My Visit to the Museum of Modern Art

L. R. Laverde-HansenStarred Page By L. R. Laverde-Hansen, 9th Sep 2015 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL http://nut.bz/1kzjvjkw/
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On Monday, September 7, 2015. I took a trip to the Museum of Modern Art too see some exhibits about to close. Here is an account of that.

Why I went this week to the MoMA

This past Monday, I went to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in Manhattan to check out a few special exhibits before they closed. The main one I wanted to see was, “One-Way Ticket.” This is the complete sixty (60) painting series by Jacob Lawrence covering the Great Migration of the early 20th Century. The Great Migration was large scale exodus of African Americans from the agricultural American south to the industrial cities of the American north. Jacob Lawrence, himself a child of migrant African-American parents, was a later member of the Harlem Renaissance who completed the entire series in 1941 at the age of twenty three.

Before I reached that, I went up the lower floors and reviewed a collection of modern art’s greatest hits. Picasso was there, as well as Van Gogh and Giacometti. There was nothing I hadn’t seen before, though I was surprised that they moved Monet’s Water Lilies painting (a huge room-sized set of panels) from the lower entrance space, to an upper floor. But I saw that another installation was being set up.

Greatest Hits - Exhbit A: Andy Warhol

The trip down memory lane reached one peak when I came across the Andy Warhol exhibit featuring his famous paintings of Campbell’s soup cans. The exhibit laid out in its original order the complete 1962 series, whereby Warhol painted two-dimensional versions of all of the then commercially available varieties of Campbell’s soup cans. As the exhibit’s captions pointed out, Pop art was not yet established as a major art genre. The cans were a revelation for many as they were not only blatantly representational (after previous decades’ movement away from representation), but seemingly both a celebratory and ironic depiction of our current mass consumer culture. For some, this ambiguity was the birth of postmodern hipness. For me, it was a reminder of how the ordinary in our lives are subjects worthy of artistic rendering.

On some level, the soup cans were nothing new. In later years, Warhol would represent other commercial products with his trademark mixture of humor and craftsmanship, but all of this took me back to the early Marcel Duchamp objects of the early 20th Century (some of which are also at MoMA). Duchamp was arguably the first major artist to blatantly exhibit mass-produced objects as sole pieces worthy of evaluation. He took a bicycle wheel or an urinal and literally put it in an exhibition room. For me, this initiated the true spirit of much of modern art, where the concept of the piece matters more than the technique or craftsmanship involved in making the piece. Even if the technique was novel and controversial, as with the Impressionists, it was for the purpose of expressing a new interpretation. Now the concept was more important than ever, and the artist with the cleverest idea or set of ideas seemed to shine the brightest in that art firmament. Warhol's simultaneous praise and admiration and cool distance made him an iconic force of that time.

Greatest Hits - Exhbit B: Yoko Ono

That brought me to another formidable talent of that time: Yoko Ono. Establishing herself in the 1960s art scene, Ono started out with a few graphic works but soon made the jump to performance pieces, films, books and other concept-based media. By 1964 she had gained real notoriety with both her Cut and Bag pieces. Cut Piece was the most striking. In the film shot by the Maysles brothers, Ono performs the piece by demurely kneeling on a stage wearing a conservative black frock with a pair of scissors by her side. After inviting others to cut individual pieces off, participants approach her and do just that. They do that to the point that by the end of the film, Ms. Ono is wearing little more than underwear and torn fabric. Maybe she is acting, but she looked affected. There is a sense that in 1964 this was more shocking than today, though there it is still startling to watch, even if it is a performance piece.

Bag Piece is decidedly more humorous. Originally Ono got into a dark cloth bag and rolled on the floor around it, performing various steps in the bag. Unlike with some of her other works, Bag Piece was performed during the exhibition by a volunteer with a trained assistant. It was appropriately silly, but I felt no need to roll around the floor in a bag, so I moved on.

Yoko Ono also made photo works, sound and music recordings (especially as a member of the Plastic Ono group). Her works show a great contrast between extreme frivolity and dead seriousness. Fly (1970) was a film she made of a usually nude female with a fly on different parts of her body. There is some background music suggesting the sound of the fly. As the film goes on, it starts to show that multiple flies are on different parts of the woman's body. For all the artsy manner of the filming (natural lighting, no extravagant production values), there is a payoff, however stark.

