A Tour of MoMA Masterworks

A Tour of MoMA's Masterworks

Art is anything you can get away with.

So said Andy Warhol. He should know, he got away with a lot. Little Puffles and Honey are wandering around MoMA to find out what other artists have got away with 🙂

Water Lilies, by Claude Monet (1914-1926, 3 panels) at MoMA
Water Lilies, by Claude Monet (1914-1926, 3 panels)

Monet’s three giant mural-sized Water Lily landscapes dominate the room where they are displayed. It is an immersive experience for anybody, it is like being drowned in pinks and purples, violets and greens. Monet painted the triptych, which measures nearly 13 metres across, towards the end of his life, having spent days and months and years studying his beloved water garden at his home in Giverny. It was the effects of the ever-changing light on the surface of the water that so captivated the elderly artist. His eyesight might have been fading, but his sharp brain and gift for handling paint were just as present as they had been when he was a young man, as was his inclination to innovate. Traditionally landscape paintings place the viewer in an ideal position with clear visual points of orientation. Not so with Monet’s late ‘grand decoration’, where we are plunged into the midst of a pond without edges or corners, among iris plants and lilies, leaving us with little option other than to give in to his layers of mesmerizing multi-coloured paint.

Water Lilies, by Claude Monet (1914-1926, 3 panels) at MoMA
Water Lilies, by Claude Monet (1914-1926, 3 panels)

Claude Monet was a founder of French Impressionist painting, and the most consistent and prolific practitioner of the movement’s philosophy of expressing one’s perceptions before nature, especially as applied to plein-air landscape painting. The term “Impressionism” is derived from the title of his painting Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise), which was exhibited in 1874 in the first of the independent exhibitions mounted by Monet and his associates as an alternative to the Salon de Paris. Within the context of modern art, the more traditionally minded consider the Impressionists the last group to produce ‘proper art’. They didn’t go in for all that ‘conceptual nonsense’ and those ‘abstract squiggles’ that came later, but produced paintings that are clear, beautiful and refreshingly inoffensive.

Art critic Louis Leroy wrote in Le Charivari in his review of the exhibition that “Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished” than Impression, soleil levant. Luckily history has a way of dealing with such cynics and it caught up with M. Leroy very quickly. His vitriol towards Monet made a good splash on the day, but very soon he found that his poisoned pen had not only failed to kill off Monet and his friends, but had in fact given birth to the most famous art movement to have existed since the Renaissance: Leroy gave Impressionism a name and an identity while at the same time diminishing the role of the art critic.

Monet’s friends did not escape the vitriol either. “Do you remember Olympia by M. Manet? Well, that was a masterpiece of drawing, accuracy, finish, compared with the one by M. Cézanne.”

The Impressionists were the most radical, rebellious, barricade-breaking, epoch-making group of artists in the entire history of art. They underwent personal hardship and professional ridicule in dogged pursuit of their artistic vision. They ripped up the rulebook, metaphorically pulled their trousers down and waved their collective derrières at the establishment before setting about instigating the global revolution we now call modern art. Many 20th century art movements have been billed as subversive and anarchic, but in truth were far from it. The respectable-looking 19th century Impressionist painters, on the other hand, were the original outlaws; they really were subversive and anarchic. Not in a predetermined way, but because they had no other choice. Here was a band of artistic brothers and sisters who had developed an original and compelling way of painting in and around Paris during the 1860s and 70s, but then found their path to artistic success blocked by an oppressive art establishment. What were they to do? Give up? Perhaps, if it had been another time and another place, but not in post-revolutionary Paris, where a spirit of rebellion continued to fire the souls of the city’s inhabitants.

Vincent van Gogh arrived in Paris in 1886 and … vive la différence! Theo, his brother, introduced him to the Impressionists’ work and Vincent had an epiphany. The lights had been turned on in his eyes and suddenly he saw colour. And lots of it! He wrote to a friend, saying that he was ‘seeking oppositions of blue with orange, red and green, yellow and violet, seeking the broken and neutral tones to harmonize brutal extremes. Trying to render intense colour and not grey harmony.’

Vincent practised the Impressionist skill of the spontaneous brushstrokes, had his first dabbling with impasto painting (a technique where paint is applied so thickly to the canvas that it stands proud, resulting in a three-dimensional effect), and found that his love of Japanese woodblock prints, first developed in Antwerp, was shared by almost all avant-garde artists in Paris.

Van Gogh’s art is as familiar to us as his life story, although it was largely unknown when he was alive. But familiarity does not prepare you for your first encounter with one of his paintings. It’s like the first time you hear the Berlin Philharmonic play or visit a Frank Lloyd Wright house: another dimension is added by being in the presence of a great life force. Such entities can only be truly experienced unmediated: you have to be there.

