8.4.17 — Making Space in Abstraction

Maybe the Museum of Modern Art is finally getting the point. It has begun focusing on its collection, which got short shrift in its 2004 expansion.

It has done so with special exhibitions to illuminate movements in modern art. And now it headlines not a period in history, but women in abstract art. While the show pays only token attention to African Americans, take heart: as I noted in an earlier report, a Chelsea gallery has William T. Williams ripping through many of the same years. Together they belong now to a longer review and my latest upload.

Magdalena Abakanowicz's Yellow Abakan (Museum of Modern Art, 1967–1968)Making Space” does not try to pick winners in the contemporary scene, through August 13—although women have done plenty to drive the resurgence of painting. MoMA has been picking winners for a long time, but that is starting to look more suspect in a hot market with a short memory. Rather, it tackles the glory years of postwar abstraction and Minimalism. With “Women of Abstract Expressionism” in Denver or Carmen Herrera at the Whitney, maybe other institutions are getting the point, too. The display of the collection quite generally will be changing as well—and the changes are rubbing off on men.

The show calls attention to past practices as well. When critics object to a paucity of women in museums, they almost always mean MoMA. Recently women have seemed to be everywhere, but here mostly as Marina Abramovic staring off into space. The good news is that more than third of this show consists of fairly recent acquisitions. The bad news is what that says about the last forty years, after paintings by Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, and Agnes Martin shaped a generation’s understanding of postwar art. With shows like this, they could shape a new generation’s understanding now.

Not that MoMA was ever out of the picture. It says as much with the exhibition title, which recalls the standard history of abstraction as formalism, as well as the need to make room for women. It says so, too, in mentioning exhibitions going back to 1951. It cites “Abstraction in Photography” when it comes to Barbara Morgan and Gertrude Altschul, “The Responsive Eye” when it comes to Bridget Riley and Op Art, and “Wall Hangings” when it comes to Sheila Hicks and Anni Albers—who had served as acting director of the weaving workshop at the Bauhaus. It opens with big gestures in red, blue, and green by Grace Hartigan, whose work toured the country in “New American Painting” starting in 1956. She was the sole woman present.

Coming late to the game has its advantages at that. Like prior shows of “Dadaglobe” and “The Revolutionary Impulse,” it allows the curators, Starr Figura and Sarah Hermanson Meister, to bring history up to date. They devote nearly a room to Latin American art, including Altschul, Lygia Clark, Lygia Pape, and Gego. They incorporate design with ceramics by Lucie Rie and again with tapestry in a room for “Fiber and Line,” including a grand cape of rumpled sisal by Magdalena Abakanowicz. They can even distance themselves from formalism by calling the last room “Eccentric Abstraction”—for such figures as Lee Bontecou, Jay DeFeo, Louise Bourgeois, Lynda Benglis, and Eva Hesse. The very first room bows to globalism with Etel Adnan, born in Lebanon, and to African Americans, with Alma Thomas.

A revisionist history is bound to bring surprises, even with work acquired long ago. That first room counters the epic scale of Abstract Expressionism with collage by Anne Ryan and Janet Sobel, perhaps the first drip painter. The show leaves out Hesse’s large work in favor of hanging paper-mâché and cord, created at an abandoned German textile factory. I already hear cries to move all this immediately to the regular galleries, displacing as many men as possible, to get a revisionist history going there, too. That would be a mistake. This is not a zero-sum game at the expense of men who changed the rules—and it is not another round of puffery and pop stars.

Does MoMA have a distinct vision of women in art? Maybe or maybe not, and either can be the point of giving them their due. One can argue that all along, as with Mitchell or Krasner’s Gaea, they have rooted abstraction in both subjectivity and nature. One can again argue for riffs on craft, such as polyurethane Belly-Cushions by Alina Szapocznikow. One can also argue for women as outsiders, including Jews who escaped Europe—with Szapocznikow a Holocaust survivor. Male immigrants like Arshile Gorky would understand.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

7.26.17 — A Proper Burial

More than thirty years ago, painting was dead, and a woman in her thirties was determined to give it a decent burial. Louise Lawler photographed a painting by Jackson Pollock at his peak, but hanging above fine porcelain in the home of Connecticut collectors.

