In the show’s third gallery, aptly titled “Rampant Abstraction,” color reigns supreme, and vying for your attention are paintings by Elizabeth Murray, Willem de Kooning, Alma Thomas and Shirley Jaffe. But I was drawn to an effortless, thrilling abstraction full of floating light that I couldn’t identify. Its stack of broad white strokes over brighter colors might almost coalesce into the clouds and sky of a church ceiling by Tiepolo or Goya, but the thickness of the paint brings the work down to earth — and the modern world — with no loss of buoyancy. It is a painting that the New Yorker Ed Clark made in 2009, when he was in his early 80s, having devoted most of his long career to handling large brushes and gorgeous color with the matter-of-fact, quietly flamboyant flair seen here. The Modern acquired the work, its first and only Clark, in 2014.
Other artists in the new-acquisitions category include Thomas and the brilliant assemblage sculptor John Outterbridge. All three of these artists are black, and their belated entry into the collection represents some important course correction on the museum’s part.
The lively, almost noisy exchanges in the “Rampant Abstraction” and “The City” sections are followed by two high-level palate cleansers. First comes a gallery devoted to Martin’s six-canvas work from 1997, resonantly titled “With My Back to the World.” It is worth waiting the few minutes as the paintings’ bands of palest yellow, blue and pink start to bloom. Second, in the next gallery, is Twombly’s “The Four Seasons: Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter,” from 1993-94, four tall white canvases each of whose marks, colors and scrawled words leave little doubt as to the time of year.
From here, the display reverts to a more hierarchical MoMA mode with the gallery “The Sixties Generation: Color, Form, Pop,” where the curators invite us to consider or reconsider the later efforts of artist stars like Frank Stella, Andy Warhol, Ed Ruscha and James Rosenquist. The day is unequivocally carried by Roy Lichtenstein’s crisp, boldly scaled “Interior With Mobile” (1992), made five years before his death, and Bruce Nauman’s “Dirty Joke” (1987), a two-channel hanging video sculpture. The video features a human jester — a Judy in fabulous green and orange makeup — who waves about a puppet of Punch and fills the gallery with peals of what easily passes as feminist laughter directed at great-man art history.
Things improve with solo presentations of works by Gego, Martin Puryear and Mr. Hammons — his art is footnoted by a small 1938 wall piece made from found materials by Kurt Schwitters, one of the inventors of assemblage. Then there is another group take on the 1960s, but with more thematic power and topicality. Despite its rather flat-footed title, this section, “The Sixties Generation: Materials and Processes,” dwells on the apocalypse. The theme is set by Robert Morris’s mural-size charcoal drawing, from his “Firestorm” series, and its frightening accompanying text, which, especially, makes everything in the gallery click into ominous alignment.
Black-and-white works by Robert Ryman, Richard Serra and Joseph Beuys suggest bombs, white light and flattened horizons. An On Kawara “date painting” specifies the time: April 24, 1990. The sewn-fabric drawings of Geta Bratescu insinuate melting faces, while Melvin Edwards’s potent little “Lynch Fragment” wall sculptures imply further violence. And in the middle of it all, an untitled hanging sculpture by Lee Bontecou portrays the explosion itself, albeit with insuperable elegance, as if in slow motion.