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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."

 

UPPER MIDDLE-BROW, HIGH, LOWER MIDDLE-CLASS

Henri Labrouste (French, 1801-1875). Imaginary reconstruction of an ancient city. Perspective view. Date unknown. Graphite, pen, ink and watercolor on paper. Académie d'Architecture, Paris.
I’ve been neglecting the Museum of Modern Art this winter. It took me so long to review its “Inventing Abstraction” that I didn’t even get around to it until the show was practically ready to close, but, by way of compensation, I hustled to get to three of the museum’s spring offerings. What prompted me to go in the first place was the Claes Oldenburg exhibition, but as I was approaching the building, I saw two huge signs posted on its side, advertising its exhibitions of Bill Brandt and Henri Labrouste, and I thought to myself, I should see those, too.

I knew little about Labrouste, beyond the fact that he was a 19th century French architect who designed the spacious wrought-iron interior of the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève in Paris, and architectural shows are difficult for me to write about (as I don’t know much about architecture). I thought I knew Brandt better, and liked what I remembered of his photographs of working-class Britons from the 1930s. Oldenburg I had written about at some length when I was at Time.

I did my initial story on Oldenburg soon after I arrived in the Art section in the winter of 1967. At that point, he was showing at Sidney Janis, one of the toniest galleries in town, and had moved on from the casein-painted, plaster food stuffs and clothing with which he’d first hit the big time in 1961-62; instead he was making soft fabric objects, nostalgically redolent of the 1930s: old-fashioned soft toilets, Chrysler Air-Flow designs and household fans. By the summer of 1968, I even proposed a cover story on him.

Like all the pop artists who had caused such a stir in the early 60s, Oldenburg had been relegated to the category of Old Master by 1967, and stage center had been taken over by minimal and conceptual art. The cover I proposed in 1968 was to deal with conceptual art, but, since none of the conceptual artists was sufficiently well-known for Time to use him as a cover portrait, I nominated Oldenburg—not as a pop artist so much as a founding father of conceptualism. There were all these drawings of imaginary monuments, and, if I recall correctly, he had also dug a hole in Central Park and proclaimed it a “buried sculpture.”

I thought his whole approach was very funny, but Time’s managing editor, a man who claimed to be intellectual and into everything avant-garde, was appalled by a color photograph that I proposed to use as part of the story, showing a Bruce Nauman tree plaque in Bob Scull’s East Hampton sculpture garden, so the story never became a cover. It did become what was known as an “inside cover,” with two full pages of text (very long for Time in those days)& 8 or 10 pages of color reproductions, the first of which was a full-page view of Oldenburg, seated amidst his many “soft” sculptures.

Then a year passed, in the course of which I met Clement Greenberg, and my enthusiasm for conceptualism, minimalism and pop began to wither under his biting criticisms of them. By the fall of 1969, I’d quit Time abruptly, and Oldenburg was having a retrospective at MoMA. The managing editor, having done his best to get me to quit, was now embarrassed by the speed with which I’d done so (evidently, I’d left friends behind). So he called me and practically begged me to come back and write an Oldenburg cover story, pegged on the retrospective. In 1968, to write a Time cover story had been acme of my ambition, but by September of ’69, I couldn’t have cared less.

Anyway, to return to the present: before entering MoMA’s main entrance, I got the press kits for those three shows from a side entrance (leading to the press relations department), and looked through them. At MoMA, press kits include the press release, a checklist (with all the info that appears on the individual labels, plus little black & white photos of the works on view), and the first, big wall text (though usually none of the shorter wall texts scattered throughout the shows). Glancing through the checklists, I could see that the Oldenburg show would have many of those early plaster sculptures of foods and clothing. As I’d never seen these in depth, I looked forward to them—although, I must confess, with some trepidation. Had I grown into such a highbrow that I no longer found them entertaining?

