AGAINST THE GRAIN: CONTEMPORARY ART FROM THE EDWARD R. BROIDA COLLECTION
Museum of Modern Art, New York
Until July 10 (11 West 53rd Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues)
Thanks to the late Edward Broida, the second floor of the new MoMA looks better than ever. The items on view in “Against the Grain: Contemporary Art From the Edward R. Broida Collection” fill the museum’s imposing Contemporary Galleries and the adjacent Donald B. and Catherine C. Marron atrium, where Jennifer Bartlett’s “Rhapsody” (1975–76) is displayed to stunning effect.
Even enthusiasts of Yoshio Taniguchi’s MoMA redesign must admit that the soaring atrium has tended to dwarf and diminish whatever has hung there — even Monet’s “Waterlillies” looked like a tapestry in a medieval castle. But “Rhapsody,” afrieze of over 900 12-inch square enamel-painted steel plates installed around three sides of this forbidding, impersonal space, holds its own.
Ms. Bartlett’s sprawling, oddball creation seems constantly to test boundaries between signified and signifier, meaning and form. There are repeating, schematic pictures of a house in a field; pure monochromes, painted in a nonchalantly agitated hand; picture-book illustrations of mountain ranges; maps; geometric patterns of varying degrees of complexity and simplicity; and images painted in pointillist dots. Think of it as an abstraction-representation dictionary.
“Rhapsody,” a seminal piece in avant-garde artists’ transition away from the reductive rigor of the minimalist and conceptual art of the late 1960s, is talismanic of Broida’s taste, — or, at least, MoMA’s take on it. Broida loved pared-down forms tentatively reinvested with poetry and feeling, and Ms. Bartlett’s work remains coolly conceptual while edging toward observation, sensuality, and personality.
Broida, who died of cancer last month, took up collecting in the late 1970s at the instigation of an uncle who introduced him to the dealers David and Renee McKee. On their first day together, Broida walked away with two major Philip Guston canvases. Over the next quarter-century, he amassed some 700 works, of which he bequeathed 175 to MoMA.
Of the 38 artists currently on view, nine are,were or would be from the McKee stable, making some of the MoMA galleries seem like a secret passageway connected to a McKee Gallery group exhibition. When Broida shopped elsewhere, it was generally with a few dealers to whom Mr. McKee introduced him — Paula Cooper, Miani Johnson, and Richard Bellamy. But despite taking the advice of such a tight roster of dealers, Broida managed to amass a collection with an acute sense of historic moment.
That Guston marked Broida’s first foray into collecting was significant on a number of counts. Most new collectors in the late-’70s would have dipped their toes into modernism with a Milton Avery or a Henry Moore, but Broida jumped into the deep end with Guston, who at the time was making a controversial return to figuration. Whereas few collectors are defined by their first acquisitions, Broida continued to collect Guston (whom he also befriended), amassing such monumental canvases as “Edge of Town” (1969), with its smoking Klansmen, and “Painter in Bed” (1973), a goofy, cartoon-like head with its oversized eye dreaming of nebulous rock formation rendered in sickly pinks and reds. In the next decade, his judgment proved prescient: Guston, once a finessed pioneer of abstraction, became the poster-boy “bad painter” for the neo-Expressionist generation.
Broida’s affinity for Guston, who groped in a primitive style towards a personal language, helps make sense of his other choices. Most of the artists he collected made something personal out of the universal, putting idiosyncrasy back into pared-down forms. And many of the works at MoMA exhibit an uneasy admiration for minimal art while undermining its strictures with humor or poetry.
For example, Joel Shapiro’s untitled 1980 stick figure shares with minimal art an attraction to shop-bought processed materials, but it cheekily looks over Minimalism’s shoulder at its Russian Constructivist forebears. Broida collected Shapiro in depth, and a room of Shapiros at MoMA includes five drawings and three sculptures. One of the latter, “Untitled” (1979), is a three-part piece of reclining and crouching block figures in bronze, each only three or four inches high, yet subversively imbued with individuality and character.
Another McKee artist Broida collected is Vija Celmins. Like Guston, Ms. Bartlett, and Susan Rothenberg — one of whose early horse paintings, “Triphammer Bridge” (1974), opens the exhibition — Ms. Celmins made enigmatic works that occupy an uneasy space between abstraction and representation. But her technique is one of mind-numbing, painstaking precision of the kind usually associated with banknote engravers. Typically, she reproduces photographic images culled from the press in such graphic mediums as graphite, charcoal, and mezzotint. While her patience and rectitude stand out amidst the Broida collection, her high-minded austerity and chromophobia are typical of the period in which he collected, and to which he responded.
Other artists here manage to mix the gutsy agitation of Guston with the crafted exactitude of Ms. Celmins. A typical surface in this exhibition of remarkably consistent mood is worried, distressed, and antsy. In Jake Berthot’s “Room” (1979), the almost Cubist faceting of the muted, tonal space surrounds the central red rectangle. A similarly nagging, fidgety mark-making defines John Walker’s “Green Alba-Kingston” (1979–80), and there is a comparably pummeled expressivity to William Tucker’s megalithic “Demeter” (1991), a 7 1/2-foot abstracted, Rodin-like bronze figure.
While calling their exhibition “Against the Grain,” the curators have generally sought to integrate the Broida gift with their institution’s take on the art of the 1970s. In a few instances, however, these are MoMA’s first works by artists Broida championed: John Lees, whose “Stream” (1993–98) is a quirky, Chinese scroll-like abstracted landscape whose obsessive yet delicate surface attests to its protracted date; Jeanne Silverthorne, whose “Shattered” (2003) is a hybrid painting-cum-sculpture that recalls Elizabeth Murray and Guisepe Penone, both represented in the Broida gift; and Bob Kane, an old friend of the collector’s whose Matisse-inspired interior is truly a fish out of water.
As these final pieces attest, the exhibition offers a welcome contrast in its personal focus to the corporate, shopping-list style UBS collection with which MoMA inaugurated its new building. The Broida gift recalls that the museum started out as a club of impassioned private collectors, its foundational holdings bolstered by the likes of Lillie Bliss and sundry Rockefellers. Whatever the tastes and ambitions of curators and however global and comprehensive a museum aspires to be, a museum can still be critically shaped by its collector friends.
A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, May 4, 2006