Tag Archives: The Museum of Modern Art

“Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Round So Our Thoughts Can Change Direction” at The Museum of Modern Art, New York

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Francis Picabia, Autoportrait (Self-portrait) (1940), oil on board, 22-7/16 x 17-11/16″; Collection Lucien Bilinelli, Brussels and Milan

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“Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Round So Our Thoughts Can Change Direction” makes the twentieth century seem very small. At least that’s the observation I came to upon exiting MOMA’s sizable retrospective of paintings, drawings, collages, and ephemera by the self-described “beautiful monster.” The exhibition begins with early forays into Post- Impressionism, and follows with a succession of catch-as-catch-can styles: offshoots of Cubism; diagrammatic paeans to the machine; obtuse riffs on Ingres; a louche Suprematism; absurdist experimentations in film and theater; “monster” couples rendered in gloss and globs; Biblical imagery applied in washy overlays; oil-on-canvas appropriations of nudie magazines; and abstractions that are all thumbs, scrabbled surfaces, and graffitied genitalia. There are additional byways: out-of-left-field pictures of clowns, The Spanish Revolution, Gertrude Stein, and Marlene Dietrich. What really counts is how art and culture, and with them the sweep of history, are rendered frivolous: trifles on the way to oblivion. Individual works of art are less important than the individual himself. How could the twentieth century not take a backseat to, in Picabia’s estimation, the “only complete artist”?

Organized by MOMA’s Anne Umland and Catherine Hug of the Kunsthaus Zürich, “Our Heads Are Round” showcases an artist for whom the adjective “mercurial” could have been coined. Picabia (1879–1953) took a proud and perverse pleasure in being impossible to pin down. In the standard tellings of Modernism, Picabia is listed somewhere alongside Surrealism and Dada; certainly, his contrarian wit is in keeping with the nose-thumbing antics of the latter. Still, even a quick jaunt through MOMA reveals that Picabia was (to paraphrase Groucho Marx) incapable of belonging to any anti-art club that accepted him as a member. Though he had ties to Dadaist circles in Paris, Zürich, and New York City—among Picabia’s confidantes were Paul Éluard, André Breton, and Marcel Duchamp—petty politicking among the group’s members prompted him to jump ship. “I was feeling stifled among them . . . [and] terribly bored.” Picabia formed “Instantism” as a response, but the one-man art movement was little more than a jape. Besides, Picabia knew which way the Dadaist wind blew. The movement, he predicted, “will live forever! And thanks to it, art dealers will make a fortune.”

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Francis Picabia, Minos (1929), oil, watercolor and pencil on wood, 59 x 37-3/16″; Collection Gian Enzo Sperone. Courtesy Sperone Westwater, New York

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Picabia could afford to be flighty. His father was a Cuban-born descendant of Spanish nobility; his mother a scion of the French upper-classes. Between the sugar interests of the former and the successful mercantile family on his maternal side, François Marie Martinez Picabia y Davanne grew up in, and sustained, a life of affluence. The young Picabia was encouraged in art by his parents and proved precocious in talent and chutzpah. As a child, he forged the family’s art collection, subsequently selling the originals and replacing them with his own copies. And no one noticed. So the story goes, but it’s best to take Picabia’s sundry anecdotes, aphorisms, and pronunciamentos with the requisite grain of salt. His was a temperament forever on the lookout for preconceptions to be thwarted and standards overturned; critical approbation was much desired. Known for throwing lavish soirées and indulging in mistresses, Picabia traveled widely but ultimately stayed close to home; he died in the Paris house in which he had been born. Not long before the end, Picabia quoted Nietzsche: “Where art ends . . . I am the poet of my own life.”

It is Picabia’s capricious brand of poetry that is being touted at MOMA, and in no small way. Writing in the catalogue, Umland heralds the “discordant” nature of Picabia’s work and how it “challenges distinctions between good and bad, progressive and regressive, sincerity and parody, high art and kitsch.” Before you go asking just when the shopworn notion of “challenging distinctions” will be permanently excised from the curatorial handbook, take heed of how Picabia’s varied output is “congruent to . . . our hierarchy-exploding digital age.” (In this regard, “Our Heads Are Round” continues in the theoretical footsteps of “Forever Now,” MOMA’s misguided attempt at tapping into the technological zeitgeist.) There can be no doubting the reach of Picabia’s this-that-and-the-other-thing aesthetic amongst contemporary artists. The world-weary pasticherie of the ’80s art star David Salle is inconceivable without the example of Picabia’s “transparencies,” and any provocateur with the savvy both to manipulate and to flatter a paying public can count this consummate gadfly as spiritual kin. Picabia’s “irresistible, unruly, noncomformist genius,” we are told, “offers a powerful alternative model” for artists in the here-and-now. Powerful the model may be, but is it impolite to ask if the model is at all good?

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Francis Picabia, Udnie [Young American Girl; Dance] (1913), oil on canvas, 114-3/16 x 118-1/8″; Centre Pompidou, Paris

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“Our Heads Are Round” is an attempt at promoting Picabia up the totem pole of great artists in the cause of revamping the Modernist “narrative.” As played out in the catalogue, the chief obstacle and villain in this scenario is Pablo Picasso. Once MOMA’s poster boy, the Spanish master is now being placed in direct opposition to Picabia—the upshot being very much in the latter’s favor. “Old-fashioned” Pablo, don’t you know, “believed in his . . . godlike ability to reimagine the world.” Picabia, by contrast, put up the good fight by being bad, upending his gifts so that we attention-deprived denizens of the twenty-first century could feel better about our lowered expectations. What Umland and Hug miss (or ignore) is that arrogance comes in an assortment of flavors. Pissing away one’s talent in the cause of nihilistic hijinkery connotes its own peculiar kind of “godlike” virtuosity. And Picabia did have talent. Take into account Udnie [Young American Girl: Dance] and Edatonis [Ecclestiastic] (both 1913), monumental canvases that propel Cubism into a realm so allusive, muscular, elastic, and funny that they still startle. One can’t help but wonder if the crowning audacity of these encompassing masterworks spooked the artist. Easier to take the low road than risk anything quite so heroic again; better to fail by design than to come by it honestly. After this masterful one-two punch, “Our Heads Are Round” traces forty circuitous years of squandered promise. What a long and pointless trip it is.

© Mario Naves 2017

This review originally appeared in the February 2017 edition of The New Criterion.

