at the Art Institute of Chicago

Traveling exhibitions mounted by museums present certain problems for the critic. Ideally one should attend any cultural event without preconceptions, but traveling exhibits typically breeze into town with a fair amount of critical baggage in tow. And usually it’s difficult baggage to ignore, because for members of “the art world” the drive to be current approaches obsession.

“High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture,” organized by New York’s Museum of Modern Art and currently on view in the Rice Building at the Art Institute, brings more than its share of baggage–and not much of it constructive. The unkind critical reception it got in New York is unfortunate, partly because “High and Low” is the kind of exhibit that anyone with even a modest affinity for the visual arts should find valuable. More disturbing is that the negative publicity seems to have been more about the intricacies and machinations of the art world than about the quality of the exhibition.

“High and Low” looks at the interplay between popular culture and the fine arts. If that sounds like a major undertaking, its organizers–Kirk Varnedoe, director of MOMA’s department of painting and sculpture, and Adam Gopnik, a fiction editor and now the primary art critic for the New Yorker–seem to have been well aware of the challenge. So are their detractors. The attempt to define such concepts as “art” and “culture” and to make such distinctions as “fine” and “popular” raises Big Issues. And those who consider themselves cognoscenti feel it is their duty to see that such Big Issues are not taken lightly.

In their introduction to the catalog, the curators are careful to define their assumptions–as they’re careful about everything in this work. This dazzling 460-page document is brilliantly executed, yet paradoxically it bears some responsibility for the show’s negative reception. While it has been extravagantly praised for its depth, breadth, and contribution to scholarship, the book has also been the occasion for criticism because it’s so much more comprehensive than the exhibit itself.

The book is actually much more than a catalog–it offers a thorough analysis of issues of art and culture. A rich tour de force of historical research, it is possessed of such sweeping scope and fascinating detail that it belongs in every art library (at $29.95–paperback–it’s a worthwhile investment). Even an exhibition as expansive as this one–it includes about 250 pieces of painting and sculpture–has to pale by comparison. This should in no way suggest, however, that the exhibit should go unseen.

The exhibition categorizes popular culture into four occasionally related types–graffiti, advertising, comics, and caricature (the catalog adds another category, words, not illustrated in the exhibition)–and considers their influence on 20th-century painting and sculpture. The “High and Low” logo, reproduced on the catalog cover, posters, T-shirts, and other ephemera, is an excellent representation of the issues involved. Based on a 1923 book-cover design by the Russian constructivist painter Aleksandr Rodchenko, in itself it symbolizes the ways that “fine” art and “commercial” art overlap, and the way most fine artists must support themselves in our culture with “real” jobs. The design itself–its main feature is an enormous exclamation point–also communicates something vital and urgent to the viewer, suggesting as it does that the show will provide a series of revelatory experiences, even epiphanies.

Museumgoers will probably already be acquainted with the early cubist collages by Braque and Picasso that incorporate scraps of newspapers, but “High and Low” takes the extra step of locating the actual pages from the Parisian paper Le journal and other publications that the artists clipped for their scraps. In a technique used effectively throughout the show, the curators have provided copies of the original pages and highlighted the appropriate columns with magnifying lenses that are part of the protective Lucite coverings.

Work from the early 20th century cleverly indicates the impact of advertising on painting and sculpture. In his readymades Marcel Duchamp depended on context to establish their “fine art” status. He took such commercially produced objects as combs, bicycle wheels, perfume bottles, and porcelain urinals and altered and displayed them in such a manner that the public would accept them as works of art. Fernand Leger in his paintings appropriated stylized representations of machine parts, household objects, and store-window displays, incorporating them into his heroic renditions of modern urban life. In his dadaist object portraits Francis Picabia parodied low-grade commercial illustrations for utilitarian objects like lamps and cameras, translating them into sardonic comments on mechanomorphic imagery.

Advertising played an astonishing role in Joan Miro’s 1933 series of 18 abstract paintings of the deceptively amorphous shapes and figures for which he’s famous. Apparently Miro drew his inspiration for these elements from catalog advertising for such objects as machine parts, plumbing fixtures, and tableware. He cut the shapes out of the catalogs, arranged them on paper as collages, and repainted the arrangements on canvas as abstract landscapes that the catalog says “move to the primordial rhythms of the unconscious.” These “colanders and combs mutated into fabulous creatures by fast-forward evolution”; they populate “nocturnal, aqueous environments altogether different from the clinically white isolation of their paste-up pages.” The curators have not only hung several of the collages beside the finished paintings but have unearthed the original catalog pages from which the figures were borrowed.

“High and Low” goes on to make the expected connection between brand symbols and the work of the American pop artists Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol, and Jasper Johns. In some instances the works selected seem uninspired–an entire room of Warhol soup cans is pretty obvious–but others are delightfully unexpected. Giganticism–playing games with scale–is shown to derive from the omnipresence of billboards. To make their point, the curators use such works as Rene Magritte’s The Listening Room, with its surrealistically huge apple; Oldenburg’s skyscraper in the shape of a clothespin called Late Submission to the Chicago Tribune Architectural Competition of 1922; and Ed Ruscha’s wall-sized landscapes composed primarily of words.

