As its last major exhibition of the 20th
Century and as a prelude to a major expansion, the Museum of Modern
Art has staged a huge, three-part show culled entirely from its
own collections that opened in stages in late 1999.
The handsome exhibition differs dramatically
from the museums traditional installations in that it is
not chronologically organized, but thematically. It has three
themes people, places, things that are meant to
be starting points for a re-examination of its collections.
In many instances, objects are juxtaposed
brilliantly. In some, however, the relationships are very forced.
The opportunity to see long-familiar
masterpieces in new settings, however, is definitely refreshing
and the exhibition is a must for all art-lovers especially since
it includes several very important recent acquisitions and a couple
of dazzling special installations.
The exhibition includes many of the museums
most celebrated paintings and sculptures, of course, but also
many photographs, architectural works and industrial objects as
well as film stills, reflecting the museums historic and
pioneering interests. The exhibit has many computer installations
available in many of the galleries and has published a handsome
and provocative catalogue ($29.95, soft-cover).
In addition to the exhibition catalogue,
the museum has just published a handsome, new, pocket-size guide-book
("MOMA Highlights," $18.95) that showcases 350 works
of art in its collections that illustrates many works not in the
exhibition, especially contemporary works, although there is some
By Carter B. Horsley
This show is the first part of the three-section
ModernStarts exhibition, each of which occupies a separate floor.
The three exhibitions do not open simultaneously but do run concurrently
for most of the length of the shows.
Many of the museum's most celebrated paintings
and sculptures are in this part of the exhibition such as Picasso's
"Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," 1907, "Student with
Pipe," 1914, and "Three Musicians," 1921, Henri
Matisse's "Dance (First Version)," 1909, and Auguste
Rodin's "Monument to Balzac," 1898. But there are also
some surprising and fine more recent acquisitions that many people
may not yet be familiar with such as Paul Signac's "Portrait
of M. Félix Fénélon," 1890.
Perhaps the most startling and dramatic aspect
of each of these shows is the huge installation to each exhibition.
In this show, Sol LeWitt's "On black walls all to-part combinations
of white arcs from corners and sides and while straight not straight,
and broken lines," is an enormous "wall drawing"
that was first realized in 1975 and which must be recreated for
each showing. It consists of 190 combinations of four types of
line executed in white crayon over a black grid on black walls.
"Despite the logical method of defining
the drawing's properties the experience of viewing the work is
one of deep engagement and visual enjoyment. In the current exhibition
it is hoped that the viewer who encounters the drawing's grand
scale and its sweeping arcs and lines on both physical and perceptual
levels will find correlations to the corporeal," the museum's
catalogue, which incorporates material on all three sections of
the exhibition, states.
While much of LeWitt's oeuvre consists of simplistic
and plain grid sculptures that conjure small, antiseptic jungle
gyms, this "wall drawing" is awesome in conception,
even though it owes a strong debt of inspiration to John Cage,
Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Brian Eno, musicians whose experiments
with chance and with repetition are quintessential hallmarks of
the culture of the second half of the 20th Century.
"Along with his thee-dimensional structures,
LeWitt developed the wall drawings under the rubric of conceptual
art and the search for an alternative to painting. He maintained
that the idea, as formulated in language, took precedence over
the completed artwork: 'The wall is understood as an absolute
space, just like the pages of a book. One is public, the other
private. Lines, points, figures, etc. are located in these spaces
by the use of words. The words are the paths to understanding
of the location of the points.' In this sense, he has often been
compared to a composer who creates a score for others to perform.
Of the wall drawings, LeWitt has said: 'I think of them like a
musical score that could be redone by any or some people,'"
Mary Chan wrote in her catalogue remarks on the LeWitt installation.
The catalogue's statement that the museum hopes
visitor's encounters with the work "will find correlations
to the corporeal" is quite a stretch and reflects the sad
fact that some of the thematic exercises in this "new"
exhibition theory are not only not successful, but absurd. The
LeWitt work is absolutely stunning and perfectly suited to line
the bathroom of a gargantuan and is really worthy of permanent
installation despite its immense dimensions. It is the type of
work whose encompassing and controlling nature provides great
visual fodder and viewers can, in hallucinatory fashion, immerse
themselves in it and also instantly visualize it in different
colors and patterns and in its abstraction provides them with
a very meaningful sense of the infinite. This is wonderful abstraction,
but it is doubtful that many visitors "will find correlations
to the corporeal" and it would have been much more appropriate
as the introduction to the "Places" section (whose magnificent
introductory installation would also have been much more appropriate
for the "Things" section).
As interesting as the LeWitt work is, and the
museum certainly deserves plaudits for showing it, the one work
of art that truly stands out in this part of the exhibition is
"The Moroccans," shown above, by Henri Matisse.
Abstractions that lead to the infinite often
lose some of their power/steam as their general/generic nature
induces a mental fatigue for some viewers who get lost in their
degenerational reveries on the work. This is not to suggest that
such works are not wonderful, but they need isolation and meditation
and freedom from competition from other works. LeWitt's work,
for example, is overpowering and can only exist happily in a miminalist
A touch of specificity and mystery can be more
easily accommodated and assimilated and Matisse's great painting
enables one to focus more clearly even if that focus does not
always unravel its secrets or mystery. Moreover, it is a lot more
colorful and beautiful.
The catalogue notes that "The Moroccans"
is "a geographically distant memory, since the work is a
compilation of his impressions of Morocco, which he had last visited
two years earlier." "Those recollected images are set
down as three distinct areas. The black field serves both to connect
and separate these episodes. In the upper left, we see a balcony
with an abstracted bouquet of flowers and, behind it, a domed
mosque. Below this, four yellow melons with green leaves lie on
a gridded ground. To the right on the pink field, a figure wearing
a turban crouches or sits with his back to the viewer. To his
left, another turbaned figure is seen from above. The linear form
in the top right corner of the painting may describe another figure,
with bent legs beneath a draped robe."
The free brochure that accompanies the exhibition
provides some more information: "In Henri Matisse's The
Moroccans, it is not certain whether we are expected to read
the black as shadow, but looking at this picture is a bit like
puzzling out objects wrapped in shadow in the world....This is
a very disjunctive story about a Moroccan scene that is only put
together by jumping visually from one part of the painting to
the next. Instead of making a picture of a story and then asking
us to imagine it coming to life, Matisse asks us to participate
in the creation of the story by making the story come to life
in the time of our viewing."
It is highly doubtful that most people will
catch on to this "story" by merely looking at this painting
without a label, or catalogue, though perhaps some will glimpse
the generalized form of a mosque in the upper left corner, and
fewer still will interpret the circular forms with blue and white
stripes as flowers. While curators and the like might be absorbed
with the notion of "story," what always matters most
is the final product, the art work itself, and here Matisse has
created a visual object of astounding strength because of the
bold black and the mysterious but very vigorous and dynamic and
splendid composition. There is a great deal going on here, in
simple, abstract forms, but with a high degree of painterliness.