Francis Picabia and “The Neurasthenia of Peculiar Obsessions”

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Self-Portrait inside Danse de Saint-Guy (1919)

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My review of “Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Wrong So Our Thoughts Can Change Direction”, a retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art, is scheduled to appear in the February 2017 edition of The New Criterion. In the meantime, here is a review of I Am a Beautiful Monster, a compilation of Picabia’s writings, originally published in the January 22, 2008 edition of The New York Observer.

The Dadaist painter Francis Picabia (1879-1953) went through life with no shortage of self-generated noms de plume. To name a few: funny guy, imbecile, pickpocket, failure, cannibal, silly willy and “the only complete artist.” He signed off as “Napoleon,” “Saint Augustine” and “The Blessed Virgin.” Anyone familiar with Dada will recognize its nose-thumbing esprit in Picabia’s absurdist designations.

Picabia considered himself the first Dadaist. He was an indispensable component of Dadaist cliques in Paris, Zurich and New York. Marcel Duchamp was a friend, as was Guillaume Apollinaire; the poets Tristan Tzara and André Breton were like-minded anti-aesthetes and eventual nemeses; and the poet Paul Eluard, a founder of Surrealism, was a fan: Picabia, he wrote, was a “divine Marquis de Sade.” New Yorkers know Picabia as the painter of I See Again in Memory My Dear Udnie (1914), a staple of the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection.

I Am a Beautiful Monster, a new compilation of Picabia’s writings, displays a man of infuriating contradictions—an obtuse, belligerent, radical, reactionary, strangely lucid and sometimes hilarious gadfly. Luckily, translator Marc Lowenthal has done a superlative job of placing Picabia’s writing in historical and artistic context. Arranged chronologically, I Am a Beautiful Monster follows Picabia through his early involvement with, and ultimate abandonment of, Dada.

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Francis Picabia, Tableau Rastadada (1920), cut-and-pasted printed paper on paper with ink, 7-1/2 x 6-3/4″; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art

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Picabia’s proclamation that “M. Picabia Separates From the Dadas” was spurred, Mr. Lowenthal informs us, over a disagreement between various members as to whether a lost wallet should be returned to its owner. Breton wanted to keep it; Eluard disagreed and returned it anonymously, heightening tensions within the group. Picabia gleaned from this encounter Dada’s “departed spirit.”

Picabia’s pre-Dadaist poetry is all jagged rhythms, haphazard juxtapositions and little punctuation. He fares best when keeping things short. But for every light and lovely homage to Apollinaire, there are a half-dozen fragments like this: “From fortune-tellers of syphilis/ This superstition in the statistics of progress/ Brings bayonets to full strength/ In the language of unpleasant roads.”

Picabia does come up with some striking turns of phrase—“the neurasthenia of peculiar obsessions” is good; “The desire to be placid in love/ Is a veritable sex crime” is better—but poems they’re not.

The doggerel continues through the Dadaist years, but gains momentum and focus. The sprawling “Jésus-Christ Rastaquouère” is, in Mr. Lowenthal’s opinion, Picabia’s “most accomplished literary work.” Despite its title, the closest Picabia’s tract comes to heresy are a few nettlesome sentiments—“Only the Jews are really energetic,” say, or “GOD WAS JEWISH/ HE WAS CONNED/ BY THE CATHOLICS.”

Elsewhere, you’ll find oddball commentary on art world eminences: Fernand Léger “declares that one must always have a foot in the shit.” Picasso was “very eighteenth century, must be completely fed up, French guy.” In “Manifesto of the Dada Movement,” you can feel the rush of an artist temporarily on the side of history: “YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND WHAT WE’RE DOING DO YOU. WELL DEAR FRIENDS WE UNDERSTAND IT EVEN LESS THAN YOU DO.”

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Francis Picabia, Self-Portrait (1920-24), India ink and pencil on paper, 23 X 16 cm.; courtesy Hauser & Wirth

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“Anti-Dada, 1921-1924” is the most vitriolic chapter. “I parted from certain Dadas because I was feeling stifled among them … [and] terribly bored.” Its “spirit only existed for three or four years, it was expressed by Marcel Duchamp and myself.” (Duchamp was one of the few people who escaped Picabia’s ire.)

Picabia’s short-lived movement, “Instantism,” was little more than a satiric broadside at Dadaism. He makes a stunningly prophetic statement: Dada “will live forever! And thanks to it, art dealers will make a fortune.”

Other than “Chi-Lo-Sa,” wherein Picabia shamelessly cribs from Nietzsche for a string of fortune-cookie nostrums, the later and posthumous writings are notable mainly for sharp flashes of impenetrable wit: “Humor is the cannibalism of vegetarians.” But if history does remember Picabia the man of letters at all, it will be for the aphorisms.

Littered throughout I Am a Beautiful Monster, they are sometimes mordant—“Every conviction is an illness”—and often laugh-out-loud funny: “To those talking behind my back: my ass is looking at you.” “Morality is ill disposed in a pair of trousers.” “Parisians ruin the French.” “If you read André Gide aloud for ten minutes, your breath will stink.”

During “Dada Cannibal Manifesto,” a performance in the early 1920’s, André Breton wore a sandwich board with text by Picabia: “IN ORDER TO LOVE/ SOMETHING YOU HAVE TO/ HAVE SEEN AND HEARD IT/ FOR A LONG TIME YOU BUNCH OF IDIOTS.” The invective here was directed at the bourgeoisie. It would, in time, encompass Picabia’s feelings about his former partners in nihilism.

I Am a Beautiful Monster traces a fascinating trajectory of artistic belief. Biographers and historians will gobble it up. The rest of us will leave it on the bookshelf, read, if at all, in bits and pieces. Still, we’ll be glad to know it’s there.

© 2008 Mario Naves

Cosmopolitan Primitive: The Art of Joaquin Torres-Garcia

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Joaquin Torres-Garcia, Construction in White and Black (1938), oil on paper mounted on wood, 31-3/4″ x 40-1/8″; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art, NY

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The following review was originally published in the July 26, 1999 edition of The New York Observer and is posted here on the occasion of “Joaquin Torres-Garcia: Arcadian Modern” at The Museum of Modern Art.

The Uruguayan painter Joaquín Torres-García (1874-1949) is an artist whose work has not been much in evidence in New York in recent years. For those of us who have been brought to a standstill by the cursory picture found in group shows here and there, the fact that Torres-García’s work has been consigned to the storage racks of our cultural institutions is frustrating.

