Exhibitions of the Week: Modernism Unbound with Burle Marx at the Jewish Museum, Moholy-Nagy at the Guggenheim
Roberto Burle Marx: Brazilian Modernist (Until September 18 at the Jewish Museum)
By now, the Jewish Museum has figured out what kind of modernist exhibitions fit best into its premises: relentlessly dense but effortlessly suggestive showcases of one or two artists, one or two big ideas, that bring visitors close-up with a few important works but leave plenty of room to think. Installation-wise, its recent stunners have been shows like From the Margins: Lee Krasner/Norman Lewis, Mel Bochner: Strong Language, and the recently-closed Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History. Continuing the pattern is Roberto Burle Marx: Brazilian Modernist, an exhibition that benefits both from its in-the-round floorplan and from its subject's unflagging dedication to the arts of textile and interior design. (He was best known, however, as a landscape architect, a calling that any indoors showcase would be hard pressed to channel.) The main display is as immersive as any Guggenheim vortex, and Burle Marx -- while not most dizzying or outlandish personality to grace the Jewish Museum in a year of Russian Revolutionary filmmaking and Mizrahi opera costumes -- is too multifarious to make you feel (at least figuratively) like you're walking in circles.
Roberto Burle Marx and his creations are presented, primarily, in one large ground-floor gallery. Visually, the entire display is anchored by the tapestry that Burle Marx crafted in 1969 for the Santo Andre Civic Center. This mural-sized creation is Burle Marx's aesthetic in gargantuan form, and perhaps in purified form, the paths and curves and back-to-nature serenities of his landscape architecture, spread across a single wall in blues, greens, and activating patches of orange. From here, the challenge is to unpack Burle Marx's influences and influence. The exhibition's discussion of his mixed heritage (German-Jewish father, Brazilian Catholic mother) and attention to his activities as a naturalist, conservationist, and inspired collector of art and pottery do quite a bit to address the first: it soon becomes impossible to see Burle Marx's gardens without seeing a spirit both scientific and humanitarian behind them. The inclusion of seven younger artists, in various media, who were inspired by Burle Marx addresses the second. But for all the emphasis on Burle Marx's synthesis across fields, he also turned out to be a more traditional artist of finesse, as canvases such as Red Mangrove (1963) -- a masterpiece of graduated darknesses, light arcs, and almost translucent reds -- firmly attest.
On the basis of this showcase, Burle Marx was constitutionally incapable of being dull. The trick, I suppose, is that his signature style hailed from all the right places -- think Joan Miro in earth tones -- and could itself invite and encompass just about any project Burle Marx dreamed up. Set up in an annex, a chandelier that he created with architect Marcello Fragelli at first appears to be a departure -- so dark, so three-dimensional -- but ultimately reveals itself as an offshoot of what Burle Marx was already up to. The kiltered arms; the hard, swelling angles; the Burle Marx signature style, in wood and metal and lightbulbs. Burle Marx wanted to return landscaping and design to something like an Edenic naturalism, but he did so by treating landscaping, design, art, and perhaps life itself like an enormous jazz improvisation. An artistry that never rests can become its own kind of paradise.
Moholy-Nagy: Future Present (Until September 7 at the Guggenheim Museum)
Living in a world designed by Lazslo Moholy-Nagy would be paradise, for a certain kind of mind. An artist of crisp forms and unflagging tact, Moholy-Nagy brought to his interdisciplinary projects a balance that is rare in interdisciplinary modernism. He was clever without being whimsical or even humorous, transcendent without being emotionally overblown, precise without being rigid and mechanical. In short, Moholy-Nagy: Future Present makes the Guggenheim's other forays into medium-spanning modernism seem more than a bit unhinged: walking through Italian Futurism a few seasons ago felt, in comparison, like visiting a lunatic asylum. Here is the bliss of order within variety, an art that achieves some of Piet Mondrian's certitude without suggesting all that much of Piet Mondrian's obsessiveness.
Born in 1895 in Austria-Hungary and inducted into modernism by way of studying 19th-century masters, Moholy-Nagy should by all logical rights have wound up a very different artist -- more decadent, more old world. Not so. He arrived in Berlin in the 1920s, just in time to arrive at the right blend of Dada, Constructivism, and Bauhaus, and to tap into a latent lyricism of his own. The planar paintings of this decade are meant to bring to mind purified architectural form, but it was in the dark background images of the 1920s into the 1930s that Moholy-Nagy was both most elegant and most haunting: odd industrial elements, precise yet strategically indiscernible lines, and black and midnight shades that Douanier Rousseau might envy. From experiments in sprayed paint -- which yielded the remarkable T1 (1926), the first Moholy-Nagy that Solomon R. Guggenheim purchased -- Moholy-Nagy spanned more and more media. Room-sized installations, light and shadow displays, and hanging constructions made of Plexiglas punctuated with chromium-coated rods -- one of this show's best sets of work, incidentally -- all became part of his output. As a draughtsman and painter, he progressively learned to embrace curves, circles, and (so long, architecture!) non-parallel lines. Out of its historical and personal context, the work of his final years appears more loose and joyous than anything else he created. In its historical and personal context, this is the work of a man who had just witnessed World War II and would die of leukemia in 1946.
Future Present makes a fine case for revisiting Moholy-Nagy, but makes an even better case for modernism as a triumphal mode -- a way, the way of looking at the world that nobody can shake off at this point. There is good reason why the activated geometries of the late-period Leuk paintings seem familiar, even if Moholy-Nagy himself isn't: you've probably seen their lesser kin in office lobbies and model apartments. Frankly, if I were designing a corporate logo, Moholy-Nagy would be one of my first three calls. But precisely because his mode of working -- or something like it -- has filtered into everyday life, the departures and triumphs in Moholy-Nagy's own work become more conspicuously rewarding. I am thinking especially of the Guggenheim's powerfully subdued middle stretches of two- and three-tone paintings, and of those hanging constructions that almost seem to monitor the rest of show. These last wouldn't do much to elevate any corporate setting. Yet with their nervy twists, curves, and apertures, they feel right at home at the Guggenheim.