Many of Van Gogh’s great paintings are not simply pictures, they’re more like sculptures. From a few metres away some of his later paintings start to take on a three-dimensional quality. Move a bit closer and you can see that Van Gogh has shovelled great lumps of brightly coloured oils on to his canvas. He’s caked on the paint like a drag queen on a Saturday night, and then shaped it, not using a brush, but with his palette knife and fingers. The technique wasn’t new. Rembrandt and Velázquez had both used impasto. But in Van Gogh’s hands its effects became more pronounced and dramatic. He didn’t want the paint simply to depict part of the picture, but to be part of the picture. Where the Impressionists had sought to expose the truth by painting what they saw with rigorous objectivity, Van Gogh wanted to go further and expose deeper truths about the human condition. So he took a subjective approach, painting not just what he saw, but how he felt about what he saw.

The Starry Night, by Vincent van Gogh (1889) at MoMA
The Starry Night, by Vincent van Gogh (1889)

Van Gogh’s night sky is a field of roiling energy. Below the exploding stars, the village is a place of quiet order. Connecting earth and sky is the flame-like cypress, a tree traditionally associated with graveyards and mourning. But death was not ominous for van Gogh. “Looking at the stars always makes me dream,” he said. “Why, I ask myself, shouldn’t the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France? Just as we take the train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star.”

The Starry Night, by Vincent van Gogh (1889)
The Starry Night, by Vincent van Gogh (1889)

The artist wrote of his experience to his brother Theo: “This morning I saw the country from my window a long time before sunrise, with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big.” This morning star, or Venus, may be the large white star just left of center in The Starry Night. The hamlet, on the other hand, is invented, and the church spire evokes van Gogh’s native land, the Netherlands. The painting, like its daytime companion, The Olive Trees, is rooted in imagination and memory.

The Olive Trees, by Vincent van Gogh (1889)
The Olive Trees, by Vincent van Gogh (1889)

He started to distort his images to convey his emotions, exaggerating for effect like a caricaturing cartoonist. He would paint a mature olive tree and emphasize its age by remorselessly twisting the trunk and disfiguring the branches until it looked like a gnarled old lady; wise but cruelly misshapen by time. He would then add those large clumps of oil paint to accentuate the effect, turning a two-dimensional picture into a 3-D epic: a painting into a sculpture. Van Gogh wrote to Theo, referring to a mutual friend who was questioning his move away from accurate representation: ‘Tell Serret that I should be desperate if my figures were right … tell him that I have a longing to make such incorrectness, such deviations, remodellings, changes in reality, so that they may become, well – lies, if you want – but truer than the literal truth.’ And in so doing he inspired one of the most significant and enduring art movements of the 20th century: Expressionism.

The Master of Aix, as Cézanne was nicknamed by his contemporaries after choosing to exchange the gaiety of Paris for nearly forty years of self-imposed isolation in the area around his family home in Aix-en-Provence in the south of France, inspired another significant movement of the 20th century: Cubism. Both Matisse and Picasso are said to have remarked that Cézanne “is the father of us all”.

Cézanne’s often repetitive, exploratory brushstrokes are highly characteristic and clearly recognizable. He used planes of colour and small brushstrokes that build up to form complex fields. The paintings convey Cézanne’s intense study of his subjects.

Like Monet in Giverny, or Van Gogh in Arles, Cézanne became captivated by studying the landscape around his family home. He preferred to paint entities that didn’t move: motifs at which he could take a good long look, that afforded him the chance to have a proper think about what he was seeing. He was an artist determined to figure out how a painter could represent a subject with complete accuracy: not a fleeting moment like an Impressionist landscape, or the one-view-fits-all accuracy of a photograph, but accurate in the sense of it being a true reflection of a rigorously observed subject. It was an issue that tormented him. Asked what his greatest aspiration was, he replied with just one word, ‘Certainty’. The old masters’ starting-point was, ‘This is what I see’, whereas Cézanne’s was, ‘Is this what I see?’

Cézanne realized around 130 years ago that seeing is not believing: it is to question. It was a philosophical insight that links the end of the Enlightenment’s Age of Reason with the 20th century’s Age of Modernism. It was the insight that would change the face of art. And like many flashes of genius, Cézanne’s revelation is not only simple, but also staggeringly obvious.

We humans, Cézanne reasoned, have binocular vision: we have two eyes. What’s more, our left and right eyes do not record identical visual information (although our brain amalgamates the two into one image). Each eye sees things slightly differently. Added to which, we have an inclination to fidget. When we examine an object we move about: we crane our neck, lean to the side, bend forwards, and raise ourselves up. And yet art was (and is) almost exclusively produced as if seen through a single, static lens. That, Cézanne deduced, was the problem with the art of his time and of the past: it failed to represent how we truly see, which is not from one perspective, but from at least two. The door to Modernism had been opened.

Still Life with Apples, by Paul Cézanne (1895-98)
Still Life with Apples, by Paul Cézanne (1895-98)

With Still Life with Apples, Cézanne demonstrates that still life — considered the lowliest genre of its day — could be a vehicle for faithfully representing the appearance of light and space. “Painting from nature is not copying the object,” he wrote, “it is realizing one’s sensations.”

