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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."

 

Politics; Fascist Art; Ab Ex at MoMA

FIRST, THE BAD NEWS..... At the moment, I am finding it hard to buckle down and deal with October’s art news. That is because I am distracted by the horrible political setback that I fully expect the nation to receive in the November midterm elections. All the odds-makers are betting that the Republicans will win control of the House, and there is even a good chance that they’ll win control of the Senate, too. This would mean that the very best possibility we face is at least two years of stalemate, with only filibustering in the Senate and the Presidential veto to save us from the same failed policies that landed us with the humongous government deficit we now suffer from: more tax cuts for big business and wealthy individuals, combined with cutting back precisely the kind of government spending & supervision that the country really needs.

The very worst case scenario is that the Republicans will win such big majorities that they can close off filibusters in the Senate and override the Presidential veto. Already the outlook is so bad that even at least one of the most fiery champions of the underdog is staying out of the fight: George Soros, the billionaire financier who poured resources into helping the Democrats win control of Congress in 2006, and helping Barack Obama win the Presidency in 2008, announced that he’s sitting out this election. At the moment, it seems, he is directing his funds into groups that work on health care and the environment, not into politics. Asked by Sewel Chan in the NYTimes on Tuesday, October 12 whether the prospect of Republican win(s) dismayed him, he replied, “It does, because I think they are pushing the wrong policies, but I’m not in a position to stop it. I don’t believe in standing in the way of an avalanche.”

It doesn’t help my mood to be told, as so many pundits have, that it’s hardly unusual for a President’s majority in Congress to evaporate in a midterm election. It happened to Clinton in 1994, and it happened to Bush in 2006, but in neither case, it seems to me, did the national mood seem quite as angry, and the prospects for fundamental—and backward—change, quite as likely. The publicity that the Tea Party movement has engendered, with its screaming about the need to cut back on taxes & government spending, and the attention being lavished on such retrograde figures as Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck, have gotten the Democrats so unnerved that they are not even trying to stand on their record of intelligent achievements; rather, they’re trying to push themselves as equally dedicated to cutting taxes & spending. Yet these achievements are not inconsiderable, including well-spent government dollars on the “Cash for Clunkers” program, which (admittedly temporarily) boosted auto sales, and the rise in government spending on construction, which in August more than compensated for the continued decline in private construction spending, according to an analysis of Census Bureau statistics by the Associated General Contractors of America reported in RealEstateRama, an online publication, on October 1.

Added to that is the health care reform bill, the financial regulation bill, the small business jobs act, and (maybe) the “Race to the Top,” with additional federal funding for education forthcoming (that is, assuming you think increasing the number of charter schools, without any evidence that charter schools are superior to public schools, sometimes (if not always) penalizing teachers in public schools for the shortcomings in their teaching environments, and training children how to pass tests instead of how to think for themselves, are desirable goals). According to Peter Baker, in the NY Times Sunday magazine for October 17, all of this legislation is “perhaps the most ambitious domestic agenda in a generation,” yet still Obama finds himself “vilified by the right, castigated by the left and abandoned by the middle.” Katharine Q. Seelye, in the same issue, reported that conservative Democratic Representatives are doing everything they can to distance themselves even from Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House and party leader who did the most to help Obama’s program become law. They are running anti-Pelosi commercials paid for with money coming from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, whose chief fund-raiser is Pelosi, but she endorses this, saying that these people know their own districts, and she just wants them to win.

WHY NOT THE ANGER

What is the reason for all the anger? It seems to be compounded of a number of factors, but one is NOT the situation in Afghanistan, much though it deserves to be. This war is going nowhere (except perhaps down the toilet), but since Obama is committed to it, not even his most left-wing Democratic supporters are criticizing him for it, whereas the Republicans have been in favor of it from the beginning. What is happening therefore is that it is being ignored by both parties, swept under the rug. So is the news that Obama has withdrawn at least U.S. combat troops from Iraq, and that country’s government seems to be feebly struggling along. None of this is the kind of foreign policy that Americans are enthusiastic about. They like wars when they’re winning them. This is why World War II almost always had widespread support. The U.S., UK, France, USSR, and China (or the Allies, as we used to call ourselves) were making gains almost from the beginning. We had the Axis (Germany, Italy, Japan) on the defensive almost from Pearl Harbor onward.

Korea was also popular at the beginning, when the United Nations (led by the U.S.) were repulsing the North Koreans, and in fact driving them back, not only out of South Korea but even to their own northern border with China. We then began to lose interest when the Chinese came pouring through that border to help the North Koreans, and the United Nations was driven back to the 38th Parallel. After that, public opinion was neutral to negative for as long as the peace talks went on, which is to say for several years. Eventually, a border between North & South Korea was established that was pretty much what it had been before the war, so to the extent that it constituted a return to the status quo, it wasn’t a lost war. Nor was it regarded as such until a really lost war came along: Vietnam. This was unpopular right from the moment when Americans first began paying attention to it, in mid–1963, because right from that moment, the news coming out of Saigon was bad. It kept on getting worse, until it succeeded in making even Korea look bad. Iraq has gone back & forth: at the moment, it looks like a better war, anyway, than Afghanistan, but that’s not saying much, and everybody (Democrats as well as Republicans) are keeping their fingers crossed that nothing truly devastating — such as a recrudescence of Al Qaeda — occurs.

