With the hype surrounding the Cindy Sherman blockbuster retrospective on the 6th floor, which critics have almost unanimously praised, I was surprised to find that the most invigorating, exciting and generally mind-blowing exhibition at MoMA right now is Exquisite Corpses: Drawing and Disfiguration, a small drawing show on the third floor.
Proving the continued importance and relevance of Surrealist art, Exquisite Corpses demonstrates that exhibitions do not have to be the biggest or display the hottest contemporary artist to be invigorating. These works easily delve into important artistic issues about the representation of not only the human figure but also the thoughts, emotions, sexuality and experiences contained within it.
The exquisite corpse drawings of the Surrealists were basically an artistic game that invited different artists to take turns drawing a part of the body until it is complete. The result distorts and twists the figure into something I think can be more psychologically true to the human form than academic figure drawing. The works in Exquisite Corpses range from original Surrealist pieces from the 1920s to later work by Georges Bataille, Louise Bourgeoise, Jackson Pollock and contemporary artists such as George Condo and Marcel Dzarma.
Made approximately 85 years ago, the exquisite corpse drawings by renowned Surrealists like Yves Tanguy, André Breton, Joan Miró and Man Ray do not feel dated in the least bit, which is shocking considering art made merely a few months ago can easily seem tired nowadays. Instead, the play on the human body and the thoughts and emotions that alter that form in art is entirely relevant today and will most likely always be.
Having never seen an exquisite corpse drawing in person before this show, I was surprised by how coherent the drawings appeared despite having been worked on by several major artistic personalities. Even though “Nude” (1926-27) was created by both Miró and Man Ray, who are known for vastly different artistic styles, the drawing still appears as if a singular artist could have conceived it.
While the original Surrealist material is the highlight, the exhibition was augmented by drawings that appeared informed by the playfulness of collaborative drawings. My personal favorite was Miró’s “Drawing – Collage” (1936), which featured an adorable little duck decal on a fairly outrageous drawing of a hermaphrodite. This is an example of playing with gender way before post-structuralist philosopher Judith Butler was even born. Miró’s simultaneously male and female drawing is a cute play on sexuality and innocence.
Speaking of sexuality, nobody really does slightly unnerving female bodies with impossible intricacy quite like Hans Bellmer, whose two pieces in the show are spectacular. Stuck studying this drawing longer than I spent in Print/Out, which is another MoMA exhibition currently on view, I was lost in Bellmer’s beautiful, almost three-dimensional rendering of one of his self-made dolls. Like most of the show, Bellmer’s drawing skews a bit dark with his fraught lines and exaggerated forms and yet, in its distortion, it portrays a real palpable emotion to the viewer.
After studying some of the older material, I was a little less interested in the contemporary work on display. A Robert Gober work of a tree wearing a dress (even with my personal amusement at its possible allusion to the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds song “Say Goodbye to the Little Girl Tree“) unquestionably pales in comparison to the detailed, feverish lines of Bellmer or Dalí. But yet there is still some recent work that fascinated me like Wangechi Mutu’s collage by the entrance to the exhibition. Her use of color and movement through collage still retains some of the pieced together bodies typical of the exquisite corpse and appeared to be a good fit.
With all of the inspiring works in the Exquisite Corpses, I had to question why MoMA was not really promoting this high quality show. Perhaps I simply loved the show so much because I have always been drawn towards more delirious, surrealist visions than the highly conceptual and boring art that MoMA seems to adore.
Moral of the story: don’t skip the smaller exhibition galleries, sometimes they house the best work.
Exquisite Corpses: Drawing and Disfiguration will be at MoMA (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) until July 9.