PRINT November 2015


“Reimagining Modernism” at the Met

View of “Reimagining Modernism: 1900–1950,” 2014–. On wall, from left: Willem de Kooning, Woman, 1944. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.; Alice Neel, Portrait of Dick Bagley, 1946; Walt Kuhn, Clown with a Black Wig, 1930. On platform, from left: Gerrit Rietveld, Zig Zag Stoel, ca. 1937–40; Koloman Moser, armchair, 1903; Alvar Aalto, 31 armchair, 1931–32; Charles Eames, LCW side chair, ca. 1946. Photo: Chandra Glick.

A CURATOR FRIEND once asked me what I thought of her proposal for an exhibition of two painters who had never met or known of each other’s work. I was skeptical: Why bring together artists who have no demonstrable connection beyond the fact they shared the planet for a time? “Curating,” my friend replied, “is about creating a visual conversation.” And the conversation that mattered, as she saw it, was among the objects on display rather than among the artists who made them. Instead of retrieving an episode from the art-historical past, the curator might spark a new moment of aesthetic possibility by forging an unexpected dialogue among works never before seen in tandem. Individual objects would thus be understood not simply as a product of the artist’s moment but also of the viewer’s own.

My friend’s words came back to me on a recent visit to “Reimagining Modernism: 1900–1950,” a reinstallation of modern art from the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. For the first time, the museum has integrated early-twentieth-century European and American art, displaying modernist painting and sculpture alongside outsider art, decorative objects, photography, prints, and periodicals. In previous installations, European and American artworks were shown on opposite sides of the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing, bridged only by a single gallery of decorative art and design. This continental divide reiterated long-held judgments as to the aesthetic and art-historical inferiority of prewar US art: In 1929, the Met famously rejected Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s offer of more than five hundred works by living American artists on the grounds that they merited no place alongside the European moderns already in the museum’s collection. In response, Whitney founded the first museum devoted expressly to American art.

The modernist predisposition against prewar American art remains very much alive. At the Museum of Modern Art in New York, US art prior to 1945 still tends to be shown (when it is shown at all) in the museum’s hallways. Spatial marginalization echoes and enforces art-historical assessment: Who needs to spend much time with Marsden Hartley or Arthur Dove when you have Matisse and Picasso? Why bother at all with Burgoyne Diller when you have Mondrian? The qualitative divide between European and American art prior to 1945 also shapes the corresponding scholarship. As leading Americanist Wanda M. Corn noted more than twenty-five years ago, “Critics and historians of [pre-war] American art have pursued their work knowing that the objects they study are considered inferior by others. This has often led them to be overly apologetic.” Rather than issuing any such apology, the Met, in deciding to mix works by European and American moderns, proposes a wide-ranging history featuring little-known objects and makers alongside canonical works.

“Reimagining Modernism” was conceived by Sheena Wagstaff, head of the museum’s Department of Modern and Contemporary Art, and organized and installed by associate curator Randall Griffey. Both curators joined the Met’s staff relatively recently (in 2012 and 2014, respectively), a fact that contributes, perhaps, to their fresh departure from institutional precedent. Forgoing a strictly chronological hanging or one arranged according to stylistic “isms,” Wagstaff and Griffey have displayed some 250 works around thematic keywords such as “Abstraction,” “Avant-Garde,” “The Metropolis,” and “Retreat.” (The checklist of works will shift somewhat over the course of the installation as various objects are relocated, loaned to other exhibitions, or rotated off view.)