With its white grid lines in the lower left
corner, this is a fitting pendant to the LeWitt and one wishes
that they could have been shown along together in one huge room
on opposite walls. Matisse's image would most likely come off
better, its concentration of forms and askew geometry have more
depth than LeWitt's. Matisse is, of course, known for the "flat"
forms of color that he uses to great decorative effect, but here
he offers a rather opened "Cubism" that is less obscure
in composition, though not necessarily in meaning.
MOMA has many great paintings by Matisse, such
as "Variation on a Still Life by de Heem," oil on canvas
71 1/4 87 inches, 1915, gift and bequest of Florence W. Schoenborn
and Samuel A. Marx, that might also be included in such a room.
It is part of the "Places" exhibition and its a dense
rich work that is a bit too crowded in comparison with "The
Moroccans" but a very colorful explosion of forms. While
it is not including the "Things" show is a bit inexplicable.
Another major Matisse "Piano Lesson," oil on canvas,
96 1/2 by 83 3/4 inches, 1916, is also included in "Places"
although it would be more appropriate in "People."
Despite such glaring curatorial lapses, or
misreadings, each of the sections does include some meaningful
and fascinating works. Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas's "At
the Milliner's," pastel on paper, 27 5/8 by 27 1/4 inches,
circa 1882, gift of Mr. and Mrs. David A. Levy is a rather strange
portrait of Mary Cassatt, the great American impressionist painter.
She is seen trying on a hat but most of her body is obscured by
an angled chair with a very vibrant pale-blue frame that is the
most dominant feature of the work. Moreover, the partial figure
of a shopworker proferring two other hats occupies the left side
of the painting. "Longer looking will deliver the image of
a second figure and allow us to disentangle a story about a customer
and a shop assistant. Yet the ribbon-like shapes that loop around
the composition seem to circulate quickly and endlessly, as if
Degas wanted to prevent us from stopping to look for long at any
single area. Like Matisse, Degas delays the delivery of the meaning,
only he does so by increasing the velocity of the compositional
circulation,' the brochure rather breathlessly states. We know
from his great pictures of laundry workers that Degas had sympathy
for workers and yet Cassatt is too important a personage in his
circle to be slightly. Is there a clear-cut message here? Probably
not. Perhaps it began as a study and the artist eventually wanted
to expand it to a larger composition. It is beautifully painted,
of course, but the blue chair frame is rather disconcerting. It
is not just an oriental rug draped over a table in a Vermeer painting
for decorative effect. If the shop is not so crowded as to permit
an empty chair, then why not show Cassatt more fully? As it is,
it is an interesting study but not a masterpiece and theorizing
about delaying "the delivery of meaning" is most interesting
as a subject but perhaps not relevant here.
On the other hand Edouard Vuillard's "Mother
and Sister of the Artist," oil on canvas 18 1/4 by 22 1/4
inches, circa 1893, Gift of Mrs. Saidie A. May, is a marvelous
work and good example of some of the curatorial thinking in this
"In the period 1880-1920 the role of the
figure in pictorial art changed in important ways, as the more
experimental artists began to think less about representing the
figure than about composing with the figure. That is, there was
a big shift from interest in the depiction of features and postures
to interest in figural shapes as elements of pictorial composition.
Interest in the language of the body gave way to interest in the
language of figural composition. Thus, new attention was paid
to the relationship of the figure and the surface of ground of
a work, using that relationship as a way of conveying meaning.
For example, in Edouard Vuillard's painting of his mother and
sister his sister pressed up against the wall at the left is not
easily separable from the pattern of the wallpaper - an effect
that accentuates the self-effacement of her pose as she bends
her head shyly in greeting just getting into the space of the
painting. In contrast, Mme Vuillard is a bold, confident presence
and is contrasted against the patterned interior. Camouflaging
the one figure within the variegated background and therefore
making it harder to see, also serves to make the figure more of
a compositional element a device that helps unify the composition.
Making the other figure a flat pattern contrasted against the
background makes it seem as much an abstracted shape as a human
figure; this device, too, was one used for compositional reasons,
as painters began to think of their paintings as composition of
flat shapes. The use of pictorial elements abstracted from gestures
and postures and not gestures and postures themselves, led to
the deconstruction of the figure in works of this period,"
the brochure maintained, correctly.
While the Vuillard in the exhibition is very
nice, it is also rather minor in his oeuvre and he is, in fact,
under-represented in the museum's collections as he is a fabulous
painter, though somewhat inconsistent.
Marcel Duchamp, on the other hand, was no where
near as prolific as Picasso, Matisse, Degas and Vuillard, but
his work is consistently spectacular and quite amazing.
"Thus," the brochure continued "Marcel
Duchamp's painting The Passage from Virgin to Bride comprises
a compilation of abstracted volumes and outlined convex and concave
shapes that allude to, without exactly describing parts of the
body. Its title suggests that he intended to show not so much
a figure as a figural transformation, and the work may be interpreted
as an evocation of a figure in movement as well as a view into
its skeletal structure. Both the Vuillard and the Duchamp, in
their different ways, require us to decipher visual narratives
that are not immediately apparent. Neither work is deciperhable
without reading its title. And there is unlikely to be agreement
about what either work means, even with the help of its title.
This is one of the results of composing with the figure. It is
enough to make us wonder whether their actual aim of such works
includes asking us to decide for ourselves what they might mean."
The painting obviously is not dissimilar to
Duchamp's fabled "Nude Descending a Staircase," but
here the image is far more complex and less "decipherable."
Both paintings, however, rise far above decipherability and are
particularly resonant at the end of the 20th Century when special
effects in horror movies make for a general culture far more alert
and receptive to organic forms of complexity. "The Passage
from Virgin to Bride" is a very great painting especially
given the supremacy of Cubism when it was painted. Here, Duchamp
has taken a very limited palette but accented it with bright highlights
and composed it in such a way as to provide much more depth than
typical Cubist works and it is much softer and more painterly.
Rather than make the viewer yearn for more generic variations
on its obscure theme, it is a very palpable specific "thing"
and only its title justifies inclusion in this "People"
section. If it were painted tomorrow, it would still be an object
Duchamp's "deconstruction" and blurring
of individual connective tissues are themes that appear also in
the great works of the Italian Futurists, where motion and dynamics
are encapsulated into their images with great literalness, but
also, usually, great poetry. MOMA's holdings of Italian Futurists
is a bit meager, at least by its high standards. It has a large
work, "The City Rises," by Umberto Boccioni, which is
included in the "Places" section of the show, but while
it is impressive it is too busy and does not show the artist to
his best advantage.
