MOMA exhibit puts time out of joint

Review: In a whole new way of looking at modern art, curators put pieces together by theme, not chronology -- the better for visitors to grasp what different paths the various `isms' took.

January 18, 2000|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

From the vantage point of the end of the 20th-century, it is tempting to see the rise of modern art as an inexorable advance of clearly defined styles whose progress steadily evolved from more or less realistic representation toward increasingly abstract forms.

Starting with Impressionism and proceeding through post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Futurism, Surrealism and Cubism, the idea that modern art's origins can be accounted for by a chronological succession of stylistic "isms" is by now so ingrained in many people's minds that the results seem to have been almost preordained.

Of course, that is not how things happen, in art or in life, as a hugely ambitious retrospective now at New York's Museum of Modern Art seeks to demonstrate.

"ModernStarts," MOMA's year-long, three-part exhibition tracing the evolution of the modernist aesthetic, convincingly argues that what we think of as modern art owes its origins to no one style or movement but rather to a confluence of wildly diverse, often contradictory tendencies that in turn were themselves shaped as much by historical accident as by the profound social and technological changes that had transformed Western societies by the end of the 19th century.

Indeed, the show's evocative title, "ModernStarts," is partly intended to emphasize the idea that, in the words of the curators, "there is not just one modern start but many modern starts, [and] therefore many different versions of modern art."

To further drive home the point, the curators have opted for a highly unconventional organization of the material, abandoning the usual chronological survey for a thematic approach that groups objects under three broad categories: "People," "Places" and "Things."

Thus Picasso's savagely abstract "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" of 1907 appears in the same general grouping -- "People" -- as Eadweard Muybridge's pioneering photographic time-and-motion study "Man Throwing a Discus" (1887), Vincent van Gogh's expressionistic "Portrait of Joseph Roulin" (1889) and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's realistic portrait of "Mme. Lili Grenier" (1888).

To one accustomed to the rigorous intellectual chronologies popularized by scholars such as the late Alfred H. Barr, MOMA's first director, this juxtaposition may give the impression that the curators simply put all the museum's masterpieces in a pile on the floor, sorted them by subject, and threw them up on the walls.

And what masterpieces these are!

In the "Things" section of the show, for example, Paul Strand's 1915 photograph of earthenware shares space with Paul Cezanne's luminous "Still Life With Apples" (1895-98), Giorgio de Chirico's surrealistic "Song of Love" (1914) and Piet Mondrian's rigorously geometrical "Composition C" of 1920.

The Cezanne by itself could serve as the centerpiece of any exhibition of post-Impressionist art, while Strand's photograph reminds one anew that the ultimate recognition of photography as a fine art came about as the result of the efforts of men and women who unquestionably were staggeringly gifted with the camera.

Similarly, in the "Places" section of "ModernStarts," Gauguin's scenes from Pont Aven share pride of place with Edvard Munch's ominous landscapes and Lewis Hine's documentary photographs of child laborers in a Carolina cotton mill. These are vastly different types of works, yet united by their consistently high level of artistry and undisputed historical importance.

Though this is indeed an abundance of riches, on first sight the viewer may be forgiven for finding the underlying organizing principle behind such juxtapositions arbitrary, even idiosyncratic.

The museum's unconventional method turns out to have some unexpected advantages over the more usual chronological or stylistic narrative, however.

First, it reminds us, quite forcefully, in fact, that to audiences of its day, early modern art appeared not only as a rejection of the artistic values that had developed over the previous 400 years but also as a chaotic and bewildering eruption of works that seemed, at the time, to have no relationship whatever to the formal traditions of Western art since the Renaissance.

Today, of course, with the benefit of a century of hindsight, we can easily appreciate the formal and thematic debts owed by Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso and their contemporaries to the art that preceded them.

Yet by grouping objects according to subject rather than to chronology or style, the MOMA show's apparently haphazard organization actually succeeds in re-creating some of the sense of uncertainty about where things were headed that people of the late 19th and early 20th century surely felt.

Second, the show reminds us that the seemingly incomprehensible pluralism of art at the end of the 20th century is not so different after all from the situation that prevailed at the end of the nineteenth.

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