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Fast Forward: Modern Art’s Past and Near Future at the High Museum

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Roy Lichtenstein (American, 1923-1997), Girl with Ball, 1961, oil on canvas, 60.25 x 36.25 inches, the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Philip Johnson © 2012 Estate of Roy Lichtenstein.

Curated by the Museum of Modern Art’s Jodi Hauptman and Samantha Friedman and the High Museum’s Michael Rooks, Fast Forward: Modern Moments 1913>>2013 uses the collections of the Museum of Modern Art to examine six specific years in the history of artmaking: 1913 (the year of the epochal Armory Show), 1929, 1950, 1961, 1988, and 2013 (a.k.a. the near future, though it will have become the present by the time Fast Forward closes on January 20).

Georgia Museum of Art

Half of those years were precursors to historical upheavals, and if nobody could have foreseen the largely unforeshadowed Great War or the Great Depression, nobody expected perestroika and the protests of 1988 to lead to the collapse of European Communism, either. There is a great deal of art here about the radiant future as it was envisioned in 1913 or 1929, or about the 1988 catastrophe of AIDS and the excesses of rampant consumerism, but none of it is particularly prophetic, and some of it is downright behind the curve in terms of its expectations versus how history actually unfolded.

Most of the work, in fact, fits along a curve that belongs only to the history of art, not the history of society—the abstract art of 1950, for example, became part of the general scene of a prosperous decade but was seldom the critique of social conformity or direct commentary on atomic-age anxiety that cultural theorists of the day tried to make of it.

Sarah Sze (American, born 1969) Book of Parts (Centennial), 2012, mixed media, metal shelves, wood, lights, plaster, felt, string, High Museum of Art Commission. Courtesy of the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York. Photo: Mike Jensen.

But we no longer believe in the artist as prophet, anyway: of the three artists chosen to represent 2013, Sarah Sze is more of a cataloguer of what is already here but is insufficiently observed. Another, Aaron Curry, is something of a hiply ironic art historian, mashing up various modernisms in pleasingly contemporary sculptures in which the anomalous Day-Glo quality of the palette clashes with the conventional blend of geometric and biomorphic form.

Sze is as responsive to art history as Curry, and her installation Book of Parts forms a spectacular conclusion to the exhibition’s succession of significant years. It may be significant that Curry and Katharina Grosse are installed elsewhere on the premises and have to be searched for, thus disrupting MoMA’s famous proclivity for neatly linear narrative. In any case, the echoes of art history are deliberate: all three artists were asked to create new work that responded to the themes of the exhibition.

Sarah Sze (American, born 1969) Book of Parts (Centennial), 2012, mixed media, metal shelves, wood, lights, plaster, felt, string, High Museum of Art Commission. Courtesy of the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York. Photo: Mike Jensen.

In some other installations, Sze’s work has been meant to morph, but Book of Parts is so intricately composed of exquisitely arranged altered objects that it wouldn’t lend itself to the addition of objects by gallery visitors. This work is more of a stable cross-section of shapes and styles that seduce us in the present day: sandals, milk cartons, airline boarding passes, boxes of all sorts, plants under grow lights.

Georgia Museum of Art

A book of parts is the catalogue of all the components of a particular make of automobile, and this book of parts is something like a preliminary catalogue of the underlying components of twenty-first-century American culture.  Most auto parts give no clue as to their function except to the already initiated, and some of the elements in this set of beautifully suspended shelves are equally elusive in terms of source and function.

The vehicular metaphor of Sze’s title rhymes well with the need for speed expressed in the opening 1913 moment of the exhibition, where Blaise Cendrars’s and Sonia Delaunay-Terk’s broadside celebrates “the prose of the Trans-Siberian [Railway].” The six-and-three-quarters-foot-tall work hangs beside Roger de La Fresnaye’s visual paean to the glories of aviation and adjacent to Marcel Duchamp’s discovery that a bicycle wheel had sculptural qualities when attached to a wooden stool.

Marcel Duchamp (American, born France, 1887-1968) Bicycle Wheel, 1951 (third version, after lost original of 1913), metal wheel mounted on painted wood stool, 51 x 25 x 16.5 inches, The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection. © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris / Estate of Marcel Duchamp.

It comes as no surprise that Robert Rauschenberg, as quoted in the Fast Forward catalogue, described Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel as “one of the most beautiful pieces of sculpture I’ve ever seen.” But usually nobody notices that Duchamp’s dismissal of the idea of beauty is expressed in some of the most beautiful visual rhythms ever created, beginning with the artfully rotated urinal.

Cendrars’s typeset poem surrounded by Delaunay-Terk’s atmospheric watercolors was termed the “first simultaneous book” on its envelope-cover, and Fast Forward is meant to be similarly simultaneous. The point of the show is that the art movements usually discussed as separate events were happening at the same moment—in the case of 1913, Cubism, Expressionism, Futurism, and the precursors of what would swiftly become Constructivism. The movements changed names faster than the visual and conceptual motivations behind the movements did. That was the point of Marinetti’s 1913 call for “the acceleration of life to today’s swift pace” by promoting “love of the new, the unexpected.”

So in part Fast Forward is itself an homage to the unexpected, and a call to obey Wittgenstein’s demand, “Don’t think, but look!” “Thinking” leads to the hard-and-fast categories of old-fashioned art history; “looking” leads to the observation of parallels and of similarities modified by differences.

The works are installed in adroit juxtapositions, with a visual rhythm designed to make viewers notice parallels and analogies. Everybody borrows from everybody else, and sometimes gestures are rediscovered without knowledge of the work of the forerunners.  That is the real story of art history.

How this art history relates to the non-art history of the moment is open to debate. The stuff of daily use finds its way into the work of art: from Duchamp’s 1913 bicycle wheel to Robert Rauschenberg’s 1961 auto-tire combine, from Andy Warhol’s 1961 hand-painted advertisement for a water heater to Ashley Bickerton’s 1988 self-portrait as a succession of product logos. The show includes, in fact, 1929 advertising photographs where the merchandise is presented with experimental compositional techniques.

Umberto Boccioni (Italian, 1882-1916), Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913 (cast 1931), bronze, 44 x 35 x 16 inches, the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest.

Past and present historical events show up more obliquely: Melvin Edwards’ 1988 Lynch Fragment sculptures allude to very specific past aspects of African American experience (experience amplified here by the proximity of Glenn Ligon’s work incorporating a curator’s naïve remark about Melvin Edwards). The resemblance of the shapes of Lee Bontecou’s 1961 untitled sculpture to the forms found in 1961’s astronaut helmets and space capsules may be purely coincidental, given the curvilinear forms to be found throughout ‘50s and ‘60s design. But some pieces of design are more prominently visible than others.

The curators acknowledge that these six transverse slices through six moments of artistic evolution and influence are not a comprehensive telling of the story. If nothing else, the narrative is limited by the Museum of Modern Art’s past acquisition choices. The historical stresses created by global war, economic crisis, and the collapse of overarching systems gave rise to schools and forms of art that were not at all part of MoMA’s original conceptual agenda. The museum has striven to become more comprehensive as the linear narrative of modernism has broken down along with the idea of linear history in general. A comprehensive show (or even a selective one) that began with 1919 and stopped off in 1939, 1969, 1979, 1999, and 2009 would be instructively different.

However, all exhibitions are partial, and fast-forwarding through a century of art for the sake of seeing it anew inevitably leaves out more than it includes. Critiques of the omissions are not only possible but necessary, but they shouldn’t keep us from exploring the many unsuspected connections that this provocative combination of artistic visions makes visible to any viewer who is paying attention.