Trisha Donnelly’s mystical, interstellar ‘Artist’s Choice’ show lands at MoMA

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Polaroid Sunglasses, American Optical Corp. (1946). (Courtesy Museum of Modern Art)
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If anyone ever did, the California native and cause célèbre Trisha Donnelly makes art for artists.

Description of her work is frequently mired in the press-release smog: “interpretation-defying”; “elusive”; “harnesses our imaginations.” That’s likely because Donnelly often seems less interested in the apparent subject of the work than in the delivery of ideas themselves. Once, she coached a classical organist to slowly deconstruct tone. Another time, she made a video simply pulsing the warning “Night is Coming.” For her first solo show, she famously rode into Casey Kaplan gallery on a white horse, reciting a symbolic message of surrender from Napoleon Bonaparte.

Donnelly has spent the past year and a half curating the Museum of Modern Art’s tenth Artist’s Choice exhibition, in which artists select works from MoMA’s permanent collection. Given her interest in the ephemeral, it was no surprise when, at the opening for the exhibition on Friday, she cast off any notion of a unifying thread as the result of her selections.”

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“I didn’t find any themes,” she told me. The opening was well attended by art press, notably Sarah Thornton and Jerry Saltz. Donnelly led us through three galleries on the fourth and fifth floors, each of which looks like a separate show. One comprises a single, broken row of mid-20th century Eliot Porter photographs of small birds; another, a salon-style roadshow, spanning the late 19th and 20th centuries; and the third, a sort of answer to the New Museum’s recent Ghosts in the Machine, with Art Nouveau-style furniture pieces and 1980s microchip diagrams.

Porter’s birds were among the first works to grab her attention.

“There’s something that happens, as a spray of light,” she said softly. “Every bird he saw was a path.” And when Porter shot the image, “a line between him and the bird would explode,” she said. We were gathered around the photograph of a barn swallow, plummeting like a jet against a cloud in the sky; Porter had somehow captured an echo/shadow of the bird against the blue and white.

“The speed of their lives is so different,” Donnelly went on. “You have a different idea of the time-space continuum.”

Looking closely through Donnelly’s eyes, each object does start to look trans-dimensional. Sometimes it’s through scale, using bits of architecture, resized or cut from its context, like Joe Goode’s five-step staircase Shoes, Shoes, Shoes. Other times it comes through signals, like the clipped phrases in Van Gogh’s drawing Sorrow, and Juan Gris’s Marcelle la Blonde. Some are just a spectacular jolt, like the voltaic white splash in Marsden Hartley’s 1942 painting Evening Storm, Schoodic, Maine (on view at MoMA for the very first time). To really boil it down, even looking at an image of the past starts to feel like time travel.

While a cool appearance has led some to infer that she’s reticent, Donnelly was anything but removed from the work of putting this show together. She thanked curators for this “lesson in humility,” describing individual pieces with rapt, dreamy admiration. Alessandro Becchi’s Antifibio Convertible Couch “changes everything you know about sitting.” Odilon Redon’s acidic impressionist boulder (pictured above) “is like licking a battery.” Jacques Villon’s transparent lithograph head “is really epic.” Intermittently, she’d snap herself out of it, as though realizing she’d been talking in her sleep. “I’m sorry, I could go on and on!” she laughed sheepishly.

“Um...I see an ionizer,” Jerry Saltz noted at one point. And so he did. A small black pyramid (pictured at left) emitted an atomic orange glow from a pedestal; another one downstairs in the room full of microchip diagrams sits turned-off next to a pair of 1940 Polaroid sunglasses. The device is commonly used as an air cleaner, charging molecules at high voltage. Curator Laura Hoptman mentioned that it supposedly affects serotonin levels.

When asked about her process, Donnelly said she had broadly searched the collection and taken out the works that she couldn’t bear not to include.

“These are sort of things that stuck to my sweater,” she told us.

But that doesn’t mean they’re random. Donnelly led us to an incredible work in gallery number three: Patrick J. Sullivan’s surrealist painting The Fourth Dimension (pictured below).

“[It’s] a bell of clarity for the entire exhibition,” she said. It is. Two men are chained to the edge of a hurtling planet; one faces outer space, and the other lies dead, his ghost staring directly at the viewer. There’s a lot going on here. Donnelly liked how the picture draws attention to the motion of the planet we’re all on.

“So many objects are the confusion of that fact,” she said. “The first [law] of sculpture is for it to stand on its own.” She was grinning wide, as though thrilled by the brief lunge in and out of the painting.

Near the end of the walkthrough, Donnelly was asked what sorts of museums she liked to visit most. In art museums, she said, there are often so many people that she can’t see the work.

“If you go to science museums,” she said, “you can be alone with seven-year-olds—that sounded weird—but the seven-year-old is as excited as you are.”

Later, listing in to the exhibition’s audio guide, I half-expected to hear sonar blips, but rather, it was a transmission from MoMA’s past: an audio guide from a 1980 Picasso retrospective. At first, the cheery voice of the late art historian Robert Rosenblum promises your run-of-the-mill art history lesson; the Blue Series is “literally and figuratively blue, like the work of a sad old man...”

But then, toward the middle of the tour, Picasso begins “leading toward a true explosion,” not only in his life, but in all of art, says Rosenblum.

“Here, you may feel as though you’re in the midst of some terrible and ferocious jungle ... a world that seems to be exploding, body fragments, arms, legs, torsos, breasts, all seem to be ripped from their solid core and sent flying about with savage force!” Rosenblum says.

Not everybody will get that same sort of thrill from Trisha Donnelly’s show; that’s just the risk run when indulging an artist’s point of view. Take anything you like.

'Artist's Choice: Trisha Donnelly' is on view at the Museum of Modern Art through Apr. 8, 2013.

Images, from top: 'Barn Swallow, Great Spruce Head Island, Maine, July 9, 1974 [Hirundo rustica erythrogaster],' by Eliot Porter; 'Rocks on the Beach,' (c. 1883) by Odilon Redon; Modulion 10 Ionizer (1980), by Michael Lax; 'The Fourth Dimension,' by Patrick J. Sullivan (1938); 'Pillars under the Shed Project,' by Walter Pichler (1975).