Tag Archives: MoMA

Alexander Calder: American Modernist at Mid-Century tied to MoMA

Alexander Calder: Modern from the Start; through August 7 at MoMA (New York)

Calder is renowned as the “mobile” guy whose shape-shifting sculpture inspired an industry of dangling decorative objects.  His prolific public art and high print yield has capped his status as among the most famous American artists of the 20th century, up there with the populist Norman Rockwell and Pop-ist Andy Warhol.  Equally feel-good and recognizable in his buoyant modernist metier, he shares with them a conveyed optimistic sensibility.  Specifically, Calder offers an accessible snapshot of European-derived abstraction between and immediately following the wars through an American roots lens.  This exhibition provides an overview via Calder’s relationship with and presence in the collection of MoMA from early on and throughout his career. 

Despite the many NYC venues where one might seek out or run into a Calder at just about any moment, I still appreciate a cache of his art just about any where, as in, most recently, the Whitney’s targeted show “Hypermobility” (2017)– and again here. Ultimately Calder delivers an unpretentious kind of elemental universe–concerned with opacity and transparency, shadow and light, mass and line–but also content-wise as in the actual universe, along with the micro version, our personal space. And therefore not “non-objective” per se; along with astronomical phenomenon, generative subject matter includes, prominently, an array of creatures (including human beings).

Indeed his earliest mature works are small-scale figures of wire and wood (good examples on view), quintessential examples of making art magic with next to nothing, that belie acute visual shorthand, low-tech ingenuity, and a certain humility. His later large-scale steel assemblages cut sinuous contours into space somewhat similarly, stretched out and opaque.

In his day, Calder was part of the art in-crowd (white, male) from the West to East Coast US to Europe and back and forth; exposed to Ashcan School influencers followed by Duchamp and Mondrian; and a recipient of formal training in mechanical engineering and art.  Still, much of his oeuvre seems a direct off-shoot of his childhood tinkering and memories, for example, adornments for his sister’s dolls, and formative experiences of the sky. Early commercial gigs included illustrations of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and images for a toy manufacturer—culminating in his famous artist-activated suitcase circus (Calder’s Circus, Whitney Museum) and entrée into the bohemian art crowd in Paris.

Much of Calder’s art is inhabited by a kind of child-like wonder, a vocal if elusive goal of many canonical (again, European, male-coded) modernists, prominently Picasso. Overall, Calder’s output comes across as authentic vis-a-vis art gestures derived from immediate, momentary reflection.

Alexander Calder: Modern from the Start, at the Museum of Modern Art (4/14/21)

Wedding-Cake Wonderland: Bodys Isek Kingelez at MoMA

“Bodys Isek Kingelez: City Dreams,”

Museum of Modern Art, May 26, 2018 – January 1, 2019.

“A city set on a hill cannot be hid.” (Matthew 5:14)

By now you’ve undoubtedly heard about Bodys Isek Kingelez (1948-2015), the Congolese sculptor of imaginary skyscrapers and cities out of cardboard, pasted papers, and all manner of shiny and colorful, miniaturist flotsam and jetsam.  Antoni Gaudi meets historical Futurism meets the Jetsons.  Meets Hindu gopuram meets Miami Art Deco.  Meets, crucially,  the uncompleted modernization of Kinshasa in the early, hopeful reign of OG Mobutu Sese Seko, when Kingelez arrived there from a small village and settled in for the rest of his life.  Very “global modern”–MoMA is the perfect venue.  More so if you recall the debut (more or less) of African art at MoMA in the infamous 1984 exhibition, “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, in which African art was presented (without mention of the artists) as static and conceptually limited, and which this oeuvre deconstructs inherently and completely.   

