1. “Picasso and American Art” (through Jan. 28, 2007) at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Picasso was the greatest artist of the 20th century. Or so I contend. One measure of his greatness, currently on display at the Whitney’s superb exhibition “Picasso and American Art” is as a vector of influence. “Picasso and American Art” chronicles and illustrates the dialogue – well, monologue and echo – between Picasso and the American modernist avant-garde. Through the visually obvious juxtaposition of works and historical reconstruction of the essential points of entry, contact, and exposure – Stieglitz’s 1911 one-man show at 291 devoted to Picasso, the Armory show two years later, a show in Brooklyn in 1921, and of course the signal purchase of Les Demoiselles D’Avignon (1907) by the Museum of Modern Art in 1939 – the exhibition showcases the centrality and ramified legacy in America of the Spanish artist who called Paris home. To some extent, the entire exhibition is synecdochic of the emergence of the American avant-garde from under the shadow of the European, the relocation of the art world’s epicenter from Paris to New York in the second part of the century, and the late-modernist usurpation of the painterly mode itself – this development spearheaded principally by Americans (Pollock, Rauschenberg, Johns, Warhol, et al.).
In describing the relationship between Picasso and his early American admirers, the word echo is technically accurate yet wholly inadequate and misleading. It fails to get at the richness of misinterpretation and experimental esprit that pervades these ‘imitative’ works. For instance, Max Weber (a mostly forgotten artist, not to be confused with the homonymous patron saint of sociology), combines elements from distinct phases of Picasso’s Cubism, analytic and synthetic, and abandons Picasso’s usual subjects of still lifes and all those seated women in favor of the city of New York itself; the subsequent works – fractured, confused, and brimming with an urban energy – bear witness to the rush to assimilate the latest European formalisms in the face of pressing American social realities.
While it is, of course, unsurprising that almost every subsequent painter has been influenced by Picasso (much like the literary non-shocker that Shakespeare influenced a bunch of playwrights), it is extremely interesting to see just how each painter has been influenced. The resultant show has the air of a modernist family reunion or a kind of Painters’ Festschrift. The attraction of “Picasso and American Art” lies not in dismissing each artist as a Picasso manqué, but rather in surveying a gallery of idiosyncrasies, creative misprisions, and variations on a theme. For some, such as Max Weber, the influence of Picasso was a powerful originary event implying his entire subsequent career. For others, for example Willem de Kooning or particularly Stuart Davis, Picasso was a lifelong force and creative forebear to be reckoned with. For yet others, such as Jackson Pollock and the wild Guernica-like style he adopted from Picasso, was merely an adventitious phase on the way to drip-painting and full-blown Abstract Expressionism. And for a few, e.g. Roy Lichtenstein, any engagement with Picasso was decidedly more on the order of divertissement than hommage. I regard Lichtenstein as the hero of this exhibition. Lichtenstein successfully incorporates the marquee artist into his own distinctive canon of slick, pulp-like Pop Art, and in so doing vis-à-vis Picasso he points out a condition of modernist obsolescence as recalcitrant as mortality itself: the eventual transmogrification of high art into mass art and of avant-garde iconoclast into pop icon.
Right now is an absolutely terrific time to visit the Whitney. If you go on Fridays between six and nine, admission is free, and the museum is overwhelmingly patronized by other young people. In addition to the floor-large exhibits “Picasso and American Art” and “Edward Hopper,” both featuring impressive collections of works intelligently put-together and informatively glossed, the rest of the museum contains the usual Whitney assortment of the profoundly weird, provocative, amusing, and clever. Finally, keep an eye out for a future exhibit (Nov. 2) devoted entirely to Josef Albers and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, which should be swell.
2. “Out of Time: A Contemporary View” (through April 7, 2007) at the Museum of Modern Art
There is tremendous potential in the goal this exhibition sets itself – namely, an exhibition devoted to the ways “temporality is manipulated in the contemporary world.” Unfortunately, this promising thematic is lazy and unfocussed. The works assembled are more interesting in spite of, rather than due to, their random aggregation by the Museum of Modern Art. In addition, a surfeit of gimmicky contributions from the likes of Jeff Koons, Mona Hatoum, and others mars a few otherwise excellent works on display. Apparently, the inspiration for the exhibition’s title was, “Like sweet bells jangled out of time, and harsh.”
The centerpiece of the entire exhibition is Andy Warhol’s landmark film Empire (1964), a black-and-white silent film lasting just over eight hours and containing only a single long shot of the Empire State Building from 8:06 PM to 2:42 AM one summer night. In addition, Warhol’s film is supposed to be projected at 16 fps (it was shot at 24 fps) speed to lengthen it even further. However, a baffling decision by the curatorial powers means that only a two-hour looped excerpt is being shown in the actual exhibition. More than forty years after the fact, it’s difficult to say what this enigmatic film is really about: the resilience of capitalism, or its sun-also-rises transience; a Romanticism of the skyscraper, or its subordination to nature; an encomium to the icon, or its painstakingly realist disenthrallment. Or perhaps something in between – a filmic comment on the precariousness of iconic existence itself; an anti-film deliberately thwarting and alienating its own viewers, or the absurd realization of Bazin’s filmic imperative that a film be the “mummification of time;” or is it a film whose subject is not the Empire States Building, but rather the dilatory passage of time, or perhaps even the visual articles due to dust and debris accreted on the celluloid? As Warhol himself would say, “Wow.”
Perhaps because film is a medium through time and photography one in time, the best works in the exhibition seem to be from these genres. A video installation by Pipilotti Rist, Eye is Over All, features two overlapping projections, slightly offset from the corner of a room, one of a rushing field of flowers abloom in soft focus and ever so aslant, another of a woman shod in ruby slippers swinging in slow motion a giant thick-stalked flower (nature symbol? phallic talisman?) into a succession of car windows as she bounds by them in bucolic glee. The total effect is anarchic, oneiric, and very beautiful. Another video installation by Bill Viola uses four projections of nudes floating underwater along with mirrors in a darkened room to create a womb-like atmosphere of floating limbs, weightlessness, and epidermal lustre. Rineke Dijkstra’s series of photographs captures the evolution of an adopted Bosnian girl from gamine refugee to entitled teenager, and from brunette to blonde.
Segueing from photography to the painting of photography, Gerhard Richter, not nearly as well-known as he deserves to be, is represented in this exhibition by his bleak, mournful work October 18, 1977 – a collection of fifteen photo-paintings depicting members of the Baader-Meinhof Gang, aka the Rote Armee Fraktion, a violent leftist group which carried out a number of kidnappings, bombings, and assassinations in Germany during the ’60’s and ’70’s. The titular date refers to the discovery of the apparent prison suicide of the remaining members. However, even students who flunked out of GER208 are aware that the suicide story is suspect: the government almost certainly killed them in retaliation. Richter’s unsettling photo-paintings recall certain black moments in Rembrandt’s self-portraiture. The hazy, blurred quality and murky darkness of these paintings encapsulate the epistemology and emotionality of all historical remembrance. Their unsettling portraits of smiling young terrorists remain a vital memento to social-historical unrest and an urgent impetus to discover what went wrong. After all, it’s not even past.
Don’t forget to head upstairs afterwards. A considerable portion of MOMA’s magnificent collection of modern art is on display, with sizable selections from Picasso, Ernst, Matisse, Delaunay, Léger, Klee, Kandinsky, Chirico, Miro, Magritte, Mondrian, Malevich, Newman, Giaocametti, Rothko, Pollock de Kooning, Rauschenberg, and Johns – to name a few. The sculpture garden – with Rodin, Calder, Maillol, and David Smith in evidence – aint bad either.