Is there a crueler money shot than Marilyn Monroe’s morgue photo, with that lank cascade of streaked hair descending from her bloated, mottled face? The grainy black-and-white picture represents a nigh-Shakespearean tale of how even fame, fortune, and siren looks can’t stave off death—and may, perhaps, even hasten it.
So why does Marlene Dumas’s painting, appropriated from this loaded image, feel inert and facile? Tiny splatters of blue-gray paint flatten any sense of the sagging weight of inanimate flesh, and the smudged background offers none of the documentary interest the police photographer’s scribbled notations lend to the original. Corpses, babies (sometimes with blue faces or red hands), sex workers, and folks in straitjackets or hoods—all cribbed from photos and transformed into thinly painted portraits—form the nut of MOMA’s mid-career retrospective of the 55-year-old Dumas, who was born in South Africa and has long lived in Amsterdam. Gradated color occasionally blooms along a sleek contour, as in Leather Boots (2000), which portrays the elusive divide between the nude female and the confines of her display window, but too many of these works feature gray figures plunked onto blank backgrounds, the final effect torpid despite energetic washes of pigment.
Sometimes compared to Francis Bacon, who also delved into mortified flesh, Dumas rarely delivers the strong compositions and varied textures the former decorator brought to his paintings, nor does she capture Bacon’s visceral connection between his own movements and painted flesh—a corporeal daisy chain ultimately completed by the viewer.
Part of the buzz around Dumas’s work concerns her transformation of source photos into purely painterly forms that supposedly double back and blindside us with emotional content. But the fraught expanse that photographs create between viewer and grisly subject matter was strip-mined by Warhol for his “Death and Disaster” series decades ago, and with more painterly aplomb. Occasionally, in works such as Waiting (For Meaning) (1988), which depicts a figure stretched atop a too-short platform, a clammy aura radiating from it, Dumas captures the body’s resonant presence rather than just desiccated remains.
Elsewhere at MOMA, Vik Muniz’s “Rebus” takes a more Rube Goldbergian view of life. A brilliant 1987 video by the Swiss duo Fischli and Weiss opens this “Artist’s Choice” exhibition, part of a series that invites the selected artist to plunder the museum’s holdings and follow his or her curatorial muse. The Way Things Go begins with a suspended black garbage bag grazing an old car tire, which rolls across a rough concrete floor and sets off a series of actions and reactions as teetering chairs, ladders, and planks knock into precariously balanced bottles filled with mysterious liquids and flammable foams; fuses sputter, fireworks propel wooden boats, and balloons flatulently deflate or burst. Each step of this 31-minute exercise in mad-science-for-mad-science’s-sake leaves collapsed detritus and fizzing pools behind—sound and fury, then entropy.
This deceptively simple linear sequence is echoed by the aggregate work in the show. Muniz raided not only the painting and sculpture vaults but also the museum’s design collection, reflected in his placement of a ballpoint-pen drawing of a radiant rectangle by Sigmar Polke next to a block of laminated plywood from the Bakelite corporation. Later in the chain, a “Flat-Bottomed Brown Paper Grocery Bag” sits forlornly near Warhol’s painted-wood Brillo-box sculptures. Simultaneously didactic and open-ended, this grouping of 82 objects and images sends ideas skittering around inside your head, generating questions that are usually answered by more questions. A well-known Nan Goldin photo of a couple in bed hangs near Rachel Whiteread’s plaster cast of a mattress. Is the emotional distance between the pair in the picture real—hence the stony object on the floor—or just a frame in time before he stubs out his cigarette and they bounce the bedsprings? Is that striking green plastic pail worth more (because of its place in MOMA’s design collection) than the one I could get at a hardware store? Does juxtaposing it with Duchamp’s store-bought—but artist-titled—snow shovel, In Advance of the Broken Arm, make it art?