Objects of Beauty

Still lifes and natures mortes at the Museum of Modern Art.

“Objects of Desire: The Modern Still Life”
The Museum of Modern Art, New York City
Through Aug. 26, 1997

Still life, that most humble of the classical genres, traces its origins to a legendary painting contest. Around 400 B.C., the Greek painter Zeuxis was said to have painted grapes so lifelike that birds came to peck at them. His rival, Parrhasios, secretly painted a curtain over the panel of grapes. Zeuxis tried to lift the curtain, and lost the contest. Teasingly realistic grapes and drapes have figured in still lifes ever since. Some of the most spectacular examples of the genre, which got its name in 17th-century Holland, depict great mounds of fruit and fabric that fool the eye (trompe l’oeil) so completely that we can practically smell them and feel them.

Still life–the portrayal of familiar inanimate objects–is, as the name suggests, a paradoxical genre. Its French name, nature morte (“dead nature”), points up the paradox even more acutely. If the Dutch “banquet pieces” suggest endless beauty–Holland in the 17th century was so rich it didn’t know what to do with its money–there’s a darker side to still life that warns of the brevity of earthly pleasures. The ancient Egyptians painted images of food and personal effects in their tombs, images that were to accompany the dead on their last journey, and a rich tradition of European still-life painting slips little reminders of mortality–skulls and flickering candles–among the apples and pears and peeled lemons.

S till life, then, is caught between the timeless vision and the ticking clock. When you enter the current show at the Museum of Modern Art, titled “Objects of Desire: The Modern Still Life,” you find yourself in a small white room with only one painting on the wall, Cézanne’s Still Life With a Ginger Jar and Eggplants (1890-94). This is the timeless vision. The effect is that of a hushed chapel, and on the altar is this gorgeous riddle of a painting, with its tilted plate of ripe pears, its pendulous eggplants, its great blue-black bedspread draped across the lower half of the painting, and its round, wicker-wound ginger jar, carefully placed in the middle. Every form finds an echo elsewhere in the painting, and none of the depicted objects calls attention to the historical moment.

It’s a dazzling opening, this great Cézanne, and much of the explosion of Cubist work in the next room builds on Cézanne’s achievement. The gravity-defying sepia swirls of Picasso and Braque, with their fragments of guitars and violins–a fiddlehead here, an S-curve there, a couple of quarter notes waltzing off a table edge somewhere else–have a kindred formal harmony.

T hen you turn a corner and enter a different world, where the immediacy of modern life, of the ticking clock, is everywhere palpable. Here in a glass case is Man Ray’s Gift (1921): a clothes iron painted black with a row of 13 tacks glued headfirst into the face. Next to it is Marcel Duchamp’s bizarre Why Not Sneeze Rose Sélavy? (1921): a metal bird cage, painted white, containing 151 marble cubes, a thermometer, and a piece of cuttlebone–the internal shell of a squid-like creature, used, according to the dictionary, as “a dietary supplement for caged birds.” Such objects, with their elliptical wit, return us to the dark side of still life; these bones and cages and tacks and thermometers offer a deadpan answer to what life is: C’est la vie.

These “ready-mades,” as Duchamp called them, pose in a new way the oldest still-life question: Is it real or is it art? Instead of birds pecking at painted grapes, we have objects that are real and art. Andy Warhol’s carefully constructed and painted Brillo Boxes (1964) stacked on the floor look an awful lot like Brillo boxes stacked on the floor. Backtracking, I found myself wondering what these things had to do with Cézanne, and the answer is: not much.

For, alongside Cézanne’s timeless forms in subtle harmony, another modern still-life tradition has flourished, more in tune with pop culture, advertising, and the disposable culture of the 20th century. MoMA, which does so well by the scions of Cézanne, is less instructive about this hybrid line of descent.

There was space in that little white chapel at the start of the show to include an example of the trompe l’oeil American masters William Harnett and John Peto, contemporaries of Cézanne’s, who are just as much founders of modern still life as Cézanne, and whose more playful spirit is just as tangible in the works at MoMA. After all, the title of the show perfectly fits the objects Harnett and Peto assembled: dollar bills, snapshots of loved ones, jewel-studded pistols.

As one ventures deeper into the 20th century, from Dadaism to Surrealism to Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, it is Harnett one thinks of more often than Cézanne. Harnett’s practice of inserting newspaper headlines among his tacked-up objects turns up in Braque and Juan Gris, their way of asserting both the up-to-dateness of their art and the background noise of World War I.

O ne aim of “Objects of Desire” is to show how the same objects in the limited repertory of still life–wine bottles and fruits, pipes and shaving kits–take on very different meanings, public and private, over time. The show succeeds spectacularly in this regard. Gerald Murphy’s Razor (1924) is alert to consumerist art during the 1920s, the so-called “golden age of advertising.” The razor crossed with the fountain pen, surmounted by a box of matches, reminds those in the know that Murphy, the model for the hero of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night, gave up painting to run the family business, Mark Cross pens. When a trompe l’oeil shaving brush and a match turn up later in the show in Magritte’s Personal Values (1952), they have an oneiric suggestiveness quite in contrast to Murphy’s flat factuality. Superimposed against a blue sky, Magritte’s comb seems to be lying on clouds of shaving cream–a painter’s dream–while the match lies asleep on the floor. Still-life objects that have figured for centuries as reminders of mortality can take on new urgency under the pressure of history. In Max Beckmann’s Still Life With Three Skulls (1945), the greenish skulls on the table look fresh–as indeed they were in that harrowing year–like not-quite-ripe fruit. Warhol’s Skull (1976) now reads unavoidably as a premonition of AIDS.

Passing through the final rooms of the show, one feels the pressure of an argument beginning to emerge. Painting gives way increasingly to 3-D sculpted still lifes, such as Jasper Johns’ brace of cast bronze Ballantine Ale cans (Painted Bronze, 1960), and found objects. Those dueling Greek painters return in a new guise, as Mario Merz, in the Zeuxis role, covers a glass table with an array of fresh vegetables and fruit, changed daily by a New York caterer (Spiral Table, 1982), while Christo, playing Parrhasios, conceals the familiar Cézannesque shapes–wine bottle, vase, etc.–under a drapery of canvas (Package on a Table, 1961).

W e’re meant to feel that we’re coming to the end of the line, an impression confirmed in Domenico Gnoli’s painting of an empty table covered with a lace tablecloth, Without a Still Life (1966), placed toward the end of the show and chosen for the cover of the catalog. The still-life objects have escaped, leaving the bare table, the bare canvas.

MoMA’s story of modern art, beginning with Cézanne and ending with abstraction, has been confirmed, but at a cost. The final rooms feel like classrooms, with lessons hammered home. The show ends as it began, in a small white room holding one object. This time the altarpiece is a plain white block of marble centered on the floor, Wolfgang Laib’s Milkstone (1988). A wall panel explains that a film of milk covers the top of the marble, so that a “living substance” (milk) has been “stilled,” thus “embodying the quintessential definition of the still life.” Such heavy-handed conceptual humor is a far cry from Duchamp’s mercurial wit, or from the visceral delight of Meret Oppenheim’s Object (1936), the famous fur-lined teacup. Now that’s a living object stilled.