Baby boomers like myself used to have a hard time understanding what all the fuss over modernism was about.
After all, we had grown up at a time when Picasso-like abstractions decorated the covers of jazz albums and infants' toys routinely took the form of Calder mobiles.
It was difficult to imagine how shocking the works of Picasso, Matisse, Brancusi and Dali must have seemed to our parents and grandparents. For them, what critic Robert Hughes called the "shock of the new," was something outrageous, baffling, disturbing, even sick. For us, modernism was as familiar as an old shoe.
I suppose every generation deserves its own aesthetic comeuppance. So perhaps it's only fair that today many people who feel perfectly at home with modernism find the art of the last 20 years -- the contemporary art of our age -- to be outrageous, baffling, disturbing, even sick.
Remember how New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, for example, wanted to shut down the Brooklyn Museum of Art last year when it mounted a show of contemporary British works that included a shark pickled in a tank of formaldehyde, a portrait bust fashioned from the artist's own frozen blood and a painting of the Virgin Mary decorated with clumps of elephant dung? And who can forget the furor over Robert Mapplethorpe's homo-erotic photos, Karen Finley's chocolate-smeared nude performances and Andres Serano's crucifix submerged in urine? The fallout from those episodes nearly led Congress to deep-six the National Endowment for the Arts and cut off all federal funding for the arts.
It was as if, all of a sudden, baby boomers discovered that the "shock of the new" really was shocking.
This irony was on my mind last week when I visited the "Open Ends" show at New York's Museum of Modern Art, a loosely organized series of 11 exhibits of contemporary art covering the period 1960 to the present. This show is the third and final part of MOMA's monumental retrospective of the evolution of modern art from 1880 to the turn of the millennium.
We've already come a long way in assimilating the art of the first half of the period 1960 to 2000--- the soup cans and Brillo box sculptures of Andy Warhol, the comic-strip-inspired paintings of Roy Lichtenstein, the brooding, complex assemblages of Robert Rauschenberg and the austere minimalist sculptures of Donald Judd -- all prominently represented in the MOMA show.
Forty years of living with these artists have at least lent them the legitimacy of a certain grudging familiarity. People may still find them difficult and iconoclastic, but now we can also see the playful, whimsical aspect of the work that made it such a telling commentary on its time. No one any longer considers Pop Art a threat to the republic.
The art of the last 20 years is another matter, however. To our eyes, so close in time to the seismic upheavals that have transformed contemporary art and art-making, MOMA's most recent acquisitions can look like a hopeless hodgepodge with no common thread or unifying theme.
In an attempt to impose order, the curators have grouped works in terms of their relationship to earlier movements like Pop and minimalism or in relation to common strategies of execution.
So, for example, the "Sets and Situations" exhibition brings together the work of artists like Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons, Carrie Mae Weems and Philip-Lorca di Corcia, all of whom use photography to construct carefully staged situations that probe the social and visual boundaries between truth and fiction.
In one installation, the museum has presented all 70 or so of Sherman's groundbreaking "Untitled Film Stills" from the late 1970s, in which the artist casts herself in a variety of movie-inspired roles -- femme fatale, runaway, sex kitten, working girl -- that explore 1950s-era cliches about femininity.
Sherman's photographic fictions, which made her reputation in the early 1980s, were soon emulated by other artists, who used still camera images to question the conventional seeing-is-believing premise that had dominated the medium since its invention more than a century and a half ago.
The pictures of di Corcia, for example, superficially resemble the kind of journalistic, documentary photography routinely published in newspapers and magazines. But in fact all di Corcia's scenes are staged, using non-professional models posed in carefully selected settings.
In Carrie Mae Weems "Kitchen Table Series," the artist mimics the conventions of women's magazine illustrations to construct deceptively casual domestic tableaux that explore the pain and disillusionment of relationships between men and women.
Similarly, photographer Laurie Simmons employs miniature sets, figurines and dolls to portray dreamlike scenes of domestic interiors that convey a menacing aura of social and psychological entrapment.