What We Saw at MOMA — New York

My friend lamented that the interior of MOMA looks and feels like a train station. It hadn’t struck me that way before but, with the seed planted, that’s exactly how it seemed on this visit. The good news is: the building’s limitations are being addressed, and the museum is in the throes of a $400MM expansion program. One of the stated goals of the project is to “provide visitors with a more welcoming and comfortable experience.”

We were there to see the Max Ernst and Louise Bourgeois survey exhibitions. Max delighted. Louise was a little disappointing.

My appreciation of Bourgeois ‘til now has been her sculptures, and I am charmed by her iconic “Maman” spiders. Unfamiliar with her works on paper, I was eager to broaden my knowledge of her art practice; but was disappointed that only a few among the many prints caught my attention.

However, I left the show feeling uplifted by the colorful fabric work on display towards the end of the circuit. Bourgeois produced them late in her career.

For years she had saved her clothes and household fabrics, but in her 80s she decided she no longer needed to keep them. Instead, perhaps drawing on her childhood experience as the daughter of tapestry restorers, she turned those collected textiles into art. Among other things, she created fabric books, the pages filled with abstract designs fashioned from bits of old garments. Colorful and fun.

Max Ernst, though, was a delicious surprise. I knew of him as a provocateur, who loved to shock, and mock social conventions. He survived soldiering in WWI, but was deeply traumatized by it, and became highly critical of what he viewed as irrational western culture. I was not very familiar with his art.

Seeing so much of his work together was a revelation. I was told that I kept smiling as I looked.

The Hat Makes The Man, 1920 . Gouache, pencil, oil, and ink on on cut-and-pasted printed paper on paperboard. MOMA purchase 1935

The curatorial note about this piece: “Ernst’s appreciation for visual and linguistic puns was likely fostered by Sigmund Freud’s book, Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious (1905). Here, Ernst overpainted a page from a millinery catalogue showing women’s hats printed in an orderly grid. He added more cut-and-pasted hats to form the phallic tower at the left. This visual pun relates to Freud’s identification of the hat — the requisite accessory of the bourgeois man — as a common symbol representing repressed desire, adding new meaning and gender ambiguity to the cliché inscribed in the work, ‘C’est le chapeau qui fait l’homme’ (The hat makes the man).”

He was a man with a sense of humor! Rather Rube Goldberg-ish.

Although he possessed a thorough knowledge of European art history, Max Ernst challenged the conventions and traditions of the prevailing popular art. There were many examples of his surrealist and Dadaist work in the show, but also some pieces that demonstrated a sensitivity to beauty and simplicity.

Natural History c.1925, published 1926; From a portfolio of 34 collotypes after frottages
Sun and Forest, 1931; Cut-and-pasted cardboard with oil, gouache, and pencil on paperboard

Ernst had no formal training in art; thus, as he was largely self-taught, he developed his own artistic techniques. In 1914 he entered the University of Bonn to study philosophy but soon abandoned it. He stated later that he avoided “any studies which might degenerate into breadwinning.” Instead, he said, he preferred areas of study considered “futile by his professors — predominantly painting…seditious philosophers, and unorthodox poetry.” There’s that sense of humor again.

With the 20/20 hindsight of art history, I think it served him well.



I am an art geek, writing about art, exhibitions and museums. Discover more than 1600 art museums, artist studios, historic houses and gardens across the US.

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I am an art geek, writing about art, exhibitions and museums. Discover more than 1600 art museums, artist studios, historic houses and gardens across the US.