Taking in the Modern

While preparing for the opening of the Nasher Museum at Duke, director Kimerly Rorschach encounters some iconic works and muses on art and museum movements.

My inaugural immersion in art history came, as it has for so many, through a darkened auditorium, a well-exercised slide projector, and an enthusiastic instructor. Duke's Kristine Stiles began her art-history survey with a slide of Kazimir Malevich's White on White, a composition completed in 1918. The painting consists of a white square on a white field and nothing more. It's a prime example of art reduced to pure form.

At a glance, the composition on the screen appeared to be grounds for indicting modern art as empty and esoteric. Stiles' aim, though, was to train her students to look beyond that first look, to learn, in essence, how to see anew. And close looking at White on White reveals the workings of an original vision and an artistic talent. Brushstrokes roughen the surface; apparently hard-edged lines are imprecisely ruled. The white square is not a perfect square, and it seems to be tipping right out of the frame.

White on White is included in the splendid and sprawling collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. That's where I joined Kimerly Rorschach, director of the Nasher Museum at Duke, for a different sort of art survey--a look together at some iconic works a few months after MoMA's momentous reopening last fall.

Rorschach has eclectic tastes in art. And she has high standards. For a work of art to capture her attention, she says, "It needs to be good; it needs to be really good. I need to feel that the artist has something to say. That doesn't mean that I instantly understand what it is, but I want to look and then to understand. I like all kinds of things. I like traditional European art, contemporary art, photography, video. But it has to be a strong expression, to give me pause for thought."

It's fitting that we meet at MoMA to reflect on art. The museum has completed its seventh major expansion and renovation, led by Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi. The New York Times hailed it as "The Thoroughly Modernized Modern." In October, Duke will open its first freestanding museum, the Nasher Museum of Art, designed by another acclaimed architect, Rafael Viñoly. Then, too, MoMA, as its director Glenn Lowry puts it in a current catalogue, "has been a laboratory for the study of the ways in which modernity has manifested itself in the visual arts." And for the Nasher, Rorschach wants to focus on building up the modern and contemporary-art holdings. "Just as one can't understand modern and contemporary art without knowing something about art history," she says, "as an educated person, you have to have an awareness of what artists are doing now, of how artists are grappling with art history."

Matisse: The Red Studio, 1911, right

Matisse: The Red Studio, 1911, right. Chris Hildreth

Henri Matisse's celebrated observation that "Exactitude is not truth" is an apt credo for modern art. Rorschach, in a room of Matisses, gazes on a shelf of bronzes, a series of Jeannette heads dating from 1910 to 1916. The bronzes cast wavy, spiraling shadows, extending their impact to the gallery wall behind them. Rorschach says she is struck by Matisse's struggle to merge objectivity and abstraction: The series progresses from a sensitively modeled, realistic head of a woman wearing a necklace, to a head with a vanishing neck and simplified hairstyle, and finally to a disturbingly fractured, severely angled head with an exaggerated nose and bulging eyes.

Matisse, the great modernist, figures in one of the two inaugural exhibitions of the Nasher Museum. "The Evolution of the Nasher Collection" will chronicle one of the world's major collections of twentieth-century sculpture, that of the museum's namesake, Raymond D. Nasher '43, and his late wife, Patsy R. Nasher. Along with sculpture, the exhibition will represent the Nashers' interests in emerging artists, tribal and ancient American art, textiles, early American modernism, and contemporary architecture. Running concurrently, "The Forest: Politics, Poetics, and Practice," co-sponsored with the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences, will focus on the forest as a theme in contemporary art. The exhibition will feature works by artists from all over the world and will include drawings, prints, sculpture, photography, film, video, digital imagery, and sound art. As Rorschach puts it, " 'The Forest' is perfect for a university campus where the broad array of views represented in these works can evoke discussions about political activism, scientific analysis, and creative imagination."

In Rorschach's view, the MoMA expansion and the Nasher's advent are emblematic of the current age of museum growth--a phenomenon that echoes a movement of the post-Civil War era. Some of the great public museums in this country were founded in the late nineteenth century, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The driving force of what came to be known as the "museum movement," Rorschach notes, was a strong conviction that museums would be key producers of new knowledge in a rapidly industrializing and urbanizing nation.

Some university art museums predate that great public museum movement. The first, the Yale University Art Gallery, was established in the 1830s. By the late nineteenth century, places like Princeton, Stanford, Wellesley, and Harvard were building collections for teaching and research. "Many also recognized a more general mandate to give students an opportunity to develop into more cultivated, well-rounded, and well-educated adults," Rorschach says. This motivation grew even stronger in the twentieth century, she adds, especially during the expansion of higher education after World War II.

University art museums can do things that larger municipal museums cannot, Rorschach says: mount more daring exhibitions, engage students in ways likely to nurture a lifelong passion for the arts, involve experts across disciplines in the interpretation of visual culture. They can also inspire new ways of thinking about collections, through long-term loans from underused collections in larger museums, experimentation with new media, and the acquisition of works in areas not yet recognized by the major museums.

Brancusi: Fish, 1930

Brancusi: Fish, 1930. Chris Hildreth.

