Pollen Zings MoMA, Surreal Corpses Visit Morgan: Review

Every spring through summer since 1977, Wolfgang Laib collects hazelnut pollen in forests and meadows near his German home.

The artist manually brushes the coarse, bright yellow powder from pine branches into a ceramic coffee cup and saves it in glass jars. Now he has brought it to New York.

At the Museum of Modern Art, 18 jars of his recycled dust have been methodically sifted into a rectangle of about 20 foot (6 meters) square. A video shows Laib painting the floor yellow by tap-tap-tapping a spoon against a pollen-filled sieve.

Titled “Pollen from Hazelnut,” the velvety, softly vibrating, deckled field sits on a raised slab in the museum’s cathedral-like Marron Atrium -- which Laib refers to as MoMA’s “inner sanctum.”

He also works with milk, rice and beeswax. On March 2, Washington’s Phillips Collection will open Laib’s first permanent site-specific beeswax room, a gallery hand-coated from floor to ceiling with 882 melted pounds of the golden goo.

Also at the Phillips Collection, for the 2011 work “Milkstone,” Laib persuaded Klaus Ottmann, Phillips curator at large, to perform the daily ritual of filling a white marble slab with fresh milk.

While Laib, 62, has a Western medical degree, journeys to India shifted his interests toward quasi-religious, Eastern-inspired conceptual art.

His minimalist works refer to Tibetan sand painting, Egyptian tombs, Buddhist mandalas and Mark Rothko’s effervescent lozenges. The laborious processes and vague ceremonialism can trump the finished products.

“Pollen from Hazelnut” is best seen from high above, where it zings MoMA’s white inner sanctum like a squirt of lemon juice in the third eye.

Surreal Populism

“Drawing Surrealism” at the Morgan Library & Museum is a perfectly fine and solidly scholarly exhibition that will undoubtedly appeal.

The chronological and thematic show of more than 160 works includes the usual headliners Salvador Dali, Max Ernst and Rene Magritte. It also gives ample space to the under-appreciated Surrealist works of Jean Arp, Ellsworth Kelly and Andre Masson.

It covers dream imagery, automatism and exquisite corpse drawings -- the Surrealists’ collaborative, blind game of chance in which a poem or drawing evolves through accretion.

I can’t help but feel that a show about Surrealism is too surreal for the Morgan and shows again how far it has moved from its former front door.

On my approach down East 36th Street I noticed that McKim, Mead & White’s former grand entrance steps, now gated, were littered with garbage. Stacks of building materials were stored in the yard outside Morgan’s library and study. The only things missing were a rusted pickup truck and an old washing machine.

“Wolfgang Laib” runs through Mar. 11 at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 W. 53rd St. Information: +1-212-708-9400; http://www.moma.org.

“Drawing Surrealism” runs through Apr. 21 at the Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Ave. Information: +1-212-685-0008 or http://www.themorgan.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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