Deconstruction Zone

Andreas Feininger's On the Staten Island Ferry Approaching Downtown Manhattan (1940), on view at the Jewish Museum.Photo: Andreas Feininger/courtesy of the Jewish Museum

September 11 renewed the modernist conviction that we live in an uncertain world of fragments. The skyline was shattered; a hole replaced a whole. Other comings-apart have further enhanced our sensation of the fragmentary. The grand design of globalization seems to have splintered, with the world once more becoming a puzzle of ill-fitting parts. Confidence in economic well-being has cracked along with the market. Respect for public figures has fallen, with CEOs, priests, and politicians transformed into so many Humpty-Dumpties who sat on the wall. Against such a backdrop, many public events – including art exhibitions – take on an unexpectedly symbolic cast.

MoMA QNS, for example, is today a fragment of the Museum of Modern Art – a disorienting but intriguing remnant of its earlier self. Traditionally, the museum, located in the heart of the prototypical modern city, has presented an imposing front to the world. Its perspective has been one of confident wholeness, as if MoMA alone could give full form to the varied and expansive story of modern art. There is little of that spirit in the former factory across the river where MoMA has taken temporary root. The museum lies in a part of Queens that seems to have no nucleus. The building itself, despite its renovation, is rather ordinary and lacks focus. The exhibits have an indistinct air. There is a show called “Tempo,” a miscellany of contemporary works that address the theme of time. (Does anyone now know what time it is?) There are several beautifully designed automobiles on display in what resembles a showroom. (Does anyone have the keys?) There are photographs that Rudy Burckhardt took in Queens in the early forties that depict a peculiar, half-built city filled with gaps and rubble. (Does anyone know where the there is?)

Even the permanent collection appears impermanent. It opens not with a grand statement but with a playful surrealist sculpture by Miró, Moonbird, that makes a virtue of whimsical shapelessness. In the actual presentation, there is a casual air. Nothing seems monumental. There is no powerful story line, no isolation of masterpieces. Some of the greatest works of modernism in the museum’s collection, such as Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, appear almost stolen – that is, removed from their usual context and placed in a more slapdash environment. Who would have imagined that Picasso’s prostitutes would one day end up on a street corner in Queens? Because of the open, free-flowing rooms and the lack of exhibition space, moreover, the art of the twentieth century appears compressed, with works from different eras and styles grouped closer together than would ordinarily be the case. Instead of a great narrative, there are playful strands of thought and unexpected links. A Richard Serra is not too far away from a Constantin Brancusi. A Matisse cutout faces a Pollock drip painting. The hope is to create passing sparks. Few would want the permanent collection to remain in this state forever, but the betwixt-and-between spirit of MoMA QNS is actually provocative – and probably a useful tonic for the institution. There is always a danger that MoMA will become staid and nannylike, forgetting that modernism itself was typically anything but reverential and pedantic. MoMA as it ages should retain a capacity for play. It should sometimes celebrate movement, the partial, and abrupt shifts of context.

As it builds its new monument to modernism on 53rd Street, in other words, MoMA should retain a taste for the kind of city presented in New York: Capital of Photography at the Jewish Museum – a city in which nothing seems permanent. Organized by Max Kozloff, this lively show contains 100 well-selected images from the past century taken by both lesser-known and famous photographers, such as Alfred Stieglitz, Walker Evans, and Diane Arbus. But the names don’t really matter. Here, the city seems to be the most important “artist.” New York constantly composes and recomposes itself, and its electric vitality comes from the churning crowd.

Kozloff emphasizes “street” photography. New York is not, in other words, simply the still life of the skyline. It is a kaleidoscope of fragmentary glimpses. It is not just moneyed power. It is the ever-changing face of daily struggle. Jewish photographers – often sympathetic to those on the margins of society – have made a strong contribution to the genre of street photography. But the images themselves do not particularly invite thought about “Jewish” sensibility (and not all of the photographers in the show are Jewish). The city of flux cannot be confined to one perspective. It encompasses whatever the moment gives. Over the course of the century, the city obviously evolved in various directions, and the exhibition delineates particular angles and themes that preoccupied succeeding eras. The way Lewis Hine depicts immigrants has a very different tone, for example, from the social activism of later photographers. The manner in which Edward Steichen renders the glossy sheen of penthouse society in the thirties differs from Dan Weiner’s El Morocco in the fifties or Larry Fink’s buzzy Elaine’s. Such differences – of individual sensibility, subject, and historical era – give the city a kind of metaphysical density. What’s remarkable, however, is how these sharply observed shots of New York come together to create a powerful general impression of the city. “The more specific you are,” Diane Arbus said in a quotation the show highlights, “the more general it’ll be.”

Although modernism has its share of utopian dreamers, many artists of the past century have instead celebrated the fragmentary and the glimpsed. They prefer a mongrel vitality to a purebred stillness, a jumbled collage to a more settled composition. “You have to change to stay the same,” said de Kooning, a Dutch New Yorker who called himself a “slipping glimpser.” Often, the fragment has stood for a lost or imagined whole. When MoMA reemerges on 53rd Street, the story of modernism will have to change to stay the same. And as New York considers what to do with the gap in its skyline left by the destruction of the World Trade Center, it should follow the same principle. Don’t repeat the past. Make a rhyme – even a broken rhyme.

New York: Capital of Photography
The Jewish Museum; through 9/2.

Deconstruction Zone