WHY, THEN, THE ANGER?
WHAT ARE THE STICKING POINTS?


Not least of the reasons for anger in the present—however irrelevantly—is the fact that President Obama is black. Nobody, of course, is prepared to admit this, but the situation strikes me as remarkably similar to the backlash of the later ‘60s, when many Middle Americans reacted to the gains having been made through the civil rights movement as a sign that “the Negro” (to use the ‘60s progressive term) had come “too far, too fast.” As I say, aside from the creeps who insist that Obama wasn’t born in the U.S., and that he is really a Moslem, it does seem to be a fact that those parts of the country where most (though far from all) of the Tea Partyers hang out are either (historically) lily-white or (historically) slave-owning at the time of the Civil War. My feeling is this: at least a few fundamentally racist voters in these states voted for Obama in 2008, not because they liked him but because they felt totally demoralized by the stock market’s tanking in the months immediately prior to Election Day. Rather desperately, they’d developed an almost mystical faith that he would pull the country out of a depression & make the stock market go back up. True, the stock market now is in better shape than it was a year or two ago, but it’s still nowhere near its peak in 2007, and the economy is not doing all that well, thanks.

Unemployment is still nearly 10 percent, even with increased federal government spending. Part of this is because – as Paul Krugman pointed out in the NYTimes for October 11 — state and local spending has been plummeting, due to diminished tax receipts caused by the recession. This has forced these local bodies to cut their expenses by laying off employees. Krugman (who doesn’t mention the brief surge in federal employment earlier this year, due to the hiring of hundreds of thousands of census enumerators in temporary jobs) says that total government payrolls have fallen by more than 350,000 since January 2009. Still, equally or more importantly, the private sector has been sitting on its cash, instead of buying more (in the case of consumers) or hiring more or lending more or investing in capital equipment more (in the case of banks and corporations).

It’s really the laggard performance of the private sector that keeps unemployment high, but also a sort of a chicken-and-egg situation: the unemployed can’t afford to spend additional cash, and the employed, who are worried about losing their jobs, are saving instead of spending. Meanwhile, all those reluctant rednecks who (however unrealistically) expected Obama to work miracles in 2008 are now feeling resentment because he hasn’t. In fact, they feel almost like he’d tricked them, so they’re fighting back in the only way they know: by dumping on him and all he stands (or stood) for.

THE TWO WORST THINGS

One of the two worst things about this situation is that his election will help to determine all future elections, too—because the new governors of every state, together with their new state legislatures, will be mapping out new Congressional districts, based upon the 2010 decennial census. It’s bad enough to say that it now looks as though the states which will be losing Congressional seats, due to their declining populations, are in the industrial Middle West and the Northeast — areas where Democrats are strongest—and the states which will be gaining Congressional seats are mostly in the West and South—areas (in most, though not all cases) where Republicans are strongest. On top of that, with Republicans in charge of the state houses, they’ll be free to gerrymander the Democrats almost out of existence. In the NYTimes for October 11, the right-hand lede is a long article entitled “G. O. P. Poised to Make Gains in Races for Governor,” which details all the many states where it looks as Republican governors will be taking over. (If you want to access this story via the search box at the NY Times, you can through it access three accompanying interactive maps that, with only a click, will tell you what's been going on with every race for governor and senator, and the most competitive races for representatives in the U.S. Congress—one of those neat little things that print can’t do.)

The other worst thing about this situation is that — unless some strange alteration in the national outlook takes place— we are going to get more and bigger tax cuts for big business & the wealthy, together with limited or declining programs to help the poor and elderly, and no quick revival of the economy to help the middle class. Instead of the government boosting the economy, with added spending & hiring, it will constitute a drag instead, as programs are slashed & workers laid off. Oh, I daresay that sooner or later, the economic picture will have to look up, but it won’t be on the terms that I’d hope for, which would include a tax structure and governmental philosophy that once again would lead to an overall increase in the standard of living, such as obtained in the period between 1950 and 1970. And if the economy in the next two years keeps on getting worse, with a stalemate in Washington, then any Democrat will have trouble winning the White House in 2012, and a second, and greater Republican avalanche will create a truly revanchist state.

Nobody has ever said this to me, but I have long felt that the social gains of the New Deal in the ‘30s (and even the Great Society of the ‘60s) were at least subliminally fueled by a feeling that capitalism had to show a softer side, or risk extermination, since communism provided social welfare, cradle to grave. It is a fact, moreover, that since capitalism has triumphed in Russia, life expectancy there is down. China, which once had universal medical care, even for peasants, is letting this program go to seed. It’s true that in both countries, a lot of people are getting richer, but the number of those who are getting poorer may be even greater. Nobody talks about this, but I do remember something said to me, some time ago, by one of my Hungarian relatives about conditions before and after communism. She said, before, nobody had much, but everybody had a little. Now, a few people have a lot and a lot of people have nothing. Everywhere I look, too, I seem to see a lot of immigrants to this country from Russia, Serbia, and other countries behind what once was called “the Iron Curtain.” A lot more than I used to see, too.

