What does it mean to be Modern?
“On the one hand, it refers to the past,” a scholar might say. “The word Modern — specifically Modernism in the American art world — is grounded in the period of time between roughly 1910 and 1970, when aesthetics ventured beyond conventions and into new frontiers.”
Another voice chimes in that Modern is not sequestered to the past at all. “Modern means fresh and new,” she says. “It keeps moving and challenges what came before. Modern is anything that’s different.”
Both responses are part of the “Modern” continuum of connotation. Modern means more than one thing. And perhaps it is not just a period of time, but an ethos, a belief system, a declaration.
From April 9 – Oct. 30, the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson will host an unprecedented exhibition of Modern art showcasing work by 52 of the 20th century’s most influential creators. The exhibition, When Modern Was Contemporary: Selections from the Roy R. Neuberger Collection, includes art by Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Georgia O’Keeffe, Helen Frankenthaler, Romare Bearden and dozens of other Modernists who diverted from tradition to create entirely new ways of producing, and of seeing, American art.
The museum is the first venue on the traveling tour for this singular exhibition, sourced from the Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase, N.Y. Every piece on view comes from the collection of one man, financier Roy R. Neuberger (born in 1903). His passion for contemporary art resulted in one of the most important collections of the era. He was a patron of Jackson Pollock before the artist’s meteoric rise. He collected, by his own estimation, not for monetary investment but for the love of the art itself. It was not merely to look upon, but to live with.
“When I came home, I would often hang my coat in the most convenient place in our foyer, the snake of Alexander Calder’s great stabile Snake on Arch,” Roy Neuberger’s son, Jim, recounted from his childhood.
Back to that word. Modern. It’s a slippery, mercurial thing. In an effort to translate the concept, to pin it down, museum officials have plans that go beyond the installation of the exhibition. They have mounted a statewide initiative to engage visitors from hither and yon. Called “Mapping a Modern Mississippi,” the campaign is a conversation starter, embracing the thematic connective tissue between Mississippians of today and the drip paintings of Pollock, the emotional canvasses of Rothko and the whimsical constellations of Calder. Beginning this month and continuing through the duration of the exhibition, museum staffers will travel the road in a late model GMC van dubbed “Maximilian the Modern Machine,” leaving their home turf to discover the contemporary makers, doers and thinkers of the state who share the same Modern DNA as the canonical artists of the past.
For its purposes, the museum has compiled a new, inclusive definition* of Modern with input from members of the Mississippi community.
*mod·ern /ˈmädərn/ (adjective)
bold, different, innovative, trailblazing, fresh, new, edgy
Wielding this linguistic paradigm, the museum begins a search for the ingredients of Mississippi’s Modern gumbo, composed of coffee shops and bookstores, juke joints and breweries, artist studios, homegrown technology companies, culinary pioneers and rabble-rousing raconteurs. As the public helps compile and unearth the state’s Modern sites (following along with the #BeModernMS hashtag), the results will be compiled into an ever-changing road map that will serve as pathfinder from town to town, county to county, and, ultimately, to the museum and the exhibition.
In the end, it’s all about the art. Pollock had no connection to Mississippi, but he’ll be here in Jackson. Alexander Calder was born and schooled in Pennsylvania, lived and traveled to, at various times, California, Arizona, Washington State, New York City, Paris and the Guatemalan coast; he, too, will be in the Deep South in spirit as one of his signature mobiles hangs suspended in the galleries. The same is true for many of these renowned artists. They’ll be brought together in the state against odds, in defiance of the norm. They’ll be here in Modern Mississippi. And they’ll be waiting for you.