Exhibiting gratitude to Philip Johnson Devotion: The Museum of Modern Art in New York is showing some of the many works of art and design the architect has given it or helped it to acquire.

June 09, 1996|By Roberta Smith | Roberta Smith,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

If there has been one constant in the varied public life of the architect Philip Johnson, who is about to turn 90, it is probably New York's Museum of Modern Art.

His architectural style has shifted radically over the decades, from international style austerity to post-modern frivolity, to his current interest in non-Euclidian expressionist geometries.

His politics have also shifted, including a period of Fascist leanings in the late 1930s. Johnson has called this phase a mistake.

But Johnson's devotion to the museum -- which spans nearly its entire life and has included stints as department head, official architect and, since 1957, trustee -- has been relatively consistent and pure. It is fitting that the museum should express its gratitude with a handsome three-fold display featuring a selection of the many works of art and design that he has given the museum or helped it to acquire.

Reaching from seminal works of early 20th-century European design to major examples of American minimalism, pop and post-minimalism, with a pocket of French nouveau realism thrown in for good measure, "From Bauhaus to Pop: Masterworks Given by Philip Johnson" sums up both the considerable benefits of Johnson's dedication to the museum and not a little of its own history.

As the first director of the museum's department of architecture, from 1932 to 1934, Johnson helped transplant the modernist aesthetic of the Bauhaus to America, effecting the transfer with groundbreaking exhibitions like the one of international style architecture (a label he coined) that he organized with Henry-Russell Hitchcock in 1932 and, in 1934, "Machine Art."

This second show became the basis of the museum's design collection, which merged with the department of architecture in 1949, during Johnson's second tenure as head of the latter (1946 to 1954).

But Johnson also had a hand throughout the museum, helping to establish both its library and film department in the 1930s, designing its elegant sculpture garden in 1953 and, in 1963, its addition to the 1939 Goodwin-Stone building.

The exhibition often speaks more of a discerning interest in the latest thing than an assiduously developed personal taste, and not everything in it is of equal quality. But the totality is undeniably impressive, not the least for its scope.

It includes tubular steel furniture by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Marcel Breuer, as well as Gerrit Rietveld's classic "Red and Blue Chair"; stationery and collages by Kurt Schwitters, paintings by Philip Guston, Frank Stella and Andy Warhol and sculptures by Mark di Suvero and Richard Serra.

The display of Johnson's gifts to the architecture and design collection seems more personal and richly textured than that of his gifts to the department of painting and sculpture, and it would be great to see a larger exhibition examining his role in this area.

The final portion of the museum's homage to Johnson is the sculpture garden itself, which he was invited to reinstall with works of his choosing.

Interestingly enough, his selections predate the 1960s, when the American art scene boomed and scale became a primary fact of sculpture. Nearly everything he has picked is bronze, figurative and relatively modest in scale, including Giacometti's surrealist "Spoon Woman" and Max Beckmann's implacable bronze self-portrait bust, among several works rarely displayed in the garden before.

The arrangement gives one a fleeting glimpse of a moment when the museum was a small, homey place largely oriented toward European accomplishment; it's a fitting setting in which to consider the complex history conjured by Johnson's gifts.

"From Bauhaus to Pop: Masterworks Given by Philip Johnson" remains at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 W. 53rd St., in Manhattan, through Sept. 3.

Pub Date: 6/09/96

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