"Everything Is the Nuts"
If anyone can figure out how to send Jane back to 1949 to see MoMA’s exhibition of “Italian pictures,” which gave Wallace Stevens a bad case of ennui, please send instructions care of this comment box. I thought I would take the opportunity to point out that the museum seemed to be in a lull a month before their 20th-anniversary show “Modern Art in Your Life,” and the interregnum of September in New York—“covered with the dust and withering of summer”—seemed at least partly to account for his mood. However, there’s a little bit in his sour-lemon passage that seems worth teasing out…
Then, too, I rather resent professional modernism the way one resents an excessively fashionable woman. At the Museum of Modern Art they cultivate the idea that everything is the nuts: the stairs, the plants on the landings, the curtains in the windows, where there are any windows, the arrangement of the walls. After about an hour of it you say the hell with it.
Wallace Stevens usually takes a beating for his tastes—the teas he imported through the Depression, the manse in Connecticut—but the totalizing grip of fashion on art seems to have made him surly. If I’m reading his sentences above correctly, he’s going off on the hyper-aestheticization we associate with high-end design culture ("professional modernism"), which in the 00's, and for all I know, forever, overlaps completely with high-end consumer culture. After a decade in New York’s orbit, I’m surly about it too, just as T.J. Clark is squeamish (if not surly) about that photo above, from Cecil Beaton’s spread in the March, 1951 issue of Vogue. Is Modernism just for the rich? Are sculptures by Black Mountain artists best viewed from the interior lobbies of corporate Class-A buildings? “Is all this really high thinking?” [Harrumph] O Jane, what do you have against train rides? I might trade a month of anything for a week on the Transiberian with Blaise, wouldn’t you?
Funny to think of Wallace Stevens and his reaction to MoMA’s totalizing aestheticization. At the beginning of his essay on Jackson Pollock, “Unhappy Consciousness,” Clark observes that haute bourgeois artists craved the qualities of aristocratic art—“rage for order,” he says (hm!), or “coldness, brightness, lordliness, and nonchalance.” That it is almost impossible for bourgeois artists to sustain that nonchalance is interesting. Hence trains: we have a hard time falling asleep on horseback.
… when I get lofty enough I’ve stopped thinking and that’s when refreshment arrives.
(Kasimir Malevich, with Eleusinian lilies)
Ange Mlinko was born in Philadelphia and earned her BA from St. John's College and MFA from Brown University. She is the author of five books of poetry: Distant Mandate (2017); Marvelous Things Overheard (2013), which was selected by both the New Yorker and the Boston Globe as a best book of...