You’d never find Pablo Picasso or Jackson Pollock relegated to the corridors of the Museum of Modern Art. Rarely do artists deemed essential to MoMA’s historical narrative rub elbows with the throngs swarming the escalators and passageways in endless transit from galleries to café to restroom and back.
That is to say, the paintings in the corridors (and they are almost always paintings) stare down into one of the few places in the museum where looking at art is the last thing on people’s minds, and where art is at its least advantage to be looked at.
But I have always been strongly attracted to what has hung in MoMA’s down-rent alleys. Perhaps because the artworks tend to be fractious and complex, not fitting well into any user-friendly templates. In the story of modern art, they are the plot points that seem to lead nowhere. But that means they are accountable only to themselves.
For years, Wilfredo Lam’s “The Jungle” (1943) hung in the lobby of MoMA’s Cesar Pelli (pre-Yoshio Taniguchi) incarnation, a circumstance that prompted a famously caustic essay (“Please Wait by the Coatroom,” Arts Magazine, December 1988) from my Hyperallergic Weekend colleague John Yau.
In the essay, Yau takes issue with William Rubin’s assessment of Lam in the catalogue for the landmark exhibition Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage (1968, reprinted in 1977), and in so doing, defines the spirit of the artworks caught in the corridors, for good or ill, for decades to come:
[Rubin] doesn’t perceive [Lam] to be a groundbreaker. Instead of inventing a new way of making space, which Rubin judges to be the central issue an artist must successfully address in order to be considered a candidate for canonization, Lam expanded the boundaries of a particular style. Within Rubin’s hierarchy of connoisseurship, Lam is able to rise to the rank of a minor artist.
Rubin became Director of MoMA’s Department of Painting and Sculpture in 1973 and held the position until 1988.
Like Lam, the artists who have graced MoMA’s hallways in recent years — José Clemente Orozco (“Dive Bomber and Tank,” 1940), Jess (“Ex. 4-Trinity’s Trine,” 1964), Alice Neel (“Benny and Mary Ellen Andrews,” 1972), Bob Thompson (“St. Matthew’s Description of the End of the World,” 1964) — are not formal innovators as much as explorers of personal realms.
Their works resonate with history, personal as well as public. Another common denominator is that they almost always tend to be representational. (And in terms of identity politics, the artists cited above — a Mexican, a gay man, a woman and an African-American — constitute a veritable rainbow coalition.)
These criteria hold true for the current occupants of the fourth and fifth floors. On four, we have the strange bedfellows of Balthus and Georg Baselitz. The former, an anachronistic classicist of suspect affections (his paintings of pubescent girls have come under increasingly harsh scrutiny), is represented by “The Street” (1933), an epic painting of everyday life gone way off-kilter. “The Street” is executed in Balthus’s signature full-bore Piero della Francesca mode, which transposes the geometries of quattrocentoItalian painting into a squirrelly resuscitation of surrealism.
Baselitz’s “Woodmen” (1967-1968) is an early work by the German Neo-Expressionist before he started hanging his paintings upside-down. But this large charcoal-and-synthetic-resin work on canvas is heading in that direction, composed of two fragmented, blond-haired figures (could they be the same person?) clad in green overalls — one with his feet on the ground and the other on his head, seemingly braced against a tree.
These two paintings don’t appear to have much to do with each other, but they both seem to relate to what’s upstairs on the fifth floor, three superlative works by masters of German interwar painting.
Otto Dix, George Grosz and Max Beckmann are Baselitz’s aesthetic godfathers, and Balthus, a Polish émigré to Paris at least fifteen years younger than the Germans, was their fellow traveler in terms of keeping European figurative art alive through the postwar years.
“Dr. Mayer-Hermann” (1926), a most atypical Otto Dix, treats the artist’s portly throat specialist as a figure of low comedy: swaddled in an unflattering white tunic, Mayer-Herman’s blimp-like torso anchors a composition filled with floating, overlapping circles. As with Dix’s most trenchant work — his harrowing series of etchings “Der Krieg” (1924) in particular — the line between high art and caricature is all but erased, but to very different effect. The good doctor must have been someone to enjoy a museum-quality joke at his expense.
Caricature of a different sort is on display in George Grosz’s “The Poet Max Herrmann-Neisse” (1927). Grosz does nothing to mitigate Herrmann-Neisse’s hunchback, bony bald head, pink elephant ears, gnarly fingers or blubbery lips. The curious combination of grotesque stylization and precise surface realism all but defines the style of Neue Sachlichkeit, or New Objectivity, the premier painting style of the doomed Weimar Republic.
Even in this offbeat company, Max Beckmann’s triptych “Departure” (dated by the museum as Frankfurt 1932, Berlin 1933-35) is something else again. For all their liberties, Grosz and Dix, at least in these two paintings, display the objective side of New Objectivity. “Departure” is its wild, barbarous, living nightmare side.
Like Lam’s “The Jungle,” Beckmann’s “Departure” hung for many years in the Cesar Pelli building outside the mainstream of modern art. It has since been integrated, sort of, in the permanent collection galleries, but it is still isn’t an easy fit.
“Departure” was Beckmann’s first full triptych. In her catalogue essay for MoMA’s 2003 Beckmann retrospective, Anette Kruszynski writes:
Against the background of political developments that at best were oppressive and at worst promoted open terror, this work can be seen as a counterweight of sorts to the officially approved art of the time. The two side paintings are dominated by scenes of torture, violence, enslavement and blindness […] The central panel is the direct opposite of the side motifs […] here Beckmann’s depiction of a crossing to unknown shores introduces the prospect of possible salvation.
Even as crowds hustle past, “Departure” feels at home, even liberated, in its bustling locale. The central panel, with its bold primary colors, flanked by the thick black shadows of the left and right wings, open like a portal, beckoning us into a plane of imagination that is intensely personal, timely and timeless.
Kruszynski includes in her essay an excerpt of a letter to the art dealer Curt Valentin, in which Beckmann says it much better:
For me this painting is a kind of rosary, or a ring of colourless figures, who can glow when there is real contact and who tell me truths I cannot express with words and did not know before. It can only speak to people who, consciously or not, have within them more or less the same metaphysical code.
The comment, “It can only speak to people who […] have within them more or less the same metaphysical code,” is taken by Kruszynski as an admission of defeat, that Beckmann:
[…] had lost the confidence that he had enjoyed in the period after the First World War. In those days he had assumed that his intention to mediate the contents of his paintings purely via the viewer’s intuitive ability to read the formulas of sacred imagery was sure to be successful. Now he came to the sobering conclusion that the contents of his works were only accessible to those individuals who shared “the same metaphysical code.”
Nevertheless, Beckmann returned to the format of the monumental triptych again and again, using it “as a matrix of his own intentions” that offered “a way of working towards the transcendental effect that he sought, and a way to create symbolic myths and images dealing with fundamental human issues.”
In other words, Beckmann recognized that viewers needn’t get the references to St. Peter and the Madonna in the central panel of “Departure” to experience the painting’s “transcendental effect.”
The paintings in MoMA’s corridors are not groundbreaking — that job has been left for others — but they dig deep. It might be hazardous to plant yourself in front of George Grosz in the way of onrushing foot traffic, or to glean a transcendental effect from Max Beckmann amid the din; even so, linger if you can and breathe in some of their fresh air.
The paintings in the corridor are currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan).