9.25.17 — Museum Mile

The architect of a mile-high building sought to rein in skyscrapers. He found the loss of light and open space soul deadening. He hated congestion and unchecked growth—but he never, ever shied away from contradictions.

Frank Lloyd Wright contained multitudes. He designed more than a thousand buildings in the course of seventy years, roughly half of them built. He left hundreds of thousands of drawings and other records along the way. Five years after their acquisition, the Museum of Modern Art and Columbia University are still sorting them out. “Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive,” Frank Lloyd Wright at the Guggenheim (Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, photo by William Short, c. 1959)with a follow-up on Wright’s housing projects just opened at Columbia this fall, will have you doing the same—and it is the subject of a longer review, in my latest upload. With some four hundred objects at MoMA alone, through October 1, it can feel congested and unchecked, but it dares anyone to tease out the multiplicity.

“Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I contain multitudes.” Wright was no Walt Whitman, but he was distinctly American. It shows in his egotism and optimism, even in the face of the Great Depression. It shows in his salesmanship, which lay behind his drawings and press events.

There is a lot to unpack, and the lead curators, Barry Bergdoll and Jennifer Gray, are delighted to tick it off. Fifty-five thousand drawings in the archives? (Check.) Three hundred thousand sheets of correspondence, well over a hundred thousand photographs, nearly three thousand manuscripts, and any number of films and models? (Check, check, check, and check again.) One can spend a long time amid the generous selection and wall text, dip in and out, or give up and turn away.

The show already follows a Frank Lloyd Wright retrospective at the Guggenheim in 2009, plus “Frank Lloyd Wright and the City” at MoMA in 2014 (and my earlier reviews will fill out the story). If that, too, sounds like overkill, it has its advantages. It can avoid the Guggenheim’s focus on itself, and it can point more firmly than last time to Wright as an architect rather than urban planner. Yet it can also add to the confusion. It brings separate scholarly curators to each of twelve sections, arranged by theme. If one does not already know Wright’s achievement from past shows, one may not learn about it here.

Fortunately, the themes help pin down the contradictions. Were they even real? Maybe Wright just changed his mind, between his Skyscraper Regulation Project for Chicago in 1926 and Mile-High Illinois some thirty years later. Yet he proposed a high-rise for Manhattan back in 1927, next to St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, and that never got built either. Both towers had the same foundation at that, a “taproot” set deep into the ground as an anchor for cantilevered floors. To add to the seeming contradictions, the idea of a taproot borrows from botany.

The contradictions may never quite go away, but they are also nurturing. Wright was never the dictatorial capitalist out of Ayn Rand—not when he cared so much for people, design, and nature. “Unpacking the Archives” leaves a delight in textiles and table settings as well as buildings. It leaves the beauty of his drawings for their fine lines and soft orange, blue, and green. A large model for the Guggenheim, just as well crafted, will make you want to restore its cream color and to obliterate the toilet tank for tower galleries, added in 1992. It will, at least, until you return to Wright’s building and try to find a decent place for art.

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9.15.17 — When Great Artists Borrow

Robert Rauschenberg did not traffic in stolen property. Yet few have taken more risks in the name of art.

Everything may seem, barely, above board. Rauschenberg bought the toilet paper of his black paintings over the counter, and he rescued the soiled bedding of a shocking combine painting from the trash. Yet no one else can bring art so close to criminal conduct. And no work comes as close to a defacement of private and public property as his Erased de Kooning Drawing of 1953. Robert Rauschenberg's Canyon (Sonnabend Collection, gift to Museum of Modern Art, 1959)

At least critics at the time thought so, but Willem de Kooning handed over a drawing knowing full well what would become of it. The older artist did not just go along with the game either. He got into it, selecting a composition with several figures that he knew would be difficult to erase. In Rauschenberg’s recollections, the number of erasers and the time it took kept growing with each retelling. Jasper Johns got into the game, too, supplying a frame and a label as integral parts of the work. If Rauschenberg committed vandalism, he had partners in crime.

The Museum of Modern Art takes collaboration as its theme, for a mammoth retrospective—and it is the subject of a longer and fuller review in my latest upload. It places the artist “Among Friends,” through September 17, including work with and by others along with the breadth of his career. It argues for his art as interdisciplinary, egalitarian, and open. It helps in understanding his frequent shifts in substance, style, media, and materials, as he kept up with friends and influenced them in turn. People like to say that good artists borrow, but great artists steal. MoMA sees Rauschenberg as not just borrowing, but repaying the loan with interest.

The line about stealing comes in several versions (sometimes with copy in place of borrow), and Pablo Picasso may or may not have coined it. That confusion only adds to its assault on the “originality of the avant-garde“—and who more than Rauschenberg led the assault? Robert Hughes long blamed Andy Warhol for ruining modern art, like the Huns descending on classical civilization, but Rauschenberg was the consummate vandal. He took the readymade from Dada, with all its refusal of art, and turned it into appropriation, with all its refusal of art apart from the world. It made him a founder of Pop Art and a leading influence on the turn away from painting with the “Pictures generation” after 1980. It allowed him to work, as he liked to say, in the gap between art and life.

For MoMA, it also makes him a natural collaborator. Right out front stand classics of Pop Art from the museum’s collection, like Warhol’s Marilyn and a soft telephone by Claes Oldenburg. Already Rauschenberg is among friends. The exhibition proper then opens in 1950 with ghostly blue photograms by him and his wife at the time, Susan Weil. They took turns posing and photographing the other. For one, she adjusted the light sources so that he appears twice in collaboration, as if holding his own hands.

Collaboration sounds ever so reasonable and cuddly. Maybe great artists do steal, and none more than Rauschenberg—and I was more cogent in reviews of the Rauschenberg retrospective twenty years ago and his combine paintings in 2006, so I hope that you will have time to read about them as well. Still, this show is overwhelming for good reason, because so is Rauschenberg. It may even overturn one version of him, along with its own theme. I had always written off the lightness of cardboard boxes from the 1960s and the seemingly endless late silkscreens to reliance on assistants, but maybe they represent a falling off in collaboration instead. Starting in 1962, he spent much of the year in Florida, to recover the “isolation needed for productivity.” He began delegating more than collaborating. By his death in 2008, he could steal from no one but himself.

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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.

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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.

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