“Objects of Desire: The Modern Still Life” at The Museum of Modern Art

Gerald Murphy, Razor (1924), oil on canvas; courtesy The Dallas Museum of Art

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As a means of tracing the trajectory of twentieth-century art, the still life seems a useful guide. Historically, the still life was considered a lesser form of painting due to the mundane objects it depicted. How, after all, could an image of fruit, no matter how finely delineated, compare to the grandeur of history painting? While a hierarchy of genres may seem silly, if not incomprehensible, to a contemporary sensibility, it should not be forgotten that some of the most radical art of the modern era had, as its ostensible subject, the humble still life. The word “radical” is used here not as a gauge of an artist’s political beliefs, but as a marker of how art can reconfigure itself, as well as the way we look at it and the world. At a time when radicalism in art is measured by the stridency of one’s ideological “subject matter,” it is important to bear in mind that a truly revolutionary art once took for its objective basis an eggplant.

Which is why Cézanne’s Still Life with a Ginger Jar and Eggplants (1890–94) aptly served as the prologue, if you will, for Objects of Desire: The Modern Still Life. Margit Rowell, organizer of Objects of Desire and chief curator of the Department of Drawings at MOMA, is wise to the French master’s particular form of radicalism. After these eggplants, she rightly implied, art would never be the same again. Cézanne isn’t the only progenitor of the modern still life, but Rowell knows that he is the sine qua non of modernism. So she immediately followed Still Life with a Ginger Jar and Eggplants with work that built on Cézanne’s historic and artistic momentum, most significantly the Cubism of Picasso and Braque, and the paintings of Matisse. Other artists featured were no less formidable: Léger, Gris, Klee, Derain, Beckmann, Miró, Davis, Mondrian, and Dufy. If Rowell has been admonished for rounding up the usual suspects, it must be said that they are great suspects, at least in the early portions of the show.

Yet, on the whole, Objects of Desire was frustrating, incomplete, and often dreadful —a mishmash filled with masterpieces. The show was divided into nine sections, with themes ranging from “Anatomies of Structure” (not a shabby conceit) to “Postmodern Simulacra” (an all too shabby one). Basically, the work was presented in chronological order and anyone familiar with MOMA’s permanent collection recognized the established progression: from Cézanne and Picasso to Gober and Sherman. Robert and Cindy, that is, and such a decline in quality was as depressing as it was predictable. But even at its best Objects of Desire was sketchy and unkempt. One suspects that Rowell, in the realization of her project, ran out of steam—or time. Consequently, the exhibition (and accompanying catalogue) felt rushed. One imagined Rowell huffing and puffing as she sprinted through the historical torrents of Cubism, Dada, Surrealism, and Pop all the way to that pinnacle of postmodernism, Jeff Koons’s One-Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (Spaulding Dr. J. 241 Series) (1985). It’s difficult to know whether the true, if unintended, subject was the decline of twentieth-century art or the lack of discrimination on the part of our museum culture.

One does, however, feel a mite cantankerous kvetching about an exhibition that included paintings as ravishing as Matisse’s Purple Cyclamen (1911–c. 1913) or as jaunty as Picasso’s Siphon, Glass, Newspaper, and Violin (1912). Objects of Desire worked best when taken in bits and pieces. As such, there was plenty to relish, as the list of artists mentioned above indicates, and some of Rowell’s choices were winningly off-kilter. Le Corbusier’s ascetic The Red Bowl (1919) may not be in the same league as Braque’s breathtaking Pedestal Table (1911), but it does come close. Morton Schamberg’s Painting VIII (Mechanical Abstraction) (1916), a loving and delicate ode to the machine, was the standout of the Dadaist installment of the show. Frida Kahlo’s disturbing and fine Still Life with Prickly Pears (1938) made her vaunted self-portraits look more self-absorbed than usual, and give Rowell credit for finding Léger’s Composition with Two Typewriters (1927), a funny tribute to the title contraptions and (I think) the electric plug. Additional paintings by Patrick Henry Bruce, Gerald Murphy, Iwan Babij, Chaim Soutine, James Ensor, and even Salvador Dalí made for some inspired and oddball selections. Would that Rowell had gone out on a limb like this throughout the show.

As with any exhibition that aims to sum up a genre and a century, Objects of Desire had its gaps and gaffes. Rowell has been taken to task for not including more women in the show, but her omission of painters of either sex associated with the still life was so glaring that the PC patrol had to wait in line to issue its complaints. To cite just one example: the Italian artist Giorgio Morandi was represented by one painting, the de Chiricoesque Still Life (1919). It is, certainly, not a bad painting, but why weren’t works included by the mature Morandi, the artist whose dusky paintings of bottles, boxes, and jars are his gift to this century? This was a dumbfounding exclusion. I suspect that Morandi’s signature paintings are too idiosyncratic for easy categorization or theoretical explication. (He is, apparently, too idiosyncratic for many of our curators; to my knowledge not one of Morandi’s paintings is currently on view in a New York museum.) It was because of such omissions that one wished Rowell had junked the show’s categories and settled for pure chronology.

