Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Current MoMA exhibits worth seeing

Since Spring semester has come to a close and I'm pretty much settled in my new apartment on the Upper East Side (still need curtains and more decorations on the walls, but that's another matter), I've had lots of free time on my hands. True, I should probably be looking for a job, but with the 3.94 GPA I've been maintaining I'm convinced a job will just make my grades and my work suffer. However, knowing that I'm starting summer session in less than a week and will probably be working on stuff for my design class at a computer all day instead of enjoying a day in the park has served as a great motivator for me to get out and do things! The Met has a killer Francis Bacon retrospective that's up for quite some time that I've already been awed by, and MoMA has all sorts of exciting exhibits to kick off a summer full of culturally-stimulating events and works. I'm pretty upset that I've almost completely missed the Cruel and Unusual Comedy series that focuses on different socially charged aspects of silent slapstick comedy such as racial issues, violence, and the treatment of children and animals, but my visit today more than made up for what I missed. The MoMA is six floors full of awesome so I didn't get to see all the new exhibits, but one of the (few) perks of being a New School student is free admission to the museum any time of any day, so I'll just have to make another trip some time soon. What I did get to see, however, especially in the photography section, made me completely nerd out with glee.

Polish Posters 1945-89
Hidden in the Architecture and Design Galleries with the product design pieces, 3rd floor
(Up through January 11th, 2010)

I was honestly expecting a lot more in terms of quantity, but the small corner exhibit of 30 or so prints made in Poland (that took the place of George Lois' Esquire covers exhibit) were all quite impressive in their own way. Characteristically expressionist and most of them quite surreal or abstract, the majority of these prints, most of them made by four artists, were made in Cold War-era Poland, a country which the exhibit cites as being the most free of Soviet-imposed power of all the Eastern Bloc countries and therefore the most devoid of artistic censorship. All of these brightly colored images were used on either book jackets or on film, opera or theater posters to announce a performance or showing of a particular piece. The poster above, "Ksiadz Marek (Friar Marek)" was a piece made by Roman Cieslewicz in 1963 for a play to be performed in Poland that same year. Ranging from graphically simplistic in the genre's inception to gruesomely detailed and disturbing in its later works (see Andrzej Pagowski's "Psie Serce (Heart of a dog)", 1982, below), every one of the posters was visually stunning or moving in its own way. I would have liked to see more description of the individual artists, and overall I don't think enough space was devoted to these pieces. Especially after being so impressed by the Met's British Prints (1914-1939) exhibit back in October and know what sort of memorable impact extensive wall literature and descriptions and ample space can bring to a themed exhibit, I was expecting a bit more. But, as I suppose it is with every building, space is a premium in New York City, even at the Museum of Modern Art.

Into the Sunset: Photography's Image of the American West
3rd Floor at the back of the long corridor
(Up through June 8th, 2009)

Featuring photographs ranging from daguerreotypes of gold miners in the 1850s to color prints from as recent as 2007, the focus of this exhibit was on the usual, unusual, commonplace and hidden lifestyles of the American West in all of its glory: beauty, repetition, degradation, suburban banality, and a richness of the rural. Photographers such as the well-known Cindy Sherman (featured above, Untitled Film Still #43, 1979) and Lee Friedlander were sprinkled throughout the exhibit, which danced between black and white, muted sepia and rich, large scale color prints. Some of the photographs products of personal endeavors, others WPA-era government-funded projects, the exhibit was held together quite nicely by the common themes of desert scenes of sparse nature, portraits of working (and unemployed) men and women, stages of progression of the once untouched land (one six-image series shows the steps of development of a planned housing community in Lakewood, CA) and counter- or sub-cultural figures such as Hell's Angels members, native Americans, Las Vegas prostitutes or suburban families.

I mentioned above that some of the things I saw today made me "nerd out". A certain 1872 Albumen silver print of Yosemite by none other than Edweard Muybridge, in particular, was the one image made me squee a little inside. Here was one of the fathers of the moving image, one of the men who aided in the invention of the motion picture camera, one of the geniuses who was fundamental in the art which I have studied so intently and lovingly for the past five years, just casually hung next to other Albumen prints like he was just one of the many who was taking landscape photographs during the 1870s. In effect, he was just one of many, but he was definitely the only one who was hanging on that wall at the MoMA who took a bet that same year as to whether or not a horse in full gallop completely left the ground, leading him to be one of the first to experiment with human and animal locomotion through the medium of photography, eventually causing him to be known as the certifiable "grandfather of the motion picture". As I stood in front of this image, I looked shifty-eyed from side to side, wondering if anyone else in the gallery knew how special this photograph was. Sure, it wasn't of a horse; it wasn't even of anything in motion, just a fairly serene, peaceful landscape with trees and water and mountains. But this photograph had a special celebrity aura to it, a certain draw that none of the other photographs in this exhibit had. Based on your knowledge of film history or the amount that you even give a hoot, this photograph might easily go unnoticed among the dozens of photos throughout the four room exhibit. But if you do find it, please take a minute to look at it and think about the hands, and the eye, who thought of capturing and therefore created that image. Yes, I was starstruck by a mediocre photograph from the 1870s by a dead guy who basically invented the filmic process. Big huge nerdy nerd. Right here.

Tangled Alphabets: Leon Ferrari and Mira Schendel
6th Floor at the top of the escalator
(Up through June 15th, 2009)

Leon Ferrari (Untitled, 1962, is pictured above) and Mira Schendel, both of Latin American heritage, are a bit like Picasso and Braque. I would assign the role of Picasso to Ferrari and Braque to Schendel, mostly because I think that Ferrari was far more evolutionary, experimental, and daring than Schendel, and also broke the mold of his early work, branching out into multimedia territory with far more comfort than his contemporary. Please don't think that I am comparing Ferrari and Schendel's artistic talents to that of the two Cubists; I am simply using them as a comparison of contemporaries with similar incipient visions.

I understand why the two were put in the same exhibit, and it is important that one sees the similarities between their works: both artists integrated language, the cosmos, and religion into their pieces, but the first two categories are really where the most similarities lie. Some of their pieces, much like Picasso and Braque, can be shown side by side and, without wall descriptions, the artist will certainly be completely indiscernible. There are very few works between Ferrari and Schendel that hold that many visual similarities, especially when one moves from their work with letters and blank space to their depictions and statements of religion. Simple graphic elements, letters, and shapes almost always presented with minimal color, Schendel's style remains virtually unchanging and consistent throughout her career, even when she was attempting to make statements on religion. Some might see Ferrari's religious work as heavy handed, but it's just as thought-provoking as Schendel's pieces, most of which as up for differing interpretations.

As with my relationship and feelings about Picasso, I was more impressed with the breadth and visual style of Ferrari than I was with Schendel. Including more color and detail (two visual elements that are consistently compelling for me, no matter what the genre), Ferrari's early work can be described as a series of ink scribbles that experiment with depth and the structural elements of the alphabet and language. Ferrari even went to lengths to construct his own alphabet, complete with icons both language- and image-based.

His series "Rereadings of the Bible" was probably the most imposing yet astounding of the work from his twilight years, taking Catholic figures and placing them in scenes of violence (atomic bombs, missiles, war) and sex (images from the Kama Sutra) to create something that was "not anti-religious art but art that [was] against repression, torture, and power." Creating a collage of sorts, these stood out among the myriad sculptures, paintings, prints, and illustrations to be my favorite of Ferrari's work in the exhibit. I wouldn't mind, however, staring for hours on end at one of his scribbled pieces like the one I've pictured above. So much detail for things only the artist can fully understand...

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