Artist’s Choice: Vik Muniz, Rebus at the Museum of Modern Art
December 11, 2008–February 23, 2009
11 West 53rd Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues,
New York City, 212 708 9400
Before seeing this show, I’d been giving a great deal of thought to one of the art verbs I hate most: “curating.” How can it be done better? And what does it really mean, anyway? Generally, I’ve thought it best to leave artsy participles (like, say, “painting”) to the truly creative people – artists – who deserve them.
That said, MoMA’s current show, “Rebus,” was probably the best “curated” show in town. For one thing, it’s conceived and spearheaded by an artist, Brazilian conceptual trickster, Vik Muniz. It made me re-think the current trend of curator-as-artist; it made me see MoMA’s amazing collection in new ways (yes, that old cliché). Plus, it even made me laugh out loud.
“Rebus” is the latest manifestation of a MoMA series called “Artist’s Choice” – an ongoing exhibition series in which the Powers That Be at MoMA give an individual artist free rein to do as they wish with the museum’s permanent collection. (Everything – even the major playlist items – seems up for grabs.) In past years, Elizabeth Murray, Chuck Close, and Scott Burton took turns to good result. But this version, for 2008-2009 seems particularly freeing. Muniz’s own artwork is fueled by phenomenological tricks, playing as it does with the visual expectations of a typical art-going audience; and indeed, that’s just what gives “Rebus” its frisson: objects are not as they (first) appear.
Thanks to Muniz, some of the crustier things in MoMA’s coffers came alive. For instance, Doris Ullman’s photogravure of a negro chain gang at work (circa 1929) does formal, as well as social-comment duty when we view it, as we do here, next to a prison window sculpture by Robert Gober. Gober’s vertical bars nicely echo the stripes on Ullman’s poor prisoners’ garb, even while continuing the prison theme. Meanwhile, to the right of Ullman is Marcel Duchamp’sIn Advance of the Broken Arm (original, 1915). How cool is it to feel that now-iconic shovel relinquish its Readymade status for a moment, while in our mind’s eye, we can’t help but imagine how heavy a shovel might be, laden with dirt (like in that photo); how unpleasant it would to be to have to wield it, under a watchman’s eye, against one’s will. For black men, back in Ullman’s Depression Era, did racism feel like a huge, inescapable fact? A big, American “ready-made”?
Muniz gave us lighter fare nearby when he exhibited Erno Rubick’s famous invention –Rubik’s Cube – next to Alberto Giacometti’s Hands Holding the Void (Invisible Object) (1934). To the right of Giacometti’s sculpture is nothing more or less than an empty paper bag on a plinth. First, you imagine Giacometti’s figure holding Rubik’s Cube (a truly fun moment). But then, you wonder just what you’re supposed to think of the “void” inside that bag. Did some museum employee forget to throw away their lunch bag? Hardly. Throughout “Rebus,” Muniz delights in hauling little wonders out of MoMA’s Design collection – in this case Flat-Bottomed Brown Paper Grocery Bag (1883) by Charles Stillwell – and make us realize just how much we take them for granted. Seeing something as ubiquitous as a paper bag, showcased on a sculptural plinth in a place as fancy as MoMA is strange. So darned strange, in fact, it’s enough to give you an existential shiver. That bag isn’t empty at all. It’s the bag itself that’s Giacometti’s “Invisible Object.”
Other moments of fun-mixed-with-formal-rigor abound. A superb black and white photograph from 1979 by Zeke Berman, of yet another void. Reflections in a shop window by Eugene Atget echoed by the likes of Roy Lichtenstein and Martin Kippenberger. And my favorite, the one object in the whole show I missed: a standard EXIT sign (designed by Interloop Architecture).
Coming as it did at the tail end of the show, and hung high – as any real EXIT sign would – it was understandable that I might miss it. Yet, I couldn’t quite forgive myself. So attuned did Muniz make my senses to the art, he actually made me forget myself – not to mention my mistrust of the act of “curating.” Instead, like that EXIT sign, Muniz, the curator, was hiding in plain view the whole time – (escape) artist that he is.