Picasso to Warhol: Fourteen Modern Masters from the Museum of Modern Art, New York

Posted: 22 Jan 2013  |  By: Andrew Nicholls

This exhibition is the third in the Art Gallery of Western Australia’s Great Collections of the World series (preceded by exhibitions from the Peggy Guggenheim Collection and Victoria and Albert Museum), and the first in a six-exhibition partnership with the MOMA, developed through AGWA director Stefano Carboni’s personal contacts in New York. The exhibition has brought hundreds of MOMA works to Perth for an exclusive Australian exhibition, many travelling south of the equator for the first time.

Highlights — and there are many — include a huge Calder mobile from his Snow Flurry series, Matisse’s A Rose Marble Table (1917), Brancusi’s Endless Column (1918), Bearden’s Patchwork Quilt (1970) and de Chirico’s The Engima of a Day (1914), in addition to less well known but equally masterful works such as Léger’s short film Ballet méchanique (1924), a male nude by Matisse and Calder’s fascinatingly ghastly jewellery designs. Brancusi, Calder, Duchamp, Miro and Léger are all well represented, while a chronological series of small Mondrian canvases demonstrating his progression from angular landscape to pure abstraction is a satisfying curatorial flourish. I’ll happily admit that I actively dislike Picasso and Pollock, but some good inclusions from both artists aptly reflect their canonical positions in this context. Picasso’s Seated Bather (1930) is an especially impressive work that also serves to neatly illustrate the misogyny of early modernism. Somewhat disappointingly for this writer, only three de Chirico’s are included — fewer than any other artist, but they are all good ones. The small The Song of Love (1914) in particular, with its mesmerisingly well-painted rubber glove, is an absolute gem.

Located towards the end of the exhibition is work by the only female inclusion, Louise Bourgeois, installed opposite the only artist of colour, Bearden, and nearby, the high camp of Warhol and Johns — to create a bastion of marginality amongst all the high modernist white male bravado. Though small (given the comparative length of her career), the Bourgeois selection on show includes some excellent pieces, including three from her later crochet series, and the impressive bronze The Quartered One (1964–1965), dangling like a hung side of venison. A number of the drawings from He Disappeared into Complete Silence (1947–2005) are displayed, curiously, without their accompanying short stories (one can only imagine what the notoriously acerbic artist would have thought of the omission).

Like AGWA’s previous Great Collections exhibition, last year’s Princely Treasures from the V&A, Picasso to Warhol has set itself the daunting task of representing a major movement in art history in microcosm. Princely Treasures was perhaps more successful in summarising the vast breadth of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century European decorative arts patronage with a relatively small selection of objects; with only those works owned by MOMA to draw upon, Picasso to Warhol had a harder challenge in telling its century-long story. That observation reeks of ingratitude; however, the exhibition is superb and, more excitingly, is only the first in a six-exhibition suite, meaning that the best is yet to come.

Images from top:

Pablo Picasso, Seated Bather, 1930, oil on canvas, 163.2 x 129.5cm. Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund, MOMA.

Giorgio de Chirico, The Song of Love, 1914, oil on canvas, 73 x 59.1cm. Nelson A. Rockefeller Bequest, MOMA.

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Issue 38