By Yang Shuming, translated by Ke Lingxiang, Image Courtesy of MoMA
The Long Run
MoMA / New York
11 November 2017 – 4 November 2018
The exhibition, The Long Run, occupying the entire fourth floor of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), will last one whole year and the 130 works by 50 artists shown in the exhibition belong to the MoMA collection. All these works are created by the artists when they were at the ages between 50 and 80, and this is also the first time that I visit an exhibition focusing on contemporary artists’ works created during their middle and old ages. Some of these artists are very famous while some are relatively unknown. All works represent the turning points of their artistic innovations even though the selection seems broad and limitless. Such an exhibition can also be regarded as the one of the MoMA contemporary art masters, such as Andy Warhol (1928-1987), Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997), Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010), Philip Guston (1913-1980), Jasper Johns (1930-), Maria Lassnig (1919-2014), Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986), Gerhard Richter (1932-), Frank Stella (1936-), Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Lee Bontecou (1931-), Ellsworth Kelly (1923-2015), and Joan Jonas (1936- ).
The accomplished artists will have a more strict attitude towards their creation after having reached their middle ages as the degree of satisfaction with their own art will become higher and higher. Whether to make a breakthrough in their creation or to maintain the idol status of intellectual property belongs to the exploration and test that an artist alone has to think about and bear for a long time. These artists have different ways of maintaining their vigorous creative states: some live outside the art circle and create their works in an almost absolute solitude without any disturbance from the outer world; some can repeatedly break away from their previous artistic styles and successfully adopt the new technology and language; while others have a much more moderate method but try to expand their creative themes. Some artists have constantly been experimenting with new materials and attempting to enlarge or bridge the boundaries of materials while others use art to relieve the pressure caused by their actual environments such as society, economy, politics, and their own lives. The exhibition endeavours to represent the breakthroughs in these artists’ careers during their middle and old ages, such as the key moments when they honestly face themselves and explore their inner artistic visions and the outcome of these moments. We can observe in their works how they continue to think critically while being confronted with time, unremittingly maintain their perception, and work diligently in their studios day and night.
Shown in the entrance of the first exhibit floor is Bourgeois’s large-scale sculpture installation completed at the age of 75, Articulated Lair (1986), which later becomes part of her famous Cells series and is created eleven years before her Spider (1997). This is an open lair with entrances and exits, in which such characteristics as safety and vulnerability can be perceived at a glance. A low stool is placed in the midst of the work, where the spectator can sit whilst considering the work. The perspective from such a low position and that whilst standing in front of the work endow the spectator with a strong visual comparison, through which they can feel the artist’s innovative creation of structural forms that are linked together like a wall and the loneliness and strength of people in space, which have always been emphasised by the artist. Bourgeois’s way of keeping her creativity stable is that she rarely presents her works in her later years. “My image remained my own,” she says, “and I am very grateful for that. I worked in peace for forty years.”
Bontecou’s work, Untitled (1980-98), is also created in a state of isolation, which took almost twenty years, from 1980 to 1998. The work is like the Milky Way Galaxy suspended in the middle of the exhibit hall and the dark porcelain globe in the middle of the work is surrounded by various galaxies, which infinitely emerge in front of the spectator. The art of Bontecou aims to encompass “as much of life as possible – no barriers – no boundaries – all freedom in every sense”. The artist states that to create the Untitled is to draw in space: when she finished one line, she would adjust it slowly, and then she would wait; meanwhile, the process of waiting was very delightful.
The exhibit hall dedicated to Guston is like a small solo exhibition, presenting seven of his later figurative works. “When the 1960s came along,” Guston recalled in 1977, “I was feeling split, schizophrenic. The [Vietnam] war, what was happening in America, the brutality of the world. What kind of a man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything – and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue.” During this war, Guston gradually felt bored with abstractionism after over twenty years of creation, he left the New York art circle and moved to Woodstock with his family. In 1968, Guston devoted himself to figurative art at the age of 55 and used the sharp and sardonic language of painting to criticise current events. As the critic, Harold Rosenberg praises, “Guston is the first to have risked a fully developed career on the possibility of engaging his art in the political reality.” What is pity is that Guston once wanted to resume abstract art in his later years but unfortunately died of a heart attack.
Similarly, Stella, at the age of 48, freely broke away from the two-dimensional plane and turned his enthusiasm to the lively three-dimensional creation, which is exactly like the way he had turned from minimalism to the irregular canvas. His well-known phrase about his paintings is: “What you see is what you see.” What I perceive in his art is the initial influence of jazz music on him, the syncopation of which, he says, is the most interesting part. His works have also gradually evolved from the mild non-smoothness and irregularity to the irregularity coloured with aggressiveness, and finally to the irregularity explored to the maximum.
There are also some artists who have steadily expanded the creative themes, such as Warhol and Lichtenstein, whose later works are shown in the 1960s Pop Art Hall. Both artists are said to have frequent private contacts, often participate together in group exhibitions, and visit each other’s studios. Lichtenstein has not merely created comic- style works after middle age and his subject matter becomes more and more extensive. Warhol began almost at the age of 60 to look for inspiration in the lives of younger generations and his works represent the corner price tag of 59 cents suggesting the Equal Pay Act, the Dove soap logo, and the General Electric logo.
At the end of the exhibition is the MoMA’s new collection, Reanimation (2010/2012/2013) that Jonas began to create at the age of 74, a huge spellbinding video installation continuing the artist’s style, in which polar landscape, folklore, music, colourful moving light, and the metal frame that is hung with glass blocks and acts as the theatrical stage all echo each other in time and space. There are also many works by other artists in the exhibition, who don’t care whether the public would be interested in them or the art world would attach importance to their works but just work hard and constantly. Sometimes those works appear lately are the best, at other times, they are not: such is the artistic creation.
Philip Guston, Source, oil on canvas, 190.5 × 297.2 cm, 1976
Lee Bontecou, Untitled, welded steel, porcelain, wire mesh, canvas, grommets, and wire, 213.4 × 243.8 × 182.9 cm, 1980-98
Louise Bourgeois, Articulated Lair, painted steel, rubber, metal, dimensions variable, overall approximately 281.7 × 655.7 × 490.2 cm, 1986
Roy Lichtenstein, Interior with Mobile, oil and magna on canvas 330.2 x 434.4 cm 1992
Exhibition view of " The Long Run" at MoMA New York