A soup tureen’s delicacy all but subsumes Pollock’s drips in its pattern. Is this the proper decor for a funeral parlor or what? Also in 1984, Lawler photographed a flag painting by Jasper Johns above monogrammed bedding—both as white as a sheet. May it rest in peace. Louise Lawler's Monogram (courtesy of the artist/Metro Pictures, 1984)

Not that painting had ever died, although all the right people declared it dead, and I had to pursue abstract art to Staten Island in the 1990s for the first hints of its resurgence. Lawler and others, though, were prepared to bring the death blow as well as the funeral. The “Pictures generation,” named for an exhibition curated by Douglas Crimp, saw painting as one more great white male institution in crisis—and who better to rise up against it than a woman with a camera like Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons, Sherrie Levine, or Lawler. She did the deed well, too, for her image of Connecticut is instantly recognizable today. It is recognizable even traced on vinyl, in a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art through July 30, curated by Roxana Marcoci with Kelly Sidley.

Just the year before, in 1983, Crimp wrote “The Museum in Ruins” for a book edited by Hal Foster. And no wonder, for postmodern art and critical theory were then learning from and encouraging one another. So why does the museum look very much intact, even when Lawler takes one behind the scenes for, ambiguously, a taking down or an installation? Her photographs from the 1980s and 1990s occupy the show’s first room—some more recently enlarged to the scale of walls. Some are distorted in the process, which she deems a response to distortions of another kind, in fact-free politics after Donald J. Trump. A second room has the tracery and “ephemera,” such as announcements of past exhibitions.

Lawler takes down the “originality of the avant-garde“—not just with her photographs, but also in the spirit of collaboration. She casts leaf shapes in bronze with Alan McCollum and engages Jon Buller, a children’s book illustrator, to do the tracing. She photographs a painting by Robert Rauschenberg that already appropriates Peter Paul Rubens. She also packs a mean spirit when she cares to do so, as with the white globes of an art handler—or in pairing Jackie Kennedy with a Nazi. Titles ask whether Marilyn Monroe and Andy Warhol make you cry, and the obvious answer is no. How, then, did painting and sculpture escape death?

For one thing, no one ever doubted that art depends on patronage. Pollock made do with far less than the bounty of Renaissance princes before him—or of art fairs, art advisors, and museum blockbusters today, when The New York Times interviews celebrities each week about what hangs on their walls. In contrast to her obviousness, Lawler can also come off as more insular than a private dealer. Wall labels follow the money trail, naming the owners of all her prints from editions of five. They do not, though, offer the least help in identifying the art on camera. If you have to ask. . . .

To her credit, she freely admits her complicity in the game. When she makes a glass paperweight from a photo of Dan Flavin, his lights shimmer. She picks co-conspirators like Sherman as subjects, transforms the name of male competitors into bird calls for the museum’s sculpture garden (in a recreation of sound art from 1972 and 1981), and includes stationery and custom matchbooks for her gallery. One matchbook even gives the retrospective its title, “Why Pictures Now.” So why return to “Pictures” now, and did Lawler’s generation kill art only with kindness? May it rest on museum walls in peace.

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5.1.17 — Straight in the Eye

“Whoever looks you straight in the eye is mad.” Roland Barthes was describing the power of photography to picture a life fully apart from our own.

For Geoff Dyer, though, the ultimate photograph captures someone who can never look you in the eye. It only seems that the person can, with the eerie stare of the blind. Would he care that an entire exhibition at MoMA refuses to look back? John Gossage's Monumentbrucke (Museum of Modern Art, 1982)Walker Evans hid his camera under his coat, because nothing else would allow his subjects to speak for themselves.

In Camera Lucida, Barthes confesses to his inability to approach photography that pictures anything but lives. For him, it is about the “enthusiastic commitment” to human society, or studium, as revealed in the punctum—a telling object, a passing glance, or a transient moment. It remembers “the people, the entertainments, the books, the clothes.” Dyer might well agree, in The Ongoing Moment, but he finds its ultimate expression in a blind woman as seen by Paul Strand. Photographers keep returning to the blind, he argues, because they are always engaged in the encounter between the camera and its unwitting subject.

Neither Barthes nor Dyer has much patience for photography about anything other than people. Robert B. Menschel sure does, though, in the five hundred photos that he has donated to the Museum of Modern Art—well over a hundred in the last year alone. A selection as “The Shape of Things,” through May 7, has a special fondness for photographers out to catalog things in themselves. It includes Jules Janssen, with his sky atlas spanning seventeen years, through 1894. It includes Charles Marville in the 1870s, out to document every design of street lamps in Paris, and Bernd and Hilla Becher with their obsession with water towers one hundred years later. It includes Charles Harry Jones around 1900, with onions too pristine ever to eat.