However broad, the thematic sections have the welcome effect of affording seemingly unacquainted artworks the opportunity to strike up a conversation. Within the gallery devoted to abstraction, for example, Brancusi’s Bird in Space aligns, all but perfectly, with the central form of Georgia O’Keeffe’s Grey Line with Lavender and Yellow. Seen from the right angle and distance, each work appears to have been magnetized by the pull of the other. For all its visual force, the coupling is also carefully stage-managed. Brancusi’s marble rests on a large base that the museum has painted gray so as, it would seem, to match O’Keeffe’s palette. The base lifts Bird in Space off the floor to about the height at which Grey Line with Lavender and Yellow has been hung. The formal rhyme between Bird in Space and Grey Line becomes more resonant when we learn that both works date from 1923. The pairing offers different versions of abstraction—sculptural and painterly; minimal and mystical—achieved contemporaneously in Paris and New York. The temporal coincidence of the two works reminds us that both Brancusi and O’Keeffe exhibited at Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 gallery in New York, a space that presented painting, photography, and sculpture by American modernists alongside their more celebrated European counterparts. Rather than an act of curatorial fiat, the museum’s transatlantic pairings recall the intercontinental exchanges that shaped the production and display of visual modernism in the prewar period.

To put it another way, we could say that “Reimagining Modernism” approaches the history of early-twentieth-century art as a series of creative experiments in multiple locations and cultural contexts rather than as a sequential narrative of radical innovation and stylistic breakthrough. By showing objects that have long languished in storage and pursuing new acquisitions of work by underrepresented artists, the Met widens the story of twentieth-century art and challenges the boundaries and biases of modernism.

The loosening of geographic and stylistic categories enables unforeseen interactions to unfold. On one wall of the museum, a well-known work by Jean Dubuffet, Woman Grinding Coffee, 1945, partners with a little-seen painting, Stage Beauties, 1944, by the self-taught artist Morris Hirshfield. The pairing presents wildly divergent views of figuration, frontality, and femaleness unfolding on different continents at nearly the same historical moment. And it couples a canonical modernist with a marginal, indeed all-but-forgotten folk artist. A Jewish tailor and slipper manufacturer who began painting only when he was a retired grandfather, Hirshfield attracted a surprising degree of attention during his brief artistic career in the 1940s, including a much reviewed—and mostly reviled—one-man show at MoMA. Following his death in 1946, Hirshfield was gradually erased from narratives of twentieth-century art, part of a larger trend that swept folk art, with the exception of Henri Rousseau, out of the history of modernism. (An upcoming exhibition, “Boundary Markers: Outliers and Mainstream American Art,” curated by Lynne Cooke at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, promises to correct this blind spot.)

In Stage Beauties, a dazzle of colors and patterns showcases a trio of female performers. Each of the “beauties” has been outfitted in a vibrant striped costume that both rhymes and contrasts with those of her companions. The longer one looks at the painting, the stranger and more delightful it becomes. While the women’s faces and torsos are presented frontally, their legs are turned in sharp profile. There is simply no way, anatomically speaking, to reconcile their bodies’ upper and lower halves. The showgirls’ eye-popping costumes do not so much resolve this problem as distract from it by becoming their own spectacle of sartorial improbability. Dresses extend into semiflaccid sausage-shaped tails; the red-and-yellow headdress of one figure is accessorized with a pair of antennae.

In sharp contrast, Dubuffet’s Woman Grinding Coffee flattens the female figure against—and nearly grinds her into—the molten brown, tar-thick ground of the picture. Widened to encompass nearly the entirety of the canvas, the woman is both cursorily drawn and crudely distorted. Her moon face is smeared and abraded by brown pigment and her pigtails resemble nothing so much as bloated feet, the right one with a detached big toe. A harsh terrain of craggy, irregular ruts and sludgy deposits of plaster, oil, tar, and sand, the painting embodies Dubuffet’s desire to make, as he put it, a “monument to the beauty” of “dirt, trash, and filth.”

The museum presents Dubuffet and Hirshfield within a section titled “Direct Expression,” a polite phrase for what used to be called “primitivism.” An introductory wall text notes that modern artists borrowed “aesthetic cues” from African, Native American, and “so-called folk art.” But what matters most about the Met’s coupling of professional and self-taught painters is that it takes folk art seriously as an aesthetic achievement in its own right, not simply as a source material for the avant-garde. Though their manner of painting could hardly be more different, both Hirshfield and Dubuffet simultaneously fixate on and deform the sexualized female body as a kind of butterflied specimen. The former artist’s vernacular verve holds its own against the latter’s willful regression. “Reimagining Modernism” presents self-taught artists such as Hirshfield as significant players within an expanded history of twentieth-century art.

