a place we know and love that already receives plenty of attention.

A photo of paintings in a museum exhibition.
An installation view, courtesy of the Milwaukee Art Museum. Photo by Cleber Bonato

It’s fair to say that art is more popular than ever. How this came to be may be up for debate—Yayoi Kusama never had lines around the block before the advent of Instagram—but what can’t be doubted is the overall positive effect that can already be felt from more people seeing and thinking about art. Not so long ago NFTs were poised to be the next fashionable asset, until absolutely everyone noticed that they look terrible. It’s just a shame that the only way people outside New York get to stay in touch with what’s going on in our still dynamic contemporary art scene is through art fairs.

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Enter “50 Paintings,” a just-opened show at the Milwaukee Art Museum that features the likes of Amy Sherald, Cecily Brown, David Diao, Nicole Eisenman, Pat Steir and Judy Ledgerwood in a bid to introduce local museum viewers to the “vitality and relevance of contemporary painting as a medium.” The name is no-nonsense, as is the premise. “Rather than imposing a particular interpretation of a work on the viewer, our curatorial strategy for ‘50 Paintings’ welcomes open-ended explorations and personal responses,” says co-curator Michelle Grabner in the press release.

I love a show with a wild thesis to unpack via curation, but this attitude is refreshing and welcoming. Your average viewer hears no axes at the whetstone in this title. And there is an implication of quality in the quantity because that’s not enough to necessitate padding out.

A color block painting with rectangles of various sizes on a thick stripe background
David Diao (American, b. China 1943), ‘Rietveld’s Berlin Chair Parts on Horizontal 3 Color Ground’, 2021. Acrylic on canvas, 66 × 54 in. (167.6 × 137.2 cm). Courtesy the artist and Greene Naftali, New York; photography by Zeshan Ahmed

It’s not false advertising. Brown’s Pretty Stories and Funny Pictures (2022) recreates the feeling of the dark and chaotic universe on display in her recent survey at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in just one painting, and Angela Dufresne’s Acid Queen (2022) feels like it originated in an adjoining universe. ​​The two figures in Nicole Eisenman’s Keys, Phone, Wallet (2022) seem to be looking out on a skyline from that other world, as their bodies mutate around substances.

For those who last checked in with abstraction during the reign of Zombie Formalism, there are a lot of better and more recent examples from Diao, Peter Halley and Matt Connors, whose title informs us that he’s actually painted a Directional Hinge, which is something that may exist, according to Google. Mary Heilmann, Eddie Martinez and Sarah Morris are here, too, to bring the abstraction to a looser place, with Steir bringing down the house in Untitled XXII, 2019 (Taipei), 2019 (2019).

Most people will probably be brought through the door by Sherald, and there’s nothing wrong with that. At this point her portraits feel similar to Alex Katz’s: there’s a formula but they’re all going to be as different as the person portrayed in them and the moment in which they’re being captured. This show strives to capture a moment, too, and it succeeds.

50 Paintings” is on view at the Milwaukee Art Museum through June 23, 2024.

One Fine Show: ’50 Paintings’ at the Milwaukee Art Museum