By Michele L. Leight
A heady artistic melange awaits visitors to
the Museum of Modern Art’s "Making Choices," the
second cycle of the three-part, year-long, "MoMA 2000"
Millennium exhibition that had its debut last fall. (See The City Review article on the
first part, "ModernStarts.")
"Making Choices" consists of 24 sections
and covers the years between 1920 and 1960. The final round of
the exhibition series is scheduled to open in the Fall, 2000,
focusing on the art and artists of "now," bringing the
century to a close.
All three exhibits are thematic rather than
chronological, an approach that has also been taken in the opening
exhibition of Tate Britain in London (See The
City Review article) and its director participated in a recent
seminar at MOMA.
Whereas the first exhibition, "ModernStarts,"
had one large catalogue that reproduced just about everything,
"Making Choices" has two large catalogues, but many
works in this sprawling show are not reproduced.
Chronology within the exhibitions is thrown
to the winds. Everyday objects mingle with the iconic and ground-breaking:
Jasper Johns paintings and Mies Van De Rohe furniture, Eugene
Atget photographs and film posters, Jackson Pollock paintings
and magazine covers, etc.
Whereas the "ModernStarts" had many
of the museum’s most famous works of art, "Making Choices"
has a preponderance of work that is not so famous and a very large
proportion of it does not consist of paintings and sculptures,
but photographs, movie stills, posters, furniture and the like.
Perhaps because it casts such a wide net and
deemphasizes the traditional fine arts to a degree, part of the
first floor is devoted to a small selection of highlights from
the collection, for those thirsty for a large Matisse or a great
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
Glenn Lowry, Director of the MoMA made an opening
speech at a press conference for "Making Choices" in
the light drenched third floor atrium hall with characteristic
enthusiasm, dwelling with evident pride on the Japanese architect
Shigeru Ban’s "A Paper Arch" visible through the
glass panels facing the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden
(April 30-August 1, 2000).
Ban’s "A Paper Arch is made of paper
– really. He calls paper "evolved wood" and prefers
it for its lightness and because it can be made waterproof, fireproof,
is cheaper and can be recycled. The present construction is all
those things, weighs 9 tons and arches 87 feet across the Sculpture
Garden, forming a grand trellis for stressed out tourists, art
lovers and black clad teenagers with spiky haircuts to gaze up
at and ponder whilst enjoying a cigarette (the foreigners) or
having a quiet read whilst the kids explore the "rock chairs"
and the pool. It is grand.
On a humanitarian level and as an architect
Shigeru Ban felt responsible for the deaths caused by collapsing
buildings in the 1995 Kobe earthquakes in Japan. He began experimenting
with paper tubes as building material back in the 80s, which resulted
in the post-Kobe paper tube housing for which he became well known.
These simple, yet functional homes were inexpensive, waterproof
and fireproof and could be built by volunteers; they offered devastated
Kobe residents who had lost their homes a chance to rebuild their
lives. And you were thinking this was just some old arch, huh?
The man is a genius, Lowry was right to feel proud, and the entire
construction will be recycled, according to Ban’s wishes,
when it comes down August 1, 2000.
For the open-minded this show quickly becomes
an adventure in unusual aesthetic and philosophical juxtapositions
of photographs, prints, sculptures, furniture and paintings hung
together within the same gallery as in "Seeing Double,"
where Atget, Picasso, Mies Van de Rohe, Sigmar Polke, Richard
Estes and Corning Glass share the limelight in an exhibit which
explores the "inside-outside" of modern art (Picasso
and Cubism) through transparency, multiple-layering (Rauschenberg
and Polke) and reflective surfaces (Mies Van der Rohe’s buildings
If Shigeru Ban’s arch is the most dramatic
and perhaps aesthetically pleasing single object in "Making
Choices," Man Ray is probably the artist who comes off best.
He was born Emmanuel Rudnitzky in Philadelphia in 1890, and he
died 1976 in Paris. His early experiments with photographic abstraction
are very impressive as are some great photographs elsewhere in
the exhibition of Lászlo Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946).
