New York

“Art In The Mirror”

An instructive and arresting selection of works by artists who have employed old art for the creation of new has been assembled for the Museum of Modern Art by Gene R. Swenson. Swenson’s working premise was that these works “reflect art itself, and its place in the world both as subject and point of departure.” As might be expected from the organizer’s earlier writings (notably last season’s The Other Tradition, a catalog and exhibition for the Institute of Contemporary Art of the University of Pennsylvania) Swenson is attracted by works that “direct questions, insults and homages toward art” with the result that “Art In The Mirror” is extremely interesting as a reflection of the director’s occasionally arch and Gongoristic sensibility.

Despite the catholicism of Swenson’s choices his exhibition really holds together because of a highly personal optic. Moreover Swenson braved censure for including the work of several comparatively unknown young artists (Suzi Gablik, Alain Jacquet, Les Levine, Ray Johnson, Joe Raffaele, Paul Thek) whose work proved able to stand up beside that of the standard masters of modern art.

Despite interesting features not all of the forty one pieces are especially challenging. Perhaps the tough minded preciousness of Swenson’s viewpoint tended to overemphasize the modest dimension. Not that scale alone determines the strength of a work. One could hardly charge the lovely Cornelis with lack of impact despite their self-effacing proportions.

Swenson is a student of modern art who obviously delights in the arcana of this discipline. Does this slant additionally valorize Alain Jacquet’s rotogravure blow-ups of sections of a friend-posed reconstruction of Manet’s Dejeuner Sur l’Herbe? (I think so.) Did Swenson’s sharp recognition of the affiliation of Marcel Duchamp (The Valise, 1943), Jasper Johns (Canvas, 1963) and Robert Morris (Box With Photo of Door, 1963) exaggerate the ephemeral contingency of the last named work? (I think so.) Some nifty steps reminded us that in Picabia’s Tableau Dada par Marcel Duchamp, 1920, the artist forgot to include the Van Dyck featured in Duchamp’s antecedent and nastily engaging L.H.O.O.Q., 1919, the famous “Mona Lisa’s Moustache” which is the source of Picabia’s broadside.

Mona Lisa gets a heady bit of mileage in many places including a version by Andy Warhol which Swenson rightly sees as a “symbol of mass culture and boredom.” (Swenson has keen insights on Warhol generally. Of the Violin With Numbers he focuses the public on the element of “cheating amateurism of paint by number” which is parodied in this work.)

Perhaps the most unanticipated glimpse of Mona Lisa was the one afforded by Morris Hirshfield’s Beach Girl of 1937. Painted over an older, preexisting work (a technique employed also by Miró), Picasso, and several numbingly trivial Gottliebs) Hirshfield retained the Joconde face which smiles oddly out from a scrupulously over-convoluted child’s summer suit, as feathery and crumpled as the landscape she moves in.

Robert Pincus-Witten