STILL, ALL IS NOT PERFECTLY SMOOTH SAILING

Still, everything isn’t coming up roses for the Republicans, even for those candidates who have coasted through the primaries & on into the final race with Tea Party support. One reason may be that some of them are sort of — well, odd. Oddest of the lot is Christine O’Donnell, who is running for the Senate seat of Joe Biden in Delaware, against Democrat Chris Coons. O’Donnell is 41, and, as the NYTimes puts it, “cheerleader pretty,” but at various times in her past she seems to have dabbled in witchcraft, gone on record as opposed to masturbation, and called evolution “a myth.” More to the point, she has fibbed on her resume about the schools she attended and has had difficulty (to put it mildly) managing her campaign finances in a totally solvent & legal manner. Jimmy Fallon, the talk-show host, reported that she’d released a TV campaign ad in which she said, “I’m not a witch.” “That’s pretty good,” said Fallon.”Not as effective as her opponent’s slogan, ‘I’m not Christine O’Donnell’.” The NY Times, in its interactive box, was projecting 55.3 percent of the vote for Coons, 42.1 percent for O’Donnell.

In Nevada, Sharron Angle is determined to unseat Harry Reid, leader of the Democratic majority in the Senate, but she’s on record as calling for the phasing out of Medicare and Social Security (a position endorsed by many Tea Party-backed candidates), opposing the extension of unemployment benefits, claiming that two Michigan cities are under the rule of radical Moslems, and discussing “second amendment remedies” to deal with an out-of-control Congress (the Second Amendment being the one that permits citizens to bear arms — sounds like she was suggesting shooting recalcitrant legislators). Reid is unpopular in his own state for supporting Obama’s program, but Angle is so extreme that Reid has won the support of two high-ranking Republicans, Bill Raggio, Republican leader in the state Senate, and Dema Guinn, widow of a late Republican governor. Still, the Times’s interactive box was projecting 49.5 percent of the vote for Angle, 47.5 percent for Reid.

A GAY CONTROVERSY IN THE BIG APPLE

Coming on weird in New York is Carl Paladino, a businessman from Buffalo who astonished everyone when he won the Republican primary for governor, apparently by volunteering to deal violently with the entire government in Albany (which became paralyzed last year when 2 Democratic state senators declared themselves Republicans, giving control of the upper house of the legislature to the Republicans instead of the Democrats; both senators had been in trouble with the law, and neither has been re-elected by their constituents). Paladino has called Sheldon Silver, majority leader of the Democrats in the state Assembly, “a criminal.” He volunteered to “take out” a reporter who worked for a newspaper that (according to Paladino) was trying to photograph his 10-year-old illegitimate daughter, the product of an extramarital affair with one of his former employees. More recently, he told a gathering of Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn that children should not be “brainwashed” into thinking that homosexuality was “an equally valid and successful option” (few gay males would consider their sexual orientation an “option;” most feel they had no choice in the matter). Paladino criticized his Democratic opponent, Andrew Cuomo, for having marched in a gay pride parade, thereby enabling Cuomo to accuse him of “a stunning homophobia and a glaring disrespect for basic equality.” Paladino shot right back that he found the gay pride parade “disgusting,” adding that he thought Cuomo was being a bad parent in having taken his daughters to it. Cuomo retorted that the last person he felt qualified to advise him on how to be a good parent was Paladino.

Stunned by the outcry that elsewhere greeted his homophobic remarks, Paladino withdrew them and issued a statement that he supported rights for gays, a decision that only lost him the support of the Orthodox rabbi who had helped him write the original speech (while doing nothing to convince a majority of the electorate that he wasn’t really anti-gay). Which position will play best with New Yorkers remains to be seen. Certainly, there is a sizeable gay population in the state, and a far larger number of liberal citizens opposed to sexual bigotry, but the state has also recently been troubled by a rash of hate crimes against gays, and has a lot of conservative Catholics (especially upstate and in Republican strongholds like Staten Island), as well as Orthodox Jews; many people within these groups may feel that homosexuality is morally wrong. In the wake of this exchange, the NY Times conducted another poll, reported by Nicholas Confessori and Marjorie Connelly in the issue of October 18. The poll found that Cuomo was now preferred by 59 percent of the voters, while only 24 opted for Palladino, but I am wary of these statistics. For the past 60 years or so, conservative voters have been more likely to lie about their preferences, or to secretly prefer the more conservative candidate, even though they say they are “uncommitted” or “independent.”

AND IN CONCLUSION: A GRIM OUTLOOK

For that reason, I think that Cuomo’s margin of victory will be a lot smaller than predicted, and could even conceivably turn the situation into an upset — if overconfident Democratic voters neglect to turn up at the polls, for instance. And this could happen in many other states, including even those where a Tea Party-backed Republican has become a laughingstock. I am a tad irked by the attitude of some left-wing voters. They are apparently disenchanted with Obama because he didn’t crusade for the public option, has been no more liberal on issues like gays in the military or political prisoners than George W. Bush, and hasn’t performed well on other promises that he made during his campaign. For whatever reason, the left is doing a lot less than it could to help the Democrats.

Only belatedly and on a piecemeal basis has MoveOn, their principal lobbying organ, gotten into the campaign. I suppose many of its supporters now think that both political parties are equally corrupt and undeserving of their attention, but this is really not so. Whatever their many flaws, the Democrats are still closer to the middle and lower classes than the Republicans, especially as the Republicans will now, it appears, have to accommodate the extreme right-wing views of the Tea Party. Much will also depend on two major groups of voters who came out in large numbers for Obama in 2008, but who may well not do the same thing this time around: younger voters and African-Americans.

