The Modern is {Artfully} Turning 120 — The Modern in Fort Worth

[Originally published in Patron magazine]

TheModern

In an article published in The New Yorker in 2002, Paul Goldberg compared the construction of the Modern in Fort Worth to “asking someone to put up a church next door to Chartres.” He was referring, of course, to its stunning counterpart across the street, Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Museum. Japanese architect Tadao Ando had never designed a public building in the United States and speculation arose that his sensibility was too nuanced to translate well in a grand space. Ultimately, comparing the two museums is futile. As Dr. Marla Price, current director of the Modern, points out, “All the (Fort Worth) buildings and organizations create a wonderful center for the arts and culture in the city.” Her comment is an instance of modest civility with regard to the stellar building she occupies along with an enviable cache of contemporary art. “There’s a beauty and calmness about the building that encourages contemplation,” she adds. In current vernacular, it’s very Zen—not to mention elementally gorgeous.

Described by one critic as exuding an air of “calibrated seduction,” Ando’s work sings with light, air, water, and stone. In fact, walking into the office of Michael Auping, the museum’s chief curator, is akin to boarding a yacht. The sky streams into the room and the concomitant blue feels oceanic with Ando’s white pillars functioning as analogues to sails on a seagoing vessel. Auping is clearly whip-smart and proud of his accomplishments at the Modern—as well he should be. Howard Rachofsky, one of the savviest collectors in the country, lavishes accolades on Auping and refers to him as The Quiet Dean of Contemporary Curators. Rachofsky adds, “He’s his own man and very creative. He puts up smart shows, wonderful shows that only he could pull off. (Auping) has access to things others simply do not because he’s so widely regarded.”

Rachofsky’s assessment is easily grasped when you meet Auping. To be candid, he gives off a fabulously cool aura that’s a bit unnerving. His eyes are reminiscent of Robert Oppenheimer’s in the famous photographic portraits of “Oppie” done by Arnold Newman. They resonate with the same haunting brilliance and, when it comes to lauding Ando, he divides the metaphorical baby as deftly as Solomon. He certainly finds Ando’s building to be a gorgeous space; yet, once it was built, he fully claimed it as his own kingdom. “Some architects want to design spaces and tell you where to hang things. I had to make it clear (to Ando) that once the building was built, the rest was my job.” Their relationship, however, remains cordial and, in fact, Ando periodically pens notes to Auping that state, quite simply, “Thank you for taking care of my building.” The hint of attenuated ownership appears extraordinarily strident for someone from Osaka. However, it’s more readily understood once you realize that Ando was a boxer before he achieved “starchitect” status. While it may be “his” building, Auping has led the charge in building a collection of contemporary art that’s establishing North Texas as a formidable art destination.

An obvious case in point is the Modern’s recent Lucian Freud exhibition, spearheaded and snagged by Auping, It evoked a furor rarely seen even in the most rarified of art circles. It was a juggernaut of a show by anyone’s standards and served as an ideal penultimate display prior to the “anniversary” that’s been a decade in the making.

Several works have been purchased to make the celebratory occasion spectacular and it promises to be an ideal bookend to the museum’s opening 10 years ago that left New Yorkers agog with its exuberant and confident elegance. Auping placed Anselm Kiefer’s vast Book with Wings in a concrete elliptical gallery that suits it perfectly. In still another brilliant move, he positioned Warhol’s green-and-black self-portrait, done in 1986, at the top of the massive central staircase. It’s situated in a manner that allows it to function almost as a branding motif. While it’s an unassailable anchor, there are multiple satellite pieces with which to contend. It’s both a privilege and a chore to bear up under the psychological heft of pieces such as the first self-portrait produced by Francis Bacon in 1956. It’s moody and black and exudes both frenetic craziness and the heat of a Zippo lighter.

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So, one might ask, what can possibly be next? Price has disclosed that the Modern is “acquiring work by important new artists in several cases and increasing…holdings of works by Vernon Fisher, Dan Flavin, Howard Hodgkin, Sol LeWitt, Bruce Nauman, and Nicholas Nixon.” Flavin’s work is a light sculpture, Untitled (for you, Leo, in long respect and affection) 4. It’s constructed of yellow and blue fluorescent fixtures that span the 90-degree angle of a gallery corner and the colored lights coalesce to create a vibrantly active space. Additionally, a video and sound installation by Nauman will also be unveiled. Studio Mix celebrates finger exercises that the composer Béla Bartók wrote for children. A video suspended in a dark gallery shows Nauman’s hands reproducing combinations of four fingers and a thumb while sounds, including the artist’s voice, are played. Auping noted that he acquired the latter piece because it seemed especially fitting for the city that hosts the world-renowned Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

Yet another addition to the collection is a specially commissioned work by Jenny Holzer. It utilizes her signature kinesthetic light-emitting diode (LED) signs to deliver controversial texts in “Ando blue.” Among a cache of new “truisms,” she’ll also use a few she’s already made famous: Money Creates Taste; Your Oldest Fears are Your Worst Ones; Slipping into Madness is Good for Comparison; Mothers Shouldn’t Make Too Many Sacrifices; and Lack of Charisma Can be Fatal. The whole piece will operate as a literal river of glowing language that extends from one end of a large clerestory gallery to a glass wall at the edge of the museum’s pond. Thus, Holzer’s text will create the illusion of penetrating and traveling through water. Her work will be unveiled—no doubt amid delighted gasps—during a gala celebration in December.

While reflecting upon the upcoming anniversary, it would be an unforgivable omission to fail to note that the Modern is — surprisingly — the oldest museum in Texas and one of the oldest museums in the Western United States. In 1892 a charter was granted to the Fort Worth Public Library and Art Gallery, an achievement that was the result of twenty dedicated women wanting to bring culture to what was then a rough town running desperately thin with regard to culture. Their first acquisition was Approaching Storm by the well-known American artist, George Inness. In the ‘40s the museum held a show, then deemed highly controversial, from the Downtown Gallery in New York. Artists included Georgia O’Keeffe, Ben Shahn, and William Blake. Later, works by Wassily Kandinsky, Ellsworth Kelly, and Pablo Picasso were added to the collection. In the 1970s, pieces by Donald Judd, Mark Rothko, Brice Marden, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jim Dine were purchased. However, even this impressive litany of names pales when compared to the entire trove of work acquired during the intervening years.

From those difficult beginnings, who could have predicted the gorgeousness of the museum’s current architecture — or the brilliance of its collection? The past 110 years are a chronicle of internationally known work coming to Texas because people believe in the transformative nature of art. Yet, ironically, it was the lure of the West—including cowboys, horses and spurs—that so intrigued Lucian Freud that he consented to have his work shown in Fort Worth. Who knew Wrangler jeans and longhorns could be used to such a salvific effect? It’s all quite amazing and, certainly, it’s logical to predict that even more excellence is headed our way. We’re witnessing a rare conflation of taste, funding, foresight and elegance. North Texas is fortunate indeed.

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