By Michele Leight
From the day I realized what art was, I loved
contemporary art, but back then I did not live in New York and
I was not surrounded by like-minded art lovers. I tried in vain
to explain Carl Andre's bricks to my father after he was almost
forcibly ejected from The Tate in London years ago by an irate
security guard because he sat down on what he thought was a "bench"
to read his Financial Times, immediately setting off a
The "bench" was an entirely contemporary,
twentieth century icon by Carl André, but it's seminal
signifance was totally lost on my father. When both the guard
and I tried to impress the fame and importance of the artwork
upon him he thought we were "pulling his leg," toying
with him. No sensible, famous institution would spend donor or
taxpayer money on such rubbish he told the guard, who by then
had a hand under my dear father's elbow. When the guard told him
how much the piece cost, my father was still defiant but impressed,
and hastily made for the exit of The Tate - with his newspaper.
The world had gone mad, he muttered, if a pile of metal was called
art. He went outside to sit on a 'proper bench' - his words -
on the Embankment, where 'he could read his paper in peace.'
MoMAs first temporary exhibition after its
reopening (see The City Review article)
in late 2004, "Contemporary Voices: Works from the UBS Art
Collection," is a show I would dearly love my fathers' "take"
on, because I like to think that the years - and several artists
in his family - have softened his vision of contemporary artists
and their work. The MoMA show is an easy sell for me, and I have
already seen it four times, with more visits planned. I am never
happier than when I am wedged in by dozens of energizing contemporary
icons - and in this case also many luscious artworks by artists
like Gerhard Richter, Howard Hodgkins and Jasper Johns. Consequently
"Contemporary Voices" is for me a momentary nirvana,
a place to spend time with the very best of creative friends,
accumulated for all too brief a time in one glorious museum in
my favorite city in the world.
Featuring works by contemporary artists, including
Ed Ruscha (b. 1937), Damien Hirst (b. 1965), Brice Marden (b.
1938), Susan Rothenberg (b. 1945), Bruce Nauman (b. 1941), Kiki
Smith (b. 1954), Frank Stella (b. 1936), Sarah Morris (b. 1967),
Gerhard Richter (b. 1932), Howard Hodgkin (b. 1932), Jasper Johns
(b. 1930), Anselm Kiefer (b. 1945), and Lorna Simpson (b. 1960)
to name only a few, as well as works by Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)
and Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997), the show offers both the confirmed
lover, or the avowed detractor, of contemporary art something
to feast the eye upon, deplore, or simply an opportunity to explore
the inner workings of artists living today, who must interpret
and tell stories about our world - by any standards, a monumental
In contemporary art especially, one sometimes
has to expect the ire of a viewing public that does not want to
deal with the reality that art made today by living artists is
no longer always about visual gorgeousness - in fact for many
artists, making art today cannot be about anything that does not
spring from their immediate reality, as they see it. This is nothing
new: today's artists often reflect the extremes and diversity
of their existence as did their creative ancestors. The result
today is not always art that is comforting, or beautiful to look
Carravaggio, Monet, Botticelli and Michelangelo
were considered renegades in their day; wayward, opinionated,
uncontrollable in the opinion of the establishment - in other
words hell bent on overturning the status quo. Now visitors flock
eagerly to galleries crammed with their luscious paintings in
carved, gilded frames or canvases dripping with waterlillies so
beautiful they make our world look downright shoddy. In their
day, the very same paintings were revolutionary art works that
challenged not only the might of the all powerful church but also
the patrons and the academies of the establishment that financed
Making the show even more fascinating for those
who are curious, the exhibition catalogue zeroes in - via the
savvy questions posed to several artists by curator Anne Tempkin
- on the inner landscapes and working methods of several contemporary
artist working today. For anyone who is an artist or sculptor
- or longs to be one - there is much that will sound familiar.
