Los Angeles

“A View of the Century”

Pasadena Museum of California Art (PMCA)

The century is ours; the title of the exhibition promises everything, and with the exception of idio­syncratic favorites and Americans, the names are all there (“fifty-eight of the foremost artists who have defined the character and established the values of modern art . . . ” reads the catalog). Walter Hopps, who organized the show, explains in his forward that he has selected, as an introductory group, four paintings by artists “associated with the climax of the 19th century who clearly seem to prefigure four major pathways for the art to follow.” That is, one apiece by Cézanne, Monet, Munch, and Redon. The paintings in the exhibit proper are not hung, how­ever, to illustrate these four directions, but in groups representing the major “isms” of the century. Presumably one draws one’s own umbilical cords. A further remark in the foreword should be repeated: “It is significant to note that most of the work in the exhibition has been drawn from southern Cali­fornia or Western sources. This must stand as a testament to the growing resources of art in the immediate com­munity.” It has to stand instead as an explanation of the various weaknesses of the exhibit, a problem which could have been avoided by some fast foot­work and another title, e.g., “Examples of 20th Century Painting in Southern California” or, for a one-wall, drastically reduced version, “20th Century Masterpieces in Southern California Collec­tions Available in December to the Pasadena Art Museum.” As the show is now constituted, it is mildly depress­ing for anyone who has ever travelled out of southern California and must be somewhat confusing for those natives seeking enlightenment.

Of the four prototypic modernists, one questions in passing the centrality of Redon, but notes with chagrin that the Munch Seated Nude (a represen­tative of “highly charged psychological content”) is dated c. 1920, which plac­es it, as the style would suggest, in the calm, non-Expressionist period fol­lowing his 1908 breakdown. One is glad to see this sweetly colored, Fau­vistic, and unimpassioned figure study, but not in its present role. (Ironically, an adjacent room, not part of the ex­hibit, contains a superb and tormented Munch lithograph of a nude labelled “Sin.” It alone is worth a trip to the Museum.)

The first category of the main body of the exhibit, the “Fauve” section, in­cludes a Cézanne-inspired Vlaminck, Still Life With Fruit, a work more blatantly “architectonic” than the Cézanne portrait itself in the “Forerun­ners” group. The Picasso, from his so-­called “Classical Cubist” period, is unhappily slight, as is the Braque still ­life. The “Expressionist” Klee is repre­sented here by a near-abstract, almost formally geometric tiny canvas, The Red House. One passes quickly over the Klimt and Schiele drawings and the Kubin lithograph. The 1930 Rou­ault, Christ chez les Pecheurs, seems to demonstrate all that painter’s weak­nesses. The Schwitters collage is the first dull one in memory. The final in­dignity is to Abstract Expressionism, the latest modern mode exhibited. The 1955 Pollock, Search, is from his un­even last period, after the great 1947–1951 paintings; it is a particularly un­prepossessing work in rather ugly reds, yellows and greens. The white squiggles weigh the canvas down, as do awkward­ly filled areas which cripple the lyric freedom of Pollock’s line and add no valuable “painterliness.” The de Koon­ing, too, is a weak painting in his least exciting style, although the 1959 Janis show of “landscapes” contained some tougher work than this empty canvas. Only the beautiful Arshile Gorky paint­ing, from the “Betrothal” series, mean­ingfully represents the Abstract Ex­pressionist manner. Not a completely assured work, its colors nevertheless glow with intensity and its forms are remarkably delicate.

In addition to the Gorky, there are a number of other works of sufficient importance to warrant museum exhibi­tion. The splendid Kandinsky Nude, painted in 1911, already shows the improvisational verve of his Blaue Rei­ter period, and a tendency towards the total abstraction that soon after char­acterized his work; the compositional lines are volatile and bold, the colors brilliant. The Max Beckmann Quappi in Pink, 1934, is a powerfully simple composition in the manner of the works he did in the late twenties. The single figure of the woman is frontal and placid, her face modelled with characteristic sculptural solidity and a fine vividness. One thinks of the Zere­telli and the great Self Portrait in Tuxedo. Worth mentioning as well are a lively Chagall gouache, a handsome Gris still-life in the Synthetic Cubist style, a not quite satisfactory Balthus, a palely reticent Morandi, a crisp Arp relief, an excellent Mondrian, a Léger Mother and Child from the period of “Le grand déjeuner,” and an early Matisse nude.

There are, in short, many pleasures. The strong paintings would survive, one assumes, in practically any muse­um context, which does not, after all, lessen the necessity for intellectual rigor in establishing a workable frame or for more modesty in scope when available resources require such as­cetic restraints. One hopes for a dis­criminating selection of important works from a museum exhibition. Col­lectors may be mesmerized by a phos­phorescent name. The rest of us want to look at the paintings.

––Nancy Marmer