January 09, 2011

What's On at MoMA

It's that odd time of year in the museum calendar - the time when the autumn shows are over but the winter shows have not yet opened. Fortunately there is one New York museum where visitors can still see some excellent special exhibitions as well as a fabulous permanent collection - The Museum of Modern Art.

On view since October 2010 but running through April 2011 is the astonishing exhibition "Abstract Expressionist New York". Culled entirely from the Museum's own collections, the 200 works on view present the best of the best of this very important 20th Century movement.

In the 1940s and 50s, American artists sought to find a new, independent voice in the face of the destruction of the World War II and the dominance of European masters. The contemporary art world was a different scene then. It comprised a very small and tightly knit group of artists, collectors, galleries and museums - a far cry from the "industry" we now associate with the field. The tiny band of artists we now classify as the Abstract Expressionists, in their efforts to change the culture and thereby the world, are largely responsible for this evolution in the way we "consume" art.

For the first time New York became the center of the art world and with it a revolution in the way art was created. Each of these post war artists, Jackson Pollack, Mark Rothko, Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, David Smith, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell - to name just a few, expressed him or herself in a totally unique way. There is no common thread to their work except for the pursuit of something new, forceful, urgent and revolutionary, something to make a fresh start for civilization as they knew it.

This is a rare opportunity to see an entire floor of MoMA given over to one particular movement. The sheer size and superb quality of the collection is amazing. My jaw dropped when I walked into a gallery filled with Pollack's signature drip paintings and then another with ten of Rothko's luminous color works. Even the most jaded museum goer couldn't fail to be impressed!

Moving upstairs to the sixth floor we find "On Line" a look at the medium of drawing and how it has transformed through the ages. Now this may not seem very exciting as an exhibition topic, but the curators have managed to imbue the old-fashioned idea of pencil and paper with a whole new life. Organized chronologically in three sections, we begin with the early 20th Century and "Surface Tension" with a focus on the flat plane, to "Line Extension" where the line extends beyond flatness into real space and becomes three-dimensional, and ends with "Confluence" where line and background are fused and the line is pushed into our world. Sound confusing? Well, it is a little abstract but the exhibition is beautifully presented with excellent examples and the whole thing makes sense when you are there!

People have been communicating through drawing since early times, but the early 1900s saw an interest in a simplification of drawing - an exploration of the potential of what a line could convey. In 1910 the Futurists achieved expression of speed and motion on a flat surface through the use of the line. The Cubists and the Constructivists sought to break down imagery to its barest elements - again using the line to explore form and space. As this investigation continued, artists expanded to instilling a third dimension into the plane - a cut in the canvas, a form made out of metal wire, a construction made of string. With the end of the century approaching, the study expanded to truly three dimensional, often large scale work. The line, in the forms of sculpture, landscape, canvas and video, become part of our lives - the grid of interdependency, the intersection of surface and space, past and present, art and life.

After the intensity of this dialogue about lines it was refreshing to come across a performance piece on the the Museum's second floor. For a limited time visitors can enjoy Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla in "Stop, Repair, Prepare: Variations on Ode to Joy for a Prepared Piano". Conceived in 2008, the act comprises a grand piano with a hole cut out of the center through which a pianist leans out and plays upside down and backwards the Fourth Movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Sound like fun - it is! And the perfect coda to a marvelous afternoon at the Museum of Modern Art!

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