Also at MoMA

As usual, while I went to MoMA to see the Yugoslav Architecture exhibition, I wandered around the rest of the building to see what else was on display.

Charles White

There was a nice exhibit of Charles White’s work which demonstrates his versatility as an artist. All kinds of mediums—charcoal sketches, woodcuts, prints, paintings, photographs*—with a wide range of styles as continued to produce work from the 1930s through the 1970s.

*Admittedly the photographs weren’t presented as “art” but were still a nice personal set of portraits of White’s milieu.

The change in styles is kind of wonderful to see as it offers a way of learning about American art from the nostalgia-focused 1930s art to the social activism of the 1960s and 70s. Many of the pieces weren’t my kind of thing although I could still appreciate how all throughout White depicts facets of life that aren’t the “standard” image because he’s centering non-white subjects.

I however loved his sketches and woodcuts and also really liked his journey to Mexico with Elizabeth Catlett where he worked with worked with the Taller de Gráfica Popular.* White’s linework is fantastic and working in a print shop allowed him to embrace how prints and distribution are the true disruptive vector in artwork.

*Which while I didn’t mention by name in my Mexican Modernism post is definitely a huge portion of Mexico’s artistic and anti-fascist identity.

Bruce Nauman

The “big” show at MoMa was their Bruce Nauman retrospective. I did not venture to the PS1 location so I only saw part of the show. I walked through but didn’t take a lot of note. I very much enjoy Nauman’s tweaking of the “is that art” question that I can hear my kids asking me. I just didn’t feel drawn to spend a lot of time looking at or thinking about the pieces.

I did enjoy how so many of them operate as selfie-bait. This kind of thing has become the scourge of museums as every exhibition seems to need some sort of social media tie-in now. Many of Nauman’s pieces though create art by intentionally removing people from the piece.* When people insert themselves back in to take their photos, the result is an image which pretty much ruins the point of the artwork.

*The video cameras which show your movement but only if you’re in a location that can’t see the monitor are probably the best example here.

So many selfies inserting themselves back into the artwork. I couldn’t help but smile a little.

Permanent Collection

David Hammons. Out of Bounds. 1995–96.

I always take the time to at least walk through the permanent collection. This time there was a small exhibition focusing on artwork made by artists as they aged. So rather than focusing on a greatest hit, this show organized each gallery around one artists work as a way of showing how their work has progressed.

It’s a fun way to see the art and there were a lot of artists featured who I’ve liked for a long time—Agnes Martin, Helen Levitt, Ellsworth Kelly—and artists I don’t—Philip Guston, Joseph Beuys—but all of whom make up a decent canon of artists you’re supposed to know and recognize. It’s always a good thing to learn more than just the greatest hits of these guys.

My favorite section was David Hammons’s work since I was less familiar with it than I should’ve been.

Then I went to the next floor and hit the greatest hits galleries. They were packed even though this was a Wednesday visit during early January. I walked through quickly but said hi to all the cliches and grabbed a quick photo showing how crowded it was.

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The cliches are good to see and remind myself of what they look like in the flesh. How large—or not— they are. Details I always overlook in reproductions such as unpainted portions of the canvas. The out-of-gamut colors that can never be translated into standard process inks.

It’s good to see them and I found myself being jealous of the school groups who could just come to MoMA and learn about art. My kids are getting close to the right age and pretty sone I’ll be taking them here with a whole different set of eyes and a whole lot of patience.

Concrete Utopia

Brutalism is one of those architecture styles that’s easy to hate on. All that concrete tends to just look so different that what we’re used to in the US and the way we let it decay and age in this country doesn’t do it any favors either.

I’ve been finding myself increasingly drawn to it. As a photographer I especially like the subtle textures and ways it interacts with light and shadow. There’s also something I enjoy about the building itself being sculptural while remaining solid. All of which meant I was very interested in MoMA’s Toward a Concrete Utopia exhibition.*

*Yes it’s been closed for a month. It took me a while to write about this show.

The exhibition started off very much like I expected by focusing on individual buildings. Often these are public spaces like fairgrounds* or stadiums** but they cover the gamut. Brutal headquarters, municipal buildings, churches, apartments, hotels, etc.

*Like the Belgrade Fair with the largest concrete dome in the world before the Astrodome was built.

**Such as Split’s brutal but also light and graceful soccer stadium.

Despite the differences in scale, concrete is an extremely democratic building material. For something so ancient and basic—literally just sand held together with cement—it’s transformable into all kinds of wonderful forms and shapes which can evoke modern or futuristic feelings all the while maintaining that sense of connection to the earth.

