Saturday, August 15, 2015

Day 3: The Museum of Modern Art

The Museum of Modern Art had two important special exhibits the day of our visit: a retrospective for Yoko Ono and the 'Migration Series' of Jacob Lawrence.

Yoko Ono, b. 1933—One Woman Show

Born in 1933, Yoko Ono is a multimedia artist who is known for her work in avant-garde art, music and filmmaking. She was born in Tokyo, but during her youth her family lived in San Francisco and New York alternately with Tokyo according to the demands of her father's work as a banker. When she was 18 she settled in Greenwich Village and got involved with the most unconventional artists, musicians, filmmakers, and performance artists. Her work took so many forms that it is difficult to characterize, but iconoclasm seems to be her basic theme: break up all the old ideas, focus on new values. She was inspired by Dada, sort of an anti-art movement, in which creative people strove to find novel and unexpected ways to express their ideas. Her most famous early work was a performance from 1964 called "Cut Piece," in which she sat impassively while members of the audience snipped off pieces of the suit she was wearing.

Yoko Ono, b. 1933
iPad shot of film "Cut Piece," 1964

In 1966 Ono was a rising young artist aged 33, with two husbands behind her, when she met John Lennon, a megastar of the English rock band the Beatles, who was aged 26 and married. Coming from totally different worlds, the two seemed to hit each other with gale force. They began collaborating creatively and in 1969 they were married. They were constantly in the news. They made a sort of performance out of their lives by staging kinky events that gained them huge publicity. For instance, they spent their honeymoon in Amsterdam campaigning for peace with a week-long Bed-In. Their relationship upset the creative balance among the members of the Beatles. Lennon was putting his energy into projects with Ono, and they formed their own band, "The Plastic Ono Band." The couple both appeared nude on the cover of their first album, an image that is still shocking.

The Plastic Ono Band
Album cover for 'Two Virgins,' 1968

Their relationship was tumultuous, and they were in the news all through the 1970s. They had a son, Sean, and Lennon retired from music to be a full-time parent. Ono and Lennon separated flamboyantly and reunited with fanfare. They were living together in New York, and Lennon had just finished recording a comeback album, when he was shot in the back at the entrance to his apartment. Ono withdrew from the art scene for several years, but eventually she got together another band and started making recordings. She is also very prominent at major Peace Demonstrations, and stages her own events in support of Peace. Lastly, she promotes Lennon's legacy.

This exhibit, called "One Woman Show, 1960-to 1971," covered a limited period in her career, from age 27 to age 38. The most obvious example of an impulse to turn the art world topsy turvy is this work from 1971, which is attached to the floor. Some people walk right over it without noticing that it is supposed to be a work of art.

Yoko Ono, b. 1933
Painting to be Stepped On, 1961

She placed very high value on the sky as something eternal and shared by all, so she created a machine to sell the sky, or at least cards with the word 'sky' in her own handwriting. While the sky seems to be available to all, in fact it is in short supply in a city of skyscrapers.

Yoko Ono, b. 1933
Sky Machine, 1961/1966

In the Dada art movement, there was a sort of tradition of isolating some commonplace object and calling it art. In 1917 Marcel Duchamp famously presented a urinal as a sculpture. He later presented a bicycle wheel and a bottle rack as art. In this spirit, Ono declared an apple, and the organic process of ripening and rotting, to be a work of art.

Yoko Ono, b. 1933

In a challenge to games of warlike competition, she created an all-white chessboard. She might have been saying, "If there are no differences between you, there's nothing to fight over." People do try to play chess with this set, or one like it, but it requires cooperation to remember which person made which move, and eventually the players must give up.

Yoko Ono, b. 1933
White Chess Set, 1966

When she was left suddenly by a lover, she created a room in which all the objects had been sawn in half. She felt like half her life or half of herself had been cut off. She said, "We're all just halves, anyway."

Yoko Ono, b. 1933

Her works were many, varied, and frequently shocking, or at least disorienting. Viewing this exhibit definitely expands your consciousness. For this show, she created a new site-specific installation. It consisted of a slightly wobbly spiral staircase to a platform to a skylight with a view of the sky, or at least the skyline.

Yoko Ono, b. 1933
To See the Sky, 2015

Skyline of New York City
from viewing platform of To See the Sky, 2015

Jacob Lawrence

Like Yoko Ono, Jacob Lawrence was a great artist whose work was under-appreciated. As an African American, his story was considered marginal to the mainstream history of American art, as determined by a narrow-minded coterie of white critics and academicians.

His great innovation was the series: panel paintings that tell a story, usually an episode in African American history. We've had the opportunity to see three of these series this year. In the spring, the Cantor museum at Stanford had his eye-opening series telling the Legend of John Brown. The Whitney Museum had his War Series in their opening exhibition. The Museum of Modern Art exhibited his entire Migration Series, called "One-Way Ticket," which covered the huge migration of African Americans from the rural south to the urban north that started around 1915. This is a series of 60 small egg tempera panels on composition board. It was completed and exhibited in1941, when Lawrence was 23. It gained attention immediately, with both MOMA and The Phillips Collection vying for ownership. In the end, one museum got the 30 even-numbered panels, and one got the 30 odd-numbered panels, a great abuse since Lawrence considered all 60 panels to be part of one work of art, and worked on them all at once. We had seen both parts of the series at the separate institutions, but this exhibit brought all the panels together so they could be seen in order.