People are surprisingly hard to come by and never quite themselves. Dora Maar photographs a worker, but with his head lost in a manhole, and Weegee a man cross-dressing—not because he is transgender, but because he cares too much for performing to worry about his authentic self. John Coplans treats his own back as an obstacle or a blank palimpsest, his fists raised above. Robert Frank turns to Times Square at night, but from a distance and in a blur. An-My Lê photographs the Mojave Desert as a site for combat exercises, with the emphasis on exercises rather the dangers of combat. David Leventhal goes the next step, to toy soldiers for his apparent scene of war.

They still testify to a sexual or cultural context, indirectly or not. Yet they largely avoid documentary or commercial photography, with the allure of politics, portraiture, and fashion. John Gossage sees the city from behind the support for a bridge, its lives cut off by a thick black cross. Hans Bellmer sees sex itself as akin to a mechanical ballet. Harry Callahan seems least at ease with his own wife. William Wegman may come closest to other genres, but with his dog—posing on a couch after Gustave Courbet or balancing a book on its head like an aspiring model.

The show falls in three sections, but their stated chronology quickly falls apart. “Truthful Representation” begins with William Fox Talbot in 1843, with a street as Pencil of Nature, and ostensibly ends in 1930. “Directorial Modes” turns to the recent past, with truth or representation now in scare quotes. In between come “Personal Expressions,” but a photograph from any date can appear anywhere. The collection’s heroes fall in the middle section—with decades of blank facades from Callahan, sidewalk smears from Aaron Siskind, and torn posters from Lee Friedlander. The curators, Quentin Bajac with Katerina Stathopoulou, do not hesitate to note the parallel shift in painting from Abstract Expressionism to Pop Art.

They supply a history of photography for all that, although almost without color. Even a still life by Jan Groover appears in black and white, while a glass of water from Neil Winokur is downright shocking in its blue. They also tell a human story after all, but one of the passage of time—like buildings new to Paris in the 1890s, but now as picturesque as can be, or the George Washington Bridge for Berenice Abbott in 1936, when it was still the shock of the new. The show’s title derives from paired photos by Carrie Mae Weems of African forts. One has its gate facing front, promising an entry or a haven in the present, while the other stands as mud pillars, like totems from an ancient civilization. Ultimately, the title derives from The Shape of Things to Come, by H. G. Wells, but without its last two words. In a photograph, what was to come is already the past.

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4.19.17 — The Museum as Showroom

The Museum of Modern Art may not work terribly well as a space for its collection or indeed for art. It could, though, make a terrific showroom. MoMA supplies a thoroughly mainstream history of “the modern interior,” and surprise: it looks a lot like high-end commerce today—and I have added this to an earlier report on Pierre Chareau in modern architecture and design as a longer review and my latest upload.

Imagine MoMA’s embrace of Björk as just one step toward merchandising the entire collection. Imagine the atrium as a trade fair, with Kai Althoff upstairs in charge of its warehouse. And now the third floor is itself a furniture showroom, through April 23, as “How Should We Live?Marcel Breuer's Wassily Chair (Museum of Modern Art, 1927–1928)IIt shows some of the twentieth century’s best-known architects and designers coming together for shared projects and a more widely shared style. t shows coveted names, like Eero Saarinen for his womb chair by or Isamu Noguchi for his cylinder table lamp, more often than rare finds. Yet it also shows architecture and design coming together on behalf of a space for living.

It is not, though, easy to pin down. It is not about individual careers or a fuller history of modern design. You can enter its maze of model rooms and display shelves at any point, and you can leave thinking of it all as a single high-end design center somewhere today. It is not about a movement or a school, like the Bauhaus, although Mies van der Rohe and Marcel Breuer loom large. Half a dozen contributors riff on the former’s tube chairs, while Breuer enters modestly enough with a tea cart. With details down to door handles, a food grinder, an old black telephone, a Bakelite radio, and a bedframe, nothing is beneath attention.

For all that, it is also not quite about transforming the modern city, although Le Corbusier brings his influence as well, along with that bedframe. We in the show’s title is ambiguous: while these designers are posing questions for modern life, they are often designing homes for themselves or each other. The exhibition takes its title from a poster by Willi Baumeister, bearing a slashing red X—which the curators, Juliet Kinchin with Luke Baker, take to stand for a century at a crossroads. Mostly, though, it has already made its choices, to the point that visitors may feel right at home. You may want to plop down in one of those steel and leather chairs.

