September 19, 2018


‘MoMA at NGV: 130 Years of Modern and Contemporary Art’

By Miriam Cosic

Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of Joseph Roulin, 1889, oil on canvas, 64.4 x 55.2cm. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Mr and Mrs William A.M. Burden, Mr and Mrs Paul Rosenberg, Nelson A. Rockefeller, Mr and Mrs Armand P. Bartos, The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection, Mr and Mrs Werner E. Josten, and Loula D. Lasker Bequest (all by exchange), 1989. Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2018

An eye candy-laden, educational treasure hunt of an exhibition

Modernism has been as revolutionary an art movement as the early Renaissance was, and equally as entwined in the scientific, political, social and technological innovations of its day.

The Renaissance taught us that the sun didn’t orbit the earth, and gave us the printing press, the blast furnace and firearms; modernity gave us particle physics, air travel and mass production. Renaissance art gave us perspective and figurative narratives of political power; modernist art gave us the world broken down into its molecular parts, and new expectations of political critique.

The Museum of Modern Art in New York has been the greatest repository of modernism for decades, first under the colourful and persuasive Alfred Barr, and most recently under the super-efficient Glenn Lowry. There has been considerable grumbling in recent years that MoMA has abandoned its modernist brief by dabbling in postmodernism, but Lowry disputes the very premise of the criticism.

The museum’s brief, he points out, is the contemporary, not what we have retrospectively come to call “modernist”. Its aim, he wrote in an essay, is to be “self-renewing, with each exhibition and installation presenting an argument rather than a definitive statement about the history of modern art – in effect, in perpetual state of disruption.”

The star-studded MoMA show at the National Gallery of Victoria at present gives us a chance to break down that call and response.

MoMA at NGV: 130 Years of Modern and Contemporary Art begins with a powerful first room, which shows four masterpieces from modernism’s early days in the late-19th century. These exemplify the kind of post-impressionist works that set modernism on its path: Georges Seurat’s Evening, Honfleur; Vincent van Gogh’s Portrait of Joseph Roulin; Paul Gauguin’s The Moon and the Earth and Paul Cézanne’s Still Life with Apples.

The Cézanne, in particular, is dazzling. Cézanne was best known, perhaps, for landscapes that challenged both form and perspective, but his still lifes did similar. Criticised at the time for looking like unfinished sketches, they are in fact meticulously studied, breaking down both materiality and colour. The combination of intensity and ephemerality in Still Life with Apples gave people the chance to really “see” what reality was made of, and the clear brushstrokes showed how the artist tackled it.

The next room that dazzled me was titled Art as Action. It contained the kinetic work of Jackson Pollock and the contemplative work of Mark Rothko. Polar opposites though they seem in mood, both artists were part of the American post-war Abstract Expressionism movement. Both Pollock’s Number 7, 1950 and Rothko’s No. 3/No. 13 are gestural, abstract, uneven in the application of paint and highly contrasted in colour; both reach from their opposite starting poles towards some kind of visual and emotional harmony.

There are more than 200 items in the exhibition, and they cover the gamut from the Seurat (produced in 1886) to examples from the early 2000s. Sculpture epitomising the early 20th-century excitement with technology includes examples from Peter Behrens’ A.E.G. (Allgemeine Elektricitäts Gesselshaft) Berlin – a fan painted black and gold, and a minimalist wall clock – and László Moholy-Nagy’s indeterminate post-World War One Nickel construction.

The show segues through Picasso’s cubism; Dali, Magritte and de Chirico’s surrealism; Malevich, Popova and Rodchenko’s constructivism; Balla’s Italian futurism; Ellsworth Kelly’s hard-edged minimalism; Edward Hopper’s suburban and rural realism; and much more. Toulouse-Lautrec, Kirchner, Delaunay, Léger, Grosz, Mondrian, Kahlo, Reinhardt: the rollcall is extraordinary.

MoMA has been generous with these loans, and the show offers eye candy and a celebrity treasure hunt, as well as a quick educational tour through the byways of 20th-century art.

It’s when we get to more recent works – postmodernism, if you will – that the sheer power of the art on display diminishes. Is this an art-historical judgement or personal taste?

We leave the realm of high art for a seemingly more desperate experimentation, as though neither the social nor the technical goals of art are clearly defined any longer. Andy Warhol’s suite of Marilyn Monroe screen prints is becoming hackneyed. Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s vertical cascade of light bulbs, Untitled, is, well, a vertical display of light bulbs.

Architect Zaha Hadid’s exterior view of a Hong Kong development project is an exciting illustration and, as art, is a curious mix of Giacomo Balla and Ellsworth Kelly, but I’m not sure what it tells us about art in the 1990s. Rineke Dijkstra’s portraits of girls and women sitting on chairs are more social history than art as such.

And yet there is art here that speaks to me (and I am conscious of the subjectivity at work here): Rauschenberg’s Surface series, Diane Arbus’s portraits. Robert Gober’s untitled leg – which I originally took to be a Maurizio Cattelan: it’s a bit hard to forget his headless horses – demanded closer attention. Even posters for British punk rockers The Clash – depicting American militarism, and the Statue of Liberty bound in rope – demanded attention.

How to explain the sense of softening towards the end? Do we always require some distance of time to deal with developments in art and to sort out the masterpieces from the also-rans? I have walked and walked unmoved through massive biennales like Venice’s before being stopped in my tracks by a fascinating work. Does the ever-present need for wall texts to explain what we are seeing diminish the visual impact? Is the subject matter so particular now, the opposite of the universalities that art once reached for, that only so many will interest any given viewer?

And yet the contemporary works that stand out really stand out, as anyone who visited the Gerhard Richter show at QAGOMA earlier in the year and the Chiharu Shiota at the Art Gallery of South Australia will have experienced viscerally.

And so, even the last part of the MoMA exhibition, where you can almost hear reactionaries grumbling, “Call that art?!”, provides us with an important overview of what is important to artists today. And don’t forget that the now-hallowed term “impressionism” started out as an insult delivered by a scoffing critic.


MoMA at NGV: 130 Years of Modern and Contemporary art finishes on October 7.

Miriam Cosic

Miriam Cosic is a Sydney-based journalist and author.

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