No one could fail to “like” these wedding cake-terraced constructions, dotted with painted details and calligraphic signage.  For Kingelez, they were models for  what–he had faith (literally)–would someday be realized as architecture.   His art journey began after a professed spiritual (Catholic-inflected) vision and attendant desire to address and contribute to new urban environments that would meet all the needs of its inhabitants. Global art world acclaim came with his inclusion in the landmark Paris exhibition, Magiciens de la Terre (1989),  and related support of mega-collector of Jean Pigozzi, after which his material inventory and the physical space of his works expanded.  Overall, however, his vision and approach remained pretty much consistent; likewise, the child-like pleasure of perusing his wonderlands.  Creations range from charming World’s Fair-type national pavilions (e.g.,  Palais de Hirochima; Belle Hollandaise) to kaleidoscope-Coney Island re-dos of corporate and government complexes set amidst painted  parks, thoroughfares and recreational sectors that feature sports arenas named after himself.  More solemn and sterile but equally utopian, Kingelez also gave much attention to hospital and health-related entities, partially drawing on colonial-style facilities in the Congolese capital. 

Besides an extensive retrospective display (the first for Kingelez), MoMA’s exhibition includes a superb virtual reality component that places viewers, via special glasses and video monitors, within one of his more complicated extrêmes maquettes (his term) and allows for bounding around the buildings by shifting focus, .  There are no interiors though, nor even the suggestion of such.  It’s all surface–but what  dazzling and dizzying surface.  Too bad the artist did not live to see this incarnation, so very close to his city dreams. 

Bodys Isek Kingelez, Ville Fantome, 1996 (at MoMA, 2018)
Bodys Isek Kingelez, Kimbembele Ihunga, 1994 (at MoMA, 2018)

“I had the Original”: Modern Apparel Staples on View at MoMA

Item: Is Fashion Modern; at MoMA, through January 28. 2018.

Not sure about the title—no and  yes – especially, on the latter; starting with Baudelaire on the topic in any number of art-centered essays.  As he breezily pointed out,  fashion is ahead of  art, vis-a-vis a coded pathway to imminent shifts in social direction (whereas art is constrained to a reflective moment, even in a continuum  of  modernity).   A 20th – 21st century “greatest  hits” of apparel types, items, and brands, with a few apt encomiums to specific designers, it really taps the times, mashing in all manner of emerging personas, hybrid identities, and increasingly global design trends as well as politics.   Suites of spare but not stark displays like a row of “little black dresses” (natch) and men-to-women’s suits (where Halston is rightly highlighted) stand out; as does the scope of specifics up to the moment of the Burkini and the Kaepernick jersey.   More broadly, the evolution of the hoodie, as a sign,  along with athletic wear into the streets and couture ubiquitously (yes, Chuck Taylors) gets good coverage.

Inventive selections/ideas abound: fashion’s social bricolage and appropriation of medical and military items, from the Breton shirt to Doc Martens; cross-chronological dialogs like GlamRock and Gaga;  the sea-changing T-shirt turned outerwear, displayed as a template for projected logos, slogans and images themselves iconic.  Caftans and dashikis; distressed jeans; Calvin Klein briefs and Spanx.  Global elements in terms of fabrics and  updates of cross-over traditional shapes and garments.  My fave—I knew it would someday be duly honored—the Norma Kamali sleeping bag coat, introduced in the disco doorman late ’70s when both (male) enforcers and scantily-clad (female) hopefuls lining up behind the ropes in the cold for who knows how long popularized them–carried into the ensuing Palladium era and well beyond.

Excellent supplemental videos and texts abound that do not, however, encroach upon the spacious installation; overall, well, appropriately modernist, in contrast to the ever more bling stagings of the Met’s Costume Institute in the recent years.  Of course, that’s golden apples and fresh oranges, so to speak—but, the latter is even more palpable here for the inevitable, if asymmetrical comparison.  This original survey is sure to be a pop winner, while also erudite and astute at every turn for those engaging attentively.