Admittedly, some Democratic candidates have also engaged in curious or immoral behavior, but with the Democrats, a vicious desire to turn back the clock, as far as the 1920s, isn’t part of the package. So it’s a little frightening to think that loose cannons like Paladino, O’Donnell & Angle could win even primaries, let alone as much as 49 percent of the vote in elections. One can only hope that in Nevada and Delaware, as elsewhere, true independents and maybe even some moderate Republicans will realize that even a Democrat is preferable to an extreme right-winger. But — to come back to a theme that I introduced midway in this political discussion — let me quote from an article in the Sunday October 10 NY Times by Michael Sokolove. He returned to the Levittown in Pennsylvania that he visited during the 2008 campaign, and interviewed a technician there named Joe Sinitski, whom he’d also interviewed in 2008. In 2008, Sinitski said he’d voted for Obama, even though he’d been “brought up” in a way that wouldn’t have predisposed him to vote for a black candidate. He’s since been laid off from his job, but told Sokolove that he still intended to vote for the Democrat in his Congressional district. “The way it looks to me is the Republicans have gone to the other extreme,” he said. “It’s like they’re saying, ‘O.K., if you can vote in a black guy, we’ll counter that by putting up nut jobs for office.” It would indeed be a horrible thing for the entire country if the “nut jobs” were able to seize power in 2010.

IF THE AXIS HAD WON WORLD WAR II

For some time, I have been pointing toward the regressive trend in the U.S. body politic, seeing it as the inevitable corollary to the relative increase in the white-collar segment of the work force, and the relative decrease in blue-collar type jobs (in this context, you can readily appreciate how I view the election of Obama as something of a fluke, and something of an indication that even the Democrats are less radical and more moderate than they once were—Obama having presented himself during the campaign as more moderate than Hillary Clinton, and still being no more progressive on several fronts than George W. Bush). I have also argued that the regressive tendency in the electorate may be one reason for the similarly regressive trend in the visual arts, where abstraction, the truly revolutionary art form of the 20th century, is only encouraged if it’s second-rate, and the primary emphasis is on various forms of counter-revolutionary figuration, including representational painting, conceptual art, video, performance art & presentational art (this last being the use of actual objects in artworks as opposed to representations of them).

I have furthermore suggested that the most “radical” art critics are in fact the same ones who advocate these most reactionary art forms. Holland Cotter, of the New York Times, has just conveniently demonstrated this paradox, in his review of “Chaos and Classicism: Art in France, Italy, and Germany, 1918-1936,” at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (through January 9). The focus of this show is on the representational art that throve on both governmental sponsorship and popular support throughout the years between the wars, in France (where especially in the ‘30s, the political situation was chaotic), in the Italy of Benito Mussolini (where fascism had already triumphed in the early ‘20s) and in Germany (first during the feeble Weimar Republic and second, after the accession to power of Adolph Hitler). With few exceptions, the paintings featured in this show are vehemently representational, with truly modern artists included only rarely, and then usually in their most regressive phases — the neoclassicism of Picasso, for example, being what starts off the show, while similarly more representational work by Braque and Léger is featured a little further up the Guggenheim’s ramp.

The grand climax, in the sixth-level Annex at the top of the ramp, is dedicated to art most associated with fascism in Germany and Italy. It includes a depressingly bad late (1928-29) de Chirico showing a group of rubbery, orange-y male nudes and entitled “Gladiators at Rest,” and a massive semi-nude male “Soldier” (1935-36) by Mario Sironi a second-string futurist who in later life became a passionate supporter of Mussolini. Finally & most offensively, there is an embarrassingly intimate triptych by Adolf Ziegler, showing four naked (not nude) women personifying the four elements (earth, air, fire and water). An in-situ photograph shows how this painting hung in a place of honor in Hitler’s Munich apartment. The label claims that stylistically it owes much to German Nazarene painting of the 19th century, as well as the “cleanliness and austerity” of the Neue Sächlichkeit of the 1920s. I was more reminded of the teasy-weasy lubriciousness of Adolphe-William Bouguereau (who incidentally is doing rather well in the resale market these days, according to the NYTimes for October 12. Seems that the actress Demi Moore bought a Bouguereau in 1995 for $178,500, and will be selling it at Sotheby’s on November 4, where it is expected to bring between $1 million and $1.5 million.)

If a casual visitor from, say, Papua, who knew nothing about European art history, had wandered into this show, and assumed it was a true portrait of the art of Europe between the wars, then Nolde, Beckmann, Kirchner, Grosz, Klee, Albers, Kandinsky, Ernst, Arp, Miró, Dalí, Mondrian, Brancusi and Giacometti never lived. They have been condemned to un-personhood here just as surely as Hitler would have wanted them to be, and as Ziegler tried to make them when, as head of the Third Reich’s Chamber of Visual Arts, he confiscated virtually all modernist work in German museums as entartete kunst (degenerate art), selling it or destroying it outright. And this, in other words, is what American art might have become, had the Axis of Hitler, Mussolini and the zaibatsu of Japan triumphed instead of the Allies. Yet this is a show that Holland Cotter gave a rave review to, calling it “totally engrossing: a survey-style piece of investigative history with a bomb ticking away inside.” This compliment is prefaced by a put-down of what Cotter prefers to call “boilerplate,” or “safe box office.”

