MoCA Raises Dada
Surrealism has wormed its way so deeply into the fabric of contemporary culture, especially pop culture, that it's easy to forget how dramatically it shook up the art world when it emerged in the mid-1920s. That's part of what gives the works in "Sweet Dreams and Nightmares: Dada and Surrealism From the Rosalind and Melvin Jacobs Collection" their collective kick.
The exhibition is one of three currently on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami, and it's an always fascinating, occasionally exhilarating overview of what turned out to be one of the most pervasively influential art "movements" of the 20th Century. The 65 works included are a sort of synopsis of surrealism and its convulsive parent, Dada, which erupted in response to the trauma of World War I.
As the show's subtitle indicates, the pieces here are from a private collection. This wife and husband, however, considered themselves not so much collectors as patrons of artists whose work they supported both philosophically and financially. (The late Mel Jacobs was once chairman of Burdines.) Even so, what a collection it is -- one that demonstrates, again and again, how attuned Roz and Mel Jacobs were to the artists who attracted their attention and devotion.
Man Ray was chief among those artists, and the show includes more than two dozen pieces by this seminal surrealist. According to some of the background information posted on the walls -- as usual curator Bonnie Clearwater has done a fine job of giving the art a context -- Ray longed to be thought of as a painter. His few oils in the show are passable, but he was much more inventive when he experimented with the possibilities of less traditional media.
There are nearly a dozen examples of "rayographs," an art form Ray himself invented by bypassing the camera and placing objects directly onto photographic paper, then exposing the paper to light. Even though he worked with such everyday items as clothespins, light bulbs, and keys, the resulting images have a dreamy, otherworldly quality. And since there are rayographs here from the '20s through the '50s, it's clear that this quirky technique never lost its luster for the artist.
Ray also dabbled in collage, and there's a charmingly simple one here called Décollage II (originally made in 1917, then re-created in 1947), a pared-to-the-basics portrait of a woman created with a few pieces of thin paper, three bobby pins, thread, a bit of fabric, and a lock of blond hair. And with the "sculpture" Le Fer Rouge (1966), Ray makes a visual pun by taking an old-fashioned flatiron and painting its base bright red, thus turning it into a red-hot iron.
The show includes a handful of other big-name surrealists. Dali is represented by a pencil-on-paper drawing called The Bicyclists (1935), as well as a disturbing cast bronze and brass chess set, circa 1978, in which most of the pieces take their forms from disembodied human fingers. (At the other end of the museum, a much less menacing Man Ray chess set bookends the exhibition.) There's also one of Joseph Cornell's trademark boxes, an untitled construction from the late '40s that consists of a glass-and-wood box containing blue sand, a metal ring, ball bearings, and paper, and Francis Picabia contributes a stark ink drawing, Two Nudes (circa 1926), that was once detained in Customs because it depicts two androgynous figures locked in a suggestive embrace.
Jean Arp, one of the founders of Dada, weighs in with two pieces from late in his career: a fairly lackluster untitled oil painting from 1960, and one of his cutout sculptures, a simple wavy slice of bronze called Découpage #8 (1957), which is mounted a few inches from the wall so that it casts a shadow. Three small pieces by Max Ernst -- a collage, a pencil drawing, and a crayon drawing -- only hint at that artist's extensive contributions to Dada and surrealism.
The show does better by the great surrealist René Magritte, with whom Roz Jacobs was especially taken. The painting that launched the Jacobs collection is here, a 1948 gouache called L'Éloge de la Dialectique (In Praise of Dialectic), in which we can see through an open window of a house into a room where a miniature version of the same house sits.
And there are variations of pieces executed earlier or later in alternative media. La Chambre d'Écoute (The Listening Room) (1957), an image of a room-size apple that Magritte had earlier painted in oil, is seen here as an ink drawing. The quintessentially surreal Le Modèle Rouge (The Red Model), in which a pair of boots end in real toes, is a pencil rendering of a subject later done in oil, and Le Coeur du Monde (The Heart of the World) is a 1954 gouache version of a later oil, in which a tower forms the horn on a unicorn.
