MoMA Curators, Take Note: Don’t Forget ‘Passion and Energy’

In a letter to The New York Times Magazine, Caroline Homard of Farmington Hills, Mich., engages in some pre-emptive art criticism. Responding to an article about the reopening of the Museum of Modern Art, Ms. Homard worries that the “scholastic squabbles of the curators” will “drain [MoMA’s collection] of all life.” Likening the new galleries to “the sterile environment of an operating room,” she wonders if they’re capable of embodying the “passion and energy that produced the great art they were designed to contain.”

It is unfair to judge MoMA on the basis of a photograph in a newspaper. Yet Ms. Homard makes a good point: The dawn of Modernism was a dizzying and tumultuous time, propelled by an expansive sense of possibility. Curators worth their snuff should be able to give shape to its diversity without stifling its headlong vitality. Perhaps Ms. Homard’s unease was prompted by a visit to MoMA’s series of millennial exhibitions, those discursive reshufflings of the permanent collection wherein art was strong-armed into serving this or that “narrative.” If those shows were an index of what’s coming up in November, Ms. Homard has cause to feel antsy about the 21st-century MoMA.

You can experience a bit of the “passion and energy” of early Modernism at the Janos Gat Gallery, which has a sampling of drawings and paintings on view by the German-born artist Hans Richter (1888-1976). Richter is best known as a member of the Zurich branch of Dadaism—his 1965 memoir Dada: Art and Anti-Art is a standard text on the movement—and, in particular, for his experiments in “abstract” film. (His 1921 film Rhythm 21 is considered an avant-garde classic.) Not only was Richter a Dadaist, he was affiliated (with no apparent strain in aesthetic) with De Stijl, Surrealism and Constructivism. After fleeing Europe for New York in 1941, Richter taught at City College, served as president of Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery and joined forces with the American Abstract Artists group. His 1948 film, Dreams That Money Can Buy, was a collaboration with Marcel Duchamp, Fernand Léger, Alexander Calder, Max Ernst and Man Ray. That’s some résumé.

The pieces on view at Gat, only two of which date before the First World War, veer between Daumier-influenced political art—a series of offhand portraits titled Dada Heads; Futurist-inspired figure paintings; and a self-styled “visionary” expressionism. The latter are Dadaist in tack if not result—if we’re to believe the artist’s own P.R., the canvases were painted “blind” inside a darkened room. Given their rough-hewn and even sloppy character, you can believe it. All the same, I suspect that Richter had a night light: The 1917 portrait of Emmy Hennings, with its adept placement of hot and cold tones, is too coherent to be a shot in the dark.

There are other things to recommend at Gat: the vitriol coursing through Richter’s caricatures of military officials; the muscular, stylized mannerism of his paintings of workers; the clean, exploratory cadence of his abstract pencil studies. The exhibition is provocative and frustrating, not least because Richter’s energy and (oddly for a Dadaist) optimism beg for a more comprehensive exhibition. You’ll leave the gallery wanting more—but before you do, ask to see the streamlined, Art Deco “portrait” of a woman in the back office. The painting was clearly something of a lark for Richter; its sophistication is inseparable from its silliness. The museum that snatches up this fetching artifact—are you listening, MoMA?—will count itself fortunate in the years to come.

Hans Richter: Early Works from the Estate is at the Janos Gat Gallery, 1100 Madison Avenue, until Nov. 6.

Good Old Days?

How nostalgic are you for the 1980’s? The Briggs Robinson Gallery in Chelsea is hoping that you are—or, at least, it’s hoping there’s an audience hungry for the paintings of that decade by George Condo. Mr. Condo came to prominence during the East Village art scene of the early 1980’s, a milieu fostered by cheap rents, the renegade allure of urban culture and the heady promise of a bona fide (if, in retrospect, illusory) avant-garde. The pull of the East Village, being somewhat illicit, was irresistible. Real-estate developers couldn’t resist the East Village either, thereby ensuring its brief reign as an art center.

The scene itself was marked by a Pop-fueled, ragtag ethos, yet the art resulting from it wasn’t stylistically consistent: We have the East Village to thank for work as different as that of Jean Michel-Basquiat, Jeff Koons, David Wojnarowicz and Ross Bleckner. Then again, a scene whose priorities were predicated more on nightclubbing than art shouldn’t be expected to hold style as an integral component of vision.

But don’t talk to the folks at Briggs Robinson about the East Village. Mr. Condo, we are told, isn’t a “neo-expressionist inspired by the pop-cartoon culture of the streets”; he operates “within a different lineage”—a prestigious lineage, too, that includes James Ensor, Pablo Picasso and Philip Guston. This kind of boosterism must come as a surprise to Mr. Condo: After all, the governing principle of his art is hate—not too strong a word, I think, given his cursory pastiches of Modernist convention.

Sluggish and hasty “homages” to Picasso, reheated Surrealism, killer clowns, angry pussycats and goofy bunnies—high art and thrift-shop kitsch, it’s all the same to Mr. Condo. Forget material amenities: Oil paint, in Mr. Condo’s hands, is a murky, foreign substance, and his efforts in collage weightless and glib. On the whole, the paintings seem bored with themselves. New Yorkers pining for the days when Postmodernism seemed newish and vaguely thrilling will seek out Mr. Condo’s pictures. Those less enamored of easy cynicism and ugly paintings will satisfy their nostalgia fix elsewhere.

George Condo: Paintings from the Eighties is at the Briggs Robinson Gallery, 527 West 29th Street, until Nov. 6.