Once and future artwork
MoMA looks at 'Things' in hindsight
November 16, 1999
By Porter Anderson
NEW YORK (CNN) -- Stop reading this.
Sit back and look at the instrument you're using to see these words. Screen, sure. Keyboard where? In front of the screen? On your lap? CPU underneath the screen? Or on the side? Or on the floor?
Get up for a minute. Look at your system from the sides. Dare to stare at your machine's cord-choked back. Consider your rig's color and lines. Boxy PC in regulation bone-white? Stock trader's laptop in get-out-of-the-way-I'm-an-online-investor black? Throw-pillow strawberry iMac?
Get cozy with your computer, then have a seat.
Now toss your imagination a hundred years into the future. The end of the 21st century is the impending moment. What if you visit the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2099?
Still called MoMA, it's by then a self-levitating bubble-building floating above West 53rd Street. You jet into a gallery, float around a corner ... and spot the very machine you're at right now. Under glass. Good lighting. Hardwood floors. You wish you'd taken those Post-it notes off, don't you? Scholarly documentation is projected into your mind, all about how the design elements of the thing hadn't quite outstripped functionality in 1999. Thank heavens they didn't find your sister's tangerine iMac.
"I consider the way we're using computers today in art," says British artist Michael Craig-Martin, "to be exactly the equivalent of what Piero della Francesca was doing in the early Italian Renaissance. That's when he was discovering the possibilities of perspective. A hundred years from now, people will look back with pleasure and amusement at our charming fiddlings on the computer. We'll seem to them touchingly naïve."
So don't look for your computer this time. That's the next century's retrospective icon. And don't laugh too hard at a stool with a bicycle wheel in it. In its day, that thing had traction.
'ModernStarts' trio: Ready, set for 20th-century reflection
"ModernStarts" is what MoMA calls this kickoff to a 17-month rollout of major shows that examine eras of 20th-century art through the 70-year-old museum's matchless collection. The term "ModernStarts" is a handy merger of "modern art" and what "started" it, courtesy of John Elderfield, MoMA's chief curator at large.
The idea of "ModernStarts" is to consider early-modern artwork "not for its -isms," as one specialist puts it -- Dadaism, Fauvism, Cubism aren't discussed here -- but in themes. A "People" exhibit, for example, looks at how artists considered "The Language of the Body" and "Actors, Dancers, Bathers." A "Places" exhibit considers "Seasons and Moments" and the "Unreal City" of the World War I era.
The exhibit that opens Sunday is focused on "Things." Some of its themes include "Ten Chairs" and "Objects as Subject."
Elderfield dashes around, Dutch-boy haircut flying as he welcomes a visitor to the "Things" gallery nowhere near ready for its public opening. Within moments, he's off on another errand, loping past the monumental mural that Craig-Martin is creating outside the new exhibit.
Elderfield walks past a 10-foot-tall picture of a lamp. Craig-Martin's "charming fiddlings on the computer" have helped him project and then paint onto the wall something that looks like your first Tensor lamp. And at its base is an electrical wall outlet, a real one, not part of the painting -- a contraption you'd normally overlook in MoMA's soaring lobby, but now an oddly apt little white rectangle with two receptacles.
"The outlet stays," Craig-Martin says. "I like it."
And so it is that this ordinary power outlet, exactly like the one your computer is plugged into, has been elevated to a thing among "Things" -- an array of some of the "ModernStarts" that between 1880 and 1920 shoved Western aesthetics into what we think of today as modern art.
Ready-mades and making ready
Among these "Things" is a low, four-legged stool with a bicycle wheel mounted upside-down on the seat. It's Marcel Duchamp's celebrated "Bicycle Wheel." Not a very good stool, really; beaten up and scratched. And there's no tire on the wheel. That's part of the point: These weren't exceptional objects. Duchamp put the 1913 original of this "ready-made," as it's called -- meaning something found ready to use -- into an art gallery. He declared it art. It stuck.
