Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A review of the Michael Werner exhibition at the Musée d'art moderne

La Collection Michael Werner
Musée d’art moderne, Paris
October 5, 2012 - March 3, 2013

It was a Sunday when I saw this exhibition. I prepared a good meal at home, with salmon, Brussels sprouts and potato purée. We drank two-thirds of a bottle of burgundy, and also split a craquant au chocolat. It was her birthday.

We descended from our apartment, and found that outside it was a relatively balmy 10 degrees centigrade. The sun peeked out between the clouds, and the pavement was wet. I felt fine. We walked to the Strasbourg–Saint-Denis station, where we took the 9 train and got out at Iéna. Exiting onto the street, we followed the downward pitch of the Avenue du President Wilson and arrived at the entrance to the museum in under a minute. Across the avenue I saw the Square Brignole Galliera: empty, gray, and brooding.

Once inside the building, we walked through a metal detector. I bought a ticket for nine euros, while hers cost just seven. In order to reach the exhibition we had to pass through the museum’s permanent collection, free and open to the public, packed with kitschy Delaunays. At the entrance to the exhibition, a woman tore our tickets in half, and we each took programs from a receptacle suited for the purpose. We entered a dark octagonal room in which were arranged some bronze sculptures. I couldn’t bring myself to care, and passed up a few stairs into the first proper room, wondering if I still agreed with Baudelaire, that sculpture is the most boring of the visual arts.

Gaston Chaissac,
"Grande porte de bois peint" (1953)
The first proper room featured grayish ink depictions of naked women by Jean Fautrier. I admired the quality of line in these figure drawings, and the way it would shift from thin to thick as it followed the sensual curves of the woman’s thighs. I don’t remember anything about the Francis Gruber works that followed that, except that they were also fairly dark.

The darkness of the previous two artists ill-prepared me for the next room, and I felt a distinct shock when I found myself facing the garish colors of Gaston Chaissac. As if my eyes were adjusting to the color, I gradually liked each painting more and more as I looked at them. There was a brownish one whose colors seemed “just right.” I finished my time in this room by writing Chaissac’s name on my program, so that I would remember it (it took me a few rooms to realize that it would be easier to just circle the name where it is printed in the program). I also noted the years of the two paintings I liked best: 1958-9 and 1943-4.

Derain followed in the next room: the largest room yet. at the center were arranged several dozen heads of bronze, with round, beady eyes, thick, flat lips, whimsical expressions. I remember thinking to myself, “these are pretty funny.” I saw two paintings that bothered me, and then I began to like the rest of the paintings that I saw. Derain has a special touch. Like Robert Delaunay he seems to have been unable to formulate his own style, and resorted to borrowing from others over the course of his career; but whereas Delaunay’s borrowing results mostly in kitsch, Derain usually succeeds in creating something worthwhile despite its derivativeness. He’s not a genius, but he’s much smarter, and probably funnier than Delaunay: I left the room with a heart warmed by the admiration I was feeling just then for André Derain.

The next room was the worst of all the rooms, featuring late paintings of Picabia. The program insists that Picabia “slaughtered the second sacred cow of the art world: style,” and indeed Picabia’s later paintings lack all semblance of style. Yet nothing is revealed by them in their stylelessness; one looks at them and one sees nothing worth looking at. I laughed aloud reading the program mention “his so-called bad paintings”: so-called bad paintings, or just simply bad paintings? Bad, bad paintings that no one needs to try to admire.

Louis Eilshemius, "Nymph with Pink Scarf" (1914)
After that, one of the shining moments of the exhibition: a wall of small scenes painted by Louis Eilshemius. Like pompier paintings attempted by a child, these works exude a trembling sentimentalism, earnest and sad, a breath of fresh air after Picabia’s painting-hell. Intimate pastoral clearings, dotted with blurry nudes. The program mentioned Duchamp’s advocacy of Eilshemius at the 1917 “Independents Exhibition” in New York (I think Marjorie Perloff may have mentioned him in her talk on Duchamp). This made total sense to me, and also made me think that I, too, would advocate for Eilshemius whenever I had the chance. This room alone made the visit worthwhile.

I passed through the following rooms with my eyes open. Grotesque three-dimensional paintings from Réquichot, three different artists (Jacques de la Villeglé, Raymond Hains, Mimmo Rotella) working with torn film posters and advertisements. It’s no coincidence that all three were doing the same thing independently: it’s a pretty obvious idea, one had by people everyday in the subway. Otto Dix and Günter Brus followed—seeming a bit exaggerated after Eilshemius, to say the least!—then Lucio Fontana, whose works were cruelly positioned in a curving hallway, making it all too easy to pass them quickly. The next large room featured great works by Beuys: East German paper used for wrapping foodstuffs, brown and flat with strange stamped motifs. Beuys’ ironic commentary on top. It just works: Beuys works and he always does, somehow. These pieces were unfortunately accompanied by some dull, dreary nineties’ conceptual kitsch from James Lee Byars. Not even worth a passing glance.