NO MYSTERY HERE

Presumably by “boilerplate” Cotter means the two big Picasso shows we’ve had this summer, the fine Matisse just winding up its stay at MoMA, and the encyclopedic exhibition of abstract expressionism just getting underway this fall at MoMA. Cotter kisses this all off under the heading of “art-as-uplift,” and ridicules it by suggesting that people with such an orientation will find the story told by “Chaos and Classicism” “mystifying, if not perverse.”

I don’t find anything very mystifying about this show. On the contrary, it’s crystal clear that we are, in this advanced stage of late postmodernism, moving further and further backward in our appetite for the counter-revolutionary. Nor is the original popularity of this sort of art surprising in the slightest. Representational art always has been more popular than abstraction, and this is a mindset that can only be overcome sixty or seventy years after the abstract art has been created. Picasso, Matisse, even abstract expressionism of the ‘40s and ‘50s, are all now far enough in the past so that they’ve become acceptable, even desirable, but during the period between the two world wars, Matisse & Picasso at their most radical were still fresh enough to be unsettling, while dada, surrealism and the Neo-Plasticism of Mondrian were positively terrifying. Totalitarian governments (in the Soviet Union, no less than in Italy & Germany) curried favor with their subjugated citizens by throwing such art out the window and adopting “classicism” in its place.

This, at any rate, was the story in Italy and Germany, which ultimately took as their models the naturalism of ancient Greece and Rome. In France, the situation was a bit more complex, and the art somewhat better. “Chaos and Classicism” was organized by Kenneth E. Silver, who teaches at NYU downtown, and has been an authority on the return to moderation entre deux guerres in France for decades. His dissertation for Yale on this subject became the book, “Esprit de Corps: The Art of the Parisian Avant-Garde and the First World War, 1914-1925,” published by Princeton University Press in 1989. His argument, as expanded to include Germany and Italy for this exhibition, is that World War I was so disturbing and upsetting that artists and the public sought for a return in the postwar period to what the press release for the show calls “tranquillity, order, and enduring values” (and what I, for reasons I don’t quite understand, think of as “ordnung und regierung”). Either way, the motif can be used to justify a show of regressively representational art. I am sure there was a lot of it produced during this period, but not all was of equal quality, and therein lies my complaint about this show.

TASTE, CAMP, WOOD

Considering that there are approximately 150 works in it, by more than 80 artists, not all of it must of necessity be bad, particularly given the variety of media: painting, sculpture, etching, photography, architecture, film, fashion and the decorative arts. Still, there is a certain amount that for me comes under the heading of “taste” as opposed to “art,” including the dress designs by Molyneux and Vionnet, and the chairs by Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann. There is a certain amount of Art Deco, which for me has more to do with camp than with serious passion, such as the terracotta “Centaur” by Arturo Martini, and “Diana the Huntress,” an insipid small panel painting by Anne Carlu. And there are an awful lot of paintings that are just sort of wooden, for example the portrait of Peggy Guggenheim by Alfred Courmes, “Youths at the Seashore,” by Franco Gentilini, and “Ruhr Battle,” by Bartel Gilles (who seems to have been sort of a bargain basement Grosz). The art historian in Prof. Silver here has evidently done battle with the curator in him, and the art historian emerged triumphant. Perhaps another way of saying it is that postmodernism is determined to break down the hierarchy between great, good and lousy, or to be more specific, to re-order it, so that bad is good & great comes last. This reversal of order might strike a naive observer as “perverse,” but to me, it is all too excruciatingly familiar, standard postmodernist orthodoxy.

BUT NOT ALL BAD

That said, there is also a good deal worth looking at and enjoying in this show, not least because Silver and his associates at the Guggenheim have done a masterful job in organizing, mounting, displaying and labeling the work on view. Too, the exhibition starts off on a high note, with a glass case presenting the horrors of World War I as etched by Otto Dix (images that I also so much admired in Dix’s recent retrospective at the Neue Galerie). The fluid grace of “Ile de France,” a standing bronze nude by Maillol, reminds us that a classical nude in the 20th century need not be either awkward or kitschy. Picasso, even in his off mode, was a thunderously powerful draftsman, as the many examples of his “classical period” indicate in this show, and who can quarrel with Matisse, represented here by “Large Seated Nude,” a bronze from 1922-29? The two 1922 paintings of “Caryatids” by Braque, though representing a falling-off from his masterpieces of Analytic Cubism, are nonetheless very ingratiating, and their silvery tonalities lovely.

“The Coal Man” (1931) by Leo Breuer is a not-bad (if somewhat belated) example of the Neue Sächlichkeit, and “The Two Pulchinellas” (1922) by Severini is the only example of a futurist-turned-fascist that I found likeable (perhaps because it deals with a fantasy world). Halfway up the ramp comes an Annex gallery devoted to “The Constructors,” and featuring (among other things) elegant furniture by Mies Van Der Rohe and views of his trend-setting Barcelona Pavilion. What a truly radical & reductive modernist like Mies is doing in this company, Heaven only knows. I’m not convinced by the wall text’s argument that this too belongs under the rubric of “classicism,” though the show attempts to tie it in by introducing the stiff & tame Purist semi-abstract painting of Le Corbusier in his earlier incarnation as Charles Edouard Jeanneret. Finally, the half-dozen occupational photographs of August Sander continue to be as intriguing as I have always found them. Standing stalwartly in front of the camera, these solid, immovable burghers may help to explain why Hitler didn’t encounter more resistance in his march to power. One likes to think that the current election campaign in the U.S., despite its apparently inevitable outcome, displays more evidence of vigorous fight and (to use an only partially Biblical expression) kicking against the pricks.

