Downtime

Take advantage of the Modern Art Museum's holiday snooze

You can't blame the exhausted for taking a break during the holidays. Even museums, those time-honored institutions of high culture, need some time to decompress after a year's worth of hard-won spotlighted exhibitions. It's not that November and December cause a mass museum blackout. It just means a museum might take its own version of a nap instead of making its behind-the-scenes employees scramble to mastermind and organize a major exhibition. (And if you ever wander through a never-ending maze of museum offices, you'll get a feel for just how many type-A personalities it takes to run the show. By late November, they're all fairly worn at their otherwise steely seams.)

The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, with its usual breakneck pace of major shows, sometimes gives itself a breather after such a successful run of public enlightenment. The Modern has had a great year: We marveled at the soulfulness of American folk art, gasped at the creepy-charming genius of Walt Disney, swooned at the evolution of sculpture and the brooding compulsions of Francis Bacon. Now the Modern is yawning and stretching like an exhausted greyhound after a long, sweaty day at the races. Time for auto-pilot.

And the Modern can pull it off; its version of auto-pilot consists of throwing a bunch of pieces from its permanent collection up on the walls and letting the public get a rounded, narcotic dose of solid modern and contemporary art. These are the pieces the Modern normally has stashed away in storage, the pieces the Modern simply doesn't have the space to showcase year-round. You have to admire an institution that knows you can't keep a Pollock or a Motherwell locked up and gathering dust in some crate indefinitely. You'd be surprised at how many collectors and museums commit such a crime.

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.

When the Modern brings out a selection from its permanent collection, which it has done for this millennium-straddling season, the non-event is a subtle windfall. It's a bit like taking a vitamin for the soul: undeniably good for your eyes and mind, a sharp reminder of the sheer volume of great art in this world that's ours for the looking if we can...just...get ourselves to a museum. Granted, a few early-career Pollocks and meditative Rothkos might not have folks lining up the way they did for the giant and controversial survey of Bacon's work, but this isn't a bitter pill to swallow. It's a Flintstones vitamin. It actually tastes pretty good as it boosts your immunity to ignorance and other modern-day viruses.

What the Modern chose to haul out into the light this round is curiously calming. Notable gems, certainly, but the aesthetic spectrum is so wide -- whispering Rothkos, quipping Lichtensteins, staring Shermans -- that the overall effect is that of a wash. Every piece is both tempered and put into perspective by the other works surrounding it. A Rothenberg horse gallops opposite a Guston peeping Tom; Richter's Italian auto zooms past Celmins' German bomber.

While this diversity isn't jarring or clashing, it doesn't exactly steer you into the focused zone. Walking through the museum is something like channel-surfing on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Sometimes you have to jerk yourself into consciousness in the face of one of those early Pollocks: "Ah, good ol' Jackson. Haven't seen his figurative stuff before...Oh, my God -- this is a figurative Pollock!" The personae of the artists are so disparate, the motivations and end results of each so liberated from the rest, that the works threaten to cancel each other. Sometimes you forget you're looking at the real thing by the actual maker.

But that aforementioned perspective is key. You may not feel your brain synapses crackling so much during the tour of the museum's cozy galleries, but afterward, some thoughtful lightbulbs sputter on, and an overall sense of an era sets in. It takes time to process something so complex and insidiously appealing as modern art, and since the museum refuses to bully and prod you with it, it's up to you to let the works speak for themselves.

But that's all postscript. Since built-in intensity isn't a luxury with general shows such as this, it's not a bad idea to home in on a few pieces and spend some time with them. Much like tossing the remote control aside once you've found a particularly compelling nature documentary or hockey game, walk through the whole, find the works that jolt your attention, then return to them. You may never get this quality time with this artist again.

I originally trekked out to Fort Worth to see the Philip Guston pieces in the show, since I've not had the pleasure of his one-on-one company before, but I ended up ditching Phil and hanging out with Motherwell. The Modern's Gustons aren't what I had hoped for; instead of brash cartoon cigars and white hoods and all kinds of psycho-social angst, I found one rather low-key painting with his familiar sprawling limbs and not much more. This is typical of a permanent collection show. You go to see the epitome of an artist's work and find instead what the museum bought on its own aesthetic whim.

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.

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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