Tuesday, July 22, 2008


The last time I visited the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York, it was in Queens while the downtown space was being remodeled. The remodeled MOMA seems larger (I don’t know if it is), is much easier to get around in, and it shows more of the permanent collection. I spent one whole day there recently, which is only enough time to cruise the galleries, nodding to familiar old friends. But I did stop to think about a few items.

One was a gallery of Picasso’s sculpture. He is better known for his painting but this collection of sculptures highlighted his versatility, wit, and radical ideas about sculpture.

“Bull” (1958) is made of plywood, a tree branch, nails, and screws. It’s a great image from the front, but what makes it a radical sculpture is that it is almost flat. The whole point of sculpture is that you can walk around it to appreciate different points of view, and you can do that here, too, but what you discover is disorienting because it is a flat, anti-sculpture.

By contrast, “Guitar” (1914) is a sheet metal work hung on the wall, and from a distance it looks like a cubist painting. When you walk up to it, you realize it is not a flat painting but a wall sculpture. Curation at the MOMA is itself a work of art. You can’t help but notice the guitar high on a nearby wall as you walk around the flat bull in the center of the room, while the comparison boggles your mind.

On the topic of sculpture, I also paused at Giacometti’s “The Chariot” (1950) which I have admired for years. (An early prototype Segway?) The ancient-seeming bronze woman stands on a primitive cart balanced on wooden blocks. It should be unstable but I don’t get that feeling. She is compressed into a stick by the palpably massive air surrounding her. Or is she dessicated by time rather than crushed by air? I puzzled over the wooden blocks. Perhaps without them the feeling would be forward motion. On blocks, she is not going anywhere, the still air holding her eternally in place.

I was repeatedly amazed at the way works of art are displayed at MOMA. How they are shown can add entirely new dimensions of appreciation. For example, These two pieces by Malevich are positioned in a way that echoes the abstract theme of the works, a very nice touch.

Another work of Malevich, before he flipped out into that abstract suprematist thing, was positioned right next to a piece by Ferdinand Leger. It was a shock to realize how similar they were. Who knew?

I also had to pause and consider the relationship between Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. Both are abstract expressionists, but from different planets. Pollock’s energetic, whole-body activity is recorded on his huge canvas, while Rothko’s works are serene, quiet, far away, even though you know he had to work just as hard to create them. Pollock is the body and Rothko is the mind? I especially appreciated what I call “the evil Rothko”, which was displayed in the center of a large wall, between two particularly “easy” works in harmonious pastels. The “evil” one is in harsh, angry colors and has a huge scratch through the center of it, suggesting fingernails ripping the paint off in a fit of rage. So Rothko had his moods.

Similarly, a collection of works by Rauschenberg made me reconceptualize what I thought of him. There were some drawings I never would have associated with him, and I was looking around for a welded pile of crumpled car parts when I saw “First Landing Jump” (1961), a typical Rauschenbergian collage of objects but which were arranged in an almost formal way that suggested a portrait of a 1940’s automobile garage. The colors, textures, composition, and especially the little light, took me to that place. I could almost smell oil on the floor. I think that white reflector at the top is my favorite part, because those old red brick garages always had a light like that at the top over the sign. (There is no brick and no sign, but I see them anyway!). A fascinating piece of impressionism.

A featured exhibit had the paintings and films of Salvador Dali. I am not a fan of Dali’s paintings but I was quite impressed at the creativity of his films, which seemed way ahead of their time. Modern art film makers would benefit from taking a look.

I greatly enjoyed the architecture and design galleries, but I can’t begin to describe the treasures there. Instead I will show just one selection, a carved wooden chess set by Josef Hartwig (1924) which perfectly illustrates that old design slogan, “form follows function.” (Click to enlarge it and see it better).

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