Man Ray moved to Paris in 1921, was introduced
by Marcel Duchamp to the Dadaists, who immediately embraced his
radical paintings, assemblages and objects, and he quickly made
a name for himself. His experiments in the darkroom resulted in
the creation of some of the most innovative photographic images
of all time, ("Man Ray, 1931," gelatin silver print
[solarized], MoMA) like his famous "Rayographs" which
must be seen to be fully appreciated; no adjectives could do them
Photography plays an important part in this
show and he is devoted one whole room, and Henri Cartier-Bresson
(b. 1908) gets a long wall in a big gallery.
Cartier-Bresson founded Magnum Photos, a photographers’
cooperative, which enabled him to travel the world as a photo-journalist,
many of his images ending up in "Life" and other magazines,
which were seen by a large number of people and were effective
in conveying both the journalistic and artistic aspects of his
photographic style: "In whatever picture-story we try to
do," he is quoted as saying, "we are bound to arrive
as intruders. It is essential, therefore, to approach the subject
on tiptoe…A velvet hand, a hawks eye – these we should
all have. The profession depends so much upon the relations the
photographer establishes with the people he’s photographing,
that a false relationship, a wrong word or attitude, can ruin
Cartier-Bresson's "An Eye at the Museum
of Modern Art," shown above, graces the cover of one of the
museum's three pamphlets at the exhibition and is a startlingly
It is interesting to notice the penetrating
studies of great photographers in this exhibition, (for which
we must thank Peter Galassi, Chief Curator, Department of Photography),
to which must be added the fascinating "Walker Evans and
Company," on the second floor, which zeros in on his and
eight other photographer’s work in a interactive forum of
ideas, artistic aspirations and ultimately the inspiration his
work had upon theirs and vice versa. The most illuminating are
Eugene Atget’s images, which look like the artistic ancestors
of Evans iconic and now legendary poetic style. (See The
City Review article on "Walker Evans.") The black
and white images are a soothing counterpoint to a cacophony of
color and intense composition which might otherwise be in danger
of blowing a fuse in the average viewer’s eyes, no matter
how artistically devout.
In "The Rhetoric of Persuasion,"
Ben Shahn’s (1898-1969) goggled "Welders", 1943,
painted in tempera on cardboard, is placed beside Lewis Hine’s
(1874-1940) famous, but still fresh and awesome photograph of
a "Steamfitter," 1920, the muscle-bound workman tightening
a bolt on the wheel of a massive steam engine; the workers are
small cogs in America’s Industrial workforce, symbols of
the solidarity of the masses, one captured by camera and the other
in paint. On the opposite wall in this "workers" forum,
is Gustav Klucis’ (Latvian, 1895-1944) "ra ra"
for the Russian workers propagandist gravure, "Fulfilled
Plan Great Work," 1930, which shows a pyramid of smiling
workers with palms outstretched, the entire composition brought
to a crescendo against a pulsating red background. Alongside this
is José Clemente Orozco’s (Mexican, 1883-1949) agonized
charcoal and crayon "Clenched Fist," (1948), portraying
the worker as the victimized yet indomitable hero.
Continuing within the same exhibit the pace
quickens and the passions visibly rise in an international collection
of posters, lithographs, photographs and paintings that examine
the 30’s, the catastrophic effect of the Great Depression
both within America and abroad, the rise of Stalin, Hitler, Franco
and Mussolini, the struggle of the Spanish Civil War and the impending
doom of World War II. It is a fascinating portrayal of the pressure
cooker atmosphere of opposing ideologies, and the power of the
visual arts to persuade and garner support for and against vehemently
upheld beliefs on both sides - and ultimately the effect this
had on the general public.
A chilling poster of a helmeted Nazi, eyes
hidden beneath his headgear, by Ludwig Hohlwein (1874-1949) entitled
"And You?" applied pressure to "fence-sitting"
German citizens prior to World War II to join the Nazi party;
the sinister "Join Us Or Else" image is reinforced by
the anonymity of the face - the soldiers eyes are concealed from
the viewer. Not a wholesome message for a housewife to digest
on her way to the grocery store.