Almost as frustrating is the mini-retrospective of his works-on-paper currently at Cecilia De Torres Ltd. This is not to say that the exhibition, which serves as a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the artist’s death, contains negligible works of art. Quite the contrary: There’s a lot to delight the eye in this handsome and heartfelt show. It’s frustrating in that the exhibition whets our appetite for a more comprehensive overview of the oeuvre. For what is in evidence is an art that is simultaneously modern and, if not quite anti-modern, then deeply nostalgic for the primordial. That it is so without overt contradiction makes Torres-García an all the more intriguing figure.

Although Torres-García was born and died in Uruguay, his formative years as an artist were spent abroad in a fairly discontinuous manner. Following the trajectory of the drawings included in the exhibition, one sees him traveling from Barcelona to New York to Paris to Montevideo and to Madrid. (He spent two years in Italy as well, a sojourn not documented in this show.) In Barcelona, he assisted Antonio Gaudí, and in New York he enjoyed the patronage of Isabelle Whitney.

 TG #2Joaquin Torres-Garcia, Construction (1931), mixed media; photo: Thomas Griesel; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art

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In 1926, Torres-García settled in Paris and met up with a veritable who’s-who of Modernism: Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Juan Gris, Hans Arp and Sophie Tauber-Arp, Jean Hélion, Julio Gonzalez (a friend from Barcelona) and, most significantly, Piet Mondrian. Torres-García’s signature pictographs owe much of their organizing structure to the rigorous neo-plasticism of the Dutch master.

Torres-García’s constructivism was less pure than Mondrian’s and given to pan-cultural symbolism. A wide variety of artistic and cultural motifs–from African masks to Greek amphoras, from the art of Northwest Coast Native Americans to the Eiffel Tower–informs his pictorial vocabulary. Torres-García’s compositional armatures serve as cubbies within which abbreviated, linear symbols are stacked and packed. That architectonic framework takes on the character of a beehive–efficient, busy and dense.

The artist’s iconography is concise and snappy, reflecting his love of the high-end cartoons he discovered while living in New York. Although those emblems carry specific correlatives-in Tradíción (1936), one sees Torres-García graphing out his artistic philosophy–one doesn’t necessarily have to read each piece as a kind of cosmological rebus. His pictures, by turn whimsical and stoic, add up as art even if we remain unsure of their ultimate meaning.

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Joaquin Torres-Garcia, Constructive with Four Figures (1932); photo by Pablo Almansa; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art

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Torres-García’s universalist diagrams, with their melding of the modem and the mythic, bring to mind the stirrings of the New York School. A small pencil drawing, ca. 1937-38, could well be the blueprint for Adolph Gottlieb’s series of pictographs. Of course, there was always something a bit phony about Gottlieb’s primitivist longings and there was, one gathers, a modicum of self-delusion to Torres-García as well. Here, after all, was a worldly and sophisticated man who claimed to be “a primitive.” His paintings, however, transmute such incongruity into an earthy and engaging vision.

“The artist,” wrote Torres-García. “is a moral being.” Such an axiom may seem naive to us today, but that says more about our own culture than it does about Torres García’s encompassing and humane art.

© 1999 Mario Naves

 

 

“The Forever Now” at The Museum of Modern Art

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Charlene Heyl, Carlotta (2013), oil, synthetic polymer paint and charcoal on canvas, 6’10” x 6’4″; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art

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I met a sculptor for coffee recently, and the subject of noteworthy exhibitions came up for discussion—as it invariably does for artists working in New York City. The inescapable show on the agenda was “Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs” at the Museum of Modern Art. Yes, the show was a blatant sop to the box office, but the French master’s late manner is among the most sumptuous achievements of twentieth-century art, and MOMA did Matisse proud, crowd control and all. Woe betide the seventeen artists included in “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World,” an exhibition sharing the museum’s sixth floor with “The Cut-Outs.” My sculptor friend observed that these painters must be humbled by having their work adjacent to that of Matisse. How could any serious artist not be? After visiting “The Forever Now,” a different question demands to be asked: Are the featured painters even capable of recognizing Matisse’s greatness? Their art is, on the whole, absent the rigor, clarity, and joy inherent in even the least of the collages. A better title for the mish-mosh that is “The Forever Now” might be “Dazed and Confused” or, given that it follows on the heels of “The Cut-Outs,” “Buzzkill.”

That isn’t what Laura Hoptman and Margaret Ewing, respectively the Curator and Curatorial Assistant of MOMA’s Department of Painting and Sculpture, would like us to believe. “The Forever Now,” they insist, captures a moment in which our cognizance of history has been transformed beyond understanding, largely because of the internet. “What characterizes our cultural moment,” Hoptman writes, “is the inability—or perhaps the refusal—of a great many of our cultural artifacts to define the times in which we live.” Atemporality, a phrase coined by the science-fiction writer William Gibson, denotes a world in which history has been rendered static and diffuse through technological advances. “The atemporal song, story, or painting contains elements of history but isn’t historical; it is innovative but not novel, pertinent rather than prescient.” Utilizing the “connoisseurship of boundless information,” the curators posit the atemporal aesthetic as optimistic, a “hopeful, even invigorating quest . . . [for] a broader, bolder notion of culture.” The irony the curators miss (or ignore) is how temporal their ideas are. The exhibition has hardly been mounted and it already feels out of date.

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Joe Bradley, Man Made Dirigible (2008), grease pencil on canvas, 5′ x 8′; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art

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“The Forever Now” is MOMA’s first overview of contemporary painting in thirty years. (That it’s taken the premier museum of modern art that long to get its act together vis-à-vis the artform is its own disheartening statement.) The curators are desperate to prove painting relevant by top-loading it with up-to-the-moment nomenclature and references. Scan the catalogue and wall labels; you’ll come across a daunting amount of heady thinking and sweeping statements. Were you aware that we collectively suffer from “teleologically programmed brains” or that zombies “are perfect embodiments of the atemporal”? The latter is a telling and trendy ploy. Rather than stick their necks out to prove that painting continues to be a viable means of artistic expression, the curators provide themselves with an out. The dead-but-alive trope is beyond convenient, allowing for wiggle room in which to hedge bets about the choices that have been made. Forget William Gibson: the real inspiration here is Vladimir Botol, the Slovenian author who coined the phrase “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” So much for connoisseurship and optimism. “The Forever Now” is an unwitting exercise in, you know, whatever.

