Sunday 17 June 2018

MoMA at the NGV: Exhilarating Evocation of the Avant-Garde

Glenn D. Lowry and Tony Ellwood with Umberto Boccioni's bronze sculpture Unique Forms of Continuity in Space. Portraits for DAM by Paul James McDonnell. See below for Jeanne-Marie Cilento's video interview.
A major new exhibition opens at the National Gallery of Victoria, featuring key works from New York's Museum of Modern Art, from Pablo Picasso and Frida Kahlo to Jeff Koons and Cindy Sherman plus drawings, sculpture and furniture. Many have never been to Australia or left MoMA. We speak to Glenn D. Lowry, Director of MoMA and Tony Ellwood, Director of the NGV. Story by our Special Correspondent in Melbourne Sally Holdsworth

Glenn Lowry, director of MoMA, at the NGV
 with Dali's Surrealist masterpiece
The Persistence of Memory
DAPPER and erudite, Glenn D. Lowry, the director of New York's Museum of Modern Art, stops in front of Salvador Dali’s totemic 1931 painting, The Persistence of Memory. Dali, he explains at the National Gallery of Victoria, painted the image at a time of social change and scientific discovery, just after Einstein’s theory of relativity. “It packs such enormous punch in such a small package,” he says. “Its intensity, its magic is derived by its scale and its impression of space - that time is warped.” With its melting distorted clocks, it is Dali’s way of commenting on the intersection of time and space.

Lowry is in Melbourne for the world premiere of the exhibition, MoMA at NGV: 130 Years of Modern and Contemporary Art, which has opened at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) and will run until October, 2018. This is only the second time the Dali has been lent to an international gallery. Its presence signals the importance that the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) gives to this exhibition, which hosts many works never before seen in Australia.

Salvador Dalí (Spanish 1904–89)
The Persistence of Memory (1931)
oil on canvas 24.1 x 33.0cm
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
©Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí
Copyright Agency 2018
The historic New York Museum is undertaking a major renovation and this has provided the opportunity for a loan of such magnitude. The NGV exhibition gives life to Lowry's belief that the collection should be shared with the broadest possible audience. 

“Museums have emerged as the pre-eminent civic spaces in today’s culture,” says Lowry. “Museums bring people of different backgrounds - socio-economic positions, ethnic and racial backgrounds, different intellectual positions and geographic position - together in a common experience to look at and think about art and culture.”

In a coup for the NGV, more than 230 hand-picked masterpieces are now installed as part of its 2018 Winter Masterpieces series. The series is a fifteen-year project that began in 2004; past shows have included The Hermitage, Degas and Van Gogh and the Seasons.

"Museums have emerged as the pre-eminent civic spaces in today’s culture”

However, according to the director of the NGV, Tony Ellwood, “this extensive exhibition - years in the planning - is the most ambitious yet attempted.”  “We started talking about this over four years ago,” says Lowry, of early discussions he had with Ellwood. “Tony was in New York at the time we were beginning construction and he wanted to know if we would consider a collaboration. He’s a great colleague, I’ve always admired him and we were thrilled to do it.”

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (German 1880–1938)
Street, Dresden (1908)
(reworked 1919, dated on painting 1907)
oil on canvas 150.5 x 200.4 cm
 Purchase, 1951. Digital Image
©The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2018
What gives Lowry the most satisfaction about his work as the director of MoMA? “Looking at art and talking to artists is what I love doing, that’s why we do what we do...but I love working with people and this collaboration has really been a partnership.”

This is a reference to the way the MoMA and NGV curatorial teams worked together on the exhibition.  “Watching how they have changed this exhibition as it evolved, that’s an enormous thrill if you like this notion that art should create relationships and conversations, whether it’s between a work of art and the general public, or between curators and institutions,” says Lowry. “So it’s been really rewarding to see that happen.” As Lowry and Ellwood walk through the show, their excitement and pride are palpable.

“It was amazing to walk through the exhibition and realise...we loaned them that!” says Lowry of the collection, which comprises some of MoMA’s best and most well-loved pieces. The works on display in Melbourne span 130 years, covering the significant art movements from Cubism, Surrealism and the Bauhaus, to Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art and contemporary art.

