Tag Archives: Brancusi

MoMA’s re-do and inaugural shows

Notable among an increased number of special exhibitions and displays at the Museum of Modern Art, re-opened to the public today (after a renovation and major collection re-organization):

Betye Saar: The Legends of Black Girls Window, through January 4, 2020

Taking a Thread for a Walk, through Spring 2020

Sur Moderno: Journeys of Abstraction: The Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Gift, through March 24, 2020

member: Pope. L, 1978-2001, through February 1, 2001

Two interior design changes noted that I like: the mini-chic-modernist living room seating spaces now on each floor, especially the one featuring Hiroshi Sugimoto’s blurred photographs of an earlier incarnation of the sculpture garden viewed below out the windows; and the black strips of wall, sans art, on the elevator landing corridors to rest the eyes between galleries.  Thank goodness for the continued enshrinement of the original building’s Bauhaus stairway, which relieves what has become an elegant but corporate-like art headquarters with large-scale partitioned warrens.

Standing out in the inaugural re-installations of the permanent collection, which the museum has publicized will change more frequently than in the past (great): the full scope of MoMA’s Migration series panel paintings by Jacob Lawrence, which have, by now, infiltrated so many spheres of American arts and culture; a window-lit Brancusi spread; the juxtaposition of heavy-handed abstract sculpture by Melvin Edwards, Barbara Chase-Riboud, Lynda Benglis, and Jackie Windsor; a small section on early experimental photography and film integrated into the turn-of-the-century painting and sculpture galleries; an ode to the quirky art of Manhattanite Florine Stetheimer (1871-1944) with a room of her own; a giant female nude (1978) by Joan Semmel, indicating the popularity of figurative painting at the time often ignored by high-profile venues focusing on “cutting edge” developments, especially in relation to feminist content — also helping to redress the MoMA’s infamous renown for “hot mamas” painted by modernist men (elucidated in a now classic study by art historian Carol Duncan, 1989).  I didn’t like the placement of a gorgeous, vermilion and cobalt abstraction by Alma Thomas at the edge of a Matisse room, where it is inevitably mitigated; or the implied juxtaposition (on different walls) of Faith Ringgold’s “race riot” (from her seminal “American People” series, late 1960s) with Picasso’s ubiquitous Demoiselles. I can see where each has an intensity perhaps overshadowing peer works, and curatorial sensitivity in suggesting a powerful painterly aggression equally shared, but I think it encourages ultimately superficial comparison especially with the rest of the large room also filled with Picasso.

Special exhibition highlights: the quietly engaging Betye Saar show, which explores the early print-making of this indefatigable nonagenarian and her break into assemblage, exemplified by MoMa’s Black Girl’s Window (1969).  Overall etching-based (not exclusively and with broad technical variation), her blending of alternately scratchy and sinuous contours with washy, earth-toned, passages and layered grounds are absorbing formally and fairy-tale-like in their representational mix of pensive and dreamy females in webbed forests or isolated interiors flecked intermittently with floating symbols to evoke innocence, wonder, terror, and intellectual, sensual, and spiritual curiosity.  Others that elide into the mixed materials works retrieve the diagrammatic subject of pseudo-scientific phrenology to deconstruct the roots of entrenched racists and sexist psychosis.  The featured “window” and others suggest both inward soul-gazing and exterior cosmological views of the world, mashing mystery, politics, veiled personal emotion, and much more into make-shift pictorial fenestration.  

Then the engaging, “Thread” show, which features the similarly visionary aesthetics–in a non-objective overall framework–of the remarkable Anni Albers (1899-1994), with a large selection of her on-the-board and canvas abstractions, weavings, and commercially-produced textile designs; as well as work by direct and indirect progeny and kindred spirits, including a thickly braided-rope “phantom” by Mrinalini Mukherjee (d. 2015), introduced to many with her recent retrospective at the Guggenheim and a thick rainbow-bow colored yarn waterfall by contemporary artists, Sheila Hicks.

“Sur Moderno” adds lots of South American artists to MoMA’s seminal “story” of geometric abstraction long confined to Europe; and as such enriches its purview by endless subtle variation–in this display, augmented by furniture and other related design work. I did not like the confining of Mondrian’s brilliant late painting, Broadway Boogie Woogie to a lost corner of the show in perhaps an admirable attempt to dethrone his preeminence in this sphere somewhat.

Finally, a performance retrospective for wild-and-crazy Pope L. X-rated in parts, unremittingly absurdist and confrontational, the artist’s career has been committed to calling out injustice satirically and back-handedly, especially racism, in works that demands some investment in unraveling.  One broader issue that comes to the fore here: a new-ish trend in turning performance props and residue into ostensible sculpture.  Most compelling in this presentation: make-shift structures that can remind of David Hammons’ inventive, folks-y architectural constructions, here complete with instructions and other trappings that reference (perhaps), more esoteric conceptual modes without the pointed, people-centered missives of this art preacher-provocateur. 

MoMA, Fifth floor

Modernism and Reaction: Guggenheim Summer

At the Guggenheim Museum, New York:

Visionaries: Creating a Modern Guggenheim; through September 6, 2017.

