Thursday, May 24, 2007

Archives Project: STL #24

Title: MOMA on the Road
Description: A Ramble Through the Twentieth Century
Date: 10 December 2003

This is an example of experience I might otherwise have completely lost if not for writing about it. In my upcoming move, I expect to burn the journals I kept on and off for 10 years. Maybe I should reconsider, or at least review these.

The Museum of Fine Arts-Houston is lucky enough to host the only American stop of "The Heroic Century," a collection from the Museum of Modern Art which is out wandering while MOMA's building is being renovated. There's a temporary MOMA space open right now in Queens I guess, but I don't know what's on display there because it seems like all the good stuff is in Houston. Though this treasure trove of modern art coming to Texas might seem like Michaelangelo's David visting New York, LA, and Springfield (on the Simpson's), there are some fine museums in this state, including the MFAH.

I've been to plenty of special exhibitions in my life, but tend to forget most of them. I'm going to try to retrace my steps through this exhibition, from the crowded entrance to the thinned-out exit, pausing at a few pieces which impressed me most. This collection is so well known by the reproduction that it's hard to see a lot of it with fresh eyes, and my experience of it mostly consisted of my tastes being confirmed: I still appreciate without liking cubism, still cannot fathom what people see in Salvador Dali, and still have a morbid passion for Adolph Gottlieb and Franz Kline. I wrote a few months ago about how hard it is to see art, a statement I felt stupid about when I noticed the paintings for sale in the coffee shop I go to everyday, but the quality of this stuff, above and apart from its familiarity, is extraordinary.

Entering the exhibit, you are confronted with Matisse's big painting of a ring of dancers. It's a well-known image, though I had never noticed that in the bottom left corner two of the dancers' hands aren't touching, so the circle actually isn't complete. It's fitting that this hopeful keynote to a show of the most self-consciously depressing century have this devious sign. The first large room is a mix of some late 19th century stuff, like Van Gogh's famous Starry Night and a nice Gaugin South Seas portrait, and early twenthieth-century European masterpieces, including Rousseau's The Dream, an image that decorates many a dorm room wall (though not as many as Klimt, who has a typical oil, gold and platinum piece in this room as well). I know this image well, having written an embarrassing descripto-symbolico poem about it as a teenager, but wasn't aware of its large size, nor of the color contrast which makes it hard to see the black stripe of the snake in the shadows. The next room is devoted to Picasso and Matisse, who I like but don't have anything to say about now. You then move into a room that charts the movement toward abstraction, from cubism to the purer abstractions of Kandinsky, who is juxtaposed with Monet in tribute to a recent, well-received show, and Mondrian.

The next room apparently recreates a famous show from the thirties, "Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism." There's a Duchamp ready-made, a bicycle wheel mounted on a stool. I haven't mentioned that, for the first time in my life, I was listening to one of those audio guides.* I generally scorn these, but they gave it to you with admission. Anyway, the description of the Duchamp went strictly by the book, citing Duchamp's questioning of the nature of art by exhibiting a mass-produced item as sculpture. The commentary didn't get into recent research that suggests that Duchamp altered all of his ready-mades or made them himself. If this is true, it obviously complicates the meaning of his art. (Find out about this new theory here.) If I ever get smarter, I'd like to study Duchamp in depth, and puzzle out a theory of his work (including his turn from artist to chess-player). Most of the rest of this room is worthless, though I almost missed a Cornell box, only the second I recall seeing, because it was wedged between two Dails. I had to shove through a herd of mouth breathers to see it.

Then you go through a room of sculpture to a small room of later representational paintings by Balthus, Beckman, and Hopper. Hopper is a funny case, since his current popularity is based, I suspect, on nostalgia, though his ongoing argument was about the isolation of modern life. The Beckman was an eye-opener, a symbolic tryptic called Depature. His topic is Nazi domination of German politics, represented by disturbing images on either wing. The center panel is ambiguous, of a king and queen on a boat. Are they leaving or returning?** Are they even relevant? I wasn't familiar with this painting at all, and haven't though too much about Beckmann in my life, but was mightily impressed by this piece.

This painting is an appropriate place from which to take leave of European painting, moving with emigree artists to America. A large room featuring de Kooning, Pollock, Klein, Gottlieb, Motherwell, and others was comparitively empty. Sure, the crowds pressed around Starry Night were tired from progressing through real space and so passed quickly toward the exit, but they are also increasingly challenged as we progressed in represented time. People simply don't want to grapple with something that looks like this in terms of "art." They do cluster a little more in the following rooms on pop art, though this walk is starting to tire me out, so I think I'll head toward the exit. I will pause though, to quote the Audiostar (TM) guide on Claus Oldenberg's big floppy sculpture of a piece of chocolate cake: "He changes the way we look at cake" (paraphrased, but it was just as stupid.)

This last thing you see before heading downstairs is an assemblage by Dan Flavin of multi-colored fluorescent light tubes connected in a square. It's not a ready-made (more like a made-made), but all the parts are store-bought. There's plenty of 'nature-of-art' theorizing that you can do about it, but the bottom line is that the artist worked with the materials of the contemporary world, and made something pretty. A good way to end this ramble though last century.

*Funny anecdote on those audioguides (or whatever they're called): My wife and I were eating at a second-rate Italian restaurant in downtown Austin (go figure). A couple at the next table, obviously on a first date, were making small talk next to us. The woman was from New York (you could tell from the shoes) and the no-neck was an urban Texan (you could tell from the utter studidity). After asking if his date was a big eater (he wanted to get salads and split an entree--classy move), he steered the discussion to museums, for that she was cultured and all. He liked museums, he said, especially the headphones. Especially the headphones!

**Yeah, this seems a thick-headed question because of the title, but it's worth asking departure of whom, from what, and by what means. Or maybe I'm just getting excited about The Return of the King.