One of the finest paintings in the show is an untitled 1940 watercolor and gouache by Yves Tanguy, an artist Magritte once dismissed as someone who "always stuck to redoing the same painting." It's one of those light-drenched "landscapes" Tanguy specialized in -- if you can call an undifferentiated brown space dotted with ominous, unidentifiable shapes a landscape. Or maybe it's better described as a landscape of the mind, filled with items only a surrealist could have imagined.
Even more unsettling, in its own way, is a medium-size oil by the Chilean artist Matta, a 1952 painting called Being Beauteous (a.k.a. The Appletilists). It appears to be some sort of gruesome dinner-table scene, with two bizarre creatures -- extraterrestrials? -- devouring large green apples with their spiky claws and teeth. It's a raw, inexplicably compelling image that's straight from the unconscious, which is what surrealism is supposed to be all about anyway.
For me the centerpiece of "Sweet Dreams and Nightmares" is La Boîte en Valise -- Series C (Box in a Valise) (1958), a display case holding a set of miniatures that encapsulate the career of Marcel Duchamp, perhaps the greatest Dada-surrealist of them all. In the 1930s Duchamp made the first of his "Box in a Valise" series, and this is one of a later edition of 30. In effect they're tiny museums of his works displayed from an open suitcase.
The version here includes small-scale reproductions of Duchamp's key works, including the notorious cubist painting Nude Descending a Staircase, the enigmatic Tu M', the "readymade" Fountain (a urinal), and the scandalous L.H.O.O.Q. (a print of the Mona Lisa onto which Duchamp penciled a mustache and goatee.
There's even a miniature reproduction of Duchamp's The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (Large Glass), a mixed-media piece that's arguably one of the most dissected works in modern art, complete with the dust that settled on it and was permanently incorporated into the piece by spray fixative and the cracks that spread through the two glass panels during a shipping accident. If we can't have the original Large Glass, which has long been deemed too fragile to move again (it's in the Philadelphia Museum of Art), at least "Sweet Dreams and Nightmares" gives us an authorized facsimile of it.
After the bravura flourishes of "Sweet Dreams and Nightmares," it's perhaps inevitable that the adjacent exhibition, "Inverted Odysseys: Claude Cahun, Maya Deren, Cindy Sherman," comes across as less than thrilling. Not that it's a bad show.
The theme is in essence feminist-tinged self-portraiture. The first section of the show includes 47 black-and-white photographs by Claude Cahun, who was born Lucy Schwob in 1894 but adopted her pseudonym in 1917. She was a lesbian who specialized in small-scale portraits of herself in various disguises (including, in one especially nifty image, Buddha), many of them gender-bending.
Section two is devoted to the Ukrainian-born Maya Deren (who was also born with another name: Eleanora Derenkowsky), best known as a filmmaker but also an accomplished photographer. Included here is a series of black-and-white photos Deren took to document the vodou religion when she visited Haiti on a Guggenheim grant in 1947; a series of portraits of Deren by her second husband, Alexander Hammid; and three sets of stills from her most famous films (in which she and her friends performed): Meshes of the Afternoon, At Land, and Ritual in Transfigured Time, all of which screen on a continuous loop in a little makeshift theater at the museum.
The final section features eight large color photographs and a dozen much smaller black-and-white ones by self-portraitist Cindy Sherman, known for her series of photos in which she re-creates herself as figures from history, fairy tales, and the movies. A pair of installations displays props used in some of her shoots. Sherman has long been a darling in certain art-world circles, and some of her photographic reinventions of herself have the bite of social satire. None of the photos here fits that bill.
MoCA's third show of the moment is the room-size installation "Matthew Ritchie: Incomplete Projects 01: The Fast Set," which takes up the museum's Pavilion Gallery across from the entrance to the main galleries. It's a set of playful assemblages of brightly colored shapes, mostly abstract, some of which spill from one wall and onto the floor, with snaky black and gray lines that make their way over to and up another wall. This is the sort of cutting-edge stuff we've come to expect from MoCA, although there's a whiff of self-indulgence that might be off-putting except for one thing: The installation is quite a bit of fun.
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