However, his great bronze sculpture, "Unique
Forms of Continuity in Space," shown above, is one of the
most superb works of the 20th Century and is included in the "People"
section. The museum's brochure for this section likens the artist's
"deforming" of the body parts to the "'swish lines'
commonly used in comics.'" The museum's catalogue uses the
title of this sculpture for an essay by John Elderfield, who notes
that the artist "sought to describe how parts of a body in
movement might be imagined continuing in space beyond the body's
physical envelope, stretched out by the velocity and flapping
in the force of the wind." "Thus, Boccioni, it is often
said, imagined a superman of the future. Less frequently noticed
is that this hero is not even four feet tall. But clearly, the
size of a work of art is important for the creation of its composition
and for the way that the completed works affects the beholder.
In painting creating the composition usually begins by establishing
the size of the work. In sculpture, it ends with it...."
Elderfield's astute commentary focuses on the
importance of size in sculpture as a function of representation,
value and visibility. He notes that "most modern sculptors
avoid life size, not wanting their work to be confused with mere
imitation, and wanting its real, true size to be noticed as a
compositional decision that the sculptor made." Elderfield
observes that "Boccioni avoids a literally large size for
his image of a hero achieving the effect of size with an expansively
super-charged figure elevated on a pedestal." Elderfield
emphasizes the importance of "visual clarity" in sculpture
and the need, as in the case of "Symphony
Number 1," by Vladimir Baranoff-Rossiné, shown below,
"to see it as a whole."
This sculpture is delightfully animated with
its jutting angles and voids and reminiscent and perhaps even
better than similar ones by Picasso.
Elderfield's catalogue essay on "Actors,
Dancers Bathers," however is disappointing and this section
is one of the weakest sections. The exhibition juxtaposes two
images of male youths in bathing trunks, one by Paul Cezanne,
an oil on canvas, and the other by Rineke Dijkstra, a Chromogenid
color print. Apart from the subject matter and size, both have
very little in common and both and not exceptional works of art.
This juxtaposition has drawn appropriate criticism from several
sources. This section, however, does contain one of the museum's
greatest works, "Bathers," oil on canvas 52 by 76 3/4
inches, a 1907 masterpiece by André Derain, shown below.
Amazingly, the catalogue offers no discussion of this work, one
which should obviously have been "juxtaposed" with Matisse's
"Dance (First Version," which was executed two years
and is more famous because Derain has been underplayed by most
American museums, which have long been very much in love with
While the five naked figures
in Matisse's "Dance (First Version)" hold hands (all
but one) while performing a circular dance, Derain only has three
figures, all quite independent, and one is only partially naked.
Derain's painting, which is smaller, has much more articulation
and detail to the figures' bodies and a far richer and broader
palette. Matisse's figures are more crudely drawn silhouettes
filled in with pink while Derain's figures are powerful and palpable.
Matisse is lyrical. Derain is dramatic. The simplicity of Matisse's
work is easy and appealing and none of the figures confront the
viewer. Derain, on the other hand, has his central figure in full
frontal detail but also with a particularly intriguing pose. The
woman's face is turned away from the viewer at an angle and looks
upward, but her left hand is extended forward and almost seems
to dangle in the air awaiting someone's grasp, possibly help,
possibly invitation. Her right hand, however, is held behind her
back. The bather on the left has both her arms raised as if to
protect her head from something above and the bather on the right
is shown from the back gazing upwards in almost the same direction
as the central figure.
There is real mystery here,
but it is not threatening because the figures are so strong and
robust and the intensity of blue so positive and reassuring, so
alluring and inviting. It is a darker, deeper blue than the extensive
blue background in Matisse's painting, where it is not clear whether
it is supposed to represent water or sky given the perspective.
In Derain's work, the blue is clearly the water and no horizon
is in sight. The perspective is downwards but the figures make
us conscious of the unseen above. Such musings do not amount to
much, but probably most observers would find Matisse's painting
a little bland, a little distant and in comparison with Derain's
and not as intimate.
This section of the exhibit
also includes a lithograph of a "Bathers" scene by Paul
Cezanne, since the best example of his "Bathers" in
the United States is in the Philadelphia Museum and others are
in the Barnes Collection. Cezanne's bathers series is very famous,
but is much too conventional and conservative in comparison with
the Matisse and the Derain.
While the Matisse and Derain
are fabulous, this section and another entitled "Figure and
Field" are by far the weakest of all three exhibits, with
few works of note or interest.
"Composing with the Figure,"
however, is quite choice and includes the very excellent "Inasmuch
as It is Always Already Taking Place" sixteen-channel, video-sound
installation by Gary Hill, a 1990 work that utilizes different
size monitors to display different parts of a naked body and that
was a gift of Agnes Gund, Marcia Riklis, Barbara Wise and Margot
Ernst. In her catalogue essay on this section, Maria del Carmen
González notes that "As extreme as Hill's decomposition
and reassembly of the figure is, it is built in the revolutionary
methods of composing and deconstructing the figure introduced
in the early twentieth century."
This section also includes
a good painting by Gustav Klimt "Hope, II, of 1907-08. González
observes that "despite the enormity and centrality of her
placement, the brilliant colors and patterns that flood the composition
are more mesmerizing than the figure," adding that "Perhaps
only after further investigation of the robe's patterning may
the viewer see the skull on the woman's belly and the female figures
camouflaged toward the bottom of the robe." Klimt's luxuriant
decorative powers transcend the obsession with detail of the Orientalists
and burst art of the Art Nouveau preoccupation with organic sensuality
and sinuousness. Their only comparable competition are the tres
riches illustrations of the Middle Ages. He is the baroque pearl
beyond compare of Italian Renaissance jewelry.
The notion of diminishing,
subjugating and diffusing the power and focus of a painted figure
is even more evident in a spectacular portrait of M. Félix
Fénélon, shown above, by Paul Signac. González
provides the following commentary: "...unlike Klimt's painting
the figure is off to one side; in the center of the canvas is
the eye of a swirling vortex, a dynamic design probably inspired
by an anonymous Japanese print illustrating both geometric and
organic kimono patterns. This visual disturbance detracts from
the figure by pulling the viewer's gaze away from it....Also diverting
attention is the figure's prominent gesture. He stands in profile
seeming to offer a flower to an unseen person like an actor before
a stage backdrop. In fact this is a portrait of a celebrated art
and literary critic, who later become one of Henri Matisse's dealers.
Signac said of the work, 'This will not be a commonplace portrait.'
Even before its completion, Fénélon seems to have
agreed, occasionally signing letters to Signac with 'Felix of
The glorious painting is both
formal and mystical and regal. It is on a par with some of the
greatest Pointillistic works by Seurat, who happens to be under-represented
in this show. It is decorative, to say the least, but it demonstrates
that individual great works can transcend styles and schools and
even be oblivious to their times. It is of no particular import
that this work happens to have a very dominant background and
therefore fits in with a theme of figurative de-emphasis. It simply
is stunning and needs no theories.
