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Review: “Fast Forward,” High’s show of bounty from Museum of Modern Art, more like “rewind”

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El Lissitzky (Russian, 1890‐1941): "USSR Russische Ausstellung" (1929)

Treasured timelines notwithstanding, art history is anything but a straight and narrow path. Although artists of a given era share the same petri dish of current events and cultural attitudes, they engage in diverse pursuits, both in form and content, sometimes permutations of basic ideas, sometimes polar opposites.

The High Museum of Art’s “Fast Forward: Modern Moments 1913>>2013,” the penultimate exhibit in the High’s five-year collaboration with New York’s Museum of Modern Art, aims to survey both the diversity and underlying commonalities of 20th-century art. Its curators (MOMA’s Jodi Hauptman and Samantha Friedman and the High’s Michael Rooks) hit the pause button at five different years — 1913, 1929, 1950, 1961 and 1988 — and selected works made in those years.

Umberto Boccioni (Italian, 1882‐1916): "Unique Forms of Continuity in Space" (1913, cast 1931)

The exhibition is problematic, more about which later, but it is bounteous in many ways. Its 164 works come from many corners of MOMA’s collection, including graphic design, photography and film. It includes iconic works such as Umberto Boccioni’s “Unique Forms of Continuity in Space” and Willem de Kooning’s “Woman I,” and telling early works by important figures. Among them are Claes Oldenburg’s 1961 “Pastry Case,” which you can compare with his 2002 “Balzac Pétanque” in the lobby, and drawings by Ellsworth Kelly that suggest steps on the way to his large monochromatic canvases on the third floor. One of my favorite surprises is Jasper Johns’ “Painting Bitten by a Man,” which reveals a wit behind his deadpan art, and perhaps an early performance.

The curators have made an effort to amplify the art-historical narrative by acknowledging the contributions of female artists. “Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of the Little Jeanne of France,” an image-and-text piece by Sonia Delaunay-Terk and Blaise Cendrars, reflects, like the Boccioni, the theme of movement and transportation that continues to reverberate through the century. In that context, Lee Bontecou’s powerful untitled wall sculpture might suggest peering from a spaceship into a black hole.

With pieces by Kiki Smith, Annette Messager, Mona Hatoum and Jenny Holzer, the gallery devoted to 1988 almost achieves gender parity. Hatoum’s video “Measures of Distance,” a meditation on mother-daughter intimacy and exile, is a standout. In a rare misstep in the installation, however, it is impossible to hear. Check it out on YouTube.

Mel Edwards’ “Lynch Fragments” and Glen Ligon’s text pieces inject issues of race into an otherwise lily-white narrative.

The survey offers a number of through lines. The most obvious is the dialectic between representation and abstraction. Another is artists’ continual reinterpretation of classic genres, exemplified by two self-portraits: Oskar Kokoschka’s Expressionist, painterly window to his soul of 1913 and Ashley Bickerton’s 1987-88 “Tormented Self-Portrait (Susie at Arles),” a cold accumulation of commercial logos — I consume, therefore I am.

The curatorial conceit has its pitfalls. Selecting specific years endows them with a perhaps unintended importance. It suggests a direct connection when there might not be one at all. Picasso’s “Guernica” notwithstanding, it usually takes time for artists to process events. How could the 1929 stock market crash affect art created that year, especially considering that it occurred in October? With the exception of the artists in the 1988 gallery, who made world events the content of their work, the exhibition doesn’t do much to connect the artwork and the zeitgeist either.

Then, too, limiting works to those produced in a single year is, well, limiting, even for a collection as rich as MOMA’s. What if the better work were produced in 1964 rather than 1961? We know that Georgia O’Keeffe made far better art in many other years than the 1929 piece on view here.

Three contemporary works installed on the campus bring the show to the present, but the concept seems like an afterthought. Aaron Curry’s sculptures make witty references to art history, and they liven up the grounds, but they are more clever than important. Katharina Grosse, whose work pushes the boundaries of painting, is rather ill represented in the small installation on the third floor.

Ashley Bickerton (British, born 1959): "Tormented Self‐Portrait (Susie at Arles)" (1987‐88)

The exception is Sarah Sze’s installation, “Book of Parts.” A fitting finale, it nods to the past both in details (Yves Klein blue, for instance) and themes, such as fragmentation, which is evident from the beginning of the show in the disintegration of forms in Cubist paintings to the end in myriad little images of body parts in Messager’s “My Vows.”

My most serious complaint, however, is that the exhibit doesn’t so much fast-forward as rewind — to the previous MOMA exhibition at the High, “Picasso to Warhol.” Yes, the story is much fleshed out, but it still emphasizes the first half of the century and the same Eurocentric point of view.

Anyway, it’s not the art but the implication that disturbs me. One of the purposes of these collaborations is to make up for the fact that the High’s permanent collection can’t present a complete chronological narrative on its own. But does it follow that the museum must forever be inventing new ways to tell the same story? To mangle Edmund Burke, if we don’t have the history, are we doomed to repeat it? I hope not.

Which is not to say that educating the public is unnecessary. To the contrary: the art of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s needs more context and explication than previous decades. To drop in on the ’80s as this show does requires quite a leap from viewers. I can’t imagine, for instance, what a newbie will make of the single Jeff Koons sculpture in the 1988 gallery. It would have been a greater educational service had the show picked up where “Picasso to Warhol” left off, in 1966, and moved forward. It also would have better prepared audiences for the final High-MOMA exhibition, “Free Radicals: Contemporary Art 1988-2008,” coming in July 2013.

One final thought. MOMA has so many pockets of excellence that it’s a shame none of the exhibitions in the High-MOMA series have gone deep as opposed to broad. One example: its holdings in Latin American art, which would resonate in Atlanta. The High is a general museum, but plenty of its constituents long for exhibitions meatier than a survey.

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