Time Out

John Haber
in New York City

AUTObodies, Tempo, and To Be Looked At

What is the Museum of Modern Art doing in Queens? So far, plenty, and it has the feel not just of preserving its mission or escaping from it. It also responds graciously to a new location and an unfamiliar arts scene.

Open and shut case

Of course, MoMA QNS has opened because MoMA off Fifth Avenue has shut for a few years. It plans to add yet another tower to Manhattan. The sculpture garden and an expanded museum will become part of the view for residences that few can afford. Erwin Wurm's One Minute Sculpture (Museum of Modern Art, 1997)Mere works of art on display in Queens may well seem trivial by comparison. One might call this review all but an appendage to my reflections on the ambitions, threats, and architecture of a growing institution.

Yet a lively Queens opening already offers clues to the future. "AUTObodies" treats automobile design as a brief history of cutting-edge engineering solutions. "Tempo" has current and often unfamiliar artists riffing on the theme of time. "To Be Looked At" offers both more and less than hits from the permanent collection, as it tries to rescue modern painting and sculpture from the textbooks. As "Tempo" might suggest, art out in Queens is taking time out. Yet—like the architecture of MoMA QNS itself—it also gains in depth by responding to the new location.

Two opening exhibitions make obvious bows to Queens. Rudy Burckhardt's photos hang uncomfortably in one dense, large room. They show "a walk through Astoria and other places" some seventy years ago. They insist, however, on post-industrial decay that today cannot match. Burckhardt has an eye both documentary and elegiac. Still, he buries it in poetic captions and derelict rock piles from an area still very much in business.

On opening weekend, too, Francis Alÿs led Project 76, a symbolic march over the bridge from Fifth Avenue to MoMA QNS. In modern art's version of All Saint's Day, now on display as video, the procession bore reproductions of trademark works.

These gestures can fairly claim the status of photography and performance, respectively. In practical terms, though, they belong to marketing, like cheap tourist guides to the next two years or so. The museum no doubt loves the association of its collections with patron saints. A press release calls moving day "festive and somber."

The Modern really does have a commitment to Queens and the future. Perhaps one sees it better in its ownership of P.S. 1 or its shuttle to the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum. Certainly one sees it far better in the multiple pathways of MoMA QNS—and in three other opening exhibitions.

Traffic

Perhaps the procession had a little trouble acknowledging its own irony. "AUTObodies" proves that MoMA QNS has a sense of humor. In the borough with, surely, the most car owners, five autos stand alone. Not far from the Long Island Expressway, with its perpetual lack of motion, they sit motionless but well apart. In a neighborhood of used-car dealers and body shops, they avoid any hint of the tawdry or mass produced.

A full survey of innovation and cultural change would have to cover a Ford from the first assembly lines or the latest Japanese designs and SUV. It might well go back to Buckminster Fuller and Isamu Noguchi, for their Dymaxion Car. Instead, the Modern insists on a kind of futurism that still has relevance. It selects a racing car, an Italian car from 1946 that first brought sports-car lines to consumer cars, a classic Jaguar (without James Bond), a Jeep after some design touches of the 1950s, and a recent European "Smart Car." A good car, they argue, had better be sporty and elegant, practical and intelligent, elite and forward looking. In other words, they put the most prominent neighborhood feature in the tradition of modern art.

Not long ago, the Guggenheim took its share of hits for a show of motorcycles. It looked at a subculture with its own uniformity, and that subculture took over the museum. It also made the ramp another runway for fashions that few wear, as if to caution us that art, too, truly belongs to the rich. The Modern, in contrast, takes something as ubiquitous as an automobile and boils it down to five daring examples. Alongside other exhibitions, rather than ditching the promises of art or design, it challenges distinctions between them. It gets one looking and thinking—about form and function, about culture, and about one's own choices.

Out in Queens, a featured exhibition had better stay manageable and fresh. "Tempo" has just six rooms and five themes, all related to time. That may sound as generic as "People, Places, Things" or "Beings, Tribes, and Spaces." The Modern used the first as vacuous headings for an encyclopedic display of its own holdings at the millennium. The Whitney tried the second for its 2002 Biennial, but no one would have guessed their presence without help.