The American Ben Shahn’s offset lithograph
"This Is Nazi Brutality," (1943) offers the opposite
(mercifully) doctrine. Both ideologies were up for grabs and marketed
tenaciously by opposing factions at a time when the world did
not know what it knows now. The enormous power of images to convert
or convince in a world without television or computers, or in
most cases even a telephone, is evident in this thought-provoking
exhibit, organized by Peter Galassi and Wendy Weitman, Associate
Curator, Department of Prints and Illustrated Books.
The imagery of persuasion and competing ideologies
took the form of illustrations in magazines, for which most of
the photographs in this exhibit were intended, and newspapers
and cheap prints, which had the power to reach large numbers of
people if they were not exactly of the highest quality. On a gargantuan
scale were murals, represented here by Diego Rivera’s beautiful
fresco, "Agrarian Leader Zapata," (1931). Emiliano Zapata,
one of the leaders of the Mexican Revolution, takes the reigns
of a slain soldier’s horse, assuming the mythic pose of time-honored
heroes in images of a more traditional, older European Art –
he does hold a sword of course, lest anyone should try to oppose
him in his mission.
The helpless victims, of which there were many,
are captured by some of the greatest documentary photographers
of all time; on the domestic front, Dorothea Lange’s (1895-1965)
"Plantation Overseer and His Field Hands, Mississippi Delta,"
1936, and the famous "Migrant Mother, Nipoma, California,"
1936, shown above, are unforgettable images of victimization caused
by displacement and its desperate uncertainty. The Italian photographer,
Tina Mondotti’s (1896-1942) lens freezes the irony and isolation
of a man with feet bound in rags and what is left of his shoes
in "Elegance and Poverty." (1928). Behind him looms
a billboard advertisement for a black tie rental company. There
were the breadlines, captured in Reginald Marsh’s etching
(1898-1954) "Breadline- No One Has Starved," (1932)
and the lowering of living-standards both at home and abroad.
One of the finest photographs in the exhibition
is "Two Barns and Shadow" by Minor White (1908-1976),
shown above, a very strong image.
The fourth floor offers a respite from this
cauldron of government propaganda and oppression with the witty
and penetrating "The Marriage of Reason and Squalor,"
the "outsider-insider" artists in "The Raw and
the Cooked" and the entertaining and brilliant "Useless
Science"; this is the exhibit to take the kids (or Modern
Art skeptics) to see what focused "tinkering" can yield
in the hands and minds of genius.
"The Marriage of Reason and Squalor"
is a sophisticated exploration in the truth of the "contraries,"
a wonderful old word which basically translates as "opposites,"
but often alludes to opposites within the same artwork, literary
theme, religion or philosophy. Shakespeare and Chaucer used "contrary"
to describe people with split personalities.
Now the exhibit starts to get to the nitty-gritty
of what "modern" art is all about, and rather like the
"breathing spaces" (actually raw canvas visible between
the painted black bands) of Frank Stella’s "The Marriage
of Reason and Squalor II," 1959, the viewer feels on more
stable ground as the lens becomes more sharply focused and the
artists feel like they are more of our own time.
The message, eventually, is just as intense,
just more subtly clothed: Two beautiful collages by Kurt Schwitters
(British b. Germany 1887-1948) explore the contraries in "Merz,"
(1940-45) which introduces the message of repression and non-acceptance
of differences (censorship), and "Santa Claus" (1922),
which brings on the associations with goodness, understanding
and acceptance (Christmas). Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s (American
b. Cuba), "Untitled" (Supreme Majority), 1991, explores
the issues addressing political polls and the conservative majority
in his elegant, sharply white, and incredibly harmonious "cones"
of paper, and Louise Bourgeois asks in a work: "Has the day
invaded the night, or has the night invaded the day?"
