Times Art Critic

Sometimes the sheer existence of an exhibition appears more significant than what is in it. At the moment, the Whitney Museum of American Art has an extensive survey of modern European and American design in furniture and related objects, which runs through Jan. 5.

An absorbing exhibition, it is absorbing large crowds into the bunker on Madison Avenue. They are having a fine time doing everything from clucking over '50s Atwater Kent TV sets ("We should have saved ours. It would be valuable today") to comparing beautifully wrought Crafts-Movement objects to inflatable plastic bubble chairs from the go-go '60s. ("I just don't understand how they can put this junk in the same museum with that precious thing.")

It's an authentically interesting show, but nothing about it gives greater pause than the simple fact that it is there. We've become accustomed to the growing prominence of the decorative arts in historical "Treasures" exhibitions. Now, a museum normally devoted to the more radical modern fine arts hops on the design-mania bandwagon. In principle, one can only approve of giving design its just due, but somehow the show has disturbing edges of existing purely as entertainment and even commercial promotion.

If anyone thinks that museum departments devoted to contemporary design do not run unto this territory, take a hike over to the Museum of Modern Art's design collection. There is a sign rather huffily displayed next to a classic wristwatch. The notice informs us that the watch in MOMA's collection is not the same as the one being advertised as (snort) "The Museum Watch." (It does not appear to have occurred to MOMA that there are other museums.)

One begins to have disturbing visions of future exhibitions where museum gift shops contain not just catalogues and souvenirs of priceless untouchable masterpieces but the identical tables, chairs and household gear as the exhibition or little signs saying "Available at Bloomingdale's."

Oh well, as long as we are here might as well pop into the Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition that's advertised so heavily. It runs to Jan. 26. If you can get in. Ranks of visitors four deep are doing the museum shuffle while pilgrims wait their turn in the winter cold of 52nd Street.

Must be some show.

It's prints. I love prints, but this is ridiculous. Print shows are the sort of thing that dedicated connoisseurs attend while the unwashed mob the blockbusters.

So shut up and be grateful. The museum audience is getting more sophisticated.

Not that sophisticated. The attraction has got to be about Lautrec's fame and mystique and the aptness of the fact that his prints are elegantly jaded visual cliches that every educated citizen and moviegoer has known forever.

This is a relatively minor exercise compared to the Chicago Art Institute's impressive 1979 survey, but it appears to be more popular. It's like a Frank Sinatra concert, safe even for the cautious MOMA. Is it significant that the show is about Lautrec as a commercial artist?

Very likely.

By now it is not exactly news that the art world is wallowing happily in a certain species of mess, floundering into trendiness, pratfalling into popular vaudeville but mostly managing to maintain a fairly respectable demeanor.

What's the game?

I think the sphere is coping with a huge cultural sea change that hinges on another MOMA exhibition, "Contrasts of Form." It continues to Jan. 6 and surveys geometric abstract art from 1910-1980. Hardly definitive, it nonetheless provides a respectable overview of rigorously non-representational art from its sources in Cubism through the Russian Constructivists, Der Stijl and right on to American Color Field painting of the '70s.

There are a couple of works as sublime as Picasso's 1912 "Guitar," but nothing is more bemusing than the way the exhibition ignites large thoughts about modern art.

Modern art was about analysis. Modern art was about dismantling an integrated picture of the world and examining its parts one by one. Cubists dismantled form, Futurists made an equation for movement and the Bauhaus did volume and atmosphere.

The show unfolds like a grammar text. Every lesson is absolutely clear and--when not lost in sterile pedantry--intelligent and moving. But when you get to the end, you have the feeling it's over. Like a classic diagram of the development of style, modernism has evolved from the primitive ideological passion of Malevich to the Baroque complexity of Frank Stella or Al Held and on to the cool Neo-Classicism of Sol Lewitt.

We've been waiting a decade for a new move, but nothing has happened.

Well, something has happened. Everything looks so familiar that we realize that modernism has completed its analysis, and its findings have been absorbed back into the general culture for the general benefit.

And thus we have a design show at the Whitney and Toulouse-Lautrec at the Modern.

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