EAT, DRINK & BE MERRY:
ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM AT MOMA


I know that I ought to be overjoyed by “Abstract Expressionist New York,” currently at the Museum of Modern Art. After all, it is not just one big show but three, altogether occupying 25,000 square feet of exhibition space, and requiring four separate curators, plus an archivist and a curatorial assistant, to put it all together (even though virtually all of it comes from the museum’s permanent collections) The first and largest of the three shows, on view through April 25, is “Abstract Expressionist New York: The Big Picture,” curated by Ann Temkin, chief curator of painting and sculpture, with the assistance of Michelle Elligott, museum archivist, Sarah Meister, a curator in the photography department, and Paulina Pochoba, a curatorial assistant in painting & sculpture. Temkin has cleared out all the galleries that normally house the museum’s fourth-floor permanent collection, and prominently installed — instead of all the neo-dada, pop, minimal and conceptual art that normally occupy most of it — nothing but 100 abstract expressionist paintings and some 60 abstract expressionist sculptures, drawings, prints and photographs (plus memorabilia like old MoMA exhibition catalogues).

As if that weren’t enough, the museum has two more smaller, ancillary shows, both hidden away on the wrong side of the escalators. “Abstract Expressionist New York: Ideas Not Theories: Artists and The Club, 1942-1962” (on the third floor) evidently intended to document the ideological content of abstract expressionism, brings together mostly smaller works, including painting, sculpture, photography, film, architectural models, music illustrated books and printed journals. “Abstract Expressionist New York: Rock Paper Scissors” (on the second floor) features sculptures and works on paper, executed in a variety of media, and intended to show how the same artists — mostly better-known as sculptors — expressed themselves in two dimensions as well as three. Both these two smaller shows were curated by Jodi Hauptman, curator in the department of drawings, and Sarah Suzuki, assistant curator in prints and illustrated books. Both will only be on view through February 28.

As I say, I know that I ought to be overjoyed at this behemoth exhibition devoted to so many artists whom I so much admire, the last period when modernism prevailed. My problem is that I am already — with the current political situation as a model — anticipating the backlash. I can’t help feeling Temkin is hoping that everybody will be so sick of ab-ex by next April, that she can now take down all the ab-ex and fill the gallery with postmodernist art (I would say “stuff” instead of “art” but I am trying to be dignified about it). Temkin, we must never forget, is the lady who staged an entire exhibition about all “color” and left the color-field painters out of it. She is also the lady who took down the sole color-field artists in the previous hanging of the permanent collection – Frankenthaler & Morris Louis – then hung them, for a month or so, prominently in the museum’s huge atrium – only to consign them ever since to storage.

True, she is a great admirer of Barnett Newman, and we all know she staged a fine Newman show in Philadelphia before she came to New York, but from the way she’s hung Newman in this exhibition, it appears that he comes first among the abstract expressionists in her lexicon as well as last. This is not chronologically accurate, and makes a mockery out of any claims to a narrative presentation of this show, since she’s rousted Pollock out of the small but very favorably placed gallery that he used to occupy all by himself, the first one that lies directly beyond the entry gallery. Now it’s a shrine to Newman, while Pollock has been shunted off to a further gallery. This further gallery is admittedly larger, but the entrance and exit to it are placed so that the gallery itself becomes merely a space that people use as a passageway. They don’t stay in it; they keep right on walking through it. I’ve noticed this ever since the new, supposedly improved MoMA opened, but it’s never been quite so painfully clear to me as it is right now.

If I had to guess at how these galleries will look when Temkin is finished with all her revamping, and has rehung “the permanent collection,” most of the masters of abstract expressionism will either be consigned to storage altogether, to make way for more “contemporary” art, or else they will be jammed into just two or maybe three small galleries at the beginning of the permanent collection, with Pollock, Rothko and all the rest (except for Newman) cheek by jowl, while the Newman Gallery remains as it now stands, to lead the way on into minimalism, conceptualism, pop, neo-dada and all the dozens & dozens of little imitation dadas that have come along since (appropriations, neo-geo, object art, etc.). That is why I title this review, “Eat, Drink & Be Merry.” The end of this ancient Epicurean advice is, of course, “For Tomorrow We Die.”

PLUSES & MINUSES

Jed Perl, whose review in The New Republic was emailed to me by a friend, found “The Big Picture” depressing and badly hung. He overstates his case, and makes predictable plugs for his own book on the period, as well as for artists like Burgoyne Diller who really don’t belong. Still, I’d agree that the hanging is poorly thought out, and full of contradictions. One difference between Perl and myself is that I don’t think that Temkin is entirely responsible. Part of the problem is the miserable layout of these galleries, laid out (perhaps by Kirk Varnedoe) so as to make impossible a linear progression, with a beginning, middle and end. Rather, in classic destructive Pomonian style, there is no one way to view any exhibition in these galleries, as entrances and exits are more confusingly placed. Pomonians are very ambivalent about “history.” They like to claim that they’re all for it, but at the same time, they are intent upon destroying any indication of progress or development, fundamentally because they know that Pomonian art is itself backward looking, and regressive, and they don’t want this to show. At the beginning and the end of “The Big Picture,” therefore, we have some indications that Temkin was planning a chronological presentation, but as I already said, putting Newman in front of Pollock is getting the cart before the horse, and most of the other galleries in the show lurch uncomfortably back and forth between galleries with a Salon-style presentation of just one or two artists and galleries which try to convey a larger cross-section of a single moment.