Greatest Hits - Exhbit C: Jacob Lawrence

With an hour to go, I finally reached the Jacob Lawrence Migration series on the third floor. Stage and film actor Delroy Lindo (pictured) nearly pushed me on his way to the exhibit. It begins with a chronological time span written on the outside wall of both the great migration of African-Americans to the industrial cities of the north, and of the details of Jacob Lawrence's life.

While the ambitiousness of a twenty-three-year-old artist is admirable, I was surprised at how small the actual paintings actually were (I had a similar reaction at MoMA around twenty years ago, when I saw Dalí's The Persistence of Memory, which is a very small painting.). Nevertheless, their distorted, simplified, yet very representational figures tell the gripping story that had many turns, positive and not so positive. African Americans did find a more prosperous future, but it was with different forms of discrimination, and not all the happy endings one might expect in a more romanticized telling. The abstract, academic and possibly pretentious medium of painting is still able to capture very pertinent realities.

The Takeaway

While I was glad to see this series, the big surprise was that MoMA had no surprises. Jacob Lawrence may not be known to all audiences, but he is an established figure in the modern-art firmament. Andy Warhol’s art is so well known, even to casual art fans. A Yoko Ono retrospective was in order because prior to her marriage to John Lennon, she was a significant New York-based artist in modern art circles. Her later fame overshadowed that, but that’s the point. She deserved the retrospective and the appreciation, but hardly the publicity.

Maybe the bigger surprise of the exhibit is how long a shadow these artists continue to cast. Seeing a person roll around on the floor in a bag is not as shocking as it was, say in the mid 1960s, but it showed there are few concepts which actually challenge the mind and open the conversation, not merely offend a sensibility.

Composed and Revised in New York
September 7-12, 2015

Tags

Andy Warhol, Jacob Lawrence, Moma, Yoko Ono

Meet the author

author avatar L. R. Laverde-Hansen
Poet, playwright, commentator. I write wherever I can. Currently I reside in the City of New York.

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Comments

author avatar Fern Mc Costigan
12th Sep 2015 (#)

Awesome poet, what a day you spend in this beautiful place LR,cheers!

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author avatar L. R. Laverde-Hansen
12th Sep 2015 (#)

Thank you, Fern! Love to read your wine pieces.

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author avatar M G Singh
12th Sep 2015 (#)

Wonderful post. Must visit next time I visit

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author avatar L. R. Laverde-Hansen
12th Sep 2015 (#)

Thank you so much, Madan!

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author avatar Retired
12th Sep 2015 (#)

Why is MoMA closing?

Besides being interested only in that question, my take on modern art is that much of it leaves me cold. I gain no inner meaning from studies of soup cans, Warhol canvases on which there is nothing, or art that claims to capture reality more than reality does.

Do not misinterpret my meaning. I love art for the skill it shows, the expressive talents of the artists, and the expression it gives, especially when no other medium says what it says as well. Some of the art you describe simply says nothing, perhaps the nothing that emanated from the artists themselves. Emptiness, perhaps.

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author avatar L. R. Laverde-Hansen
12th Sep 2015 (#)

Oh no, LeRain. The Museum is not closing, just certain exhibits. Granted, a lot of modern art is very decisive still, and I admit I don't like all of it. But I respect that certain pieces have made me think, feel and look at the world in different ways.

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author avatar Retired
12th Sep 2015 (#)

By the way, where's your star on this piece? It's one of the few that are well written, illustrated, and delivers lots of information. Despite my having a different opinion on the subject (as is my right, Wikinut moderators are quick to point out...) I think this piece deserves a star.

But then, moderators have a different perspective on star-worthy articles. But, I dub this piece with a STAR, notwithstanding Wiki's stupid standards for such.

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author avatar L. R. Laverde-Hansen
12th Sep 2015 (#)

And thank you kindly, LeRain. As for stars, I have found they are arbitrarily given, as are most prizes. Jesus never got a Nobel prize, but I'm sure no one thinks He needed one.

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author avatar Retired
12th Sep 2015 (#)

Jesus was born too early in humankind's history to earn the coveted prize for peacemaking. Besides, the Nobel committee is too busy bestowing the Prize to killers like Arafat and liars like Obama for achievements that reside well outside the realm of peacemaking.

As for your likening a Wikinut star to the Nobel Peace prize, I think the analogy is apt.

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author avatar GV Rama Rao
14th Sep 2015 (#)

Excellent post. I am now much wiser about modern art. Thanks for posting this.

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author avatar L. R. Laverde-Hansen
15th Sep 2015 (#)

Thank you, so much, GV Rama Rao.

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