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Mo' Masterpieces

Never gone to New York? The MoMA comes to Houston

But full-blown cubism follows with Picasso and Braque at the helm. Picasso's Ma Jolie and Braque's Man with a Guitar, painted almost simultaneously during 1911 and 1912, are strikingly similar. The two artists worked together, experimenting with breaking down the figure into planes. Two collages by Braque and Picasso are also important, having ushered in the use of quotidian items like wallpaper and newspaper scraps, cut and transformed into geometric elements in the compositions.

The impressionist Monet was still around and painting in 1920, his failing eyesight turning his work into a kind of hazy atmospheric abstraction. The triptych Water Lilies is over 42 feet long, a kind of early installation that seeks to envelop the viewer in a brushy, floating, liquid world. The painting's barely discernable, scribbled ellipses of green lily pads, and the rich blues and verdant greens of the water, lighten into a peachy-pink floral haze sparked with fuchsia. You feel Monet's desire to immerse you in his garden at Giverny.

In stark contrast to Monet are those nutty Italian futurists who thought modern machinery would save the world; out with the old and in with "dynamism." The paintings are influenced by cubism, but it's cubism put in a blender with a dash of anarchy. "Burn the museums!" was the futurists' battle cry. Boccioni's 1913 Dynamism of a Soccer Player is an explosion of form and movement. And his 1913 bronze sculpture Unique Forms of Continuity in Space shows an abstracted figure boldly striding forward. Through his manipulation of form, Boccioni makes static bronze dynamic.

Girl Before a Mirror may have shades of 
Matisse, but it's all Picasso.
Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art
Girl Before a Mirror may have shades of Matisse, but it's all Picasso.

With a more purely abstract form, Brancusi's 1928 Bird in Space is a gleaming, streamlined vertical object that soars toward the sky; it looks like a bird crossed with a rocket. And his 1918 Endless Column, a thick, chunky post of carved wood, angles in and out, implying infinite continuity. It feels as humanly made as the "bird" feels superhumanly made, but each reaches toward the sky in unbounded human ambition.

The later minimalist work of Carl Andre, on the other hand, stays close to the earth. In his 1969 floor of 144 Lead Squares, bold optimism is replaced with a controlled intellectualizing of forms into their most basic shapes. Metal is not molded into contrived forms but set out in a simple grid of flat plates in base, workaday metal.

The show features many icons of abstraction. There's Malevich's 1918 Suprematist Composition: White on White, which emanates the Slavic artist's spiritual aspirations for his suprematist forms, his yearning for secular icons for a new Russia. Works by the Calvinist-raised Dutch artist Piet Mondrian feature rhythmic lines and forms, calling to mind his surprising love of dance and jazz. In Composition with Color Planes, V (1917), the pastel squares seem to skitter across the canvas.

A "readymade" by Duchamp backtracks to the roots of conceptual art. His Bicycle Wheel consists of a bicycle wheel mounted to a stool, the ultimate in absurd, found-object, because-I-said-so assemblage. It is a 1951 reconstruction of the lost 1913 original. I always felt cheated by this later reconstruction -- which is completely ridiculous, especially in the context of Duchamp. It's a mass-produced bicycle wheel and a mass-produced stool, for chrissakes.

The surrealists also make an appearance at the party, still rummaging through the human psyche, but with the Menil Collection in town, we aren't as grateful as we should be. Still, seeing Merit Oppenheim's 1936 Objectis a treat. The tiny delicate teacup, saucer and spoon, all neatly lined with fur, are beautiful and poetically absurd.

The gestural outbursts of de Kooning and Pollock dominate the exhibition's abstract expressionist section. De Kooning's 1950-52 Woman I holds up well, but Pollock's 1948 Number I, with all its machismo exuberance, feels like a faded relic. Its canvas has yellowed, and the materials he used haven't aged gracefully, making that kind of self-indulgent expression seem dated. The pop section has a Warhol and a Lichtenstein, and there are some juicy Philip Gustons downstairs. However, the contemporary art section is something of an afterthought. But I suppose we shouldn't be greedy.

The exhibition's tour of the modern art landscape certainly looks at art history from a specific point of view; the collection is extra-heavy on the white Western males. But any way you look at it, the show has brought a trove of riches to Houston. Visitors will walk through its rooms, greeting old friends and making new ones, all in town on a short visit. If only they would decide to move here.

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