I went to the Museum of Modern Art several weeks ago for the opening of "Alphabets: Mira Schendel and Leon Ferrari." The crowd, as befits the cream of Latin America, was elegant, tastefully dressed and downright gorgeous. I had a chance to talk with Angela Westwater about her current Malcolm Morley show and to laugh it up with my old pal Nessia Pope. The show itself, another exhaustive survey, this time exhuming the work of two lifelong semioticians from Brazil and Argentina, might be dubbed "oodles of doodles," since it features canvases of alphabets and Twomblyesque scribbles, elaborate sculptures of bones, and nothing but writing and more writing verging on meaninglessness.
So, as often happens at MoMA, I attempted to elude the guards and the ropes and find some actual art to gaze at. Off the fourth floor escalator, I found my quarry, another brilliant juxtaposition of contemporary masterpieces, which, happily, is becoming a common experience at MoMA. Andy Warhol's breathtaking Double Elvis stood all alone near the moving stairs, a silver orgasm frozen in time. It is such a good picture that you don't want to leave it, but, turning left, after gazing down at the venerable Sikorsky helicopter, Sol LeWitt's stunning Wall Drawing #260 from 1975 dominates the view.
I don't much care for LeWitt in color -- dull pueblos of pastels and primaries -- but LeWitt in black and white is another matter. LeWitt and his elves created a searing black room in a long closed gallery on St. Mark's Place in 1993 that changed my life, and #260 is even better, its thin white parabolas dotting coal black walls which Ad Reinhardt would envy. The scale of the piece, especially at night, with city lights coming through MoMA's windows, is enveloping like a deep forest.
Walking back and forth between two experiments in blackness (for Elvis' hair and body come right out of the mines), I was reminded again of the purity of a reductive approach to looking at art. All the wall cards and completeness of today's museum survey shows may "educate" but they deprive the viewer of the stun gun of great art, pieces in places that pass for perfection. By finally employing Yoshio Taniguchi's dead ends and dark corners to dramatize the greatest contemporary works, MoMA's curators have triumphed in spite of themselves.
"Tangled Alphabets: León Ferrari and Mira Schendel," Apr. 5-June 15, 2009, at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10019
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).