The eerie illogic of the Duchamp "Wheel" played a role in loosening people's consciousness, easing perceptions into a wider, more tolerant regard for artistic expression beyond a realistic representation of the world. And the work was created with two everyday objects -- ordinary "Things" rendered into something extraordinary.
Peter Reed, curator of MoMA's department of architecture and design, looks like a young Peter Lynch as he moves around the Duchamp stool and wheel. White hair, blue shirt, he stares with corporate cool at the messy preparations in the "Things" gallery. The Duchamp piece stands beside Gerrit Rietveld's 1923 "Red Blue Chair" and a bentwood side chair from the firm of Gebrüder Thonet, a piece made around 1876.
These three signal pieces of MoMA's world-famous collection are unceremoniously grouped together in the gallery, waiting to be moved out into the lobby where Craig-Martin has drawn his interpretations of them into his mural.
The Thonet chair by now is so commonplace a bit of furniture that it's almost baffling to think of Michael Thonet and his sons ever laboring over a design for what they knew as "Thonet No. 14" in the mid-19th century. At MoMA it becomes a thing seen as art. And the Rietveld "Blue Red Chair" is fully the opposite. It's not made as a practical chair. In fact, when you stand by it, you realize it's quite small. It's a work of art based on a thing, a chair.
These three "Things" -- the Duchamp stool-bicycle piece, and the Thonet and Rietveld chairs -- have become a trio of symbols for MoMA's "Things" exhibit.
"What makes this installation so complicated," Reed says, "is the wide variety of material. It's very different from a painting show or a photography show, where you hang them on the wall. We're trying to interweave in a synthetic way a variety of disciplines. Architectural design, graphic design.
"Even though it's our own collection, is it hard to do this?" He points to his head. "See this bald spot developing?
"Look at this. What you see going in right now is a pair of Frank Lloyd Wright windows." They're clerestory windows Wright designed in 1912 for the Avery Coonley Playhouse in Riverside, Illinois. "To get the right height to illustrate how they worked, we had to mount them high in that section of wall we've built. We found that a fluorescent strip will back-light them the right way, but only if it's down, about waist-high, behind the wall. We had to build a special frame for them.
"And look at this propeller. Something like this traditionally is shown in a context of what's called 'machine art.' Function but also abstraction, therefore a thing of beauty. The way we're showing it, it becomes absolutely the most exquisite brass propeller on a ship. It's sculpture.
"And this is one of our points in this show: In early modernism, there's an interesting shift starting with utilitarian objects that began to be appreciated for their sculptural beauty. And artists started making things that looked like design, designers started making things that looked like fine art.
"Our text for this exhibit tells the story of how around 1912, Duchamp went to an aeronautics museum and saw a propeller, thought it was beautiful, turned to someone and said, 'Can you do better than that?' And that's when Duchamp stopped painting. That's when he started doing things like the urinal," another ready-made which in 1917 Duchamp titled "Fountain" -- and, like the stool, declared it a work of art.
'Objects, Ready or Not'
In the MoMA lobby, Craig-Martin watches late-afternoon museumgoers line up for tickets. The crowd is pouring in off West 53rd Street, some fresh from an afternoon service at St. Thomas, just at the corner of 53rd and Fifth Avenue. Others trek in from the direction of Sixth Avenue, Rockefeller Center and lower Manhattan.
"It wasn't this color before, was it?" one youngster asks his pal.
"No, it wasn't," Craig-Martin says, to a companion, unheard by the questioner in line. The kid and many with him may not notice, either, that they're standing by a huge urinal. Craig-Martin has rendered that Duchamp icon on the wall of the lobby, in hot red on a field of fuchsia, taut black outlines provided not by a paintbrush but by rolls and rolls of tape.
In just seven days, Craig-Martin and two assistants have installed the 442-foot-long mural that wraps from the museum's ground-floor cafeteria to the entrance to "Things." In addition to the lamp, the Thonet chair, the Rietveld chair and the Duchamp urinal and "Bicycle Wheel," Craig-Martin has put a tin of paintbrushes into his mural -- a reference to artist Jasper Johns. And there's a huge smoking pipe on a field of chartreuse, to remind us of Belgian surrealist René Magritte's 1929 "The Treachery of Images," on which the artist wrote "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" ("This is not a pipe").