One of the great surprises
of this part of the exhibition is Man Ray's "The Rope Dancer
Accompanies herself with Her Shadows,'" a 52-by-73 3/8-inch
oil on canvas, 1916, gift of G. David Thompson that is quite remarkably
abstract and impressive. Vincent Van Gogh's "Portrait of
Joseph Roulin," 1889, is one of the museum's more recent
acquisitions and a most felicitous one as it is superb.
Interesting, evocative, poignant gestures and
poses, of course, are part of what one looks for in figurative
works. Just as the clenched hand in Thomas Eakin's "Gross
Clinic" is riveting and as Derain's extended hand in the
"Bathers" is fascinating, the proffered hand in Signac's
portrait is a major focal point of interest.
What then to make of "World's Fair, New
York City," the photograph shown above, by Garry Winogrand,
a photographer celebrated for his casual, off-hand, akilter, and
generally unattractive pictures. Here is a composition that seems
more worthy of a Michelangelo, or a Brueghel. This composition
is as close to being too good to be true as possible. It is extremely
hard to believe that this was not a posed picture, especially
given the "artist's" oeuvre of sloppy and uninteresting
compositions and poorly executed pictures. Inexplicably, Winogrand
was wildly praised for many of his works, perhaps a reflection
that he was involved with the museum. In any event, this is a
pretty memorable picture even if it might have been posed. This
work is included in a section entitled "Posed to Unposed:
Encounters with the Camera," and the museum's brochure states
that "this picture provides no evidence whatsoever that the
sitters are aware of the photographer," adding that "Instead
their focus is concentrated elsewhere - on intimate conversions
and the passing activity of park life. As such the image captures
the basic qualities of unposed photographs." The catalogue
notes that "In addition to the physical description the work
provides - the pattern of legs, the leans and whispers - it also
alludes to broader human relationships and suggest the coexistence
of two parallel worlds: the specific and intimate reality of the
women clustered on the park bench and the anonymous presence of
the crowds visible in the distance."
The photograph is too good and too perfect
to fit into Winogrand's chosen style and it is exceeding hard
to reconcile with his oeuvre, much of which has been regularly
displayed at the museum. It would have been helpful to have had
more of his work shown or at least to have an unequivocal statement
that it was unposed.
The section on photograph is disappointing,
especially given the museum's historic support of the medium.
The most striking photographic work in this section is Henri Cartier-Bresson's
"Alicate, Spain," a 1933 photograph of three woman,
all staring directly at the photographer. The catalogue notes
that the woman are responding "to the photographer's assertive
presence by configuring themselves into a bizarrely twisting arrangement
that is both graceful and disturbing." "As they turn
to look into the lens of this 35mm camera, they lean into one
another and and bodies forming a circular flow of contract. To
the left, a woman raises a blunt knife to her companion's neck
in a pseudo-menacing gesture. Like other photographs by Cartier-Bresson,
this one is full of ambiguities: who are these subjects, and what
are they attempting to convey by their actions? Inspired by Surrealism's
attention to uncanny occurrences and odd juxtapositions Cartier-Bresson
extrapolated fragments of the visual world through cropping, framing
and foreshortening to create enigmatic compositions stripped of
all spatial and narrative context."
These two photographs are certainly provocative
and as such worthy of inclusion, but the lack of supporting commentary
in depth is frustrating. There are times when the exhibition suffers
from superficial juxtapositions and the compartmentalized themes
are usually too small to reach any meaningful conclusions, especially
for visitors who have not memorized the catalogue in advance of
their visit. Too much territory is being covered. Still, the museum
is to be applauded for presenting its treasures in new venues
and lights and contexts. Such "new" views help us to
rediscover individual works and MOMA has an abundance of masterpieces,
many of which are included here.
Rising up on the escalator to the third and
final floor of the exhibition, the viewer feels for a split second
that they should be lying down to take in Maria Fernanda Cardozo's
"Cementeio-Vertical Garden", originally created in 1992.
Flowers grow vertically up from the ground in nature, but Cardozo's
all white, plastic blossoms arch horizontally from a vertical
wall, 112-feet-long and 12-feet-high. Penciled-in two-by-two-feet
arches, five inches apart, form a "grid" from which
the flowers emerge through holes drilled into the wall. The artist
says that before they are attached, "the wall looks as if
it is riddled with machine-gun fire." The penciled arches
"refer to a necropolis, or city for the dead, with mausoleums
tightly packed together and niches along some of the walls with
vases for freshly cut, or plastic flowers" says Maria del
Carmen Gonzalez in her essay on this work in the catalogue. In
Cardozo's native Columbia, such cemeteries are traditional and
familiar, as they are in many places in Latin America and Southern
Cardozo was born in 1963 and had a studio near
Bogota's Cementerio Central. In the 1950's, and until she created
the original installation in 1992, the bodies of victims of urban
violence were brought there and laid out to be identified. The
subject is nature, decontextualized and transformed evocatively
and symbolically in the Minimalist tradition of the 1960's and
1970's; the "place" as described by the artist, "preserved,
frozen in life forever, in a particular moment of existence."
This is the eternal garden, the "place''
that never dies, even though the flowers are plastic and grow
horizontally; they are so beautiful it does not matter. Something
this beautiful gives pleasure, soothes and strokes the senses
back to a time and place "...to the experience of extreme
beauty, the unashamedly beautiful - white, beautiful, and pure,"
according to the artist.
It is a gorgeous sight and easily the most
memorable in this exhibition, which includes many familiar masterworks
and a few surprises. One is struck most not by the aesthetic quality
of many of the works, but by how much a part of their era they
were, especially from a technological vantage point, as they both
reacted against the onslaught of the Industrial Revolution and
the pathos of the crowded city but also marveled at the startling
new advances of their age.
Leaving behind the unified and serene atmosphere
of the "garden wall," the viewer is confronted with
a diverse "panorama" of paintings, prints and photographs;
the paintings include Mondrian's "Pier and Ocean 5,"
1915, Kirchner's "Street, Dresden," 1908, Monet's "Waterlilies,"
1910, Picasso's Cubist "Landscape," 1908, Andre Derain's
"Bridge Over the Riou," 1906 and Van Gogh's exquisite
"Starry Night," 1889, shown below.
The juxtaposition of "Starry Night"
and "Pier and Ocean 5" shows a very dramatic change
in landscape painting, reflecting a world and a society experiencing
the side-effects of the industrial revolution and the abandonment
of realism for abstraction.
In their catalogue essay, "The Country
and the City", Mary Chan and Maria del Carmen Gonzalez argue
that "...In the 20 years between the two paintings much had
changed." "Van Gogh's painting offers a highly emotional
account of the natural world in swirling, organic patterns of
paint. Mondrian's work, by contrast, reduces the ocean's waves
and reflections into a pattern of vertical and horizontal lines,
and the pier is tilted up to the vertical."