Billboard art is glorified most spectacularly in James Rosenquist’s enormous F-111 (1964-65), a room-sized work of painted canvas and aluminum panels. Measuring 10 feet by 86 feet, it depicts the U.S. F-111 fighter plane embellished with various glossily rendered images of American consumer culture. Rosenquist’s forays into “commercial” art included a healthy stint as a billboard artist, and this work is simultaneously a virtuoso bit of sign painting and a wry commentary on the relationship between military power and commercialism. Privately owned and rarely viewed, F-111 is alone worth the price of admission to this show.

Those who have never fancied the work of Cy Twombly (I’m among them) can acquire a greater appreciation for it in the section devoted to graffiti: the American painter’s manically scribbled canvases take on an entirely different dimension when considered in relation to the history of wall writing. Similarly Jean Dubuffet’s dark, scratched, and scrawled paintings are far more comprehensible when compared with the photographs here of Parisian walls covered with markings acquired over years–perhaps centuries. The show also considers the work of the French and Italian affichistes, whose large-scale works were inspired by urban wallscapes made up of eroded layers of display posters. The catalog makes a connection between the affichistes’ patterns and abstract expressionist paintings of the 1950s.

Though caricature is related to both graffiti and comics, it’s treated separately here. Magritte’s famous The Rape, in which a woman’s face is composed not of eyes, nose, and mouth but erotic body parts, is effectively compared to composite painting, a centuries-old technique of comic illustration. In composite work, portraits are revealed, on closer examination, to be composed of surprising elements–a face made out of vegetables perhaps, or a ram’s head that’s really several naked maidens amusingly intertwined. Caricature has a long tradition whose grotesque imagery can be traced in the distorted body parts of Picasso’s cubist paintings and sculpture and in Dubuffet’s later disturbing portraits.

The organizers apparently had a good deal of fun assembling the portion of the show devoted to comics. Once again, much of the public will likely find some of this material familiar, particularly the Lichtenstein canvases, which are accompanied by highlighted panels from the issues of Secret Hearts, Girls’ Romances, and All-American Men of War that supplied the images. More surprising are a Jasper Johns canvas that reduces the comic-strip form to an abstract pattern, the relationships drawn between Miro’s work and the American comic strip Krazy Kat, and those drawn between the later figurative paintings of lapsed abstract expressionist Philip Guston and the work of cartoonist R. Crumb.

Undoubtedly the weakest section of the exhibition comes at the end, when the curators attempt to illustrate some of the issues in the show with the work of contemporary artists. Elizabeth Murray was apparently chosen for the role comics play in her shaped canvases portraying enormous shoes and teacups; Jeff Koons for his use of commercially produced objects and menacingly gleaming surfaces; and Jenny Holzer for the direct use of words as her medium. Although these three artists exemplify the show’s themes succinctly, none is the most likable artist working today. Each makes art that is often difficult, cynical, or hostile–certainly not to all, or even most, tastes.

The selection of these three rather inaccessible artists has brought the exhibition its heaviest dose of criticism, but the choice can be charitably explained as the natural result of the curators’ taste and limited space for the exhibit; the catalog provides a much wider and more eclectic range of contemporary works. The show also has been roundly criticized for excluding some aspects of popular culture, notably photography, film, television, and music. But it should be remembered that, as it stands, “High and Low” is already pretty enormous.

These are legitimate complaints. But the lambasting the show received when it opened at MOMA seems wholly out of proportion to its actual successes and failures. When a major museum mounts an “important” traveling exhibition, the art press takes note. And New York is after all the epicenter of the art world–or at least it’s perceived as such by the art press, which incidentally is also primarily located in New York. Shows mounted by New York museums assume a disproportionate significance; when a museum of MOMA’s stature mounts a large exhibition, it can have the effect of a pronouncement, bestowing credibility on a style, a trend, or a theory. Any such pronouncement is going to be minutely examined by the New York art press–and few groups can be more vicious and venomous.

“High and Low” is the first major exhibition MOMA has mounted since Kirk Varnedoe assumed his position there. Many of Varnedoe’s peers apparently see him as imperious and egotistical; perhaps he is, but his personal demeanor should have little bearing on his curatorial abilities. If he had the people skills of Mother Theresa, the New York art press would probably find reason to hate him. Power struggles and jealousy will probably always ensure a hypercritical media outlook on the efforts of MOMA personnel.

The attitude of the New York press toward “High and Low” can perhaps best be described as holier-than-thou–which is ironic and indefensible under the circumstances. This exhibition in large part attempts to remove “fine” art from its pedestal, drawing parallels with popular culture, and the media’s reaction seems nothing less than perverse. In both subject matter and approach, “High and Low” offers something rare: a highly sophisticated yet totally accessible experience of modern art.