Glancing at the Brandt checklist, I saw reproductions of his photographs of working class Britons, and thought, I’m going to get a lot from this show. The Labrouste seemed to consist of dim little drawings (or so they looked, from postage-stamp-sized reproductions). This looked to be the dullest of the three shows I’d come to see, but it was on the third floor, with the Brandt, so I decided to get the Oldenburg on the sixth floor over with first, then tackle Labrouste before rewarding myself with Brandt. As it turned out, the high spot in my visit was reached with what I’d expected to be the dullest show, while the one I’d looked forward to the most eagerness was in fact, the most irksome. All of which again proved the saying you can’t tell a book by its cover.

FIRST, UPPER MIDDLEBROW HUMOR: OLDENBURG

Actually, this is two shows. The more conventional one is on the sixth floor and entitled “Claes Oldenburg: The Street and The Store.” In this one, the works of art are hung on the walls, or from the ceiling, or on platforms, or else housed in neat little freestanding vitrines—all in fairly conventional fashion. The art here is all from the early- to mid-60s—the period when Oldenburg was first making his mark on the scene, and at his most creative. The second show is in the second floor atrium, and entitled “Claes Oldenburg: Mouse Museum/Ray Gun Wing.”

Dating from the 1970s, this show consists of a large collection of a) very small artworks b) small commonplace objects, including toy guns, knives, keys, etc., etc., and c) what a philistine like myself would call downright junk. These are all laid out neatly beneath glass, in two freestanding “buildings” that viewers had to line up to get through. At least, the larger Mouse Museum had people lined up to get in when I was there on a (crowded) Friday. The smaller “Ray Gun Wing” had no line, so I nipped in there to get an idea of the proceedings. To judge from this “Ray Gun Wing,” I didn’t miss much by not standing in line for the Mouse Museum.

Both the show on the sixth floor & the two shows in the atrium run through August 5, and will doubtless delight the summer’s tourist mobs. They were organized jointly by the Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien (aka MuMoK) in Vienna, and the Museum of Modern Art (aka MoMA) in New York, with Achim Hochdörfer representing MuMoK and Ann Temkin (with Pauline Pobocha) representing MoMA . A version of these shows has already played MuMoK, Museum Ludwig Cologne, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

It is all a hefty bundle of scholarship and curatorial effort for a show by an artist who once wrote “I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum.” Then again, this artist has had plenty of time to get used to MoMA, both through the 1969 retrospective and because his baby brother Richard Oldenburg was director of MoMA from 1972 to 1995.

The sixth floor exhibition opens with relics from “The Street,” an exhibition that was held at the gallery of the Judson Memorial Church in 1960. In this area are largely abstract works made of burlap or cardboard, mostly brown and/or charred looking, and decorated with heavy black lines that are supposed to designate their subject matter, but only rarely do. Then the exhibition moves on to the main part, titled “The Store,” but in actual fact containing works that only begin with samples of the work that first attracted widespread attention in December 1961, when Oldenburg set up a miniature store in a shop front on East Second Street.

From the period of this original store are reliefs of cheap clothing, like that on sale in the semi-slum Lower East Side in those days, and reliefs or (occasionally) freestanding sculptures of other all-American artifacts, from foods like a loaf of bread to newsstand items such as cigarettes, and advertising signs, such as those for Pepsi Cola and 7-Up. These are actually made of more than just plaster: plaster-soaked muslin, over wire frames, and painted bright colors with enamel. They could be described as semi-abstract, since you can figure out what they’re supposed to be, but their shapes are loose and wiggly, their paint is spattered like an abstract expressionist painting and they are clever and quite funny as a result.

The show then moves on to the freestanding and increasingly literal sculptures of foodstuffs that Oldenburg made in the next four years, as his wares moved uptown, from gallery to gallery, and the painterly 50s turned into the post-painterly 60s. Included in this part of the show are everything from pies and ice-cream sundaes to a BLT sandwich and a frying pan with pork chops. Although there are a few such plaster works in this show from 1964 & 1965, the real climax is the three giant soft sculptures that Oldenburg and Pat Muschinski, then his girlfriend and later his first wife, sewed together and exhibited in a 57th Street gallery in 1962.

