NEW YORK — Art and life are different. That’s one reason people like art so much. Art and life also overlap. One person’s artifact is another’s art, and vice versa. Two highly stimulating, if wildly diffuse, shows at the Museum of Modern Art examine that overlap as regards two defining elements in everyday life: clothing and technology. “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” runs through Jan. 28. “Thinking Machines: Art and Design in the Computer Age, 1959-1989” runs through April 8.
“Items” is only the second exhibition MoMA has devoted to what people wear. The first was in 1944. That show, “Are Clothes Modern?,” asked a very similar question, though one that would seem more easily answered. If clothes aren’t modern, then what is: nakedness?
The title of the current show is narrower, as well as a bit of a waffle. “Items” is like waving a white flag: This is going to be a show about this and that, parts rather than whole — mix and match, not ensemble. It’s a sensible approach, if also a bit disappointing. A unified-field theory of fashion, especially as relates to what may or may not be modern, is an intoxicating prospect. But the title raises another question, about the meaning of “modern.” At this late date, does that mean “contemporary”? Too narrow, surely. “Modernist”? That would be anachronistic. Whatever it means, the meaning has to be different from what it was in 1944 — or does it?
At least “fashion,” which implies an emphasis on style over substance, is much more helpfully focused than “clothes,” which implies an emphasis on anything worn. Except that the 111 items in the show obliterate any distinction between high and low, form and function, class and mass, garment and accessory.
There are Teva sandals and Christian Louboutin stilettos, a Wonderbra and two Yankees caps (don’t Mets fans go to MoMA?), a Fitbit Flex and Rolex watch, several little black dresses and a red Champion hoodie, a pair of 501 Levi’s, a Mao jacket (though no Nehru jacket), a white Hanes T-shirt, five Swatches, a 1924 Chanel No. 5 bottle, and . . . well, you get the idea — which is to say, the absence of an idea.
Such catholicity of taste is a kick. “Items” must have been fun to put together. It’s certainly fun to wander through. But it’s maddening to think about. As the style-forward friend I saw it with said, “It’s simultaneously super-fascinating and kind of exasperating in its lack of coherence.” Super-fascination is always a plus, but not as much as coherence is.
MoMA has given “Items” the penthouse treatment. It gets the entire sixth floor, the museum’s choicest real estate. “Thinking Machines,” on the third floor, gets a lot less space. It also takes a more limited approach. For one thing, it limits itself to those 30 years in the subtitle, 1959-1989. For another, it emphasizes three aspects: computers as design objects, the early use of computers to make art, and the social impact of computers. Each is worthy of its own show, though the computer-art one might rank low on a must-see list.
Still, “Thinking Machines” is pretty big. It includes some 125 items, from IBM punch cards and a digital typeface (OCR-A, from 1966) to a Rubik’s Cube and “Max Headroom” video. There are several actual computers, though they may be unrecognizable as such to anyone born in this century. The sheer clunkiness of Mario Bellini’s Programma 101 Electronic Desk Computer, from 1965, is kind of glorious, as is the hulking mass of a Thinking Machines Corporation CM-2 supercomputer, from 1987. They’re digital dreadnoughts compared to the computational cigarette boats we’re used to.
The best thing about the art inspired by computers or which made use of them is the sense of experimentation they communicate: a brave new world being eagerly, if not always expertly, explored. These works are more often ideas in search of artistic form than art that’s much memorable. For sheer aesthetic pleasure, it’s hard to match the colorful tangle of an opened-up control panel from a 1950 IBM accounting machine or a pencil-and-ink sketch (it’s nearly 4 feet square) for a Texas Instruments logic chip, from the mid-’70s.
Charles A. Csuri’s pioneering 12-minute animation, “Hummingbird,” from 1968, does make a distinct impression. Both wondrously delicate and wondrously rudimentary, it is to Pixar as a spore is to a rain forest, and all the more of a marvel for that reason. Beryl Korot’s installation “Text and Commentary” combines a video, five woven textiles, drawings, and pictographic video notation. Korot’s point of departure was the fact that 19th-century Jacquard looms were a kind of computer. In the context of the other items in the show, the sheer tactility of the weavings is almost overwhelming.
The canniest decision the curators made — it’s also the most enlarging and deepening — was to include a dozen photographs Lee Friedlander took of office workers at MIT using computers at their desks in 1985. We see only the merest glimpses of the equipment they’re working with. Friedlander’s focus is on the people: staring, intent, blank faced. You know the expressions. You see them around you. You make them yourself. They’re performance art as practiced by a different kind of thinking machine.
ITEMS: IS FASHION MODERN?
THINKING MACHINES: ART AND DESIGN IN THE COMPUTER AGE, 1959-1989
At Museum of Modern Art, 18 W. 54 St. (the usual entrance, at 11 W. 53d St., is closed during renovations), New York, through Jan 28 and April 8, respectively. 212-708-9400, www.moma.orgMark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.