The cover of the catalogue is a work by Vija Celmins (b. 1938),
a gorgeous constellation entitled, "Night Sky #5," oil
on canvas mounted on wood panel, 31 by 37 1/2 inches, 1992, that
is a partial and promised gift of UBS to the Museum of Modern
Art. Here is what Vija Celmins tells Anne Tempkin about her early
forays into the inner world of the artist:
"I can't remember when I didn't want to
be an artist. When I was really little I had a sense of wonder
about drawing things, that you could have them, you know - you
want a dog, you draw a dog. There was a kind of a magic there.
And then I guess to be able to go to your room and draw was a
refuge from grow-ups. A lot of kids draw, but usually they stop
when they're somewhere about eight or nine and they start going
into other things. I kept drawing...."
The world is a better place as a result, and
I covet Vija Celmins constellations, which take drawing far beyond
anything we have ever considered it to be. She has turned the
act of drawing the universal, all-encompassing night sky, the
roof of our world which is always up there and which we take for
granted, into extraordinary and strangely comforting imagery.
Constellations, lunar landscapes and planets usually seem cold
and distant and, well, scientific. These drawings are exceptionally
Ms. Celmins was originally from Latvia, and
now lives in America, and many of the artists in this show are
from other countries who either live here or elsewhere, but by
virtue of being contemporary artists, the borders and boundaries
overlap and interconnect as does living in our modern world of
incessant movement, communications and globalization. This interconnectedness
- and creative interdependence - comes through quite forcibly
in "Contemporary Voices." There is a wonderfully luscious
grouping by colorists like Willem De Koonig, Howard Hodgkin and
Jasper Johns in one gallery and an unleashing of expressiveness
in works by Gerhard Richter (see The City
Review article on a Richter exhibition), Anselm Kiefer and
Lucian Freud in another.
These artists live and work in different countries,
but they speak the same visual language, a language the viewer
can relate to because it reflects the diverse world we live in
today. The common denominator is the desire to communicate visually
with a viewing public, most of whom stop by museums and galleries
to grab a little beauty, or peace, enlightenment, or stimulation,
in the midst of a habitual round of daily routines and obligations.
The work of all these different artists converge in New York -
historically a place associated with openness to new ideas and
individual expression. From the beginning, New York City has opened
its doors to hundreds of artists who were unable to make their
art, or were even persecuted for doing so in their own countries.
Perhaps one of the most disorienting juxtapositions
in "Contemporary Voices" is the gallery featuring Lorna
Simpson's "Untitled," a fiendishly clever 1996 photographic
"swipe" at the stereotyping of women in the corporate
world, retail and advertizing, and Cindy Sherman's "# 122A,"
1983; here the rose colored glasses are thrown off - Sherman-style
- as she takes her photograph of the fashion world's, and
inevitably the fashion photographer's, portrayal of contemporary
womanhood. In this photograph a grotesquely askew platinum blond
wig smothers a woman's face - her features are artlessly and deliberately
obliterated from view. This is anywoman and everywoman as the
fashion world sees her. This is about a game that involves selling
the advertiser's creations - the woman herself is incidental.
Untill fairly recently, fashion models were
not even named in the credits of the top fashion magazines. They
were anonymous, gorgeous "things," decorative dolls
for the world to gawk at. Now they have names, an identity, they
are somebody, so we have moved on. Perhaps artists like Cindy
Sherman and Lorna Simpson had something to do with that evolution.
Two young women in the gallery giggled over the Sherman "wig"
photograph on my last visit; their wry laughter reflected acknowledgement,
recognition and exposure.
Some do not react positively to Cindy Sherman's
photographs - or Lorna Simpson's photographic exposes - but these
female artists resonate in my world, most especially Lorna Simpson,
who paid her dues as a corporate executive in the days before
Ally McBeal's more relaxed, mini-skirted dress code for women
in the workplace. Simpson had to wear a female "suit, shirt
and tie," skirt demurely slightly above the knee, dark colors
with the regulation footgear and briefcase. In order to function
in a man's world and workplace in the '80s, the working woman
had to mimic and reflect the working man. Fortunately we have
moved on, and Simpson's interview with Anne Tempkin is one of
the most revealing exchanges in the exhibition catalogue. Simpson
and Sherman expose the more dangerous and destructive side of
female beauty and vulnerability; they remind us how both these
qualities work for and against women.