Bourgeios work appears often within the diverse
displays, like punctuation marks, and her "Quarantania,III,"
a re-shaped wooden board from an old water tower with corners
cut out and brought to her own height, reflects her belief that
geometry means stability (reason). (See The
City Review "London – The Millenium Projects,"
for further information on Louise Bourgeois at Tate Modern, Bankside.)
The "Raw and the Cooked" offers a
selection of "outsider" works, or insider depending
on your point of view, and a journey into the "primitive"
and so-called "untrained" world of Art Brut, in works
by Douanier Rousseau, Paul Klee, Jean Michel Basquiat and Jean
Dubuffet. But some of these painters were far from naïve
or unsophisticated and their work could be extremely orderly,
like Morris Hirshfield’s (American born Russia 1872-1946)
"Beach Girl," 1937-1939 (The Sidney and Harriet Janis
Collection), shown above, or decidedly individualistic and charmingly
off-beat as in Louis Elshemus’ (American 1864-1941)"The
Demon of the Rocks," (1901) and "Dancing Nymphs,"
(1914) that offer a welcome dose of visual poetry.
Paul Klee’s winsome and humorous "Actor’s
Mask," (1924), shown above, with complementary red hair and
green face, belies the artist’s serious interest in the art
of the insane, which he along with others like the Surrealist
Max Ernst, researched in the collection of Dr. Hans Prinzhorn.
Klee authored two books, "The Nature of Nature" and
"The Thinking Eye," which show his almost scientific
interest in the nuts and bolts of the artistic process, with detailed
drawings, almost maps, of his own creative process, from idea
and sketch to "finished" artwork.
Both Klee and Picasso were master-draughtsmen
- they could both draw impeccably in the "academic"
sense. Their distortions are deliberate and their imitation of
the "primitive’ forms of expression is a constant of
modern art. Picasso was close friends with the customs official
and Sunday painter Henri Rousseau whose "primitive"
technique is painstakingly precise. Picasso drew constantly from
"primitive" African Sculpture and remarked at an exhibition
of children’s drawings: "When I was their age I could
draw like Raphael, but it took me a lifetime to draw like them."
"Useless Science" explores (and parodies)
pure research (for its own sake) and applied research (toward
a particular end) by examining the work of a group of artists
beginning with the Dadaist, Marcel Duchamp, who experimented with
the mechanics of optical effects, expecting no specific results.
Duchamp ascribed to the pseudo-scientific institution of "Pataphysics,"
a term devised by the author and playwright Alfred Jarry (1873-1907)
as being neither a scientific or artistic theory, a political
position or a school of thought, but rather the science of imaginary
solutions based on random choice. If that sounds a bit like dabbling
in pre-school art class, the results are wonderfully inventive,
imaginative and intelligent, with more than a dash of piercing
genius – even if they are useless.
Jean Dubuffet, Max Ernst, Man Ray, the Marx
Brothers and Joan Miro were amongst other artists, intellectuals,
poets and writers who ascribed to this "college" of
Pataphysics, dedicated to the discovery of "imaginary solutions."
In the fifties and early sixties many European artists adopted
the conventions of scientific experimentation, instituting research
groups to study the properties of movement, sound and light, forming
an unprecedented partnership called Experiments in Art and Technology,
or E.A.T., and the composer John Cage adopted "chance"
as the opposite of rationality, applying it as rigorously as a
scientific principle or procedure.
Jean Tingueley’s (Swiss, 1925-1991) "Hatching
Egg," (1958), shown above, is a motor-driven "automaton"
constructed with painted metal and ply: its purpose, none whatsoever,
but it is wonderful.
