Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 5-7 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard-copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."

WHAT’S UP AT THE MODERN? YES, THE MODERN

September 5, 2018

Tags: Helen Frankenthaler, Brancusi, Vojin Bakic

Berislav Šerbetić and Vojin Bakić. Monument to the Uprising of the People of Kordun and Banija. 1979–81. Petrova Gora, Croatia. Exterior view. Photo: Valentin Jeck, commissioned by The Museum of Modern Art, 2016.
On August 8, I paid a call to The Museum of Modern Art. First, I skated through the current hanging of its permanent collection (ongoing). Second, I took in "Constantin Brancusi Sculpture" (through February 18, 2019). Third -- and most absorbing -- I visited "Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948-1980" (through January 13, 2019).

FIRST, THE PERMANENT COLLECTION

How I wish MoMA were as modern at its name implies! Back in the ‘60s, it still took pride in its fabulous permanent collection, but at the moment, it appears determined to bury too many of its masterpieces six feet deep.

When the current building opened, sometime around the beginning of this century, its fifth floor was devoted to showing the best of that collection dating from before World War I, and with the emphasis very naturally on Europe, especially Paris.

The fourth floor was similarly devoted to showing the best of its collection since about 1940, and with the emphasis much more on the U.S.

However, at some point it appears that the worthy folk who run the museum concluded that an awful lot of its public had difficulty relating to abstraction.

The poetry and sensuous grace of Mondrian, they evidently decided, is more than the average museum-goer can respond to: s/he can only “get” the less visually-rewarding but didactics-heavy forms of early 20th century abstract promulgated by the ideologues of Russia, Germany, and occasionally Switzerland.

Moreover, with the single exception of Jackson Pollock (who I suppose is deemed “accessible’ because of his oddball way of painting), the worthy folk at MoMA decided that the entirety of the New York School of abstract expressionism doesn’t do anything for the average museum-goer, either.

Or so at least I am regretfully forced to conclude from the way that MoMA has shrunk the display of the first part of its permanent collection. In other words, the entire display has been “dumbed-down” to the putative level of a hypothetical Joe Schmo from Kokomo Indiana.

Not that there is necessarily anybody that dumb, even in Kokomo, which I am sure has its resident aesthetes just like every other city & town in the US... I’m just saying that this appears to be MoMA’s target audience, to judge from what it is currently hanging from the period between 1890 and 1960 on the fifth floor.

True, there is one attractive gallery near the beginning devoted to Picasso, Braque and early cubism; and there is one lovely gallery devoted to Pollock near the end of it; there are also three holdovers from the museum’s more sophisticated period: the Matisse gallery, the Monet water-lily gallery, and (sigh) a large gallery devoted to Duchamp and his fellow dadas...

But Mondrian has been dumbed down to two large and not very outstanding paintings (one of which is “Broadway Boogie-Woogie” and the other of which is even fussier and more overdone). And the treatment of the New York School is really depressing.

True, we have two excellent works by Arshile Gorky, and a monumental Barnett Newman, but we have only lesser works by Rothko & Franz Kline (the museum owns better examples of both).

We have David Smith’s “History of LeRoy Burton” which is a nice sculpture but vastly inferior to Smith’s superb “Australia” (which MoMA also owns).

We have no Still on view, no Motherwell, no Hofmann, and no Gottlieb.

We do have a fine Frankenthaler from the ‘50s, “Jacob’s Ladder,” but its effect is vitiated by the nasty piece of conceptual art located just at its foot. This is a 1990 work consisting of a pile of printed handouts by Félix González Torres (1957-1996).

On each piece are head shots & data relating to 460 people who were killed by gunshots .in the U.S. during the week of May 1 to 7, 1989, as originally recorded by Time magazine.

Museum goers are invited to help themselves to these sheets, and people – especially children --- were indeed picking them up and rolling them up to save as souvenirs.

Thus their whole recollection of American abstract expressionism -- the movement that enabled New York to supersede Paris as the capital of the international art world -- will inevitably be tarred by an out-of-period and totally irrelevant association with casual & vicious mass murder. How sick can a curator get?

(The galleries on the fourth floor formerly devoted to art since 1940 now are occupied by second-rate late work of aging postmodernist artists executed since about 1960. This is where we find the sole de Kooning on view (with a painting from his gaga period), plus a number of huge and vacant works testifying to the tendency of old and famous postmodernist artists to develop elephantiasis.

Hidden away amidst this jungle of second-rate and third-rate art, I did spot one crisp painting by Ed Clark and one top sculpture by Anthony Caro, but unless you are a sucker for the mediocre, I can’t recommend wading through these galleries just for the sake of these two works.)