Rorschach's earliest museum memory was "being dragged to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston by my mother. I distinctly remember being bored and lying down on the cold marble floor, throwing some kind of tantrum." By the time she made her first visit to MoMA, as a college student, she had adjusted her attitude: "I was taking art history and learning about all the iconic works that are at MoMA, and it was an incredible and very exciting experience." Rorschach came to Duke a year ago as the Nasher's first director, following ten years as director of the University of Chicago's Smart Museum of Art.

As we confront the maze of MoMA, she notes that scholars continue to debate just when modern art emerged. MoMA's displays begin with Post-Impressionism, including Paul Cezanne and Vincent Van Gogh. Rorschach says she prefers to start with Edouard Manet, "thinking about his innovations in the 1860s." In his Olympia, now in the MusÈe d'Orsay in Paris, Manet took the traditional subject of the female reclining nude and instead of producing a Venus or a Daphne, he produced a large painting of a prostitute, "completely naked, lying on a bed, presenting herself to a potential customer," Rorschach says. "It was a very shocking painting, because of the way it confronted and played with tradition. That seems to me a very important ingredient of modernity--not just working within a tradition and pushing it forward a little bit, but really trying to do something so radically different that it makes people sit up and take notice."

The art critic John Russell called Olympia "a declaration of war." In The Meaning of Modern Art, he wrote that the artist and the subject of his composition alike seemed to be saying, defiantly, " 'Here I am, and what are you going to do about it?'" Russell reaches for similar vocabulary with MoMA's great icon of modern art, Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, painted in 1907: "Picasso was out to capture art as a great general captures a walled city--by storm."

Rorschach approaches Demoiselles with obvious familiarity, but also with the excitement of renewing a treasured acquaintance. In the painting, five women, their figures composed on flat, splintered planes, their faces distorted or covered with masks, pose seductively. Rorschach says the painting acknowledges art-history tradition--as suggested by the bowl with grapes at the bottom of the composition, and by references to African masks and ancient Iberian statuary--even as it thrusts art forever forward. Picasso employs the familiar conventions of beauty on parade and grouped human figures, and gives them a rude twist, depicting five naked prostitutes in a brothel. Two of them are pushing aside curtains, opening the composition to the viewer's scrutiny and metaphorically opening the way to modern art at the same time. The work, says Rorschach, is a proving ground for Cubism.

"This was really a breakthrough work," Rorschach says, gesturing toward the painting, "expressing an intellectual notion that Picasso had about being able to represent different views of things simultaneously, representing figures as broken planes. I know its historical importance, and I can't forget that when I'm looking at it. But I love the contrast between the masked faces and the bodies. Some of the faces are very painterly in the way that they are brushed on, are very exciting in their expressiveness. Then the bodies, which are beige in color--seemingly not so exciting--are reduced to flat planes. The whole thing is set in this very shallow space with fragmented blue triangles kind of holding it all together. You can just see the process in the artist's mind, doing something new, struggling with it."

Picasso: Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907, center

Picasso: Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907, center. Chris Hildreth.

Looking around the room, Rorschach observes how the galleries are arranged to form a dramatic gateway to Demoiselles. She says she's impressed with MoMA's combination of grand spaces and more intimate ones. "I think what's happened to museum architecture is very exciting. It's become a showcase, a tour de force, for contemporary architecture. And so the museum is a work of art itself, though there are cases where it goes too far, where the architecture doesn't serve the art well.

"The ideal situation is where the building is architecturally very exciting, and yet it makes works of art easier to see, easier to understand, easier to contemplate. You want a wonderful space that people will enjoy being in, but that won't be oppressive. Every space has its challenges; every space has its constraints. Some art might look great in one sort of space, and some art needs another sort of space. I'm hoping that the Nasher will strike the balance. I think it is an exciting space to be be in. But it also has very serene, flexible spaces for viewing art."

In a serene area of MoMA, removed from the main galleries, Rorschach lingers over Constantin Brancusi's Fish, a 1930 sculpture in gray marble. Brancusi once said that he was interested not in the physical appearance of any given fish but in "the flash of its spirit." Simplicity, he said, was the expression of "the true sense of things." The simplicity here--the streamlined form of fin and scale, tail and head; the watery medium suggested by the blue-gray marble flecked with white stripes; the contrast in materials between the sculpted form and the pedestal of white marble and limestone--is alluring for Rorschach. "I like it as an abstract shape," she says, walking around the sculpture and noting how it seems to shift in volume and form--thin and streamlined from one perspective, curved and sensual from another. "I don't even know it's a fish. Like Matisse in his series of heads, Brancusi is playing with shapes and forms."

Rorschach says that it's hard to define the form of today's art movement. Diversity seems to be the byword. "Painting is vibrant still, but it isn't by any means the only thing. There are all kinds of photo-based and digital media; a lot of artists are working in those mediums today." We pay brief homage to a pair of Mark Rothkos, rectangular blocks of color that seem to be hovering above a color ground. The colors are beautiful, yet clash when arrayed together; the forms are at once pleasingly regular and disturbingly ragged. The works are sublime, as the British Romantics understood the notion of the sublime--overpowering, alluring, a little dangerous, Rorschach says. Rothko participated in the famous "Fifteen Americans" show at MoMA in 1952, a breakthrough for the Abstract Expressionists. "It's probably fair to say that abstract work is of less interest right now," Rorschach says. "Abstract Expressionism was all about turning away from the image, but the image seems more important now."