One of the most amazing "sculptures"
in the show is Paul Bury’s (Belgian, 1922) motor driven construction
of plastic-tipped nylon wires in a wood panel, which twitches
ever so slightly here and there like insects feelers (Philip Johnson
Fund), shown above.
by Gianni Colombo (1937-1993), is a motor driven relief construction
of 174 plastic foam blocks, shown above, which look like marble,
gyrating about in a wood box.(Gift of Olivetti). No, it has no
function except to invite inquiry, but it would be such fun to
Finally, if one must choose from this ultimate
selection of grown-up toys, there is Paramarenko’s (Belgian,
1940) flying object, named "Rocket" (1969), shown above,
which looks like a cross between a giant insect and something
which might possibly fly (except that – you guessed –
it can’t), which he designed along with bombs and cars. They
are constructed out of balsa wood, paper and rubber, and he claimed
they could really function. There is a lot of fun stuff here,
made by very intelligent men and MoMA is a repository of objects
related directly to the College of "Pataphysics." It
would be something if the entire collection was given an airing
in roomier surroundings some day.
Willem de Kooning called critics and art historians
"bookkeepers," and what he held against them was their
need to categorize and "account" for the influences
and associations that appear to explain a given artist’s
work and its development. (See The City Review
article on de Kooning.) Artists are not so neat and tidy and
learn from, befriend and have an effect on others whose style
may not resemble their own at all. No matter, the historians must
assign the artists to movements, tendencies, "-isms"
to keep the columns straight and to categorize them.
The sorting out and assigning, which cannot
possibly show the regular visits to each others studios or hours
spent talking about art in downtown bars, has resulted in the
famous and familiar labels Abstract Expressionism or Action Painting,
Abstract Impressionism, Color Field, Hard Edge, Painterly Realism,
neo-Dada and Pop Art. Robert Storr (Senior Curator, Department
of Painting and Sculpture) has "improvised" a "New
York Salon," modeled on group shows of the period, which
is a reminder of how open and heterogeneous the scene was in the
heyday of the New York School.
Jackson Pollock’s (1912-1956) "Easter
and the Totems,"1953, which is the gift of Lee Krassner in
memory of Jackson Pollock echoes Lee Krassner’s own (1911-1984)
powerfully elegant "Untitled," 1951, shown above, and
gently reminds the viewer of their close partnership in life.
Louise Bourgeois’ (American, born France 1911) balsa wood
"Sleeping Figure,"(1950), stands totem-like beside Krassner’s
washes of blue and magenta stripes on a natural canvas ground;
both the artist and the sculptor’s work resonate as creative
kindred spirits, with Pollock hollering above them both. How his
work spins and tosses and ricochets…and Louise Bourgeois
This room sings with color, deep and sonorous
in Hans Hoffman’s (American, born Germany 1880-1966) "Cathedral,"(1959),
sprightly and gay in Joan Mitchell’s (1926-1992) magnified
Monet-esque brushstroked "Jumping Ladybug,"(1957) If
spirits live on, they are ebulliently present in this beautiful
selection of paintings; Mark Rothko’s mystical and mythic
(American, born Latvia 1903-1970) "Magenta, Black, Green
on Orange," (1949), transcends thoughts of why he committed
suicide; it is an alive and vibrant work of art, with such stature,
and a fitting place to bid farewell.
De Kooning did not have much patience for critics,
chroniclers and historians, so he would have appreciated the "devil
may care" attitude to dates and schools as presented in this
show; but strangely enough, the recurrent reminders of American
artists and sculptors born in other countries, the overlapping
dates of many of the artworks, and the universal themes they portray,
form a "history" of their own – a hodge-podge history
reminiscent of the rough and tumble, imperfect yet beautiful "modern"
world which is our own.
If the desire for an historical " picture
by picture" story of art persists, brushing up on the chronology
in an encyclopedia of art history from the 20s to the 60s will
save any disorientation the "multiplicity" of works
might induce. For those with some art history background, this
was a defining moment in the history of modern art, culminating
in the New York School, so named because the "movement"
took place right here in numerous New York studios, with a free
exchange of ideas amongst the artists. Some of the major players
of the "school" include the painters Jackson Pollock,
Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning and Frank Stella and the sculptors
Louise Bourgeois and David Smith.
