Downtime

Take advantage of the Modern Art Museum's holiday snooze

But Motherwell, well. The monumental "Elegy to the Spanish Republic" lumbers off the wall and grabs you by the face; it's a giant of both patience and violence. How do mere elliptical shapes and vertical slashes of paint manage to impart such brutal meaning? The instinct required for this kind of work is rare and astounding, and as the massive black ovals line up with those broad black downward strokes, you feel the weight of an entire war seething off the canvas and into the space surrounding it. Walking up to this Motherwell is like walking into someone's dark-minded, world-weary scrutiny. You wince under the weight of it, but you can't look away. I stood in front of that Motherwell for ages, continued through the museum, then came back to it. Connecting that way with a single work of art can make an entire afternoon at an exhibition worthwhile.

Motherwell may not be your thing. Maybe you go in for the sooty, massive Anselm Kiefers, or the iconographic Warhols (Marilyn Monroe is here), and if you like your memory jarred, the Modern has hung a few of its holdovers from past major exhibitions too. There's one from Diebenkorn's non-"Ocean Park" phase, a Matisse-ish painting of a woman called "Girl with Flowered Background"; and there's one of Baselitz's upside-down paintings from his show more than a year ago. And a pleasant surprise is Bill Viola's "The Greeting," a 1995 video installation that has all the great Viola earmarks: people taking part in some timeless, transcendental activity in super-slo-mo to the roar of a sonic vacuum. Three modern women re-enact a Biblical tale of confession and miracle, with each painstaking frame building to an unbearable tension. It's a worthy addition to the Modern's more current stable.

In the end, these occasional glimpses at the Museum's permanent collection remind me of a Ray Bradbury short story, about a colony of earthlings inhabiting an outlying planet that gets only one day of sunlight a year during otherwise endless rainfall. The school kids get to frolic for a few hours in the sunlight, except for the one kid who longs for the sun the most. He ends up getting locked in the closet for the day. I suspect there are plenty of works holed up in the Modern's storehouse waiting for their day in the sun; the museum alternates works for these auto-pilot shows.

Freeze-frame of an era: Vija Celmins' "German Plane" (1966) is just one of many contemporary works in the show that comments on social and political issues.
Freeze-frame of an era: Vija Celmins' "German Plane" (1966) is just one of many contemporary works in the show that comments on social and political issues.
Bill Viola's wall-size video and sound installation "The Greeting" (1995) is one of the more recent works in the Modern's current show.
Bill Viola's wall-size video and sound installation "The Greeting" (1995) is one of the more recent works in the Modern's current show.

The good news is that the Modern's new building should be completed in another year or so, with plenty of space for both special exhibitions and a year-round rotation of its permanent collection. Still, that's a ways off, so if you want a surefire date with a Motherwell, you better go now.

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