Of course, any institution attempting to provide a coherent overview of a cultural moment is asking for trouble, and, in that regard, Hoptman and Ewing should be cut some slack. Who doesn’t want to grab a handle, any handle, in these slippery times? Forget artists; everyone is alternately entranced and befuddled by our technological moment. It’s not so much that history is in flux—come on, history is always in flux—but that its reach has become so encompassing and immediate. In a world overrun by virtual imagery, it’s little surprise that makers of pictures and objects have become antsy, looking over their shoulders lest the tide passes them by. This doesn’t mean, however, that an overweening degree of self-consciousness—the chief characteristic defining “The Forever Now”—qualifies this-or-that painter as an oracle or mirror. How does “squatting in [the] foreclosed real estate” of art history qualify as a peculiarly contemporary phenomenon? With the exception of our forebears painting on the cave wall—who, after all, started the whole thing from scratch—artists of every epoch have relied and thrived on the fluidity of history. Sure, the world was once a smaller place. But to conclude that its increasing rapidity and breadth put a stop on culture is to indulge in a short-sighted brand of historical arrogance.

116441Laura Owens, Untitled (2013), Flashe paint, synthetic polymer paint and oil stick on canvas, 11’5-3/8″ x 9’7/8″; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art

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Then again, perhaps MOMA’s crystal ball is clear in its reflections. If so, our permanent future is blatantly second-hand. Pastiche is the coin of the realm. The artists included in “The Forever Now” can’t see a hard-won individual style for a distracting grab-bag of visual tics. Slacker professionalism is the atemporal rule. Josh Smith has nothing to paint about so he paints everything, including rehashes of Neo-expressionism which was enough of a rehash the first time around. Joe Bradley’s scrawled stick figures make Jean-Michel Basquiat look like Michelangelo; Laura Owens employs Photoshop as a means of resurrecting Abstract Illusionism—you remember, the floating brushstroke school of painting long consigned to the dustbin of kitsch. Oscar Murillo is, I am told, the artist of the moment; the expert riffs on Rauschenbergian assemblage take second place to his unstretched canvases piled on the floor, through which viewers are welcome to rifle. Such gimmickry is typical, and connotes nothing so much as a loss of scope and invention. The lone exceptions are Amy Sillman, Mark Grotjahn, and, maybe, Charlene von Heyl and Michael Williams, each of whom possesses an engagement with the medium that hints at some kind of forward momentum. How well they’ll follow up on it remains to be seen, but, in at least this one pivotal respect, their work exposes the ready-made obsolescence at the core of “The Forever Now.”

© 2015 Mario Naves

This review was originally published in the March 2015 edition of The New Criterion.

This Just In . . .

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. . . from the custodial staff at MOMA/P.S.1

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Art Amnesty
October 26, 2014–March 8, 2015
Courtyard and 2nd Floor Main Galleries

LONG ISLAND CITY, NY, September 12, 2014—MoMA PS1 presents Bob and Roberta Smith’s Art Amnesty from October 26, 2014, to March 8, 2015.

Bob and Roberta Smith are issuing a call to Artists. Pack it in. Bob and Roberta Smith are delighted to offer an Amnesty for your Bad Art. Turn in your brushes and video cameras. Hand in your chisels and marble.

Bob and Roberta Smith are offering an opportunity for artists to dispose of their artwork at MoMA PS1, and to retire from making art. Beginning October 2, artists are invited to deposit their art in dumpsters located in the museum’s courtyard, which will be emptied as needed throughout the period of the Art Amnesty. Those who wish to exhibit their work one final time before it is destroyed may bring their art to the 2nd Floor Main Galleries, where museum staff will install it for public view. The museum will accept work under the Art Amnesty during regular hours, subject to certain restrictions that will be published at momaps1.org. The exhibition reprises and expands upon their Art Amnesty originally presented at Pierogi Gallery in 2002.

As part of the Art Amnesty, the Smiths will also make available a pledge form at the museum that can be signed by any artist or member of the public: I PROMISE NEVER TO MAKE ART AGAIN. Those who commit themselves will receive an official I AM NO LONGER AN ARTIST badge designed by Bob and Roberta Smith, and shall be invited to create one final drawing for inclusion in the Art Amnesty gallery exhibition, using materials provided onsite. Those wishing simply to discard a work will be asked to sign a pledge that reads I NEVER WANT TO SEE THIS WORK OF ART AGAIN.

While the Art Amnesty provides an occasion for artists to clear out their studios, it also serves other needs. Those who have been the victims of gifts of art, for example, are invited to dispose of these unwanted aesthetic presents at the museum. And as the Smiths note, “Many successful artists have recently voiced embarrassment that their work commands high prices. Artists may also use the opportunity of the Art Amnesty to expel certain works of art from the art market and demote them to objects unburdened by grand expectations and dashed dreams.” The Smiths will be the first to contribute to the Art Amnesty, discarding a batch of work previously exhibited in New York.

The Equal Opportunity Aesthete: Sigmar Polke

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Sigmar Polke, Mao (1972), synthetic polymer paint on patterned fabric mounted on felt with wooden dowel, overall: 12’3″ x 10’3-1/2″; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art

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A version of this article originally appeared in the May 3, 1999 edition of The New York Observer and is posted here on the occasion of Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010 at The Museum of Modern Art. Additional thoughts about Polke can be found here.

It’s been said that anyone approaching the contemporary art scene, with its bewildering array of styles and attitudes, should do so with an open mind. All the same, there are events so incredulous that one is reminded of the old joke about the guy who was so open-minded his brains fell out. Such is the case with Sigmar Polke: Works on Paper, 1963-1974 at The Museum of Modern Art.

It should be understood that Mr. Polke (born 1941), a German artist who came of age during the 1960s, is considered one of the era’s defining figures. Not every painter is feted with a show at the premier museum of twentieth-century art, as well as concurrent exhibitions at prestigious galleries like Michael Werner and Knoedler & Company. Such treatment signals an artist of import, one whose fans are vocal and effusive. Peter Schjeldahl, art critic for The New Yorker, posited Mr. Polke as “the artist who rescued painting”. Margit Rowell, chief curator of drawings at MoMA and organizer of Works on Paper, declares in the accompanying catalogue that Mr. Polke’s art “regenerate[s] the language and meaning of Western artistic experience.” In The New York Times, Roberta Smith peppered her review with adjectives like “astounding” and “engrossing”.

Polke 2Sigmar Polke in the Eifel Mountains of West Germany, 1993; photograph by AVN and courtesy The Museum of Modern Art

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Given the earth-shaking tenor of such kudos, you might think that Mr. Polke’s accomplishment stood alongside that of the Old Masters. Ms. Rowell does go on to suggest that Mr. Polke is, in spirit, a late 20th-century equivalent to Hieronymous Bosch. Now, Bosch painted his share of fantastic scenarios, but even these are prosaic compared to the huzzahs that have greeted Mr. Polke’s trifling art. The Polke phenomenon, if we can call it that, is the most recent manifestation of hero worship in an art world that worships the anti-heroic.