Brutalism is great in that it lets the concrete be concrete without trying to mimic any other architectural style or hide what it is. The buildings on display often feel massive and weighty yet they simultaneously soar. Some things—crazy cantilevers and thin load-bearing pillars—can only be done with reinforced concrete and the resulting structures appear surprisingly and disturbingly light and graceful.

Milan Mihelič’s work in particular caught my eye here. It still looks space age despite being decades old. His buildings somehow turn concrete into a crystalline entity predisposed to self-sorting into stable geometric or fractal forms rather than an amorphous solid which gets poured into molds. Even as they age they maintain that aspect of otherworldliness.

Compared to Mihelič, the Hotel Podgorica in Radević is a completely different feel. Instead of feeling space age it taps into a sense of ur-wall and connects an ancient sensibility to a modern construction. It’s still a wonderful building but it bridges how modernism and brutalism can exist in harmony with older traditions.

I also liked the National Library of Kosovo in how it combines Muslim and Orthodox Christian motifs. It’s very much its own thing but for a building which is supposed to be a cultural caretaker in a region which has had more than its fair share of religiously-fueled violence it’s wonderful to see how it tries to be inclusive.

This exhibition surprised me in how it transitioned from being about buildings to instead focusing on cities and spaces and how brutalism is not limited to just individual buildings but instead applies to an entire community or metropolis.

Tatjana Neidhardt makes the observation that whitewashed-earth, cubic vernacular buildings are already modern and it’s pretty neat to see brutalism reframed this way. I love the way Zadar was redeveloped with modern buildings that still meander the way medieval city centers used to. As with the Hotel Podgorica it’s fantastic to see things that bridge modern and ancient and show how similar and compatible they actually are.

The big gallery focusing on Skopje’s post-earthquake rebuilding though is sort of the keystone of the exhibition for me. Kenzō Tange’s designs plus the blank slate of earthquake rebuilding created the opportunity to design an entire city rather than just a building at a time.

The buildings are still very interesting but it’s the spaces between them and how everything interacts that show how brutalism really works. Having so many models of groups of buildings in the gallery* is a great way to get a sense of the place and how it could feel like something new and different with the concrete buildings shaping the outside spaces as much as they shape the inside ones.

*The exhibition used models throughout as a way of illustrating the buildings.

In this case the architecture is clearly not drawing on the past in terms of the building forms but is drawing on it in terms of the public spaces being created between them. The idea that the buildings get used for their purposes of living or working but the open space is for everyone reminds me of the ways that parks and plazas are supposed to work in cities and how in older cities the paths and streets guide you to these public spaces.

Where in the US brutalism often feels imposed and forced into environments, the nature of how it shapes the space outside buildings explains how it works so much differently on college campuses.

Other thoughts

I found myself thinking of Lebbeus Woods as I walked through this exhibition because so much of the brutalism feels like it has one foot in the science fiction esthetic as it is and there’s something organic about concrete and how it ages that makes so many of these buildings feel right up his alley. That there was a small display highlighting Woods’s visit to Yugoslavia after the 1990s war was absolutely perfect.

I love his approach to dealing with the damaged buildings by respecting the damage and then designing around it. It takes the concept of ruin value and transforms it from the classic view of it as an actual ruin and makes it into something spectacularly modern.

The other neat thing about this show is that it shows photographs right next to the architectural renderings. The photographs are particularly interesting to me since they almost feel like digital renderings where people are absent and things have been aged with grungy textures, graffiti, and after-market air conditioning units.* I believe they’re real but given how multiple wars have torn through this area I wasn’t completely certain.

*It’s noteworthy how much these AC units add to the look of the place instead of detracting from it.

Compared to the photographs it’s amazing how poorly the architectural drawings describe how these buildings work. Without any shadows you have to imagine the depth and think about how it will be transformed by light. This aspect of brutalism is definitely one of the things I like best about it as a photographer. Rather than waiting for a shadowless overcast day, so many of these buildings look best when the shadows are harsh.

The freehand renderings and sketches do a much better job at describing the way the buildings will actually feel. Which is awesome since those are frequently imprecise and gestural while the buildings are so rigidly geometric.

Christopher Williams

MoMA_Williams

The third big exhibition at MoMA was the Christopher Williams show. This one was a mixed bag in terms of how I responded to it. On one hand, it was a bit of a fuck you to the audience since a lot of it felt like an in-joke that most people won’t get.* At the same time for me it felt like an exhibition which worked really well with Gober. Many of the photos were a little bit surreal or odd. And the whole show played with converting non-art objects to art objects.

*Not the biggest fuck you I’ve received in a Museum exhibition. That honor is still held by Santiago Sierra who, while I get what he was doing, still produced an exhibition that blew off anyone who attended it in favor of the statement that he was making.