Norma Kamali “sleeping bag” coat; in “Item … ” at MoMA (10/1/17)

In “Item … ” at MoMA (10/1/17)



Mapping at MoMA: Perilous Journeys; A Decade; Dark Visions by an Impressionist

At the Museum of Modern Art (West 53rd):

Bouchra Khalili: The Mapping Journey Project (through August 28)

From the Collection: 1960-69 (through March 12, 2017)

Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty (through July 24)

Like many, I did not really like the gargantuan atrium-centered MoMA re-do (2004); and, despite the ostensible (arguable) necessity of a ginormous space to accommodate ever-larger postmodern projects,  not that much has looked great in there.  (One exception that immediately comes to mind: Sanja Ivekovic’s pregnant female monument presiding over MoMA’s infamous modernist “hot mamas,” in her 2011-2012 show, “Sweet Violence.”)  Anyway,  Khalili’s current video installation does looks very good — or maybe I just love the piece, which was included in the New Museum’s 2014 exhibition, “Here and Elsewhere“; but deserves any and all exposure.  It’s comprised of a group of free-standing screens, each projecting close-ups of hands drawing routes on maps, with audio narratives detailing the journeys of exiles, refugees, and migrant workers.  Beyond the crucial content–often dangerous, subterranean transient life around the globe, the aesthetic component is considerable.  Moving between the flickering screens, fade-in-and-out murmuring, and zoomified map graphics, patterns emerge, echoing the stories.  And the regions delineated, as well as the synecdochal hands featured, carry myriad, fluid associations.


The collection survey of work from the 1960s, organized by year, again defies the corny adage: familiarity breeds contempt–at least in its current incarnation, which will shift intermittently through its year run.  The 1961 Jaguar near the entrance is cool–even if obviously sensational and not quite integrated into the context of the outre art featured (though not exclusively) in the rest of the installation.

Overall, the art featured, pace the Jaguar, is relatively low or raw tech, hopeful, outspoken, eccentric; and individualistic–but not navel-gazingly so (lots of worldly references everywhere).  A few highlights:

Yayoi Kusama’s soft-phallus-covered, stuffed armchair represents an idiosyncratic, sex-charged counter-culture sensibility, and reminds of the octogenarian’s brave early visions, hard work and persistence that have perhaps been clouded a bit by her subsequent cult of personality and factory-like output.  Nearby, Claes Oldenburg’s aging, bean-bag-like, colossal ice cream cone, slumped in a corner, looks, in other ways, just as kooky.  Andy Warhol’s Gold Marilyn appears to be hung lower than I recall in the permanent galleries, which brought him–if not her–down to earth and not quite omnipotent (though no less iconic) in the midst of this mixed crowd.  James Rosenquist’s monumental, Pop-Photorealist sectional mural, F-111, wrapped around its own nook, gives it a physical reality, in terms of scope and process, lost in reproductions of his work in general–where it appears much more like the Photoshop imaging that it anticipates with loosely traced and sometimes airbrushed handiwork.  A luxurious Sam Gilliam drapery painting brings in the continuing development of abstraction, still dominant on the art scene through the decade.  An iconic flag-and-body print by David Hammons is especially latent, retrospective of his subsequent rise to the center of the international art world adamantly on his own terms.   Arte povera is represented with a tough and deliberate yet chance-driven assemblage grounded in concrete by Giovanni Anselmo.  A modest Betye Saar “window” collage-painting brings in a glimmer of diaspora expression that would not break fully into the mainstream until the late 1980s.   A Beatles section of ephemera includes the Sergeant Pepper’s album cover designed in collaboration with early British Popster Peter Blake;  and writhing Day-Glo posters suggest psychedelia as the true popular art style of the era; whereas Pop, in spite of itself, can be viewed within a continuum of the historical avant-garde.   In this vein, Milton Glaser’s famous Bob Dylan poster (MoMA has one) comes to mind for the rotation.

A niche section displaying mainly plastic-based furniture, coincidentally (or not) positioned near the old Bauhaus stairway area brings backs memories of a unique museum with a particular identity.


You will see why the Degas show bears such a seemingly cliche title — incontrovertibly weird, but, in the end, highly engaging; how else can you say it?  (Well, I don’t know about the “new” – that’s pushing the institutional rhetoric.)  This extensive monochrome print oeuvre appears particularly odd-ball for an artist famously associated with color by association with Impressionism–and it impresses as an authentic endeavor in pushing formal boundaries without apparent concern for critical affirmation.  Equally, especially in the extensive array of brothel scenes, an expressive quality is imbued that, although (or because) ultimately ambiguous, departs in sensibility from his characteristically alert, cerebral pictorial deliberations.  Collectively, they convey an obsessive, subconscious searching in their claustrophobic variety.  I have to admit, I did, eventually, succumb (for,  despite  a scholarly appreciation of this art giant, I’ve never “liked” his work).  Moving through the profusion of dark-toned, intimate (embarassingly so, in some cases) imagery, the chemically washy smears and smudges, defined by intermittent and brief fluid contours, became mesmerizing.  And his lighting effects are, at times, as effective in print as Rembrandt’s.

