Last year I wrote an article called “What You Might Be Missing at MoMA,” which discussed the paintings exiled to the corridors of the Museum of Modern Art’s fourth and fifth floors.
At the time, I described those works as “fractious and complex, not fitting well into any user-friendly templates,” adding that in the conventional telling of 20th century art, “they are the plot points that seem to lead nowhere.” The current occupants of those spaces are no less awkward to place.
It should be noted, however, that when I visited the museum on December 10th, the two paintings on the fourth floor were Cy Twombly’s “Leda and the Swan” (1962) and Roy Lichtenstein’s “Modern Painting with Bolt” (1967), a pairing that seemed motivated by the 85th and 90th anniversaries, respectively, of the artists’ births.
However, when I dropped by on Thursday, I discovered that at some point in the intervening nine days, the Lichtenstein had been replaced by Pavel Tchelitchew’s ludicrous “Hide-and-Seek” (1940-1942), a pseudo-surrealist horror show that once graced the cover of the EP “The 13 Frightened Souls” (1992) by the death/thrash metal band Deceased.
Tchelitchew’s painting is a not-so-subtle reminder that modern art has never been on a single track — a truism that might be one of the incentives behind the choice of artwork that lands in the inhospitable regions beside MoMA’s escalators.
The Tchelitchew can be viewed only as a novelty today, but it is instructive to note that, according to the wall label, it was snapped up by MoMA the year it was completed, and that an unnamed critic described it in 1970 as “’by far’ the Museum’s ‘most popular painting.’” This could suggest that the curators use the corridors’ wall space as an arena for institutional self-critique, a public demonstration of the vicissitudes of taste in the building of MoMA’s collection.
Unlike “Hide-and-Seek,” Lichtenstein’s recently departed “Modern Painting with Bolt” remains relevant to the current conversation. Its crisply laid-down abstract forms, bedecked with self-referential Ben-Day dots, wraps the history of modernism, and for that matter, the act of painting itself, in parentheses, setting the alleged authenticity of early modern art (the image employs Leger-like waves and circles in a De Stijl color scheme of red, yellow, blue, black and white) at an ironic distance.
Along with his corridor-mate Cy Twombly, whose paintings opened a portal for myth and literature in the realm of gestural abstraction, Lichtenstein kinks up the narrative of modern art with a “Yes, but…” (if I may borrow the title of Dore Ashton’s authoritative study of Philip Guston, published in 1976) that muddies the formalist and reductivist arguments prevalent in the critical establishment at the time he made the painting..
While the two works in the corridor on the fifth floor, Max Beckmann’s triptych, “Departure” (1932, 1933-1935), and Diego Rivera’s “Flower Festival: Feast of Santa Anita” (1931), are both interwar, they are just as ill-suited to a tidy reading of art history as the Lichtenstein and the Twombly are thirty years later.
“Departure,” which was in the fifth-floor corridor last year, is one of the great paintings of the 20th century, as well as a landmark in the artist’s career. As Didier Ottinger notes in a catalogue essay for MoMA’s 2003 Beckmann retrospective:
The year 1932 marks an important turn in Beckmann’s work. The painter began work on his first triptych, Departure, a painting that achieves far more than formal innovation. It puts into question the nature of the connection between the work and reality. Departure marks the beginning of a new iconography for Beckmann, that of symbolism, on a world of legend peopled with kings and knights, in which men and women, culture and barbarism stand opposed, a polarised world, as is proper to the mythological.
Since 1932 was also the year that Hitler took control of the German government, it’s safe to assume the kind of barbarism he had in mind. The side panels are filled with torture and mayhem, while the central canvas, which is only slightly wider than the other two, is a vision of freedom out of the past: a boat apparently in mid-journey, its net bursting with fish, carrying figures of hope and reason — a mother and child and a king in a yellow crown and violet robe raising his right hand as if in benediction.
The painting reveals a trust in the power of images that some today might regard as quaint. Roughly rendered in compressed, post-Cubist space, the scenes rely on formal innovations from earlier decades to put over three dramatic tableaux of social, political and personal significance.
