MoMA: Francis Picabia, Kai Althoff, and more.

For us at CatSynth, coming back to New York almost always means a visit to Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). It’s a place that is always safe, inviting and inspiring. It’s also a change to spend time with some old friends, like Piet Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie, a painting that for me has an almost religious significance.

Mondrian Broadway Boogie Woogie

There are of course, many special exhibitions, and we discuss them below.

Much of the top floor of the museum was reserved for a retrospective of the work of Francis Picabia, one of the less-well-known of the great modern artists from the first half of the 20th Century. Though known for his association with the Dada movement, his oeuvre includes many other ever-changing styles. Indeed, the exhibition begins with his early works in an impressionist style. Though very well executed, they are not particularly exciting other than the provocative nature (for the time) of using photographs as sources. However, after this initial period, his work explodes with large abstract canvases.

Picabia,Francis (1879-1953)
[Francis Picabia. Udnie (Jeune fille américaine; danse) (Udnie [Young American Girl; Dance]). 1913. Oil on canvas, 9′ 6 3/16″ × 9′ 10 1/8″ (290 × 300 cm). Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne – Centre de création industrielle, Paris. Purchased by the State, 1948. © 2016 Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris. Photo: © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI/Georges Meguerdtchian/Dist. RMN–Grand Palais/Art Resource, New York.]

The painting shown above, Udnie (Jeune fille américaine; danse) (Udnie [Young American Girl; Dance]) is exemplary of this period of his work. It is huge, almost 10 feet by 10 feet square, and features bright industrial colors with large curving lines. This painting had a colder and higher-contrast palette than its neighbors, so it particularly attracted me. There is also the fact that the title reminds me of the David Bowie album of similar name.

Picabia became a leading artist in the Dada movement, producing many paintings and drawings of industrial and manufactured objects, some featuring bits of text that he found from encyclopedias and other sources. They have the sparse, sometimes sad quality of readymades, but also show steady and disciplined hands at work to create these pieces.


The centerpiece of the Dada sections of the exhibition was a recreation of one of his Paris exhibitions, with drawings arranged in a linear fashion and rugs along the gallery floor. The pieces were a mixture of Dada, abstraction and figurative images (mostly of Spanish women). These demonstrate the artist’s desire to not be stuck in one style or even just one movement.

Picabia went through a period of more figurative painting in the years leading up to and during World War II, including a somewhat odd set of photorealistic paintings from soft-porn images that he created while living in under the Vichy regime in southern France. After the war, however, he returned to abstraction until his death in 1953. Many of these late works have a somewhat minimal quality, including a series consist of large dots on a monochromatic background

The other major exhibition on the top floor featured a full-gallery installation by Kai Althoff entitled and then leave me to the common swifts (und dann überlasst mich den Mauerseglern). The space itself was the artwork in which the viewer was invited to wander.

[Installation view of Kai Althoff: and then leave me to the common swifts (und dann überlasst mich den Mauerseglern). The Museum of Modern Art, New York, September 18, 2016–January 22, 2017. Photograph © Kai Althoff]

The labyrinthine installation is a seeming clutter of objects, looking more like a messy artists’ studio. However, on closer inspection, one sees that there are a lot of older works from the artist in various states of integrity among found objects like dolls and clothing. The artwork fragments included heads with strange expressions. Overall, it was one of the more confounding exhibitions I have seen. I am not one to necessary require “meaning” from art, but I do tend to look for lines, shapes and patterns. But being challenged by an exhibition is not a bad thing.

In addition to the hunt for old favorites in the permanent collection, an entire floor was dedicated to works from he 1960s, arranged one room per year. The detailed view shows just how rich and varied the art of that decade was, and how art transformed into what we think of as contemporary in the early 21st Century. Among the works on display was a set of photographs by Bernd and Hilla Becher. We have discussed them before, as their work is very influential for my own art photography.


The video work of Nam June Paik has also been a major influence. The exhibition featured a very minimal work of his, essentially reducing analog video to a single line.


Yayoi Kusama is enjoying a lot of attention of late. This work, which appeared to be a chair of penises, was featured prominently. The description of the piece confirmed my phallic interpretation.


The second floor also featured multiple special exhibitions, including the provocative “architectural” show on displacement and shelter, focusing on migrants and refugees in the modern world. It included a full-size refugee tent shelter, as well as overhead images of a sea of such shelters. There were images from camps that have been in the news lately, such as the large one in Callais, France. There were also some art pieces on the same theme, such as lightboxes with images of war zones by Tiffany Chung.

[finding one’s shadow in ruins and rubble. Tiffany Chung, 2014. Courtesy of the artist and Tyler Rollins Fine Art]

There was also a large world map with strings representing patterns of migration, along with sound and visual elements. Not surprisingly, a great many of those lines led to the United States.


It’s a reminder that the U.S. has always been a welcoming country for refugees and immigrants, and will hopefully remain so.

There is always more that I saw and resonated with an I can fit in such an article. Please visit us on Instagram to see more of our latest visit to the MoMA.

New Topographics, SFMOMA

If one were to construct a photography exhibition for me to attend, it might look something like New Topographics at SFMOMA. Indeed, “construction” is an apt term, as most of the photos explore the human alterations to the natural landscape, particularly in the western United States but in other locations as well. Yet, the natural landscape does continue to play a central role in the environments and in the images. It shapes how the human-made structures are constructed and arranged, and how they decay. The exhibition was originally presented in at the Eastman House in Rochester, New York in 1975.