The artistic revolution begins. Cézanne has painted the jug from two different perspectives: one in profile at eye-level, the other from above looking down. Some areas of canvas are left bare, and others, like the drape of the tablecloth, appear unfinished. The wooden table is tilted towards the viewer in order to show more of the apples (also painted from two angles). If the rules of mathematical perspective as established in the Renaissance were applied, the fruit would be rolling off the table and tumbling to the floor. But perspective’s loss was truth’s gain. That is how we see. The view Cézanne is presenting is a composite of the differing angles we all enjoy when studying a scene. He is also trying to convey another truth about how we take in visual information. If we see apples spread on a table we do not ‘read’ what is in front of us as individual apples, we register a single unit: apples on the table. For Cézanne the overall design of the whole tableau was of more importance than the component parts. Still Life with Apples is more than an imitation of life — it is an exploration of seeing and the very nature of painting.

Still Life with Apples is a painting that demonstrates how Cézanne changed art for ever. His abandonment of traditional perspective in favour of a commitment to overall pictorial design and the introduction of binocular vision led directly to Cubism (where almost all illusion of three dimensions was abandoned in preference for maximizing visual information), Futurism, Constructivism and the decorative art of Matisse.

Since Manet (and Degas, Monet and Cezanne), artists have sought to undermine the illusion of space that had ruled painting since about 1425. Spatial illusion was increasingly seen as a defect that reduced the integrity of painting. But as the earlier painters of the avant-garde have shown, ridding a painting of illusion is almost impossible. The audience is trained to expect three dimensional space and sees it given the opportunity. This is Matisse’s challenge. He meets this challenge – the destruction of spatial illusion – in three stages – the colour red, illusionism and the figure-ground relationship.

The Red Studio, by Henri Matisse (1911) - The plate on display was in Matisse's studio and is featured in the painting
The Red Studio, by Henri Matisse (1911) – The plate on display was in Matisse’s studio and is featured in the painting

Red is often thought of as the most aggressive color. It has the most punch, and that’s what Matisse needed here. The red is an attempt to find a color that is forceful enough to resist the illusion of deep space by pushing to the surface. The red is, of course painted onto the flat canvas but actually fails to remain there visually. Instead, the red becomes the walls and furnishing of the room seen in space. Illusion triumphs.

Objects on table (detail), The Red Studio, by Henri Matisse (1911)
Objects on table (detail), The Red Studio, by Henri Matisse (1911)

“Where I got the color red—to be sure, I just don’t know,” Matisse once remarked. “I find that all these things… only become what they are to me when I see them together with the color red.” This painting features a small retrospective of Matisse’s recent painting, sculpture, and ceramics, displayed in his studio. The artworks appear in color and in detail, while the room’s architecture and furnishings are indicated only by negative gaps in the red surface. The composition’s central axis is a grandfather clock without hands—it is as if, in the oasis of the artist’s studio, time were suspended.

This triumph of illusion is due in part to the linear perspective that defines the table, chairs, and the walls and floor of the studio. But look! Matisse has constructed some of the worst linear perspective ever seen. Receding lines should converge, but look at the chair on the lower right. The lines widen as they go back. And look to rear left corner of the room. The corner is defined by the edge of the pink canvas but above that painting, the line that must define the corner is missing! Matisse is literally dismantling the perspective of the room but it makes no difference, we still see the room as an inhabitable space. Illusion still triumphs.

Chair (detail), The Red Studio, by Henri Matisse (1911)
Chair (detail), The Red Studio, by Henri Matisse (1911)

Although it is very difficult to see in reproduction, if seen in person at MoMA, it is clear that the whitish lines that define form in the red field are not painted on top of the red. Instead, they are reserve lines – the white lines are actually the canvas below. Matisse painted the red planes up to the line on either side, leaving a narrow gap of white canvas in between. The white line is actually emerging from below the red. It is beneath.

Painting and dresser (detail), The Red Studio, by Henri Matisse (1911)
Painting and dresser (detail), The Red Studio, by Henri Matisse (1911)

Matisse has realized that illusion is almost certain to triumph no matter how aggressively he tries to undermine it. We, as the audience, will see space if given the slightest opportunity. So if we see illusion at such a basic level, what hope does Matisse have of destroying it? In fact, his reserve lines are his really brilliant solution. The chairs, the dresser, the clock, each object, or figure in The Red Studio is constructed out of the canvas below. At the same time, the ground which supports those figures is constructed out of a plane of red that is physically above the canvas. What Matisse has done then is reverse the figure ground relationship. He has made the figure out of the ground (the canvas) and made the ground out of the figure (the red paint on top). When seen in person, the recognition of this does finally destroy illusion, Matisse triumphs!

Matisse’s ability to make a simple mark on canvas that makes an immediate and memorable connection with the viewer elevates him from the good painter to the great artist. The balancing effect of his contrasting shapes, and the coherence of his compositions, have been matched by very few artists in the history of painting. It just so happens that one of those rare talents who could stand comparison was living in Paris at exactly the same time.

Pablo Picasso was a precocious young Spanish artist who had quickly made his mark on his first visit to Paris in 1900 when still a teenager. By 1906 he was a resident of the city, a star of the avant-garde, and a frequent visitor to the Steins’ art-filled apartment. It was there that he saw Matisse’s latest work and went as green as Madame Matisse’s painted nose. The two men were outwardly polite to each other but inwardly voraciously competitive, and made it their business to keep a keen eye on the other’s work. They privately recognized that it was going to be a straight fight between the two of them for the title of Greatest Living Artist, a title that had recently become available following Cézanne’s death.