After that, a big room with big Baselitz paintings. All upside down, and all worth admiring. And after that, another big positive: a series of graphite drawings from Eugen Schönebeck, depicting Stalin, Mao, Mayakovsky, and more. Very great, making me circle his name enthusiastically in the exhibition program. The program speaks of manifestos written in the sixties against the German art establishment by Baselitz and Schönebeck. Where can I read them? Schröder-Sonnenstern also very great, and where else would you see these sick drawings? Höckelmann kind of a let down after this.

Henri Michaux, "Mouvements" (1951)
But this was succeeded by another shining moment: a half room of quiet drawings of Henri Michaux. Unfortunately, as we began to look at them we were followed into the room by two Russian bimbos passing in front of each drawing at a steady pace—slow, but never stopping—speaking very loudly. Their voices echoed through the room, destroying any attempt at admiring Michaux’s simple black forms on pale yellow. We just had to stop and wait, staring at the ceiling until these awful women passed on. These simple drawings are so effective. Unequivocally human forms represented by black lines and blots, spread across the tan paper. Delicate pastel and gouache on black paper. Sharp colors, the merest hint of figures. A devotional procession in reddish-orange on black, plodding towards an electric blue ladder climbing upwards to the right. Then on the facing wall, Michaux’s mescaline drawings. I tried to imagine him on mescaline, hunched over his desk, squinting as his white-knuckled hands gripped his pen and delicately described the forms that occupied his mind. Evocative work, earnest work, simple and alien. These made me think of a time in college when I drew a picture of my friend when we had both taken acid. My first attempt at drawing had failed disastrously: I could barely move my hand, and ended up with a minuscule cartoon of a planetary orb and a hot dog. I didn’t even know what I was doing. Somehow I relaxed, and drew from nature, effortlessly recording the smooth curve of my friend’s bald head, the spiky stubble of his beard and mustache. When he saw the drawing he told me, “you’ve captured something photographic.”

Marcel Broodthaers, from "Les très riches
heures du Duc de Berry" (1974-5)
The next room featured great and funny work by Jörg Immendorff. The program spoke highly of his “LIDL actions.” We admired his “Self-portrait of the Artist in his Studio”, which depicts himself, in his studio, painting a picture of striking factory workers. Then came Lehmbruck lithographs and sculptures, which passed me by. Lüpertz followed, with a grotesque sculpture of Mozart as a female bodybuilder. Some of his paintings were quite nice, and I appreciated his attempt to make sculptures of the forms described in his paintings.

Penck was strange, and I probably should have given him more attention—at least enough to find out how this artist would switch his primary source of inspiration, as the program noted, from scientific positivism to free jazz. I was distracted from his curving room by the intimate side room devoted to Broodthaers. Great, great works collected there. Conceptual but unpretentious. The saving grace of all intellectual art is a sense of humor. Very funny work, also mysterious. Would have liked to save it for later, contemplate it during the train ride home.

Then Leroy, Polke, Toroni (minimalism is alright, but Dia:Beacon makes too big a deal about it!). Polke succeeds with winning forms. He wins these late rooms. Van Vliet better than expected, but hard to think of him as anything other than an amateur (that’s bad, I know!). Freundlich I barely recall, and Kirkeby paints his own shapes over readymade canvases. I remember thinking, “that’s a pretty good idea,” and then almost immediately thinking, “no it’s not!”

Raymond Queneau, "Main et coquillage" (c. 1925)
Schmit and Queneau in the little corner before the gift shop/exit. (Tip: you can see these for free from the staircase leading down to the permanent collection, just bring binoculars!) Schmit was interesting, but the drawings were too stiff. More of a philosopher, a comedian, a writer. I would read his novel. Queneau is of course more of a writer, whose novels I’ve read, but these little paintings are so good. His hand in front of a bottle, various objects, gouache polaroids. Mundane and magnificent. A final shining moment. Had to settle for mental postcards.

As we left we saw a long line of fashionable fools waiting to enter the Palais de Tokyo (whereas the Werner exhibit had been practically empty). One young man wore skintight jeans, a peacoat, Harry Potter glasses, Hitler Youth buzz-cut on the sides, smoothed back pompadour on top, and a massive lumberjack beard, as if he didn’t want to take any chance of anyone ever thinking he might not be a hipster. Skip the contemporary kitsch parade and see the Michael Werner show, you fools!

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