MoMA Plus

MoMA Plus

Wilkin, Karen

MoMA Plus

THE BIG NEWS OF THE PAST SEASON WAS, of course, the much-anticipated reopening of the new, enlarged and refurbished Museum of Modern Art. “Have you seen it yet?” was the question most heard at almost any gathering in the weeks surrounding November 20, the official date of opening to the public, and nothing elicited such admiration or envy as being able to say “Oh yes. Several times.”

The verdict was almost unanimous: Yoshio Taniguchi’s elegant new building is a great success, a splendid, major presence in Midtown Manhattan that should enter the public consciousness the way Rockefeller Center has. From the 53rd Street side, the façade is now a series of nicely related but distinct entities, each with a different material palette and different scale, all coexisting harmoniously. The Philip Johnson addition to the east, with its large, dark window frames, and the Taniguchi building to the west, with its ribbed overdoor panel and its inky surface, work together to bracket César Pelli’s Museum Tower, with its patchwork of moody greys, and the newly pristine façade of the original building, its sensuous canopy again back in place, along with a curving wooden entrance desk that evokes the original. From 54 Street, the building is a unified whole, an expanse of sleek, dark granite panels, meticulously butted together, punctuated by the grilles of the garden wall. The restored Philip Johnson sculpture garden hasn’t looked this good in decades. It is once again a true oasis of rationality in the heart of the city, cleared of the encroachments of previous additions, and framed by the two wings of the museum-the Taniguchi building with seductive overhangs and terraces-and by the long, inner façade of the original building and the Johnson addition, transformed into planes of pale fritted glass and divided by a fine-tuned grid of astonishingly delicate mullions. “Delicate,” “elegant,” and “refined,” are the adjectives that keep coming to mind throughout the building. Even the barriers that keep visitors at a safe distance from the floor-to-ceiling windows that punctuate the galleries (to allow you to orient yourself, to refer to the garden, and to link the invented worlds of the works on exhibit with the reality of Midtown Manhattan) are as seemingly fragile and disciplined as the mullions that divide the glass.

The celebrated Philip Johnson garden is again populated by sculptures generations of New Yorkers have grown up with-Moore’s seated figures, Maillol’s back-flung bather, Lachaise’s voluptuous nude, Picasso’s bony goat. There are more recent additions, too, such as David Smith’s hieratic stainless steel constructions and Anthony Caro’s poised arrangement of I-beams in radiant yellow (the latter, a powerful, seminal work, could, however, use some loving repairs). Rodin’s brooding Balzac looms magnificently over the transition between lobby and garden. Throughout the new building, the galleries are handsome and well proportioned, with subtle, beautifully honed details and good lighting. While it is clear that being able to accommodate crowds and keep them moving were considerations, the new galleries make themselves subservient to the art installed in them-with splendid effect. The restored, expanded exhibition spaces dedicated to drawing, photography, and prints and illustrated books, in the old building and in the base of the Pelli residential tower, are equally successful-more intimate, and sometimes a little domestic in mood, for a nice change of pace. That they flank the iconic staircase of the original museum, now looking crisp and spiffy, makes this zone of the new MoMA even more special. Everything seems clear, logical, and intelligently conceived. And joy of joys, nothing swoops, morphs, or is deliberately clunky, a happy omen for art museums to be designed in the near future.

Art and objects look extremely good in the new MoMA. Not only is there room for many works that have not before been up on a regular basis (or at all), but the sequence of spaces also allows the story of modernism to be told in a more complex way than was possible previously. Interesting connections are suggested by the views from gallery to gallery (through deep doorways that hide all essential technology of the modern museum behind suavely proportioned panels of white bronze and aluminum). The resulting account of the history of modern art, a little ragged and messy, is probably closer to the truth of how things developed in relation over the past century or so than the neat progression suggested (of necessity) by the old, linear sequence of galleries. But the heart of the museum is reassuringly unchanged: pride of place is still given to the much-beloved masterworks with which the story of modernism has long been told at MoMA.

