I Don't Get It. Is It Modern?

So on Columbus Day, in a switch, my wife and I had the day off but our son had school. (He goes to a Jewish day school, and what with all the Jewish holidays just passed, they had to make up for lost time, hence no Columbus Day holiday for them. Don’t worry; they get Thanksgiving.) So we decided to have an actual grownup date day. We’d go into town, hit a couple of grownup museums, go to a grownup movie. You know: grownup stuff. So this is a review of our day.


First stop was the Museum of Modern Art. There are lots and lots of things not to like about MOMA, from the way the museum aggressively turns its back on 54th Street with that horrible corrugated metal facade to the absurdity of the computer-scanned membership cards to the fact that its incomparable permanent collection has been largely exiled to the upper floors and hung as if to maximize the viewer’s alienation from the experience of the artwork. But it’s also, you know, MOMA, still the epicenter of high-modernist good taste and still a treasure trove of a museum.

The main attraction this time was a collection of photographs of early Soviet modernist architecture. The photographs were frequently quite beautiful, but the architecture itself was generally not terribly impressive, at least not to me. Historically significant, perhaps, but the thing about modernist architecture is (a) it wasn’t built to last (and hence looks shabbier more quickly than other architecture – the new MOMA itself is already starting to fray), and (b) what tends to last, aesthetically, is not what made the building seem important at the time. Everyone’s favorite modernist skyscraper in NYC is the Chrysler Building, but what’s distinctive about it are the kitchy deco elements – the decorative arts aspect of the structure rather than the ways in which it left that tradition behind. There are exceptional, iconic buildings that break this rule – the Eiffel Tower, the Centre Georges Pompidou, the Guggenheim Museum – but for most modernist buildings I think it’s a valid generalization. In any event, unfortunately most of the buildings captured by Richard Pare’s photographs are antiquated-looking and drab. This is not just a matter of poor upkeep, though that, of course, doesn’t help; the thing about modernism is it moves on. There is something fundamentally peculiar about lamenting, as this review does, the impulse to knock down these historically-significant modernist buildings to make way for something more contemporary. Yes, there was an idealism behind these buildings that is utterly absent from the "ghastly malls and luxury apartments" that will replace them – but the core ideal of the modernists was itself to wipe out history and start afresh. Preservationism is an affront to the very ideals that these architects espoused. It would be nice if that were at least acknowledged.

After taking in that one current exhibition, we headed upstairs briefly to peek at the permanent collection. Unfortunately, doing so is such an unpleasant experience on any day that the museum is occupied that we could not bring ourselves to stay. I made one stop at one of my favorite rooms – devoted to Austrian/German Expressionism – and then we left. The only other stop was in the sculpture garden, which this past summer was dominated by looming hulks of metal, now removed. That show – the Richard Serra retrospective - was an incredibly sensual experience; I was going to say spiritual, but I’m not sure that’s right, because walking through his enormous rusted-steel spaces (they aren’t really sculptures, but a different art form altogether, closer to architecture – better: his work is to architecture what an abstract expressionist painting is to the decorative arts) isn’t an experience that transcends the material but a hightened experience of the material. Anyway, it was great. I brought my wife and son to see the show, after previewing it myself, and, frankly, they were less impressed. As we were walking through one of the two pieces that temporarily dominated the sculpture garden, my wife looked down and spotted the rust bleeding onto the marble floor of the sculpture garden. "That’ll never come out," she tsked, thinking of our own bathroom renovations and what damage to the adjoining rooms would never be made right. Well, I can tell you now that she was right: the tilted arcs are gone, but the rust-stains remain. No doubt the preservationists will agitate against their removal.


Next stop: Lincoln Square Cinema, to see the mid-day showing of My Kid Could Paint That, a peculiar documentary about a four-year-old abstract expressionist. The documentary is peculiar because the director plainly set out to make a very different movie than the one he finally made. The movie he wanted to make was about the nature of modern art, and abstract art in particular, and "action painting" in especial particular; about whether "intention" matters in evaluating the quality of an abstraction; about whether the purported aesthetic arguments for abstract art aren’t all phony, with the reality being that modern art is at best a matter of pure fashion, at worst a gigantic confidence game.

