The Met Breuer, on the corner of Madison Ave and 72nd street in New York, is an incredible feat of architecture designed by Marcel Breuer, and since the Metropolitan Museum has taken over the space it has mounted adventurous and rewarding shows consistently at this location. The Met Breuer’s Fall and Winter exhibitions are extraordinary. This article will first consider the exhibition of works by photographer Raghubir Singh, and then review the museum’s Edvard Munch retrospective.
The Raghubir Singh (1942-1999) “Modernism on the Ganges,” is a warm, colorful exhibit and the casual viewer will feel relieved to attend this exhibit in the middle of a very cold winter! This show is an invitation to view the world from another perspective both literally, as in the case of the photographs as perspectives, and emotionally, in that the artist showed people not often thought of in the United States. Singh had a jeweler’s eye for detail, and the effects are almost always alienating for the viewer, creating an objective and neutral purity of thought. India has so many people, but all of those people have their own feelings and motivations.
Singh mastered a photography innovation to control contrasts shown in a photograph of an orange-fruit salesman. Singh’s shot juxtaposes an angry curmudgeon salesman, with his bright oranges, next to a customer who is holding a young child. The point is the merchant is only in it for a dollar, whereas the father wants something sweet for his child. Singh frames the shot with the merchant on the left, and the dad on the right. The viewer of the photograph will move her eye in a narrative from left to right, and so maybe the Singh wanted the dad’s love to be the conclusion to this work.
The “modernism” in these photographs is more complicated than the curators let on. For starters, the curators for these works by Singh did in fact say Singh based some of his works on American photographer Lee Friedlander (b. 1934). In Friedlander’s works the three-dimensional world is so competitive as to be smooshed into a two-dimensional view. Art historian Leo Steinberg (1920-2011) in his book Other Criteria writes in 1968, that a new anti-modernist tradition started around 1950, pictures, “no longer simulate vertical fields, but opaque flatbed horizontals…The flatbed picture plane makes its symbolic allusion to hard surfaces such as tabletops, studio floors, charts, bulletin boards – any receptor surface on which objects are scattered…The pictures…insist on a radically new orientation.” David Carrier (b. 1944), writing about Steinberg’s view, said, identifying this shift as expressive of the most radical shift in the subject matter of art, the shift from nature to culture. For Carrier, Steinberg suggested modernism has ended because Steinberg wrote, “This post-modernist painting has made the course of art once again non-linear and unpredictable.”
The gaff here is Singh’s works are from nature or at least feel organic. The photographer frames the shot, but India is crowded and loaded with meanings upon meanings. Considering this exhibit is “Modernism on the Ganges,” where’s the break between the museum and the postmodern a la Steinberg? Singh and Friedlander are working with postmodern narratives on nature itself, and here modernism might be like Frank Zappa’s quip, “Jazz isn’t dead, it just smells funny.” These pictures aren’t structured still lives or bulletin boards, they’re intentionally crowded views at least partly because India really is crowded. In an analogy, Hinduism has a confluence of conflicting narratives, without necessarily negating the opposing parties. Singh, regardless of whether one calls his works modern or post-modern, achieved a contradiction.
Singh’s photographs are different from two American photographers, Nicholas Nixon and Diane Arbus. Nixon is most famous for his series of photographs of his wife and her sisters taken over the course of forty years, starting in the 1970’s. Nixon expresses time and contradiction in more gentle terms – his works have the intimacy that Singh’s works don’t have. Diane Arbus was the subject of an exhibit at the Met Breuer last year, and her photographs often dealt with the intentionality of her subjects, which therefore invites similar introspection in the audience viewing her photographs. Arbus, Nixon, and Singh, all go beyond the realm of the immediate senses. These three artists are certainly modern, for their commitment to realism and not illusionist or phantasmagoric images. They go beyond that, and whether it’s postmodernism is up for debate.
The Met Breuer has a large and rewarding show, “Between the Bed and the Clock,” and Edvard Munch (1863-1944) for many years was more known for his appearances in popular culture on coffee mugs and movies, rather than his abilities with conceptual thought and emotional resonance. It’s a thrill to see Munch elevated in a similar way that his contemporaries Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt have been brought up to the academic canon of higher art. Expressionism, which used the innovations of Impressionists in order to articulate harrowing emotional depths, is the oeuvre of Norwegian Painter Edvard Munch. Munch’s paintings wax and wane with popular culture – could anyone forget the cultural touchstone of Macauley Culkin grabbing his cheeks in the movie Home Alone, a 20th century version of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”? And Munch’s works trade eternity for vanity at the expense of fleeting relevance; that is, it’s not clear at all Munch’s works apply to the idiocies of politics, or the pressing urgencies of Climate Change.
Maybe Munch deserves credit for his sense of cool. Munch was cool because he engaged the dark side with courage and grace, even nonchalance. Things people associate with “the cool” have to do with this collision between the uncontrollable and the sense of poise, the sense of self. One doesn’t have to be cool in reaction to something because being cool means equanimity in the face of anything that comes. Thus Munch paints a scene of a mother with her sick child or any number of other stressful scenes. The viewer might freak out at the mother of God striking a sexual pose, but Munch doesn’t.
Munch should get some credit for theatrics, then, too. The depressed look on the artist’s face in many of his paintings was more of an act to persuade the viewer. The give away here comes from a 1918 influenza outbreak. The painting shows Munch in a wicker chair, but the curator’s notes say Munch never actually had the flu. The exhibition is titled, “Between the Clock and The Bed,” based on the painting of the same name of the artist literally between a clock and bed, but symbolically between the sleep of death, as in the bed, and the anxiety to work, as in the clock. This anxiety, to get things done before one dies, is powerful psychologically, conceptually, but no one actually can comprehend her own death. Instead of being called a liar, Munch should be hailed and applauded here, maybe in the same way as the rapper Rick Ross, who was revealed to have been a corrections officer before he became a mythical drug dealing rapper.