These are "Floor Burger,” “Floor Cake” and “Floor Cone.” They are made of painted canvas stuffed with foam rubber and cardboard boxes, and -- as their names indicate--they were so large (4 & 5 feet long) that they have to sit on the floor. The best of these works in this part of the show are still pretty funny, if humor in art is your thing, and although the later, more literal ones are not as funny as the semi-abstract pieces with all the abstract-expressionist brushwork. Still, children love this kind of work, and the show was abundantly populated by children.

There are also a lot of works on paper, prints and posters and drawings, and, as I was looking at one of these and noting down its title (“Hanging Dress,” a crayon & watercolor from 1962), a man next to me said something like this (in a reproving tone of voice), “I hope you are writing down what a wonderful show this is. It’s marvelous.” I guess I must have been frowning a little, because I was thinking that in terms of pure art, as opposed to humor in art, the best work in the show are drawings like “Hanging Dress.” They are, all in all, well-done: I didn’t want to concede that much but felt I had to.

NOW, ON TO HIGH ART: LABROUSTE

I could relax when I got down to the third floor and entered the long, narrow gallery (normally used as a hallway) where begins “Henri Labrouste: Structure Brought to Light.” This show, billed as the first solo exhibition of Labrouste’s work in the United States and intended to highlight his work as a key milestone in the evolution of modern architecture, was organized by Barry Bergdoll, MoMA's chief curator of architecture, Corinne Bélier, chief curator, Cité de l’architecture & patrimonie, and Marc Le Coeur, art historian, Bibliothèque Nationale de France (where the exhibition started; now, in New York, on through June 24). Even though I know little or nothing about architecture, they have done a magnificent job in showing what a splendid artist Labrouste (1801-1875) was (as well as a splendid architect).

When I was teaching a survey course in Western art, I used to throw on the screen a black-and-white slide of Labrouste’s masterpiece, the central reading room of the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève in Paris, with its slender, soaring columns and their delicate wrought-iron trim, together enclosing a huge, soaring space. I would tell my students that this was an early use of iron, a new material in construction, and this was pretty much all I could find to say about it. Nor did I feel an urge to linger over it, as it was the beginning of my lecture on modern architecture, and I was eager to get on to Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier. From the vantage-point of the end of the 20th century, Labrouste’s reading room (in the black-and-white slide, which was all I had) looked to me heavy and old-fashioned, as much Beaux-Arts as modern. But this introductory hallway-gallery in the show at MoMA puts Labrouste in a whole new light.

Called “The Imagination,” it covers the period from 1818 to 1838, when Labrouste was still undergoing his artistic training, and has many drawings from the five years he spent at the French Academy in Rome. At this time, Rome was a magnet for ambitious painters from all over Northern Europe, including Ingres & Corot. Labrouste was right there in among them, making detailed and truly marvelous renderings of classical ruins, ancient city gates and recently excavated Etruscan tombs---sometimes in their entirety, sometimes just details, plus reconstructions of how some of these ruins and city gates might have originally looked.

These drawing are just so gorgeous that I was soon throbbing at the sight of them. Next to them, Claes Oldenburg’s best efforts look like the handiwork of a vulgar and presumptuous clod. And there are so many of these wonderful Labrouste drawings! Almost enough to be too many—but only in the sense that they are difficult to assimilate & made me feel I had to come back and look at them more sometime. How he managed to make all the tiny lines of the fluting on the columns of the temples at Paestum so straight is just some sort of a miracle, even though he had little straight-sided tools to help him—some are displayed in a vitrine, alongside a little notebook with delicious wiry little sketches of city gates.

I don’t suppose today’s architecture students bother with developing their draftsmanship like this – they know they will have CAD (computer-aided design) to do it all for them when they start to practice their profession (and doubtless are already using it in architecture school). But there’s a difference between what a supremely gifted human makes & what you can expect from a machine. In the last part of the show, there’s a drawing hung next to a mechanically-produced image and you can see a subtle difference, if you care enough to look closely. One has the breath of life in it. The other just looks sort of dead.

