To Have Squeezed the Universe Into a Ball

To Have Squeezed the Universe Into a Ball:
German Expressionism at MoMA

by David Gibbs

The exhibit, German Expressionism: Works From the Collection, at the Museum of Modern Art takes the viewer through the transition of early twentieth century Europe, with its curiosity and reliance on the seedy undercurrent of society; its prostitution, drinking, and cajoling, to the trauma of World War I and its chaotic aftermath. Mood shifts sharply, in this mixed media show, from praise and adolescent sexual excitement to a resigned bareness as the dark, yet sprightly atmosphere, dims, revealing its underlying misery, portrayed by disfigurement, rage, and a hopeless sunken-ness of faces and figures. In paintings and illustrations, hair thins and crooks, cut short in its wildness, as optimism flinches so decisively, and dismissively, that it dissolves for the duration of the movement.

Franz Marc’s pre-war woodcut, Fantastic Creature, from the illustrated book, The Blue Rider, gently persuades the viewer of the vitality of daydreams. A lean animal, yellow with grey stripes poses, its features flat and mellow. In the background, a rock draws the viewer’s attention with its height and color. The tone of red, along with its three green spots resemble a strawberry turned upside-down, with two green leaves growing out if its peak. The terrain lumps, wrinkly, like knuckles with a strong shadow adorning the upper crest. Its shade even resembles a pale skin. If it were not for the creature, the landscape would echo an underwater setting with its soft edges that hint at a slow delicate tide. The tenderness implies a welcoming of the imagination and of the pleasures of creativity. The stokes are smooth and without tension. Color is emphasized for its enjoyment. The lack of details suggests a meditation with space, even an allowance for investigation. The character of the piece is hopeful, even juvenile, in its ease.

In Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s painting Street, Berlin and Erich Heckel’s Franci, prostitutes take the foreground as models, but with hardly a distinction of their profession; it is the accompanying text from either museum or artist that clarifies the women’s social positions. This emphasis implies that a curiosity surrounding the taboo of their vocation still exists now as it did then, and that pointing it out will excite something forbidden in viewers, and will create an interest to see them as objects of beauty and desire.

While this elevation of infatuation stimulates viewers, the artists are cautious not to “prostitute” them. Eroticism is pushed aside to stress the tension between voyeurism and exhibitionism. Men look, and obviously the artists’ looked, and now we look at the intimate displays of sexual and social values. It is as if the artists want the viewers to ask themselves why they are attracted to the art; whether it is observational, lustful, empathetic, or out of disgust. They want the viewer to have to express something of themselves, something perhaps they did not realize. And this is the urge of Expressionism, a release (and perhaps relief) of unbearable emotions. It is mindfulness so tender, in its spectrum of enjoyment to melancholy, that it stings when kept silent.

No doubt a mind so sensitive could be crushed so brutally by war. The elongated eyes that restricted empathy and sadness, it seems, to a soft watery stare grow hard and alien in battle. The illustrations of Otto Dix depict shadowy heaps wearing gas masks, hands filled with grenades. Colorful swirls are substituted for dark ink blots, as if black blood forced out of arteries. Gestures are frozen in action. Slaughter rivets the viewer in this frightening series as bodies lose their vigor. Flesh becomes bone. Skin becomes uniforms and dirt, suggesting trenches running through each body. Things bloat. Eyes shrink. The images hardly encourage the viewer to think struggle, victory, or even a philosophy of death straying too far from a dull acceptance of its emptiness. All vibrations melt to slim shimmers.

George Grosz’s Explosion mixes the geometric slivers of Cubism with the bright hues of early Expressionism, as if straining for a balance between them. The affect is layered and overwhelming, mimicking the citizen’s scramble as all around them gleams fiery in a red brilliance the color of meat. Tall buildings and factories burst and topple. Bricks stop in mid-flight. Smokestacks billow like a canon’s fire. The source of light and darkness, cutting the cubist angles, come from the windows of burning buildings, drawing one’s fragmented focus from the people crammed into the canvas’s corner to the explosion itself, as if suggesting this mentality an outcome of war. What vibrant colors that were reserved for people pre-war, now enhance the dehumanization taking place. Detail is now allowed for industry and mayhem, while people are split and reduced to abstract.

