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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

2.6.17 — Memories Are Made of Death

Memories are made of this. The song comes near the end of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, by Nan Goldin, perhaps the last place one looks for nostalgia. So why do its words sound so true? For an answer, I have reworked this together with an earlier report on the artist, as a longer review and my latest upload.

Goldin’s slide show has entered the collective memory of the AIDS crisis and East Village art. It recalls land lines and phone booths, dance clubs and dangerous city streets. Nan Goldin's My Mother Laying on Her Bed, Salem (Matthew Marks, 2005)Seemingly everyone is smoking. It has lingered on the very edge of the present since its origins in 1979, through performances in Berlin, London, and New York of the 1980s to today. A screening at the Museum of Modern Art, through February 12, opens with posters and stills from its nearly forty-five minutes. They merge for me with a cold winter when I caught it in Chelsea in 2001, because these are now my memories, too.

I had seen the slides before when the Whitney remembered “The American Century“—and could see them in my mind again when Anne Collier turned sunsets in Afghanistan and Iraq into a slide show, too, for a war that refuses to fade into night. Of course, memory is notoriously deceptive, and Postmodernism was teaching everyone back then that narratives are constructed. Seeing the work again, I found that it no longer matched my memories either. This was a time of crisis, but a collective one. This was a time, too, of excess but also of pleasure, and many of its moments are celebrations. Memories are made of this, but this in turn is made of memories—first and foremost hers.

One of its first shots is in fact an older couple, presumably her parents, and their wedding photo appears close to the end. In a signature shot, one that appears on several of those posters, the artist herself clutches a pillow while a man sits with his back to her on the edge of the bed. The work has also evolved along with her, and the credits identify the print as the fifth of ten, each unique. Its nearly seven hundred photos could pass for a family album from a very extended family, lingering for those precious seconds before one turns the page. “Ghosts” spells out the family connections, another show her Scopophilia. She is not documenting a crisis but rather living it.

That sense of lived experience has much to do with why the slides hold up, when shows like “New York 1993” at the New Museum have been stuck in the past. I remembered one long testimony to abjection, but a life requires more than that, and Goldin gives it a shape. Sure enough, music is part of that melancholy shape, segueing from opera to cabaret to the Velvet Underground without even waiting for a song to end. The work’s title is itself a song, from The Threepenny Opera. So much, though, for Brechtian detachment. She is out to catch people not in the act, but rather face to face.

As the song goes, “In women he meets deep authority. In them he feels his old dependency.” After opening with mature couples, Goldin moves to young women, smiling or reflective. In time they acquire children, and then children cavort alone, only to grow into men. The men start to gather as if on their way to a confrontation or a party (another obsessed with death, Andy Warhol, among them), and then women join them for birthdays or for booze. Drugs enter the picture, hard drugs, and then at last a terrifying intimacy. In Goldin’s extended climax, couples cling for affection or for sex.

Like Danny Lyon, Sally Mann, or or Paul Mpagi Sepuya, she is penetrating closed spaces and closed circles, to discover loved ones and friends. She is also sinking further and further into night. In that feverish sequence near the end, even a small distance can seem unbridgeable. The work ends with tombstones, a hilly road to nowhere, and an open casket for a funeral. Many that passed through are survivors, although only Goldin can say who. They will have a lot to forget.

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

1.30.17 — Shelter from the Storm

Fear of radical Islam. Fear of terrorism. Fear of immigrants. Fear of capitalism. Fear of imperialism. Fear of the heavy hand of the United States.

Is it up to art to bridge North and South, East and West? “Insecurities: Tracing Displacement and Shelter” looks instead at those caught between worlds, but it fails to put a face on the refugee crisis. And apologies for this late review, but I’d be remiss not to highlight the issue today of all days.

What can art do? What can anyone do to help the more than sixty million uprooted by poverty, oppression, terror, and war? What can one say to people without means, without a certain future, or without a home? One could try to bring the horror to the attention of others and demand action from nations. One could assist with shelter and provisions. One could offer compassion—and address the roots of the crisis, so that the forced displacements will end and not happen again.

MoMA does its best, through January 22, but it never gets past the first. Even there, it barely glances at the headlines. It has at its center an actual shelter—a modular shed from the appropriate United Nations agency, for temporary use only, UN label intact. To its side lie the barest of provisions, such as an emergency blanket, water purification tablets, and a UNICEF “adolescent kit for expression and innovation.” Toys, to you. Visitors will have little clue as to whether the museum means these as exemplary or dismaying.

The shelter stands out for its sheer presence, in an exhibition that struggles to fill so much as a single room. One can enter, noting the bare interior and IKEA-designed doorway, just large enough that I, at least, did not have to stoop. Surrounding it is documentation, in maps and photographs. The maps include drawings, interactive software, a wall installation with each path of human flight a different colored thread, and even a tapestry, the variation all but incidental to meaning or purpose. The photographs fall mostly into two grids, one of makeshift shelters and the other of boat people, but both oddly reassuring. The first look admirably ingenious, even when falling apart, and the boats bear not just people but their hopes.

Still, the display falls well short of compassion or understanding. It never singles out human lives or national histories. Even the photographers run together, from Dorothea Lange in the Great Depression to more than a dozen others in the present, daring one to single out a name. Then again, that may be the point. One of the few artists on hand, Do Ho Suh, contributes a doormat with welcome in bristly rubber spikes. Do not expect a warm welcome.

The curators, Sean Anderson with Arièle Dionne-Krosnick, take nothing for granted, least of all a welcome. They speak of shelter as a human right but also a means of control. They speak of a “fluid sovereignty” in the face of modernity and globalization. They speak of “unbelonging” and “proto-cities.” They may end up, though, reducing politics to postmodern theory, and they may not do enough to illustrate either one. On the maps, the borders look as impregnable as ever.

As the show opened, Bouchra Khalili still had the museum atrium for The Mapping Journey Project, videos tracing the routes of eight refugees, through October 10. It, too, comes off as an exercise in mapmaking, in contrast to images that leave searing memories—in the press and from artists working among refugees in the Middle East, North Africa, and beyond. Tiffany Chung does better with small monitors in mahogany connected by a tangle of wires on the floor, as Finding One’s Shadow in Ruins and Rubble. They could stand for individuals, for the media bringing them to attention, for the information overload burying their fates, or for access to news and the Internet denied them in overcrowded camps. The most telling juxtaposition, though, comes in the exhibition’s opening—the very same day as one on modern interior design. Guess which show has the real question in its title, as “How Should We Live?”

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

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