Checking out the permanent collection wasn’t my prime reason for visiting MoMA I did it only because a) I was going there anyway, and b) I perceive a possible similarity between what has happened to the MoMA galleries showing the permanent collection, and what I am very much afraid will happen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art about two years from now (and which I’ll discuss in more detail in my listings of coming fall attractions).

I well remember that when MOMA’s new building was first opened the entire fourth floor was devoted to art since 1940, and the abstract expressionists got far more space..

Then in the season of 2010-2011, MoMA staged a huge show of abstract expressionism, taking everything else down to make way for it – and somehow that was the end of ab-ex, as far as MoMA was concerned – except for the vestigial remnants of it we may now perceive at MoMA today.

WHY DID I GO TO MOMA IN THE FIRST PLACE? BRANCUSI

But why I did go to MoMA in the first place? I had two reasons. The first was its proud boast (via press release, as usual) that it was going to be staging “Constantin Brancusi Sculpture.”

This exhibition, it was promised, would display all eleven sculptures owned by MoMA and created by the renowned modernist artist who was born in Romania in 1876, came to Paris in 1904, and developed and pursued his fluid and simple yet powerful and extraordinarily moving semi-abstract style in sculpture until his death there in 1957.

These eleven sculptures are, for the most part, a varied group, running the gamut from the realistic (though stylized) “Mlle. Pogany” (1913) to the totally abstract “Fish” (1930), and from bronzes like “The Newborn” (1920) to the oaken “Endless Column” (1918).

(Along with these works, naturally, the museum also promised a “focused” presentation with supplementary photographs of other Brancusi sculptures, often taken by himself and/or in his studio, together with the now-obligatory documentary material, memorabilia and film.

The entire production was organized by MoMA Associate Curator Paulina Pobocha with the assistance of Curatorial Fellow Mia Matthias. )

As a fan of Brancusi, I was looking forward to this show. In fact, I am such a fan of Brancusi that within the past five years I have covered two other Brancusi shows.

The first, “Brancusi in New York 1913 – 2013” was held at Paul Kasmin in the winter season of 2013-2014. Although it featured only five small bronzes (from the Brancusi Estate) it was so exquisitely installed that it was a real pleasure to visit.

Each shiny little sculpture was mounted on its separate pedestal and then situated on a larger but much flatter & rectilinear “island” rising maybe two inches above the floor However, the light was relatively dim, nor was there any receptionist’s desk or noisy film installation – so it was just you, the viewer, alone with Brancusi, the artist, and this was pleasurable.

The second Brancusi show was – and still is -- “Guggenheim Collection Brancusi.” This is six of the Brancusi sculptures owned by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and put on display there a year or two ago.

(I reviewed this show in July 2017 and at that time it was only supposed to be on view through mid-January of 2018 but the museum now lists it as “ongoing” with no end in sight).

Although the Guggenheim owns only seven or eight sculptures by Brancusi, at least two of them (“Adam and Eve” and “King of Kings”) are larger and more robust than anything MoMA owns.

Also, the flat little islands on which all of the sculptures on view stand atop their bases are organically-shaped – two ovals, one semi-circle and one shmoo-shaped platform above which the three biggest pieces hold sway).

This is much more congenial to Brancusi, as his entire oeuvre is organic rather than geometric. Moreover, the gallery in which the Guggenheim is displaying its Brancusi collection is irregularly shaped, with walls and partitions painted in most relaxing colors – white, sky-blue, mint and puce.

I don’t mean to detract from the Brancusi show at MoMA but the whole room in which its sculptures are situated is very brightly lit and resolutely rectilinear. And the little islands upon which one, two or three sculptures actually stand atop their bases are all rectilinear, too.

This is not to say that the sculptures themselves at MoMA can’t be fascinating. I was particularly intrigued by the little white marble “Maiastra” of 1910-12. This delicate & mystical little bird, celebrated in Romanian folklore, stands on a tall narrow shaft that has gracefully been carved to suggest a double (if rudimentary) caryatid.

I also found it intriguing to compare MoMA’s two “Bird in Space” bronzes (one dating from 1928 and the other from ca. 1941), with their subtly different sizes and shapes.

But the bright lights and the quantities of ancillary material and all the straight lines and right angles to everything make for a much more business-like and less mystical experience than one gets from the Guggenheim Brancusi show.

YUGLOSLAV MODERNIST ARCHITECTURE

Still, there are times and places where a business-like approach is not out of place in an art museum – most specifically when one is presenting the applied arts as opposed to the fine arts. Case in point is a most admirable show at MoMA entitled, “Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948-1980.

With the aid of more than 400 drawings, models, photographs and videos, this show documents the remarkable attempt of Communist Yugoslavia to rival the Soviet Union’s ambitious attempts a generation earlier to introduce a modern architecture as a vital part of a socialist economy.

