A Fine Modness

A stunning new museum makes the case that modern art—which was born in the nineteenth century—is alive and well and living in Fort Worth.

December 2002By Comments

MODERN ART AND ARCHITECTURE were born in the nineteenth century and were widely regarded as old hat three quarters of the way through the last one; today even Modernism’s history-recycling sequel, Postmodernism, is itself looking like history. So Modern art, the period style of the twentieth century, can no longer be synonymous with contemporary art, the art of the present day. Or can it?

That question becomes more than semantic with the debut of the new Tadao Ando-designed Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, opening December 14. The Modern is this country’s first large-scale public building by the self-taught, Osaka-based 1995 Pritzker Prize winner, whose profoundly humanist yet unabashedly Modernist-derived aesthetic, though little seen outside Japan, has swept over the sensibility of Western architecture like a tsunami. Equally significant is the unveiling of the Modern’s permanent collection, long hidden in the old museum’s vaults and substantially upgraded during the past four years with the acquisition of scores of major pieces. Not merely one of the nation’s most important collections of post-World War II art, the Modern’s is also one that aggressively challenges long-accepted reports of Modernism’s demise. Both inside and out, Fort Worth’s strikingly Modern new building suddenly makes Postmodernism look as fussy and old-fashioned as Beaux Arts must have appeared to the late-nineteenth-century avant garde. Modernism may yet be proved dead, but in Fort Worth it has left an exquisite corpse.

Celebrated for his skill at shoehorning liberating spaces into Japan’s claustrophobic cities, the 61-year-old Ando takes full advantage of the Modern’s Texas-scale site. The basic plan is even more modular than many of Ando’s buildings, a broadly L-shaped package of five inter-connected flat-roofed, parallel bays; two frontal bays, running most of the breadth of the eleven-acre lot, enfold the offices, auditorium, and lobby, with three half-length gallery bays stacked behind. The horizontal sweep of the facade, an austere minimalist composition of matte titanium-gray steel punctuated by a few slits of dark glass, is divided by the forty-foot-high lobby, a bracing expanse of space for space’s sake interrupted only by a floating concrete walkway—supported by two columns, like the entablature of an otherwise invisible temple—that spans the entire void. (“If you give people nothingness,” Ando once remarked, “they can ponder what can be achieved from nothingness.”) The real action unfolds beyond the lobby’s enormous glass rear wall, where the museum’s panoramic back yard provides a bucolic setting for the three gallery bays. With their flat, cantilevered roofs (recalling two of Ando’s spiritual mentors, pioneer Modernists Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier) supported by forty-foot-tall, Y-shaped concrete columns, the bays rise directly from a large reflecting pool, the water lapping at their walls as if they were the palazzi of some futuristic Venice.

While each gallery bay is essentially a two-story, rectangular concrete box inside a glass-and-steel box, it is Ando’s particular gift to make a basic vocabulary of spare geometric forms and unornamented structural materials astonishingly evocative and complex. Ando’s concrete work has become his signature; the Modern’s massive roofs were poured in place into immaculately constructed, varnished wooden moulds (Ando once apprenticed in traditional Japanese woodworking), a process that yields a satiny gray surface as rich and nuanced as polished stone, yet a stone seemingly quarried by a civilization whose technology and craftsmanship vastly exceed our own. The bare walls provide a canvas for the dappled natural light that reflects off the water through the glass skin, creating impressionistic effects as endlessly variable as the position of the sun and the velocity of the wind. Ando echoes this unpredictability with the restrained but effective use of surprising shapes: an elegantly simple, granite-clad grand staircase, long and gently sloped, leading to the second-story galleries like an ancient ceremonial ramp; two concrete ellipses—one a gallery just off the lobby, the other part of the museum’s restaurant—dropped like Zen koans in the midst of all the rectangularity. Galleries that from the outside seem entirely orderly become journeys of discovery inside, with broad, flowing openings between the bays suddenly narrowing into passageways that lead to intimate, contemplative niches or soaring, apselike glass enclosures.

Ando’s alternately exhilarating and meditative Modern takes us a long way from both the sterile functionalism of twentieth-century Modernism and the puerile ornamentalism of Postmodernism. There is a precedent, however, found directly across the street in the transcendental Modernism of the 1972 Kimbell Art Museum. Designed by Ando’s idol, Louis Kahn, the Kimbell is universally judged Kahn’s masterpiece and one of the twentieth century’s most nearly perfect buildings. Time will tell if Ando’s Modern acquires the timeless patina of its neighbor, but in at least one respect, Ando shows up his master. Kahn’s design stuck to one of Western architecture’s most basic and venerable forms, the barrel vault; Ando, who as a young man studied everything from African huts to Indian temples in a continent-hopping pilgrimage of self-instruction, has synthesized an entirely original formal vocabulary that could be called global fusion. This isn’t the Postmodern pastiche—the Chippendale crown grafted onto the Modern box—but something genetically whole, crossbreeding Vitruvius with Le Corbusier, or the Japanese shoji screen with the Western curtain wall, to create a new generation of forms.

For all his originality, Ando plays remarkably well with artists (always a fraught issue when cutting-edge architects design museums). “It was like putting on a glove,” says the Modern’s chief curator, Michael Auping, of installing the museum’s collection in the new building. With the details of Ando’s design in mind, Auping undertook a four-year, mid-eight-figures shopping spree and came up with some striking conjunctions of art and architecture. One is noticeable from blocks away: Richard Serra’s Vortex 2002, a 67-foot-tall abstract sculpture that towers like a campanile within a few yards of Ando’s facade. Constructed of seven gently curved plates of rust-orange steel that overlap like the petals of an elongated blossom, the 233-ton sculpture (which has an uncanny organic delicacy) is a breathtaking vertical complement to the Japanese-screen lightness of Ando’s horizontal metallic facade.

