The Fluidity of Time

Museum of Contemporary Art

In “The Fluidity of Time: Selections From the MCA Collection,” the Museum of Contemporary Art has interwoven pieces from its permanent holdings in an effort, it says, to “reveal how the ‘fluidity of time’ animates and recontextualizes our responses to the art of our own time.” But what might have been a coherent tapestry ends up full of holes. The MCA’s means of connecting works are either obscure or far too obvious, and sometimes the pieces are grouped in such a way that they detract from others nearby.

The room that houses the inspiration for the show’s title, Yves Tanguy’s 1930 (Untitled) The Fluidity of Time, exemplifies the show’s apparently haphazard nature. This small, pale, quiet surrealist painting with a “rock formation” in the center is paired with Jim Hodges’s The End From Where You Are, a huge black curtain of cutout flowers that overpowers the tiny Tanguy. Worse is the mysterious relationship between the two.

It seems the museum intends to “recontextualize” the work here through disjuncture–but the outcome is often disarray. Half of another room is inhabited by a 1962 George Segal sculpture, two life-size white plaster figures arranged as lovers on a bed; an early (1964-’65) Christo, a small orange storefront he constructed, with fabric obscuring the windows; and the 1983 Bruce Nauman neon sculpture Life, Death, Love, Hate, Pleasure, Pain, with a large flashing circle that illuminates these words by turn. It’s anyone’s guess, but perhaps these works relate to what a wall label describes as “the fundamentals of human existence” by reflecting on materiality and immateriality. But how would this bear on the set of figural works in the other half of the room? These include a mural-size 1959 Leon Golub nude (from what’s called his “burnt man” series because of the canvas’s distressed surface), a very small 1954 Dorothea Tanning sleeping nude, and a vibrant 1946 egg tempera by George Tooker showing children cornering some fearful men. Perhaps here the theme is human anxiety, anomie, or fear.

In some cases, only an experienced viewer would know the processes behind the works and benefit from the groupings. The relation between Rene Magritte’s 1953 The Wonders of Nature, showing a cuddling couple who are human from the waist down and fish from the waist up, and Barbara Kruger’s untitled black-and-white image of a woman with long hair obscuring her face is pretty clear: the faceless woman is like the faceless fish. But why are Andy Warhol’s silk screens of Jackie Kennedy at her husband’s funeral in 1964 positioned nearby? The connection seems to be that Kruger and Warhol both appropriate images from popular culture–and both are perhaps critiquing cultural constructions of femininity.

Other times, formal characteristics seem to be the organizing factor. Fred Sandback’s Untitled (Sculptural Study, Ringe Studio Wall and Floor Construction 1980/2004) is a piece of red yarn that extends along a section of wall about 25 feet wide and 4 feet high, sticking out about 12 feet at one point. It’s paired with John Baldassari’s 1988 Fish and Ram, a compilation of framed photographs with three lines running through them. But where the Sandback seems purely formal, the Baldassari has a deeper meaning about the structures of power. One room in which all the works are white arguably makes things easy on the viewer because the connection is so obvious. But in fact this grouping does a disservice to the works, and by extension to viewers. The room’s lack of contrast dilutes and even enervates Robert Ryman’s white impasto, Luisa Lambri’s photograph of open white doors bathed in sunshine, and Robert Smithson’s delicate Mirror Stratum, a ziggurat of inch-wide mirrors that create a chevron reflection in the corner above it.

The same problems that plague individual rooms also undermine the exhibition as a whole. A colorful Kerry James Marshall south-side scene sits opposite a Laura Owens abstract landscape, and Dan Flavin’s Alternating Pink and “Gold” fluorescent-light installation is placed next to the “white room”–compromising its whiteness. The Flavin glow also invades Sarah Sze’s spectacular Proportioned to the Groove, an ingenious lattice of colored thread over a partially paint-splattered floor, upside-down flowers, piles of books, and various other everyday items. Museum literature says that the Flavin and Sze are positioned next to each other because they’re both installations–Flavin’s created in 1967, Sze’s in 2005–and because both artists had shows early in their careers at the MCA. This isn’t clear from Sze’s work itself or from its placement in the room.

I’ve seen other MCA shows of permanent holdings that had less of a theme than this one and that worked better. Clearly some thought went into the exhibit, but in some cases the logic seems tortured, in others too simple. Ultimately the exhibit doesn’t so much animate these works as communicate an apparent indifference to them. Perhaps the 75 years that these pieces represent aren’t quite as malleable as “The Fluidity of Time” would like to pretend.

When: Through Sun 3/5: Tue 10-8, Wed-Sun 10-5

Where: Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago

Price: $10 suggested admission; $6 students, seniors; kids 12 and under free; Tuesdays free

Info: 312-280-2660

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/courtesy Museum of Contemporary Art.