"The Long Run” at New York's Museum of Modern Art is an exhibition encompassing works by nearly 50 artists who were active in modern art during the second half of the 20th century. The artists include numerous famous names such as Jasper Johns, Roy Lichenstein, Andy Warhol and Georgia O'Keefe. The works exhibited are examples of work done later in these artists' careers.
Rejecting the notion that innovation in art is “a singular event—a bolt of lightning that strikes once and forever changes what follows,” the exhibit seeks to show that “invention results from sustained critical thinking, persistent observation, and countless hours in the studio.” The exhibit seeks to illustrate its thesis by presenting works that show the evolution of the artists' works past the time when they were first recognized.
One cannot seriously debate the exhibit's thesis. The notion of an artist being struck with a bolt from the blue that leads to a new direction in art is more the stuff of Hollywood drams than reality. As in other siciplines, artists develop their thoughts over time. Skills are refined and new materials are encountered that enable the artist to do new and/or different things, At the same time, personal relationships may be changing, new associations formed and events in the outside world may occur that influence the artist's thinking. Not only is there an evolutionary trail leading up to an artistic breakthrough but there is a trail after that breakthrough.
The exhibit shows that artists evolve in different ways. Some artists make radical changes in style. For example, in 1969, Phillip Guston abandoned the abstract style that he had been known for in favor of a more figurative style. He said that he needed to make this change in order to enable him to address the political and social issues of the day.
Other artists continue on in the same vein that first brought them recognition. For example, Andy Warhol's black and white drawing of Da Vinci's Last Supper with various colored consumer product logos superimposed makes essentially the same point as his earlier paintings of Campbell's Soup cans, i.e., the commercialization of western society. Along the same lines, Roy Lichenstein's “Interior with Mobile” is similar in style to his earlier comic strip inspired works.
Even for those artists who stayed close to their original style, the exhibit makes the point that these artists went on working throughout their lives. In some cases, the later works may not have be as important to the history of art as their earlier works but these artists continued to produce vibrant and worthwhile art.
Leaving aside the thesis of the exhibit, the Long Run is still an enjoyable exhibit. It brings together numerous examples of good modern art. This includes lesser known examples by major artists that deserve to be brought to the public's attention.
Rich Wagner is a writer, photographer and artist.