Well beauty, of course, has its place as well
- we all love beauty - and Damien Hirst, who is represented in
the show with one of his "Spot" and one of his "Spin"
paintings, has this to say:
"I'd say that the Spot Paintings can compete
with Richter's chart painting, but the Spin Paintings can't. They're
great on a different level, though, I think there's a need for
them. The world's an ugly place; you need to brighten it up whenever
For those who associate Damien Hirst with rows
of enormous dots in different colors or neatly marshalled boxes
of medications on pristine surgical shelves - or truly gruesome
vitrines of dead animals - it is interesting to confront the aesthete
imbedded in this "enfant terrible" of contemporary art.
He cuts through the controversy and media hype. He needs beauty
to survive, like the rest of us ordinary mortals. Typically, his
Spin Painting in the exhibition certainly has the most inventive
title of any work in the exhibition: "Beautiful Cyclonic
Bleeding Slashing Hurricane Dippy Cowards Painting." Of course,
this is a tongue in cheek jab at the self-conscious titles many
art works from the past have been encumbered with. Ah, what a
"Contemporary Voices" features 64
contemporary art works by European and American artists of the
last 45 years donated to the Museum of Modern Art by Financial
Services Firm UBS, and works on loan from the UBS Art Collection.
The works in the MoMA exhibition are drawn from
the former PaineWebber Art Collection, which was assembled under
the leadership of former PaineWebber Chairman and CEO Donald B.
Marron, a trustee, former President, and current Vice Chairman
of MoMA as well as a member of the UBS Art Collection Advisory
At the opening press preview of the show, Donald
"We began this collection in a modest
way with a single vision, to buy the best representations of an
artist's work and to share it with out employees.....we started
slowly, first with prints, then paintings," adding: "Art
is in the eye of the beholder."
This is especially true of contemporary art,
which always draws hot commentary from detractors. Mr. Marron
humorously described being given a private tour around the galleries
by Anne Tempkin, Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the MoMA
with his two very small children running around the galleries.
"They didn't think much of the paintings,"
he said with a wry smile.
I had slightly better luck with my youngest
nephew Ben in London, who was around 8 at the time of our conversation.
I usually cover several art shows in a week when I arrive in London
and young Ben was turning the pages of one of the many catalogues
I had lugged home to my hospitable resident family.
"Ben doesn't know the first thing about
art," said my brother, needling his son.
"I do too know about art," responded
Ben, pulling himself up to his full height:
"I know Damien Hirst: he does spots and
dead sheep and cows heads in water in see-through boxes. I saw
them on the news. He's weird but I like him."
"Weird" got the attention of one
very young person, and I was amazed to find myself in conversation
about a contemporary artist I have always admired with a child
who appears to play soccer from dawn to dusk, at which point video
games take over. Damien Hirst had somehow managed to penetrate
the phalanxes of mesmerizing distractions now available to kids
around the globe: video and computer games, DVDs, TV, movies loaded
with special effects and animated films as wonderful as "Finding
Nemo" and "The Incredibles." And in this case soccer
Young Ben had also heard of Gilbert & George
he added quickly, because "they were on the news being art
themselves," he offered enthusiastically, not wishing to
lose my blatant admiration of his knowledge. Gilbert & George
are not represented in this show.
Damien Hirst and Gilbert & George had entered
the consciousness of my very young nephew via TV images and the
evening news. It must be said here that Damien Hirst has been
so controversial in the past that he frequently made the evening
news in Britain. Like many young artists, perhaps Hirst was well
aware of the advertising potential of controversy. Botticelli
and Carravaggio would probably swagger about on TV and and deliberately
aggravate interviewers if they were alive today, but I sense that
Leonardo da Vinci might not grant interviews. Young Ben had not
heard of Carravagio although he said if he was a soccer star he
would definitely be on the news.
Hopefully the future will include many more
young humans like Ben who can evaluate a soccer player's dribbling
ability (a ball), the worlds best ice-cream and Damien Hirst's
art in five minutes flat. Art should be in the line-up, no matter
what, because it is as essential as food and sport and all the
other great essentials of life. At least that is my view: if it
doesn't start young and fresh and at a time when the mind is more
receptive, it might never flourish.
