1. The Permanent Point of View
By Kim Levin
When MOMA shut down entirely some months ago, it was hard not to read symbolic meaning into its absence, which seemed to confirm years of rumblings about modernism’s demise. While MOMA was preoccupied with matters of survival, the notion of being postmodern escalated to the level of cliché. But since renovation began four years ago, several varieties of newly traditional and neomodern art have emerged. It’s tempting to say that the new MOMA, purer and cleaner and twice its former size, proves that modernism didn’t die — it’s alive and well in MOMA heaven.
Yes, the new escalators are spectacular, though not as spectacular as the Beaubourg’s, nor as radical architecturally. No playful exoskeletal ducts for architect Cesar Pelli. Simply the sleekest, most antiseptic, glacial, and elegantly understated Late Modern functional space — as befits its position as lodestar for early, high, and late modernist art. For museum practicality, it’s planned very well. If the big subject of conversation in the international art world last week was who had an invitation to which of the various special previews, lunches, dinners, and black-tie affairs — a comically complex caste system — the question of who’s in and who’s out was paralleled in the exhibitions themselves, not just the big International Survey of Contemporary Painting and Sculpture but in the permanent carpeted galleries too, and even more in the wooden-floored galleries of art from the ’60s and ’70s.
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The real question, though, isn’t who’s included and who isn’t but why. If anyone momentarily wondered whether the reinstallations would present a revisionist view of modernism, the answer is a resounding no. Even the one semifigurative late Guston is in the limbo of a hall, as are the Mexican social realists. MOMA is as traditionally modernist and as inflexible as ever. However, the permanent collection is installed much more intelligently and sensitively, and there are some realignments. The early 20th century galleries not only hint at a relation between Seurat and the Douanier Rousseau (even in the absence of a major Seurat), but make a telling connection between Gauguin’s exotic primitivism and Rousseau’s, with Rousseau now seeming the more radically modern. In the gem of a Cubist room, a 1914 Picasso painting with Russian lettering is brilliantly paired with a 1913 Russian Constructivist sculpture (made of painted wood, cardboard, and eggshells) by Vladimir Baranoff-Rossine. Picasso’s musicians lead inexorably to Léger and Brancusi, both of whom now speak eloquently (and naively) about automation and the utopian assembly-line dreams of modern times. I’m not crazy about the oval platform the Brancusis are on, but the Picasso room, the Matisse room, the Mondrian room, the De Chirico room (classic early modern ones with empty urban vistas and bottle green skies, of course) are all exquisite.
The sensibility that orchestrated all this — Bill Rubin’s — is a cerebral formalist one. The linear installation invokes orderly evolution and progress, from Europe up a flight to America, from Abstract Expressionism — the abstract expressionist galleries are gorgeous and spacious — to the dubious glories of color field, with blatant signposts (Rothko, pre-black Reinhardt, Motherwell, an almost all-white Al Held) along the way. The sculpture is mixed in just right, making sly but obvious points. It’s all been embalmed so fastidiously that it actually seems to live and breathe again. But even the Surrealists are made to look like solid formalists here, with Masson anticipating Pollock, Balthus hooked up with Magritte and the fixity of both tracking back to Léger and Rousseau. That’s the glory of the installation, though: it wordlessly sets off trains of thought as you go. Lineages and linkages that were never so apparent before line themselves up subtly, sometimes with stunning obviousness. And it’s witty: John Graham, odd man out, is in an anteroom by himself, the megalomaniacal Dali has a tiny fragile painted glass proscenium scene set into a wall.
The painting and sculpture galleries, telling a story, may stray slightly into the postmodern terrain of narrative. But there’s no room in these heavenly spaces at Neo-MOMA for a multilayered Picabia from the late 1920s (not to mention a pseudo-philistine one), or for one of De Chirico’s postmetaphysical antimodern paintings, such as the grandiose theatrical Capriccio Veneziana alla Maniera de Veronese now being shown just a few blocks away. Or for the unmodern nonstructural aspects of Surrealist art that have something in common with very recent art. Or even — heaven forbid — for the casual leisure-time modernity of Raoul Dufy. Or for Miró’s unexpectedly great recent sculpture which is more varied and inventive and contemporarily relevant than I’d ever guessed. No monkey wrenches are allowed to disrupt Rubin’s neat historical progression. But for some of these problematic aspects of modernism that MOMA omits, current gallery shows are taking up the slack: late De Chiricos can be seen at their baroque and preposterous best and at their most questionable antioriginal worst in two different shows right now. There’s an exhibition of Surrealist drawings, a lot of them and a lot of intriguing ones, on 57th Street, and also a big exhibition of Miró’s fertile and varied late sculpture. And further uptown the waters are being tested for Dufy.
