The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York is arguably the most significant collection of modern and contemporary art in the world. The works, which have travelled to Australia for the MoMA at NGV: 130 Years of Modern and Contemporary Art exhibition, are some of the best-loved and most critically acclaimed of the last 100 or so years.
Here are ten of the best examples in this ground-breaking show.
1. Paul Cézanne, Still Life with Apples 1895–98
Cézanne was influenced by Impressionism but sought to transform that art movement into something more systematic: Post-impressionism.
He lent his canvases a sense of order by highlighting the relationship between the objects depicted and the flat planarity of the canvas surface.
Furthermore, the apples on the left seem to merge with the drapery pattern, and the two sides of the table seem to be at different angles. In this way the artist made us question the process of perception itself.
2. Umberto Boccioni, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913 (cast 1931)
Boccioni belonged to the Futurist movement which stressed the violent nature of modernity.
In this striding figure, a metal body which moves through space, he conveys an exhilarating image of speed which defies the classical repose of traditional sculpture.
The figure appears to be tearing itself apart, yielding to the environment around it.
For all its modernity, the work also has precedents in ancient sculptures depicting the female figure of Victory.
3. Marcel Duchamp, Bicycle Wheel 1951 (third version, after lost original of 1913)
In 1912, the Dada (a post-WW1 movement that questioned assumptions about what constitutes art) artist Duchamp visited an exhibition of aviation technology and said: “Painting is washed up. Who will ever do anything better than that propeller?”.
The following year he combined a bicycle wheel and a stool into an artwork.
Duchamp thus created his first ‘readymade’ (a term he used to describe prefabricated objects isolated from their use to form an artwork).
With this gesture he proposed that any object could be viewed as artistic - destroying the boundary between art and the everyday. As a corollary he suggested that anyone, even the humblest worker, could be an artist.
4. Piet Mondrian, Composition in Red, Blue, and Yellow 1937–42
Mondrian believed in an art of perfect balance in which opposites would cancel each other out.
He hoped to provide a vision of a society without hierarchies.
In the 1920s, he began reducing his paintings to three primary colours and right angles. The black bars, white areas, and coloured squares and rectangles of his “Neo-plastic” paintings are carefully arranged so that no one component or area of the canvas dominates.
Rather than objects or figures, relationships between line, space and colour are the subject.
5. Frida Kahlo, Self-portrait with Cropped Hair 1940
Kahlo was a Mexican artist for whom national and gender identity were major themes.
She lived between America and Mexico and was influenced by both indigenous and European art.
Although she was frequently described as a Surrealist she denied any knowledge of the movement.
Her works are not dreams but relate to Kahlo’s sense of identity. In this work, painted just after her divorce, she has cut off her hair, and dressed as a man.
In so doing she takes on a power which threatens her former husband with castration.
6. Jackson Pollock, Number 7 1950
Pollock, the American Abstract Expressionist painter, sought to liberate himself from the traditions of conventional art.
By spilling, dripping and pouring paint onto a canvas placed on the floor he signalled that he was disconnected from all improper constraints on his own individuality.
We read lines of flung paint as evidence of the physical arc of the arm as it swings across the canvas.
This led him to be described as an ‘action painter’, an artist concerned with the authenticity of the physical act of painting.
7. Roy Lichtenstein, Drowning Girl 1963
Lichtenstein was among a generation of Pop artists who emerged after Pollock in the USA.
He reproduced images from newspapers and magazines in a mechanical style emulating cheap printing techniques.
In this hopeless image taken from romantic comics, Lichtenstein presents the absurdly tragic predicament of this young woman as a frozen parody of the emotions it points to.
The crude drawing, simplified composition, and blue hair undercut whatever feelings that might otherwise be provoked by such a scene.
8. Andy Warhol, Marilyn Monroe 1967
Another American Pop artist, Warhol claimed that he wanted to be a machine.
He achieved that through repetition and the silkscreen technique of transferring mass-media images onto canvas.
Some of his most famous and powerful images, like these, depict Marilyn Monroe.
With his stark, screeching acid colours, deliberately mismatched colour areas, and simplified features, he suggests that the images of individuals worshipped in the media provide nothing but a sheer surface — a mask of identity.
9. Cindy Sherman, Untitled #131 1983
Sherman photographed herself countless times, repeatedly, in different costumes and settings.
She produces a multiple identity which provokes the viewer’s curiosity.
As in this example, information which the viewer requires to fully understand the image is missing.
The woman’s reaction to something not within our gaze sets the mind going to fill in the absent part of the narrative.
This guessing game highlights the process of interpretation itself, forcing the viewer to conclude that there is no definitive explanation of the image.
10. Olafur Eliasson, Ventilator 1997
Eliasson’s work emphasises the relationship between the art work, the space around it, and the broader environment.
This deceptively simple object, which refers to earlier work of modern art involving machines and movement, swirls around the gallery space above the heads of the viewer, responding to the immaterial atmosphere and remaining constantly in motion.
It is a perfect symbol of the mobility of contemporary art which responds to its environment but develops in ways that are surprising and difficult to predict.
In partnership with the National Gallery of Victoria’s Melbourne Winter Masterpieces exhibition MoMA at NGV: 130 Years of Modern and Contemporary Art, the Faculty of Arts is proud to present a four-week masterclass exploring some of the art and ideas that have emerged in response to radical technological, social and cultural change over the past 130 years.
Banner image: Portrait of Joseph Roulin, Vincent van Gogh, 1889/MoMA