Ideally, children should be around art when
they are very young - especially the art of their time - and while
they might at first react negatively or fearfully, the time may
come when that will change. Art is in the eye of the beholder,
and connecting with art often happens when the viewer is unaware
of it. It suddenly seeps in one day after many months or years
of not really "seeing." It is so important that MoMA
offers free admission to children under the age of 16. The young
will enjoy "Contemporary Voices," an exuberant and expansive
show - with serious undertones, like all great art. And even if
some kids don't "get" the art today, who knows what
the memory of shows like this will do to change their minds and
win them over in the future. I would have given anything to see
this show at the age of 12.
Like my nephew Ben, I was drawn to Damien Hirst's
spots the first time I saw them, many years ago in a London gallery
- not because they were pretty or decorative but because they
were disorienting after you looked at them for a while.
The disorientation made me think about how I was seeing.
His macabre animal heads in plexiglass cases made me think about
life and death, severance, disconnectedness, and Leonardo dissecting
bodies in the morgue many years ago - now why did Damien Hirst's
dead animals make me think of Leonardo da Vinci? And on it goes;
contemporary art is an unexplored and fascinating cave for those
who venture within.
Then there were the amazing Hirst assemblages
of prescription medications, the endless darn spots and dots and
the Spin Paintings that reminded me of my very best kindergarden
art efforts. I still love the sheer gorgeousness, the vibrant
electric colors of the Spin Paintings - they are a celebration
of life, as are Richter's mouth-watering abstracts.
But this guy Damien was playing with my head,
my life, our society, all of us I told myself, annoyed at him
for upsetting the way I looked at things. Georgeousness one minute
and dead animals the next: he was poking fun of all of us and
the way we go about thinking we are in control while he turns
everyday things like medicines into art that could kill a person
in few hours if they were taken in any quantity - art as bottles
and cartons and canisters crammed with potentially deadly or life-saving
As with my nephew Ben, Damien Hirst got my
attention many years ago when I was young, and he still has it:
he has one Spin and one Spot Painting in the current show, and
they stand the test of time. After seeing "Cotemporary Voices"
I now adore the work of Vija Celmins and Ed Ruscha even more;
with four works, Ruscha is the most comprehensively represented
artist in the show.
Contemporary art is either loved passionately
or defiantly negated - it is not for those whose minds have been
vacuum-sealed. At its most convincing, it opens up clogged minds
and new worlds are revealed to the viewer. Contemporary art generates
strong opinions because it is subjective; unlike Renaissance or
Mannerist art, chronology in contemporary art may appear to be
irrelevant or lost in amorphous, seemingly ridiculous, obscurely
universal and often hidden concepts. More than any other genre
there is no prescribed formula for appreciation, or dislike: therefore
it makes some people uncomfortable. There are no requirements,
no rules, and that can open up a world of infinite and unconstricted
Certainty comforts most people, like a familiar
tune, or New York cabs being yellow. The rugged individualism
of many contemporary artists is sometimes incorrectly interpreted
as an arrogant "take-it-or leave-it attitude," or a
perverse need to offend. I have watched the bewildered, adoring
and even outraged faces at contemporary art galleries all over
the world and note that people are rarely passive around it. Either
way they react to it. And that is a good thing as Martha
I have always appreciated contemporary art
because it rarely fails to deliver a roller coaster ride
through the myriad facets of the world around me - the depths,
shallowness, towering achievements, beauty, atrocities - and oh
the hypocricies! It does not hesitate to reveal the treacherous
parallel bars and soaring heights of contemporary civilization.
For many art lovers, contemporary art is not easy to absorb in
one swallow. It is unsparing and extremely demanding of the viewer.
Whatever else, contemporary art invariably
serves up something to chew on, something inexplicable that nags
at you when you least expect it, or mystifies, beautifies and
haunts. It is capable of being both poetic, amazing and barbaric
in a single canvas, like Anselm Keifer's "A.D.," shown
at the top of this article. It is one of three Kiefers in the
exhibition. I have always been drawn to Kiefer and have seen many
of his paintings in world-class collections: this monochromatic
work - chalk and entrails (yes entrails) on treated lead - is
so quiet and haunting it lingers in the far corners of the imagination
- to return front and center when you need to bring it closer.