A study of illumination rather than an image attracts Rorschach to a tall, slender, glowing fluorescent light piece in the corner of a gallery. The work of Dan Flavin, she says, gains power when individual pieces are multiplied many times over. Rorschach began following Flavin when, as a high-school student, she went to an installation of his work. "It was one work per room, and it lit up and sculpted the whole room. It was just terrific--no paint, no canvases, just plain old neon tubes that you could buy at the hardware store, industrial materials that he got and configured into works of art." Keeping those works running is getting difficult, she says, since a lot of the fixtures are no longer made--testimony to the impermanence of this type of art.

Series of Jeanette Heads, Matisse, 1910-1916

Series of Jeanette Heads, Matisse, 1910-1916. Chris Hildreth

Flavin's work also testifies to the fact that, as art critic John Russell put it, "the word 'sculpture' now has wider connotations than the word 'painting.' " Flavin pioneered Minimalism in the early 1960s, reacting against the self-conscious celebration of original vision that drove Abstract Expressionism. As Greg Allen, an art critic for The New York Times, has observed, Flavin chose mass-produced, off-the-shelf hardware precisely for its anonymously industrial aesthetic and its inherently temporal nature. From the banal assemblage of commercially available materials, he created beautiful effects with light--"its color, its intensity, and how it filled and altered the space around it."

An even more adamant rejection of Abstract Expression and original vision came from Andy Warhol. In the gallery, Rorschach stands close enough to read the ingredients painted on Warhol's 1962 Campbell's Soup Cans, thirty-two canvases--the number of soup varieties Campbell's then offered. These soups are condensed, as it were, in tight rows that seem to form a single large, brash commercial message. Rorschach steps back to take in the larger composition. Much of its power, she says, comes from its pleasing pattern and soothing rhythm. This sort of visual representation is an attribute of advertising, and, as MoMA declares in its description, the work subverts the idea of painting as a medium of invention and originality. Rorschach notes that Warhol started his career doing illustrations for advertising. "He branded not just objects but also the popular icons of his time, like Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Kennedy, James Dean, Elvis. The way he deployed these icons is culturally very significant, whatever you might think of his technique and talent as an artist."

Campbell's Soup Cans is a conceptual work, Rorschach says, smashing the boundaries between high and low culture, denying the idea that art needs to be beautiful or infused with some higher purpose or meaning. "It asks the question, what is a work of art? And it makes you start thinking about what art means to you."

So what is art anyway? Rorschach laughs. "You can never really answer that. All anyone can ever really agree with is that it's what artists make. And then you say, okay, what is an artist? The only way to come down on that is to say, someone who makes art. So it's very circular; it's impossible to land on a definition."

Rorschach has been wrestling with such aesthetic issues since she was an undergraduate at Brandeis University. She expected to major in history and political science. But in her first semester, she signed up for a survey in art history, and she was hooked. She spent a lot of time at the Brandeis museum and took classes on modern and contemporary art. In the 1940s, the original director had purchased important work from artists like Andy Warhol, Mark Rothko, and Jackson Pollock. As a graduate student in art history at Yale, Rorschach did her dissertation on Frederick, Prince of Wales, as a patron and collector. "This was the age of Hogarth, Reynolds, and Gainsborough," she tells me. "Frederick was the father of George II and would have been king during the American Revolution had he not died quite young in 1751."

But it's a more recent giant of the art world, Pollock, who provides the end point for our MoMA tour. Looking at his One: Number 31, 1950, a wall-sized canvas of black, white, brown, and green tones represented in vibrant, swirling lines, I thought back to Pollock's own wry take on the definition of art. Caught up in a conversation about Renaissance painting, he picked up a large nail and, in front of his visitors, drove it into his living-room floor. "Damn it, that's art," he told them.

Pollock is all about force and action, Rorschach observes. In One, Pollock is both honoring and exceeding the artistic convention of putting himself into the composition--like Matisse painting his studio or Picasso painting himself. "I can look at a great Pollock painting for a long time," Rorschach says, "and not get bored with it."

We stand and look at this Pollock painting together and admire its purposeful construction and the energy and excitement it engenders. Popular culture doesn't always reward considered encounters with art, Rorschach says. "We are a bit numbed by images. We see so much, we can't respond emotionally or intellectually to all of it, so we have to process it. In theory, that's what museums are good at, because museums have to put their pieces of art in context. Visiting a museum is fun, but it's also exhausting; it is an exercise in thought and in trying to sort out what is meaningful from what is not meaningful."

However one rationalizes the museum experience--as education, enrichment, engagement, or something else--ultimately, it helps us cope with an image-saturated culture. Visual education is a good reason, says Rorschach, for us to value the museum movement that's represented by the MoMA expansion and the Nasher opening alike. And it's a good reason, among others, for us to value our private, contemplative museum moments.

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