The friendship both artists had developed with the Steins was to provide the catalyst for one of the greatest advances in modern art ever to take place. There are many claims to ‘big bang’ moments in art, where the course of painting and sculpture supposedly dramatically and permanently changed. Following a meeting with Matisse at the Steins’ apartment, Picasso went to the ethnographic Musée du Trocadéro to look at their collection of African masks.

Picasso’s meeting with the masks caused one of the most fundamental shifts of all. Within hours the artist had rethought a painting that he had been working on for some time. Much later he reflected that on seeing the masks ‘he understood why he was a painter’. ‘All alone,’ he said, ‘in that awful museum, the masks, the Red Indian dolls, the dusty mannequins, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon must have come to me that day, but not because of all the forms: but because it was my first canvas of exorcism – yes, absolutely!’ Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is the painting that led to Cubism, which in turn led to Futurism, abstract art and much, much more. To this day it continues to be regarded by many contemporary artists as the single most influential painting ever created.

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, by Pablo Picasso (1907)
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, by Pablo Picasso (1907)

When standing in front of the painting, the viewer is confronted by five naked women staring out from a giant canvas 2.5 metres square, their crudely painted bodies marked out from the palette of browns, blues and pinks by a series of razor-sharp angular lines applied in a way that shattered the image like a broken mirror.

Picasso was inspired by Cézanne and determined to continue the Master of Aix’s line of enquiry into perspective and ways of seeing. Which he did to incredible effect in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, a painting that built on Cézanne’s ideas and led to a new art movement. There is little sense of spatial depth in Picasso’s picture. Instead, the five women are two-dimensional approximations, their human bodies reduced to a series of triangular and diamond shapes that could have been cut from a piece of terracotta-pink paper. Details have been simplified to the extreme: a breast, a nose, a mouth or an arm consists of little more than a short angular line or two (in much the same way that Cézanne would depict a field). There is no attempt to mimic reality – the two women on the right of this macabre, grotesque group have had their heads replaced by African masks; the woman on the far left has been turned into an ancient Egyptian statue; while the two central figures are little more than stylized caricatures. All their facial features have been rearranged as a multi-angle composite: their elliptical eyes misaligned, their mouths contorted.

The painting induces a feeling of claustrophobia in the viewer, due to Picasso’s dramatic foreshortening of the background. We do not experience the traditional illusion of the image receding into the distance; instead the women aggressively jump out from the canvas like a scene frozen in a 3-D movie. This was the artist’s intention. Because these women are actually propositioning prostitutes who have lined up in a ‘parade’ for you, the client, to make your selection. The Avignon in the title refers to a street in Barcelona known for its prostitutes (not the picturesque town in southern France). At their feet is a bowl of ripened fruit, a metaphor for the human delights on offer.

Picasso called it an ‘exorcism painting’. In part this was because Les Demoiselles expunged some of his own artistic past and therefore represented a bold new direction, but he was also alluding to the stark messages contained within the picture, which were about the dangers of instant gratification and sleeping with prostitutes. They were temptations that some of his friends had paid for twice: once with their money and later with their lives. It is a dark warning of the perils of venereal disease, which was rampant in the artistic bohemia of fin-de-siècle Paris (it had already accounted for Manet and Gauguin). In his early preparatory sketches there was a cast of seven: the five prostitutes plus two men – a sailor (the client) and a medical student holding a skull (a symbol of death). Picasso’s original intention was perhaps for a more obviously moralizing picture, demonstrating the ‘wages of sin’. But he found that removing narrative elements from the composition increased its visual power.

Hearing of the unfavourable opinions of his friends to the painting, Picasso stopped work on it, although he considered it unfinished. He rolled the canvas up and placed it at the back of his studio, where it remained for a very long time, gathering dust. It was eventually bought sight unseen by a collector in 1924, but even then it was largely kept out of view and rarely exhibited until the late 1930s, when it was purchased by MoMA.

Even the painter Georges Braque, who, like Picasso, had gone to Cézanne’s posthumous show and been transformed and transfixed, could not see what the Spaniard was trying to achieve with Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. But unlike the others, who came and saw and sniggered and then left, Braque returned a little while later to offer Picasso his thoughts and help. In what he would describe as an artistic odyssey comparable to ‘two mountaineers roped together’, and that Picasso referred to as a ‘marriage’, the two young artists formed an intimate creative partnership out of which Cubism emerged. It was a partnership whose output would define the visual arts of the 20th century, leading to the Modernist aesthetic of stripped pine floors and Anglepoise lamps. It was a partnership that began in 1908 and ended with the unwelcome arrival of the First World War.