"To tell you the truth, this is a terrible space," Craig-Martin says, looking up from the ticket lines to where escalators are hauling museumgoers to the second and third levels. "People stand in this lobby and don't know where they are. It's confusing, it's sterile. It's an airport lounge."
So one of Craig-Martin's aims with his mural has been to redefine the space of the MoMA lobby. Those fuchsia walls are in the entry area. "For the first time," the artist says triumphantly, "you can tell where this space ends and that area begins."
"That area" is the crossway that connects the cafeteria and exhibition-orientation area to the westerly ground-floor gallery in which Reed and Elderfield are hustling to finish the "Things" exhibit. The whole crossway is bound together now by Craig-Martin's use of chartreuse walls where once you saw only stone.
"I use a digital camera, you see," he says, "to take pictures of the objects I'm going to render on the walls, like the Thonet chair. Then I can trace those outlines and print them on the computer. I can try colors -- green or pink, change it if I want. I can alter sizes because the computer lets me put in dimensions. I honestly don't think I could be doing what I'm doing now without the computer."
Craig-Martin describes his intent in his huge graphic envisionings as a kind of push-pull on the viewer. He wants you to know exactly what object he's picturing. But he wants you to see it in a color scheme nowhere near reality.
"The image," he says, "has to be clearly a picture of a chair, for example, a specific chair, never a generalization. But then, in the color, I take total liberty. I might use pink and yellow and turquoise, but I might also use red, yellow and green. The sense of the drawing is that it couldn't be any different, but that the color is arbitrary. So you get two things -- the drawing is of something you recognize immediately but the colors are something you'd never see on it."
"Something you'd never see if you couldn't do an exhibit this way," says Reed in the "Things" gallery, "is what you're looking at right now. Here's this Richard Riemerschmid glass bottle next to this." He's pointing to Umberto Boccioni's silvered bronze "Development of a Bottle in Space." Both works are from 1912.
And Reed points across the room: "Now look." Hanging beyond the glass case in which these and other objects are being readied for display are various still-life canvases -- Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse and others are represented, their tabletops tipped forward toward the viewer to varying modern degrees.
Reed and his associates have laid out "Things" in a single gallery, a large room broken only by the show's objects. The intent, as with the fur-covered cup, saucer and spoon of Meret Oppenheim from 1936 and the table objects on Gauguin's 1888 "Still Life With Three Puppies," is to draw parallels, thing to thing to thing.
"This is my favorite," Reed points to a white platform. On it stands a 1905-'07 wrought-iron grille from Barcelona by Antoni Gaudi. Then there's Eileen Gray's 1922 black-lacquered screen of wood blocks. And overhead is Aleksandr Rodchenko's "Spatial Construction No. 12" from around 1920 -- a mix of ovals that hangs like a nuclear-era mobile. "The Rodchenko echoes the Frank Lloyd Wright windows," Reed says. "Wright based his design on a parade. Those are balloons in those windows."
And those are people outside this window.
In a distinctly modern departure from the norm, Reed and MoMA have elected not to cover the "Things" gallery window. On West 53rd Street, pedestrians peer in from the sidewalk and see workers putting a final coat of green paint on a restored fragment of the 1898-'99 facade of the Gage Building in Chicago. They see a model of Strasbourg's Cafe Aubette color schemes, as rendered in 1927 by Theo van Doesburg. And they see "Ten Chairs," a section of the exhibit that brings together a summit of seating by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Gustav Stickley and Wright. Even Josef Hoffman's "Sitzmaschine" of around 1905 is here.
"It's fun at night, especially," Reed says. "People can walk by, look in and see this."