"Art should create relationships and conversations, whether it’s between a work of art and the general public or between curators and institutions”

Innovative modern design at the NGV
show including Gaetano Pesce's Moloch
floor lamp (1971)
& Joe Colombo's Universale
stacking chairs (1967) for Kartell

The exhibition includes pieces from MoMA’s six curatorial departments: architecture and design, drawing and prints, film, media and performance art, painting, sculpture and photography. It showcases the museums multi-disciplinary approach to collecting, with notable examples of design, lighting, furniture and technological innovation. Choosing the works to display was a joint decision involving Lowry and Ellwood, and curators from both museums.

 “We looked at the key works that were vital and then started building stories around them,” says Tony Ellwood.  “That’s why there are eight themes, done chronologically, so it’s quite friendly, starting with early works then slowly unfolding and helping to explain why we are at contemporary art today.”

Pablo Picasso (Spanish 1818-1973)
Seated Bather (1930)
oil on canvas 163.2x129.5cm
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Mrs Simon Guggenheim Fund, 1950
©Succession Picasso/Licensed by
Copyright Agency, 2018

The sprawling collection, which takes up the entire ground floor of the NGV International, begins in the early twentieth century with the European masters who kick-started the New York museum's original collection in 1929. Called Arcadia and Metropolis, it contains the DNA of MoMA, the foundation on which it is built. Significant works from artists of the nineteenth and twentieth century are represented here: Pablo Picasso, Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, Paul Cezanne, Vincent Van Gogh and Georges-Pierre Seurat whose delicate pointillist work, Evening, Honfleur, is as magnetic and contemporary today as when it was painted in 1886.

Machinery of the Modern World brings together objects from just before and during the First World War - a time in which an explosive cultural scene was unfolding in Europe. Masterpieces are laid out to show the conversation between objects and thoughts across different mediums. “Energy, motion, design are coded into these objects,” says Lowry, who believes that curating can be like poetry. “There are visual rhymes that also resonate with very thoughtful explorations of the way artists were thinking about the world.”

This marriage of art and design reflects MoMA’s early striving to find the linkages between industrialisation and the high arts. Echoing MoMA’s radical homage to industrial design, the Machine Art exhibition of 1934, the NGV collection features design wonders from the twentieth century. Sven Wingquist’s Self-Aligning Ball Bearing from 1907, is an exemplar of its time and here it is: rounds within rounds, sleekly elegant, still modern (see below).

“We looked at the key works that were vital and then started building stories around them”

René Magritte (Belgian 1898–1967)
The Portrait (1935)
oil on canvas 73.3 x 50.2cm
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Gift of Kay Sage Tanguy, 1956
©René Magritte/ADAGP, Paris, Magritte
Miró, Chagall. Licensed by
Copyright Agency 2018
In the same room, Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel from 1913 (see images in gallery below) subversively marries functional objects, a stool and bicycle wheel, to create one of the first examples of conceptual art. With its lens on the latter part of the century, Flight Patterns shows the effect of increased physical mobility and the impact of the emerging digital age. Solari di Undine’s Split flap board flight information display system from 1996, evocatively captures, both visibly and audibly, the experience of travellers in the pre-digital age.
The 1998-99 work, Emoji, by Shigetake Kurita et al (see below), with its familiar assembly of keyboard characters and symbols, heralds the typography of the digital design era. The exhibition is a vivid reminder of the impact of social and cultural change on design across decades, and its convergence with contemporary art.

“MoMA is very thoughtful about providing the kind of diversity and balance, both culturally, through gender where possible - all the key elements,” says Ellwood.

Early Modernism, De Stijl and the Bauhaus movements in revolutionary Russia, the Netherlands and Germany are explored in The New Unity section. From film to painting to costume design, this era had a global influence. Artists such as Torres-Garcia and Mondrian travelled, forging relationships and connections with other artists, spreading ideas about what modern art meant - visually and in terms of social change.