“A turning point in the history of photography, the 1975 exhibition New Topographics signaled a radical shift away from traditional depictions of landscape. Pictures of transcendent natural vistas gave way to unromanticized views of stark industrial landscapes, suburban sprawl, and everyday scenes not usually given a second glance. This restaging of the exhibition includes the work of all 10 photographers from the original show: Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Joe Deal, Frank Gohlke, Nicholas Nixon, John Schott, Stephen Shore, and Henry Wessel.”

It is hard to imagine that such a portrayal of landscape was new to art photography at the time. The ideas and subjects in much of the contemporary photography that commands my attention, as well as my own photographs that often appear on this site for Wordless Wednesday. But it was certainly a sharp contrast to the traditional views of landscape in photographs, especially view of the American West, which tended to be not just natural but a romanticized form of nature. One only need step beyond the exhibition to SFMOMA’s main photography collection to see the changing views of landscape and romantic imagery.

The desert tends to be my favorite natural landscape (along with the coast), and is prominently featured in many of photographs. It has a stark beauty, but it also acts as a vessel for human artifacts. Set in the desert landscape, one can linger on the contrasts and similarities between artificial and natural. The straight lines and simple textures don’t get lost in the landscape, and are in fact amplified by it. In Joe Deal’s Untitled View (Boulder City), the roads, buildings and the trailer are partially obscured by natural elements. In a sense, they are distilled down to the lines , which are emphasized by the wires and shadows that traverse the image. At the same time, the natural landscape also seems to follow the straight lines, and in turn the soft undulations of the terrain and reflected in shallow peaks of the partially hidden houses.

[Joe Deal (American, b. 1947), Untitled View (Boulder City), 1974, George Eastman House collections. © Joe Deal.]

The lines (no pun intended) between the natural and artificial aspects of the landscape are further blurred in Frank Gohlke’s Irrigation Canal, Abuquerque, New Mexico. Here we see a completely artificial environment, the concrete-sided canal with vegetation establishing itself at the edges of the water.

[Frank Gohlke (American, b. 1942), Irrigation Canal, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 1974, George Eastman House collections. © Frank Gohlke.]

At first glance, the mud and vegetation seem to mar the otherwise smooth and clean surface of the canal. But in reality, they are part of the environment, and thus part of the image as well. One could say the same thing about the reverse situation in Deal’s photograph, where the human-made elements have become part of the natural landscape.

Lewis Baltz takes the theme of straight lines to its aesthetic extreme in both the artificial and natural aspects of the environment. His images feature perfectly rectangular buildings set against the flat landscape in Orange County, California.

[Lewis Baltz (American, b. 1945), Jamboree Road Between Beckman and Richter Avenues, Looking Northwest, George Eastman House collections. © Lewis Baltz.]

Some of Baltz’s other photographs feature facades of rectangular commercial buildings either straight on or at angles. Close-up and with less context from the landscape, they begin to feel more abstract. This is particularly true of East Wall, McGraw Laboratories with its extremely high contrast black and white rectangles. In South Wall, Mazda Motors, 2121 East Main Street, Irvine, the landscape is seen only in the reflection of a window, once again a rectangle inside another.

The sharp contrast and combination of architecture, landscape and abstraction made Baltz’s pieces among my favorite in the exhibition. Similarly, my attention was also drawn to the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher. Their photographs featured industrial and mining buildings in Pennsylvania. Some of the buildings were in states of disrepair, such as Loomis coal Breaker/Wiles Barre, Pennsylvania (1974), or even seemed on the verge of collapse as in the image below:

[Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, 1931-2007 and b. 1934), Pit Head, Bear Valley, Pennsylvania, 1974
© Hilla Becher, 2009.]

The structure seems to melt back into the natural environment, and at the same time provides a series of straight (albeit somewhat distorted) lines and geometric shapes. Once again, the high contrast of the image allows one to focus on the abstract elements without completely losing the context that it is a building on a hillside. It would be easy to dismiss these photographs (and indeed many in the exhibition) as social commentary or socially-inspired art, but they have detached quality and the emphasis is on the visuals details – in particular those details that I look for in when viewing and evaluating modern art. The Bechers’ images in particular have a sculptural quality, something that comes out even more directly in their book Anonyme Sculpturen.

Nicholas Nixon (American, b. 1947), Buildings on Tremont Street, Boston, 1975; George Eastman House collections; © Nicholas Nixon

Nicholas Nixon’s work stands apart from the others in the exhibition in that depicts urban landscapes from Boston and Cambridge. His Buildings on Tremont Street, Boston depicts a classic 20th century vertical city image of tall and densely packed but quite detailed buildings. Nixon’s image Boston City Hall, Covernment Center Square and Faneuil Hall provides another type of contrast in the landscape that is particular to cities, a tension between modern and traditional architecture. Set against a backdrop of larger buildings, one see a popular older landmark contrasted with the modernist and rather controversial Boston City Hall. It’s a building I actually quite like visually, and it brings us back the rectangular shapes in Baltz’s southern California images.

I conclude with this quote from the exhibition catalog – a rather extensive volume that includes not only the images but a detailed discussion as well as a reproduction of the original catalog – that I find illuminating in thinking about the work of these artists as well as my own photographic interests:

Photography based on attraction to, even love of, the subject while neither revealing that motivation nor imposing it on viewers – it may confuse viewers accustomed to being seduced or sermonized. Adding another degree of complexity is the likelihood that the attraction and love were likely not pure, but instead joined to anxiety and repulsion. Reconciling these opposing forces was an exercise undertaken by each of the New Topographics photographers in different ways.

[New Topographics, copublished by Steidl Publishers and Center for Creative Photography in cooperation with George Eastman House, page 18.]

The exhibition will be on display at SFMOMA through October 3.

[All images used in this article were provided courtesy of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Individual copyrights displayed in captions.]