Guggenheim Collection: Brancusi; through January 3, 2018.

Mystic Symbolism: The Salon de la Rose + Croix in Paris 1892-1897; through October 4, 2017.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum building (opened 1959) generally so dominates any art on view that an emphatically self-reflexive, self-contained show featuring its core collection of modernism seems virtually the only “natural.”  Presiding over the museum’s character and legacy is Wassily Kandinsky, whose spiritually-aimed abstraction grounded the aesthetics of Wright’s design–as charged by SRG’s German émigré art advisor Hilla Rebay.   Rebay had egged on SRG in acquiring early Kandinsky,  which, supplemented by additions from the collections of other “visionaries,” adds up to a retrospective-ready holding by the museum.  The full spectrum is summarily  featured here,  from The Blue Rider years, through Stravinksy, the Bauhaus, and the late cosmic geometry.   The shifting subtleties and enigmas of his “non-objectivity” are climactically concentrated in the double-height High Gallery but interspersed throughout, due to the organization of the show, which separates the holdings of each sub-collection: SRG’s, Rebay’s own small one, those of Rebay’s compatriot émigrés, Karl Nierendorf and Justin Thannhauser, and Americans, Katherine Dreier and SRG’s famous niece, Peggy (see the film, “P.G.: Art Addict,” dir. Lisa Immordino Vreeland [Netflix]).  This conceit offers insight into certain “progressive,” elite art tastes, cliques, cabals, and their interactions, and diversions, through (mainly) the first half of the 20th century.

Cubism and Kandinsky dominate.   Despite long-standing charges of narrative sentimentality by some, I love the charmingly enigmatic paintings of Marc Chagall, which blend both, and add folkloric/primitivist and topical political content, such as the three gems here, among SRG’s purchases.   Dreier and Peggy brought in Alexander Calder, who had a strong presence in Paris between the wars.  Thannhauser added most of the antecedents (Impressionism, Post-Impressionism [the biggest names in both cases]; and early Picasso; although always on view by stipulated agreement, they are especially relevant absorbed into this show).  Nierendorf contributed Joseph Albers; Peggy brought in Surrealism and Jackson Pollock (and like that).  The most prevalent sensibility overall is a kind of cool Cubist-derived Bauhaus that asks quite a bit of the mind as well as the eyes.  Where artists’ early and later works are not in proximity due to the collectionaire theme,  some works lose context that might be helpful for those beyond cognoscenti (this observation amounts to a very small thing–but, e.g., see the Mondrians).

While Wright envisioned primarily (not at all exclusively) a downward trajectory from the top of the continuous, angled ramp (reached by elevator), and it doesn’t matter much how to attack this show to get wrapped up in its brave new formal euphoria, I suggest the upward climb if you can, the sens de la visite of the curators.  Thus the High Gallery full of Kandinskys is a grand opening, just past the start of the upward spiral.  Up another tier,  veer off into the Thannhauser space (as indicated, grounding for much material to follow), and then ascend to the culminating splatter Pollock (1947) that implicates, retrospectively, the reach of Kandinsky.

The most important sculptor in this milieu is probably Brancusi.  Only a few are scattered throughout; however, there is a small addendum show (off Thannhauser) that fleshes out his contributions, along with Edward Steichen’s acclaimed photos of his influential Paris studio.

A great juxtaposition with the forward-looking tenor of “Visionaries” (retrospectively) is the Rose + Croix salon display, off the ramp at the 4th floor, which retracts from canonical modernist tendencies into fin-de-siecle ennui and an idealized early Christian past—portrayed through detailed, engrossingly fussy figuration.  Starting with the physical transition from Wright’s giant egg-white snail/spaceship into a dark-red-colored room with plush sofa-seating.  The Rosicrucians were one of many 19th-century syncretistic Christian groups incorporating ancient, esoteric mysticism, new occultism, and socio-philosophical prescriptions that looked backwards from the “fall” of the industrial revolution.  One of its high priests, Josephin Peladan, took up the arts component as a sect of umbrella fin-de-siecle Symbolism, organizing a series of salons such as that simulated here.  The collective results—a mini-Counter Reformation kind of thing, in which hell-and-damnation (among other) Biblical, Christian, and Classical allegorical narratives, heavy on male-moralistic notions of female purity, boast highly crafted, sometimes experimental techniques amplified in a close personal viewing;  William Blake and the Pre-Raphaelites are precedents.  Across the works the lighting is appropriately ethereal, and a pan-European Art Nouveau can be loosely applied to the languorous anatomies and foliage.

One bridge between several turn-of-the-century artistic milieus across the two shows is the Swiss Ferdinand Hodler.  He hovered between various fringe movements and goals, melding figuration and formalism with his rhythmic “parallelism,” represented in the Rose + Croix show by a soulful, freize-like composition of anguished, black-draped bodies.  Most of his peers here are far lesser known.  in terms of art history, they lost out to the (then) futuristic art sojourners highlighted in “Visionaries.”  Yet, the intentions of both Kandinsky’s and Peladan’s flocks, as far as developing a spiritually-infused art that could effect broad societal direction, overlap.