This weak retrospective testifies that Fernand Leger isn't making it out of the 20th century intact, and I can't say I'm surprised. Stunned is more like it. While rarely thinking of him, I have never not assumed that I love Leger, because doesn't everybody? The burly Frenchman, who died ripe with honors in 1955, was a major Cubist who went on to make bold, snazzy emblems of modernity with feelgood populist appeal. He appreciated machinery, billboards, the working class, and New York City. He was a peach of a guy. What's not to love?
Disconcertingly, modern art is not to love, at least in the generic, logolike schemes that dominate Leger's legacy. Have you noticed that an awful lot of the 20th-century canon looks terminally hokey all of a sudden? I think it's an effect of the 1990s, as many of us winnow our tastes to travel light into the new millennium. Out go the forced optimism and chipper complacency of a Leger, who didn't paint well enough to redeem failed ideas. At MoMA, I felt embarassed for Leger's mechanical women and pneumatic workmen. They think they're so cute, and they're just not.
Cubism was not a failed idea. It was an epic adventure that looms larger as it recedes in time. It remains 20-century art's signal glory and headache, and it always will. Cubism embodies the heroism and the folly of extreme pride in ideals of progress -- the world supposedly revolutionized by human intelligence in every sphere. The departing century as a whole rather resembles a Cubist painting. You can't quite make out the subject or decide if the design is mainly construction or mainly debris. Obviously, you must consult specialists if you mean to understand it.
Leger was a bard of industrial-age technique. His high Cubist works present a theme of modern thinking in action. They dazzle still. His subsequent styles merely illustrate the theme with visually punchy but intellectually lazy, socially pandering looks whose overconfidence palls. His proletarian imagery, in particular, is now about as gritty as union anthems sung over a round of champagne. The relative gravity of political artists whom he influenced, including the Mexican muralists and even the likes of Ben Shahn, shames Leger, who can seem almost pathologically superficial.
Leger had a famous epiphany while soldiering in World War I -- transfixed by sunlight gleaming in the open breech of a cannon. He found the sight sublimely beautiful and quintessentially modern, never mind that its object was a tool for killing people. Consideration of killing was somebody else's department. Leger's anecdote of aesthetic dissociation sickens me. It isn't that he celebrates war. That would be a moral stance. It's that he brandishes his vocation as a badge of carefree innocence. He is an artist as a gun is a gun. And quite as sensitive.
We too easily forget that World War I wreaked devastation both brutal and subtle on Western minds. I surmise that Leger's rigid sunniness, setting in with the war, symptomized his dose of posttraumatic stress as, say, rigid irony did Ernest Hemingway's. This thought argues for sympathy, but it doesn't make the later pictures better. Another thought: I would probably cut the later pictures some slack if I did not compare them with Leger's Cubism. But I defy anyone to shrug off the comparison. Prewar Leger is as exhilirating as modern art gets.
More than Picasso, Braque, and Gris, Leger made a richly brilliant style of analyzing painting's formal vocabulary: line, material, color, shape, depicted light, spatial illusion, and so on. His practically abstract pictures of 1913-14 sort out component pleasures of painting for detailed enjoyment. The grainy drag of each charcoaled contour and the scumbled shading of each jiggling plane delight like actors stealing scenes. You want to be looking everywhere at once, and for flashing moments you may seem to do it, caught up in a choral anarchy of splintered polygons, nudging cylinders, and delicious primary and secondary colors.
Note Contrast of Forms (1913), from the Philadelphia Museum of Art -- the mate of a work of the same name, owned by MoMA, that is not in the show but appears in the catalogue. Alternate approaches to the same motif, the MoMA canvas is tight and the Philadelphia one loose. The latter one flies open like little else in art before Abstract Expressionism. It is decades ahead of its time, a leap of genius.
Leger's Cubism combines rational clarity and cascading sensation. Viewing it is like taking a drug for enhanced IQ and visual acuity. Your eye and brain get high on accuracy and speed. But the real kicker is paradoxical: a certain roughness and even awkwardness of execution. Leger never drew terribly well. His formal decisions often have an approximating air of uncertainty overcome by will, of what-the-hell shots in the dark. The Cubist Leger operated way out on the edge of his ability in the guiding grip of stylistic revelations. The cliffhanger luck of his blunt hand makes heady inventions physically exciting.
Chafing caresses vanish from the surface texture of Leger's work around 1917. You may still perceive his likably pawing touch if you look closely, but it is incidental to labored, clunky, arbitrary compositions. Leger became a sign painter for the spiritual department store of modernity. So, to some extent, did other modern masters between the world wars, including Kandinsky and Miro. (Not to mention Leger's Yankee epigone Stuart Davis, of whom I am ever less a fan.) Leger falls short of his contemporaries on account of a prosaic imagination. Even his liveliest images smack of instant platitude, which he would then repeat with assembly-line tedium.
It seemed important at a certain stage of modern art, certainly in America, to assert that an artist could be a worker among workers and a man's man. Leger epitomized a yeoman glamour that nourished the career of Willem de Kooning, for one. He helped to reassure society that artists weren't epicene lizards even if, like him, they happened to be nominal Communists. He wasn't macho exactly. He was more like a sweetly virile neighbor who can and, in a minute, will help you fix your car.
Maybe some people maintain contemporary uses for Leger's healthy-minded charisma. I don't. It seems to me that society was right the first time about artists. They really are a neurotic and shady crew, whose most intense function is to make us unknow things that we thought we knew in order to experience joys that we can hardly bear. Art is most satisfactory when taken straight without the chaser of virtues, manly or otherwise.
PETER SCHJELDAHL is art critic for the Village Voice, where this article first appeared.