And maybe more importantly, when you're inside, you can see out. Look at the Gage Building facade fragment -- ornate, busy, almost exactly a century old. Then look outside to the flat today-walls across the street, the cabs and trucks going by, the efforts of crafts vendors who never fail to peddle their works outside MoMA. Inside, you're surrounded by "ModernStarts"; outside you see a bustling display of some very modern results.
The connections are drawn.
Craig-Martin drops in to confer with Reed on a question about his play on one of Georgio de Chirico's ubiquitous bunches of bananas. "I'm going to make them blue," Craig-Martin says with a broad smile.
Near where Reed stands, Constantin Brancusi's 1918 "Endless Column" lies on its side by some handsome sea-foam Gaudi tiles from Barcelona. The tiles' frame still has to be painted, it's not the white of the platform it lies on. The Gage Building fragment has yet to be lit correctly.
Reed walks over to Jerry Neuner, MoMA's director of exhibition design and production, to go over it all. The list of what's yet to be done may rival the intricacy of Piet Mondrian's 1914 "Church Facade."
"You know, the harder we make this," Reed says, "the more Jerry likes it."
Look around. Then look from a different perspective. Think again about what's in front of you, what "ModernStarts" may be at your fingertips when you grab your mouse. Think about the impact its arrival in our culture may one day have on graphical representation, how we look at things, understand things, see things. Discount nothing. Not even your old Toshiba.
Because no one in this room at the Museum of Modern Art right now seems the least bit worried about something that looks like it's been stashed out of the way and forgotten. It's tucked onto the second shelf of a plain, metal rolling cart that might have given Duchamp ideas.
This unnoticed "Thing" is dark and brown, oddly shaped, only about 30 inches long. It's a revolution lying, for the moment, ignored. This is Pablo Picasso's "Guitar" of 1912 and 1913. It's made of cut sheet-metal and wire, less sculpture than "construction" -- and, of course, a deconstruction in Picasso's determined mode.
On this "Guitar," Picasso strummed a new way of working in three dimensions. He neither carved it out of rock or wood, nor modeled it with clay. He shaped it. And when he did, he helped sculpt our way of seeing what's around us.
As the exhibit opens, the Picasso comes off the cart. It's mounted with a whole ensemble of guitar-based artworks and becomes a "Thing" among many, well worth another look: "ModernStarts."
"Things" is the third and final installment in the "ModernStarts" cycle of special exhibits. "Things" is on view to the public from November 21 through March 14, 2000.
The other two installments in the "ModernStarts" cycle are "People" and "Places," each again drawn from 1880-1920. "People" continues on display on the second level through February 1, 2000. "Places" is on view on the third level through March 14. The three exhibits -- "People," "Places" and "Things" -- were organized by Elderfield; Reed; Maria del Carmen González of MoMA's department of education; and Mary Chan, curatorial assistant in the museum's department of drawings.
We recommend you plan to allow a full hour or more in each of the three "ModernStarts" exhibits -- that's at least three hours total, to comfortably view "People," "Places" and "Things."
"ModernStarts" is the first of three cycles of exhibitions, all grouped under the umbrella title "MoMA2000" and being presented in the course of 17 months. "ModernStarts" is to be followed by a second cycle of exhibitions called "Making Choices," covering work from 1920 to 1960. That cycle is scheduled for March 16 through September 12, 2000. The final cycle of "MoMA2000" exhibits, "Open Ends," covering work from 1960 to 2000, is to run September 14, 2000, through February 13, 2001.
The Museum of Modern Art is at 11 West 53rd St. in Manhattan, (212) 708-9400. MoMA is open 10:30 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. on Saturdays, Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. It's open 10:30 a.m. to 8:15 p.m. on Fridays, and is closed on Wednesdays, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Admission is $10 for adults. For students with ID and seniors over 65, admission is $6.50. Children younger than 16 visit the museum free when accompanied by an adult. Museum members get free admission at all times. "Pay what you like" hours are 4:30 p.m. to 8:15 p.m. on Fridays.
MoMA offers two restaurants, the Garden Café, a cafeteria, and Sette MoMA, which serves Northern Italian cuisine.
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