Search View Archive

Railing Opinion: Communiqué from the land of BIG

As part of our interest in revitalizing art criticism and theory, in giving them both a sharp edge and broad, encompassing vision, the Rail has initiated this column.

We invite art critics, art historians, and artists to voice insights and critical reflections on the nature of art, its history, and its relationship to our current social and political surroundings. This is intended to be an ongoing dialogue, and we urge you to participate.

Submissions can be sent to:

A story of crimes and misdemeanors and a few signs of civic virtue:

There is only one crime. After 18 months of cleaning and restoration, Picasso’s “Demoiselles d’Avignon” is lost. Picasso called it his “exorcism” painting, and he meant it. The roughness and clashes he so thoughtfully invoked are now pale and dreadfully harmonious, enclosed in a heavy gray frame. Restorers are the new philistines.

As for misdemeanors:

• Allowing Barnett Newman’s jejune and singularly unsculptural "Broken Obelisk," nearly 25-feet high and weighing 8,000 pounds (as MoMA proudly proclaims in its vast publicity campaign) to obliterate Monet in the atrium. Once discreetly isolated in its curving majesty, the Monet now sits flat on a wall, cowering in the brutal space the Newman commands.

•Poor Balzac is similarly demeaned (and he, too, seems to have been polished up and “restored” in a tasteless way) by standing guard over glass doors toward which visitors stream while searching for café lattes and restrooms, and a glimpse of the far more fetching green helicopter hovering over nearby escalators.

•David Smith’s “Australia,” which used to be regarded as a major work, now sits disconsolately in front of a wall instead of soaring into space as it was meant to.

•Leaving a football field of empty space to emphasize that Rosenquist’s “F=111” is one of the biggest paintings and, opposite, Ellsworth Kelly’s decorative screen certainly confirms Nietzsche’s foreboding that modern art would wind up as pure spectacle—and also confirms Thorstein Veblen’s remarks on conspicuous consumption writ large. Very large.

•In case the viewer needs to know, each room has emblazoned in raised type the name of the donor, sometimes more conspicuous than the paintings beneath them. The huge sums the MoMA extracted from its trustees and other aspiring donors are mercifully omitted, although in the blitz of newspaper coverage MoMA was glad enough to talk dollars, as would any corporation. I noticed the word “glory” in the press releases more than once.

What they said:

I asked dozens of people, most of them in the arts (or, as one dealer refers to them, “art-related people”) for their comments. Here goes:

A painter: This installation was designed by Condoleezza Rice.

A painter: This is the imperial cathedral.

A filmmaker and photographer: This is like those temples of Asia where the monkeys have taken over.

A writer: Only one word for it: “Sterile.”

Me: For all its grandiloquence, it feels like an outdoor mausoleum.

These corporate types took over a magnificent architect, Taniguchi, and made him into a hired hand. Certainly the committee of trustees and curators made numerous demands, and Taniguchi had to obey. How else to explain the awkwardness of certain parts of the interior? I have seen four of his projects in Japan, all of them exquisitely inventive, and none with the deadly effects in the interiors that we have acquired in our town.

An architect mentioned to me that he had seen the museum from the 68th floor of the Trump Tower and found it a marvelous site in a city setting: a beautifully integrated building in an urban environment. But what about those works of art? In this corporate, deadly white paradise, they are little more than signs, especially the paintings. Most of the permanent collection works were made in studios. They were easel paintings. They require intimacy—a quality totally absent in these galleries. What fare best are the red sports car and the green helicopter. (Particularly irritating are the polemics by high-minded art historian-curators stating the obvious: that many things were done during a given period, and therefore it behooves us to separate the single artist’s work.)

Proud of their heterodoxy, the curators of painting and sculpture, in the printed pamphlet for visitors, express what I take to be John Elderfield’s new historiography:

“Because the history of modern art took no one path, there is no one route through the galleries. The movements of modern art—and accordingly these galleries—may be thought of as a succession of arguments and counterarguments on the continually disputed subject of what it means to make art for the modern age.”

The Borges-like forked paths tend only toward confusion and too much activity. Maybe this is what Mandelstam meant when he spoke of “the noise of time.” You might like to know that MoMA’s tribute to its founder, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., comes in the form of naming one of the many “dining options,” as they call them, the Bar Room—a forty-three-foot-long marble bar. It is equal to the diction that has accompanied the advertising blitz, which speaks of “the mission of the museum as a laboratory” and is always talking of the “interaction” between consumers and goods. What will that lab produce?


                                                      Before the Fall

I remember that Lewis Mumford in his account of the architecture of ancient Rome spoke of the accelerating pace of the building in Rome’s final years and of the competition to build the biggest house, stadium, or governmental buildings. Gigantism goes with declines and falls. Once upon a time, a British railway engineer (I think he was a railway man, but I might have forgotten) wrote a splendid book called Small Is Beautiful. His lessons are lost on us.

Okay, okay, I am living up to the sarcastic remark of the august critic of the New York Times: “Reactionaries will inevitably carp and declare the end of the world as we know it.” But I think Baudelaire was a larger figure, and he, who knew there is no progress in art, would probably have agreed with me.


Dore Ashton


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 04-JAN 05

All Issues