We may not buy into the storybook escapism of the center panel (though the barbarity in the other two is all too resonant), but the simplicity and clarity of its forms and colors, painted in bold, flat strokes, dissipate the horrors perpetrated on either side with a seaborne, blue-infused breeze.
While European painting in general went through a retrenchment during this period, Beckmann’s artwork — except for an early brush with neo-Romanticism (such as “The Sinking of the Titanic,” 1912) — never feels like a throwback. It forges ahead with the tools at its disposal to create an enigmatic and monumental code of expression that fueled the artist until the end of his life.
The same can be said of Diego Rivera, though, as a more blatantly political artist, much of his imagery can be read more plainly and immediately than Beckmann’s. Renowned as a muralist and a master of the ancient art of fresco, Rivera made large, bustling, audaciously leftist public wall paintings in his native Mexico as well as the United States, most notably at the endangered Detroit Institute of Arts as well as New York’s Rockefeller Center. (The latter fresco was destroyed before it was completed after the artist refused to remove a portrait of Lenin and an unflattering depiction of John D. Rockefeller, the family patriarch.)
His “Flower Festival: Feast of Santa Anita” is evidence of his mastery of encaustic, another ancient technique, which demands the utmost speed and dexterity: the pigment, suspended in hot wax, must be applied before the wax has a chance to cool and harden.
“Flower Festival” is a rigorously symmetrical composition, with the top half dominated by an enormous cluster of calla lilies held aloft by a white-robed campesino. The festival is held on Good Friday, and the lilies, which Rivera used as a motif in numerous paintings, can signify marriages or funerals, purity or regeneration.
A religious context is implied by the cruciform position assumed by the priest-like figure holding the lilies, as well as the three young girls kneeling in the foreground as if in prayer. (Incidentally, MoMA also owns a lithograph by Rivera from 1930, a year before “Flower Festival,” called “Flower Market,” in which women and girls take the same pose along the bottom of the sheet.)
This aspect of the imagery, however, is subverted by the conjunction of the ripely sexualized lilies and the slightly smaller pink flowers, possibly hollyhocks, carried by women in the background and piled on the ground in front of the three girls. The day marking the death of Christ, while depicted with reserve and solemnity through the painting’s rock-hard, columnar architectonics, is charged with a writhing, erotic energy.
The duality of life and death — the buried god-king and the return of Persephone — suggested by the painting calls to mind James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890), the study of fertility rites, myth and religion that influenced a generation of early modern writers, most famously T.S. Eliot in “The Waste Land” (1922).
A chapter of The Golden Bough, “Killing the God in Mexico,” is a grisly recounting of the Aztecs’ practice of human sacrifice. Frazer writes:
According to the old Franciscan monk Sahagun, our best authority on the Aztec religion, the sacrifice of the human god fell at Easter or a few days later, so that, if he is right, it would correspond in date as well as in character to the Christian festival of the death and resurrection of the Redeemer.
Also of interest are the ritual preparations afforded the victim:
Twenty days before he was to die, his costume was changed, and four damsels, delicately nurtured and bearing the names of the four goddesses—the Goddess of Flowers, the Goddess of the Young Maize, the Goddess ‘Our Mother among the Water’, and the Goddess of Salt—were driven to be his brides, and with them he consorted.
Whether this reading has anything to do with Rivera’s concept for “Flower Festival” is purely speculative, but his injection of a celebratory, nuptial air into the death of Christ hints at an awareness of the pagan roots of Christian traditions, as well as a revolutionary sensibility struggling to throw off the old order.
The paradox of Rivera’s work, as well as Beckmann’s and to a certain extent Lichtenstein’s and Twombly’s, is that everything is on the surface — the forms and colors are all we can know for sure about the painting — and yet a case can be made that nothing is on the surface. What we are seeing may be a disguise, an indirection, a parody, a cryptogram whose secrets died with the artist. It’s an interzone of signification, where black can be white, or not. It’s not a painting but a trapdoor, and we’re always one thought away from tripping it.
The paintings in the corridor are currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan).