To the Max

John Haber
in New York City

Max Ernst and Josef Albers in Mexico

Serkan Ozkaya as Marcel Duchamp

For a time, Max Ernst styled himself Dadamax, and no wonder. He threw himself heart and soul into Cologne Dada, which he had helped found. He shared its disdain for audiences that expect a "proper" form of art—the kind, no doubt, bearing the more dignified signature of someone named Ernst. Besides, he took everything to the max.

He also made the transition with others to Surrealism, rushing to join them in Paris in 1922. MoMA catches up with him in medium after medium and subject after subject. One may remember Modernism as a forced march—to a greater purity and from one wild experiment to another. Max Ernst's The King Playing with the Queen (Museum of Modern Art, 1944/1954)Yet Ernst played a part in many movements, just as Josef Albers, an icon of late modern purity, turns out to have relished ancient monuments and decorative art in Mexico. Meanwhile Serkan Ozkaya claims Marcel Duchamp for tradition and kitsch. Did they all play Modernism to the max?

Flowers, snakes, and toads

Max Ernst believed in movements and in the collision of art and words. One can see his disdain and disciplined excess in prints from 1920. Let There Be Fashion, the title proclaims. Down with Art. The series looks like a textbook in design or in higher mathematics—right down to unclothed mannequins, geometric constructions, and more or less meaningful formulas. Artist books also allowed him to work with everyone from Paul Eluard, the poet, to Antonin Artaud, the writer and provocateur.

Friends also allowed him multiple identities, as in To the Rendezvous of Friends Become Flowers, Snakes, and Toads. He produced that series alone, but with the help of countless quotations. It also points to his fascination with natural history as a field for transformations. A collage positions a boat with steam pouring out, beneath a fish or a beetle—and who is to say which gave birth to which? The show ends with 65 Maximiliana, ou l'Exercice Illégal de l'Astronomie. Again he is competing with science, and again he is taking things to the max.

"Beyond Painting" in fact has paintings as its high points. They add to the science project, with images after microbes. They also introduce Ernst's most disruptive media. Frottage, grattage, and decalcomania amount to rubbings, scrapings, and transfer from glass plates. Like collage, they replace the artist's hand with a process of addition and erasure. More composed paintings do not come off half as well, for all their pursuit of the luminous.

The Modern attempts a career survey solely from its holdings. It accords with a greater attention to its collection, as in exhibitions of "Dadaglobe" and women in abstraction. It could serve as a plea for its expansion now in progress—billed as a way of giving space at last to its core. Yet it risks an aborted retrospective. It has little background beyond the dates of his move to Paris, his escape to New York in 1941, and a return to France in 1953, more than twenty years before his death. Late work and books threaten to bury the more revolutionary painting, sculpture, and collage.

One could well define Ernst by what he is not. Born in 1891, he served in World War I but returned consumed not by the horrors of war, but by his art. Guilliame Apollinaire, who later coined the term Surrealism, had thrilled him as early as 1913, the year of Ernst's entry into the Berlin Salon. His postwar collage lacks the scraps of combat in Kurt Schwitters, the brutal face of the machine in Francis Picabia, or the poetry in Man Ray. His Surrealism lacks the existential puns in René Magritte or the dreams in Salvador Dalí. He turns his pointed sense of humor on high culture and the psyche.

He comes closest to terror in 1924 with Deux Enfants Menacés par un Rossignol (or "two children menaced by a nightingale"). Its heavy frame holds a gate onto a landscape of the mind, including a girl fleeing with a razor and much the same blade affixed to the front of a house. Yet its boy holding a small child has a toe on the roof like an accomplished dancer—and the outstretched arm of a football player barreling ahead. Terror and agency blend together again in the finest of Ernst's later sculpture, The King Playing with the Queen. The king is caught up in the game, perhaps a reference to a greater chess player in Marcel Duchamp. Who knows who is playing or playing with whom?

Homage to the sombrero

Josef Albers did not have a taste for monuments. He turned out thousands of paintings, not one privileged above the rest—and each resolutely abstract. Yet he and his wife, Anni, returned again and again to Mexico for its pyramids and temples. Their thirteen trips began in the winter of 1936, barely a year after their appointment at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, and continued for thirty years. They brought their relatives and another painter, Max Bill. They collected countless postcards and photographs, from such sites as the Temple of the Sun and Moon and the Avenue of the Dead.

"Josef Albers in Mexico" sees the trips as central to his art. The Guggenheim proceeds not chronologically, but by location. It displays his photos, interspersed with paintings on masonite and paper. It concludes with examples from his most influential series, the nested but not concentric shapes of Homage to the Square—begun in 1950 and continuing until his death in 1976. He had found "a country for art like no other." Had he also found the abstract vocabulary that he had sought all his life?

He was not the sort to worship "the primitive," unlike Pablo Picasso in encounters with African art. Yet he believed in fundamental laws for color and form, and how could those laws not extend to the deep past? They did, after all, extend to Mexican homes in the present, a source for his Variant/Adobe series starting in 1946. He took pre-Columbian art seriously, because he took everything seriously, but without concern for its place in another time or culture. His wife looked to tradition along with Modernism as well in her weaving, Josef Albers's Color Study for White Line Square (Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, 1976)although the show cannot find room for her at all. They pursued their variations on a theme like a ritual.

Albers may have been the most dogmatic of modernists, but he came by his dogma the hard way. The Nazis had closed the Bauhaus, where he and his wife taught, in 1933. He was in exile at forty-five, but he knew what he wanted from art. His nested but not concentric squares explore close and contrasting colors, but without the mysteries of rectangles for Mark Rothko—or the earthly surprises of black squares for Ad Reinhardt. He sticks to the plainest of geometry, like Donald Judd, but without Minimalism's way of getting in your face. He is just laying down the law.

Still, he kept returning to Mexico as a lifelong learner, much as he kept returning to his series. The curator, Lauren Hinkson, sees his cut-and-paste photos as collage, although he never exhibited them. One might better see them as research. He closed in on relief carvings to watch them unfold. He closed in on grand staircases or the space between pyramids for the staggered rectangles, V-shapes, and shadows. Their pairings with his paintings can feel arbitrary, but they point to growth in his art. Albers found in them what he wanted, but he found something nonetheless.

He doted on every painting in Homage to the Square without thought that they were becoming a postmodern wet dream of endless reduplication, but they disrupted symmetry all the same—and so did the rest of his art. Some mazes look like Op Art, and shapes set at nearly right angles verge on 3D. An early Tierra Verde has enough brushwork for the promised texture of green earth. He sets small paired rectangles in larger fields like windows or doors. No doubt he would have found them wherever he looked, even had he stayed home, because fundamental laws are like that, and so are stubborn artists. At the end, though, the most finicky designs disappear, and the squares take the translucency of oil.

Art as a given

Who knew that Nude Descending a Staircase landed flat on her back? Who knew, too, that the artist who did so much to bring Cubism to America ended up a purveyor of porn and schlock? At least it felt that way at his death in 1968, when others discovered what Marcel Duchamp had been doing for twenty years besides playing chess. The founder of Dada had seemed to live up to its promise—by refusing to make art. With his studio in today's East Village, he had disdained the role of an elder statesman in his lifestyle as well. Yet behind its walls lay a surprise.

One could see it from a pair of peepholes, as Etant Donnés—in full, Etant donnés: 1. La chute d'eau, 2. Le gaz d'éclairage ("Given: 1. the waterfall, 2. the lamp"). The assemblage contains a nude with her head cut off, her crotch toward the viewer, and an arm holding out the gas lamp of its full title. She also opens onto a garish environment, from a bed of twigs to a grotto in unseemly colors. One could also turn up a record of its making, in studies, body casts, Polaroids, notes, and erotica. Duchamp and his wife had been scavenging New York for its pieces. Love it or hate it, take it as a given.

Like it or not, too, it came to the Philadelphia Museum of Art by the terms of his estate. The exponent of anti-art had become reconciled to his place in art history—or had he? Had he changed his mind, or had he found a new way to refuse the terms of the art world? Did he mean it when he wrote that he based the body on a lover and the arm on his wife, or was he making fun of desire in art, only starting with the peepholes? Had he reneged on Nude Descending a Staircase or finally delivered on its title? Would the earlier work have shocked so many without its title, which managed to offend both those fearing indecency and those who hated a woman's body reduced to abstraction? Could those very questions explain an otherwise inexplicable work? Marcel Duchamp's Etant Donnés (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1946–1966)

Now Serkan Ozkaya poses another question as well, as We Will Wait. He adds a room to his gallery for a full-blown recreation, much as Duchamp added a room to his studio. And he proposes that the work's real significance lies in its projection through the peepholes onto the viewer's side of the barrier. It holds, he announces, a face. Tired of debates over just how much Jan Vermeer relied on a camera obscura? For Duchamp, Ozkaya proposes, the camera obscura was itself the art.

He says that he pursued the question with curators in Philadelphia, who declined to follow through. If that sounds like a euphemism for their dismissing him as a crackpot, they had every reason. Ozkaya takes from the work its most prominent component, a worn but impressive wood door out front, which Duchamp had found in Spain. He separates the work from everything that one can normally see, in favor of something more like the face of Jesus in the Shroud of Turin. He muddles the whole idea of a camera obscura—by turning its pinhole into two larger holes and its dark chamber into the bright open room of the Philadelphia Museum. He produces a blur that looks about as much like a face as the nude's tortured body.

He also adds a layer of porn to Duchamp's, in pretend scholarship. In contrast to the dense recreation in a room that one cannot enter, he opens with a spare installation of such objects as another gas lamp. They seem much of a piece with a companion exhibition out front, where a group called Ab[Screenwear] have created a clothing store with its own side chamber, a dressing room. Then again, could Ozkaya believe not a word of this? Could he be as eager as Duchamp to take one in? That aura of the sacred as the ultimate porn might hold the clue to the last century's strangest work of art.

BACK to John's arts home page

Max Ernst ran at The Museum of Modern Art through January 1, 2018, Josef Albers at The Soloman R. Guggenheim Museum through February 18. Serkan Ozkaya ran at Postmasters through November 25, 2017. The review of Ozkaya first appeared in a slightly different form in Artillery magazine.


Browse or Search by artist or critic Browse by period in art's histories Browse by postmodern ideas Check out what's NEW Some of my own favorites Museums, galleries, and other resources online Who is Haberarts? Return HOME