The gallery that comes off best, and is indeed highly rewarding, combines these approaches, displaying sculpture by David Smith with paintings by Still and Kline (also sculpture by Nevelson, which doesn’t measure up to the other work in the space). The works on view here are large, and the gallery is a large one, but the work is the right size for the space. The Pollock gallery, which includes Smith’s masterwork, “Australia,” is also handsome, for the most part (I’ve never been enthusiastic about Pollock’s late, representational “Easter and the Totem,” also included here). At least, there is a bench in front of the mammoth “One (Number 31, 1950),” to slow down migratory birds on the wing, and lots of Pollock elsewhere, from “The She-Wolf” in the opening gallery of “The Big Picture” to even earlier drawings in the “Ideas not Theories” section and so on.

I can’t be as enthusiastic about the Rothko gallery in “The Big Picture,” though it displays 8 big paintings made between 1948 and 1961, and lays out Rothko’s progression in an atypically logical way. The problem is with the artist himself: a period of struggling to make a mature and brilliant statement having been succeeded by a relatively brief period of actually making one, which in turn was followed by a prolonged period of declining conviction and color sense, the result being that this gallery as a whole seems somehow too big for the work on view. The opening gallery (the one with “The She-Wolf”), is very rich in the wide range of work, in fact maybe a little too rich — the works, while not large, have so much vitality that the space around them seems a bit cramped. But here may be seen a lively little “drip” painting, by Hofmann (which reminds us all that Jackson wasn’t the only dripper in the bunch), typically “underwater” works by Stamos and Baziotes, early Pousette-Dart (which he took decades to get beyond) and Rothko’s glowing 1944 surrealist painting, “Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea.”

The other major first-generation artists in “The Big Show” all too often wind up with their impact watered down by having their development chopped up into segments and placed at intervals throughout the show. This applies to not only to Hofmann, but also Gottlieb, de Kooning and Motherwell, whose historic “Elegy to the Spanish Republic 108" (1965-67) isn’t displayed until the very end of the show, though the artist was painting earlier versions of this theme starting in the late ‘40s. Most of Motherwell’s also interesting paintings from the earlier ‘40s, on the other hand, hang near the beginning, in the same gallery with a terrific display of Gorky. Gorky was always close enough to surrealism so that MoMA didn’t balk at acquiring him. In this gallery, the walls are very interesting, but the central space seems a bit barnlike.

Littered throughout the show are occasional paintings by Lee Krasner, Ad Reinhardt and a number of second-generation abstract expressionists. I saw far more Philip Guston than I wanted to see, not least because he is even represented by a singularly ugly pop-era, cartoonlike incarnation from 1969 (if we’re going to go on into the ‘60s, why is there no Louis, Noland or Olitski?). James Brooks, another second generation abstract expressionist of secondary importance, has a middle-sized, somewhat stained & somewhat murky painting hung next to a middle-sized, somewhat stained & murky Frankenthaler, the difference being that the Brooks is a typical Brooks, while the Frankenthaler was definitely done on one of her off days. It’s not on a par with two other (& larger) Frankenthaler paintings that MoMA owns, but couldn’t manage to get out of storage for this show: “Jacob’s Ladder” and “Mauve District.”

Then again, Alfred Barr, who reigned over MoMA from its foundation in 1929 to the end of 1967, never did get along with Clement Greenberg, and indeed his patronage of even the first-generation abstract expressionists as a whole left a lot to be desired. MoMA’s press release for this show, and its displays of memorabilia, are designed to demonstrate how much MoMA loved and cultivated the abstract expressionists, but actually the famous MoMA group shows that supposedly introduced ab-ex to the museum public — “14 Americans” (1946), “15 Americans” (1952), “12 Americans” (1956) and “16 Americans” (1959) — always included figurative artists along with the abstract ones, and not all the abstract ones were abstract expressionists, either. Moreover, Barr remained committed to the notion that postwar School of Paris tachisme and l’art informel were as good as, if not better than, native American abstraction well into the ‘50s, and collected French and American abstract art equally.

Whatever William Rubin’s shortcomings as a patron of later Greenbergian art, he is the one who deserves most credit for building the great collection of first-generation abstract expressionists that MoMA has today. It’s a shame that even he didn’t manage to bring in more and larger Hofmanns, but still, there is so much to see and admire in “The Big Picture” that it’s well worth attending. There are too many beautiful paintings for me to begin to discuss them all. You’ll just have to go and enjoy them for yourselves. I’m sure everybody will have different favorites. The show was already reasonably crowded when I visited it on a recent Saturday — crowded for a show of abstract art, that is.