Not that the categories were all that snug in the first place. A probable attempt at making modern art user-friendly, Rowell’s armature only served to muddle an already messy epoch. Prior to this exhibition, I had never thought of Matisse—or, for that matter, Patrick Henry Bruce—as being particularly metaphysical. Yet there was MOMA’s splendid Gourds (1915–16) included in the section “Metaphysical Painting: Modern Classicisms/Ideal Geometries” and in proximity to de Chirico and Carlo Carra. Rowell writes that Matisse’s “spiritual, essentialist statement” reveals a metaphysical temperament through “formal analogies.” I would be the last person to belittle the formal analysis of art, but this is a tenuous and simplistic comparison. Even if Gourds and Carra’s Still Life with Triangle (1917) share certain characteristics, there is an immeasurable gulf between the visions of Matisse and Carra. Such “formal analogies” put me in mind of museum tour guides who turn Cubism into a game of finding the guitar. Rowell is more sophisticated than that and does admit that the metaphysical association is “unprecedented” for Matisse. But even she must know that it’s a stretch.

A bigger stretch was the intellectual hoop-jumping Rowell went through to rationalize the inclusion of a copy of Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel (1951). Arguing that the still life hinges on a “mysterious quality of displacement,” she asserts that “the Bicycle Wheel has been disconnected and displaced to another, closed, circuit of signification. It has been transformed from a reality to a fiction. And a fiction, by definition, is not of this world. It is a self-contained system and generates its own peculiar time and space …” Heavy stuff for what is, essentially, the Duchampian equivalent of the Bronx cheer. Duchamp’s doodads have, of course, very little to do with the tradition of the still life. The truth of the matter is that if Rowell had not included Duchamp the hue and cry from the keepers of our not-so-cutting edge would’ve been deafening. He is, after all, the edifice around which our art culture, such as it is, is based. Denying Marcel his proper place, alongside Pablo and Henri, would have been tantamount to heresy.

The definition of still life has to be malleable to include Bicycle Wheel, and its elasticity was put to the test once one arrived at the American flag. At this point, the still life was viewed less as a traditional artform than an excuse to exalt the Dadaist aesthetic. In fact, the latter half of Objects of Desire was a reminder—as if we needed one—of the baleful influence Duchamp has had on late twentieth-century art. So on the heels of Johns’s Flag (1958), the viewer was subjected to Lichtenstein’s sneakers, Warhol’s Brillo boxes, Arman’s accumulation of combs, Marcel Broodthaers’s mussel shells, Kiki Smith’s grotesqueries, Koons’s floating basketball, Sherman’s plate of worms, but why go on? There was little of artistic worth, although there was plenty of stuff cluttering the galleries. The only artist of stature in the final galleries of the show was Philip Guston, whose Highball (1979) dates from the artist’s late period. I must admit, however, that never before have I so appreciated Robert Rauschenberg’s enthusiasm or Claes Oldenburg’s acute eye for Americana. Not that Combine (1959) or Pastry Case, I (1961–62) are American masterworks, but they were singular enough to stand out from the herd. And the works here were definitely born of a herd mentality.

It was not unexpected, then, that the latter part of the show downplayed painting in favor of Duchampian gimcrackery. Indeed, the viewer may well have concluded that still-life painting all but disappeared around the mid-century mark. (One might conclude that Americans created little significant art before 1950 as well, but this is a longstanding shortcoming of the MOMA mindset.) Postwar still-life painting was, in all likelihood, neglected because it isn’t sufficiently “transgressive,” an unfortunate and trendy term that finds its way into the catalogue numerous times. But “Objects of Desire” was a case study in how little transgression counts in terms of art. Is Allan McCollum’s installation of oversized knickknacks, Perfect Vehicles (1988–89), really of greater aesthetic merit than, say, the still-life paintings of William Bailey, an artist whose work was conspicuously absent? There is more art in a square inch of one of Bailey’s paintings than is to be found in the entire still-evolving oeuvres of the “avant-garde” con artists included here. If Rowell had been less prone to postmodernist fashion and more attuned to the eye that delighted in Composition with Two Typewriters, this might have been the event it was intended to be. Instead Objects of Desire was an altogether happier experience traversed backwards and, for those masterpieces found toward its beginning, worth a visit anyway.

© 1997 Mario Naves

Originally published in the September 1997 edition of The New Criterion.


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