No longer looking to Europe as the be-all and
end-all of the artistic world, but still respecting the historical
and traditional artistic legacy of European Art, the New York
School carved their own path in the American art landscape and
created a new and intensely individualistic visual language of
their own. This exhibit comes close to showing how many influences
were around them at the time, and how much their styles and philosophies
interacted with the "European" legacy and within their
own diverse painterly styles, like Action Painting (Pollock) or
"Color Field (Rothko) that later became known collectively
as the New York School.
In such a large show, there are bound to be
a few surprises and a few shockers. The "War" section
is very strong and the anatomy section a bit visceral. One of
the great delightful surprises is David Smith's beautiful gouache,
shown above, which is more sumptuous than his wonderful steel
sculptures (many of which are on view on the great roof terrace
of the Metropolitan Museum of Art during the summer of 2000).
One of the strongest works in the exhibition
is "Simultaneous Counter-Composition" by Theo van Doesburg
(1883-1931), shown above, part of the Sidney and Harriet Janis
Collection at the museum.
One of the few sections of the show that is
consistently of very high quality is the "Dream of Utopia,"
which features many great paintings by the Russian Constructivists
such as Kazimir Malevich, Eli Lissitzky (1890-1940), Liubov Sergeevna
Popova (1889-1924), Aleksandr Rodchenko (1891-1956) and Alexandra
Exter (1882-1949). Malevich is represented by several works, perhaps
an overreaction by the museum, not inappropriately, to its having
"lost" a major Malevich to the artist's heirs (see The City Review article on the major Phillips
Auction sale in the spring of 2000 in which the heirs sold the
Malevich for more than $17 million.)
Another fine Russian work is
Ivan Puni's "Suprematist Relief-Sculpture," shown above,
a reconstruction in the 1920s of an original executed in 1915.
There are a few familiar works in this show
- Andrew Wyeth's "Christina's World," Edwar Hopper's
painter of an usher at the Loew's Sheridan movie theater in Greenwich
Village, and René Magritte's "The False Mirror,"
and Jacques Lipchitz's "Figure" sculpture, "The
River" by Aristide Maillol (1861-1944), Jean Arp's "Two
Heads," Philip Johnson's model of his famous "glass
house" in New Canaan, Conn., and, of course, Ludwig Mies
van der Rohe's famous stainless steel and leather chair.
Many very fine works are scattered through
the exhibition such as "Pierced Circle" by Theodore
J. Roszak (1907-1981), a fine photograph by "Prisoner in
a Cell at Wormwood Scrubbs" by Bill Brandt (1904-1983), "Number
3," by Bradley Tomlin Walker (1899-1953), which are illustrated
in one of the catalogues, and "The Impossible III" by
Maria (Maria Martins)(1910-1973), "Lunar Asparagus"
by Max Ernst (1891-1976), a fine strong deep red painting by Arshile
Gorky (1904-48), "Uprising 1910" by Lyonel Feininger
(1871-1956), shown above, and "Armored Train in Action"
by Gino Severini (1883-1960), which are not illustrated in any
catalogue of this exhibition and which are among the finest works
in the entire show.
One comes away from these 24 exhibits rather
dizzy and not terribly enlightened for the quality of the individual
sections is very uneven, rather arbitrary and often not very well
focused. Perhaps the museum should have devoted this second major
part of the three-part series to works they own but have never
Overall, this is a somewhat frustrating exhibition
and many viewers will long for some intense Matisse, or even more
Picassos. So what else is new, this is the Museum of Modern Art
in New York. If we do not leapfrog old notions here, get a little
shocked and learn something new, chances are we never will.
There is nothing wrong with thematic rather
than historical or chronological exhibits as long as the quality
of the works is high and the juxtapositions are intriguing, surprising
and powerful. That is often not the case in this show. Furthermore,
while the notion of mixing small movie stills and photographs
with huge sculptures and canvases might seem good on paper it
often does not work all that well in a gallery, especially one
crowded with many works. There are too many exhibits and too much
"art" in this second exhibition. Still, how can one
not go and find something fabulous from such a collection....