Instead of offering three dimensions and little variety, "Tempo" places many conflicting approaches along a single, fragmented dimension. It sticks almost entirely to recent artists and adds a few discoveries of its own. Louise Bourgeois and Charles Ray seem anomalous, and I do not pretend to name all the others.

It adds up to the Biennial that should have happened, but with a light touch that refuses any such claims. Like the cars, it will not be stuck in traffic. Even the scale makes it more fun.

Time passes slowly

One theme takes clocks as objects and symbols. Matthew Creed places a row of metronomes on the ground, against the white wall. The isolation, lack of a pedestal, and scale together recreate the threatening rhythms of Man Ray with a single Object to Be Destroyed. Two different works pair clocks—but one identically, one in mirror images. Artists have thought of everything.

"Listen," Dylan Thomas wrote: "Time passes." A second theme seeks time's everyday flow, with the metaphor of the most mundane fluid, water. Roni Horn annotates dark photos of water's surface. Waltercio Caldas leaves out a bowl of water, filled to the brim. "Round it was," and no doubt, like Wallace Stevens's jar in Tennessee, he would hope against hope that it "took dominion everywhere." But it works as group performance, stirring one opening-day visitor to stick his thumb in before the guards caught up. If everyone in Queens agrees to jump in unison, the landing might shake the ground enough to cause some real fluid time.

Kim Sooja's color tablecloths faded into the Biennial's landscape. Here, she manages to put time on edge. Her washerwoman staring at a river as it flows unnaturally quickly, bearing the detritus of cremation. All that info, on a wall label, neither emerges from what one sees nor plays against it. Nonetheless, Sooja invests a seeming universal with cultural specificity. Time passes slowly up here in the daylight, just across the East River from civilization as we know it.

A third theme tracks time as physical sensation. Video art's biggest tease, Pipilotti Rist, stares up from the ground again, weaving about as one walks on her projection. Her body looks less obviously naked than party colored, like one more music video without the music. Rebecca Horn's thermometer of blood-red liquid maps the temperature of love. Dennis Gordon projects text for a horrifying thirty seconds—barely long enough to adjust to the light, hardly long enough to take it in, exactly as long as a guillotined head lowered its eyes. A scientist of Terror thought he had communicated with the next life, but Gordon challenges one to retreat from sensation back into darkness.

For school kids and cultural critics, time means history—specifically these days, colonial history. Despite Kara Walker in her cutouts and video, this fourth room has the least to offer, as if it hesitates to spoil the party with lectures. Besides, amid Queens's ethnic diversity, the cause can easily seem won. And yet Nadine Robinson's stunning wall of loudspeakers mixes field hollers and elevator music in a calm, dull roar, as if daring one to locate the nexus of imperialism. Its black circles of every size center a grid of white squares, while wires hang down to cheap phonographs, the kind that swing the arm back at the end to start again. It looks maddeningly abstract, like Sol LeWitt gone sloppy, familiar as a climbing wall, and remote as found art out of some lost childhood.

Of course, artists never know when to leave well enough alone, and the last theme probes altered scales of time. Douglas Gordon extends a kiss to fourteen minutes, edited down from that many hours of tedium, lust, and film cliché. The chessboard by Gabriel Orozco—in four shades of fine brown wood—bears knights, and only knights, as if the mind of Marcel Duchamp rode everywhere in unfathomable teams. Steven Pippins faxes himself endlessly, as if to fill one more bad day at the office. In a video loop by Ceal Floyer, ink fills a black circle—imperceptibly widening for one hour. I still can hardly believe that the pen drips in ordinary time, but now I know not to take the word ordinary so lightly.

A backward glance

Time passes too slowly to believe or far too quickly for comfort, but it passes inexorably—even for the Modern's permanent collection. The selection's title, "To Be Looked At," comes from Duchamp's smaller cracked glass of 1918: "To Be Looked at (from the Other Side of the Glass) with One Eye, Close to, for Almost an Hour." It suggests the studied lightness of MoMA QNS. It puns on the visual in the visual arts, on modernist tradition, and on a constraining, commanding role for the Modern itself. Yet it also signals a change in all these.