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Back at MOMA, on the wooden-floored spaces of the recent past, there’s nationalistic muscle flexing and a deliberate misreading of the ’60s and ’70s that overemphasizes the sleek formal aspects. Lichtenstein’s Entablature, Oldenburg’s black ray gun, Yves Klein’s monochrome blue, and Arman’s ball bearings are chosen for spurious resemblances to former formalisms. There’s a dialogue in whiteness that extends from Malevich to Johns and Olitski. Robert Morris’s hanging felt makes you think back to Morris Louis’s brown veil. Richard Serra’s balanced lead and Joseph Beuys’s tubes of felt look more purely formal than they are, and Beuys’s accompanying sausages are tucked discreetly behind a wall.
And whatever became of Conceptualism? No evidence of it. Painting and sculpture, indeed. Not a nod to the fact that the artists who made these sleek objects were thinking about other things, or that the last thing on many artists’ minds in the ’60s and ’70s was painting or sculpture. No inkling that anything like Earthworks or Photo Realism ever existed. Even the black and white Chuck Close is included for its gridding, not its imagery, as is made clear by its proximity to a LeWitt and one of Agnes Martin’s early white grids. Rubin’s installations emphasize the solidity of modernist art. But there are other aspects of which his installations give little clue. Modern art began with a crisis of the represented object (which Impressionists dissolved in light, Cezanne dissolved in anxiety, Expressionists engulfed in emotionality, Cubists shattered, and “non-objective” artists banished entirely). It seemed to end, more or less, with the crisis of the art object around 1970. Since then, artists have been moving beyond traditional notions of formalist modernism, seeking ways for all kinds of forbidden imagery to wriggle back in — dealing with bigger questions beyond the art object and a crisis of the image. It looks as if MOMA is not yet prepared to acknowledge that early, high, and even late modernism may now be a period style. Or maybe, by stiffening its back to the onslaughts against modernist orthodoxy and by continuing the illusion of normalcy, that’s exactly what the museum is doing. In any case, it’s a thrill to have this prime repository available again, and perhaps by its diehard stance it will help us clarify newer positions. ❖
2. Temporary Misgivings
By Roberta Smith
If the renewed museum and restored collection have turned out better than expected, “An International Exhibition of Recent Painting and Sculpture,” the inaugurating temporary exhibition, is somewhat disappointing, although its generous ecumenical spread seems in keeping with the celebratory tone of the museum’s reopening. This exhibition is both the New World’s first retort to the major international shows which have frequented Europe recently and MOMA’s first large-scale survey of contemporary art activity since its 1971 “Information,” an extensive look at Conceptualism also organized by curator Kynaston McShine. As such it has had a mission nearly impossible from the outset: in one fell swoop, to bring the museum assertively into the ’80s and to offer a viable alternative to the European tendency to feature the 30 or 40 greatest living white male artists.
To accomplish this, McShine has backed up a bit, starting with the second half of the ’70s and working to the present in rather random fashion, sticking close to painting and sculpture, the traditional tools of modernism. There are examples of New Image and Pattern and Decoration intermingling with a couple of generations of international figuration (separated in the press release into expressionism, allegory, and metaphor, narrative and humor), plus a smattering of abstraction and sculpture.
The result is Whitney Biennial International Style — undeniable evidence of MOMA’s own role in spreading the word of modernism worldwide — or at least to the industrialized West. (Its 165 participants herald from 17 countries, mostly the U.S., Germany, and the rest of Europe, plus Australia.) And what dominates is an argument between ’70s pluralism and ’80s Neo-Expressionism’s national strains which rarely transcends its good, but complicated, intentions.
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Compared to recent European shows like “Zeitgeist,” this is an admirable attempt at an unbiased survey of the international scene without favor to any one style or nation. There has clearly been an attempt to include more women artists. (In fact, women are so astutely featured — a big Elizabeth Murray next to a big Anselm Kiefer and similar juxtapositionings — there seems to be more of them than usual; there are in fact only 14, or less than 10 per cent.) Also, unlike the European habit, this show is largely unsanctioned by elder statesmen such as Beuys, Warhol, Twombly, or Stella: over half of these artists are under 40, many under 30. Thus the museum’s faith in the present and future is imbued with an American egalitarian look which probably drives Europeans and would-be art stars up the wall. Many people will blame the one-work-per-artist/broad-overview formula as the culprit. But actually, even with its current framework, this exhibition could have been much better. The possible corrections run the gamut from being entirely within McShine’s control, to being endemic to the museum.
First of all, this is an exhibition which, in attempting to please many different points of view, seems simply to have lost its sense of direction. There are easily 30 or 40 artists who could be eliminated from its rolls and never be missed. As it is, there are almost as many who will probably be overlooked due to the extreme crowding.