The ingredients are typically "weird," but they work.
I must add here that I have dozens of friends who love art who
would disagree with me 100% on this one - but that's okay. It's
The assemblage of paintings and sculptures
in "Contemporary Voices" cause a multitude of emotions
in a few moments as the viewer progresses from room to room, like
watching the evening news: without a rational explanation, there
are evocations of the 20-year-old soldiers dying in Iraq, small
babies receiving new hearts through ground-breaking surgery, individuals
offering extraordinary acts of bravery, or kindness to complete
strangers with no thought of self; the extravagance and consumerism
of some followed by the unimaginable starvation and suffering
of others: the full buffet of life made visible in the language
of contemporary art.
There is a wonderfully suggestive, all-American,
unique 1962 silkscreen by Warhol called "Cagney," depicting
Jimmy Cagney holding a pint-sized revolver, while out of the left
hand corner of the image there looms the long barrel of an automatic
weapon, pointing in his direction. It is always good to be face-to-face
with a Warhol; there is usually a gun or an electric chair somewhere,
to remind us of how barbaric we are capable of being. Warhol was
never one to comfort the viewer; even his flowers are floridly
Not far away from Mr. Cagney is a demure, smiling
lady in a sweet 60s sundress like my mother used to wear when
I was young - did women smile differently back then, or is it
me? She is "Helen," painted in 1963, transcribed by
Gerhard Richter from a photograph to oil and graphite on canvas.
She is like all fantasy mothers from the 60s and I am suddenly
nostalgic for my youth. My generation of mothers will go down
in history dressed in black, gray and more black; and do we ever
smile like that?
"Contemporary Voices" is not art
as a comfortable armchair, as Matisse would have it; this show
has none of the visual or chronological certainty that may be
found in many of MoMA's other galleries, but it rings true of
my time, my world. Never in the history of humankind has so much
come at us in the form of images: diverse layers of images pile
up on us every day, like "Untitled," 1958, a wispy collage
by Robert Rauschenberg (b. 1925) featured in the show.
Contemporary life's technological underpinnings,
its human and mechanical interconnections and inescapable repetitions
and patterns are reflected in Brice Marden's swirling "Chinese
Dancing," 1964-96. That is how his work is interpreted by
me. These are subjective evaluations and responses - freely
given to the viewer to interpret. We are more free now to interpret
art than at any time in the history of art. Some nations still
do not give their citizens that freedom of choice or even artistic
expression. Jasper Johns's flag paintings represent one thing
to me, but there are ten other interpretations of his work that
many experts would consider to be far more intellectual than mine.
That's OK. There are no iron clad rules to appreciating or disliking
contemporary art - and that's the beauty of it.
In terms of square footage, however, Susan
Rothenberg's monumental and glorious "188.8.131.52.5.6,"
1988 steals the show. It only gains by its size, giving the artist
all the room in the world to work her magic. Images can have enormous
impact, and anyone who sees "Contemporary Voices" will
take away some memory, association or experience that will linger.
For sheer poetry in color, seek out Howard
Hodgkin's "Bed In Venice," 1984-88, Francesco Clemente's
"Salvation," 1987 and Gerhard Richter's "Confus,"
Paintings like these make one long for the
paintbox and the brushes - and for those tubes filled with luscious
pigments of many, many colors.
The show includes one of the
late abstractions by Willem de Kooning (see The City Review article on a de Kooning exhibition), "Untitled III," which
explodes with the seductive joy of paint.
Frank Stella is an interesting
example of an artist whose career has evolved from strict, formal
minimalism to riotous, curvaceous colorful, painterly sculpture,
as seen above in "Wheelbarrow, (B#3, 2X).
As an avowed Dan Flavin fan,
here is a wonderful sculptural "light show" for the
last curtain call of "Contemporary Voices: " "Monument'
for V. Tatlin 1."