 "There are eight themes, done chronologically, so it’s quite friendly, starting with early works then slowly unfolding and helping to explain why we are at contemporary art today" 

Frida Kahlo (Mexican 1907–54),
Self-portrait with Cropped Hair (1940)
oil on canvas 40.0 x 27.9cm
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Gift of Edgar Kaufmann, Jr, 1943
©Frida Kahlo Estate/ARS
Licensed by Copyright Agency 2018

Here, Mondrian’s Composition in Red, Blue and Yellow, and Gerritt Rietveld’s The Red and Blue Chair, are perfectly simpatico (see picture below). In its consideration of Surrealism, the section of the exhibition called Inner and Outer Worlds includes the works of Joan Miro, Rene Magritte and Frida Kahlo’s compelling 1940 work Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair.

The portrait of Kahlo with her long hair shorn, dressed in a man’s suit, is a comment on beauty as a commodity. It gives an insight into Kahlo’s perception of her own beauty and her position as a female artist at the time. Seventy years later, the image is powerful and the message still resonates.

Here, too, are American masters: Edward Hopper’s Gas from 1940 profoundly captures the quotidian life of mid-century America. Iconic pieces are everywhere, instantly recognisable. Not just art, but furniture and everyday design.

In the part entitled Things As They Are, the metallic architectural lines of an oversized Moloch Floor Lamp by Gaetano Pesce from 1971 (see above), contrast with the soft curves and green-and-yellow fabric of the wall-mounted Malitte Lounge Furniture, designed by Roberto Matta in 1966. It’s a fun and head-spinning trip back to the sixties and seventies.

The emblematic Drowning Girl, painted by Roy Lichtenstein in 1963, has been selected as the exhibition’s Pop Art calling card, with it's dramatic cartoonish image and caption, seemingly printed but all painted by hand. An Australian connection is also on display: the work of Sydney-born artist Martin Sharp, whose psychedelic poster design for sixties rock band Cream became the album cover for Disraeli Gears, completely captures the zeitgeist of the decade (see below). Robert Indiana’s LOVE, with its stencilled font, is here too; an indelible reminder of the freedom of the sixties. Moving through rooms and themes, Immense Encyclopedia shows the influence of social and political change as art moves into the postmodern age.

“There are visual rhymes that resonate with thoughtful explorations of the way artists were thinking about the world.”

Roy Lichtenstein (American 1923-97)
Drowning Girl (1963)
Synthetic polymer paint on canvas171.6x169.5cm
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Philip Johnson Fund (by exchange)
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Bagley Wright, 1971
©Estate of Roy Lichtenstein/Copyright Agency, 2018

The art collective General Idea’s memorable AIDS (Wallpaper) from 1988, inspired by Indiana’s earlier work LOVE, replaces the familiar letters LOVE with AIDS. It is a reminder of the upheaval it wrought in that decade. Elsewhere, Jeff Koons’s Plexiglas-enclosed vacuum cleaners are like Postmodern sculptures called New Shelton Wet/Dry Doubledecker, they make us question the nature of contemporary art.

Accompanying Lowry at the opening of the exhibition were members of the MoMA team including curators Juliet Kinchin and Christian Rattemeyer; Ramona Bannayan, Deputy Director of Exhibitions and Collections; and Jay Levenson, Director of MoMA’s International Program. They worked with key staff at the NGV, including Dr Miranda Wallace, senior curator of international collections, and exhibition designer, Ingrid Rhule, to curate the milestone collection.

The deft showcasing of such works as Gauguin’s masterful The Moon and the Earth, Andy Warhol’s seminal Marilyn Monroe, and Camille Henrot’s filmic Grosse Fatigue is to witness MoMA’s prescience in tracking art and design over 130 years.

"This ability to imagine new futures and move in new directions guides MoMA today and is embodied in the NGV works"

  Sonia Delaunay-Terk (French Ukraine 1885–1979)
Portuguese Market (1915)
oil and wax on canvas 90.5 x 90.5cm
Gift of Theodore R. Racoosin, 1955
Discussing MoMA’s legacy, Lowry describes its founders and early curators as visionaries who believed that the visual arts cut across all domains.

 “They saw the museum as being metabolic and self-renewing, a place of change, not stasis,” he explains. "This ability to imagine new futures and move in new directions guides MoMA today and is embodied in the NGV works."

And what does Lowry plan for MoMA’s future direction? “First and foremost, to finish this [renovation] project and get it open, and then begin to experiment. If a museum is a laboratory then we are about to finish building the lab. Then we can start playing with it, learn how to use it, discover new ways of thinking and imagining what can happen inside that space.”

