Tyler Green
Art-focused Journalism by Tyler Green

Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

Welcome to our collection. Here's where it starts…

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Warhol61MOCA.jpgAs the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles prepares a major exhibition of its collection, I’ve been thinking about how museums with significant commitments to contemporary art determine what are the best works from the recent past, what should always be on view at their museums and how/where. For example: No one questions that Caravaggio is a biggie. If Museum X has a Caravaggio it will be on view and it will get its own stop on the collection audio tour and so on. But what about an Ed Ruscha? Or a David Hammons?

This idea stems from a conversation I had with MoMA curator Ann Temkin a couple years ago. I complained to Temkin that museums do a poor job of saying what early contemporary works are ‘masterpieces,’ that is, which are the works that are important to them, that they want their visitors to take home with them as being particularly relevant and even current. Temkin agreed. 

Of course, that could run into the dozens of works. So herewith a parlor game inspired by what many a museum staffer has told me is a frequently-asked visitor question: Where does ‘modern art’ end and where does ‘contemporary art’ begin? And why?

The game: With what work should major museums start their contemporary collections. The paintings/sculptures/etc. need not be the oldest ‘contemporary’ work or the most famous, just what seems like a good starting point for both art of the last 50 or so years and for their collection. Given that I’m using MOCA’s upcoming, much-anticipated collection installation as the peg for this, we’ll start there.

Last year, as MOCA was teetering on the brink, Christopher Knight argued that MOCA should make a particular commitment to Andy Warhol‘s Telephone (1961, above; related 1960 work-on-paper). That’s how I’d ‘start’ MOCA’s contemporary collection. I can’t improve on what Knight said last December.

MOCATapiesCross.jpgMy runners-up: In the mid-1950s Robert Rauschenberg executed numerous works that specifically sought to puncture abstract expressionism and other late-modern painting. MOCA’s Factum I (1957) is among the best of those works. It’s currently on view at MoMA, hanging next to Factum II (1957). Much the same applies to MOCA’s Small Rebus (1956). (Unrelated: How in the name of Alfred Barr does MoMA not have images of Rebus and Factum II on its website?!?!?!) Antoni TapiesGrey and Black Cross, No. XXVI (1955, left). The cross seems to be falling, descending out of view. The work seems to portend a period during which belief and blind faith gives way to cynicism and unrest.

In the little-known Mother and Child (1951), Roy Lichtenstein takes a 600-year-old religious-art standard and updates it for the post-war era by taking the child out of Mary’s/his mother’s arms and putting him/her in a stroller. Rotating selections from Robert Frank’s The Americans. Something about this 1956 Clyfford Still work on paper suggests a moment of transition between the past and the future. I can’t imagine Still himself thought that — he was more likely to consider himself both — but…

James Rosenquist’s eroto-mechanical Push Button (1961). Richard Artschwager’s Chair (1965) asks viewers to re-visit assumptions about what they see and what they’re told. It encourages us to embrace ambiguity. Ed Ruscha‘s Chocolate Room (1970).

Comments: I’m also going to try something with this series of posts: The comments will be on. Feel free to agree, disagree, propose alternate ‘starting points’ and so on. (Link help: MOCA’s collection. MOCA’s fascinating exhibition archive also includes installation shots from previous collection shows/installations.) AJ’s software also allows you to link to particular comments, so you may also Tweet your selections!

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  1. This is an interesting problem for a number of reasons. However if you are going to try to define the sliding scale of Contemporary Vs. Modern I think you have to look at the biggest break in critical practice – for me that would be after pop. Probably minimalism, but possibly after minimalism is rejected.
    There is a case to be made for the art that followed that – what is loosely called new image painting
    so a “bad painting” by Neil Jenney would be critical as would a Susan Rothenberg – probably a horse painting.
    I think the “New Image” approach might be more relevant and in many ways an easier gateway for audiences.

  2. james huckenpahler says:

    If one is going to reconsider a ‘seed’ piece for a museum, perhaps reconsidering the idea of the institution itself is a good idea.
    Why not ‘Spiral Jetty’ as a museum unto itself? It’s one of the most successful examples of a wholesale shift in the scope, scale and purpose of ‘art.’
    Or perhaps if Museum X were to acquire The Museum of Jurassic Technology – a Borges-ian museum of museums – apt in an era of databases. A museum of all possible museums. The big trope right now feels like a search a Grand Unified Theory of Culture. Another candidate for this might be the acquisition of all of the materials associated with Richter’s ‘Atlas.’ An image that contains all possible images.

  3. Tyler Green says:

    Actually I don’t think a ‘seed’ piece was the idea because that’s effectively asking for a single piece that was THE BREAK between contemporary and modern. And that’s impossible.
    However individual museum collections do oft have (somewhat) relevant ‘starting’ places…

  4. james huckenpahler says:

    Maybe Ray Johnson’s Oedipus (Elvis Johnson #1) (1956-7) would represent a good breaking point. Johnson was at the beginning of a trend of artists who embrace *everything* rather than reacting against the previous generation of artists. I’m not sure that Richter’s career could have run the same course had it been prior to Johnson’s generation.

  5. D.G. says:

    I’d be looking after the minimalists too, but I think Pop art really contributed more to our current situation than Minimalism. I’d put the break a bit later than some other people, somewhere around 1968 or 1972.

  6. james huckenpahler says:

    Putting aside the impossible ‘breaking point’ it occurred to me that a better approach would be to choose a piece based on how many ‘conversations’ it could have with other pieces – something that would provide lots opportunities for curators and types of exhibitions beyond the foreseeable future. Some possibilities:
    Jack Smith’s ‘Flaming Creatures’ – http://www.ubu.com/film/smith-jack_flaming.html
    Velvet Underground – why not an album? it influenced everybody, and it has a cover.
    Gary Hill’s ‘Learning Curve’

  7. Love Antoni Tapies’ “Grey and Black Cross. No. XXVI”! … “Crev I Papraelles” is prtty good two! … just my two cents, peace :)

  8. sfmike says:

    Comments at “Modern Art Notes”? The apocalypse really is near.
    I’d nominate the Frida Kahlo painting of her and Diego for the iconic opening of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, for a whole host of reasons.

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