Mondrian made the painting on a visit to his
native homeland, Holland; trapped there and unable to return to
Paris at the outbreak of World War I, this "geometric version
of nature is informed by the urban expanse," the authors
wrote, as well as by the Cubism of Braque and Picasso, "a
style formed in the city and devoted to the urban environment...the
country as seen through city eyes and a city vocabulary."
In the forty years covered in the ModernStarts
exhibit (1880-1920), the first 20 years show primarily paintings
of nature; the remaining 20 years give way to urban landscapes
and the people who inhabited them. In Kirchner's "Street,
Dresden," 1908, human beings are portrayed in vibrant color
as isolated, organic forms, detached from each other and from
the viewer. They have braced themselves against the city's crowds
and commotion; they are "withdrawn into the self....His work
looks back to the art of [Edward] Munch, and conveys a similar
sense of alienation in the urban environment," observed Chan
and Gonzalez. Ten years earlier, Munch had painted "The Storm,"
one of his more psychologically "charged" landscapes.
These were not happy-campers in the modern world, and the presence
of houses amidst the countryside are almost sinister reminders
of the urban encroachment upon nature, with man sandwiched uneasily
In stark contrast to Munch's troubled canvases
and woodcuts, Gauguin's almost Arcadian rendition of "Washerwomen
at Pont Aven," 1888, shown above, and his glorious Tahitian
landscapes populated by beautiful native women in printed sarongs
and not much else, reflected his final retreat to the island idyll,
the dreamed-of "escape" of urban dwellers to a tropical
paradise. Gauguin had left Paris to paint with fellow artists
in Pont-Aven in Brittany, continued on to the Caribbean and then
to the South Seas. There he began his lithographs in the hope
of reaching a wider audience. In her catalogue essay, "Landscape
as Retreat - Gauguin to Nolde," Wendy Weitman writes that
the colorful Japanese woodcuts that flooded Paris by the 1880's,
after trade with Japan had been reestablished, in the mid-nineteenth
century were widely admired and collected by artists, including
Gauguin, "for their flattened, unmodelled forms, decorative
outlines and abstract sensibility."
This Gauguin, recently promised to the museum
by David Rockefeller, is very fine and has an interesting and
strong diagonal composition as well as a quality of wispishness
in the lovely green trees at the stop and of ephermality in the
cut-off faces at the lower left-hand corner. It typifies the artist's
focus on people and would be a fabulous pendant to Millet's versions
of "The Sower." Gauguin's oeuvre is a bit uneven with
some works a bit too sweet, naive and pretty, but this shows him
at his best with a wonderful palette, serious and sympathetic
content and fine organization. The bold ripples in the water and
the darkness of the opposite bank perhaps were unconscious statements
of the drudgery and torment of hard working women but the erect
and proud posture of the figure at the left and the movement of
the cut-off faces indicate respect for them and possibly hope.
It is surprising, actually, that the museum
chose to include this painting for the "Places" section
of the three-part exhibition and not the "People" section
as it would have made for a startling contrast because of its
diagonal composition and cut-off face faces with Garry Winograd's
"World's Fair, New York City, 1964," a small gelatin
silver print photograph, illustrated above in the "People"
section of this article.
This exhibition draws on the full range of
the museum's collections in many media and includes a significant
number of woodcuts and lithographs by Gauguin, Munch, Nolde, Kirchner,
Erich Heckel and Schmidt-Rottulf, the most memorable being Munch's
"Evening (Melancholy: On the Beach), 1896, Kirchner's "Winter
Moonlight," 1919, shown below, and Nolde's "Windmill
on the Shore," 1926, with its menacing black cloud reflected
in a murky sea.
Kirchner retreated permanently to Davos after
the war and described the image of "Winter Moonlight"
as "a response to the urban violence occurring in Berlin
during the Weimar uprisings of the day." "People are
half mad there. Amidst machine-gun fire and invasions they are
partying and dancing....There was such a wonderful moonset early
this morning; the yellow moon on small pink clouds and the mountains
a pure deep blue, totally magnificent.......How eternally happy
I am for all that to be here, and to receive only the last splashes
of the waves of outside life through the mail," he continued."
In the midst of an Alpine paradise, Kirchner is haunted by the
terrors he had witnessed, which transfer to this dramatic and
very beautiful print.
The Fauves and German Expressionists, of course,
have lost none of the power over the decades. Indeed, their work
at the start of the 20th Century remains perhaps the strongest
of the century because of its intense emotionality and daring
brushwork that make the wonderful intellectuality of Cubism and
pure abstractions of later generations too cool in comparison
to say nothing of the insider "isms" of even later movements.
This part of the exhibition does not contain any great floral
watercolors by Nolde, one of its few notable gaps, particularly
since they would have made for remarkable juxtapositions with
Monet's famed "Water Lilies."
Claude Monet's "Water Lilies," 1920,
dominates an entire and very large wall as only his gorgeous panels
can do; the viewer becomes mesmerized, lost in his watery paradise
of lily pads and reflections, moving forward and back, each time
seeing something new. In his catalogue essay, "Seasons and
Moments," John Elderfield quotes William Seitz remarks on
Monet in the catalogue that accompanied the 1960 MOMA exhibition
"...to him..., from the beginning, nature
had always appeared mysterious, infinite and unpredictable as
well as visible and lawful. He was concerned with 'unknown' as
well as apparent realities."
One is at first overwhelmed by the size of
this work and then by the fact that it is comprised on three separate
panels, a "device" used by later artists with mixed
effects. It is a bit hard to overcome the fame of this series
of paintings by Monet. Held in highest reverence by the general
public, they nonetheless are not his greatest achievements and
pale in comparison with this great series of "Poplars"
and "Rouen Cathedral" or his dazzling visions of the
Thames in London.
By 1940, Monet's work, especially his late
canvases and the Water Lilies paintings, appealed to a new generation
of Abstract Expressionists, like Jackson Pollock and Helen Frankenthaler.
In 1956, Leo Steinberg wrote of MOMA's recent acquisition of a
Water Lilies painting: "For all his fabled and acknowledged
realism, Monet now looks in nature for those fractions in which
- torn from all mental moorings - the appearance becomes apparition."