MoMA at NGV: 130 Years of Modern and Contemporary Art at the National Gallery of Victoria from 9th June to 7th October, 2018.
Watch the interview with MoMA Director Glenn D. Lowry by Jeanne-Marie Cilento

Lyubov’ Popova (Russian 1889–1924) Painterly Architectonic (1917) oil on canvas 80.0 x 98.0 cm
The Museum of Modern Art, New York Philip Johnson Fund, 1958 Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Henri Matisse (French 1869–1954) Music (sketch) (1907)
 Oil and charcoal on canvas.73.4 x 60.8 cm. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of A. Conger Goodyear in honor of Alfred H. Barr, Jr., 1962 ©Succession H. Matisse / Succession H. Matisse. Licensed by Copyright Agency, 2018

 Giorgio de Chirico (Italian born Greece 1888–1978) Gare Montparnasse (The melancholy of departure) (1914 )
Oil on canvas. 140.0 x 184.5 cm. The Museum of Modern Art, New York Gift of James Thrall Soby, 1969 © Giorgio de Chirico / SIAE, Rome. Licensed by Copyright Agency, 2018

Vincent van Gogh (Dutch 853–90) Portrait of Joseph Roulin (1889) oil on canvas. 64.4 x 55.2 cm
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. William A. M. Burden, Mr. and Mrs. Paul Rosenberg, Nelson A. Rockefeller, Mr. and Mrs. Armand P. Bartos, The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection, Mr. and Mrs. Werner E. Josten, and Loula D. Lasker Bequest (all by exchange), 1989 Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2018

Paul Gauguin (French 1848–1903) The Moon and the Earth (1893) oil on burlap. 114.3 x 62.2 cm.
The Museum of Modern Art, New York Lillie P. Bliss Collection, 1934 Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2018
Pictured at the NGV, works by Umberto Boccioni, Marcel Duchamp, Robert Delaunay, Sonia Delaunay and Fernand Léger.

Andy Warhol's Marilyn Monroe (1967) screen prints, pictured at the NGV exhibition.Editions of 250, 91.5 x 91.5 cm each image and sheet. Publisher: Factory Additions, New York
Part of the show at the NGV, Gerrit Rietveld's Red Blue Chair (designed c.1918, painted c.1923) and Piet Mondrian's Composition in Red, Blue, and Yellow (1937–42).
Pictured at the NGV's exhibition of works from MoMA, Mark Rothko's No. 3/No.13 (1949) and Jackson Pollock's Number 7 (1950)

At the NGV exhibition, a wall-sized version of Shigetaka Kurita 's Emoji (1998–99). Digital image The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Part of the NGV exhibition, Sven Wingquist's  (Swedish 1876–1953) Self-aligning Ball Bearing (1907).  Chrome-plated steel 21.6 x 4.4 cm diameter. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

The MoMA at the NGV show, including influential works such as Andre Derain's expressionistic Bathers 1907 (centre) and Henri Matisse's Music 1907 (right).

Looking across the the NGV exhibition's Modern artworks including paintings by Edward Hopper and Joan Miro
Martin Sharp (Australian 1942–2013) Robert Whitaker (photographer British 1939–2011). Reaction Records (record label) British 1966–67 Album cover for Cream, Disraeli Gears (1967) lithograph 30.5 x 30.5cm Museum of Modern Art, New York Committee on Architecture and Design Funds, 2014 © Estate of Martin Sharp / Licensed by Copyright Agency, 2018
Robert Indiana (American born 1928) LOVE (1967) Screen print, edition of 250 86.3 x 86.3 cm (image and sheet)
Publisher: Multiples, Inc., New York Printer: Sirocco Screenprinters, North Haven, Connecticut. The Museum of Modern Art, New York Riva Castleman Fund, 1990 © Morgan Art Foundation / ARS. Licensed by Copyright Agency, 2018

Jeff Koons (American born 1955) New Shelton wet/dry doubledecker (1981) Vacuum cleaners, plexiglass, and fluorescent lights. 245.4 x 71.1 The Museum of Modern Art, New York Gift of Werner and Elaine Dannheisser, 1996 © Jeff Koons

Subscribe to support our independent and original journalism, photography, artwork and film.