MoMA as Design Playground, Polka-Dot Sex, Tech Phantoms
The Museum of Modern Art’s “Century of the Child: Growing by Design, 1900-2000,” an omnivorous immersion in childish things, is a rarity these days: MoMA doing what MoMA does best.
Kid-friendly, the exhibition leaves behind Victorian sentimentality and dives right into 20th-century pragmatism without sacrificing a sense of wonder.
From beginning to end, it’s engaging and even interactive - - from Peter Opsvik’s comical, oversized table and chairs at the show’s outset, which puts adults right back in the position of children, to its last work by Philip Worthington, which transforms visitors’ shadows into screeching, belching monsters.
Comprising more than 500 items -- artworks, animations, furniture, films, clothing, books, toys, games, architecture, graphic design -- the show covers all angles: pedagogical, social, political, playful and psychological.
It includes Joaquin Torres-Garcia’s wood figures, Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s puppets, Isamu Noguchi’s playgrounds, Lotte Reiniger’s animated 1926 masterpiece “The Adventures of Prince Achmed” and children’s furniture by Gerrit Rietveld, Charles and Ray Eames and Alvar Aalto, whose little colorful bentwood chairs climb up the wall.
The show also encompasses the Slinky, the Rubik’s Cube and the Etch-a-Sketch. It makes stops at Disneyland, Sesame Street, Pee-wee’s Playhouse and Barbie’s Dream House. And it addresses the propagandizing and militarization of children in wartime.
When this exhibition errs, it does so with fine art. Alexander Calder’s playful masterpieces and Paul Klee’s child- themed pictures would be better suited here than Andreas Gursky’s photograph of a Toys “R” Us Inc. store.
“Century of the Child” is directed primarily at children. As an exhibition that celebrates Modernism as a back-to-basics cultural rebirth -- an admission that “the child is father of the man” -- it will appeal to the kid in all of us.
The catalog cover for the Whitney’s retrospective of Yayoi Kusama, born in 1929, is a photograph (1965) of the spirited Japanese artist sprawled on her back amid a field of polka- dotted phalluses -- a psychedelic sex kitten to rival Jane Fonda’s “Barbarella.”
In New York in the 1960s, Kusama’s polka dots and her name, as ubiquitous as her nude performances, operated like Pavlovian triggers provoking counterculture notions about political protest and free love.
Her Pop Art dots covered more than cloth phalluses -- melancholy forms resembling deflated potatoes -- which she affixed to furniture, clothing, shoes and a spatula.
She also polka-dotted canvases. In performances and films, she dotted animals, trees, nude bodies and even the surface of a pond, where red painted circles suggest Monet’s water lilies.
Kusama’s most recent paintings -- large, bright, flat- colored affairs of illustrative squiggles, eyes and faces -- are too decorative and derivative of her fellow countryman Takashi Murakami. Yet there are flashes of substance and soul.
Early beautiful Surrealist pictures from the 1940s and ’50s exploring creation and violence convey the internal spirit of things. So, too, does “Fireflies on the Water” (2002), a deprivation-tank installation of lights, mirrors and water in the Whitney’s lobby gallery, where, completely alone for one minute, you can peer into the infinite.
“Yayoi Kusama” runs through Sept. 30 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Ave. Information: +1-212- 570-3600; http://whitney.org.
Art and technology have always gone hand-in-hand. Sometimes they make strange bedfellows with the oddest offspring.
Much of the work in “Ghosts in the Machine” is like that. A multidimensional show of paintings, sculptures, films, inventions, environments and diagrams, it purports to explore the shifting relationships among humans, art and machines.
Like “After Nature” (2008) and “Ostalgia” (2011), “Ghosts” is an ambitious, thematic multifloor survey at the New Museum -- another in a series of overarching shows, fascinating yet frustrating, that have been big on ideas but aesthetically wanting.
Spanning the last six decades and including the work of more than 70 people from 15 countries, “Ghosts” comes off not as a complete expression of a thesis, but rather as curatorial brainstorming. Some of its ideas are better than others.
A lot is filler, much of which feels dated. But standouts include J.G. Ballard’s film “Crash!” (1971), an erotic meditation on the automobile as the ultimate marriage of man and machine, and Jikken Kobo/Experimental Workshop’s “Silver Wheel” (1953), a dreamy expression of our love of the bicycle.
This show is worth a visit. The weaker works, though, illustrate that in a world driven by planned obsolescence, art that is overly dependent on the latest technology quickly becomes last year’s model.
“Ghosts in the Machine” runs through Sept. 30 at the New Museum, 235 Bowery. Information: +1-212-219-1222; http://www.newmuseum.org.
(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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