Not since its obsession with Pavel Tchelitchev in the 1930s has the Museum of Modern Art exhibited, in depth, an artist of such irredeemable mediocrity as Marlene Dumas. The 150 pieces spread across two floors are so devoid of true color, pictorial skill, new ideas and pleasure of any kind, positive or negative, that I found myself, at the opening Wednesday night, desperately searching the crowd, whose faces, as on a bad acid trip, seemed joined to Dumas’ bulbous visages, for things of visual interest.
MoMA curator Ann Temkin, whose next smile will be her first, clutched a giant cadmium red handbag, as if for dear life. New Museum czarina Lisa Phillips, cozying up to Chuck Close, wore a pumpkin orange shift, whose brightness subsumed Dumas’ bleakness. Bubbly painter Ena Swansea tried to persuade me that Marlene’s painting from photographs "makes us look at pictorial representation for what it really is," but I wasn’t buying. Glenn Lowry, economic anxiety oozing from every pore, has grown so anorexically thin that you could wrap the fingers of one hand around his waist. Alex Katz, accompanied by regal bride Ada in a burnt umber dress, gave Dumas the thumbs up. Artists are always polite about each other at these big museum fetes -- after all, it could be them up on those walls.
Henry Kravis continued his practice, at MoMA openings, of minutely examining every work, up close. He did not appreciate it when I remarked that every Dumas face on show "looked like Henry Kravis." Artist James Welling was present, as a general air of solemnity reigned. Don’t people know how to look for themselves anymore?
The Dumas method is simple: She borrowed Francesco Clemente’s overused gouache technique and perved it up. Her subjects are burnished to dullness by her pathetic brush handling. There are some rear shots of masturbation, a blowzy self-portrait, the groups of schoolmates and bridesmaids, in which she throws in a freaky grin or stern look for variety. Every six paintings or so, Dumas throws in a streak of color. Her cat probably got into the paint jar and cruised across the canvas, and a lazy Dumas couldn’t be bothered to change it.
For that is the operative word for Marlene Dumas: She is lazy. There are some retarded references to Richter’s Baader-Meinhof pictures, to Francis Bacon’s bodies, to Soutine’s meat. As she draws a circle, throws a couple of dots in for eyes, then pulls the sponge of out of the toilet to swipe away a couple of times for "color," Dumas leaves the indubitable impression that she is just a heavy load waiting to get tossed off the back of the freight car. Now that the art world economy is tanking, her work will realize its true value: nothing.
Marlene Dumas, "Measuring Your Own Grave," Dec. 14, 2008-Feb. 16, 2009, at the Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10019
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).