Tag Archives: Museum of Modern Art

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)

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

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)

Topographic Painting, Worlds Apart: Thomas Cole; Tarsila do Amaral

Thomas Cole’s Journey: Atlantic Crossings; through May 13 at The Met (Fifth Avenue building).

Tarsila do Amaral: Inventing Modern Art in Brazil; through June 3 at the Museum of Modern Art.

The organization of and examples in The Met’s Thomas Cole exhibition effectively create a transporting experience for viewers that follows the artist’s journeys between England, the United States, and Italy in the early 19th century.  Cole (1801-1848) was the product of an era in which continental aesthetics and art history were becoming consciously intertwined with artistic goals specific to the painting medium, especially; close imitation of both nature and the idealized form of “the ancients” was di rigueur.  Cole breathed air into the former—that is, within meticulously detailed and composed, glazed and polished landscape scenes and scenarios.  Whether portraying a precise locale or synthesizing and staffing various settings into monumental narratives and allegories, his pictures convey credibly atmospheric, weather-y conditions.  This propulsion he shared with peers like Turner and Constable, who are included, among others, for comparative contexts, not least to convey a splurge of individualistic technical flourish apparent beyond overlaps in nascent Romantic sensibilities associated with outliers from The Academy.

Themes broached in Cole’s oeuvre turn on colonial savage versus civilized significations and sublimes, and prescient ecological concerns in tandem with the accelerating Industrial Revolution; but, above all, the cyclical drama of nature, in full light of the encroaching Anthropocene, climactic in his renowned, metaphoric, Course of the Empire series, which is highlighted in a make-shift niche that allows easy cross-referencing between the stages of civilization depicted.

Brazilian artist Tarsila do Amaral (1886-1973) also created parallel worlds in paint that are nonetheless locally grounded in desert and jungle topographies of her homeland.  At the Modern, viewers are plopped into marshmallow-mound landscapes punctuated by stylized flora and fauna, bright suns, and sometimes bulbous humanoid bodies.  Stand-outs depict un-nameable creatures scuttling along flat bubbles and bands color, encroached upon by out-sized indeterminate foliage and melting cacti.  Part European-modern—Post-Impressionist, Surrealist, abstractionist—and part indigenous, in form, symbolism, and inspirations.  Put another way, Gauguin, Matisse, Tanguy, and Magical Realism milled to morphic and coloristic essences while conveying a real connection to earthy surrounds.

“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)



Post-Millennial Hits at MoMA

Unfinished Conversations: New Work from the Collection, through July 30 at the Museum of Modern Art

Quite simply, this show makes a great case for these early 21st-century creations by an international array of artists, each thought-provoking and visually engaging.  Most directly invoke cultural cross-overs that will–in retrospect–reflect a number of world issues pressing at this time; a few deal primarily with visual perception while suggesting content beyond the frame.

The tour de force and show’s namesake, Unfinished Conversations (2012) is a fascinating, artsy (in a good way) biopic on “cultural studies” founder, Stuart Hall (1932, Jamaica; 2014; UK), in three-channel video format by John Akomfrah (with substantial assistance from a host of others).  At 45 minutes, it is one of very, very, few film or video works near this length placed in the context of a group exhibition that I have sat through in its entirely—not out of due diligence to the subject (who deserves it, in any case) but because I was mesmerized after a few minutes. Highly moving yet unsentimental, it intertwines appropriated vintage and and newly created, moving and still images, color and black and white, of shifting land, sea, and city scenes, private and public events and personages, and interview snippets with Hall over time that convey the brilliance and humanity of his blended socio-political-aesthetic discourse. And the collaged, far-ranging soundtrack is meticulously considered, integral, and dynamic.  (If you can’t stay for the whole thing, find a way—like asking the guards or the google—to catch the section on the birth of Hall’s son near the middle.)

The other video in the show, by Jonathas de Andrade, whose piece on man-fish compassion via staged ceremony, 0 Peixe (2016), made big waves in its recent run at the New Museum (1/25-4/9/17), is also engrossing, at c. 10 min., for its blend of journalistic and artistic premises and perspective/s. The subject is a staged-to-be-filmed protest/spectacle (a la Guy DeBord), of animal cart drivers in Recife, Brazil whose transport tradition is a target of modernizing commercial interests and the government.

A few stand-out photo, drawing and painting inclusions: Samuel Fosso’s demure black and white photo self-portrait-portraits, in the vein of Cindy Sherman and (even more so) Yasumasa Morimura,  whereby the photographer assumes the role of public figure sitter that we think we recognize.  Any who have followed this  innovative progenitor of contemporary photography out of West Africa will especially appreciate the conceptual and technical maturity of the examples here.  Somewhat complementary is a display of painted portraits by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye of credible but actually conjured individuals.  A sprawling, seemingly autonomous drawing by Kara Walker of surrealist-scary, dream-memories reveals the underpinnings of her famous silhouette murals.  Abstraction perseveres with Kim Beom’s painted cartoonish maze, which evokes loosing one’s way (in art, in the world) as well as early Mondrian; and Wolfgang Tillmans’s giant digital photo of digital TV static–-a zen-like field referencing the obliteration of media images by censors (something of a visual oxymoron).

As for sculpture, you won’t miss the tromp l’oeil petrified tree trunk at the entrance by Adrian Villar Rojas; but may need to look for labels near the sleek, chunky symbols of Iman Issa to confirm that they are influenced by forms from the Islamic monuments noted.

Kim Beom, Untitled (Intimate Suffering #1), 2012 (MoMA Collection)


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.

Surrealist Splatter: Pollock Survey at MoMA

“Jackson Pollock: A Collection Survey 1934-1954”; at the Museum of Modern Art, through March 13, 2016.

MoMA’s on firm foundational footing this season, with featured strengths like Picasso (through Feb. 7), the global modernist Garcia-Torres (through Feb. 15), and now a small but bang-up (how could it not be) Pollock installation in the relatively modest graphics galleries on the second floor.  Like the recent delimited exhibition of the collection’s Warhols in the same space, works on paper and paintings of varying scales are interspersed in a way that makes visual and pedagogical sense as a summary, while providing an excuse to rotate lesser known gems among superstars. Of the former, two exceptional near-miniatures, Circle (1938-41), with seemingly automatic, Aztec-suggestive images swirling in a tondo; and Freeform (1946), which exemplifies Pollock’s breakthrough splatter mode in a balanced burst of rhythmic energy and awareness of the picture plane.

Pollock’s restless artistic and psychological spirit is well conveyed through this short journey from early Thomas Benton-mentored scenes through a number of engagingly inscrutable, Rorschach-like compositions pocked with primitivizing figuration and stenographic coding to the signature drip-and-pours.  Near monochromy is pervasive, with reds intermittently burning in the earlier work.  As with the Picasso show, Pollock’s absorption and churning of identifiable immediate predecessors and peers (including Picasso of course) can be recognized alongside his marked artistic difference.  A tentative and Surrealist-tinged return to the brush is seen in Easter Totem (1953), placed across from the triumphant, hand-printed, densely “poured” canvas known as No. 1a (1948), for an illuminating final juxtaposition in this compact context.

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.