Jasper Johns once described his method of making art: "Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it." In "Objects of Desire: The Modern Still Life" at the Museum of Modern Art until Aug. 26, 71 artists do just that. Over the course of 100 years, it's obvious the object itself does not make the work of art but the "something else" an artist does to it.
The still-life genre was introduced in the 1600s as a composition of inanimate objects on a table. But the treatment of apples and oranges in 131 works by 20th-century artists is as disparate as tutti-frutti ice cream and an apple tart.
Czanne launched the modern still life by unsettling the convention of Renaissance perspective. His slanted tabletop and pears constructed by graded strokes of color in "Still Life With a Ginger Jar and Eggplants" (1890-94) demonstrate the tilted worldview of a period in flux.
In Matisse's "Still Life With Blue Tablecloth" (c. 1908-09), the apples are nearly lost in a surging sea of floridly patterned fabric. When Cubism debuts around 1907, Picasso and Braque slice the fruit into jutting shards of discontinuous planes.
Throughout the evolving styles, a common thread links these Modernist masters. The works show how an artist's vision, rather than objective reality, dictates what we see.
For example, when Ren Magritte comes to the table, the still life turns surreal. His white china plate in "Portrait" (1935) holds a slice of ham topped not with a fried egg but a staring human eye.
Giorgio de Chirico's compositions show his trademark uncanniness. He achieves melodramatic effects through bizarre juxtapositions of objects like an oversized red glove, green sphere, and classical bust, set amid an empty arcade. The illogical shadows exude a sense of menace.
After galleries of fruit and veggies, even morphed into different styles, it's a relief to encounter "Razor" (1924), by Gerald Murphy. He crosses mass-produced items like a razor and fountain pen like swords on a cutting-edge coat of arms. The crisp lettering and bold colors, borrowed from high-impact graphics of advertising billboards, update the still life for the Jazz Age.
In a "combine" (or assemblage) painting, "Canyon" (1959) that foreshadowed Pop Art, Robert Rauschenberg added actual objects, like a stuffed eagle and a pillow, to the painter's arsenal of tools. After that, the tables are turned, sometimes literally on end, as in Daniel Spoerri's "Kichka's Breakfast, I" (1960). Spoerri fastens a real chair and tabletop perpendicularly to the wall, with objects like a coffeepot and egg cups hanging precariously overhead.
And in the Post-Modern whirl, the still life is no longer still. Ray's "Tabletop" is a generic table set with a motorized bowl, plate, and goblet, each subtly spinning.
Mario Merz transmutes the table itself into a glass spiral, with real peppers and lemons arranged artfully on top. The final work, Wolfgang Laib's "Milkstone" (1988), is a slab of white marble on the floor.
Resting on a slightly concave hollow in the stone is a film of milk, almost imperceptible except for its sparkle around the edges. Laib makes a liquid look solid by recasting an organic substance into an abstract work of art.
Two highlights of the show are by artists known for political comment.
Max Beckmann, traumatized during World War I and the Nazi rise to power, reinterprets a traditional "vanitas" subject - overturned candles recently snuffed out - to indicate the fragility of life under totalitarianism. One candle still burns like a flicker of hope in the period between the world wars.
The most powerful object is a sculpture by Robert Gober of a six-foot-long box of tissues. The flower-painted box looks jaunty, just the thing to dry one's tears. But a metal screw pierces the box, an emblem of ineradicable sorrow.
The message of the show is the central tenet of 20th-century art.
In an era when reality seems to shift with each decade, artists draw on tradition in order to transform it. Art, as the show's curator, Margit Rowell, says, is "about the unseen and the unsaid." The subjects may be similar, but the alchemy of art, she adds, is what "shifts our seeing and our thinking."