During the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, the advent of the machine age helped create powerful new strains of utopian art. As the millennium approaches – and America enters the Internet era – you would think that contemporary art would burn once again with visions of a brave new world. But the prospect of the twenty-first century seems to kindle little spiritual heat. The talk today is of new fortunes, not new worlds. To find a passionate future, you must look to the past.
To the Museum of Modern Art, for example. MOMA has just opened the third and final part of “ModernStarts”, its survey of the revolutionary years from 1880 to 1920. The first two installations (which remain on display) present the many-angled ways that artists of the time viewed “People” and “Places.” The newly opened show does the same for “Things.” It includes both sculptural and two-dimensional depictions of the objects around us. Functional articles that are beautiful in and of themselves – such as an exquisite toast rack – are also an important part of the exhibit. No effort is made to provide a complete view of the period or to deliver a conventional this-begat-that lecture on the evolution of modernism. Instead, the three shows together celebrate a flickering air of experiment, unexpected juxtaposition, and metamorphosis – bringing to life a time when nothing could be taken for granted and everything seemed possible.
A good example of this is the show’s presentation of Boat Propeller, a magnificent brass object made in about 1925 by Sullivan Shipyards. On the one hand, the propeller embodies the no-nonsense industry and propulsive dynamism of the modern period. On the other, it gleams with a purity and mystical simplicity of form; it could almost be a visionary work by Brancusi. In the wall label describing this object, the curators mention that Duchamp, Brancusi, and Léger once visited the Salon of Aerial Locomotion in Paris and saw a propeller that prompted Duchamp to declare, “Painting is finished. Who can do better than that propeller?” And yet, it was not only rapture that such works aroused. Just beneath the propeller, a display case holds some rude visual jokes by Picabia, who titles a print of a propeller Ane (as in a woman’s ass), while another print, of a For-Ever spark plug, is called Portrait of an American Girl in a State of Nudity. In the modern period, it took only a blink to move from the sublime to deadpan irony.
Visionaries almost always denounce “the museum” for separating art and life; it does not make sense – to those dreaming of new worlds – to rope off art or worship objects from the past. MOMA will never be a radical institution, but its presentation of early modernism in “ModernStarts” is remarkably bold. None of the conventional boundaries found in a museum – between the different arts, for example, or between different styles – is allowed to fix meaning in place. Art from different moments is brought together, with works from the present sometimes sharing a wall with those from the past. For the entrance to “Things,” the artist Michael Craig-Martin has painted a stylized postmodern mural that depicts both everyday things – such as a stool or a lamp – and famous art objects, such as Magritte’s pipe. A celebration, in short, of fertile impurity and the playful mind – and a poignant gesture, too. Many early modern works, once so new, now look burnished with age. They could easily go to sleep to the murmuring oohs and aahs of connoisseurs and pedants. But MOMA – at the millennium – is trying to awaken them.
You can also locate the millennial spirit in folk art. Many of the great artists of early modernism revered the utopian dreams of untrained outsiders who were free of the conventional world of museums and artists. The Museum of American Folk Art is now presenting a small exhibit, “Millennial Dreams: Vision and Prophecy in American Folk Art” (see “Cue,” page 117), that illustrates how the longing for apocalyptic change can inflame the popular imagination. The show includes some early historical material – such as tombstone carvings – and some wonderful carved angels, usually with trumpets in hand. It also presents examples of work from well-known individual folk artists, some still living, such as Howard Finster. Many folk artists not only dream of another world, they transform this one – turning junk into jewels. The exhibit includes a portion of James Hampton’s fantastical The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly, in which the artist created a sparkling altar-throne from tinfoil.
But the exhibition also commemorates the many millenarian communities – like the Shakers – that once dotted the American landscape. As they pored over the Book of Revelation and awaited tidings from the New Jerusalem, such sects tried to create a heaven on earth. (The Shakers made their chairs, it has been said, believing that an angel might appear at the door and wish to sit down.) Once upon a time, that communal impulse was also a vital part of modernism, especially in Russia, where artists eagerly anticipated the dawning of a new world. One of the last visionaries of that stripe in modern art is the Dutch artist Constant (born 1920), now the subject of “Another City for Another Life: Constant’s New Babylon” at the Drawing Center. In the mid-fifties, Constant gave up painting in order to devote himself to what he called “New Babylon.” He made drawings and architectural models of an environment in which technology liberated mankind from work. In his New Babylon, people would be free to wander the world as nomads, constantly at play, forever changing and recasting their existence in a great new chain of being. Space would become a “toy rather than a tool.”
The events of 1968 – the student demonstrations and the deepening of the Vietnam War – crushed Constant’s hopes. The freedom of New Babylon, he came to believe, would lead only to anarchic violence. And so he abandoned the project. Although Constant is not a very good draftsman – his drawings and models are not nearly as provocative as his ideas – he does give off the heat of the true visionary. He is sometimes credited with anticipating the Internet community, but his work is actually much too hot-eyed for the Internet. The onscreen crowd approaches 2000 with a nagging, low-grade concern over Y2K and an interest in how to celebrate on December 31. Constant – to say nothing of Shakers or early modernists – wanted to embrace either bliss or despair. Today he must miss the sound of trumpets.