Modernist Mash-up Master: Joaquin Torres-Garcia at MoMA

“Joaquin Torres-Garcia: The Arcadian Modern”

Museum of Modern Art, through February 15, 2016

One art historical context for the Frank Stella retrospective at the Whitney: the mash-up modernist paintings and constructed reliefs (along with a few sculptures), of Uruguay-born Torres-Garcia (1987-1949), fortuitously on view concurrently at MoMA. Torres-Garia spent much of his career in Europe and the U.S. absorbing the latest stylistic, sometimes utopian, trends in painting. He ended up with a kind of catholic abstraction that carried Cubism through De Stijl (closely) and Russian Constructivist tendencies (among others) into a personal idiom that added recurring pictographic symbols.

Torres-Garcia started out in Barcelona (his Catalan father had decided to repatriate when the artist was 17), and the earliest works here show the post-impressionist modernisme of Picasso and the El Quatre Gats gang–street scenes and figures with fluid contours and deft, minimal description.  An anomaly, before he moved definitely into quasi-geometric intuitive abstraction, is a classicizing fresco study on view (also recalling Picasso); the project to which it was related did not come to fruition and apparently set him off naturalism for good.

I like the muddied Mondrians, in which black skeletal contours are smudged into variegated  white, yellow, red and blue “windows” with subdued painterly gusto; and also some incredibly simple and raw constructed reliefs that convey the utmost respect for the nuanced visual mystery of juxtaposed shapes and textural surfaces. A number of tawny, analytic cubist-type compositions include proto-Jasper Johns number schemes; playful numeric and alphabetic elements are strewn across the later work more boldly. It seems the pictorial cryptography of Paul Klee also made an impression, especially in a few linear townscapes with fish flying overhead among the stars.

The fish symbol became a mainstay of Torres-Garcia’s finally signature style.  Later glyph-studded, loosely grid compositions recall those of Adolph Gottleib from around the same time (c. 1940s-early 1950s).  An anchor is another symbol woven throughout that perhaps alludes to his perpetual literal and artistic travels.  A few black and whites feature linear figuration that isn’t so far from Keith Haring’s paint-drawing sensibility on an intimate scale. There is also a display of charismatic rough-hewn toys made for his kids that fit right in as art the way those by Picasso do.

The show provides both an engaging crash course on directions in abstraction in early 20th-century art and comprehensive exposure for an artist who, it seems, collegially and respectfully followed and led, experimented thoughtfully in small increments, and came up with an accomplished, compact oeuvre that now also signifies a link between an international network of artistic peers.

Powers of Picasso at MoMA

“Picasso Scupture,” Museum of Modern Art, through February 7, 2016.

If you think you’ve seen it all when it comes to Picasso, well maybe; but the powers of his art are such that personal viewings proffer renewed vigor each time; and there is not a piece in this show, covering c. 60 years, that is not mesmerizing after a few seconds of attention.  The guy was a magician of both eye and hand, above all, deconstructing and re-imagining the human anatomy–especially, but not only, female–in infinite variations.  But there are also boldly built, plastered, modeled, baked, and cast animals, along with mundane still-life subjects, reconfigured on every scale to suggest an extra-sensory vision of the world that constantly vacillates between empirical, emotional, and perceptual focus.

Real surprises (at this point)?  Taken as a whole, absolutely. For one thing, if you were from Mars, you might think this was the best sculptor of the 20th century on Earth, who dabbled in painting.  That’s because there are intermittent, idiosyncratic paint markings on the sculptures throughout that add up to an inimitable, signature imprint–as ubiquitously noted, there are lots of crossovers between 2-D and 3-D (not to mention 4-D) explorations in his oeuvre.