Unfortunately for the director, his subject, purportedly a prodigy at abstract painting, turned out to be quite possibly a fraud. Mid-way through the making of the film, Charlie Rose did a segment on the little painter, and he raised serious doubts in any objective observer’s mind about whether Marla was making these paintings without assistance. Thus the film swerves, from being a film about art into being a film about media, and the art market, and the notion of authenticity. It turned out that, whether or not the paintings had any objective aesthetic value, their market value was entirely bound up in the notion of Marla the prodigy, and pretty much everyone involved (except for her mother) seems to have understood this from the very beginning. The gallery owner, himself an artist (of the photorealist school) makes revealingly cynical comments to the documentarian about his motivations in promoting Marla’s work, which stoked my suspicions that he was probably the author of much of the best work that Marla supposedly produced.

The end of the movie is quite sad, as we see what a toll the whole process has taken on the family. They were no longer a normal family; their identity was bound up with their media image, and that image was, in large part, scandalous. Marla’s mother had forseen this, and was the most devastated by it. But she did not get off her daughter’s gravy train, not even after the debunking, not even after losing the sympathies of the director of the film. The saddest part for me was realizing that she, at least, was telling the truth; if there was fraud being committed, and Marla was not the sole author of her paintings, her mother plainly had no idea.

But the movie is, ultimately, not very satisfying, because the subject is such a commonplace one. Stories of corruption by the media monster are no longer a dime a dozen; by now, for a dime you can get a whole gross. I had really been looking forward to a serious investigation of the autonomy of the aesthetic, and whether abstract art could be compared to something like music which is "naturally" abstract, and where we are not so surprised by the periodic appearance of prodigies. (There are, of course, prodigies in the visual arts as well, though they tend to be children who produce remarkably accurate drawings from life at extremely young ages; it is strange that the director never talks about such cases in the film, and that nobody comments that Marla does not manifest any such skills.) Instead, I had to be content with turning the documentarian’s critical lens back on himself (for example, I’m pretty sure he used footage early in the film of an interview that took place much later with the local journalist who broke the Marla story, in which the journalist talks about her reservations about the story and what it would do to the family; if this footage is indeed from after the Charlie Rose episode, then the director is making her look more prescient than she perhaps was). I don’t, actually, care that much about this family; whether they were frauds or wrongly maligned, they aren’t actually that interesting. I do, however, care about art. I wish there were more of it in this film.


Of course, sometimes the art really is a gigantic confidence game. As, for example, the art of Richard Prince, now on display in Frank Lloyd Wright’s toilet bowl. The overview text for the exhibition talks about the art registering "prevalent themes in our social landscape, including a fascination with rebellion, an obsession with fame, and a preoccupation with the tawdry and the illicit." A perfectly apt description of the contemporary art world, if this exhibit is anything to go by. As a description of "spiritual America" as the show is titled, well . . .

I breezed through the gallery very quickly, because there was nothing to grab me either aesthetically or conceptually. I got the idea right away: Prince likes a certain category of American kitsch. He likes muscle cars; he likes borscht-belt jokes; he likes cigarette ads. Got it. Prince has decided what he thinks is "cool" and (here’s the trick) has convinced the art world that displaying his sensibility in itself constitutes a work of art. Nice work, if you can get it. (I don’t get it, and I tried.)

Now, I don’t know who to fault for this situation. The woman who curated the show is a very nice woman and she is not without taste by any means. And I can’t fault conceptualism as such; heck, there’s a sense in which the work of Velasquez is conceptual art, and there are contemporary conceptualists I not only don’t mind but appreciate (though not many come to mind). But this fellow’s work is both shallow and ugly. Maybe this profile is right, and Prince has a profound empathy for the upstate New York culture in which he has embedded himself, and that this is the wellspring of his work. I have no idea – but I do know that, for me, the work itself communicates nothing, either about the experience of that world or about the significance of that experience.

That Times piece is titled, "The Duchamp of the Muscle Car." When Duchamp put his urinal on display, what he meant was, look at this! This is an important, aesthetic object! Which is a neat trick the first time it’s done, and, I must, say, the urinals at some art museums are more pleasing works, aesthetically, than some of what’s on the walls. But, you know, there’s a whole profession of automobile design. The people who do it are very attuned to aesthetics, to cultural cues, and, not at all incidentally, to engineering requirements. But this is not news, as it might have been in Duchamp’s day. We can all be Duchamps now. My college roommate stole a McDonalds flag and hung it in the corner of our common room. A friend in another part of campus stole a street lamp and installed it on the ceiling of his common room. Like I said: we can all be Duchamps. And both common rooms were works of conceptual art, in their own little way. But there’s no reason to put them in the Guggenheim.