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Sigmar Polke, Moderne Kunst (1968); courtesy the Estate of Sigmar Polke/Artists Rights Society, NY/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

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Mr. Polke culls his images from commercial illustration, movie posters, newspaper photographs and comic books. When he’s not aping mass media sources, Mr. Polke flirts–or maybe “toys” is a better word–with modernist abstraction. He’s an equal opportunity aesthete: Kandinsky and kitsch, Spider-Man and Lee Harvey Oswald, it’s all the same to him. A cursory appropriator, Mr. Polke is incapable of investing an image with pictorial heft. (The MOMA show features innumerable drawings that aspire to doodle status.)

His sensibility, shaped by Pop Art and a lax nihilism, is shapeless–a non-sensibility. He’s an artist for whom art is a diversion. That the work is bereft of anything resembling traditional draftsmanship is, if we are to believe his devotees, a badge of honor–a neo-Dadaist strike against, well, whatever. Ms. Rowell writes that Mr. Polke “accorded himself a freedom from all authority except that of his own will.” Exactly. This show documents the numbing delusions of narcissism.

© 1999 Mario Naves

“Jasper Johns: Regrets” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York

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Jasper Johns, Regrets (2013), oil on canvas, 67″ x 96″; courtesy the Museum of Modern Art

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A regular Vanity Fair column is the “Proust Questionnaire,” wherein a celebrity is asked a range of questions, the answers to which are presumably revealing if not exactly Proustian in length: Tidy quips are the norm. (The column takes off from a questionnaire Proust filled out as a precocious fifteen-year-old.) A few years back, Jasper Johns, the man who “changed the course of American painting,” was asked to participate. His answers were laconic, bemused, and without grammatical niceties like punctuation and uppercase letters. When queried as to what form he would prefer to take upon being reincarnated, Johns replied: “must I decide before I die.” Some of the replies were telling. What is your greatest regret, Mr. Johns? “An absence of clarity.”

Now we have “Jasper Johns: Regrets” at the Museum of Modern Art, an exhibition devoted to the artist’s recent efforts. That’s right: Johns’s drawings, prints, and paintings have bypassed the commercial gallery scene and been deemed “museum-ready” by no less an authority than The Behemoth of Fifty-third Street. Given Johns’s reputation and, lest we forget, the astronomical prices his work fetches at auction, how could MOMA not glad-hand the status quo? Johns is, after all, a lynchpin of the standard telling of twentieth-century art. Along with his neo-Duchampian comrade-in-arms Robert Rauschenberg, he provided the transition between Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, between serious (if often overblown) attempts at tapping into the unconscious to the canny (if sometimes perspicacious) coopting of mass media.

Much has been made of the exhibition’s title-conceit and Johns’s age. How might the notion of “regret” inform the work of an eighty-three-year-old artist? Mortality and retrospection can, of course, filter their way through art. The dearth of color at MOMA intimates gravity: Gray is the rule. The source material for the new work—a circa-1964 photograph of the British painter Lucian Freud—can lead to conjecturing about how one blue chip painter considers another. But Johns is less interested in Freud—whose psycho-sexual riffs on nineteenth-century figure painting have little in common with neo-Dadaist bromides—than the photograph itself. Having been recovered from Francis Bacon’s notoriously ill-kempt studio, John Deakin’s picture is folded, spindled, and mutilated beyond repair. For Johns, the Freud portrait is like a target or a can of Savarin coffee—a peg on which to hang, and merely hang, paint.

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John Deakin, Photograph of Lucian Freud (circa 1964), gelatin silver print with paper clips, 12-11/16″ x 12-11/16″ x 9/16″; courtesy the Museum of Modern Art

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Deakin’s photo is included in “Regrets,” along with two sizable oil paintings by Johns, a dozen studies on paper, a suite of etchings, and a series of monoprints based on numeric stencils—the latter being the only works that don’t explicitly refer to the Freud picture. I say “explicitly” because you never know with this artist. Johns says he regrets an absence of clarity, but it’s long been his stock-in-trade. Johns’s vaunted artistic strategy—“Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.”—is cited early on in a wall label. As a corrective to the hairy-chested mythopoeia of the New York School, Johns’s deadpan pedanticism presented a tongue-in-cheek alternative. But it proved no less resistant to formula than the umpteenth de Kooning knock-off. Over the years, Johns has finessed his approach through the inclusion of myriad biographical, cultural, and historical reference points. Not, however, by artistic means. Johns has trod the same sludgy ground since a dream prompted him to paint the American flag almost sixty years ago. His art has gone nowhere. Jasper Johns has been ever thus.

In most of the new work, Johns creates a mirror-image of Deakin’s photo, wherein a sizable tear at the bottom left is transformed into a centralized, monolithic form that is then topped by a skull. Freud—seen in a seedy bedroom, his face hidden by a fleeting gesture—is all but obliterated by marks that emphasize shape and material at the expense of recognizability. A range of materials is employed in delineating this superstructure—most agreeably with ink on plastic, most lugubriously with oil on canvas. In Study for Regrets (2012), the phrase “Regrets, Jasper Johns” is rubber-stamped in the upper right-hand corner. (Johns had the stamp fabricated well before conceiving the work in the current exhibition, in order to make short shrift of the myriad requests and invitations he receives.) This trope appears on a larger scale in the paintings, and its execution is just as second-hand: The phrase comes courtesy of a screen print. Elsewhere, we see Johns scribbling notes alluding to The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, and, in a welcome burst of color, an untitled watercolor is accented with saturated reds, blues, and yellows—a palette reminiscent, in no small way, of MOMA’s very own Map (1961), a signature Johns image.

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Jasper Johns, Untitled (2013), watercolor on paper, 22-1/4″ x 31″; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art

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Count all of the above as signposts of master painters long gone (Goya), recently gone (Freud and, tangentially, Bacon), and still with us (Johns). But, really, who cares? Aesthetic engagement is prompted by an artist creating a compelling, absorbing, undeniable, and, not least, available fiction. How convincingly this is put into motion depends on a bewilderiing number of factors, primary among them formal control, material command, and a willingness to let the audience enter into the work—to share the vision. Johns’s art is confounding in that it trades in a stunningly willful brand of obfuscation. It doesn’t even allow the courtesy of a “my way or the highway” option. There is no way with Johns. Each of his abstruse rebuses is a calculated rebuff to anyone not clued into their byzantine minutiae. It’s enough to make you think that art is a mummified parlor game masquerading as intellectual provocation. Given Johns’s current stature, a lot of people, many of them influential, are content with that idea. Now that is something to regret.