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Also, regardless of possible disagreements with the selection of individual works and artists, one has come to expect from McShine a kind of argument via installation which, after three viewings, seems to be missing here. He has intermittently matched things up but mostly studiously avoided the temptation (which in a less diverse show would probably be commendable) — as if he wants us to see everything in isolation, for its own inherent value. It is revealing to see Oliver Jackson and Roberto Juarez grouped with Zakanitch and MacConnell; what seems to be the “humor” gallery of Mark Tansey, Steve Gianakos, General Idea, Italo Scanga, and Komar and Melamid is a bit obvious (and nonvisual, actually), but more of these kinds of juxtapositions are needed. It would have been instructive to see the Dutch expressionist Armando next to Susan Rothenberg, or Toon Verhoef next to Howard Hodgkin, or Ed Paschke next to Jack Goldstein.
Mostly the discrepancy in ceiling heights between the two floors of the exhibition seems to have been one of the primary placement determinants, resulting in an unfortunate hierarchy of size — smaller works too often crowded together upstairs, larger ones more spaciously installed below. Walking into the lower level galleries it is clear how working in large size is (a) the best defense against curatorial whim and (b) too often the only thing that Neo-Expressionism has going for it.
There are very few surprises — a beautiful Gerhard Richter, a startling Ger van Elk, a suite of Blinky Palermo’s small abstractions, but seldom do we encounter first-rate works under first-rate circumstances. The grouping of paintings by Murray, Kiefer, Neil Jenney, Malcolm Morley, Francesco Clemente, and Sigmar Polke at the front of the lower gallery is the one exception, the show’s only exhilarating vista. Some of McShine’s new discoveries from abroad seem worthwhile: the English sculptor Richard Deacon, the Austrian Christian Ludwig Attersee, the Swiss team of Fischli and Weiss. But, although this show is overloaded with artists from the U.S., few Americans in the just-emerging range seem to have received comparable scrutiny. One can think of several auspicious debuts from the past few years in both one-person and group shows — Ira Richer, Carroll Dunham, Nancy Mitchnick, Nancy Dwyer, Barry Ledoux, Jeff Koons among them — unfortunately overlooked.
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In general, the show is on firm footing where consensus is bowed to, but it often falters on less predictable terrain. Other problems afflict its all-over impact as well, a major one being that artists are not always represented by outstanding efforts. (The barely average 1981 painting by David Salle, in view of his recent triumphs, seems particularly unfortunate.) And Tony Shafrazi’s sin against Guernica seems to have made his artists untouchable. While one can sympathize wholeheartedly with the museum’s desire for revenge of some sort — this probably does the show more harm than good. A few raunchy graffiti artists would have been preferable to the quasi-graffiti corner of Rainer Fetting, Helmut Middendorf, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Bruce McLean, and miles ahead of the truly pernicious academic mannerism of Carlo Maria Mariani — a mode of behavior the museum should no more endorse than Shafrazi’s.
In any event, to leave Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf out of what is clearly acknowledged as a survey of disparate current styles is inaccurate. This is not a show so much about standards as data; as a friend said, it should probably have been called “More Information.” (Along this line of thought, the low number of women is even more offensive: once more, men are shown to have a greater right to be just average and representative than women.)
Despite the diversity of this show, its most lasting impression is that Neo-Expressionism is easily the most international, easily disseminated style since Conceptualism — only more so due to its greater marketability. The older Germans have spawned younger ones who make them look good; and the effects of the Italians, especially Chia, can be seen from Spain to Australia. The way Neo-Expressionism hooks into a widespread figurative mediocrity which has hovered beyond the fringe ever since the Modern’s own “New Images of Man” exhibition in the late ’50s only speeds up the process.
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Comparing “Information” to this current survey is a lesson in how profoundly the times have changed since the early ’70s, but the difference need not have been so great. McShine would have been truer to the present and recent past to include more of Conceptualism’s descendants — artists who, starting out in the late ’70s, insinuated both its criticality and its use of photography back into object making, back into visual experience.
The limitation of this exhibition to painting and sculpture is not strictly adhered to — there are actually a fair amount of large drawings and small installations here and there. But the exclusion of established and promising artists currently extending the role of photography and the media in the arts — Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Levine, Richard Prince, and James Casebere, among others — is undoubtedly the show’s biggest problem. It is more or less completely out of Kynaston McShine’s hands, for it stems from the museum’s traditional compartmentalization of mediums, a compartmentalization which, with the new expansion, is only reinforced. This, more than any other shortcoming of a handsome, wide-ranging show, gives hints of the problems the museum may have in housing the art of the late 20th century under its new roof. ❖