As vague and non-methodical but deliberate and progressive his abstractions are, his subjects and sources (quite specifically in many cases)  can always be gleaned–he could not have been more firmly planted on the ground of this world and (frankly) the history-tried  “masters” before him.  Especially his well-known muse-lovers come through, no matter how extreme the stretching, bending, shattering, inflating of his renditions; even in the substantial cache of Surrealist-type works (well, in some aspects, almost of all of his sculpture could be classified as such with their intuitive distortions).

You will think, here and there, of his mythologized quote that “great artists steal from other artists”–viewing elements associated with Ernst, Giacometti, Brancusi, seemingly before their own models were dry–not to mention all the “collaborations” that were crucial to his 3-D essais.  But more so, his break with predecessors and peers (even as they were absorbed and dragged along) came from his own, incomparable, excorcistic Demoiselles (1907), prescient in nearly everything to follow–his sculpture is unthinkable without its watershed clashing planes, and adjacent multiple viewpoints.

A few faves: The very first piece in the show, the poignant, puttied bust, Jester (1905).  All six Absinthe Glass versions (1914)–one of the most idiosyncratic and far-reaching sculptural projects of the 20th century.  The small-scale but monumental and gritty Death’s Head (1941). The kore-like Pregnant Woman (1950), which inventively incorporates ceramic vessels.  (At the moment, can’t think of any other stoic takes on the subject by male modernists.) The famous bronzed bicycle-parts Bull (1942), which, dramatically isolated and hotly lit, nearly transforms to an African mask, and is uncannily succinct as a nutshell of his autonomous, continuous reorganization of reality.

Other suc singular and renowned works are also displayed in  elegant, spacious arrangements that they well command (and which also diffuse the crowds). Each chronological section is introduced with a wall text summarizing the circumstances and interests of the artist in the period, to the happy exclusion of individual identifying labels. Many lesser known works included are not, in fact, masterpieces, in any conventionalized sense of the term (except through the myth of Picasso).  Instead they are serial explorations, effectively installed in clusters, reflecting a ceaselessly restless visual mind.

Serving Andy’s Soups, Yoko’s “Apple” and “Grapefruit,” at MoMA









“Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960–1971,” through September 7.


The oddly empty, yet addictive allure of Warhol‘s art is mind-boggling. Boring until it’s mesmerizing (not unlike Minimalism). Students cannot get enough of Warhol, the images, as well as the myth.  Even if they think they don’t get it. Even if they are skeptical. Whether or not they are interested at all in “art” broadly or specifically. Supermarket to Studio 54 to the Louvre. Same take. Same procedure. Same surface. Pure “spectacle” –  reproductions of reproductions—no substance. Labels, photos, the front page of a newspaper. Yet despite its built-in, flattened reproducibility, so many of Warhol‘s big, bold screen prints, such as the suite of mostly neon-tinged Marilyns (on paper; 1967) in the current MoMA show, stake a clear claim in a long, essentially modernist lineage of “art.” (Today I thought of Picasso’s Dora Maars before this repeated yet stuttering, puzzled and psychedeli-cized image of the sexy star—which I hadn’t, precisely, in the past;  Warhols keep on giving that way.) Meanwhile, the seminal gold Marilyn canvas (1962; moved from the collection galleries into this focused show) looks more and more like a Byzantine icon over time, its aura palpable.

The central installation is the entire original series of 32 Campbell’s soup cans (1962), among the last of Warhol’s hand-painted (traced; stenciled) works, displayed like the commodities they are, on a shallow shelving, as in their debut at Ferus Gallery (L.A.)–just a moment away from the forthcoming “brillo boxes” (1964) that would that come closest to such an art-product union. As it is, the soup cans remain more so disembodied icons, like the Marilyns.  Still provocative in the machine-mimicking technique and vision of fast-food cultural nourishment for the democratized surplus society of postwar USA.

