As happens when it’s winter in Evanston, we’re all sick and tired. That’s why I didn’t give you a column last week — I was in the depths of not-quite-strep-throat, and most campus arts organizations were still waking up from winter break.
So, thank god the Block Museum’s new exhibitions opened this week. The flagship show of the season is Modernisms, an exploration of Asian and Middle Eastern modern art from New York University’s Grey Art Gallery. It’s hard not to see Ciudad Moderna, the video piece by Terence Gower occupying the first-floor gallery, as a complement to the second-floor show. They’re both gifts — literally, from collectors to galleries, but more than that, gifts as accessible respites from the busy lives we’ve already sunk back into.
Modernisms, in the second-floor main gallery, focuses on the Grey Gallery’s strongest areas: Iranian, Indian and Turkish modern art. The gallery came upon all the pieces, on loan to the Block, thanks to its namesake collector Abby Weed Grey, who bought works from artists during over a dozen trips to the three countries.
Two striking paintings from Parviz Tanavoli’s Last Poet of Iran series greet you as you enter the gallery and its Iranian section. It’s hard to look at the colorful, uncomplicated sequences of figures and not see a bit of Basquiat, but then you look at the placard and remember that the paintings are from 1962. Leave your Western art history at the door.
The most impressive works in the Iranian section celebrate the basic elements of art: color, form, pattern. Kamran Diba’s imposing Diver, bright and red, commands attention in its corner of the gallery. So do Tanavoli’s four sculptures in the center, especially his whimsical Heech, a bronze form inspired by the Persian word for “nothing.” The gallery smartly juxtaposes paintings by Mahmud Ahmadi and Charles-Hossein Zenderoudi, both based on repeating letters of the Persian alphabet; on another wall sits Siah Armajani’s Calligraphy, a black-and-white painting of Persian poetry text, commenting on the seemingly exempt status of poetry in Iran’s censorship.
Francis Newton Souza’s Trimurti welcomes viewers to the Indian section with a colorful abstraction of the joining of the three primary Hindu gods. If the Iranian section is an introduction to modernism’s concepts, the works from India riff on them. There’s portraiture, landscape art and abstract expressionism, not to mention the wonderful mixed-media painting King and Queen of Spades by Prabhakar Barwe, which incorporates actual playing cards as it emphasizes their ubiquitous patterns.
At the end of the Turkish section, full of more colors than the Indian section and more provocation than the Iranian one, sit two paintings by Cemil Eren, who left the Turkish military in the early ’50s to pursue a career as a painter. The blurred form of his Vision and the chaos of his Train Accident make for a wonderful contrast — it’s a pairing that would stop me in any gallery. It’s a great conclusion to this exhibition, reminding that this is just the surface of Asian and Middle Eastern modernism. Surveying a whole generation across three countries will be a little out of focus and messy, and any of these artists could merit their own retrospectives.
It’s hard to walk through the exhibition and not remember the Block’s groundbreaking Caravans of Gold from last winter, also showcasing findings from three countries that are often overlooked in the art historical canon (although focusing on a very different period of history). But just as Caravans succeeded in emphasizing that all its works were acquired by long-forged partnerships with Morocco, Mali and Nigeria, Modernisms fails by putting such a spotlight on Grey for … well, being an art collector. Yes, she did a good thing by buying this art and allowing it to be shown, at a university gallery no less, but if she’s truly the hero the exhibition says she was by collecting this art, then she shouldn’t command so much focus. I’d much rather know more about how the individual artists related to each other, rather than just settling for the easy throughline of Grey’s travels and collecting. To be honest, I couldn’t be bothered with the case of Grey’s papers before the entrance to the show — I wanted to see the art itself, just as she did when she started her travels.
So skip the case of Grey’s artifacts outside the gallery on your way out, but don’t skip Gower’s Ciudad Moderna, which will take just seven minutes to view. A “limited-edition work” and part of a gift from software tycoon Peter Norton to the Block, it’s a composite video of a ‘60s Mexican comedy, Despedida de casada, with freeze-framed photos and drawings. When the playful comedy cuts to a black-and-white photo of the same room, but empty, it’s almost eerie, emphasizing the lack of life in modern built environments themselves. The video is just long enough to drive home Gower’s point, then fade to red.
At the risk of sounding cheesy or paternal, I really don’t think we as students realize what a gift it is to have a groundbreaking art museum on campus, at our disposal, for free. As my friend David Gleisner wrote when he ranked it the best building on campus, “All of us could use an escape to its bright, open, art-filled spaces every once in a while.” Go this week, and I’m sure you’ll see something you’ve truly never seen before.
Thumbnail photo licensed from Wikimedia commons.