New York

“Art of the Forties”

The Museum of Modern Art

The “Art of the Forties” show discards the blockbuster mentality that informed museum exhibitions during the ’80s; instead of the usual display of artistic triumphs that characterize such exhibitions, this show borrows from the museum’s permanent collection and interweaves a broad cross section of cultural artworks and artifacts to document the socioeconomic, esthetic, and historical concerns of this war-torn decade. The result is like paging through an old art magazine in which the masters are presented next to artists who have subsequently been pressed to the margins of art history. Exhibiting the work of lesser-known artisans and designers along with masterworks recreates a more complete picture of an era.

Riva Castleman, the exhibition’s curator, has dovetailed a selection of some of the most significant works of art from that decade (by Pablo Picasso, Piet Mondrian, Jackson Pollock, and José Clemente Orozco) with works by less celebrated artists who nevertheless express the esthetic and social concerns of the period. The exhibition includes posters, domestic artifacts, a sports car, artistic as well as documentary photography, architectural models, and such anomalies as a translucent screen on which an image of moving lights swirls. By juxtaposing Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie-Woogie, 1942–43, with an altogether different kind of utopian plasticity, Earl S. Tupper’s Tupperware, circa 1945, the curator gives us a sense that art history does not simply follow a morphological logic but rather a conceptual one.

Regardless of the exhibition’s scope, simple rather than complex relationships are established through what are predominantly ancillary contemporary cultural artifacts. The works’ scale is often quite small, and the overall feel is almost journalistic. This is an exhibition where photographs and prints seem at home, and in many cases significant figures such as Max Beckmann are represented here by no more than a print. Instead of suggesting that a singular attitude epitomizes the ’40s, the exhibition unveils the complexities that characterize this era.

The overall impression created by this curatorial approach is one of cultural schizophrenia. Here, work informed by a mystical optimism in the future hangs comfortably alongside pieces invoking an apocalyptic nihilism. Castleman is able to include such works as Weegee’s Woman Shot from a Canon, New York, 1943, Charles Eames’ Study for a Glider Nose, 1943, and the anonymous military photograph Gunner of the U.S.S. Hornet Scores a Direct Hit on Japanese Bomber—18 March 1945, that are seldom seen together, and thus to provide a context that justifies their association. The exhibition captures a particular epoch and transcends mere estheticism by admitting a larger realm of cultural production.

The civilization excavated here, however, is not global but Euro-American. Missing are examples representing Asian cultures and third world nations from Africa and South America. The omission is particularly conspicuous since the museum staged an exhibition on South Seas art in the ’40s. This curatorial choice might be partly due to the limitations of the museum’s collection, which is weak in these areas. However, just because the museum suffered from the colonialist American ideal that ignored collecting artifacts from these cultures, their omission today in 1991 only seems to support the racism and xenophobia that characterized America and Europe throughout the ’40s. This imbalance is most clearly apparent in the exhibition’s last room, where even the European presence is absent. By including only American works, the myth of American cultural supremacy is sustained. The presentation of these works, as the last word, ultimately diminishes the sensitive acknowledgment of disparate cultural currents that informs the organization of the preceding rooms. Like a child who behaves up to a point and politely lets others speak, but can no longer keep quiet, the museum has blurted out the predictably imperialist agenda that sustains its institutional mandate.

Kirby Gookin