While Andy was creating a campy, subterranean superstar milieu around his art “factory,” Yoko was even more avant-garde (for lack of better term) with the Fluxus crowd, where she furthered its concept-driven, anti-product ideals not only through her own work but by hosting events for others in her downtown loft.  Subsequently, the creatively energetic octogenarian has remained foremost–through thick and thin in terms of her maligned public persona (late 1970s-80s) and the tragic death of long-time lover and husband, Lennon–a New Yorker. It feels right—an adopted hometown show for this  idiosyncratic, artistically generous-spirited, bohemian survivor.

With that in mind, her well-known piece, Apple (1966), placed near the start of the exhibition, reads as a kind of vanitas: a real apple, left to disintegrate gradually, is placed on a plexiglas pedestal adorned with a metal plaque that bears its tautological title–an imprint of the artist’s having “thought” this that will remain.  The clear base gives a floating effect to the plaque and the apple,  a green variety that evokes its frequent appearance in Magritte’s inscrutable paintings; likewise, the play between word and object.

Yoko‘s aesthetic is linked to Surrealism in other ways as well.  Bag Piece (1964) has visitors don a dark sack to appear as a “bundle” crawling in a corner, evoking Man Ray’s famous object, Enigma (1920).  There are also hired performers to keep it live for several hours each day.

"Bag Piece" by Yoko Ono; MoMA (5/22/15)
Yoko Ono, “Bag Piece” (1964) at MoMA (5/22/15)





Christo also comes to mind, even more so in a performance in which musicians are progressively wrapped in gauze as they are playing until the sound becomes mute, represented by photo documentation in the show. There is also the Half a Room installation (1967), which recalls Yayoi Kusama’s foray into domestic absurdity around the same time.

Yoko Ono, "Half-a-Room" (1967); at MoMA, 5/22/15
Yoko Ono, “Half-a-Room” (1967); at MoMA, 5/22/15

An absurdist element underpins the extensive, intermittent series of haiku-like “instructions” and “scores” for actions and performances that make up most of the show, the earliest of which were first presented in a book Yoko titled, Grapefruit (c. 1964), for the hybrid origins of the fruit.  So: “dance in pitch dark”; light matches, touch the sky; scream; imagine weather; interact with others—sometimes realizable in real time, sometimes not, sometimes seemingly somewhere in between. This aesthetic mix of prose and poetry, whimsy and obscurity, auteur and collaborator, has been the mainstay of her art. And some of the texts have been incarnated for the exhibition, e.g., “stepped on” or “dripped upon” or ink-obliterated canvases–also, at points, reflecting a Zen-ish approach. Buddhist precepts also lie within the scope of her most famous performance,  Cut Piece, (first performed 1964), represented here in a 1965 filmed version, in which audience members are invited to the stage to cut off pieces of the artist’s attire. The work has only become more resonant as it has been absorbed into waves of local and global feminist art and discourse through the decades.

While conceptual art, especially ephemeral-type text, is purposefully anti-visual in any conventional sense, the marketplace and museum have found ways to subsume it into their linked folds, not least with slick framing of salvaged, expansive notations  that suggest an “administrative” style.  So there’s that to consider here. There have also been criticisms of some of this work as “light-weight,” in terms of conceptual exercises (is it any thought in her head at any moment?).  Yet, the lightness (I agree) is also refreshing compared to more heavy-handed (whether through scale, medium, or philosophical implication) examples of the genre, and in that sense, accessible without thinking so hard that it’s not enjoyable to peruse.

At opposite ends of the ’60s spectrum in so many ways, Andy and Yoko share a blank-screen sensibility with their visual and verbal texts (respectively) that rely heavily on the viewer’s participatory imagination to become art.

Moving jacob Lawrence at MoMA

“One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Works”; Museum of Modern Art, through September 7.

No one could take the the simplest of shapes rendered in the subtlest of matte colors, overlap and interlock them on a tiny board, and elicit simultaneous emotional, narrative and thematic clarity like Jacob Lawrence.  I cribbed randomly from the MoMA site just two of dozens of examples in the one featured series alone (below), all the more powerful in the film-strip rows in which he intended some of his best work to be experienced.