Inside the galleries, Auping shows Ando’s expansive, sometimes profligate spaces unusual respect, paring the inaugural presentation of the permanent collection to around a hundred pieces, leaving off the walls (and floors) dozens of major works any contemporary curator would kill for. Forgoing the recent curatorial vogue for grouping similar objects from dissimilar times, Auping preserves a chronological procession of post-war art—basically forties through sixties in the downstairs galleries, seventies to the present upstairs—while illustrating a marked continuity throughout the entire period. “As a curator, I don’t really believe in Postmodernism,” he says. “The history of art isn’t like a Prada store, where you have to clear the old merchandise out to make room for the new. I don’t think Modern art is over.” What emerges instead of the conventional Modern-Postmodern cleavage is an uninterrupted, half-century-long dialectic of opposing forces: image and abstraction, nature and technology, earnestness and irony, high art and popular culture.

The struggles are often internal, evident in a figure as seminal as Jackson Pollock, whose painted-on-the floor, all-over abstractions of the late forties and early fifties cast a huge shadow over the rest of the century, influencing everything from color-field painting to Minimalism and performance and conceptual art. Yet in Number 5, 1952, Pollock’s skeins of black industrial enamel have already coalesced back into roiling figurative forms. Philip Guston, who in the early fifties adopted the unusually pensive Abstract Expressionist style represented by the museum’s lyrically brushed, lilac and gray The Light (1964), later looked like a far more ferocious prophet of Postmodernism, retaining his characteristic palette and brushwork while backpedaling toward representation. Painter’s Forms II (1978) is an underground cartoonist’s nightmare: an open mouth spewing a perverse cornucopia of cigarette butts, legs, nails, and trash can lids. Francis Bacon, one of the great perpetuators of the figurative tradition during the hegemony of abstract painting (he was arguably a Postmodernist before the term had been coined), nevertheless pares his eerie Self Portrait (1956) to a stunningly abstract essence, his charcoal suit, pasty face, and diabolical grin barely materializing from a black background as existentially freighted as any late Rothko.

While the Modern’s collection teaches a lesson about the porous borders of styles and movements, the presentation is far from didactic. There are witty surprises, like Italian sculptor Michelangelo Pistoletto’s The Etruscan (1976), a toga-clad bronze facsimile of a Roman Republican-era statue, encountered in one of the two-story apselike alcoves found at the east end of each gallery. The bronze figure reaches out to touch a mirror mounted on the wall, as though testing a portal to another world; approaching the statue, the museumgoer suddenly sees his or her own reflection conflated with the image of the lost-in-time ancient, a visual pun transformed into a meditation on mortality. An even more dramatic memento mori is Andy Warhol’s nine-foot-tall, black-and-neon-green Self-Portrait (1986), a masklike disembodied head that glowers like a tribal shaman at the top of the grand staircase; the artist’s familiar mop top, rendered in splashy brushwork, resembles both a primitive headdress and the explosive impact of a gunshot to the head (a year after painting Self-Portrait, Warhol, who years earlier survived the shooting he alludes to in the museum’s 1982 painting Gun, died after routine gallbladder surgery).

Warhol’s monstrous presence has a physicality that is really the leitmotiv of the Modern’s collection, which, while representing the diversity of recent art—video, conceptual, photography, wall drawings, sound art— emphasizes big, painterly paintings, hefty metal and stone sculptures, and iconic rather than obscure themes. In this convocation of heavyweights, the champion turns out to be the acclaimed German artist Anselm Kiefer, whose lead-and-tin sculpture Book With Wings (1992-1994) spans 17 feet and commands the entire concrete-walled elliptical gallery. Both ironic and elegiacally somber, in equal parts mythic (one thinks of Icarus or Nike) and political (Nazi book burnings cum contemporary censorship), it looks like Postmodernism at its best: a new image invested with the weight of history. But even more portentous is Kiefer’s Aschenblume (1983-1997), a 25-foot-wide canvas crusted with a muddy gray mixture of paint, clay, ash, and earth, seemingly as much an artifact of a real apocalypse as a work of art. The ghostly image underlying this tortured surface, its scratched and scrawled outline visible as a great V spread across the painting, is a perspective drawing of Nazi architect Albert Speer’s grandiose Mosaic Room of the Reich Chancellery in Berlin, a monumental symbol of Germany’s tragic history and collective guilt; a large dried sunflower stuck on the canvas at the painting’s perspectival vanishing point, its seeds pouring out, represents the post-war generation’s hope of redemption (Kiefer was born the year the war ended). A Postmodern-era icon deeply indebted to Modernism (most obviously Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism), Kiefer’s massive canvas demonstrates the folly of disregarding Modernism as an ongoing engine of contemporary culture.

The Fort Worth Modern’s director, Marla Price, and her board and staff set out years ago to make the new Modern more than just the next new museum, and instead of simply turning up in the latest designer label (there’s something akin to grade inflation these days in mid-American civic culture, where edgy architectural imports have become a dime a dozen), they’ve made a provocative cultural statement. Whether the Modern’s modernity is a bellwether of changing attitudes or just a magnificent anachronism remains to be seen. But it comes at a moment when Postmodernism’s promise to reengage the human spirit and imagination appears even more empty than Modernism’s promise to make better people through better forms. (Modernism did change the way the world looks, just not the way people behave.) The Fort Worth Modern’s installation and architecture suggest a third way, a new Modernism that avoids the utopian absolutism of the old. The new Modernism could aspire instead to a harmony of opposites: enriched by the past while envisioning the future, finding new forms for ancient myths, global in scope while respecting local character. The shape of the future may never have been less clear, but the signal success of Fort Worth’s brilliant new museum is that we are once again invited to imagine it.

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