Saturday, January 8, 2011

Abstract Expressionism at MoMA

Abstract Expressionism at MoMA
When MoMA first opened its dramatic new building by Yoshio Taniguchi, a new hanging of the collection, and most of all, new entry fee of $20 in 2004, I was curious to see if the world would think it a place worth visiting. I don’t think I have ever seen such hoards of people at a museum: last week MoMA felt more like a football stadium in Germany than home to modern American art. Clearly, the makeover has achieved its desired goals. With a week in New York, and that week being when everyone else had a week in New York, I didn’t have the luxury of visiting the Abstract Expressionism exhibition at a quieter time, and so I dived into the masses and soldiered forward to some of America’s greatest paintings with heads in my way, surrounded by tourists absurdly posing for the camera in imitation of the paintings, and screaming babies. I didn’t stop long, I couldn’t, given the theme park conditions. However, even in these less than desirable viewing conditions, I chose a few select paintings to stand before, and to pay homage to extraordinary images that, in spite of the challenges in viewing them, are still somehow able to envision the world from a perspective I had not yet considered. This, even though, none of the paintings was I seeing for the first time.

I will not say much about the exhibition itself, as I was not entirely convinced by MoMA’s apparently undiscerning attribution of “Abstract Expressionism” to the entire corpus of American art of the 1950s, from Rothko, to Pollock, to Newman, and even to Harry Callahan’s photographs, to Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns. Each of these artists would rail against the categorization of Abstract Expressionist, a resistance that does not, in itself disqualify the attribution. However, in the case of these masterpieces, I do find it more productive to see them as working on canvases that are unique, yet somehow connected to the explorations of each other. To call them Abstract Expressionist is to elide most of what is exciting, and to dull all that is breathtaking about these paintings.

Robert Motherwell, Elegy to the Spanish Republic, 108, 1965-67
I will say, however, that the exhibition is mindboggling. It is mindboggling for the sheer number (and size) of the works on display, but unlike every other blockbuster, all of the work is taken from MoMA’s permanent collection. And so we walk from a room full of Warhols to a room of Newmans to a room of Pollocks with de Koonings, Klines, Motherwells generously scattered throughout. Where else, but MoMA? If for no other reason, seeing the enormity of the museum's postwar American art collection on display like this, is an incredible experience. And beyond the scale of the exhibition, even though I have been visiting MoMA and looking at these paintings for nearly 20 years now, to be in their presence once more, to be reminded how much they are now a part of who I am, provides such pleasure that the crowds cease to exist and the frustrations of MoMA dissipate. Everytime I see these paintings, I am made a more humble, wiser, more compassionate person.

And because I have too much to say about the paintings, because they are worthy of more than a cursory glance, you can read more in the next blog!

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