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|object fabulous, desire frustrated
by Suzaan Boettger
As its name suggests, the category of artistic subject matter called "still life" is like a freeze frame excerpted from the blur of existence. Still life painting captures the things of this world "dead on, " at point blank range, for viewers to forever scrutinize. Thus the French go so far as to call this genre of forever-stilled objects "nature morte." And the images that, since the 16th century, have included a skeletal skull, a smoking candle, a watch or flowers dropping petals to remind us of the brevity of life are described by the Latin term "vanitas." Scanning backward over artists' choices of objects worth rendering makes still life into a history painting of other eras' values, as well as a kind of religious painting of revered objects, a portrait of a society, or a landscape of the times. All these genres can coalesce in still life's fascination with material things.
All these potentialities of "still life" make the Museum of Modern Art's summer blockbuster, "Objects of Desire: The Modern Still Life, " both fabulous and frustrating. This major exhibition surveying artists' approach to this historic genre across the span of the 20th century could have been a contender in making sense of where we as a society have been and now are at -- one place of which is on the cusp of the millennium. But MOMA doesn't contextualize its shows by any reference to life outside the studio, maintaining the modernist charade that there is none. Instead the show is weighted toward early-20th-century style.
Thus the objects on view among the 130 paintings and sculptures by 71 artists are substantially those desired by MOMA's favorite sons, Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Duchamp, Miro and Magritte, and for the postwar period, Johns, Rauschenberg and Warhol. Curator Margit Rowell, the chief curator of MOMA's department of drawings, has previously organized many significant exhibitions of early 20th-century masters of abstraction -- Brancusi, Miro, "The Planar Dimension" -- as well as last fall's exhibition of Antonin Artaud's emotionally expressive drawings. But judging from the result here, her work on this survey could well have been augmented by a curator informed about late 20th-century art, "desire" and revisionist art history. With its severely limited number of women artists, of non-European artists, and of American artists working before 1960, Rowell's "Objects of Desire" seems outdated, with the look of 20th-century survey course the way it was taught years ago. Even before it opened, the show's narrow roster of artists prompted a protest by The Guerrilla Girls for including only three white women (Meret Oppenheim, Cindy Sherman and Kiki Smith), one woman of color (Frida Kahlo) and no men of color.
But, hey, if one is going for formal values, aka visual pleasure, there is plenty here to satisfy. Cezanne's golden orbs pop out against the dusty blues of bunched tablecloths with tumescent eggplants suggestively suspended above nearby open mouths of ginger jars. With his full palette of brilliant hues, Matisse brought that sensuality out into the open, and his juxtaposition of magenta blossoms against blue circular table against hot pink floor, in his Purple Cyclamen makes one's eyes pop. For respite, across the gallery is Klee's small dark meditation, Still Life with Four Apples, an intimate focus on a bowl of Pippins against a mottled brown wall, its simple gold leaf frame suggesting a modern devotional image.
Rowell divided the display into ten themes, but as path marks, they amount to no more than witty capsulizations of the sequence of 20th century "isms" -- Cubism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Pop-ism -- without aiding the understanding of still life itself. Her broad inclusion of sculpture does break open painting's traditional lock on the still life genre. The streamlined metal planes of Picasso's1912-13 Guitar here was the breakthrough work, but, familiar from MOMA collection, it's become an old saw. Fresher in this context is Henri Laurens' 3-D Fruit Bowl with Grapes, a tensely balanced construction of reflective sheet metal, busily grained wood, angular panels of Prussian blue and dark globes. On the other side of the aisle, Duchamp's Bicycle Wheel as an ironic "still life?" Brilliant! The several Oldenburgs are too many and too familiar, but the couple of early '60s wrapped-and-tied packages by Christo are rarely exhibited and interesting to examine as the roots of his architectural and landscape bondage.
At this end of the century, instead of things that are grown (flowers, fruits), artists more often depict those that are manufactured (a basketball, a stack of dishes). Typically, much of recent work is sculpture, and is characteristically floor bound and laterally oriented; Robert Gober's enlarged decorative tissue box is mysteriously pierced crosswise by an industrial pipe (for a very runny nose?) and doesn't convey the psychic twists of his trompe l'oeil body parts. Wolfgang Laib's lustrous Milkstone -- a white marble rectangle coated with milk -- uses enigma more constructively to evoke both an altar and a gravestone. Displayed in isolation on the floor, this niche can ambiguously appear both radically empty and full.
Mario Merz's huge glass Spiral Table holds a single line of glistening fresh fruits and vegetables. At a visit a few days later, they were beginning to show the puckers of age. MOMA plans to replace them throughout the show, but that is really a violation of the "arte povera" sensibility -- the Italian curator Germano Celant's term in 1967 for international artists (Merz was one of the first) who used cheap, non-fine art, often organic materials, such as in Earthworks, and allowed them to degrade. An even better piece for this show would have been Povera artist Giovanni Anselmo's 1968 Structure that Eats Salad, a small granite post with a head of lettuce attached to the top end and beneath it on the floor, a pile of sawdust. Now there's an updated vanitas symbol, and one, in its allusion to environmentalism, more authentically topical than, at this show's conclusion, Gerhard Richter's Photo Realist quotation of the skull and candle motif.
This survey's contemporary section is so deficient that it could become an art-world parlor game this summer to reconceptualize it. My own "Objects of Desire" would include the following prominent omissions. Chronologically, first, the early 20th-century Americans: Marsden Hartley's abstractions of his German lover' s military medals, Charles Sheeler's "self-portrait" tabletop studies and paintings of Shaker furniture, and Georgia O'Keeffe's bleached cow skulls (how vanitas can you get?). Then, obviously germane is the contemporary realism of: Wayne Thiebaud's luscious buffet spreads, William Bailey's and James Valerio's contemplative tabletop masses, Don Eddy's and Janet Fish's complexities of glass reflections. Then, women's autobiographical work such as Audrey Flack's painted dressing table conglomerations, Judy Chicago's ceramic and embroidery "Dinner Party" still lifes, Miriam Schapiro's incorporation of aprons, samplers and other domestic cloths. Melvin Edwards' visceral "Lynch Fragment" series in welded steel is a natural for this show, as are David Hammons' sculptural reliefs of spades, jazz instruments and funky chicken bones. And of course, a prominent place should be given to Israeli-American artist Haim Steinbach's Formica shelves obsessively stacked with lava lamps, enameled soup pots and Nike sneakers, and to Felix Gonzalez-Torres' piles of wrapped candies and sheaves of posters.... Your move.
"Objects of Desire: The Modern Still Life" continues at the Museum of Modern Art through Aug. 26. In conjunction, educational Brown Bag Lunches will be held in June on Tuesdays and Thursdays (12:30-1:15 pm) in the Noble Education Center ($5, bring lunch). Topics are: June 3 & 5, Surrealism and the Object; June 10 & 12, Cubist Still Life; June 17 & 19, 20th-century American Still Lifes; June 24 and 26, Still Lifes in Contemporary Art.
SUZAAN BOETTGER is a New York art historian and critic.