Three astronauts float over a suite of abandoned luggage in the Museum of Modern Art’s Agnes Gund Garden Lobby. Some of the suitcases are adorned with stuffed animals and pictures of cats and dogs.
“Oil XI” (2007) resembles an airport baggage claim area. According to MoMA wall text, it “evokes the Zeitgeist of a world in the grips of a War on Terror.”
It’s an artwork by contemporary German artist Isa Genzken, 64. Her retrospective is MoMA’s headliner this fall.
I’m not sure what the animals signify. The wall text says the dangling astronauts hover “as if exploring the ruins of a devastated culture.”
The only devastated culture here is the one that let this highfalutin baggage into a museum.
Upstairs, outside the show’s entrance-proper, you encounter a group of mannequins in various states of weird dress and undress. The installation looks like a last-minute art school project by a former failed window dresser.
Connecting the dots, I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe they’re dressed like that because their lost luggage is downstairs.
Titled “Schauspieler (Actors)” (2013), it’s a veiled reference to Shakespeare, reminding us that we are all merely players on the world’s stage.
Inside, this 40-year survey isn’t horrible until about 1990, when the artist took up slipshod assemblage and began to tackle big themes like childhood violence and terrorism.
Before that, with occasional setbacks, Genzken was a promising sculptor. She still could be.
Her work may have gone wrong because she studied with Gerhard Richter (the living antithesis of a painter’s painter), to whom she was later married for about a decade.
Genzken’s work goes in and out of lucidity. Her most charming sculptures blend modernist, oceanic and pre-Columbian forms with southern California’s Light and Space Movement.
Long, sleek, painted wooden sculptures from the 1970s, called Ellipsoids and Hyperbolos, flit among oars, surfboards and abstract totems.
More recently, in the utopian “New Buildings for Berlin” (2004), pleasantly leaning colored-glass rectangles suggest futuristic, psychedelic skyscrapers.
And roughhewn, minimalist white-plaster and concrete tabletop sculptures from the 1980s playfully jaunt among geometric solids and voids; Biomorphism, Russian Constructivism and Abstract Expressionism.
One plaster sculpture looks like two animals mating. Others invoke the pregnant cavities exhumed by Rachel Whiteread.
A set of architectural photographs pays homage to New York City. A grouping of sculptural “Portrait Columns” made of wood, metal, marble and mirrors -- though satisfying -- mimic too closely Anne Truitt’s signature rectangular columns.
Most of the later work at MoMA, however, is just plain junk -- literally.
A blasphemously irreverent series of installations made of pizza boxes, toy cars, seashells, plastic and wood rebukes the Bauhaus. Other incoherent, off-color works take on the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
The six-minute film “Ground Zero” is particularly distasteful, especially shown near “Da Vinci” -- a series of wall-mounted windows from passenger airplanes that conjures plane crash debris. The film’s bird’s-eye-view documents the World Trade Center cleanup and construction site, as a voiceover discusses the price of airfares.
“Isa Genzken: Retrospective” runs through Mar. 10 at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 W. 53rd St. Information: +1-212-708-9400; http://www.moma.org.
(Lance Esplund is a U.S. art critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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