At the ticket counter inside the National Gallery of Victoria, a list of names flickers rapidly: Hopper; Duchamp; Kahlo; Rothko; Pollock; Lichtenstein; Sherman; Koons; Dali. Artists so legendary, they go by one name.
The NGV’s new blockbuster exhibition is a collaboration with New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The world knows the gallery best as MoMA, and it possesses one of the largest and most prestigious art collections in the world. There are 230 works here from the MoMA stockpile, from the iconic to the overlooked; from oil paintings to video games. More than half of these works have never left the museum, and more than 200 are in Australia for the first time. Where do you start?
Headliners such as Picasso and Matisse aside, MoMA at NGV: 130 Years of Modern and Contemporary Art is a far more understated show than, say, the Triennial, with its grand statements and Instagram-primed moments. Gone is the gargantuan Buddha adorned with Greek nudes that occupied the NGV’s cavernous main hall for months; in its place, Olafur Eliasson’s Ventilator (1997), a single house fan swinging from the ceiling by a thin wire – deceptively simple and captivating in its unpredictability. It feels like a statement of intent.
Because that’s what the show is about. MoMA’s collection is beautifully broad, and the exhibition reflects that. The big pieces may seem familiar, over-exposed even, but then you see them up close and it’s easy to appreciate why they’ve elicited that reaction. Much of what we take for granted today, visually, technologically and socially, was helped along by the art and design in these rooms. Typefaces and emojis adorn the walls. The rainbow pride flag hangs in a corner.
Out of all the NGV’s recent winter masterpiece shows, this one is not only the largest but probably the most traditionally laid out – everything is evenly spaced on white walls with plenty of room to breathe. And that’s just as well, because there’s a lot to unpack. Although largely chronological, it’s not a history lesson. It mixes media and movements across eight sections that adhere to distinct time periods and trains of thought, over a 130-year range. The story between the first and last rooms of the show is the story of the twentieth century as seen from a European and American perspective.
We start at Arcadia and Metropolis, a room of pastel colours, night life and kinetic nudes, taking us from post-impressionists such as Paul Cézanne and Vincent van Gogh, to some of the first artists to be exhibited at the iconic Manhattan museum, to the commercial work of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Electricity was new, and new art forms were emerging. Best of all here is Danse Serpentine, a hand-coloured 16-millimetre film by the Lumière Brothers capturing a mesmeric dance performance.
Then, art and design continue to clash and build on each other. De Stijl, Bauhaus and Pablo Picasso’s early cubist works sit opposite a Le Corbusier model of a Californian home from 1932. Both fit comfortably alongside Swedish engineer Sven Wingquist’s self-aligning ball bearing, outboard propeller and railroad car spring – feats of design ingenuity with sculptural grace.
As the century charges on, frontiers – inner and outer – are explored. The melting clocks of Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory (1931) – surprisingly petite given its stature in the popular imagination – hangs near Edward Hopper’s iconic realist painting Gas (1940) of a petrol station on the edge of a town. Georgia O’Keeffe and Edward Weston capture the surreal and viscous in the natural word. Frida Kahlo cuts her hair.
A room of brash, iconic works comes next and you know you’re in pop-art land: Klaus Voormann’s record sleeve for the Beatles’ Revolver, next to a Kenneth Anger film, next to Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe tribute, next to a Fender Stratocaster. It’s the loudest room but it also feels familiar due to the ubiquity of the works. Take Robert Indiana’s Love (1967) for instance, a so-often repeated – and parodied – image you may feel as if you’ve already seen it in person. In a deft bit of curation, Canadian collective General Idea’s 1988 adaptation of the artwork soon follows: a garish wallpaper in which the word “love” has been substituted for “AIDS”, repurposing the overfamiliar typeface and vivid colour palette to raise awareness and mark changing times.
The show’s second half is perhaps its most interesting, containing the fewest big names and the most contemporary works. Punk comics by Raymond Pettibon are shown alongside subversive fashion photography by Cindy Sherman and a piece from Jenny Holzer mixing an authoritative bronze plaque with an all-too-relatable statement of generalised anxiety (“Some days you wake up and immediately start to worry. Nothing in particular is wrong it’s just the suspicion that forces are aligning quietly and there will be trouble.”). Across fourteen years, Dutch artist Rineke Dijkstra photographs a Bosnian refugee eleven times from childhood to adulthood, capturing a girl as she becomes a woman and capturing the human adjustment to an adopted culture.
So the show ends grittier and more grounded than it begins, and satisfactorily up-to-date. This was important to the NGV curators; initial talks with MoMA circled around the idea of ending with works from the 1960s. But that wouldn’t have accurately reflected the MoMA collection or the museum’s contemporary art mandate, so the program doubled in volume and time.
The exhibition doesn’t end in 2018 though – it’s final twist whirs and clatters, announcing that you’re soon to depart. It’s an airport flight-schedule board from 1996 – the old kind with flipping steel and aluminium flaps. MoMA acquired the Solari di Udine-made display – already a relic – in 2004, for its engineering, artistry, and what it says about a specific time in history.
According to the board, the 10:45 Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt is expected to run on time. Time marches on, but like the rest of this show, here it is, in a new context, finding new relevance and new meaning.
MoMA at NGV: 130 Years of Modern and Contemporary Art runs from June 9 to October 7. Broadsheet is a proud media partner of the NGV.