Homage to J.S. Bach, by George Braque (1911-12) at MoMA
Homage to J.S. Bach, by George Braque (1911-12)

The term Cubism adds a further complication to an already complicated art movement. Cubism might reasonably describe some of the Cézanne-influenced paintings Braque produced at L’Estaque in 1908, but it completely fails to reflect the nature of the pioneering work he and Picasso undertook from that autumn onwards. The term is a misnomer: there are no cubes in Cubism – quite the opposite.

Cubism is about acknowledging the two-dimensional nature of the canvas and categorically NOT about trying to re-create the illusion of three dimensions (a cube, for example). To paint a cube requires the artist to look at an object from a single perspective point, whereas Braque and Picasso were now looking at an object from every conceivable angle. Their intent was to stir the viewer’s brain into action and prompting the viewer to pay some attention to the everyday and the overlooked.

Cubism is also about presenting a more accurate picture of how we really observe an object. Which is a concept we can put to the test by looking at Georges Braque’s Man with Guitar. He produced the painting during the first phase of Cubism, known as Analytical Cubism (1908–11) – named as such because of their obsessive analysing of a subject and the space it occupies.

Man with a Guitar, by Georges Braque (1911)
Man with a Guitar, by Georges Braque (1911)

Braque realized, as did Picasso, that only by using a muted palette could he successfully blend multiple viewpoints of the same subject on a single canvas – a variety of bright colours would be impossible to configure for the artist and would present us with an indecipherable mess. Instead, they devised a technique where a straight line would mark a change of view, while subtle tonal shading would demonstrate to the viewer that a transition was taking place. The added benefit of this approach was an overall design that was balanced and coherent.

This is an important aspect of Cubism. For the first time, art was being produced whereby the canvas was no longer pretending to be a window – an instrument of illusion – but was being presented as an object itself. Picasso called it ‘pure painting’, meaning that the viewer was to judge the picture on the quality of the design (colour, line and form), and not on the quality of an illusory deception. The most important thing now was the lyrical and rhythmic pleasure to be enjoyed by the eye as it roamed the angular shapes laid out before it on the canvas.

Of which there are many in Braque’s Man with Guitar. He has deconstructed the guitar into several pieces and then reassembled it in loosely the correct shape, with each element depicting a different viewpoint. The guitar can now be seen from both sides, from the front, even from behind: all at the same time. This is not the sort of straightforward representation a camera could produce, or the mimicry of previous art, but a totally new way of portraying and seeing the musical instrument. Braque has brought a static object alive.

Cézanne pushed the door to Modernism open; these two young adventurers blew it out of its frame. They weren’t copying real life: they were appropriating it. Analytical Cubism was turning into Synthetic Cubism, which is the official term given to Braque and Picasso’s introduction of papier collé, a term that derives from the French coller, to paste or glue. These two great pioneers of art had done it again: they’d invented collage.

And they had one more trick up their artists’ smocks: the three-dimensional papier collé. In today’s contemporary art-speak, these precarious compilations of string, cardboard, wood and painted paper would be called assemblages or maybe even sculptures. But back in 1912 the word assemblage didn’t exist, and sculptures were grand pieces of modelled or carved marble or cast bronze that sat on plinths.

Guitar, by Pablo Picasso (1912)
Guitar, by Pablo Picasso (1912)

When the poet and critic André Salmon visited Picasso’s studio in the autumn of 1912 and saw Guitar hanging on the wall he was nonplussed. The Spanish artist had made a three-dimensional likeness of a guitar by gluing together pieces of folded cardboard, wire and string.
‘What’s that?’ asked Salmon.
‘It’s nothing,’ replied Picasso. ‘It’s “el guitare!”’
‘The’ guitar, you notice, not ‘a’ guitar. Braque and Picasso had been making these three-dimensional models for a while to assist in the plotting of their Cubist paintings. Now they had simply promoted them from understudy to the lead role. It was a final break with tradition. Art could now be made out of anything!

We’ll skip right over Futurism, Orphism, Suprematism, Constructivism, Neo-plasticism, Dadaism (despite its 100th anniversary this year), Surrealism (so many -isms!) and jump straight to Abstract Expressionism.

Peggy Guggenheim was a passionate woman defined by her three great loves: money, men and modern art. Her love of money was inherited in the shape of a fortune that came to her as a child from her industrialist father, who perished on the Titanic. She developed her voracious appetite for men under her own steam, with a list of lovers running into the hundreds – if not thousands. When asked how many husbands she had been through, she replied, ‘My own or other people’s?’ As for her love of modern art, that was acquired through an inquisitive mind and a taste for adventure: a combination that prompted her to abandon uptown, uptight New York for downtown, bohemian Paris when she was twenty-two.

In 1943 Peggy Guggenheim organised a new exhibition Spring Salon for Young Artists at her gallery Art of This Century, which would champion emerging American artists. She relied on an impressively high-powered advisory committee consisting of Marcel Duchamp, Piet Mondrian (now also living in New York) and Alfred Barr, the influential founding director of MoMA. On the eve of the exhibition Peggy went to the gallery to see how the preparations were coming along. She arrived to find many of the paintings still on the floor, leaning against the gallery’s walls waiting to be hung. She looked around the gallery and saw Piet Mondrian crouching down in one corner staring intently at one of the artworks awaiting display. Peggy breezed up to the esteemed Dutchman, knelt beside him and followed his gaze towards the object of his attention. It was a large painting called Stenographic Figure by an unknown young American artist.

