New York

“Modern Objects: A New Dawn”

Baskerville + Watson

Rather than sublating the artwork within social and economic concerns, “Modern Objects” isolated esthetics pure and simple—design, that is, without the designs it has upon us. Organized by R. M. Fischer (who curated its 1983 predecessor), the show included works by eight artists, and three surfboards.

What is a “modern object”? For Jeffrey Deitch, author of the accompanying essay-cum-brochure, it is a nigh-religious icon, an emblem of the boundless optimism and unquenchable aspirations that characterized the Modern period’s ideology of progress. Only now, he suggests, in an age weakened by post-Modernist doubt, can we experience the “spiritual” intimations of its sleek lines and shimmering surfaces, and savor the “state of mind” that they convey Interestingly, this focus parallels Jean Baudrillard’s concept of the nostalgist’s fetishism, which consists in imaginary attachment to the last fragment of “reality” experienced before the onslaught of traumatic events. Deitch’s text dwells heavily on the fantasy embodied in the molded plastic and glass of ’60s California art, just as the curatorial choice accented the visual wizardry of lambent light over streamlined form.

This inherently mystifying thesis succeeded in dehistoricizing the exhibited objects and projecting them into the eternalizing dimension of spirit. “The cubes of Larry Bell or the slabs of John McCracken are as much Zen objects as art objects,” writes Deitch, neatly ignoring the intellectual imperatives of the ’60s. Viewed this way Robert Irwin’s aluminum disc became an homage to the dissolution of matter into air. Neil Jenney’s ironic Atmosphere, 1985, was reduced to the state of a talismanic word. Fischer’s metal-and-marble lamp supposedly shed light on the emergence of a ”neo-Modern aesthetic“ (the phrase, again, is Deitch’s). As for Jeff Koons’ noted basketballs, bizarrely positioned in a fish tank, they just hovered there, symbols of some ”mysterious" evasion of gravity.

The surfboards, of course, stole the show, floating suspended from the ceiling in all their clean contours and curatorially astonishing ratio, mementos of the mindless cheer of the Beach Boys and Annette Funicello. Less likable here was the total absence of women, a throwback to the masculine hegemony of Modernism that turned this “nice summer show” into an ugly sociological fact.

Kate Linker