Matthew Barney’s Buttocks In Dismal New MoMA Show

I received a phone call the other day from a writer who is preparing a profile of the well-known slogan artist Barbara Kruger, and from him I learned that in her next show, Ms. Kruger will make her debut as, like, a sculptor. What we can look forward to, I gather, is a three-dimensional effigy of the Kennedy brothers-the late President and his sainted brother Bobby-holding aloft a figure representing Marilyn Monroe naked from the waist down, with the star’s much sought-after vagina very clearly delineated. Or so I was told.

What bad timing, I thought. Even as the technicians were completing the fabrication of Ms. Kruger’s monument to Marilyn’s legendary sexual victimhood, the subject had already been rendered passé by the elevation of Diana, the Princess of Wales, to first place on the Top 10 list of martyred feminist celebrities. Think of what a media coup it would have been if Ms. Kruger had been given sufficient notice to enable her to “do” Diana instead of Marilyn! Too bad. It will now probably be left to Jeff Koons to do Diana’s genitalia. After all, he has already given us some graphic accounts of his own-and his ex-wife’s-so he has, as it were, a head start in dealing with such subjects.

Alas, that’s the trouble with so much of what is now called “cutting edge” art. (In case you’re wondering, “cutting edge” is what emerged on the contemporary art scene after the demise of the avant-garde.) It labors so hard to shock our socks off, yet the actualities of current historical experience remorselessly outdistance every attempt of even the most perverse imagination to keep abreast-never mind stay in advance-of the loathsomeness of the real thing. Try as they might to remain ahead of the swiftly changing disgust curve, today’s cadres of artist-shock troops are condemned to fighting a losing battle. Tomorrow’s headline news on CNN is guaranteed to eclipse even the most repulsive sensation to be found in today’s “cutting edge” endeavors.

Which brings me to On the Edge , the current exhibition of contemporary art at the Museum of Modern Art. This show gives the public its first view of the Dannheisser donation-the collection of contemporary art belonging to Werner and Elaine Dannheisser, which Mrs. Dannheisser has bestowed upon MoMA. It is a show perfectly suited to meet the needs of people who are more interested in yesterday’s “cutting edge” than in today’s art. Jeff Koons, for example, is well represented, as are Bruce Nauman, Cindy Sherman, Joseph Beuys, Robert Gober, Robert Ryman, Richard Serra and certain other MoMA favorites. Indeed, a significant part of the current installation-there will be changes made in the course of the exhibition’s run to accommodate other works in the collection-looks like a selective recap of recent MoMA retrospectives. And this in itself has the inevitable effect of taking the edge off of a good deal of what we see in On the Edge .

For latecomers eager to acquaint themselves with the work of Carl Andre, Richard Artschwager, Francesco Clemente, Gilbert & George, Anselm Kiefer, Richard Long, Sigmar Polke and Brice Marden, these overpraised contemporary figures are also represented in On the Edge . It should be noted that the photo-portrait of Mrs. Dannheisser and her late husband that adorns the entrance to this exhibition is the work of-who else?-the late Robert Mapplethorpe. Does all of this suggest a certain addiction to latter-day fashionable, “cutting edge” names? Not if you believe the claims of MoMA’s top brass. According to MoMA’s president, Agnes Gund, Mrs. Dannheisser “has not followed the whims of fashion or the dictates of critics but her own spirit and interest” in assembling this collection.

But this claim is surely an exaggeration, if not complete nonsense. Do we really have instruments fine enough to measure the difference between Mrs. Dannheisser’s “take” on contemporary art and that, say, to be found in Roberta Smith’s exhibition reviews in The New York Times during the same period? I doubt it. It’s not a capital offense, to be sure, to regard Ms. Smith’s criticism as a reliable guide to what, at any particular moment, is “in” on the “cutting edge.” Her Times reviews constitute a veritable Yellow Pages directory of both emerging and already arrived contenders for “cutting edge” investors, and Mrs. Dannheisser’s is by no means an isolated case in the heed she has obviously paid to this invaluable source of “in” information.

The dismal truth is that collectors eager to be identified with “cutting edge” taste, like the dealers and critics and museum curators who serve as their tipsters, are now a firmly established conventional institution on the art scene. To speak of the courage that this conventional behavior represents-as, on this occasion, Agnes Gund has done-is either to misunderstand the word or to devalue its meaning. Let’s face it: It doesn’t take any courage for a woman of wealth and position in New York in the 1990’s to waste her money on 300 pounds of cellophane-wrapped candies under the mistaken impression that they constitute a significant work of art. You can see such a work by the late Felix Gonzalez-Torres, who was the subject of yet another retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum SoHo only a few years ago, in the current show. Such trivial and trivializing acquisitions may represent a congenital silliness, but with a capacity for courage they have nothing whatever to do, and it’s just part of the current museological sales pitch to pretend otherwise.

But if Matthew Barney’s butt and Jeff Koons’ vacuum cleaners and Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ candies are what turns you on, then you will certainly have a ball at On the Edge , which has been organized by Robert Storr and remains on view at the museum through Jan. 20.

Matthew Barney’s Buttocks   In Dismal New MoMA Show