Comes The Revolution

Seismic shift: Andy Warhol's Hammer & Sickle (1976), in "Open Ends" at MoMA.Photo: courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art, New York

Open Ends is seductive and jolting. Its five exhibitions fill the second floor of the Museum of Modern Art, intermingling paintings, sculptures, photographs, videos, architectural models, posters, and furniture. The focus is 1960 to 2000. All the works either are in or have been promised to the Modern’s collections. Even the most tightly organized of the exhibitions has a just-go-with-it drive that makes “Open Ends” seem less like a curatorial argument than like a testing ground for ideas. With familiar icons by Pop Art stars like Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol, eloquent paintings and sculptures by other postwar artist-poets like Ed Ruscha and Eva Hesse, and works by artists to whom any visitor will be glad to be introduced, these exhibitions have something for everyone. The Modern wants everyone to feel it has something for them.

The message of these exhibitions is clear. The world’s foremost museum of modernist art is dynamic, ready for anything, eager for its embrace of institutional experimentation and uncertainty to be appreciated as part of its new identity. moma’s three huge millennium shows, including last season’s “ModernStarts,” focusing on works from 1880 to 1920 in the museum’s collection, and “Making Choices,” made up of work from 1920 to 1960, promote an image of the museum as an ambitious and flexible institution attuned to a shifting art world, a new economy, and a different understanding not only of art but also of human nature. The exhibitions promise that when the museum has finished building and renovating in 2004, it will still be itself, respectful of its glorious past but unafraid to challenge any part of it and responsive to the demands of a new century.

That’s the feel-good part. But “Open Ends” – organized by Kirk Varnedoe, head of the department of painting and sculpture; Paola Antonelli, curator of architecture and design; and Joshua Siegel, assistant curator of film and video – bristles with images of violence and conflict. Even though “Open Ends” is only partly installed – two exhibitions on the fourth floor will open October 19, four on the third floor on November 5 – it is clear from the five on view that respecting past and present while remaining equally responsive to a multitude of aesthetic approaches is a lot easier said than done.

The content and form of the shows tell difficult, discomfiting, and riveting stories. In “Innocence and Experience,” the most important and bleak of them, images of the abuse, dejection, and increasing savvy of children abound. In Robert Gober’s 1987 sculpture Open Playpen, one of the four sides of the enclosure has no bars, hinting at parental irresponsibility and carelessness, or at children who refuse to be boxed in. Mona Hatoum’s chilling Silence (1994) is a crib made of thin glass tubing with no bed, no bottom, nothing to offer support or protection. In a nearby untitled 1990 sculpture by Mike Kelley, four dolls lie like corpses on sweetly colored crocheted Afghans we identify with maternal safety and warmth. The heart of the exhibition is Charles Ray’s Family Romance (1993), a realistic sculpture of a husband and wife and their two children, each a little more than four feet tall, all naked. The children look driven and confident, the parents tentative and anxious. The children seem to be the adults, the adults the children. The sculpture infuses “Open Ends” with the sense of a profound shift, of a younger generation harder and more knowing than its parents, and of the end of the belief in childhood innocence on which many late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century artistic dreams relied.

Jarring perspectives are the hallmark of these exhibitions. “Architecture Hot and Cold” lays out grand images of architectural designs by Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, and others, demonstrating that in the realm of architecture, at least, the grand ambition and conceptual freedom identified with modernism are as strong as ever. But it also includes images of small, sealed-up houses by the sculptor Joel Shapiro and the photographer William Christenberry, demonstrating that our society continues to be just as accomplished in breeding lives of quiet desperation as it is in nurturing grand dreams. Visionary freedom collides with psychological crisis, imaginative possibility with the stifled self, all crying out for analysis or meditation that just presenting conflicting perspectives cannot yield.

The juxtapositions of modernist and postmodern images are particularly stark, and noteworthy, for what they reveal about the compatibility of the art from 1880 to 1960 that moma has passionately collected and championed, and the work recently acquired that will help define its future. In the center of the room that includes Constantin Brancusi’s The Newborn (1920)a small, sleekly polished bronze sculpture in which a baby’s cries seem to be soothed and even transformed by the newness and stripped-down purity of the light-filled form – the Modern has installed Jeff Koons’s Rabbit (1986). Much larger than the Brancusi, made of stainless steel, glisteningly smooth and reflective, it was not labored over by the artist but cast from a mass-produced inflatable bunny, an actual toy. “The nose-thumbing impertinence against Brancusi’s spiritual ambitions is obvious,” Varnedoe writes in the catalogue.

“Nose-thumbing impertinence” is the order of the day here. In the “Pop and After” exhibition, the Modern has brought in Jasper Johns’s Flag (1954-55) and installed alongside it David Hammons’s African-American Flag (1990). Johns’s deadpan painting, once a bit insolent, still enigmatic, is red, white, and blue and intended for a wall. Hammons’s Black Nationalist flag is red, green, and black and loud, and it looks like a banner that could actually be waved in a demonstration.

Its flaunting of such contrasts suggests the Modern believes in an almost Darwinian process of artistic selection, that art is part of a tough, not to say brutal, system wherein artists achieve visibility and power through their skill in competing with one another. Often this means creating images, like those by Hammons and Koons, that articulate new or different realities through the imaginative force with which they expose the limits of art that preceded them. If you can function within this competitive field, “Open Ends” effectively says to artists, you may be lucky enough to be collected by the Modern and thereby become part not just of art history but of American culture. One problem with this dog-eat-dog view is that many first-rate artists around the world resist it, offering through their work radically different perspectives on art and life. Another problem is that the belief in this selection process has been a defining part of the Modern for a long time. This great museum seems to be acknowledging that it has to change – and that change will not come easily.

Comes The Revolution