And you can, for the show also recreates a 1927 Velvet and Silk Café by Lilly Reich with Mies furniture—with fresh coffee from stylish drip pots and a lovely view of the sculpture garden below. Much else, too, showcases the work of women, often in collaboration. Early on, Eileen Gray furnishes a vacation home for an architect and editor, Jean Badovici, and Grete Schütte-Lihotzky designs a Frankfurt kitchen. During the Depression, Anni Albers (an abstract artist in her own right) provides upholstery and wall coverings for her husband Josef, Aino and Alvar Aalto form their design company, and Marguerita Mergentine remodels an apartment for Frederick Kiesler. Later Charlotte Perriand works with Le Corbusier on student bedrooms at the Maison du Brésil in Paris, and Florence Knoll devises the display space with Herbert Matter for an actual New York showroom. As one last collaboration, Ray and Charles Eames tackle prefab housing in LA, with colorful grids after Piet Mondrian.

They have much in common beyond tube chairs. They prefer plain geometry and bare tables, but with organic forms in art on the wall—including a still life by Arshile Gorky and a tapestry by Jan Arp. They tend, too, toward small apartments even by New York standards, and Philip Johnson works out his thoughts right here in the city. The common elements also suggest common tensions within Modernism. Would their designs be comfortable or Spartan? In stacking and recombining prototypes, is their vocabulary flexible or a new dogma?

They are asking not just how we should live, but also who are we. The show moves outward, much like the Bauhaus in America—ending in Tokyo and California. Although Gray worked on affordable housing soon after World War I, it also moves from private projects to a way of life for others. What began as a vision was becoming at last dorms and prefab apartments. The show may never figure out whether it describes a distinct style or competing histories. It does, though, look as familiar as a showroom today.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

3.13.17 — The Zelig of Modern Art

He exhibited in the first wave of abstraction, as Cubism shattered into fragments of color. He met the founder of Dada in Zurich, and he caught up with the movement again when it shifted to Paris. He published with it and delighted in its machine esthetic.

He collaborated in theater, film, and dance with one each of France’s most daring and celebrated composers, directors, and choreographers. He painted Spanish women, much as a Spaniard two years younger was turning back to realism. Francis Picabia's I See in Memory My Dear Udnie (Museum of Modern Art, 1914)That Spaniard was Picasso, but the older painter, too, discovered Neoclassicism and then Surrealism. And then he declared that “figurative art is dead,” at the very moment of the triumph of abstract painting in New York. Oh, and did I say that he sat out part of World War I here, just in time for the Armory Show, and World War II in Vichy France, painting in the official style and spouting anti-Semitism? He was, he declared himself, one “funny guy.”

He could be the Zelig of modern art, but it did not take another funny guy to make him up. Francis Picabia had his signature work, much of it now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, but he did all he could to disavow the artist’s signature. His retrospective, at MoMA through March 19, packs two hundred works into rooms claiming ten different periods—and it is the subject of a longer and fuller review, in my latest upload. You can forgive it if it throws up its hands and calls one period simply eclecticism. So who was he for real? Part of his contribution to Modernism was to question whether the question makes sense.

Actually, it still may. It all depends on which version of the artist one accepts—from a man with so many versions of himself. He may have devoted himself to one movement after another, or he could have stood apart from them all. The curators, Anne Umland and Cathérine Hug of the Kunsthaus Zürich with Talia Kwartler, argue for Picabia as the consummate trickster. They see an essential nihilism behind his many shifts, and they quote Friedrich Nietzsche, as he was wont to do in his lifetime. The full title of the show’s messiest room is “Eclecticism and Iconoclasm,” with the emphasis on iconoclasm.

A quote from the artist highlights the very idea of change and supplies the show’s title: “Our Heads Are Round So Our Thoughts Can Change Direction.” If the joke seems awfully lame, that accords with another version of Picabia. Maybe his signature works, mostly abstract and all from 1912 to 1920, were his signature. Maybe he floundered after that, all the way to his death in 1953. A noted critic has argued much the same for Pablo Picasso apart from Cubism.

Maybe, too, he came into his own only later—or even after his death. His grab-bag of styles and media looks forward to Postmodernism and art now. So does his use of Ripolin, the premixed enamel, or his paintings after photography and porn. So, too, do his evasions and irony. One could mistake some of his most enigmatic realism for the work of Sigmar Polke or David Salle in the 1980s. The most garish paintings from Vichy France have become some of the show’s most popular on Facebook.

