Modern Art at the Dear Old Met


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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.


Further 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.


Downstairs 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.


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


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