© 2014 Mario Naves

This article originally appeared in the May 2014 edition of The New Criterion.

“Gauguin: Metamorphoses” at The Museum of Modern Art

Gauguin

Paul Gauguin, Tahitian Woman with Evil Spirit (c. 1900), oil transfer drawing, 22-1/16″ x 17-13/16″; courtesy a Private Collection and The Museum of Modern Art

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An assignment I give my students at Pratt Institute is to make a list of ten artists whose work they dislike or don’t understand. The lesson is intended to generate discussions about artistic merit, the quiddities of taste, and (as one young wag put it) “walking a mile in Jeff Koons’s shoes.” Koons has topped these lists for some time, as have others of neo-Duchampian ilk. The original Duchampian, Marcel, pops up regularly, as do sundry Minimalists and a number of abstractionists—usually under the rubric of “a kid could paint that.” A frequent figure on these pedagogical hit lists is Paul Gauguin (1848–1903). Surely there are artists more deserving of undergraduate ire than the French Post-Impressionist? It turns out Gauguin is admonished for a number of things: arbitrary color choices, an inconsistent navigation of pictorial space, halting draftsmanship, ungainly surfaces (Gauguin preferred working on coarsely woven canvases), and cultural naiveté—the whole “primitivist” excursion to Tahiti.

It’s tempting to dismiss Gauguin’s inclusion to a youthful lack of sophistication, but even sophomores are right sometimes. Gauguin is a nettlesome figure and, as such, an artist deserving of skepticism. It was, I believe, the British painter and critic Patrick Heron who dubbed Gauguin a “great bad painter”: an acknowledgment of Gauguin’s primacy as Modernist antecedent—Fauvism is inconceivable without his example, as is Expressionism—while intimating the limitations of his accomplishment. You can chalk up Gauguin’s failings to his being self-taught—the paintings are rarely fluid in their depiction of the human form—but this likely made him less skittish about taking pictorial liberties, particularly with color. (A surfeit of chutzpah didn’t hurt either.) The Museum of Modern Art’s first monographic exhibition dedicated to Gauguin, “Gauguin: Metamorphoses,” offers contemporary audiences an opportunity to commune with this frustrating and vital figure.

Just don’t expect a full retrospective. Like the Magritte exhibition MOMA mounted last fall, “Metamorphoses” is selective in its purview. A handful of paintings—some of them iconographic, a few rarely seen—are on view, but Gauguin’s works on paper, especially his prints and transfer drawings, predominate, with three-dimensional pieces in wood and clay providing a notable backdrop. Did the current vogue for inter-disciplinarity inspire the decision to highlight Gauguin, the man of many mediums? Whatever the case, the results are scholarly and often bracingly intimate. While MOMA’s claim that Gauguin “more than any other major artist of his generation . . . drew inspiration from working across mediums” is curatorial hype—you’d think these folks had never heard of Edgar Degas—still, the exhibition does make an “arguable” case for Gauguin’s “innovative” approach to working on paper. As laid out at MOMA, Gauguin’s experiments in woodblock printing are considerably more evocative than the signature works on canvas.

Gauguin #2Paul Gauguin, Nave Nave Fenua (Delightful Land): From Noa Noa (Fragrance) (1893-94), woodcut printed in color on wove paper, line in silk; 13-3/4″ x 8″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Museum of Modern Art

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Paper, because of its immediacy and relative disposability, encourages spontaneity. The second-hand nature of printmaking, though bound to technical rules of process, has a similar propensity. Gauguin’s initial forays into the latter, a series of zincographs titled The Volpini Suite completed in 1889, are clubby in approach and not altogether convincing in their stylizations of form. All the same, they have an engaging story-book quality that mitigates their shortcomings. Woodcut lent itself more readily to Gauguin’s vision. Its graphic character endowed his distortions of form with structural rigor and allowed for elisions of mood that rendered Gauguin’s romanticism palatable. Not that Gauguin was a printmaking purist; far from it. The centerpiece of “Metamorphoses” is a series of prints titled Nave nave fenua (Delightful Land) (1893–94), wherein the image of a “Tahitian Eve” is seen in four states and a number of variations. Part of their allure can be traced directly to Gauguin’s willingness to give anything a try in terms of inking, color, and detail. MOMA’s inclusion of the original woodblock is an enlightening grace note—offering insight into the printmaking process, as well as providing stark evidence of the artist’s hand.

Woodblocks for other prints are included as well, and do Gauguin the sculptor no favors. The block for Nave nave fenua has a sculptural integrity missing from Eve with the Serpent and Other Animals (ca. 1889), an oak carving hobbled by an unrelenting lack of malleability. Time hasn’t been kind to Gauguin’s sculptural homages to Tahiti. At this date, his totems and reliefs come off as ethnographic kitsch. The lumpish Head with Horns (1895–97), a beast-like effigy that may be a self-portrait, doesn’t rise to the occasion of generic folk art. Gauguin’s appropriation of stylistic motifs native to Tahiti are just that: appropriations. There’s no reinvention, just brute imitation. Gauguin’s ceramics are marginally better: Cup Decorated with the Figure of a Bathing Girl (1887–88) has a lovely, lilting rhythm. Even so, it can’t touch the eerie atmosphere that accrues in Gauguin’s watercolor monotypes and oil transfer drawings, the latter of which is a process that can be likened to carbon copies. Lightness of touch isn’t something we necessarily associate with this artist, but there’s a ghostly ease to Marquesan Landscape with Figure (1902) and the everyday reverie that is Two Tahitian Women with Flowers and Fruit (ca. 1899), a fragmentary scene of harvesting. Paper, in Gauguin’s case, engendered poetry. “Metamorphoses” contains not a few moments of unalloyed beauty.

