There is always a lot to see at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) whenever I return to New York. This includes major exhibitions as well as smaller surprises tucked away in the labyrinth of galleries on the lower floors.
Of course, the most featured (and crowded) show was Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926–1938. The exhibition is not a retrospective, but rather concentrated on a period of about ten years during which Rene Magritte developed his surrealist language and techniques. There are the deceptively simple scenes of everyday objects with unexpected or even disturbing details, as well as the early conceptual works that demonstrated his thinking about art, including This Is Not a Pipe.
[René Magritte (Belgium, 1898-1967). La trahison des images (Ceci n’est pas une pipe) (The Treachery of Images [This is Not a Pipe]). 1929. Oil on canvas. 23 3/4 x 31 15/16 x 1 in. (60.33 x 81.12 x 2.54 cm). Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, California, U.S.A. © Charly Herscovici -– ADAGP – ARS, 2013. Photograph: Digital Image © 2013 Museum Associates/LACMA,Licensed by Art Resource, NY]
[René Magritte (Belgium, 1898-1967). Le portrait (The Portrait). 1935. Oil on canvas. 28 7/8 x 19 7/8″ (73.3 x 50.2 cm). Museum of Modern Art. Gift of Kay Sage Tanguy. © Charly Herscovici -– ADAGP – ARS, 2013]
While the exhibition doesn’t include some of his works with which I was most familiar (such as Les valeurs personelles), it was an opportunity to see early pieces I had never seen before. One can see in all of these the focus on out-of-cotext objects and repeated motifs such as bowler hats. The use of text and images disconnected from conventional meaning appears through many of the pieces as well. In addition to the paintings, which dominated the exhibition, were also collages and 3D objects from pre-existing elements, popular forms among Magritte’s contemporaries.
Located across the hall from Magritte, Isa Genzken’s large retrospective exhibition was quite a contrast in terms of its scope and style. Rather than focused on a period of the artist’s career, it covered almost four decades from the 1970s to the present, during which Genzken’s practice changed significantly. Her earliest pieces indirectly incorporated elements of sound, with sculptures representing waveforms linearly or in polar projection (e.g., “ellipsoids”), and photographs of 1970s stereo system advertisements. From there, she moved to themes representing modernism and urban landscape, including in a series of large works made of concrete or other building materials, displayed together in a large room. While the largest suggested modern architecture, some of the concrete pieces suggested urban ruins.
[Installation view of the exhibition Isa Genzken: Retrospective. November 23, 2013–March 10, 2014. © 2013 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photograph: Jonathan Muzikar]
From the very minimal and geometric, Genzken’s work seems to have taken a turn for the more playful, with a large variety of colorful mixed-media pieces. She also poked fun at artistic conventions with her Fuck the Bauhaus series of assemblages.
[Isa Genzken. Fuck the Bauhaus #4, 2000. Plywood, Plexiglas, plastic slinky, clipboards, aluminum light shade, flower petals, tape, printed paper, shells, and model tree. 88 3/16 x 30 5/16 x 24″ (224 x 77 x 61 cm). Private Collection, Turin. Courtesy AC Project Room, New York. © Isa Genzken]
There is a more serious tone, and one simultaneously hopeful and melancholy in her pieces made in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York. The event affected her deeply, as it did many of us, and I found myself lingering with these last pieces to find the emotion along with the lines, shapes and colors.
It seems like every visit to MoMA includes some show that directly or indirectly includes John Cage. This time, there was a small exhibition There Will Never Be Silence: Scoring John Cage’s 4’33″ built around the museum’s original score of the piece (in proportional notation). Works from the disparate schools such as Fluxus and minimalism and spanning a wide range of artists including Robert Rauchenberg, Josef Albers, Yoko Ono and Dick Higgens are included, and each some way explores the concepts of silence and space exemplified by 4’33”.
[John Cage. 4′33″ (In Proportional Notation). 1952/1953. Ink on paper, each page: 11 x 8 1/2″ (27.9 x 21.6 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of Henry Kravis in honor of Marie-Josée Kravis, 2012. © 2013 John Cage Trust]
[ Dick Higgins. Graphis No. 19 (Act One of Saint Joan at Beaurevoir). 1959. Felt-tip pen, ink, and pencil on paper, 14 x 16 7/8″ (35.6 x 42.8 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008. © 2013 Dick Higgins]
The minimal and conceptual is also at the heart of Dorothea Rockburne: Drawing Which Makes Itself. The exhibition, which has the same name as one of the artist’s early exhibitions in 1973, focuses on the use of carbon paper and basic drawing processes to realize large-scale works on paper and on the walls and floor. Some, like Triangle, Rectangle, Small Square were self contained and made the simple shapes and curves life-size, while pieces covering entire walls and floors gave the concept of drawing a larger-than-life but nonetheless inviting quality.