There’s a palpable sense of familiarity and exaltation when you enter the fifth-floor gallery with which the story begins, a stunning room dedicated mainly to the museum’s spectacular holdings of Cézanne and Seurat, with a nice segue to Gauguin. The Picasso and Cubism rooms that expand on the tale are equally wonderful; the Matisse room and its subsidiaries, which suggest the conversations between Matisse and Picasso, and Matisse and Bonnard, are glorious. As you move closer to the present, on the fourth floor, American Abstract Expressionism is thoughtfully accounted for, culminating in a Pollock room that is simply dazzling. David Smith is similarly well served. But not everything is quite so impeccable. There’s almost no American modernism before Abstract Expressionism, apart from a few token works, most of them, depressingly, relegated to the corridor. There’s no sense that anything much happened after Abstract Expressionism, either, except Pop and Minimalism; there are two fine canvases by Kenneth Noland and Frank Stella, but they are presented in the guise of Minimalism. An interesting grouping underscores the crosscurrents of the early 1950s by bringing together Matisse’s cutout, Souvenir de l’Océanie, a lively Hans Hofmann, a Morris Louis veil, and a freewheeling Helen Frankenthaler, among other things, so you assume that there will be some emphasis on the way Matisse’s legacy transformed American abstraction, but it never happens. You search in vain for works by such innovative color painters as Jules Olitski or Larry Poons. A late Milton Avery, both very personal and very Matissian, is hung elsewhere. Other figurative alternatives to Abstract Expression are similarly downplayed. The most depressing thing is that among living artists only Jasper Johns and to a much lesser extent Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly are acknowledged to have had an evolution over many years. Everyone else is represented by one work. Period.

And since I’m complaining, neither the long entry lobby, nor the dramatic central atrium, nor the connections between them are as satisfyingly proportioned as the galleries themselves. (“Not right,” was the verdict of an Irish sculptor with an acute eye for scale, and “Baggy,” the description of a perceptive architect friend.) I’m willing to be polite about the installation in the atrium. There really is nowhere else Barnett Newman’s immense Broken Obelisk could go, and Monet’s threepart Waterluies is an obvious choice as a link between past and present, although it looks a bit overexposed in the vast, soaring space. (I’ll ignore the selection of companion works, which I assume will be changed over time.) I can’t be polite about the contemporary galleries that adjoin the atrium on the second floor-the first level of exhibitions. Granted, the mere existence of a suite of good-looking, large, high-ceilinged, column-free spaces on the second floor of a tall tower is something to be marveled at, even applauded, but just now, the gallery spaces themselves are largely far more interesting than what is in them. With a few exceptions, MoMA’s contemporary collection is predictable and less than inspired-or inspiring. Of course, it can be argued that the problem is not MOMA’s selection, but what there is to select from, in these difficult times, or-to be truly unkind-what collector-trustees committed to the modish think there is to select from. But on balance, these are quibbles. The rest is so good that I am willing to be patient and see how things evolve. In the meantime, I’m going to start on a higher floor on return visits.

MoMA’s slighting of color-driven abstraction, in both painting and sculpture, is all the more conspicuous for anyone who caught “Art and the 60s: This Was Tomorrow,” at Tate Britain last season, an exuberant celebration of the vital, “transgressive” work-from graphic design and photography to painting, sculpture, and architecture-produced during the heady years of “Swinging London.” (When I visited, the audience seemed made up about equally of those of us old enough to have been bowled over by the Beatles when they first burst on the scene-I made my first trip to London, as a student, in the early 1960s-and trendy youngsters eager to find more about the legendary past.) Not surprisingly, given today’s art world’s fascination with subtexts, selfrevelation, and agendas, the show placed heavy emphasis on work that lent itself to explication-images driven by politics or protest, for example-but “straight” painting and sculpture also received its due. A strong case was made for the primacy of British Pop Art and its independence from its American equivalent, through early works by Richard Hamilton, Peter Blake, and David Hockney. Brash early efforts by then young abstract painters including Gillian Ayers, Frank Bowling, John Hoyland, Howard Hodgkin, and their colleagues bore witness to the energy of the decade, through works that often seemed either to reflect contemporary and near-contemporary American painting or to challenge it overtly.

For many of us, the most exciting, original, and enduring work of the period was the sculpture made by Anthony Caro and a group of his students at St. Martin’s School of Art during a period now regarded as the institution’s glory years. While these were rather summarily dealt with (like just about everything else in a show that struggled to be comprehensive), it was nonetheless good to see one of Caro’s first constructions in steel, a still surprising, unignorable structure, more place than object; almost forty-five years after its conception, this exploration of how one piece of painted metal reaching across space to touch another can be made a carrier of eloquent feeling still looked bold and fresh. (The wall texts’ equation of Caro’s use of steel with the persistence of London bomb sites and scrap heaps into the 1960s seemed simplistic and beside the point.) It was good, too, to see a selection of the still arresting sculptures of some of Caro’s former students, including David Annesley, Philip King, Tim Scott, and William Tucker; their uninhibited combinations of unlikely materials-plastic, glass, painted steel, and polychromed wood-seemed to test the possibilities of what abstract sculpture can be.