THE TWO ADJUNCT AB-EX SHOWS

The two adjunct ab-ex shows — “Ideas, not Theories” and “Rock Paper Scissors” — both create a much livelier impression than “The Big Picture” upon initial viewing. I suspect that this is because the curators approached their undertakings in a constructive spirit — unlike Temkin. Her underlying motive seems to have been destructive, not constructive — considering not only the color-field painters whom she left out, but more importantly how the works by artists as major as Hofmann, Gottlieb, Motherwell and de Kooning are divided in such a way as to diminish their impact, to say nothing of the brazen attempt to cut Pollock off at the knees, the better to elevate her own personal hero, Newman. The smaller shows seem to have started out with no such agenda, and two- and three-dimensional works are interspersed in galleries that are neither too large or too small for them. However, upon closer examination, it becomes apparent that not everything in these shows is of equal value.

The first of three galleries in “Ideas not Theories” is truly compelling, with a wondrous display of small, late surrealist works from the ‘40s, mostly on paper, by Gottlieb, Baziotes, Gorky, Rothko, Pollock and others, as well as an embroidered carpet on the floor, after a design by John Ferren. But the second gallery, aside from a lovely, delicate vertical sculpture by Ibram Lassaw, is supposedly devoted to music, & music is notoriously difficult to document in visual terms. Matters are not helped by the noise emanating from a jiggling, jumping set of film clips set to jazz in the 1930s by Len Lye, a New Zealander— out of the time frame for this show, & outside of its geographic boundaries, too. Aside from 12 lithographs from Newman’s suite of “18 Cantos” (1963-64), we have such irrelevancies as music scores dated from 1958 to 1961 by John Cage, an anti-modernist rather than a modernist, and a 1953 painting by Mark Tobey, no more of a first-generation abstract expressionist than I am. Also on view is a quasi-surrealist sculpture that looks like a huge wad of gum stuck on a stick by Isamu Noguchi: it has even less to do with abstract expressionism than Tobey.

The third section of this show is yet more catch-as-catch-can. A large, finely wired sculpture by Richard Lippold is one of only three really appropriate & worthy works in the space (even if it’s more mechanical than expressionist). A small model of a geodesic dome by Buckminster Fuller is another one of those irrelevancies, while the works related to literature are distinguished only, in my opinion, by two pieces. One is a small but excellent Frankenthaler lithograph, closely related to the group I reviewed last spring at Craig F. Starr, and titled “Postcard for James Schuyler” (the poet). The other, a real gem, is “Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 1,” a small work on paper that its creator, Motherwell, gave to MoMA in 1987. Dated 1948, this first example of the artist’s signature black & white image is accompanied by lines from a poem by Harold Rosenberg. One of Motherwell’s biographers, H. H. Arnason, describes this poem as a “harsh and brutal incantation of suffering and sadism, for which only a violent and somber visual statement would have been appropriate...”

“Rock Paper Scissors” has another handsome opening gallery, with Herber Ferber’s startling, bristling huge head on a stick, entitled “He Is Not a Man,” a better-than-average Noguchi made of driftwood, a slick and overly surrealist Louise Bourgeois, and a fascinating stalk-like sculpture by David Hare, but then the second space begins to go downhill, with a lot more Nevelson than I need to see. Admittedly, this space is graced by a spiky but serene Seymour Lipton made of wood & sheet lead, “Imprisoned Figure”(1948). Everything is accompanied with works on paper done by the sculptor on view, but only rarely, as with the Lipton, are the drawings interesting in their own right. The last gallery in this show is 2/3 a shrine to Dorothy Dehner, and 1/3 a shrine to her sometime hubby, David Smith. The “24 Greek Ys” is the only sculpture here by him, accompanied by many of his drawings, which might impress me if they’d been done by somebody else, but are so inferior to his sculptures that I almost wish there weren’t so many of them. As for Dehner, I think that her main claim to fame should be as Smith’s muse and matrimonial partner. It’s embarrassing to see so much uninteresting work laid out, the main objective obviously being to demonstrate that MoMA isn’t prejudiced against women.

ME V. ROBERTA

Roberta Smith, in the NY Times for October 1, rhapsodized at length about the show, except to suggest that MoMA was being “myopic” for not including more women, and in general for not including more artists from the period. One gathers that she’d like to see a larger & messier show along the lines of “Abstract Expressionism: Other Politics,” a 1997 book by Ann Eden Gibson that argues against white male chauvinist homophobic meanies like Clement Greenberg and in favor of assorted and all-but-forgotten “abstract expressionist” artists who were women, gays, lesbians or artists of color. The fact that almost all of her candidates for sainthood were far inferior as artists to the famous abstract expressionists more or less gets lost in the shuffle — yet more evidence that Pomonians are anxious to destroy the hierarchy of good & not so good, or to be more direct, they wish to reorder it so that we’re all trained to admire the second-rate, and dump on the art that towers above it.

Specifically, Roberta Smith says that the show should have included Janet Sobel, the Brooklyn housewife who has become an icon to feminists for supposedly showing Pollock the way to drip painting. Actually, as I’ve pointed out before, this claim is bogus. I did realize that Sobel wasn’t included in this show, and my thought was “Thank God! At least we’re spared Sobel!” In fact, for me, the whole show was if anything too inclusive in all the wrong ways. As I’ve indicated, both the smaller shows pretty much run out of steam after their initial galleries, and as for the larger one, I could have done with a lot less Reinhardt, a bit less Krasner, and practically no Guston. But since Roberta baby speaks to — and for — a far larger audience than I represent, MoMA will undoubtedly continue to attempt the encyclopedic at the expense of trying to raise the level of public taste.
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