The man most clearly identified with Impressionism had touched
down on Abstract Expressionism long before the movement had come
Parallels are drawn in the exhibition between
Monet's "Water Lilies," 1920, and Kandinsky's "Four
Seasons" paintings of 1914 for Edward P. Campbell, Cy Twombly's
Four Seasons," 1993-1994, and Joan Miro's "The Birth
of the World," all included in this exhibition. Elderfield
writes that the paintings "...urge the beholder not to try
to be more specific than themselves but, rather, to consider them
in relation to the mystery that surrounds them, not as a problem
to be cleared up but as the very condition in which they appear
In theory this makes sense, but in the reality
of the exhibition it is a bit stretched, indeed, thin. Kandinsky's
four panels are shown in a circular room as their commission intended
and they are vibrantly colorful, but nowhere up to the artist's
spectacular compositional abilities and mental gymnastics. Twombly's
work, despite the efforts of the art market, is just not up to
museum-standard and certainly suffers in comparison with the lesser
works of Kandinsky.
The "series" concept is echoed throughout
the "Seasons and Moments" section of the exhibition
even though they are separated by rooms: Atget's photograph of
a beech tree taken on three separate occasions from 1919 may be
compared to Robert Adam's scenes of photographs of the Columbus
River in 1990. Monet's goal "to produce an illusion of an
endless whole, a wave without horizon, without shore" is
apparent in Adam's ocean photographs, "Southwest from the
South Jetty, Clatsop County, Oregon, 1990," along with the
specificity of tidal detail and climate, but Adam's work
is several leagues below Monet's. Given the museum's great and
long-standing commitment to photography it is understandable that
photographs occupy a large part of the exhibition but despite
current enthusiasm by some museums to mix media it is unfair as
photography, especially early, small monochrome works suffer miserably
when placed close to large and very colorful paintings with depth.
Painting and photography capture nature in
one dimension: Bill Viola's video "Hatsu Yune," ("First
Dream"), records a slice of Japanese landscape in a series
of images, "an endless whole...of scenes experienced as if
in a dream...from a detached, third-person point of view"
continues Elderfield. For all its modern, cinematic and panoramic
imagery, the video is akin to Adam's ocean and Monet's Waterlilies.
Nature is mysterious, yet accessible, through unflinching observation.
Viola also happens to be a very fine artist.
By the 1880's and on through to the 1920's
landscape, or land, became a place of retreat and relaxation,
the antidote to rapid industrialization and over-crowded cities.
Travel by train, and later by car, opened up new "vistas
and sites", and artists were quick to take advantage of new
subject matter. Landscape painting became "site-specific,"
implying recognition on the part of the viewer of the subject
Two strains had dominated French landscape
painting until the 1880's: the "southern" tradition
was represented by Nicholas Poussin's Arcadian scenes and Claude
Lorraine's poetic "Roman Campagnas," both classical,
Italianate depictions of nature fortified with historical scenes.
Less idealized and more realistic was the "northern"
Barbizon School that followed the Dutch seventeenth century model:
they painted what they saw, accurately and naturalistically.
Claude Monet, drawing on his early exposure
to the Barbizon School and the Normandy countryside, eventually
reflected an entirely different way of looking at, and painting,
landscape. Paul Cezanne, along with other Barbizon School painters,
sketched and painted in the Forest of Fontainebleau, and in his
home town of Aix-En-Provence.
In her catalogue essay, "Changing Visions
- French Landscapes," Magdalena Dabrowski describes Cezanne's
desire to "re-do Poussin after nature...He wanted, that is,
to convey the timelessness suggested by Poussin's idyllic landscapes,
yet simultaneously to render the specific qualities of the place
and the moment in which he himself was working. Building up form
out of touches of color, Cezanne focuses the viewer's attention
on the substance of the picture - on the relation between the
illusion of place and the means by which that illusion is created."
Cezanne's best known "place" in his
paintings is Mont-St.-Victoire in Provence; while his "means"
might have been inventive, there is no doubt that the subject
is this mountain. Van Gogh, on the other hand, mixed actual landscapes
with invented ones. Voluntarily confining himself at the asylum
in the village of Sainte-Remy-de-Provence, he painted his exquisite
"Starry Night"; "the village lies below the mountains
where the artist has situated it, yet his church steeple is entirely
made-up,"rising up in distant parallel to the soaring cypress
in the left foreground, Dabowski wrote, adding that "A number
of writers have likened this addition to the churches of Van Gogh's
The glorious light and coastline of Southern
France inspired many artists to return to reside there and paint.
Signac settled in St. Tropez in 1893, and his friend Matisse,
who had visited him often settled on the Riviera permanently by
L'Estaque drew Cezanne, and in 1906, Derain,
whose vibrantly colored "Bridge Over The Riou" established
him as one of the "Fauves", or "Wild Beasts,"
so named because of their extreme and lurid palette. In "Bridge
Over The Riou," shown below, Derain's previously "loose"
composition gave way to L'Estaque's vertical trees and horizontal
landscapes, strengthening the underlying structure of the composition.
"The landscape of L'Estaque helped Derain to synthesize his
interest in 'matiere,' that is in paint and surface texture, and
in dazzling combinations of color, according to Dabrowski.
This and "Starry Night" are the best
paintings in this section of the exhibition!
In 1908, Braque painted "Road Near L'Estaque",
a tighter, more subdued composition of the same landscape. Departing
from his earlier "Fauve" work, with its exuberant hues,
and structured but curvilinear patterns, he looked back to Cezanne.
Dabrowski maintained that Braque "emphasized the structure
of the site, but his forms are more geometrical than Cezanne's."
"He limited color to the triad of ochres, blues and greens,
and covered the canvas with a feathery brushwork, an almost uniformly
dense surface pattern. This angular structure and restricted color
make 'Road Near L'Estaque' proto-Cubist," writes Dabrowski.
Both L'Estaque and Collioure, a seaside village
in the eastern Pyrenees, inspired "Fauve" painting,
but it is Manet's "Landscape at Collioure" that earned
Collioure the title as the real birthplace of Fauvism: "Shocking
at the time, Fauvism was based on the use of bright primary colors
applied in small brick-shaped marks, creating a mosaic-like surface.
Between the brushstrokes, raw, unpainted patches of canvas show
as visible whites or beiges, heightening the painting's chromatic
intensity....Fauvism enacted a reconciliation between tradition
and innovation in landscape painting, combining the classical
tradition - the Arcadian vision inherited from Poussin- with the
more closely observed mode derived from the Barbizon, a mode,
however, that as we have seen, with Impressionism and Cezanne,
developed into an analytic exploration of how to represent what
was observed," Dabrowski wrote.
Collioure was to Fauvism what the Catalan village
of Horta de Ebro became to Cubism. Picasso summered there in 1909,
intending, he said, to paint landscapes better than those Braque
had done the year before at L'Estaque. "In their structure
and composition, works such as 'The Reservoir, Horta de Ebro 1909,
represent the early phase of Analytical Cubism," writes Dabrowski.
Picasso photographed Horta and his paintings
closely followed what he photographed, "while also massing
volumes in 'cubified' shapes that give the work its structure."
Dabrowski adds that "although the forms of his works in Horta
de Ebro reflect his understanding of the late, faceted forms of
Cezanne, they do not reflect light the same way. In fact Picasso
renders nature as a kind of architecture."