Peggy shook her head. ‘Pretty awful, isn’t it,’ she said, embarrassed that such a hopeless picture could have slipped through the net. If shown, it would ruin her reputation in the art world, calling into question her good judgement. Mondrian continued to study the picture. Peggy criticized the technique of the painter who had produced it, declaring that the picture lacked rigour and structure. ‘You can’t compare this to the way you paint,’ she said, flattering Mondrian and hoping to divert his attention away from the oily mess on the floor. The Dutch artist paused, slowly lifted his head and looked at Peggy’s anxious face. ‘It is the most interesting work I’ve seen so far by an American,’ he said. And then, seeing the confusion in her eyes, he slipped into his role as art advisor and added, ‘You should keep an eye on this man.’

Stenographic Figure, by Jackson Pollock (1942)
Stenographic Figure, by Jackson Pollock (1942)

Peggy was astounded. But she was a good listener and knew when and from whom to take advice. Later on, when the exhibition had been hung and the private view was in full swing, she could be seen picking out favoured clients, taking them solicitously by the arm, and whispering into their ear that she wanted to show them something ‘very, very interesting’. She would then lead them to Stenographic Figure and explain with the enthusiasm of an evangelical preacher just what an important and exciting picture it was, and how the man who produced it was the future of American art.

She, with a little help from Mondrian, was right. Stenographic Figure by Jackson Pollock is not an abstract work, nor did it feature any suggestion of the famous ‘drip’ painting technique that he would later develop and make his name with. It owed much to Picasso, Matisse and Miró – the three European artists Pollock most admired. It depicts two spaghetti-like figures sitting at a small table facing each other. They are having a heated debate, gesticulating wildly with their red and brown arms, which cut into the red edges of the table and the painting’s light blue background. The way in which Pollock has tilted the table towards the viewer and formed his two elongated figures points to Picasso’s influence. The American’s regard for Miró can be seen in the scribbled letters (‘stenographic’ meaning the process of writing in shorthand) and the random shapes with which he has covered the image. They ape Miró’s automatism – his stream-of-consciousness Surrealist painting technique. Matisse’s presence can be felt in the bright Fauvist colour palette that Pollock has employed.

Later the same year, Peggy Guggenheim commissioned Pollock to paint a mural for her New York townhouse. Pollock was already thinking big having been inspired to do so by the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera (husband of Frida Kahlo), who had been invited by several American cities to come and paint his giant wall-covering artworks.

Pollock was delighted to have the commission, but had no idea what to paint. He had artist’s block. The months rolled by as he stared at his huge 6-metre-long blank canvas and waited for inspiration. He waited and waited and waited. Six months came and went and still there was not one mark of paint on his bare canvas. Peggy’s patience had run out – she told Pollock that it had to be now or never. Pollock chose the former. And so, in one ferocious all-night session of painting and passion, he set to. By the end of the following morning he had finished the painting, and, without knowing it, had started a new art movement that would be called Abstract Expressionism.

Mural, by Jackson Pollock (1943) at University of Iowa Museum of Art
Mural, by Jackson Pollock (1943) at University of Iowa Museum of Art

That is the myth, that Pollock had painted the epic canvas in one great, glorious burst of nonstop creative fervor. Science has busted the myth and a Getty paint study, coupled with other research, convincingly shows that the painting evolved over many days and perhaps even several weeks.

Mural has many of the hallmarks of early Abstract Expressionism, which at this stage was all about the raw physical mark, or ‘gesture’, made when an artist applied paint to the canvas. Quieter, more contemplative styles would come later, but at the beginning it was Pollock’s method of action painting that established the movement. His was an art made with a volcanic, instinctive power that erupted from deep within him and burst out in a fit of painting on to the canvas. An artwork like Mural was the result. It is both abstract and expressive. A swirling mass of thick white paint looks as if it has crashed into the canvas like a breaking wave. It is broken up by vivid patches of yellow that have been divided by loosely painted, but quite evenly spaced, vertical lines of black and green. There is no central area to which the eye is drawn: this is an ‘all-over’ painting. Imagine what 100 raw eggs thrown against a concrete wall full of graffiti might look like and you’d be on your way to visualizing Pollock’s Mural.

In November 1943 Peggy gave Pollock his first solo show at Art of This Century. The show started with all the paintings for sale and ended with all the paintings for sale. But it had attracted some notable potential customers. The most important of whom was Alfred Barr, the director of MoMA. He was particularly taken with Pollock’s painting The She-Wolf. And MoMA became the first museum in the world to buy a work by Jackson Pollock (for $650!!! or about $9000 is today’s dollars) .

The She-Wolf, by Jackson Pollock (1943)
The She-Wolf, by Jackson Pollock (1943)

Jackson Pollock made his first batch of drip paintings in 1947. The critics were unimpressed, dismissing the paintings as random, unrecognizable and meaningless. Back then you could buy one of the drip paintings for $150 (or $1000 in today’s dollars). And you could sell it now for $140 million!