And then there is Zelig. Maybe one can make sense of Picabia only by watching him change, from moment to moment. It can bring out the truth in all those versions of his art. It can show him always in the middle of the action but never altogether there. He may not have left much in the way of great painting, but it becomes easier to see why. He was always looking ahead, looking aside, and looking back.

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3.8.17 — After the Revolution

Was there ever an art so open to the future? Dada reinvented itself every day, but with no thought to tomorrow. The Bauhaus demanded a new beginning, but with a program. “A Revolutionary Impulse” shows the Russian avant-garde moving so fast that it could hardly know where it was going. It lived by a revolution, with support from Lenin, and it died by a revolution, with Stalin and Soviet Realism, but there was no turning back or turning away. Like the elements of its most revolutionary abstract paintings, it took the risk of floating, soaring, or falling in space. Alexander Rodchenko's Spatial Construction #12 (Museum of Modern Art, c. 1920)

MoMA is having its own quiet revolution. Its 2004 expansion subordinated the permanent collection to hype and real estate, while exhibitions have descended to circuses and celebrities. Yet it has begun to use its smaller galleries and its collection for real history. Now it has to encompass many movements, through March 12, because Russian revolutionary art had more than its share. It places Rayonism, Suprematism, Constructivism, UNIVOS, Proun, and more within a single trajectory—where the last two acronyms share the words Affirmation of the New. They also do not refer explicitly to socialism or politics, a tension that began to eat away at their foundations even before they fell to repression.

They began even before the October revolution. As early as 1913, Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov were treating Cubism as a forest penetrated by rays of color and light. Kazimir Malevich was proving himself a student of Pablo Picasso and George Braque as well, right down to a soft palette of blue and gray. Prints by Olga Rozanova speak ambiguously to the terrors of war and the nobility of soldiers and workers. She could hardly know that the first would topple the tsar and then a democratic provisional government, while the second would become dogma. Later, with Malevich, Lyubov Popova opens up to colliding geometric forms on fields of white. For now, she could only insist, “we are breaking with the past.”

They were, but not entirely. Her war series also draws on woodcuts for its clumsy edges and images like trumpets. And folk art continues to inspire Russian Modernism. It comports with a shared aim in art and Communism to bring modernity to everyone. El Lissitzky converts Malevich’s red and black squares into characters for a children’s book. Alexandra Exter designs costumes and sets for operettas and Othello—and never mind that the revolution, too, was to end in tragedy.

It began with no time to lose as well. Some art movements are close circles, the kind that might fit in a gallery opening or a crowded bar. This one has one leading name after another, including Wassily Kandinsky (on his brief return to Russia from Munich), Naum Gabo, Ivan Puni, Antoine Pevsner, and Vladimir Tatin. It also has women on equal terms with men. The curators, Roxana Maroci and Sarah Suzuki, devote entire walls hung high to a single artist. The arrangement suits works on paper more than the momentous quiet of Malevich’s white square, but it echoes his floating compositions and the period’s headlong rush.

It also gives due prominence to film. It opens with a collage of found footage by Esfir (or Esther) Shub, and it pauses midway for four silent classics. The revolutionary montage of Potemkin, by Sergei Eisenstein, and Man with a Movie Camera, by Dziga Vertov, plays out on facing walls. One follows the crew of a battleship to rebellion, the other the wild course of a single day. Yet something changes with that room—and not just with its political message. Something darkens as well, from the stern imagery of Earth by Alexander Dovzhenko and Mother by Vsevolod Pudovkin to Eisenstein’s murderous Cossacks and a woman’s bleeding eye.

The show’s subtitle speaks of “The Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde,” but its arc suggests instead a rise and fall. Earlier, the plywood tracery of Spatial Construction, by Alexander Rodchenko, casts its dizzying shadows on the wall. After the movies, he and El Lissitzky command a room for photography, with continued experiment but a greater chill. Rodchenko buries a woman in a grid of shadows and turns a street protest into an ant colony. Portraits of artists, poets, and a Pioneer girl close in on imposing faces and a gaping eye. They could be inspiring or terrifying.

A last room gives way to Soviet propaganda. It includes posters and postcards, with the shadow of Lenin’s raised arm. It includes a People’s Commissariat of Heavy Industry that looks more like guard towers. “The people” appear everywhere—but, as one of Rodchenko’s photos already had it, “the workers are quiet.” Art had become far too important for innovation, even before Stalin demanded just that. The future was no longer so open.

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