The same is true for women and artists of color, both of whom are represented in greater numbers than ever before in these galleries. On my visit, a painting of a furniture factory teeming with workers by the little-known (at least to me) Japanese-born artist Bumpei Usui shared a wall with Fernand Léger’s dazzling Cubist composition The Builders, 1920. Florine Stettheimer’s hectic and irrepressible “Cathedrals” paintings, 1929–42, hung within view of Edward Hopper’s noiseless account of the city, From Williamsburg Bridge, 1928.

Picasso’s portrait Gertrude Stein, 1905–1906, arguably the most important work in the Met’s collection of modern art, appeared not with the artist’s Rose and Blue Period paintings (as in previous installations) but with a masklike Modigliani portrait, a suite of Walker Evans’s photographs documenting MoMA’s 1935 exhibition “African Negro Art,” and a selection of African-inspired prints by black American artists including Hale Woodruff and Georgette Seabrooke Powell. The most surprising object in the gallery, however, was a sleek ebony mask simply titled African head. The surprise was that the mask was carved not by an African maker but by the young American artist Alexander Calder, working in Paris in 1928, around the time of its making. Calder’s unorthodox primitivism reminds us that the modernist appropriation of African sculpture was by no means the exclusive province of European artists.

Since I first saw the exhibition, a new work has been added to this gallery: a Baule portrait mask from the Ivory Coast that dates (broadly) from the nineteenth through mid-twentieth centuries. Far from embodying a remote past, the mask may well be no less modern, historically speaking, than Picasso’s portrait or Calder’s sculpture. But while the latter works are housed in the museum’s Department of Modern and Contemporary Art, the Baule mask resides in the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. Bringing these objects together under the banner of “Reimagining Modernism,” the curators remind us that traditional designations and departmental divides need to be reworked to address global histories of art and cultural exchange. The inclusion of a single African mask might seem like a tokenizing gesture were it not for the fact that there are six objects from Gabon and Congo reproduced in the Evans photographs nearby. Like the MoMA exhibition he documented, Evans denied the African works any tribal or ritual context, presenting them instead as pure sculptural forms set against black, white, or gray monochromes. Even as they focus on works from sub-Saharan Africa, the photographs bespeak the modernist culture of Evans and the newly founded MoMA. That two of the masks were owned by the Dada poet Tristan Tzara, and a third object by the British sculptor Jacob Epstein, further underscores the transcontinental traffic at the time.

A salient absence from “Reimagining Modernism”—and from the Met’s permanent collection of modern art—is film, arguably the definitive medium of the twentieth century. One Hollywood film in particular might, I think, offer the best metaphor for the pleasures of this exhibition.

In 1938, RKO Radio Pictures released Carefree, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, with music by Irving Berlin. Toward the end of the movie, Astaire glides across the dance floor of a swanky nightclub until he is next to Rogers, whose character is dancing with her fiancé. Astaire sings to her, “Must you dance every dance / With the same fortunate man? / You have danced with him since the music began. / Won’t you change partners and dance with me?” Shortly after Astaire finishes the song, Rogers exits the room and retires alone to an outdoor pavilion. Astaire follows, and the couple engages in a dance sequence whose beauty outdistances everything in the film prior to this moment. While the whole premise of Carefree is to have Rogers switch partners and dance with Astaire, the moments when she does are no less magical for that.

Individual artworks may likewise benefit from engaging in new partnerships. Objects of early-twentieth-century art are not, or not only, fixed in the past. Their aesthetic lives extend into the present, where they may be inflected by new curatorial contexts and configurations. The retrieval of outsider or unknown works enables a broader, if messier, sense of the visual past to emerge. Narratives of individual achievement and heroic innovation give way to a view of multiple art worlds and competing versions of modernity. It is not a question of choosing between the canonical and the eccentric, between Dubuffet and Hirshfield, but rather of devising a framework within which both may be seen to constitute art history. This is what is to be gained when we allow artworks to change partners and dance.

Richard Meyer is the Robert and Ruth Halperin Professor in art history at Stanford University.