How else can I describe it? Something like intuitive formalism–deliberate, yet autonomous-seeming placements of essential art elements, suddenly, inexplicably bursting with “content” (for lack of better term).

I cried the first time I saw the “Migration Series” (c. 1941) in full at MoMA in an exhibition in the mid-1990s; and have been a devoted student of Lawrence’s art (yes, it has a pedagogic commitment)  ever since; yet, I still cried my way through it yesterday, even more so (I believe), as the legacy of this quietly determined, inventive  endeavor (“Migration”) and entire oeuvre extends exponentially across generations in and outside of the art world, vested in specifically American contexts but moving far beyond.

The many bonuses in this MoMA installation include a few early, larger Lawrence paintings and contextual work by (among others): Romare Bearden (universal father figure for young African American artists, mid-century), Charles Alston (early mentor of Lawrence), Charles Wright (whose tough, super-realist portraits invoke, in reverse,  Whitfield Lovell; and just lately, Titus Kaphur); two jaunty oils by William Henry Johnson of resilient farmers transformed through African sculpture-anatomy and textiles are show-stoppers. More:  Langston Hughes/Aaron Douglas poem/print collaborations, and influential books, music, film-strips, ephemera and photos from the post-Harlem Renaissance and Civil Rights eras, many of which incorporate (in various ways) graphic arts for reproduction by Lawrence, among others.

Jacob Lawrence, panel 16 from the Migration Series (1941; www.moma.org)
Jacob Lawrence, panel 16 from the “Migration Series” (1941; www.moma.org) [hardship in the south]

Jacob Lawrence, panel 37 from the "Migration Series" (1941; www.moma.org)
Jacob Lawrence, panel 37 from the “Migration Series” (1941; www.moma.org) [steel mills=work in the north]

Digging Dubuffet

“Jean Dubuffet: Soul of the Underground”; MoMA, through April 4.

It’s sometimes difficult to psyche myself up for a careful look at  well-historicized “modernist” art like Dubuffet’s, though often, as in this case (as well as other-end-of-the-spectrum-peer Matisse’s recent MoMA display*) highly rewarding. Dubuffet’s idiosyncratic, intensely deliberated way with earthy textures and imagery remains evocative as the diametric opposite of “appealing,” a sensibility heightened in this age of slick digital image production.

Jean Dubuffet. Soul of the Underground. Vence, December 1959

From the Museum of Modern Art Collection Online (moma.org/collection): Dubuffet, Soul of the Underground, 1959 (Oil on aluminum foil on composition board)

The complete confounding of primitivism, loopy-ness, and undeniable art erudition, the last to Dubuffet’s own consternation, is impressive in this relatively small-scale show, which focuses on experimental printmaking and drawing, but includes a few raw assemblage sculptures and what may be called paintings. However, mediums generally merge in his oeuvre into cobbled build-ups of human junk, natural matter and caveman graffiti mimicry. Overall, the suggestive processes conveyed involve playing with dirt, in more ways than one.

Notions of figuration and abstraction also lose meaning in much of Dubuffet’s art, including works like the exhibition’s namesake (above). The word “soil”–as core archeological matter–might be substituted for “soul” therein. As denotative and connotative terms, they are intertwined, interchangeable, and integral conceptual components of Dubuffet’s abject aesthetic.  The painting’s heavily tinfoil-encrusted, rusticated and rusted surface anticipates Anselm Kiefer’s crumbling picture planes, part of a vast lineage, including Twombly,  Rauschenberg, Hammons, Basquiat, and on and on into the present.  In fact, examples of Dubuffet’s scratched and muddied cartoon portraits (in various forms) here can look like ancestors of Nicole Eisenman’s goof-ball “monster” faces concurrently on view in the “The Forever Now” show upstairs.** He also haunts other works in that show, including Joe Bradley’s scratchy drawings and Rashid Johnson’s “cosmic slop” paintings (to quote one of their titles).

Interestingly, the specific European postwar context of Dubbuffet’s art hovers palpably, not least through the strangely, effectively forced humor that exacerbates the informe topography of his represented bodies and surroundings, both primordial and entropic.

*See post 10/10/14.

**See post 12/18/14.