The series starts with an extensive analysis of the reasons black people left their homes in the south. These are just a few of the reasons.

The Negroes were given free passage on the railroads which was paid by
Northern Industry. It was an agreement that the people brought North on
these railroads were to pay back their passage after they had received jobs.

Many left because of great floods that ruined the crops,
and they were unable to make a living where they were.

Another cause was lynching. If there was a lynching, people who were
reluctant to leave at first, left immediately afterward.

Next he showed what kinds of work black people did up North.

The Negroes that had been brought North worked in large numbers
in the steel industry.

They also worked in large numbers on the railroad.

He then portrayed some of advantages of life in the North.

In the North the Negro had better educational facilities.

In the North the Negro had freedom to vote.

But the situation was not ideal.

They also found discrimination in the North
although it was much different from that which
they had known in the South.

In many cities in the North where Negroes had been
overcrowded they attempted to spread out. This resulted
in many race riots and bombings of Negro homes.

It was very engaging to study this work as a piece.

African-American Masters

To complement the Jacob Lawrence show, there was a small collection by other African-American artists.

William H. Johnson, 1901-1970
Farm Couple at Work, 1942-44

Romare Bearden, 1911-1988
After Church, 1941

Charles White, 1918-1979
There were No Crops This Year, 1940

Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1960-1988
Glenn, 1985

Women Painters

In the 20th century the Museum of Modern Art was widely condemned for ignoring women artists. They were just continuing the assumption of most major museums that women could not make significant contributions to the history of art. In recent years they have been making some effort to compensate. By presenting the Yoko Ono exhibit, they were doing something they should have done decades ago. Here's a selection of paintings by women that we saw there. The level of innovation is quite bold.

Katherine S. Dreier, 1877-1952
Abstract Portrait of Marcel Duchamp, 1918

Alexandra Exter, 1882-1949
Theatrical Composition, c. 1925

Lyubov Popova, 1889-1924
Painterly Architectonic, 1917

Alice Neel, 1900-1984
Kenneth Fearing, 1935

Frida Kahlo, 1907-1954
Fulang-chang and I, 1937

Dorothea Tanning, 1910-2012
On Time Off Time, 1948

Helen Frankenthaler, 1928-2011
Jacob’s Ladder, 1957

Women Sculptors

Women made very inventive and assertive sculptures in the 20th century.

Louise Bourgeois, 1911-2010
Quarantania, I, 1947-53

Meret Oppenheim, 1913-1985
Object, 1936

Ursula von Rydingsvard, b. 1942
Bent Lace, 2014

Icons of Modern Art

The reason the Museum of Modern Art is so crowded all the time is that it has some of the most famous paintings in the world. In fact, the crowd of people trying to take selfies with van Gogh's The Starry Night was so dense that I didn't even bother with it. Here's a selection of the Biggies.

Paul Gauguin, 1848-1903
The Seed of the Areoi, 1892

Piet Mondrian, 1872-1944
Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942-43

Pablo Picasso, 1881-1973
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907

Marc Chagall, 1887-1985
I and the Village, 1911

René Magritte, 1898-1967
The False Mirror, 1928

Salvador Dalí, 1904-1989
The Persistence of Memory, 1931

Andrew Wyeth, 1917-2009
Christina’s World, 1948

Other Favorites

The most popular works aren't always the best works, or the works that any particular viewer likes the best. Here's a selection of other works I admired.

Paul Cézanne, 1839-1906
The Bather, 1885

Giacomo Balla, 1871-1958
Street Light, c. 1910

Paul Klee, 1879-1940
Cat and Bird, 1928

Pablo Picasso, 1881-1973
Girl before a Mirror, 1932

Umberto Boccioni, 1882-1916
Dynamism of a Soccer Player, 1913

Giorgio de Chirico, 1888-1978
Gare Montparnasse (The Melancholy of Departure), 1914

George Grosz, 1893-1959
The Poet Max Herrmann-Neisse, 1927

Men Sculptors

A few sculptures by men caught my attention.

Here are two of the ordinary objects presented as sculpture by Marcel Duchamp that set a precedent for Apple by Yoko Ono.

Marcel Duchamp, 1887-1968
Bicycle Wheel and Snow Shovel, around 1913

Two works separated widely in time associated women's heads with insects. In this piece by Dalí, the bust of a mannikin is surmounted by a long baguette and adorned by ears of corn, treating women as something to be consumed. The figures on the inkwell are giving thanks for their daily bread, and a swarm of ants is making a picnic of the face.

Salvador Dalí, 1904-1989
Retrospective Bust of a Woman, 1933

A contemporary sculptor made an even more direct statement. The head of this reclining nude is an actual live bee hive, with actual living bees swarming around hungrily. Is it about woman as an object of consumption? Is it about the importance of bees to the ecology? Is it saying a woman's mind is busy like a swarm of bees?

Pierre Huyghe, b. 1962
Untitled (Reclining Female Nude), 2012

Another contemporary sculptor had an important statement to make about conflict. He made two pairs of figures, locked in eternal conflict, like the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Thomas Schütte, b. 1954
United Enemies I, 2011
Thomas Schütte, b. 1954
United Enemies I, 2011


MOMA has an unbeatable collection of early modern masters, and they are making a serious effort to keep up with the times, while maintaining a high level of quality.