A time-line at the entrance to “Art and the 60s: This Was Tomorrow” tracked the decade’s manifestations in the media, using newspaper headlines, news photos, magazine covers, record albums, and the like, to document such key phenomena as the construction of the Berlin Wall, Carnaby Street fashion, miniskirts, the Fab Four, and the Rolling Stones. Like the show that followed, the introduction was a little hit or miss, often amusing, and sometimes very informative-not a complete accounting but an interesting start.

Back on this side of the Atlantic, the inauguration of Betty Cunningham Gallery, in one of the handsomest and least pretentious of “grand scale” Chelsea spaces, was undoubtedly THE event of the fall season, pre-MoMA. The crush of art world notables-artists, museum directors, critics, curators, dealers, collectors-and general well-wishers who turned out to cheer Cunningham’s opening show, a selection of Rackstraw Downes’s meticulously painted, eerie views of urban and rural wastelands, was visible proof of the high esteem and affection in which both the dealer and the artist are held by their peers and colleagues, although it must be admitted that you tended to hear references to “Betty’s opening” as often as to “Rackstraw’s” as you shoved through the crowd. Either way, the exhibition was one of this fascinating painter’s strongest, a knockout assembly of works from 1999 to the present, including views of bleak parts of the Texas landscape, scenes of forgotten zones under New York el trestles, and images of the fragile expanses of recent plantings at New Jersey’s Liberty Park. Downes makes compelling paintings out of the most unpromising subjects, turning an apparently dispassionate but acute eye on unlovely industrial zones, blank expanses, and urban fringes, and somehow turning what should be a deadpan accounting of what fashionable young artists call “information” into poetic, reticent, often disquieting images.

Nothing is ever quite what you think it is. Viewpoints shift minutely in pictures of similar subjects; the time of day changes, altering tonality, the direction of shadows, hues. Surfaces are deliberately self-effacing. Everything seems effortless, until you begin to concentrate on the subtlety of the modulations and what it takes to achieve them, yet the overwhelming effect is of transparency, stylelessness. At times, it seems as though Downes is determined to make pictures of nothing that demand that you keep looking. Just when you are convinced that the painter is obsessed only in recording the nuances of how light falls on things you can’t imagine being interested in, he convinces you not only of the urgency of his task, but also that a desolate slice of nowhere is the most absorbing thing you’ve ever seen. In his most powerful works, a hard-to-articulate visual order, achieved equally through orchestrations of tone, incisive drawing, and willful intelligence, makes even the most seemingly random view seem inevitable and surprising. Downes is a kind of modern-day Vermeer, a painter who prolongs moments without obvious significance and makes them seem overwhelmingly important, if ultimately inexplicable.

Cunningham’s second show, “Joan Snyder: Women Make Lists,” works from 2002 to 2004, was 180 degrees away from the Downes’s exhibition-abstract, very much about the physicality of materials, a little aggressive. Much has been written about Snyder’s pivotal role in the feminist art movement, so it would be appropriate to probe this aspect of her recent work, but I confess to being allergic to the rhetoric of just about any ideology, however worthy or important to the artist. Happily, Snyder’s strongest pictures did not depend for their impact or their staying power on such considerations. They spoke for themselves in purely visual terms, without any need of bolstering explications, so I feel justified in neglecting to dig for subtexts. Whatever the rich and multiple associations of Snyder’s rows of repeated marks-now tightly ordered, now hovering on the brink of chaos-the drama of the paintings depended on the contrast between fluid runs of paint and thick clumps, dry lumps and papery crumples, stains and applied “relics.” Everyone will read something slightly different into these evocative “lists”; the important thing is their power to trigger those myriad allusions.

Many of the paintings included labels or messages, to reinforce their wordless associations, but I found I preferred the pictures in which Snyder trusted her ability to make paint and marks carry her convictions, and either dispensed with the written word or obscured it in some way. These pictures seemed more ambiguous, hence more mysterious and less narrowly focused than those in which she directed her viewers, admittedly poetically and obliquely, to consider specific ideas. At her best, Snyder offered more than enough provocation in wholly painterly terms to be able to downplay texts: her panoply of collaged materials, from herbs to “jewels” to bandage-like strips of cloth, her odd palette of Rococo pastels, rosy greys, and visceral reds, or her juicy paint handling. The range of moods, scales, and emotional temperatures in the recent work was particularly impressive. A tiny-a twelve-inch-square-painting, Little Grand, 2003, was an angry, centralized splatter of orangey red and alizarin, part flower, part wound, part anatomy, surrounded by runic (or maybe physiological) squirming dark marks; the six-by-tenfoot Anliquarium Lacrimae (The Tears of Ancient Women), 2004, was a radiant, unstable palimpsest of broad blue and yellow strokes, layered with sloping, semi-obscured inscriptions, runs and rivulets of paint, dotted with those signature rose-wound-lips. Everything seemed about to slide out of the confines of the picture; only the red, oozing blobs appeared to hold things in place, like fasteners organized on an overscaled, almost incomprehensible grid. So far, Cunningham is two for two. We’ll all be watching attentively for her next show.