Gauguin

Paul Gauguin, circa 1891

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What about Gauguin the self-proclaimed savage, the man who quit his job as stock-broker and abandoned his family in the hopes of accessing “authentic” reality in Tahiti? Notwithstanding “The Primitivist’s Dilemma,” a blandly lugubrious catalogue essay by Hal Foster, Gauguin’s role as “cultural interloper” is underplayed. A degree of political correctness informs “Metamorphoses” but doesn’t define it. If there’s one Herculean task MOMA has accomplished, it is in downplaying this most arrant of egotists. The myth Gauguin manufactured around himself will remain potent, no doubt; myths have a way of sticking around. But the exhibition’s emphasis on the particularities of technique and how they bolster vision puts the spotlight squarely on art. Which proves that an institution as fraught with contradictions, prone to fashion, and obsessed with box office as the Museum of Modern Art can still deliver the goods. “Metamorphoses” is a reminder that a trip to 53rd Street need not be a duty; that it can, in fact, be a pleasure, a necessity, and a treat.

© 2014 Mario Naves

This review was originally published in the April 2014 edition of The New Criterion.

“Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926–1938” at The Museum of Modern Art

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René Magritte, Clairvoyance (1946), oil on canvas, 54.5 x 65.5 cm.; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art, New York

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The most damning criticism of Surrealist art is also the most ironic given its source: the pioneering psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. After meeting Salvador Dalí, Freud stated that he found the Spaniard’s conscious mind of greater interest than his unconscious mind. Freudian theory was, if not the sine qua non of Surrealism, then an inescapable touchstone. His comment, then, was a veritable dismissal of Dalí’s attempts at tapping into “the mystery without which the world would not exist.” Dalí isn’t the whole of Surrealist art, of course, and shouldn’t be the gauge by which the genre is measured. But his example did come to mind while I was viewing Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926–1938, an overview of paintings and works-on-paper by the Belgian artist René Magritte (1898–1967). Both artists pursued a brand of Surrealism that rendered the bizarre plausible. There would be no plumbing the depths of the psyche through painterly means à la Miró and André Masson. Instead, dutiful attention would be paid to the concrete and recognizable, however unlikely, icky, or weird.

Magritte, like Dalí, achieved a fame that continues to extend well beyond the parameters of the art world. The Beatles based the distinctive logo for Apple Corps. Ltd., their multi-media corporation, on Magritte’s Le Jeu de Mourre (1966), and the iconic Man in the Bowler Hat has become a staple of popular culture, inspiring everyone from fashion designers to the creators of The Simpsons. But if The Mystery of the Ordinary proves anything, it’s that Magritte wasn’t Dalí or, for that matter, any number of lesser figures given to delineating portent-laden vistas inhabited by spooky goings-on. You don’t have to know that Magritte lived a life of bourgeois predictability to glean a welcome lack of flamboyance. It’s there to see in the work’s uneventful, even-handed craftsmanship. All the same, Magritte did put on a show. A drab hand had better hone his vision if he expects anyone to give it the time of day. Tightlipped absurdism was yoked to concise means. Magritte had his moments.

MOMA makes damned sure those moments set the tone. The primary reason The Mystery of the Ordinary succeeds is its focus: the twelve years during which Magritte created and refined his Surrealist “Lifeline.” “La Ligne de vie” was, in fact, a lecture delivered by the artist in 1938 at Antwerp’s Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunst. In it, Magritte traces his development as a “skeptical” artist who, having convinced himself to “live with danger”, sought to create art that “puts the real world on trial.” Though he lived almost another thirty years, Magritte pretty much concluded this “trial” by the exhibition’s end-date. From that point on, he became a painter adept at gratifying public opinion—Magritte the Brand. You can’t blame him. After years of hardship it’s difficult to resist the comforts renown can bring. (Though you can blame Magritte for the financial gains earned by forging paintings by Picasso and Renoir during the Nazi occupation of Belgium.) Still, those craving a Surrealism that retains its integrity could do worse than visit MOMA’s crowd-pleaser.

The_Menaced_AssassinRené Magritte, The Menaced Assassin (1927), oil on canvas, 59.2″ x 76.9″; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art

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The Mystery of the Ordinary begins with The Menaced Assassin (1927), a staple of the museum’s permanent collection, and culminates with On the Threshold of Liberty (1937), a monumental canvas in which the artist juxtaposes a cannon, poised to shoot, with an inventory of favorite motifs: the female nude, blue skies and idyllic clouds, a decorative paper cut-out, a verdant forest, and metallic spheres hovering in front of an array of vertical pipes. In between, there are signature pictures like The Lovers (1928), wherein a man and woman kiss between layers of fabric, Titanic Days (1928), Rape (1928), and The Treachery of Images (1929), or, as it is commonly referred to, “This is not a pipe.” A generation of art history students can attest to the revolutionary nature of the latter image—it questions, don’t you know, the nature of reality. At this late date, Magritte’s one-liner comes off as blandly tendentious. Tell us something we don’t know, René.

One-liners were Magritte’s specialty and he deployed a stockpile of ready motifs to create a deadpan sense of mystery—not quite poetry, but akin to it. Though he sought to make “everyday objects shriek aloud,” the appeal of Magritte’s art lies in its enveloping quietude, as well as a blunt tendency toward punning—take, for instance, the shameless nose-as-phallus trope in The Philosopher’s Lamp (1936). Clairvoyance (1946) is cute: Magritte is seen at his easel, observing an egg but painting a bird. Surrealism’s promise of liberating the viewer from the tyranny of rationalism is, here and there, fulfilled. Love Disarmed (1935) depicts a pair of women’s shoes in front of an oval mirror; reflected in the glass is the hair which streams from out of them. As an imagistic non-sequitur, the painting has a hypnotic appeal. It’s as creepy, if not as epochal, as Meret Oppenheim’s Breakfast in Fur (1936).

L'amour désarmé_Magritte_Love disarmed_1935

René Magritte, Love Disarmed (1935), oil on canvas, 72 cm. x 54 cm.; Private Collection

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An illustrator by trade, Magritte didn’t extend himself when putting brush to canvas. The requisite job and nothing more—technique wasn’t allowed to intrude on the artist’s dreamscapes. But neither were they endowed with life. Signs are designed, not to entrance, but to communicate effectively, and so it is with Magritte’s conundrums. Give him this much credit: Magritte did get better. The initial galleries feature canvases notable as much for an oppressive lack of tonal range as for their morphing bodies, fractured dioramas and enigmatic rebuses. Round about 1929, not a few years after arriving in Paris, the lights get turned on: The images become illuminated. Perhaps it was close proximity to the Surrealist group and crystalline artisans like Dalí and Tanguy that spurred Magritte’s art. Whatever the case, a consequent variability in value and an increased finesse in execution do much to end The Mystery of the Ordinary on a happy note. That Magritte filled out the rest of his life with more of the same constitutes a deflating artistic denouement MOMA spares us. For that we should be grateful.

© 2013 Mario Naves

This article originally appeared in the November 2013 issue of The New Criterion.

