Contemporary Art at MoMA: Pretty Good, Really

09/03/2010 10:00 AM |

Last year MoMA dedicated seven months to the display of contemporary drawings from the Judith Rothschild Foundation collection. It was a throwaway show probably designed to save money, but still… I wasn’t impressed. It was basically a survey of work the Foundation had bought in Chelsea recently, and hardly a marker of the best art exhibited. This year’s budget-friendly show, Contemporary Art from the Collection is a little better. MoMA dedicates the same second floor space to the stated aim of highlighting common artistic concerns and debates since the late 60s: economics, politics, gender and ethnicity. This isn’t the most inspired concept in the world—it’s so general it creates a slightly disjointed show—but whatever. For what it is, the exhibition’s worth checking out. I saw some work I hadn’t seen before, and I liked most of what’s on view.

Contemporary Art from the Collection
begins with a bang. A sprawling black and white Robert Rauschenberg screen print reproducing cut-out articles and pictures from newspapers spreads across two walls, and a free-standing Gordon Matta Clark wall drawn from a building cuts the exhibition space in two. This takes up a fair amount of space, an observation a viewer is more likely to notice than any of the issues the show’s thesis claims for the art. This is fine by me. The work asks the museum-goer to consider the scale of pre-existing materials by changing their proportions and original viewing context. While not a novel concept, it’s executed extraordinarily well. I found the scale alone impressive without worrying about whether it was simply a strategy to inspire awe.

Two rooms over, the art’s message is much more explicit. A gorgeous black and white Robert Mapplethorpe photographic portrait of a Hermes sculpture is hung on top of General Idea’s (AA Bronson, Felix Patz, Jorge Zontal) wallpaper repeating the words AIDS in Robert Indiana’s famed LOVE typography. It’s an unusual juxtaposition, with touching poignancy; Mapplethorpe died of AIDS related complications in 1990, Patz and Zontal in 1994.

Nearby, a TV likely produced in the 80s sits on the floor, showcasing Laurie Anderson’s music video, “O Superman.” The artist’s top 40 hit describes the paternal arms of a nation that promises comfort through the same technology it uses in war. The piece now also imparts comfort through the nostalgia of an old pop song, a crutch the curators lessen by placing the work on the ground.

The Mapplethorpe/General Idea/Anderson room was probably my favorite section of the exhibition, though Paul Chan’s 2007 Waiting for Godot installation near the exit deserves a nod. MoMA acquired some of the effects from the play he staged in New Orleans as a benefit for the community after Hurrican Katrina, including a bicycle and a cart surrounded by caution tape and laden with pillaged goods. There’s enough implied action here to communicate the theatricality of the play. The exposed drywall from the ceiling as well as Chan’s heavy wallpapering of images from the city create a set-like backdrop. Viewers have to guess what the play was like, but the title alone suggests a powerful allegory for the cruel and strange acts between residents while they waited for help. It’s a sad note with which to end the exhibition, but in the case of New Orleans, the public can’t be reminded enough of the tragedy and loss the city still experiences.