Thoughts, Ideas, Observations


MOMA HIGHLIGHTS.  Department of Publications, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1999.

Reviewed by John Bedell                        The MOMA web site

This attractive little book presents 325 works from one of the world's most important collections of 20th-century art.  Each work gets a page, a color photograph, and a brief commentary.  A wide range of media is included: painting, photography, sculpture, film, furniture, industrial design, and--we'll come back to this later--the indescribable.  In most cases there is only one work from each artist, but a few of the most important (Picasso, Andy Warhol) get two or three entries.  The selection is an interesting mix of the famous and the relatively obscure, the descriptions are generally informative, and the presentation crisp; on the whole, it strikes me as a good introduction to the MOMA collection.

I confess that my motives for checking this volume out of the library were not pure, because in my mind the Museum of Modern Art is the chief citadel of the kind of art that I hate.  There is a fair amount in the book that I find reasonably interesting and attractive, and even a couple of things that I really like, but by and large my distaste was confirmed.  The MOMA collection is a grand celebration of innovation for the sake of innovation and revolt for the sake of revolt.  The descriptions of the works are full of lines like: "In a departure from the usual conventions...", "breaks from those ancient traditions", "...deeply alienated from the conventional values of his European, world...", and so on.  If the word "beauty" appears anywhere in the book, I missed it, but then, beauty is probably part of the artistic tradition Clifford Still once described as a "totalitarian hegemony", adding, "this tradition I despise, its presumptions I reject."

To my mind, the best works in this book are at the beginning, where Van Gogh, CÚzanne, and Rodin represent the lingering traditions of the 19th century.  My favorite work that I had never before seen was also in this section, a magnificently creepy mythic nightmare by Alfred Kubin titled The Eternal Flame (1900) that shows a skull floating over a cauldron of fire, watched by a throng of worshippers or victims.  Then things start to fall apart.  The beginning stages of this decomposition yielded some interesting results, where recognizable images float in strange worlds of dream or mix in absurd conceptual spaces.  I've always loved Gustav Klimt, although the work shown here isn't anything special, and Marc Chagall's dreamy farm animals strike me as the perfect mix of sophistication and nostalgia.  Picasso has never done anything for me, but the best surrealist works have a striking quality that burns them into the memory:  who could ever forget the melting watches of Dali's Persistence of Memory?  More and more, though, as one turns the pages, one sees images that look like nothing in particular, and not in any particularly striking way.  Collages of junk, squiggly lines, juxtaposed blocks of color, or just monochromatic canvases; a feeling of dreariness settles in, broken only by those works that can be taken as jokes.

Speaking of jokes, am I the only one who thinks this genre includes everything by Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns?  Whatever, modernism does have a serious side.  This seriousness, especially in abstract painting and sculpture, was an attempt to get directly at the essences of things, to paint motion itself rather than a bird in flight, or even to paint eternity itself rather than just a Christian idea of heaven.  But if you read the words attributed to some of these artists, you have to wonder if you would want to see their ideas about eternity even if they could successfully depict them.  Yves Klein liked to cover canvases with a particular shade of blue that he thought was the color of infinity.  Like, wow.  Ad Reinhardt said that his "ultimate" paintings he was aiming for "a pure, abstract, non-objective, timeless, spaceless, changeless, relationless, disinterested painting"; so why, Mr. Reinhardt, paint anything at all?

The last 50 pages of this book actually show few paintings.  Presumably because, as Clifford Still once remarked, "pigment on canvas has a way of initiating conventional reactions", your avant garde artist has turned toward bizarre accumulations of junk described as "installations" or "mixed mediums" (sic).  Thus we get works described as "player piano, fifteen televisions, two cameras, two laser disk players, one electric light and lightbulb, and wires" and "twelve water-cooler bottles, silvered to a mirror surface, each engraved with the name of a different bodily fluid."  It's all ugly, and if it has anything to say, I'm not hearing it.  Bruce Nauman  is quoted as saying he is "frustrated about the human condition.  And about how people refuse to understand other people."  But if Nauman is really interesting in understanding, why did he create this bizarre arrangement of suspended beams and hanging chairs, understandable only to a handful of his friends from the East Village?  In their commentary on Carl Andre's 144 Lead Square, an assemblage of  (you guessed it) 144 lead squares, laid flat on the floor, the editors say "what is fascinating is the complexity of the aesthetic ideas enforced in this simple plan."  Excuse me for not noticing complexity, ideas, or aesthetic in what looks like a sample of floor tile, but I don't guess Andre was trying to speak to me anyway.

You would never know, from perusing this book, that there has been a important movement toward traditional forms in the art of the past few decades, represented in painting by Andrew Wyeth, in music by Richard Einhorn, in poetry by the "New Formalists."  The MOMA does not deign to recognize such things.  That's their business, I guess, but I think this omission shows that what the folks at the MOMA are about: they are spitting at convention.  If philistines like me like it, they don't want it.  I think they are missing something.  I think a culture needs values beyond scorn, and an aesthetic that goes beyond the arbitrary or the slick.  But I guess I'll have to look elsewhere.

April 16, 2001

From the 
Commonplace Book

"To make a thing deliberately beautiful is a dastardly act."

--Louis Kahn


Commonplace Book
On the Dead
Bulletin Board
About us



A Dance with Dragons


Writing about Magic

Children of H˙rin

On the Road

The Magic Endures

Antioch at the BMA

Harry Potter on Film

In a Dark Wood

The Invention of Love


A Heartbreaking Work of
Staggering Genius


The Greenlanders

Modern Art and America

Pritzker Prize

Time to Abolish Art?