Visionary Excess: The Art of Edvard Munch

Edvard Much, Red Virginia Creeper (1898-1900), oil on canvas; courtesy Tate Modern

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This article was originally published in the March 12, 2006 edition of The New York Observer and is posted here on the occasion of Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye at Tate Modern (until October 14).

Here’s an ironclad guarantee: Visitors to Edvard Munch: The Modern Life of the Soul, an overview of paintings, drawings and prints by the Norwegian artist at the Museum of Modern Art, will snap to attention upon entering the second gallery of the exhibition.

The canvases that greet the viewer there—Despair (1892), Angst (1894) and Evening on Karl Johan Street (1892)—won’t necessarily be identifiable as individual pictures, though the latter two should be familiar to Munch aficionados. Rather it is their cumulative impact that rings a bell. Piece the paintings together—an undulating blood-red sky here, a gaunt figure there and a careening rush of space—and you essentially have The Scream (1893), Munch’s signature masterwork and one of the most widely recognized images in the world.

Is there anyone who hasn’t come across this painting reproduced in one form or another? Surely somewhere there’s an art history graduate student busy cataloging all the ways this stark vision of psychological terror has been co-opted. A purveyor of novelty items offers a life-size, inflatable version of Munch’s grimacing everyman—perfect for Halloween! A political button from 1992 asks the question “President Quayle?” with The Scream printed as a backdrop. The list goes on. The picture has become as enduring (if inadvertent) a popular symbol as the Pillsbury Doughboy or Andy Warhol’s Marilyn. Commercial culture, ever omnivorous, makes for strange bedfellows.

A measure of the painting’s hold on the imagination can be seen in its dramatic theft from Oslo’s Munch Museum in 2004. It has yet to be found (another version was stolen, then recovered, a decade earlier). Munch painted four variations altogether. The definitive one resides in the National Gallery in Oslo, an institution that is presumably unwilling to let it travel. Cultural patrimony is to be safeguarded, particularly if it involves a nation’s most significant painter.

In a recent news report, MoMA director Glenn Lowry pooh-poohed the absence of The Scream from their current exhibition, insisting that the curators never considered it indispensable. New Yorkers visiting The Modern Life of the Soul must settle for two lithographs of The Scream, one augmented with watercolor, along with the aforementioned rebus-like re-creation from three disparate canvases.

Edvard Munch, Ashes (1894), oil on canvas; courtesy Tate Modern

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All the same, the icon’s failure to appear does prove that Munch was no one-hit wonder. The Scream, however singular in terms of its reach, is just one part of the flow of anxiety that surges through the oeuvre. The Sick Child (1896), the hellishly erotic Madonna (1894-95), The Dance of Life (1899-1900), Vampire (1893), Red Virginia Creeper (1900) and, if you believe the curators at MoMA, Self-Portrait: Between the Clock and the Bed (1940-42)—each painting encapsulates the artist’s preoccupations with physical vulnerability, sexual avarice, emotional alienation and the futility of faith.

Munch’s work can seem prophetic. A line can be drawn from his nightmarish narcissism to Expressionist art, certainly, but also to a century preoccupied with Freudian theory and to contemporary figures like Matthew Barney and (I insist) Oprah Winfrey. Munch’s art helped to usher in a culture wherein an unapologetic celebration of self, however unsavory or amoral, is considered a societal good or, at least, a societal necessity. In this view of things, coherently realized artistic statements are hopelessly antiquated and beside the point. Self-expression is paramount, catharsis the goal. Letting it all hang out is Munch’s legacy.

Kynaston McShine, the exhibition’s curator, demurs. He argues for the universality of Munch’s art. “Through his own will and force,” Mr. McShine writes, “the narrative of Munch’s life and work somehow transforms his personal experiences into a far-reaching examination of … ‘the modern life of the soul.’” (The phrase is the artist’s own.) Yet how modern was Munch as a painter? He was knowledgeable about contemporary developments in art—Munch’s Impressionist pictures, though minor, aren’t unsophisticated. The later paintings, with their choppy, impatient brushwork, betray more than a passing acquaintance with the art of Paul Cézanne and the Fauves.

Yet the best work, dating largely from the 1890’s, draws its strength not from Munch’s sophistication, but from his remove from the radical artistic changes that came to be known as modernism. Isolation can limit an artist’s ability to channel tradition; it can make the work seem small or rootless. In Munch’s case, though, isolation was a boon—it compelled him to bring forth a world defined by its own cloistered logic. The resulting stylistic quirks are indelible and true.

Edvard Munch, The Sick Child (Fourth Version) (1907), oil on canvas; courtesy Tate Modern

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The land is morphing and liquid, the rhythms slow and agitated. Flesh is membranous and taut, as if it could barely contain the contents of the body. Shadows are rendered concrete. Color is reduced to a dour blur. Paint is slurred, wispy. The individuality of figures is subsumed by mood or symbolic portent. Metabolism (1899), with its cadaverous Adam and Eve, posits a world immune to good works. Fertility (1898) is a curse on spring, The Kiss (1892) a eulogy for love. The wonder of the paintings is not how effectively they embody dread, but how blithely they avoid looking ridiculous. Visionary excess, not pictorial skill, counts for a lot in them.

Munch’s paintings of the 20th century—and it is somewhat surprising to realize that he lived to 1944—form a disappointing coda to a decade that witnessed paintings as evocative as The Storm (1893) and Mystery of the Beach (1892). Indeed, modernism ruined Munch. The final galleries at MoMA overflow with the work of a 19th-century sensibility that couldn’t fully grasp the radical artistic transformations taking place around him. The results were a flurry of fractured surface effects and painterly affectations that fatally detract from the dark, unbounded poetry of Munch’s imagery.

The decline in pictorial authority is particularly telling in the part of the exhibition devoted to self-portraiture. Here the canvas isn’t a means for exploring the depths of character, but a mirror for preening. However spooked or existential he may appear, Munch the artist trumps Munch the human being. Display, not insight, is the chief attribute of these paintings.

You need only compare works like Self-Portrait in Bergen (1916) or Self-Portrait by the Window (c.1940) to almost any self-portrait by Max Beckmann or, especially, Pierre Bonnard to sense the emotional fraudulence and self-serving nature of Munch’s efforts in this vein. It is one thing to give body to ugly, confessional emotions. It is quite another to advertise them. Therein lies the distinction between Munch’s art of the 1890’s and the hasty pictures that followed in its long, all but negligible wake.

© 2006 Mario Naves