Henri Matisse's "Periwinkles, Moroccan
Garden," 1912, painted while he visited there, mark an end
of his "Fauve" phase and the beginning of another, more
personal vision of landscape. Before him was an exotic, visually
sensuous and luxurious landscape, bathed in color and light: "The
gardens in particular, with their lushness and color became for
him a kind of Arcadia - places of solitude, contemplation and
retreat. The painting is 'abstract' (in its compositional arrangement),
yet specific (in its palette and atmosphere). It was through inventions
like these that landscape painting was assured its important position
within the development of modern art." Dabrowski continued.
In these technocratic days of DVD's, computers
and laser technology it is difficult to think of photography as
a revolutionary new medium, but it certainly was back in 1839,
when it was invented. In the years that gave the world the light
bulb, the car, great dams, and railroads that crossed an entire
continent, the camera was there to record it all for posterity.
On a more human level, the camera documented the hard grind of
the working world, the farmers, loggers, pioneers and city factory
workers, as well as the more established families at home and
on vacation, with a new-found leisure and weekends free of work.
The world was in the throes of an industrial
revolution, and the excitement of being witness to the construction
of the Eiffel Tower is palpable in H. Blaucard's "Untitled"
photographs of 1889 (Platinum Prints). For all the wealth and
might these feats of engineering and machinery produced, there
was the down-side - the poverty and squalor of crowded cities,
captured by the photographer Jacob Riis in "Flashlight Photograph
of One of Four Peddlers Who Slept in the Cellars of 11 Ludlow
Street, Rear," circa 1890. The barbarism of child labor is
explicitly portrayed in the image of a small girl leaning wearily
against a brick wall, also by Jacob Riis, entitled "I Scrubs
- Katie Who Keeps House in West Forty Ninth Street." circa
The speed and thrust of modern life in an urban
setting is marvelously caught in Jacques-Henri Lartigue's "Paris,
Avenue des Acacias," 1912, with a bowler-hatted bicyclist
looking on helplessly as his pedaling proves no match for a powerful
motor-car which will momentarily leave him behind in a cloud of
dust. Motion, in all its intensity, is poignantly photographed
in Etienne-Jules Marey or George Demeney's "Untitled,"
circa 1890-1900, a gelatin silver print of a sprinter from crouching
position to upright running, in a series of images. Here, in simplified
form, is the forerunner of the "motion" picture.
For the public at large, the invention of the
box-brownie made photographs more accessible, and homes were flooded
with snap-shots taken by family members of family members, neatly
displayed in cloth or leather-bound albums as a symbol of stability
Science, technology and medicine both inspired
and were inspired by photography; psychiatrists photographed patients'
facial expressions and brains ("Map of the Brain", photographer
unknown, circa 1915, published by the Psychiatric Clinic of Breslar);
scientists photographed the moon (Loewy and Pulseux, The Moon,
1899), and aerial photography brought new intelligence to countries
at war (Untitled-aerial reconnaissance photograph, Lavannes, World
War II, 1917). The great artist-photographers Alfred Steiglitz
and Edward Steichen, made traditional and more adventurous images
of their world, always alluding to painting.
Susan Kermacic concludes in her catalogue essay,
"Rise of the Modern World," that "it was the photographs
made without artistic intention that would prove the most inventive
and influential." "It was through images of the countless
machines and inventions of the industrial revolution, and of the
social and physical changes they precipitated, that photography
demonstrated itself as modernity's great partner, nurturing the
complicitous relationship between itself and the world and forever
changing our future," she wrote.
In 1908 Wilbur Wright flew 56 miles in Le Mans,
France. The following year, Louis Bleriot crossed the English
Channel, and the French reminded the world that it was the brothers
Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier who had started the whole flying
craze by inventing the hot air balloon in 1783!
In "The Conquest of The Air," the
catalogue shows us a powerful image by James Wallace Black, "Untitled,"
(Providence, Rhode Island, seen from a balloon), circa 1860. The
elements have played havoc with the emulsion of the first photograph
taken from the air in America; while the image excites the viewer
and glorifies flight, it also reminds us of the dangers these
first aviators faced as they took on the skies in a wicker basket
and a gas-fired balloon. The military were quick to utilize this
new technology, and Royal Air Force pilots were taught to recognize
the different types of landscape: "Cubist country" signified
configurations of fields bounded by roads, while "Futurist
country" denoted more disordered, uninterrupted patterns.
Aerial photography offered a new vantage point for painting, sculpture
and most spectacularly through photography.
Kasimir Malevich's Suprematist composition:
"Airplane Flying," circa 1915, closely resembles an
aerial perspective; "Malevich perceived flights liberation
of people from the earthly realm as analogous to his conception
of Suprematism's freedom from the material and its representation
of spiritual absolutes. In aerial photography's abstract shapes
and lines he recognized the unadulterated simplicity and purity
that he strove for in his art," writes Mary Chan in the catalogue.
World War I brought together a group of artists
in Paris who found themselves in the forefront of the avant-garde,
surrounded by an unstable, disoriented world governed by destruction
and uncertainty. This "visual disorientation" characterized
the art they created and rendered the world it portrayed unreal.
Duchamp, Picasso and Gris occupied studios
in Montmartre for the first part of the century: they were joined
by the prodigious talents of Derain and Modigliani. Montparnasse
also drew these artists, together with De Chirico, Léger
and Mondrian, and they worked within a few blocks of one another.
"La Ruche" housed the studios of Archipenko, Chagall,
Delaunay, Laurens, Léger, Lipchitz and Soutine; the mind
boggles at such a confluence of talent and creativity - "Collaboration
was an essential component of innovation", writes Sara Ganz
in her catalogue essay, "Unreal City." and continues
"Although extremely varied in technique and intent, all of
these images refer ultimately to the architecture and structure
of the metropolis," she added.
De Chirico's "Gare Montparnasse (The Melancholy
Departure), circa 1941, and Henri Matisse's "View of Notre
Dame," 1914, manipulate perspective, according to Ganz, "obscuring
and dramatically exaggerating its illusionistic strategies. Created
in his studio (De Chirico's) near the Gare Montparnasse, the paintings'
foreboding, shadowed passages and empty, elongated street emphasize
the uncanny desolation of an abandoned city and its deserted train
station. Perspective is used to create what appears to be a plausible
notion of reality, but closer inspection shows a very puzzling
scene whose composition is illogical."
