New York

“Art of The Real”

MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art

Some months ago the Museum of Modern Art opened its new “study center”; students and professionals using its facilities will have a pretty problem in deciding whether last summer’s “Art of the Sixties” or this summer’s “Art of The Real” best represents the Museum’s own indifference to the entire matter of a responsible attitude toward the art of this decade.

We must assume that at some point Mr. E. C. Goossen informed the Museum that he wished to present an exhibition entitled “The Art of the Real”, and that the point of the exhibition, as stated in the catalog, would be that “Today’s ‘real’ . . . makes no direct appeal to the emotions, nor is it involved in uplift. Indeed, it seems to have no desire to justify itself, but instead offers itself for whatever its uniqueness is worth—in the form of the simple, irreducible, irrefutable object.” (As opposed, one takes it, to yesterday’s “real,” which made a direct appeal to the emotions, was inextricably involved in “uplift,” strenuously desired to “justify itself,” and offered itself for fifty cents more on the dollar than its uniqueness was worth in the form of complex, reducible, refutable non-objects.) Mr. Goossen must also have explained that, since this was to be a theme show, it had to begin, like all theme shows, with a stately presentation of Pollock, Rothko, Still and Newman; last month’s “Heritage” of the Sur-real would be this month’s precursor of the real-real. Undoubtedly, Mr. Goossen also explained why artists like Larry Bell, Ronald Davis, Dan Flavin, Jules Olitski or Robert Irwin are un-real, or at least not as real as, say, Sanford Wurmfeld, Robert Swain and Antoni Milkowski, and to all this we must assume that the Museum of Modern Art, study center or no study center, said, “Fine, just the ticket.”

We must further assume that Mr. Goossen informed the Museum that he proposed to include a huge painting by Patricia Johanson, and about which he would write, “In a minimal painting by Patricia Johanson . . . we are expected to grasp a single narrow strip of color extending as much as twenty-eight feet along the middle of an empty field of raw canvas.” The catalog bibliography would note Mr. Sidney Tillim’s extensive discussion of what “we are expected to grasp” in Miss Johanson’s paintings, but the catalog essay by Mr. Goossen would be altogether remarkable for being written as if not a single item of criticism in the entire bibliography had ever been read by Mr. Goossen, much less raised issues with which a responsible exhibition might be expected to deal. The realest of the real, for example, are the socalled Minimalists, and the claims for the simple, irreducible, irrefutable abjectness of their work, which “has nothing to do with metaphor, symbolism, or any kind of metaphysics,” are advanced as if Michael Fried’s formidable essay, Art and Objecthood, had never been written, was not cited in the bibliography, and as if his argument, “I am suggesting, then, that a kind of latent, or hidden naturalism, indeed anthropomorphism, lies at the core of literalist theory and practice . . .” had no need at all to be considered, much less confronted. Similarly, with several years of critical literature on John McCracken by, among others, Barbara Rose and John Coplans behind him, Mr. Goossen’s sole contribution consists of the following: “As for John McCracken’s slabs of sheer color, it is hard to tell whether one is confronting a painting or a sculpture.” There is less of a problem with Tony Smith, however, who, if he is not concerned with “any kind of metaphysics,” has made up for the loss with epistemological discoveries of a soaring order: “To confront one of these works is to know the cube on a scale that allows us to experience it fully without being handed ideas about it.” We must assume that some group of people or some single person at the Museum of Modern Art said—must have said—“Oh, yes, that’s very good, that part about knowing the cube so deeply but not even beginning to know whether a slab of plastic painted blue is a painting or a sculpture.”

Color, we are told, is pretty real too, but one would never guess from this exhibition or from this catalog that color might mean considerably different things to Larry Poons, Agnes Martin, Ellsworth Kelly, Darby Bannard, Frank Stella, Morris Louis or Ken Noland. As far as this exhibition is concerned, everyone is using color to make objects, “space-occupying objects,” to be exact. Morris Louis, for example, running a little late, didn’t get to this until the “unfurleds,” when he finally found out how to make a picture which “adds to our perception of their physical existence as space-occupying objects.”

Ray Parker is having his troubles too: he “seems to have been torn between lyrical passion and the need to find a way to make his art as palpably real as possible.” And Kenneth Noland is included in the exhibition, is, in fact, the show’s piece de résistance, although it would be difficult to imagine an artist who stands in more searching opposition to each and all of the show’s assumptions: “No systems, no modules, no grids, no thingness, and above all, no abjectness.” One could also suggest that Noland’s work, and most especially his new work, far from having “nothing to do with metaphor, symbolism or any kind of metaphysics,” (not to mention “uplift”), is deeply involved with all three. But for the articulation of the complex and difficult new terms in which this involvement might be taking place, we will have to look elsewhere than the Museum of Modern Art.

Philip Leider