The second part of the show, entitled “Spaces of Knowledge,” is devoted to Labrouste’s mature accomplishments, with more of those memorable drawings, plus old and new models and photographs of the completed buildings. The emphasis is on the architect’s work on libraries, including both the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève (1838-1850) and the Bibliothèque Nationale (1859-75), although there are also a few drawings from other commissions, among them an insane asylum. For the first time I could see how the stone exteriors of these buildings look, with their rows of huge windows, and, although these exteriors are massive enough to qualify as Beaux-Arts establishments, they are in many areas bare and classic enough to look proto-modern as well.

Furthermore, this exhibition explained to me, for the first time, the relationship between the internal iron truss structure (then a novel use of iron) and the stone-clad exterior (a traditional material): they are independent but co-dependent. In the words of a particularly illuminating label, “The fineness of the iron arcades would be impossible without the stone box, which stabilizes them, while the minimal thickness of the stone box is possible because there is so little lateral thrust from the metal frame….The iron arches are pierced only where it is structurally possible to lighten the material, thus producing a beautiful—and perfectly rational—lacy effect.”

As Michael Kimmelman observed, in his March 14 review in the NY Times, this exhibition arrives at a timely moment, for many architects – and many more New York book readers—are up in arms over the latest plans to “renovate” the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street. This is another Beaux-Arts monument with another large & elegant central reading room. Beneath it, as in Paris, are the stacks in which books are stored. The bright idea in New York is to rip out the stacks, consigning the books to remote locations from which it will take days to retrieve them when readers request them, and to use the space thus vacated to install yet another circulating library branch (of which the NYPL already has dozens).

The people sponsoring this plan say that the stacks are too dilapidated and unsuited to be modernized--but, as Kimmelman pointed out, “Labrouste’s even older stacks at the Bibliothèque Nationale have recently been outfitted with modern climate controls and fireproofing and will be opened to the reading public.” Which reminds me that in this country, our pioneers farmed their lands until the lands gave out, then moved merrily on to the next frontier, and repeated the procedure, while the thrifty French—with no frontiers to move to—are still farming the same land that their ancestors farmed, having presumably learned, over the centuries, how to renew it.

The last gallery in the exhibition at MoMA, entitled “Prosperity and Affinities,” was the least satisfactory, though it’s decked out in all the devices museum officials employ to make a supposedly arcane subject more accessible to casual museum-goers. We have the nearly obligatory film clip, this one from the Martin Scorsese adventure film, “Hugo,” showing a couple of young modern characters racing through one of Labrouste’s libraries, and the equally obligatory interactive viewing device, which stores a multitude of mostly not-very-good old photographs of old buildings. I preferred the conventional ways to document Labrouste’s far-flung influence.

They ranged from a bizarrely Byzantine model for an ornate “great hall” by Anatole de Baudot, one of Labrouste’s disciples, to an old friend from my survey lecture, the Wainwright Building in St. Louis by Dankmar Adler & Louis Sullivan, founding fathers of the Chicago School. Completed in 1891, the Wainwright Building was – at 10 stories—one of the world’s first skyscrapers, and – like Labrouste’s libraries – combined a (more radical) metal skeleton with a more traditional exterior cladding (in this case, brick). Wish I’d been able to make that connection while I still had a classroom to do it in, but better late than never—I’m telling it to my readers now.

FINALLY, LOWER MIDDLE-CLASS SENTIMENT: BILL BRANDT

Last—and, in this case, least—of the three shows I attended at the Museum of Modern Art was “Bill Brandt: Shadow and Light,” organized by Sarah Meister, curator at MoMA, with the aid of Drew Sawyer, a curatorial fellow (through August 12). Maybe my problem was that I went into it with such high expectations. And the show starts out on such a high note, with 2 delightful photographs from the early to mid-1930s, one showing an exotic little bird in the midst of a verdant Kew Gardens, the other of a Hungarian peasant, lurching through a field, and brandishing a bottle from which he has clearly drunk a lot. The image of the peasant, if not the bird, must have been made when the Hamburg-born Brandt (1904-83) was still learning his profession on the Continent, before moving to London around 1934.