In Williams’s case, he’s playing with the concepts behind stock and “professional” photography—bringing photographic muzak into the museum by suggesting alternate readings of the image and revealing some of the artifice in how it was produced. The alternate readings are obscure and stretched and, to my mind, not even that important. I’ve worked in printing, production, and design long enough to understand how everyone includes in-jokes in the process—the more obscure the joke the better so as no one else will notice. That we know he’s winking or enjoying a self-satisfied giggle here is enough for me even though I can totally understand how other people would be upset by this.

Revealing the artifice behind the stock photos is more interesting to me anyway. That so many of them feel a little off makes us question our expectations and points out how much of this photographic language we’ve absorbed even though this kind of photography is universally unmemorable.* Getting into and figuring out why they feel off though is almost impossible. They’re not off in a bad or incompetent way, they’re just somehow less commercial than we expect even while looking completely professional. Some of this is definitely because they’re in a museum rather than a magazine ad. But a lot of it is based on our collective snap judgements against a standard of professionalism that we can’t even articulate.

*It’s interesting to compare Williams to what people are currently calling Hipster Photography. Hipster photography appears to ape the unmemorable product consumption images only without being about the product. Williams makes the product more explicit but tweaks the delivery so it isn’t as unmemorable.

This isn’t “that’s not art” kind of art because it’s giant or made from expensive materials or being trangressive and saying “yes this is art.” Instead Williams directly triggers our “that’s not art” reflex only to have us immediately realize that we may jumped to that conclusion too quickly. I love this kind of category blurring.

I also love all his photos which intentionally include production elements in the frame. I’m a backstager by heart who tends to sympathize with all the unseen stuff that goes into making anything. It’s very easy to forget or be ignorant about all that process so any artist who tweaks the ideas of what belongs offstage* is okay by me.

*For example, Baz Luhrmann’s stage direction.

Matisse Cutouts

MoMA_Matisse

The big exhibition at MoMA was the Matisse show. Unlike Gober, Matisse was packed full of people who like his artwork—and who were visiting the museum to indulge in how much they liked it. It is indeed superficially easy to like: Bright colors. Fun shapes. A famous name. Some iconic pieces.

I liked it too, but the main appeal to me was that it was, in many ways, an exhibition of process documents instead of final products. Many of the pieces on display were actually about designing for a different medium. Maquettes for murals,* printed books,** ceramics,*** and stained glass. Cutouts eventually realized as silkscreens. Even the pieces which remained as cutouts went through multiple iterations before ending up in their final arrangements.

*The Barnes Mural

**Jazz

***La Gerbe

The exhibition does a great job at showing how the cutouts evolved and interacted with each other as Matisse worked on them. There are photos showing different arrangements and the displays go out of their way to emphasize the pinholes and other ways that the pieces were held together and rearranged. This is distinct from other process documents where multiple iterations are created and can be preserved. The fluidity of composition in the cutouts is fascinating to see and think about and there’s something wonderfully tactile and evocative with cut shapes stuck on a surface where we can see the possibilities of playing with everything.

Which made it especially interesting to see how despite the ephemeral nature of the cut outs, they were all also presented as being finished and final. The maquettes might be final proofs but they’re not the final piece. Some of the cutouts were indeed intended to be final pieces but many of them were living on Matisse’s walls and there’s a huge difference between being in the state Matisse’s death left them in and having it be finished complete works of art.* I can appreciate them as being finished enough, but declaring them as complete—and seeing people view them as complete—got me thinking some more about how we conceive of art and the role that presentation plays in how we react.

*It’s worth mentioning an exhibition on sketches I saw at Princeton here for some additional thoughts about process documents and unfinished pieces in the museum.

It’s an exhibition of Matisse Cutouts, not an exhibition of maquettes for Matisse Prints or Matisse Ceramics. So cutout as final form is the expectation going in.

And that’s fine too. Many of the pieces are a joy to look at and the form itself is fun. Squiggles where you can see both parts and try and match up the original paper pieces across multiple compositions. Vaguely botanical shapes that remind me of Hawaiian quilts. Some remarkably effortless and graceful forms such as the parakeet which show how much a single confident line can convey.*

*And other equally effortful forms, especially his human figures, which show that this medium is a lot harder than it looks.

There is so much here which I want to show my sons as basic art education. How to explore colors and positive and negative spaces. Being able to move compositions around before committing to their placement. The willingness to just try a line or shape and see what happens with it. The fact that this is just cut pieces of colored paper means it’s simple and cheap to try.

Robert Gober

MoMA_Gober

The first show we saw at our MoMA trip was Robert Gober. I’ve always liked him because he kind of freaks me out. I still remember seeing one of his solo shows 14 years ago. It’s interesting to go through and compare my memories with everything he’s done since then.

