“Out of Time,” the third annual reinstallation of the rehoused Museum of Modern Art’s capacious contemporary galleries, is a mixed bag of works from the past four decades, with a trenchant and, considering MOMA’s history, somewhat melancholy theme. Here is a museum, the museum of the twentieth century, whose founding idea was a time line: the march of modernization. That story disintegrated in the nineteen-sixties, when minimalism rejected the framed and pedestalled suggestiveness of historical painting and sculpture in favor of the droning presence of taciturn objects and arrangements. (The epoch called “contemporary” grows longer year by year, as the era that minimalism instituted bids to be eternal.) Since then, a great deal of ambitious art has espoused, or, at least, countenanced boredom—the forced consciousness of passing time.
The exhibition starts with a projected segment of Andy Warhol’s baleful film masterpiece “Empire” (1964), an eight-hour static view of the Empire State Building, and climaxes with Gerhard Richter’s great, sepulchral suite of fifteen paintings about the lives and, mostly, the deaths of the Baader-Meinhof terrorists, “October 18, 1977” (1988). In the middle comes “Work No. 227: The Lights Going On and Off” (2000), by the British artist Martin Creed: an empty room in which light and darkness alternate at five-second intervals. Everything in the show—paintings and drawings, groups of photographs, sculptural and video installations, and ad-hoc oddities—can be taken, if sometimes tortuously, to illustrate a possible meaning of the phrase “out of time”: time regarded with detachment, as sheer phenomenon; or employed, as a kind of material. Another sense occurs to me: “too late”—game over, pencils down. The show crystallizes a recurrent suspicion that, at present, high culture inhabits an interminable aftermath of lost or broken purposes. The poetic tone of today’s most vital art tilts toward elegy.
The show’s young curators, Joachim Pissarro, of the Department of Painting and Sculpture, and Eva Respini, of the Department of Photography, have grouped works by formal or notional affinity rather than by chronology. Some juxtapositions are inspired. “Empire” is flanked by Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s “Head #10” (2000), a starkly flash-lit color photograph of a sullen teen-ager in a Yankees cap, set in inky darkness. Building and boy, both monumentally composed, convey rhyming ratios of obduracy and, what with the inevitable thoughts of September 11th, vulnerability. (Time may not be on our side.) A room given over to dry exercises in time-based execution, such as a large, dense drawing that was frantically made by William Anastasi in one hour, and thirty photographs of a swatch of roiling river taken by Dieter Appelt in as many minutes, opens onto Pipilotti Rist’s “Ever Is Over All” (1997). In this intoxicating video installation, with a gentle rock score, panning shots of flowers accompany the sight of a young woman, in a blue summer dress and ruby pumps, traipsing down a city street, now and then merrily smashing car windows with a long-stemmed flower. A police officer slowly approaches. It is a policewoman, who, coming abreast, smiles benevolently and walks on. Anarchy has never been so honey-sweet.
Rist, a Swiss artist born in 1962, is important for having conjoined the astringent disciplines of performance art with the industrialized fun of music video. I remember thinking, when I first saw “Ever Is Over All,” that it heralded a dawning era of rococo pleasures, which would blur boundaries between art and entertainment in no end of surprising ways. As often happens in such cases, very little that has been produced since, even by Rist, has rivalled it for crazy joy. First thought, best thought? Perhaps, but it may be in the nature of hybrid art forms, like their botanical kin, to prove as sterile as they may be extraordinary. The same fate afflicted another superb video installation in the show: “Stasi City” (1997), by the British twins Jane and Louise Wilson, a devastating projection, onto four walls, of documentary and dream sequences made in the former headquarters of the East German secret police. Immersing us in beautifully managed redolences of a dreadful past, the piece both demonstrates the abundant creative resources of its medium and exhausts them. Subsequent work by the Wilsons, though impressively adept, has paled for want of equally gripping applications. The veteran American video artist Bill Viola is more consistent, if only because his work is unremittingly, emptily pretentious. His lavish “Stations” (1994) arrays five projected tapes of shapely naked people floating upside down underwater, the images reflected in polished black granite on the floor. There is a soundtrack of amplified, lugubrious water sounds. Viola is a master of special effects passed off as spiritual epiphanies. He strikes me as a latter-day avatar of grandly sentimental nineteenth-century academic painters. Does his current popularity justify his presence in this show? Why not? His prominence is undeniably a sign of our times, just not of time put to serious artistic use.
A test of true art is a real subject, as the variable success of Rist and the Wilsons and the futility of Viola indicate. Art itself—its structures and its uses—could seem a sufficient field of meaning, back when people still liked to believe that art’s development expressed an intrinsic, progressive logic. That was called modernism, and it is enshrined in the catechismal hanging of MOMA’s permanent collection, from Cézanne to Pollock. (The style parade obscures the fact that Cézanne and Pollock had real subjects, replete with philosophy and feeling, that emerged through and go beyond art.) As a lingering habit of the curatorial mind, modernist presumption shores up some otherwise defenseless work in “Out of Time.” Creed’s flickering room is one example. Another is a handsome kinetic sculpture, “+ & –” (1994-2004), by Mona Hatoum, a British star of the international-festival circuit. A metal bar rotates on a circular bed of sand, carving ridges in it with one side and smoothing them out with the other. Then, there’s “Drawing for Transient Rainbow” (2003), by the Chinese fireworks artist Cai Guo-Qiang: a big, Rorschach-like composition made by exploding piles of gunpowder between two thick sheets of paper. All of them amount to aesthetic demonstration projects that have no conceivable significance outside a gallery or museum—a dedicated art space—which they inhabit with the tender dependency of creatures in a petting zoo.
Warhol had a subject so vast that art space is incidental to it. His “Empire” is a masterpiece because it drew a hard line between past and future roles of art, and because this conceptual service is attended—when you witness, if not actively watch, the film—by steady sensations of self-evidence, beauty, and fathomless humor. Modern art had busied itself with adapting traditional creative mediums to unprecedented conditions. Like the minimalists, but with a vision hospitable to all manner of meaning, Warhol collapsed the contemplation of art into the self-conscious experience of existing, moment to moment, in a world where Rembrandts, say, and skyscrapers are just different objects of interest and distraction. What Warhol accomplished remains radical in ways that nothing in “Out of Time” transcends. He inaugurated the apparently incurable syndrome of the “contemporary” as one damned or blessed thing after another.
The best later works in the show completely assimilate Warhol’s lessons to independent ends. These may be modest in character, like Cady Noland’s “The American Trip” (1988), a sculptural installation that somehow evokes a dire moral emergency with steel pipe, American and pirate flags, a blind person’s cane, an oven rack, and metal and leather whatnots. What this has to do with time is unclear, but it feels indelibly timely. So does—and, I predict, indefinitely will—the Belgian painter Luc Tuymans’s recent “The Secretary of State” (2005), which renders a closeup photograph of Condoleezza Rice with a painterly sensitivity that overwhelms any opinionated response to the subject. Trying to understand it, your mind stammers. Tuymans has helped to restore painting’s prestige in new art after its battering not only by minimalist literal-mindedness but also, ironically, by Gerhard Richter, the most esteemed living painter. Richter’s emphatically elegiac repertoire of abstract and realist styles has seemed an irreversible, long goodbye to the once royal medium. His wonderful and terrible Baader-Meinhof pictures are a memento mori, for fevers of politics as well as vanities of art, that enthrones the one actually timeless reality: death. The good news is that knowing this proves conclusively that you’re alive.