Modern Art at the Dear Old Met

Written by Christian Viveros-Faune on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.

After all
the millennial hoopla, the 100-year surveys, the futuristic announcements of
theme-park museum expansions, New York museums in early 2001 have been left
with something of a morning-after mess and a what-now hangover. The Whitney’s
"American Century" exhibition, deficient in novel historical visions
but generous in razzmatazz, provided a largely complete but dumbed-down version
of American art. The Guggenheim, franchised like a fast-food restaurant, has
perfected the overview of the art museum as a permanent Summer Olympics for
an expanding number of host cities (recent plans include outlets in Las Vegas,
Brazil and Manhattan’s South Street Seaport). At MOMA, New York’s
flagship museum for modern and contemporary art, it’s been a year and a
half since departmental curators began reshuffling the permanent collection
in a series of nonhierarchical, nonchronological exhibitions designed to avoid
"overarching or definitive statements about modern art."

These museums’
high-handed pusillanimity has left many people, artists and critics among them,
scratching their heads, wondering why their curators have reacted to their complex,
challenging times with such reserve. But another institution, the Metropolitan
Museum of Art, dowager empress of U.S. art museums, has offered a different,
albeit conservative experience. Chronologically structured and steeped in the
context of old-style art appreciation, the Met is like an aged aunt who tells
racy, piquant stories between groggy naps: she may often be slow on the uptake,
but when she gets rolling, she can be fun, brassy, even bawdy.

The Met’s
collection of contemporary art is a case and point. A gold mine of post-50s
hits, the two-floor section devoted to sculpture and painting made after World
War II is chock-full of masterpieces (with a few lemons thrown in, just to remind
us that every historical epoch is, in its own particularly distressing way,
hopelessly blinkered). Ringing with the echoes of not-so-bygone artistic debates,
like the niggling question of abstraction vs. representation, the Met’s
contemporary collection is a solid chunk of active history, a thing to be prodded,
poked, questioned, but just as often plainly and unadornedly admired.

Among some
of the best, least talked about paintings in the Metropolitan’s galleries
are the works of the painter Milton Avery. A great influence on the works of
later abstract artists, Avery’s painting was done in blocks of color, thin
washes that continually struck an odd balance between abstract numinousness
and the fleeting moments the painter sought to capture in landscapes and studies
of friends. One seascape on display, Speedboat’s Wake (1959), is
a masterpiece of painterly economy. A tiny boat tacks a chalk-like, zigzag pattern
across an expanse of water. The sketchy shape offers up a shark fin of a mountain
for the painting’s other elements: a straight cerulean horizon resting
gingerly above a huge rectangular wainscot of blue-black water.

Next in
order of elegant contemporary rooms at the Met is the Clyfford Still mausoleum
of painting. An unabashed if innocent record of the worst excesses, programmatism
and egomania associated with abstract expressionism, the Met’s chapel-like
collection of 10 dour Still paintings was secured through the artist’s
own arm-twisting gift. A practitioner of unassailable abstraction dogged by
a public appreciation of his work as representing mountain peaks, crevasses
and North Dakota landscapes, Still claimed for his Rorschachian, brown-black
forms an importance few would accord to the century’s best inventions,
like penicillin or space travel. His paintings, Still claimed with a poker face,
restored "to man the freedom lost in 20 centuries of apology and devices
for subjugation." The perfect bookend to the vatic pronouncements and underachieving
work of Barnett Newman, who claimed to have ended "all state capitalism
and totalitarianism" with his "zip" canvases, Still’s work
remains a mostly unacknowledged low-water mark of high-stakes posturing against
which smart artists continually rebel.

along the Met historical trail one finds magnificent paintings by Gorky, de
Kooning, Motherwell and Pollock, including Pasiphae (1943), a swirling,
dynamic, near abstraction by the man Life disparagingly tagged "Jack
the Dripper." Nearby are arrayed a few Rothko paintings, almost daring
the viewer to call them abstract. Made up of stratified blocks or blurs of color,
Rothko’s canvases strive hard to give shape to God-fearing awe. One painting,
No. 13 (White, Red on Yellow), attracts particular attention. An unusually
cheery Rothko, it clearly displays the underpainting behind the artist’s
characteristic rectangles of color. Transparent at the edges, it provides clues
as to why he always denied being a painter of abstractions. Attempted depictions
of both form and formlessness, Rothko firmly believed he had tackled representations
of the ineffable in his paintings. Like a character in a Borges story, the tale
of Mark Rothko was bound to not end well.

A few rooms
ahead, one steps through a seminal revolution in art and life in the space of
30 seconds. Facing Andy Warhol’s six small, screen-printed canvas images
of Jackie Kennedy, one encounters history, art history and the new attitude
that increasingly came to shape American culture. Laconically titled Jackie
(1963), the paintings today fail to spark the frisson that once inspired them.
Composed just after Lee Oswald discharged his rifle from the Dallas Book Depository,
Warhol portrayed America’s widow as the ultimate abstraction. Unfeelingly
serialized, her smiling visage with trademark pillbox hat colored a lurid blue,
the images look as if they might have come from the reject pile of a newspaper
room. Accentuating the disaffected, studiedly unarticulated cool Warhol came
to personify, the six nearly identical faces of Jackie present national tragedy
as the stuff of pulp mags. This is Warhol at a hot-cool remove he could not
keep up for long. He moved quickly from passive conduit to shameless shill for
consumer culture. It was as if Miles Davis had chosen to follow Kind of Blue
with an album of advertising jingles.

from these and other wonderful paintings hang several powerful examples of what
a great museum collection like the Met’s can do, namely, secure some of
the best works of art available for a deserving public. One such is Philip Guston’s
gritty, biting carnivalesque The Street (1977), a painting that turns
on its head the abstract expressionist ideal of the artist-priest. Another,
Anselm Keifer’s Bohemia Lies by the Sea (1996), turns out to be
one of the best, most accomplished examples of the neoexpressionism available
in New York. Capitally significant and seriously operatic, Keifer’s dark,
craggy, monumental landscape evokes myth and history, specifically German myth
and history. Using raw, thick impasto and nontraditional materials like straw,
tar, paper, epoxy and sand, he nearly tricks the eye into searching for foxholes.
Not only is his portrayal of the German earth darkly distorted, so is its symbolic
moral landscape.

of Modern Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 5th Ave. (82nd St.), 535-7710.