Next, if you follow the route that you were supposed to take (but that I didn’t) come the photographs of the upper-class and lower-class Londoners, with an “East Ender” scrubbing her doorstep, and a flossy Kensington children’s party, enhanced by a lot of balloons. Such photos were presumably included in Brandt’s first two books, The English at Home (1936) and A Night in London (1938). These photos were the foundation of his reputation, and he followed them up by a trip in 1937 to the industrial & mining Midlands and Tyneside, where he chronicled the hard lives of coal miners and “coal-searchers” (scavengers who made a living out of picking up individual lumps of coal from slag piles).

Finally, there are the pictures of old and young Londoners sleeping during air raids in the “Underground” (what New Yorkers would call the subway , and Washingtonians, the metro). Brandt took these when he was employed by the Home Office during World War II to document how well Londoners were coping with the Blitz. All of these photographs were the kind of Bill Brandt images that I remembered and treasured, but as far as the organizers of this show were concerned, they were the least part of Brandt’s achievement, to judge from the larger amounts of space devoted to later and (in my opinion) lesser work.

This later work falls into three categories. First are the portraits, mostly of literary and artistic celebrities, that Brandt took when commissioned to do so by Harper’s Bazaar, Lilliput or Picture Post from the later 40s through the 70s. Second are the landscapes associated with literary subjects, which were published both in magazines and in another book, Literary Britain (1951).

Lastly, Brandt photographed many female nudes, starting with conventional figure studies but soon evolving into studies that only a surrealist could love, with only grotesquely bloated segments of anatomy—in one picture, a breast, in another, buttocks, and so on. One series presents these smooth-skinned anatomical parts against the small rocks (or large pebbles) of an English beach (how the English can swim off of an island which is at the latitude of Labrador beats me, but they do). Some of these photographs, too, were published in book form, as Perspective of Nudes (1961).

When I saw these nudes, I realized that I’d seen some of them before – I hadn’t liked them then, and I didn’t like them now. They are too artsy-fartsy and accordingly pretentious. Not reality, and not really taking advantage of what photography does best, which is story telling. The landscapes are a lot better, but still not that distinctive or unique. Some of the portraits are very likeable, like the unexpectedly domestic Dylan Thomas posed at home, with his wife Caitlin, an unexpectedly zaftig Evelyn Waugh, and Edith & Osbert Sitwell, posed in their stately home with a painting above their heads showing a whole handful of ancestors. But the portraits of Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth & Reg Butler show these three eminent sculptors peering at the camera over or through their artwork, like children peering through a jungle gym. What a phony idea!

The best work is still the early work, and if I’d organized the show, I’d have featured it in more depth, keeping the artsy nudes, blah landscapes & phony portraits to a minimum. Even the better work suffered from the inclusion of the lesser work: after I’d looked at all of it, I went back to the early work, and damned if it, too, didn’t begin to reveal its flaws.

I began to notice how carefully staged and posed were all the shots of high- and low-class Londoners. The “famous men” of Walker Evans were certainly staged and posed as well, but that doesn’t detract from their tremendous inner dignity. Brandt’s top-hatted toffs and big-hatted society ladies, lined up on their coach to watch the races at Ascot, look like a row of models dressed up for a clothing ad in Harper’s Bazaar. Brandt, one feels, was trying to flatter them: he didn’t feel that he was one of them. Nor does his choice of flabby and sallow-faced working-class blokes staring into the camera (presumably behind the counter) at a pub do anything to help the viewer share the moment, the way that camaraderie & beer are supposed to allow. They make one feel that Brandt was looking down at them as lesser mortals.

Two of the pictures of the coal miners come off, though, and so—more significantly—do the two pictures of parlor-maids in the home of some of Brandt’s presumably more affluent relatives. With their elaborate, stiffly starched aprons and caps, they open a whole new door on “Upstairs, Downstairs” or “Downton Abbey,” and manage to look entirely natural, whether preparing to serve dinner or drawing a bath for milady. These last two pictures, of the parlor-maids, made me feel that Brandt saw himself, a mere journalist and foreigner, on their same social level. The camera is neither fawning on them nor condescending to them, but addressing them as equals. The wartime photos of children sleeping in the Underground are also moving. They are children. They are sleeping, and the result is entirely natural. Even if Brandt told them to shut their eyes, the tenderness he evidently felt for them redeems the gesture.

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