Uptown, a trio of shows by Bryan Hunt, Frank Stella, and Milton Avery, at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, Jacobson Howard, and Knoedler & Company, respectively, added a grace note to the fall season. At Mitchell-Innes & Nash, a group of Hunt’s tapering, oval “Airships,” mostly from the 1970s-among the first works to establish his reputation-seemed to hover, a little below the ceiling, their delicate noses touching the gallery walls, their “bodies” straining slightly upward, like zeppelins temporarily docked and trying to break free. Hunt’s appealing objects are engaging by themselves, but being seen in modest groups, such as the selection on view last fall, enhances them. In groups, small differences between sculptures become acutely important: whether a nose is tapered or blunt, whether the flanks of a facetted oval body flatten or swell. Differences in surface, color, patina, and texture, as well as variations in proportions, similarly gain significance. In the context of the recent show, the contrast between a matte, scrubby white and a faintly metallic surface seemed overwhelming, even though their effect on perceptions of form was similar; the former had associations with paper, which accentuated the sculpture’s apparent fragility, while the latter invoked the weightlessness of gold leaf. A single work in which Hunt abandoned the dominant slender oval of his Airships-a “deconstructed” zeppelin, its narrow fuselage sliced, offset, and recombinedbecame, in relation to its fellows, a radical reinvention of formal language.

Jacobson Howard’s installation of Stella’s 1999 Marquise of O paintings presented him simultaneously at his most raucous and most lyrical. The series expands on the collage theme that has preoccupied Stella for the past decade or so. You recognize the computer-generated warped grids, the spotty patterns apparently built out of the process colors of commercial printing, the obsessive concentric “smoke rings,” of his recent vocabulary-and more-all jammed together to flirt with illusionism at the same time that they deny its possibility. Swirling lines that demand to be read as inflected three-dimensional references suddenly flatten and resume their existence as patterns on cutout shapes. Cumulatively, Marquise of O pictures read, improbably, as at once packed and airy, disorienting and clear-headed, brutal and beautiful. Individually, they are slow paintings that insist on the viewer’s investing a considerable amount of time, if they are to yield any clues to their inner logic. Eventually, however, the series amply demonstrates Stella’s inimitable combination of ferocious visual intelligence, inventiveness, and what can only be called jem’enfou-ism-“don’t give a damn-ism.” It’s as though he were willing to push his pictures so far towards chaos that they might possibly emerge on the other side, in some mirror-image universe in which the Dionysian becomes the Apollonian.

Knoedler’s ravishing exhibition of the work of Milton Avery, “Onrushing Waves,” did the impossible: it brought together about half a dozen of the painter’s large, economical sea paintings of the 1950s and early 1960s-the pared-down, radiant images that were Avery’s challenge to his abstract painter colleagues and that in recent years have become among his best-known and most-admired works-and managed to produce some surprises. Some of the pictures had near-icon status in the Avery oeuvre, such as the delicious 1960 painting of two full-bellied pink sails against a brushy spring green sea, or the amazing 1958 “unpainting” of a breaking wave, reduced to a spiky white shape framed by staccato blue-grey strokes above and a stutter of light grey squiggles below. But there were also less familiar, equally powerful canvases, notably a wonky tour de force, also from 1958, in which diagonal zones of rose beige and dull ultramarine were threaded by fingers of white, like sea foam, or a Marin-like picture from 1952 in which the swirl of turbulent surf on rocks was translated into a constellation of angular grey and green shapes, floating in dirty whites and framed by a dark jagged edge, like the mouth of a seaside grotto.

Related watercolors and notebook drawings set the paintings in context and reminded you of just how much time Avery and his family spent by the sea. The exhibition as a whole reminded you, too, of how much some of the most exciting American modernists learned from Matisse, without ceding any of their own individuality. And it made you regret even more MoMA’s lost opportunity in the opening installation. What would it take to convince the museum to install a gallery dedicated to the relationship between the American heirs to Matisse’s legacy and their chosen ancestor? It could be a remarkable show.

Copyright Hudson Review Winter 2005

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