Modern/Contemporary

As I enter the Baltimore Museum of Art on a frigid winter afternoon, my first stop is at the coat check. While the young woman behind the counter hangs my coat, I notice a laminated sheet of blue paper lying on the countertop, bearing the printed message, “This is 11” x 14”.” I ask the attendant if this is a piece of conceptual art – I think it’s quite a nice one, actually, one part René Magritte, one part On Kawara, with a dash of Don Judd’s object specificity thrown in for spice. She replies that it’s a visual aid for enforcing the museum’s restriction on bags larger than these dimensions. Flipping the sheet over, she reveals that the other side says, “All bags larger than 11” x 14” must be checked.” In a confidential tone, she tells me that the reason for the rule is that paintings smaller than this in the museum’s collection are not alarmed. I am put in mind of the thought that in the contemporary era, what is not art may be a more significant question than what is, and reflect that even here, in the lobby, the museum reveals some of its underlying tensions – the uncertain form of Contemporary art, the didactic and organizational impulse vis a vis the public, the question of “insiders” vs. “outsiders,” and beneath it all, the power of the market.

My first observation about the BMA’s Modern wing is that it seems to have a lot of trash strewn on the floor. On closer observation, I discover that the many colorful pieces of paper lying in piles below the art are Valentine’s hearts, signed by the people who placed them there, a holiday-themed device encouraging visitors to vote for their favorite works. I immediately feel a sympathy for two groups of people, or possibly only one, depending on how the museum arranges its staff duties – those who will have to clean up these Valentines, and those who will attempt to tabulate them and share the results via social media, for as Julian Stallabrass suggests in Elite Art in an Age of Populism, “Web 2.0 opens up the possibility for detailed quantitative and qualitative analysis and manipulation of popular feedback – and what commercial organization (museums, for example) can resist that?” I’ve had jobs like these before, and I know how frustrating they can be, particularly for an individual over-educated in the arts. I suspect that many works in the Modern wing will receive more hearts than those in the Contemporary, a suspicion that eventually proves to be true, though not as dramatically as I expected.

The Modern wing seems designed to resemble an expensive, idealized house, with patterned wood floors and fancy molding at the tops and bottoms of the walls, which are painted a tasteful grey that makes the colors of the paintings pop. This makes sense, since the BMA’s Modern collection is composed largely of a single bequest, from the Cone sisters, who lived with classics of the Modern period in their home. The artworks displayed here are almost exclusively oil paintings and bronze sculptures; there are no photographs or screening rooms to be found, which strikes me as odd from a historical perspective, since the film or photograph as work of art seems to me a distinctly Modern phenomenon. The collection is arranged chronologically, and grouped by artists and movements, ranging from Impressionism to Cubism and early Abstraction. Nearly all of the works represent the classical subject matter of figure, still life, landscape, or narrative scene.

When I enter the Contemporary wing, the contrast is clear. The spaces are larger, and industrial materials – concrete, steel, drywall, blonde wood – predominate. The walls are very tall and painted white. Skylights allow for a mixture of natural and bright track lighting, as opposed to the discreet incandescence of the Modern wing. It looks, in short, like a scaled-up version of the Contemporary art galleries you might expect to find in any city’s arts district. The works are grouped thematically here, each room’s arrangement representing a concept, type of material, or related subject matter. Though the didactics contain significantly more explanation, aimed at placing the art in a social, cultural, or intellectual context, there is no apparent attempt to narrate a chronological history. This is all, evidently, the art of the now. I’m reminded of Jean-Philippe Antoine’s criticism of art-historical practice, “stifling the new, while privileging long chains of the same repetitious “influences.” Perhaps the curators of the BMA’s Contemporary collection have opted for a different approach, where the old(er) and the new exist side by side in spaces defined by ideas, each work selected for its relationship to history, rather than its arbitrary location in it.

I am drawn to the “Andy Warhol” room, the only one where a single artist’s name defines the space, though works by other artists are included. Large screenprints and paintings dominate the walls, surrounding a large pair of lumpy pastel-colored floor sculptures by Franz West, which resemble giant crayon turds, cartoon intestines, or candy lips. I’m surprised to discover from the wall text that viewers are encouraged to sit on these, and so I do. There is clearly a deliberate curatorial conversation going on here, even if the name makes it seem a bit like one artist talking to himself. I suppose if any American artist did that, and still moved the cultural conversation at large, it may have been Warhol. The presence of the body as subject matter, even when not explicit, is undeniable in this collection of pieces. Warhol’s reproduction of Da Vinci’s Last Supper speaks of consumption (not just of food, but of the body itself – Warhol was Catholic, after all), impending death, and stereoscopic vision, while next to it hangs Oxidation Painting, the cleverest scatological artwork I’ve yet seen. The Rorschach painting, like the human figure, relies on bilateral symmetry for its composition, and looks like a chest x-ray; the title implies that people are unable to avoid seeing human features in ostensibly meaningless patterns. It hangs across from Physiological Diagram, a crude but literal painted representation of an abdominal cavity. A tryptic of Skulls is hung next to a Self Portrait showing only Warhol’s head. Bruce Nauman’s inset floor sculpture Deaf, Dumb, Blond references failure and death – it looks like a grave – and is installed near Warhol’s Electric Chair, an image of death itself, absent the most important part of the picture, the dying body. I wonder if a dead artist can legitimately be considered contemporary, but the arrangement of the “Warhol” room makes a good case. Death looms large in this selection of works and, in consideration, the death of the artist himself becomes another strong point raised by its display.

Sitting on West’s pink fiberglass tube, I find myself wondering about the state of the Contemporary in art. So little that I’ve seen here today has shocked me, made me reconsider my definition of art, or encouraged me to reframe my view of the world. This may be unfair, but I can’t shake the feeling that, for all its conservatism, there were more surprising works in the Modern wing. Perhaps this is simply because they are from a different time, and with the passage of years have lost the immediate comprehensibility of their cultural context, regaining some of the sense of the uncanny they must have embodied when they were new. I worry that the “fine” arts (or “elite” arts, to borrow Stallabrass’s term) have lost their leading role in the creation of culture (if, indeed, they ever really had such; this is a place where I’m not sure I trust the official history), have fallen behind the speed and technical capabilities of mass media and participatory entertainment. I mention this to a classmate when she wanders into the room, suggesting that Warhol is the last artist I can think of to have occupied the old, somewhat Romantic artist’s role in moving the culture forward. She replies that she thinks Warhol more accurately represents art “waving the white flag.” I suppose that this could be true. The piece I have seen today at the BMA that has moved me most has been the visual aid in the coat check; I am looking forward to seeing it again when I go to retrieve my coat. This being the case, is it possible that the flag of Contemporary art might be best described not in terms of weaving, or of battle, but of semaphore?

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