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Tuesday, August 09, 2005

That Sixties Wall

There’s a long tradition in literature of using a small part of something to stand in for the whole. The rhetorical term for this is synecdoche.

Visual artists, for some reason, don’t use this representational strategy as often as writers do. Curators, however, use it all the time. One painting, for example, is used to stand in for the whole body of an artist’s work; a selection of photographs makes the case for a broad, general trend in the history of photography.

There’s a small show on view now at MoMA that (self-consciously or not, I don’t know) plays with the standard curatorial approach of selecting a very limited number of works to represent a historical movement. In the process, it highlights exactly how rich and deep the museum’s collection is.

Drawing from the Modern, 1945-1975 is the second part of a three-part show of drawings from MoMA’s permanent collection. Installed in three small galleries, the exhibition contains more excellent work than any show of this size has the right to.

What stunned me most about the show, though, was the last wall in the galleries. Seeing it was like watching a baseball team, up 11-0 in the ninth inning, bring in the star closer to finish off the game. “We’ve got it,” this wall seems to be saying, “and we’re going to flaunt it.” If the display wasn’t so fabulous, it could be called an act of hubris.

Eva Hesse, Untitled, 1966Rather than showcasing a few pieces, this wall has been hung with 30 drawings by 23 artists. All the works were completed between 1960 and 1970. The roster of artists included is a Who’s Who of minimalism and post-minimalism: Andre, Baer, Close, Darboven, Flavin, Hesse (represented by Untitled from 1966, at right), LeWitt, Mangold, Martin, Stella, Tuttle, Sandback, and others.

But that’s not all. There isn’t a weak piece in the 30 drawings included. Each is representative of that artist’s style from the decade of the 1960s. If a disaster were to wipe out Manhattan tomorrow and hundreds of years from now future archeologists were to unearth MoMA and find what’s hanging on this wall, they would have in these 30 small drawings a definitive history of an artistic movement that arose and permutated over the course of a decade.

The works on this wall tell the whole story of the era: the appearance of the grid, the reliance on repetition, the use of algorithm in place of traditional composition, the rise of concept, the eventual softening of the grid’s hard edges, and the application of the grid’s principles to other styles of working. It’s all there. This is especially interesting, remember, because most of these artists were either painters or sculptors. None are known primarily for their drawing.

That’s what makes this particular wall such a showstopper. Rather than needing to use a small selection (say two or three decent drawings) to represent the movement, MoMA’s curators were able to dive into the flat files and pull out enough really good work to make it feel like they have shown the whole movement and all its variations. There’s not the sense of a synecdoche at work here (although there has to be in any curated exhibition) because of the richness and depth of MoMA’s holdings.

It’s that richness and depth that makes curators at every other museum in the world jealous. MoMA’s definitely got it. Why shouldn’t they flaunt it once in a while?

Drawing from the Modern, 1945-1975 is on view at the Museum of Modern Art through August 29, 2005.

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