Modernity Across Media: NYC Spring Exhibitions

With a trio of recent offerings, three respected yet radically imaginative Manhattan museums investigate formats ranging from glassworks to metal sculpture to magazine composition. Spend a few rooms in the mind of an American master such as Alexander Calder at MoMA, or a present-day innovator such as Beth Lipman at MAD. Or see how an entire generation of photographers impacted magazine artwork at the Jewish Museum.

Alexander Calder: Modern from the Start at the Museum of Modern Art; on view until August 7

Late-stage modernists developed a talent for monumental black-and-white canvases—Picasso’s Guernica, Barnett Newman’s Stations of the Cross, any number of wall-spanning compositions by Franz Kline or Robert Motherwell. Alexander Calder, though of the same era, wouldn’t seem to be as natural of a fit for massive monochromes. As Modern from the Start reminds its visitors, Calder had an early-career taste for quirky line drawings, equally quirky bent-wire figures, and endearing red-painted assemblages and mobiles. Later on, when he turned to industrial-strength metal constructions, he maintained enough of his early playfulness to throw in curlicue shapes and tomato-red tones even in the most staid institutional and corporate settings.

Installation view of Alexander Calder: Modern from the Start, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, March 14, 2021 – August 7, 2021 © 2021 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Denis Doorly

The combination of restraint and exuberance at work in the centerpiece room of Modern from the Start is quite different—and is quietly stunning. This stage of MoMA’s exhibition is dominated by the freestanding forms of Black Widow, Black Beast, and Devil Fish, matte black sculptures that come together in a menagerie of loops, bulbs, and prickles. While the effect of so much contorted darkness posed against white walls is impressive, it is not always easy to determine what tone MoMA, or for that matter Calder himself, was trying for in these massive, cryptic biomorphs. Menace? Whimsy? Both? In this regard, the pristine mobile Snow Flurry offers more clarity, suggesting snowflakes drifting and circling at different though equally serene velocities.

Modern from the Start also works its way through a motley of less imposing compositions, including hanging wirework portraits of Calder’s contemporaries and floor compositions that pre-date Calder’s signature industrial style. Some of these latter—including A Universe and Apple Monster—are reminders of the playfully poetic sensibilities that Calder shared with European modernists Paul Klee and (especially) Joan Miro. There are more bursts of color, as well as more signs of an artist working with reduced resources—plastic balls, cast-off wood—and an unsettled imagination. The rest of the showcase is not nearly as monumental or satisfying as the Black Beast ensemble. It is, though, a refreshing reminder of how we got there.

Lillian Bassman
“A Report to Skeptics,” Suzy Parker, April 1952, Harper’s Bazaar
Gelatin silver print
Collection of Eric and Lizzie Himmel, New York © Estate of Lillian Bassman

Modern Look: Photography and the American Magazine at the Jewish Museum; on view until July 11

The Jewish Museum has developed a knack for uncovering the artistry in mass media, this time the midcentury magazines that populate Modern Look. In fact, curator Mason Klein doesn’t need to reach far to find instances of hallowed photographers and avant-garde styles sitting right under the gaze of the business periodical and celebrity mag-consuming public. The Museum’s other notable attempt to find modern eccentricity and experimentation hiding in plain sight—2015’s television-centric Revolution of the Eye—seems like a stretch by comparison. Although it’s certainly easier to make a case for the aesthetic value of Robert Frank’s photos (in Modern Look) than for the CBS logo (in Revolution of the Eye), the two exhibitions share an angular, dark-walled installation style that allows moments of redoubling, discovery, and occasionally revelation.

With over 150 works on display, the current showcase is too expansive to focus on any single innovation. And that is how it should be. There are classically avant-garde touches in the black-and-white close-ups and sharply contrasted figures of Lillian Bassman and Saul Leiter; there are also avant-garde techniques where you’d least expect them, in the collage-like visuals that graced the covers of Scope, a pharmaceutical magazine. Still, the point of Modern Look is not that midcentury magazines were simply undercover pieces of elite art. Innovation coexisted with somewhat more traditional images of everyday Americans and showbiz icons alike. Just when you think you’ve figured out whether you’re looking at high culture or pop culture, the next room in Modern Look will confront you with a picture of Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe—high culture, pop culture, or simply era-defining culture?—to remind you that the equation is not nearly that simple.

Beth Lipman Laid (Time-) Table with Cycads, 2015 – Photo by Jenna Bascom
Image dimensions: 2560px  x  1706px

Beth Lipman: Collective Elegy at the Museum of Arts and Design; on view until August 15

The showstoppers in Collective Elegy are two tables overloaded with glassworks plantlife, bowls, and fragments—works that transmute the Old Master still life paintings into three dimensions, then reduce the colors to jellyfish transparency. Here, the connection to the art-historical past is no accident. Lipman compositions such as Laid (Time-) Table with Cycads, 2015 are linked to 17th-century Dutch painting traditions that are reminders of mortality. However, her work also calls to mind large-scale artworks from much more recent masters, from the baroque monotone creations of Louise Nevelson to the lurking objects of Robert Gober.

To no small extent, Lipman’s strongest work operates by, first, arresting the viewer in place and, second, inspiring wide-ranging reflections. This process explains why the installation House Album barely registers, despite taking up the better part of an entire wall. Meant to recall Victorian scrapbooks, this multi-item set of photographic images is fraught with allusions to American history—to the extent that it requires its own reference guide. The transparent crib and cradle in Margin for Error, in contrast, require no such apparatus. These simply rely on meticulous craftsmanship and a smoked-glass consistency for an effect that is superlatively ghostly, another testament to the combination of effort and transience that is at the core of Lipman’s art and of the mortal condition itself.

Top photo: Installation view of Alexander Calder: Modern from the Start, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, March 14, 2021 – August 7, 2021 © 2021 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Robert Gerhardt