This year's summer savannah of gallery group shows is the friskiest in memory. Nice art rules. Insouciance rages. The odd exception stands out as a party gaffe or an anachronism. Both 1980s-type domineering ambition and early political rancor have gone scarce. Most of our new artists sing for their suppers, fetchingly. They want us to like them.
Really to get the new mood, you have to be there (rather suddenly, as most shows close this weekend). It is an insinuating, lukewarm immersion. Its militant mildness beggars analysis. Overarching theory is out. Peculiar practice is in. The new credo could be an old one from the poet William Carlos Williams: "no ideas but in things." Meanwhile, it is no cinch to say what makes the things interesting, which in their very elusiveness they truly are.
If there is paladin of the moment who is not a painter -- resurgent painting being the moment's largest phenomenon -- it is Tom Friedman, who has a typically unassuming piece involving a gift-wrap ribbon in an aggressively unassuming show called "Humble County" at D'Amelio Terras (525 West 22nd Street, extended through Aug. 14th). Friedman does precise, loco things with demotic materials, such as carving a self-portrait bust from an aspirin tablet.
Friedman conveys that an artist's disciplined procedure plus a viewer's wondering and amused response completely answer all questions about an object's art status and value. Other artists may suggest as much, but none so nakedly, without any extra justification. It seems a gossamer argument, but it can break your mental fist if you try to knock it down, especially when your heart is in thrall to the artist's latest little prodigy.
Another work at Terras, by Tony Feher, strikes an apt, damp spark of art-historical reference. A corner partly enclosed by pink Styrofoam bricks recalls various 1960s works, with actual bricks or with logs of pink Styrofoam, by Carl Andre. The Andres were overbearing, fustian big deals. Feher embarrasses them retroactively. He testifies that, hey, bricks are cool, pink is pretty, and absolutely anybody can do the Minimalist trip.
This is the summer, all over town, of Yayoi Kusama, whose hysterically decorative and sexually fetishistic stuff from the 1950s and '60s seems to me, as it always has, basically tedious. But she makes sense as an avatar of today's hell-bentness to please. A typical new artwork tells us at a glance exactly what we are going to like about it, then delivers the goods with a smiley-faced bang.
Ingratiation uber alles makes even stranger historical bedfellows. How else to explain the current recycling of 1960s Color Field painting, as seen by vintage canvases by Kenneth Noland and Paul Feeley in Matthew Mark's share (with Pat Hearn) of a grand, two-gallery painting survey? ("Painting: Now and Forever Part I" at 522 West 22nd Street, through July 31). Product of a bankrupt Greenbergian theory of historically inevitable form, Color Field used to seem beyond dead. But today's perky perversity works miracles -- simply seizing on the zany mix, in that pompous work, of starchy reductivism and Kool Aid colors.
It's not, by the way, as if installations, video and photography have disappeared. All are robust, especially video. But they are definitely moving into other rooms, as formerly intermingled mediums undergo separating like petroleum in a refinery cracking tower. Heavier elements of theatrical display are drawn off at one level, mostly into curatorial-intensive institutional pipelines, while more volatile stuffs of painting and friendly objects get decanted elsewhere, mostly by dealers who are no longer defensive about being agents of cash-and-carry trade.
What's it all about? When there is a sea change in art production, it usually means that a new cohort of consumers has arrived. And so it is. Here come offspring of the Reagan Era's gross enrichment of the upper-middle class. These kids are freshly schooled, through perhaps less than indoctrinated in non-Republican values. They are skeptical of skepticism and put their money where their bliss is. They will call the shots in urbane culture for a while.
Painting is back because people never stopped liking it even when they thought they should. Iconoclastic moralism, following another of its periodically regular American benders, seems to be nodding off again.
We see the start of a cracking-tower effect in painting itself. Next door to Mark's salad of mostly high-impact types -- introduced by an inspired pairing of veteran Pop Surrealist John Wesley and postfeminist abstractionist Sue Williams -- is Hearn's array of lower-key painters (530 West 22nd Street, through July 31). It isn't a division of market strata, because Hearn's crew includes blue-chippers Brice Marden and the ever more impressive Terry Winters. But the two hangings hint at a newly operative scale from more public to more private, or from orchestral to chamber music.
As for object art -- including paintings that are more things than pictures -- that favorite mode of ideological brain games gravitates to a distinctly relaxed, default ideology. Call it mindstyles, a subsidiary of lifestyles. An all-female affair at Spencer Brownstone, "Sissybar" (39 Wooster Street, through August 1), presents art spun off from affably decadent, nicely naughty ways of millennial city girls. This is one of the most niftily focused of the summer shows.
Among the sissies, Julie Allen stands out for a skimpy, fantastically fragile two-piece outfit, Pink Slip and Tap Pants (1998), made from tinted Saran Wrap, wax paper, tape, and silver candy balls -- scintillant with sexiness, wistfulness and talent to burn. Nearby, Sally Leung's anatomically correct drawings of assholes and erect penises on lacy paper dollies call for a party that I have trouble imagining. It's bittersweet, at my age, to know that young folks are out there each night redefining fun. I'll find out about it in some magazine, I guess.
I've mentioned just four current gallery groups, but a rising tide of nimble sweetness is apparent everywhere. It does not quite lift all boats. It may sink some. Here and there, works by established '80s and early-'90s stars (except painters) abruptly look fatally old-fashioned because they're too self-serious, cerebral and freighted -- too little addressed to immediate experience. In present art, the race is to the swift, who travel light. How far they can go, we'll see.
PETER SCHJELDAHL is art critic for the Village Voice, where this article first appeared.