Perhaps it has to do just that, given the limited space. You will not see a whole room for Analytic Cubism, or a single Georges Braque. Alone, Picasso's Fanny Tellier makes her strange music not far from his scrap-metal guitar. Without the space, not to mention Long Island City's depressing lack of greenery, the museum has shipped much of its sculpture to the Bronx. There it turns the New York Botanic Gardens into a temporary sculpture garden.

Kinks in the architecture add limits of their own. They drown Georges Seurat in glare and leave others in shadow. Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, without a central place as one enters, loses much its startling confrontation with the viewer. The high ceilings improve on the Modern's old shoe boxes, but somehow Number One, by Jackson Pollock, hangs a bit too high to embrace one in its web. These open rooms do not favor small works, careful study, and lots of labels, and "To Be Looked At" wisely shies away from them all.

Suppose a future show needs the splendid, shocking solitude of intimacy or struggle with a work of art? Once the party is over, and the opening-day lines have vanished, what will fill the caverns they have left behind? Will the show next year—of Picasso and Matisse at their greatest years and their most compelling rivalry—stand up to all this?

Or should I worry? In fact, the building's reduced scale, flexible layout, and accessible, informal stance mean opportunities. Besides, stripped to essentials, down to one favorite after another, MoMA QNS reminds one that the Modern does more than collect art: again and again, it has defined art. But what definition has it chosen now? Think again of that exhibition title.

Has Duchamp, it asks, displaced Picasso as Modernism's reference point? Has Dada's iconoclasm outlasted Cubism's shattering formalism? Has painting and sculpture given way to Neo-this and Neo-that? Has a backward glance become a vision of art now? Or has the whole idea of a reference point turned into a decentered history of multiple creation? Maybe or maybe not, but for all the greatest hits on display, MoMA QNS takes some surprising chances.

Those are the breaks

One associates the birth of the Modern with the triumph of American painting. It helped bring key European influences to America. It set the terms for displaying abstract art, and it nurtured a public for that art as well. Yet when it comes to Willem de Kooning, one sees not one work from the 1940s and 1950s. Instead, one gets treated to two lush paintings from a bit later. On the other hand, two canvases by Mark Rothko look back richest colors—and his greatest fame.

When I think of de Kooning, I might think back to the slashing, earlier impulses. I think of their mix of anti-art and formal beauty, a mix not unlike Gerhard Richter and others today. Or I think of his much later, lighter and wide-open compositions, as his art grew closer to senility—and to Cecily Brown. Conversely, a recent show has focused on Rothko's earliest years, before abstraction. Or writers have insisted on the dark, final imaginings of the Rothko Chapel, so sadly in need of restoration.

MoMA QNS decides, then, not to make Abstract Expressionism look as contemporary as possible. It has allowed for the possibility of breaks in a tradition—of conflicting influences and change. No wonder the same room contains a Matisse cutout, Memories of Oceania. Forget the torment of action painting, as Harold Rosenberg called it, with the links to Surrealism. Forget the self-referential formalism, in a chain from Paul Cézanne through Cubism. These guys knew cutouts, an implied human subject, and pure color.

Picasso, too, gets sensual and physical. His Cubist guitar stands across from two brawny, disheveled, earlier women. The museum has dared me already to think of a rivalry with Matisse instead of that climb, roped to Braque, of Modernism's mountain.

Not that the display lacks bite. Joseph Cornell merits an alcove for four of his boxes, as if to shout that Surrealism made it to America after all. Let Cézanne and his heirs rest in peace. The choice of paintings by Piet Mondrian reflects his late awareness of New York and its urban landscape. Across from them, death is back. The selection from Surrealism, especially in two by René Magritte, have a nasty edge that the Met's recent survey ignores.

Above all, the selections have a clear bias toward the last forty years, up to and including the present. This could hint at things, once the curators return to Manhattan, in world that no one can foretell. I kept wondering, however, if I were not again seeing something as site-specific as art. Even the permanent collection must defer to the outer boroughs, where artists still live and learn. And even a museum or a critic can look forward to learning, too.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

"To Be Looked At: Painting and Sculpture from the Collection," has no firm closing date beyond MoMA QNS itself. "Tempo" ran through September 9, 2002,"AUTObodies: "Speed, Sport, Transport" and the video of Francis Alÿs's "Project 76" through September 16, and Rudy Burckhardt's photographs of Queens through November 4.

 

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