Most of what I remember are his wax creations—feet and candles and torsos—and the sinks and drains. Those are still as surreal as I remember them being. He’s gone beyond surreal objects though into surreal spaces. It’s not enough to see things that are the stuff of bad or weird dreams,* Gober transforms the galleries into spaces where the scale everything throws off your point of view. Things are too big or far away or high and everything feels like you’re looking at it from the wrong angle.

*Or at the very least those have-to-go-pee dreams you have right before getting up in the morning.

What I found myself liking more though were the ways he transformed ephemera into a different kind of printed medium.  The way the printed pieces go from being one-off (thermal paper or hand-written notes) to mass-producible (engraving or letterpress) rather than the other way around is especially interesting to me. I’m used to seeing things end up in the museum via the opposite process where something mass-produced is recreated by hand.

As a print nerd, I really enjoy Gober’s detailed printing instructions since they indicate to me how much craft goes into mass-producing anything. These aren’t just cheap scans and inkjets, these are engravings printed on nice paper and they only look cheap and disposable until you look closely and see how nice the paper and printing are. I wish I could handle these.

The Gober exhibition is also one which is fun to watch everyone else in the galleries. It’s so weird that the way people react is totally part of the experience. His work can’t be dismissed as non-art but it also isn’t something that most people like. They don’t know how to react and instead have to accept and deal with what they’re seeing rather than defaulting to easy emotions.

I love watching this kind of confusion. Still, there were not enough people laughing for my taste.

MoMA

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So I finally made it into New York. It only took me a year. Just a day trip with my sister so we figured we’d hit MoMA and FIT. The last time I visited MoMA was when it was in Queens in 2002 while the new building was being built. I only got to see the highlights of the collection then. I enjoyed being able to wander through more of it now.

There’s no need for me to write about the full collection since it’s pretty much a primer of what you should see and know when it comes to Modern Art. Seeing the iconic pieces in the flesh is always fun. As is getting the additional depth around each highlight. However, discovering other pieces which aren’t on the must-see list is what makes a museum visit especially enjoyable.*

*For this trip it was Lygia Pape who caught my eye.

Unfortunately, there’s no real equivalent to this kind of setup with the photography galleries. The photography gallery was smallish and seemed to be a rotating exhibit space. No sense that there’s a set of definitive highlights which should always be on display. It was also distinct from the main attractions in the museum where you have to sort of go out of your way to see the photos. Still, from what they had on display, I really loved seeing a Seydou Keïta print. And it was great to see this Metzker up close.

It was also very interesting to compare things to the way Princeton organizes stuff. We’d been to the Princeton museum the previous day and this time Yayoi Kusama was displayed as a “Showa-era” painter in the basement with the “ancient” Japanese art. Visit MoMA and she’s listed on the map as one of the seven examples of artists from 1940s–1980.* Similarly, MoMA included Maria Martinez as one of the artists in the Designing Modern Women exhibition rather than how Princeton displays her work in the Ancient Americas room.

*I couldn’t help noting that the seven listed artists for both 1880s–1940s and 1940s–1980 consisted of six white men and one non-white woman (Frida Kahlo for the earlier galleries, Kusama for the later galleries).

I enjoyed the rest of the Designing Modern Women exhibition too. The design world is typically male-dominated so it’s good to call out women’s accomplishments in the field as well as hanging a hat on how many of these women had to fight for acceptance or whose acceptance—or at least their foot on the door—only arrived because of their partnership with a man.

It’s also important to recognize the areas in design—such as textiles—where women were often pushed as legitimate media in their own right. “Women’s work” still tends to be ignored or minimized as a legitimate pursuit unless a man decides to go into it.* So to take these fields and hold them up as being worth looking at and studying, period, is great to see.

*Seriously, look at who our celebrity chefs and fashion designers are. Yes there are women in there, but they’re outnumbered by men. 

The video game exhibit is also on the design floor and pulled me in because I would recognize the sounds of PacMan anywhere. I like the display in that it allows people to actually play the games while still looking like a museum exhibition instead of an arcade. This allows for the performance aspect of video games to also be part of the exhibition. It’s also especially nice to see kids playing games that are decades older than they are.

There were a ton of special exhibitions at MoMA. Most of those will get their own write ups so that this post doesn’t ramble too much. The only one I’ll mention here is the Toulouse-Lautrec room since I don’t really have much to say about it. As a printing nerd, I always enjoy seeing prints in museums and really looking at the craft involved. With regard to Toulouse-Lautrec, I love how he treats clothing so often as a void—either of color of or paper—just showing the details in the faces and hands of his lithographs.