[Dorothea Rockburne. Triangle, Rectangle, Small Square. 1978. Colored pencil on transparentized paper on board. 33 x 43″ (83.8 x 109.2 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Sally and Wynn Kramarsky. © 2013 Dorothea Rockburne / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York]
There was much more to be seen at MoMA, some of which like the recent photography acquisitions can be difficult to summarize in an article like this. Like many of the places I visit in New York, I really should be going more than once a year.
I have been meaning to write reviews on some recent exhibitions I have seen set SFMOMA: the selections from Fisher Collection and New Topographics photography exhibition, both of which I have actually seen multiple times. This article covers the Fisher Collection, which will be closing this coming Sunday, September 19.
I have been spending some time thinking about what it means to write “CatSynth reviews” for a major exhibition like this about which so much has already been written. In the end, it’s about personal significance. It was really a microcosm of many of the exhibitions and artists that I have followed or discovered over many years – indeed, the exhibition included artists that i had first discovered through retrospectives at SFMOMA including William Kentridge and Chuck Close, or artists such as Ellsworth Kelly and Sol LeWitt whom I have gotten to know better through the museum’s programs. It is also an opportunity to explore what does (and does not) captivator me with modern art.
One of the things I find most compelling about modern art is the simplicity and sense of calmness I can feel in its presence. This is particularly true of the more minimalist and geometrically inspired works shown on the upper floor of the exhibition. This included those labeled formally as minimalism like Sol LeWitt, but also the large monochromatic panels of Ellsworth Kelly and Richard Serra’s geometric metal sculptures.
[Installation view with Janus by Gerhard Richter (1983) and multiple pieces by Richard Serra. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.]
There is something about this type of art that I find very comforting, especially in a large scale presentation like this. I can focus on lines and curves and colors and nothing else. I can get absorbed into the repeating variations in Sol LeWitt’s drawings and sculpture, or allow my mind to go blank in Ellsworth Kelly’s simple series of panels. (Perhaps this is what made the placement of Anselm Kiefer’s straw-infused works inspired by the Holocaust in the middle of the same gallery all the more jarring.)
[Ellsworth Kelly, Blue Green Black Red (1996). San Francisco Museum of Modern Art]
Even Alexender Calder’s more organic forms fit into this category and were placed together with the others on the upper floor of the exhibit. It would be interesting to consider Calder’s curving but solid mobiles next to the intricate and delcate straight lines in LeWitt’s Hanging Structure 28c and Antony Gormley’s Quantum Cloud VIII.
[Alexander Calder, Eighteen Numbered Black (1953) . Sol LeWitt, Hanging Structure 28c (1989).]
LeWitt also touches on my interest in mathematics and algorithms (and technology) in art, and conceptual art, most notably in his Wall Drawing, which was created directly on the wall of the gallery in colored pencil from the artist’s specifications.
Gerhard Richter was a bridge between the minimalist and geometric art and the other parts of the collection. His Farben 256 with its array of solid-color rectangles was closer to the previously described works (and although I liked it I couldn’t help but think of a paint chart). Other pieces were more photographic – my favorite of these was Verwaltungsgebaude with its modern arctecture and motion.
The other direction that my artist interests tend is towards urban environments, including graffiti or industrial scenes. Cy Twombly’s large paintings in the exhibition feature repeated curving scribbles that remind me of the graffiti that I often photograph. The white scribbles on gray background in Untitled (Rome) reminded me specifically of walls I saw shooting photos in Warm Water Cove.
Twombly was placed along other works from the middle of the century. A large-scale piece by Lee Krasner was prominently featured (I have yet to see a solo retrospective of her work). A canvas with bright blue by Sam Francis caught my attention. The permanent collection of SFMOMA prominently features works by Richard Diebenkorn, and I think I liked those more than his work in this collection.
In addition to minimalist and geometric works, I also tend to notice art with a playful or surreal nature, or things that are particularly unique. William Kentridge’s installation based on Mozart’s The Magic Flute falls in this category. He built an entire miniature stage with archival photographs and moving images set to selections from the opera. While much more elaborate and complex than the previous works, the performance was still very arresting.
Strictly speaking, there was relatively little photography in the exhibition (although many of the paintings seemed derived from photographic sources). Of the few photographs, the strongest was an image by Sophie Calle which depicted a decaying bed in a courtyard of an apartment building, and was accompanied by a rather morbid story. Another of the featured photos, John Baldessari’s Blue Moon Yellow Window, Ghost Chair was quite painting-like with its extreme contrast and colored overlays.
I certainly did not touch upon everything within the exhibition in this brief review, so those who are interested are encouraged to check out the online exhibition page, or visit if you are in the area in the next five days.