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Contemporary Voices: Works from the UBS Art Collection

Museum of Modern Art

February 4 to April 25, 2005

"A. D." by Anselm Kiefer

"A.D.," by Anselm Kiefer, chalk and entrails on treated lead, 7 feet 11 1/8 by 51 7/8 inches by 1 5/8 inches, 1988, gift of UBS to MoMA

Photographs by Michele Leight (except for the Celmins drawing and the two Hirst paintings that are reproduced from the exhibition catalogue)

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 loud alarm.

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 task.

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 at.

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 their creativity.

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...."

"Drawing Saturn" by Celmins

"Drawing Saturn," by Vija Celmins, graphite on acrylic ground on paper, 14 by 11 inches, 1982, The UBS Art Collection

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 beautiful.

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.

"Albumin, Human, Glycated" by Hirst

"Albumin, Human, Glycated," by Damien Hirst, oil-based household paint and synthetic polymer on canvas, 7 feet by 9 feet 8 inches, 1992, The UBS Art Collection

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:

"Beautiful Cyclonic Bleeding Slashing Hurricane Dippy  Cowards Painting" by Hirst

"Beautiful Cyclonic Bleeding Slashing Hurricane Dippy Cowards Painting," by Damien Hirst, household paint on canvas, 7 feet in diamter, 1992, The UBS Art Collection

"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 you can."

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 Damien!

"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 Board.

Mark B. Sutton, Chairman &CEO UBS Wealth Management; Donald B. Marron, Vice Chairman, Board of Trustees, The Museum of Modern Art, Chairman and CEO Lightyear Capital; Anne Tempkin, Department of Painting and Sculpture, The Museum of Modern Art; Glenn D. Lowry, Director, The Museum of Modern Art. Roy Lichtenstein's "Post Visual," oil on canvas, 96 by 80 inches, 1993, The UBS Art Collection, is in the background.

"Post Visual" by Lichtenstein

"Post Visual," by Roy Lichtenstein, oil on canvas, 96 by 80 inches, 1993, The UBS Art Collection

At the opening press preview of the show, Donald Marron said:

"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.

Donald Marron talks with the press

Donald Marron talks with press

"They didn't think much of the paintings," he said with a wry smile.

"Midtown-Paine Webber (with Neon)" by Sarah Morris

"Midtown - Paine Webber (with Neon)," by Sarah Morris, gloss household paint on canvas, 72 inches square, 1998, The UBS Collection

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 as well.

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 pills?

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 possibilities.

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 would say.

"In The Studio" by Guston

"In The Studio," by Philip Guston, oil on canvas, 82 by 79 inches, 1975, Partial and promised gift of UBS to MoMa

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.

"Read/Reap" by Bruce Nauman

"Read/Reap," by Bruce Nauman, colored chalks, masking tape, acrylic wash and paper collage on paper, 71 by 70 3/8 inches, 1983, partial and promised gift of UBS to MoMa

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 allowed.

"Identical Twins" by Kiki Smith

"Identical Twins," by Kiki Smith, cast aluminum with metal cords in four parts, 1990, The UBS Art Collection

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 ominous.

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?

"Grey Moon" by Tony Cragg

"Grey Moon," by Tony Cragg, gray and white plastic found objects, 86 5/8 by 52 inches, 1985, partial and promised gift of UBS to MoMA

"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.

"Chinese Dancing" by Brice Marden

"Chinese Dancing," by Brice Marden, oil on canvas, 60 by 108 inches, 1994-6, The UBS Art Collection

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.

 

"1,2,3,4,5,6" by Susan Rothenberg

"1,2,3,4,5,6," by Susan Rothenberg, oil on wood, six panels, each 10 feet six 3/4 inches by 46 1/8 inches, 1988, partial and promised gift of UBS to MoMa

Detail of "1,2,3,4,5,6" by Rothennberg

Detail of "1,2,3,4,5,6," by Susan Rothenberg

In terms of square footage, however, Susan Rothenberg's monumental and glorious "1.2.3.4.5.6," 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.

"In Bed in Venice" by Howard Hodgkin

"In Bed in Venice," by Howard Hodgkin, oil on wood in artist's frame, 1984-8, The UBS Art Collection

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," 1986.

"Untitled" by Johns

"Untitled," by Jasper Johns. paintstick on tracing paper, 21 1/2 by 322 1/8 inches, 1981, partial and promised gift of UBS to MoMA

Paintings like these make one long for the paintbox and the brushes - and for those tubes filled with luscious pigments of many, many colors.

"Untitled III" by de Kooning

"Untitled III," by Willem de Kooning, oil on canvas, 80 by 70 inches, 1982, partial and promised gift of UBS to MoMA

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.

Wheelbarrow by Frank Stella

"Wheelbarrow, (B#3, 2X)," by Frank Stella," mixed mediums on cast aluminum, 108 1/4 by 109 3/4 by 43 3/8 inches, 1988, partial and promised gift of UBS to MoMA

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).

'Monument' for V Tatlin I, by Flavin

"'Monument' for V. Tatlin 1," by Dan Flavin, fluorescent lights and metal fixtures, 8 feet 23 1/8 inches by 4 1/2 inches, 1964, gift of UBS to MoMA

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."

"Harvest of Innocence," a book on coping with risky behavior by Michele Leight, is at www.amazon.com and at www.ashraya-ny.org

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