In 1950, Hans Namuth, a German-born photographer, approached Pollock and asked to photograph him at work in his studio. The black and white photographs captured, for the first time, the painterly method and instinctive choreography of Pollock’s technique (the images were to be a precursor to performance art). They also helped create a romantic mythology around the artist. In the moody, mid-motion shots, Pollock was cast as a passionate and pensive artist and an all-action-man. Dressed in jeans and black T-shirt, with rippling forearms and a cigarette dangling from his mouth, he appears more like a James Dean type movie star than the clichéd image of a cerebral and detached artist. He is depicted as a heroic figure, working away on his own, desperately trying to express his feelings by marking the canvas beneath his feet with paint. People saw him pouring his heart out in his paint and felt his pain.

Jackson Pollock painting Autumn Rhythm: Number 30, 1950 - Photograph by Hans Namuth
Jackson Pollock painting Autumn Rhythm: Number 30, 1950 – Photograph by Hans Namuth
Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) by Jackson Pollock (1950) at the Met Fifth Avenue
Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) by Jackson Pollock (1950) at the Met Fifth Avenue

One, Number 31, one of the largest Pollock paintings, is considered another masterpiece of his “drip” technique. The work conveys great energy with an intricate web of tans, blues and grays lashed through black and white. There is no sign of any brushwork because there is none. He laid his canvas on the floor and vigorously dripped, poured and flicked household paint all over it. He attacked the canvas from its four sides: walked across it, stood in the middle – became part of the painting. He manipulated the wet paint with trowels, knives and sticks, added sand or glass or cigarette butts – stirred things up, threw things down: made a mess.

One: Number 31, 1950, by Jackson Pollock (1950) at MoMA
One: Number 31, 1950, by Jackson Pollock (1950)

Initially, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg only wanted to offer an alternative to what they considered to be the overpowering, testosterone-fuelled Abstract Expressionists. Both Johns and Rauschenberg felt that the Abstract Expressionists had lost touch with reality. They had become too wrapped up in themselves and had abandoned real subjects in favour of grand pronouncements of their own feelings. The two young Americans represented a new generation that wanted to reflect and discuss the reality of the humdrum life around them, which was modern America in the 1950s. From their New York studio they worked together, shared ideas, and critiqued what they produced. It was a partnership of two like-minded artists who helped each other reach new heights and break new ground in their own individual styles. The work that Johns and Rauschenberg produced paved the way for Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein: the two high priests of American Pop Art.

Johns’s famous early painting Flag owes plenty to Duchamp for the everyday, ubiquitous nature of the subject – the American flag. A cursory glance at Flag tells us that, yes, we are indeed looking at the Stars and Stripes, but go closer and look properly (something you have to do in front of the object in MoMA, as it is not possible to reproduce the effect in print) and you will see that Johns has not painted the image solely on to a canvas. It is actually a patchwork of layers, mounted on plywood, made from scraps of newspaper and canvas, painted using an ancient encaustic technique where molten wax is mixed with pure pigment. The combination of the different materials and textured paint gives the picture a lumpy, bumpy, bubbling surface, an effect that Johns has heightened by allowing his paint to drip down the canvas like wax from a candle.

Flag, by Jasper Johns (1954)
Flag, by Jasper Johns (1954)

Rauschenberg and Johns succeeded in the task they had set themselves in their New York studio during the 1950s. They had determined to free American modern art from the chilly grip of Abstract Expressionism, and that they had done. Their images of, and appropriations from, popular culture stopped being seen as a joke and started to be taken seriously. Influential curators from MoMA would make their way to Manhattan’s leading art galleries – such as Betty Parsons and Leo Castelli – to see at first hand the latest work by these two young Americans. There they would quietly peruse and identify pieces to purchase and add to their impressive collections of modern art.

Andy Warhol would stand and look at the work of Rauschenberg and Johns and despair. What could he – a mere commercial artist working in advertising – do to match the impact being made by those two bold artists?

While Johns mainly chose objects so familiar that they were overlooked, Warhol would take images so popular that they already had mass appeal – he would be as bold and brash as the adverts and products surrounding him in Manhattan.

He couldn’t find a New York gallery to show his work, but he did in Los Angeles. In July 1962, at Irving Blum’s Ferus Gallery in LA, thirty-two paintings by Andy Warhol of Campbell’s Soup Cans were exhibited. They were presented on thirty-two separate canvases, each depicting a different flavour in the Campbell’s range. Irving Blum had wittily hung them in a single horizontal line supported by a shallow white shelf, as if they were still in a food store. The intention was to sell each canvas individually for $100, but by the end of the show there were only five takers. By this time Blum had developed a taste for Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans. He liked seeing them en masse, and started to think that they worked better as an overall piece rather than as single units: the sum, he thought, was greater than the parts. He put it to Warhol that the work should be reconceived as one entity featuring thirty-two canvases. The artist agreed. Which makes Blum a co-creator of one of the twentieth century’s most famous artworks.