The emphasis of business and economic interests intensifies as post-war art is used for rhetoric against both communists and capitalists. Often, capitalists are depicted as fat, dumb-witted, and sinister, while communism is portrayed as a vehicle of starvation and chaotic mob violence. Each side cries oppression, and each side shows skeletons and hangings as sad consequences for supporting the opposition. In one illustration, business men have picked up the guns of dead soldiers to continue the war in the streets. They huddle in a blown out bunker, like generals forced to fight alone at the end of a gruesome battle. The final mood is grim and satirical, as if each cruel joke had fought alongside each soldier, hardening to a near indifference on the front lines.

German Expression: Works From the Collection finishes its three month run at MoMA on July, 11. For more information and pictures of the work, go to http://www.moma.org/explore/collection/ge/index.

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David Gibbs is a candidate for the MFA in Creative Writing at The New School. His poetry has been published, or is forthcoming, in the Columbia Poetry Review, CutBank, Nimrod, and other journals. He is an editor at The New York Quarterly and the Graduate Coordinator of the Prison Writing Program at the PEN American Center. Additionally, between July and October, he will perform, alongside other artists, Roman Ondak’s performance art piece, Good Feelings in Good Times, at The New Museum. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.

Art Review Series

The Disappearing Artist

by David Gibbs

Andrea Rosen Gallery’s Katy Moran exhibition attempts, conceptually, to eliminate Moran from the work. Society at large, terrain, and the objects that have filled the subject matter of still-life are some of the ways she forces the idea of the individual out from its own abstraction, despite the Abstract Expressionist’s influence. In a time when self-independence is of the highest priority, when the self dominates subject matter most, Moran attempts to break from this mass desire for individualism by striving to express a altered model of the self that is obscured, and therefore cutting free of this post-war trend.

No signatures, no paintings have a name, few canvases are finished only using paint. Mostly they are collages of materials undisguised, giving complexities to the non-self items (a tree, geometric forms) painted so loosely they almost, and at times do, loose that common quality that aides us in their identification. Overall, there is nothing vibrant about the colors, they are earth tones that when mixed by wide brushstrokes or in frenzied layers, only darken.

The self is absorbed into the work as an emigrant is absorbed into a city, which too is utilized. Torn and overlapping layers of collage resemble overused and decaying billboards. Gum-like substances bead near corners and edges on a few pieces, as if the public had participated in the project. This pseudo-invitation is one of the most interesting aspect of the exhibition, that is, the fake public dissolving the individual, or even traditional forms dissolving the individual to the history of art, the centuries old timeline that no one can survive.

Despite the landscape’s accessibility the natural imagery and city-scape-surfaces feel arbitrary, as if these monumental structures could never liberate a constant awareness of the self. The controlled quality of the nearly haphazard strokes suggest the haziness of thinking, of murky images forming from an aged memory, as if Moran were trying to channel a painting she had seen and mostly forgotten, and consequentially directing herself away from the self. The gallery’s statement characterizes her work as “allow[ing] for the slippage of theory in to the intensity, irrationality and violence of letting go,” despite the limitation set by aiming to let go, that is becoming better connected with the unconscious self. The desire to rebel is courageous of Moran, although it feels sometimes forced by this unending problem of ego.

Moreover, the sense of forthright communication obscures as the self and society awkwardly function together. Often divisions are thrust upon the viewer through torn and folded-out collage layers of magazine fragments. Strips of canvas interrupt the underlying paint and a fabric that looks like a dull brown and white static draws the attention away from the rest. The tension between the two seems manageable, and not overwhelming by the modestly sized frames, as if this issue was not as urgent as the brushstrokes imply.

However the understated size, Moran seems to want communication with a variety of people, from those accustomed to street images, to art scholars, and to those preferring the middle or upper class lifestyles, as hinted with the use of a newly varnished wood floor panel as a canvas, while expressing an unresolved imbalance with today’s trends.

This exhibition by Katy Moran can be seen at the Andrea Rosen Gallery, from May 5-June 11, 2011.