Robert Delaunay's "Windows," 1912,
Marcel Duchamp's "Network Of Stoppages," 1914, Piet
Mondrian's "Color Planes in Oval," 1913-1914, reflect
the disorientation brought on by the War, and more specifically
the need for a new language in which to portray the challenges
to security and structure, a language which could pictorially
represent an "unreal world", as expressed by Fernand
Léger, who is magnificently represented by "Propellers"
"A new criterion has appeared in response
to a new state of things. Innumerable examples of rupture and
change crop up unexpectedly in our visual awareness," Ganz
wrote." Of Marcel Duchamp's extraordinary "Network of
Stoppages", which looks as if it might have been created
today, she observed that "by destabilizing pictorial meanings,
these works, which were inspired by the immediate urban environment,
describe a world ungrounded and unintelligible."
Crossing the Atlantic, away from war torn Europe,
we find still photographs from the very first silent "westerns,"
those wonderful, dream-laden "movies" made by the legendary
American directors John Ford, William S. Hart and Howard Hawks.
As my parents were passionate "Western" fans, I grew
up in India in the 1960s on a diet of John Wayne, Clint Eastwood
and Gay Cooper as the rugged, shoot-from-the-hip heroes of the
untamed American West, and like millions of movie-goers around
the world, the Western landscape was as familiar to me as my own
garden, without ever having set foot in America. I cannot imagine
my childhood without those landscapes and those dreams, and for
any devotee of this genre, the "stills" represented
in the exhibition and the catalogue are both historical documents
of America's incredible history and, more personally, a rare treat.
It is reassuring to note that the Museum of Modern Art has preserved
these gems in its great "movie" archive for future generations
to look back on and enjoy.
Mary Lea Brandt writes eloquently in her catalogue
essay, "The American Place" that "The uncontrollable
forces of weather and shifts of time in the turning of the earth
- sunrise, high-noon, and sunset - enforce the Western's defining
characteristics of passage or stasis, fear and aloneness."
"A moral universe, at once exotic and familiar, reveals itself
in steep canyons and across rivers, over mountains and through
deserts as the journey through one or other moment of the American
past takes hold. For the Western is inseparable from America's
history; accordingly it is beset by contradiction and often vain
attempts at realism," Ms. Brandt wrote.
The "frontier" closed in 1893, coinciding
with the appearance of the first "motion pictures,"
one becoming the subject for the other. Edwin S. Porter's film
"The Great Train Robbery" was shot at Thomas Edison's
studio in New York and along the Lackawanna Railway in New Jersey:
it was eleven minutes long and included a hugely popular scene
of a gunman firing directly at the audience, puffs of smoke everywhere,
inducing the audience to duck. It is easy to imagine how the man
who had invented the telephone, the light bulb and wax paper (amongst
numerous other useful things) might delight in all the shooting
and fighting and other carryings - on being captured in his studio
by this exciting new photographic medium.
By 1910, films like John Ford's "Straight
Shooting" lengthened to the almost "feature" length
of 55 minutes long, paving the way for Raoul Walsh's "The
Big Trail" in 1930, a full feature length "epic"
photographed on location for wide screen and sound, the director
and cameraman using Twentieth Century Fox's 70mm Grandeur process
to capture the broad, panoramic sweep of the Sierra Nevadas, the
pioneers merely specs in the vast landscape. The hero was John
Wayne. It would not be out of place to say that the rest is history,
and that never has a "place" become so internationally
well-known and beloved as the American West, for all the hours
of joy it has brought as the backdrop to some of the finest films
ever made. The "Western" has always had universal appeal,
as the last place a human being could go who values the freedom
of space, big skies and spirit, even if only from a comfortable
armchair at home.
The historical period covered by this exhibition
was perhaps history's most creative assault on the frontiers of
art and intellectuality. These borders of the unknown and the
unpredictable were and are fascinating. Landscape interests us
because it helps to specify our place in the greater scheme of
things and this exhibition is appropriately awesome and spectacular
The third and last part of ModernStarts is
"Things," and its entrance installation, shown above
by Michael Craig-Martin proclaims it boldly with very bright colored
walls and computer-generated images of prosaic 20th Century objects,
an apparent homage to MOMA's famous design department that has
long honored the best in domestic and industrial design. Craig-Martin's
installation, however, despite its prominent site on the museum's
main floor, is a bit garish and cannot compare artistically to
the entrance installations of "People" and "Places"
and on the above floors.
Much of this exhibit is given over to a series
of chairs and a series of guitars and a series of still life paintings
and only the latter contains substantial art. Chairs have occupied
a disproportionate amount of design attention in the 20th Century
and with rare exceptions, such as those by Charles Rennie Macintosh
and Gerrit Rietveld, have not produced many wonders especially
in comparison with the florid glories of Louis XIV style furniture
or the sculptural intricacies of John Henry Belter slipper chairs
of the mid-19th Century. Inexplicably, some excellent Art Nouveau
furniture and objects by Hector Guimard, the great Art Nouveau
designer, are consigned to the "Places" section of the
exhibition and really belong in this section as do many other
Art Nouveau works.
The series on guitars at least includes some
paintings of guitars that bring some Cubist relief.
Perhaps the biggest surprise
of this section is a large and powerful painting shown above by
Francis Picabia that is not documented in the catalogue. The best
art work in this part of the exhibition in unquestionably Kurt
Schwitters large "Revolving," shown below, a masterful
1919 work of great color and fascinating combination and a far
cry in scale from the artist's more familiar small collages.
The second most interesting
thing is Marcel Duchamp's delightful "To Be Looked At (From
the Other Side of the Glass) with One Eye, Close To for Almost
an Hour" by Marcel Duchamp, oil paint silver leaf, lead wire
and magnifying lens on glass (cracked), 19 1/2 by 15 5/8 inches,
1918. While Duchamp is revered for his intellectuality and boldness,
many of his works of art such as this as the painting illustrated
above in the "People" section are very beautiful.
Of course, this section also
includes Marcel Oppenheim's "Object (Le Dejeuner en forrure),"
his famous fur-covered cup and saucer of 1936, one of the most
legendary Surrealist objects. It is surprising that more Surrealist
works are not included in this section, which devotes much space
to typographic experiments notably by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti
and Fernand Léger, both of 1919.
The catalogue's cover illustration
is "Bosch," a 1914 lithograph by Lucien Bernhard of
an advertisement for a sparkplug that predates Pop Art by half
One wall of this section of
the exhibition has four similar still lifes of fruit on a table
by Paul Cezanne, the best of which is "Still Life with fruit
Dish," 1879-80, a fractional gift of Mr. and Mrs. David Rockefeller.
One gets the impression that the massive undertaking
of this resorting of the museum's collection ran out of steam
in this section. Nonetheless, one can only applaud the museum's
very serious endeavor to experiment with its exhibition policies
and efforts to present many of its treasures in new light.
The old-fashioned, chronological approach to
presentation still is perhaps the most meaningful as it helps
visitors understand historical and stylistic contexts and to make
comparisons with rival, competing contemporary artists. The thematic
approach is probably best served by smaller shows concentrating
on just a handful of works.