Yugoslavia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until World War I. After the war, the victorious Allies at the Treaty of Versailles carved up that empire into separate states.

The area that became Yugoslavia was at first known as “the Kingdom of the Serbs and the Croats,” though it also incorporated other Slavic-language groups in the southern part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (“Yugoslavia” was a made-up word combining “”Slav” with “Yugo-,” which is a Slavic prefix meaning “south.”)

Between the time of its creation and World War II, the country was a monarchy.

During World War II, the Germans invaded Yugoslavia and the reigning monarch, King Peter, didn’t do much to stop these invaders. The Communist underground, however, led by Josip Broz Tito (1892-1980) did a very effective job and when the war was over, Tito took over from the king and became first, prime minister, and then president.

He and his fellow partisans then began building a communist state --- but without depending on the Soviet Union to do so. All the other Eastern European countries set up little Communist puppet regimes, under the direct leadership of the Soviet Union, but Tito in 1948 broke decisively away from it.

During the height of the Cold War that followed, Tito led his country into a loosely-allied group of “non-aligned” third-world nations (including also Egypt, Indonesia, Ghana and India).

These nations, each in their own way, played off the two sides of the Cold War in order both to build and support their own countries and to enhance international stability.

However, it seems to have been Tito’s magnetic personality that was primarily responsible for the fact that so many different national groups, each represented by a separate state within Yugoslavia, were able to work together.

After he died in 1980, the federation of states that was Yugoslavia began disintegrating into a raft of smaller countries, and that process continued right up until the 1990s.

Thus today, instead of Yugoslavia, we have Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and Kosovo. How they manage their governments and their economies, I don’t know.

From the literature attached to this MoMA show, I do gather that Tito started out with a standard socialist state, fully committed to equal facilities for all its citizens in housing, education, and cultural facilities.

Both from this show and from my reading online, I gather that some aspects of the capitalist market economy were also introduced later, so that maybe the Yugoslav economy under Tito produced more wealth than the Soviet one did.

Also (though you don’t get a hint of it in the literature attached to this show) I gather that the Yugoslavian Communists were just as cold-blooded in eradicating their political opposition as the Soviet Communists were, but hey, why rain on anybody’s parade?

What counts in this show is how extraordinarily handsome all these ultra-modern buildings and other facilities look!

To be sure, the styles aren’t that different from those of the same period in the West – we have tall shiny skyscrapers in the International Style and a number of imposing and ruggedly built “brutalist” buildings in reinforced concrete – but some of them are really different and even exciting.

Here are some of the feats of architecture that stood out for me:

1) The building of the National and University Library of Kosovo in Pristina, Kosovo, 1971-82. Architect, Andrija Mutnjaković (b. 1929).

Covered with a truly beguiling combination of Muslim and Christian motifs, made by combining 99 small rounded hemispheres on 99 cubist rectilinear bases, all of differing sizes….

2) The huge model under glass of Skopje in Macedonia, after most of the city had been leveled by an earthquake in 1963.

The model showed the proposed reconstruction as directed by Kenzo Tange (1913-2005), the Japanese architect who had won this project through an international competition sponsored by the United Nations.

3) The design shows a curious mix of starkly simple modernist elements with ornamental ones—and this can also be seen in some of the buildings that make up the complex, such as the model for the telecommunications center in Skopje, 1968-91, created by Janko Konstantinov (1926-2010) .

4) On the other hand, some buildings are simply startling in their smooth & classic simplicity—as witness the interior shot of the foyer of the Macedonian Opera and Ballet theater (1968-81), as created by a group of 4 architects known collectively as Biro 71 (established in 1971).

5) Also, there was a whole slide show of more than two dozen hotels along the coast and in other areas that would seem to attract tourists – but also Yugoslav citizens (wall texts made the point that these hotels were often located close to city or town centers, and open to local residents as well as visitors from abroad).

Many of these pictures showed the swimming pools or other recreational areas attached to the hotels, with many relaxed and happy-looking pleasure-seekers sitting or lying about in bathing suits or other scanty attire.

6) The show concluded with memorials designed in keeping with this ambitious program. Here the wall texts tried to make the point that these memorials differed depending on local tradition, but the only memorial that stood out for me looked like a huge, looming sculpture, and in fact the label listed a sculptor for it as well as two architects.

This was the “Monument to the Uprising of the People of Kordun and Banija,” in Petrova Gora, Croatia, 1979-1981. The two architects were Zoran Bakić; (1915-1992) and Berislav Šerbetić;, while the sculptor was Vojin Bakić; (1942-1992). Vojin was the son of Zoran.

Vojin also created many other monuments in the wake of World War II. With the end of communism in the 1990s, many of them were destroyed or removed. However, this one is still standing.