With Warhol’s agreement, the art dealer went about buying back the five previously sold Campbell’s Soup Can canvases – all of which had remained in the gallery awaiting collection once the exhibition had finished. As a unified work Campbell’s Soup Cans would not only define Warhol as an artist, but they would also define Pop Art, and the movement’s overriding obsession with mass-production and consumer culture.

Andy Warhol, Campbells Soup Cans, 1962
Campbells Soup Cans, by Andy Warhol (1962)

Warhol had succeeded in removing almost all evidence of his presence from the paintings; there are no stylistic ticks, no look-at-me flourishes in any one of the thirty-two canvases. The power of the work was in its dispassionate coldness, communicated by the apparent absence of the artist’s hand. Its repetitive nature parodies the methods of modern advertising, which aims to infiltrate the public’s consciousness in order to indoctrinate and persuade by bombarding us with multiple exposures of the same image. Warhol is also challenging the convention that art should be original with his studied uniformity of his Campbell’s Soup Cans. Their sameness goes against the traditions of the art market, which places value – financial and artistic – on perceived rarity and uniqueness.

Warhol’s decision not to create his own graphic style but to mimic that of the Campbell’s soup cans has a social and political dimension. It is a Duchampian rebuke to the art world for elevating artists to the role of all-seeing geniuses, as well as being a comment on the diminished status of individual workers in the homogenized world of mass-production. Warhol presses that particular point with his method of production. Although the thirty-two Campbell’s Soup Cans appear identical, they are in fact all different. Go up close and you will see that the brushwork is not quite the same on any one of the canvases. Look even closer and you’ll notice that at times the label’s design has been changed. Behind the apparent soullessness of the repeated motif is the hand of the artist, an individual whose task it was to make the work. Just as it is the efforts of individuals unknown and uncredited that are behind the creation of a can of Campbell’s soup.

Comics were obvious territory for the artists of the fast-emerging Pop Art movement to explore, and Lichtenstein and Warhol (and another painter called James Rosenquist) arrived at the same idea almost simultaneously. The difference between them, though, was Lichtenstein’s technical approach. Yes, he mimicked the graphic style, lettering and speech-bubbles of comic strips, but he also copied the printing process by which they were made.

In the 1960s, colour comics used a printing technique called Ben-Day Dots. It is based on the same principles as Georges Seurat’s Pointillism, whereby dots of colour are applied to a white surface with space left around them. The human eye detects a colour ‘glow’ surrounding each dot and takes on the task of mixing it with the other coloured dots in the vicinity. This was beneficial to printers and their comic clients. If the printer wasn’t covering all the paper in ink, but just dotting it with colour, there was a decent financial saving to be had.

Lichtenstein copied the system and in doing so happened upon a style that made his paintings instantly recognizable. In the autumn of 1961 he went to show his new work to Leo Castelli, the influential New York gallery owner. The astute Castelli liked what he saw. He knew Warhol was pursuing a similar path and therefore mentioned to the artist that he had just seen Lichtenstein’s dot paintings. Warhol immediately went to take a look at Lichtenstein’s canvases, studied them for a while, and decided to move away from comic-strip art for good.

Drowning Girl, by Roy Lichtenstein (1963) at MoMA
Drowning Girl, by Roy Lichtenstein (1963)

Lichtenstein’s Pop icon is at once a coolly ironic deconstruction of pulp melodrama and a formally dynamic—even moving—composition, thanks largely to the interplay of the subject’s hair (swept into a perfect Mad Men–era coif) and the waves (which seem to have wandered in from a Hokusai print) threatening her. The image, a crop from a panel in an early-’60s comic book titled Run for Love!, shows that Lichtenstein’s in full command of his style, employing not only by his well-known Ben-Day dots, but also bold black lines corralling areas of deep blue. It’s a complete stunner.

That concept of blurring the boundaries between art and commerce was ingeniously realized by the Swedish-born American artist Claes Oldenburg. His Spoonbridge and Cherry sculpture is not at MoMA, but we did find some cherries 🙂

Cherries, by Philip Guston (1976)
Cherries, by Philip Guston (1976)

The Cherries are by Philip Guston, an example of his late style representational paintings.

In the 1950s, Philip Guston achieved success and renown as a first-generation abstract expressionist, although he preferred the term New York School. Guston used a relatively limited palette favoring black and white, greys and reds. It was a palette that would remain evident in his later work. In 1960, at the peak of his activity as an abstractionist, Guston said, “There is something ridiculous and miserly in the myth we inherit from abstract art. That painting is autonomous, pure and for itself, therefore we habitually analyse its ingredients and define its limits. But painting is ‘impure’. It is the adjustment of ‘impurities’ which forces its continuity. We are image-makers and image-ridden.” In the late 1960s Guston helped to lead a transition from abstract expressionism to neo-expressionism in painting, abandoning so-called “pure abstraction” in favor of more representational, cartoonish renderings of various personal situations, symbols and objects. He is known to the world for his cartoonish paintings of an existential, lugubrious nature that used a limited palette and were created in the period after 1968.

Excerpts from ‘What Are You Looking At?’ by Will Gompertz.

2 thoughts on “A Tour of MoMA Masterworks”

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