Monday, September 10, 2007

A Modern Patronage

This is a rare opportunity, the mounting of an exhibit involving the MoMA, MFAH, Centre Pompidou, and other institutions. The oddity here is that a vast debt is owed to the relatively demure Menil Collection; treasures donated by the deMenil family to leading museums were pulled for the exhibit from vast collections in vaults, in some cases ignored or forgotten by their owners. A Modern Patronage mobilizes the particular intricacies of the deMenil’s collecting practices and doubly serves as a measure of the type of works deemed proper to be donated to some of the world’s greatest art institutions. In situ, the show exists in support of a few works that stand head and shoulders above the rest. An innovative mix of tribal artifacts from around the world and mid-century Modernism, the exhibit contrasts the forms of a wide range of artworks, finding similarities in disparate sources.

René Magritte, The Empire of Light II, 1950
Oil on canvas
The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Gift of D. and J. de Menil
(c) The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA /
Art Resource, NY. (c) ARS, NY

This Houston institution places their intimidating group of works in a darkened gallery, adding to the pervasive grey tone in the body of work and dampening the drama in the gallery. The first room focuses on Magritte, and while the viewer filters past a foreboding and solid Aztec standard bearer and a mystical stone figure, an Akwanshi from Nigeria, the stonework in the surrounding paintings gains weight. Just inside the second room of the exhibit hangs a painting by the mysterious German painter Wols. A simple figure is aggressively scrawled onto raw canvas in black and red, simple shapes delineating a mouth and eyes in enraptured shock. A member of a short lived and nihilistic group living in Paris in the ruins of the Second World War, the artist channeled a dark, violent energy during his short career, and is often ignored as a precursor to the emergence of Abstract Expressionism in New York. A notable loan from the MFAH, the sculpture untitled, by Lee Bontecou, is a standout expression of the artist’s depth of emotion in her inventive constructions; atypical for her era and foreshadowing artistic and architectural forms that have grown viable in the past fifty years.

Jackson Pollock, The Deep, 1953
Oil and enamel on canvas
Musee National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris
CNAC/MNAM/Dist. Réunion des Musées Nationaux /
Art Resource, NY (c) ARS, NY. Photo: Jacques Faujour

The lynchpin of A Modern Patronage is a late Pollock, The Deep, on loan from the Pompidou Centre in Paris and unlikely to be seen on American soil again for decades. This large painting, once decried as a symptomatic failure of the late work of the Abstract Expressionist, is now resurrected by the Menil- the focus of an artist’s roundtable in July- as a powerful image worthy of praise. The work is flanked by other works by Pollock, earlier and later, owned by the MFAH and the Menil, along with an Asante vessel, a powerful Wols, Manhattan, and an early Rothko- notably different from the ethereal mood of later, more famous works on exhibit here and in other galleries of the museum.

Andy Warhol, Big Electric Chair (1967)
(not included in the exhibition)
137,2 x 185,2 cm, Collection Froehlich, Stuttgart

The fourth and largest room holds a blush of bright electric chairs, four paintings by Andy Warhol from different periods in his career including Lavender Disaster. The space is balanced by three large sculptures; two oversized Oldenburg sculptures in white, one an electric fan that dangles from the ceiling, the other a sunken drum kit, and a Larry Rivers sculpture with two pairs of female figures perpetually reversing the roles of dominance, satirizing Manet’s Olympia. Two models for Christo’s early works and their mock-up collage photographs are playful sculptures. As miniatures their absurdity is blunted by the reality that; yes, the artist did go around wrapping buildings in massive swathes of cloth. Coyly curated, the Menil Collection’s laissez faire attitude sells less books and tee shirts than the rest of the uber-branded museum world, but their prudishness can buy clout in short supply with those willing to look hard enough.

in the new issue- Artshouston