Se­bas­tian Smee on the Guggen­heim col­lec­tion

Se­lec­tions from the famed Guggen­heim col­lec­tion come to Melbourne, with some sur­prises, writes Se­bas­tian Smee

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page -

Guggen­heim Col­lec­tion: 1940s to Now Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria In­ter­na­tional, Melbourne, un­til Oc­to­ber 7.

GROUP shows drawn from sin­gle col­lec­tions — even great ones — sound ter­rific in the mar­ket­ing, but so of­ten they dis­ap­point. You go to them, you check off the big names, you nod at the pro­gres­sion of styles and move­ments, and then you leave feel­ing ed­u­cated and un­ac­count­ably bored. Thank god for the gift shop.

Quite of­ten you also feel robbed. In­deed, we’re par­tic­u­larly used to this feel­ing in Aus­tralia. We may be sent mas­ter­pieces from the Ri­jksmu­seum in Am­s­ter­dam, but do we get to see Rem­brandt’s The Night Watch ? Of course not. The Musee d’Or­say cob­bles to­gether a lovely show from its col­lec­tion, but does it in­clude Edouard Manet’s Olympia ? You must be kid­ding.

Poor ex­am­ples, I know, be­cause those two works are not lent to any­one. But many less bla­tant cases il­lus­trate the strug­gle Aus­tralian mu­se­ums face in con­vinc­ing their over­seas coun­ter­parts to lend mas­ter­pieces to th­ese shores for spe­cial ex­hi­bi­tions. The up­shot? You go to th­ese pack­age shows feel­ing du­ti­fully grate­ful, but ever- so- slightly scorned. It’s like gain­ing ac­cess to the most glam­orous party in town and then be­ing bounced from the VIP room.

Now we have a se­lec­tion of works from the Guggen­heim Col­lec­tion, which is per­haps most fa­mous for its early mod­ern ab­stract art and, sur­prise, sur­prise, there’s not a work by Vass­ily Kandin­sky, Piet Mon­drian or Kaz­imir Male­vich in sight.

Frankly, I’m de­lighted. For what we have in­stead is an ex­hi­bi­tion, culled from the Guggen­heim’s im­pres­sive post- war col­lec­tion, that amounts to one of the most in­tel­li­gently cu­rated sur­vey shows I’ve seen. And af­ter a suc­ces­sion of block­busters de­voted to his­tor­i­cal art, my guess is that it’s what Aus­tralian au­di­ences right now are crav­ing: a smart, snappy, il­lu­mi­nat­ing over­view of some of the best- known names and most im­por­tant trends in re­cent art.

The show is filled with ter­rific pieces, but it’s not a typ­i­cal roll­call of hal­lowed names. Some key names in the his­tory of post- war art, such as Jasper Johns, Bar­nett New­man and Cy Twombly, are miss­ing, while a num­ber of the artists in­cluded are yet to be canon­ised. One con­se­quence is that you are not cowed into ven­er­a­tion as soon as you read the wall la­bel. In­stead, you are stretched, un­set­tled, made to dis­crim­i­nate.

In­evitably, you ex­tend th­ese im­pulses to works by the many fa­mous artists who are present. Is that re­ally a great Pol­lock, for in­stance? Ac­tu­ally, no. And what about that Rothko? His­tor­i­cally im­por­tant, maybe, but it’s not Mark Rothko at his peak. On the other hand, that stun­ning ab­stract paint­ing in trem­bling greens, yel­lows and turquoise by William Baziotes, a con­tem­po­rary of Rothko and Jack­son Pol­lock, is to die for. And the work by Mor­ris Louis, a key fig­ure in the much­ma­ligned colour field move­ment heav­ily pro­moted by Cle­ment Green­berg: could it be the most beau­ti­ful work in the show?

Dis­played in roughly chrono­log­i­cal or­der, the ex­hi­bi­tion leads us from 1940 to the present. All the main his­tor­i­cal trends and move­ments are sketched in. We see, for in­stance, a style of fig­u­ra­tive paint­ing heav­ily in­flu­enced by Euro­pean sur­re­al­ism give way to a kind of ab­stract paint­ing premised on per­sonal ex­pres­sion, in the art of Pol­lock, Rothko, Adolph Got­tlieb, Robert Mother­well and He­len Franken­thaler.

Af­ter the fas­ci­nat­ing but rel­a­tively mi­nor in­ter­ludes of ki­netic art and colour field paint­ing, we then wit­ness the as­cen­dancy of a new min­i­mal­ist, but still ab­stract, aes­thetic in the work of Agnes Martin, Carl An­dre, Don­ald Judd and sev­eral oth­ers. Then it’s a re­turn to fig­u­ra­tion in the pop art of Andy Warhol, Roy Licht­en­stein and Claes Olden­burg. The story ex­plodes into the eclec­ti­cism of con­tem­po­rary art: video, pho­tog­ra­phy, in­stal­la­tion, sculp­ture and per­for­mance.

All this is meat and pota­toes in post- war sur­veys of vis­ual art. What makes this show so com­pelling is that the stan­dard recipe is con­tin­u­ally chal­lenged by other themes and com­pli­cated by in­ter­est­ing sub­plots with­out the show de­gen­er­at­ing into in­co­her­ence. This is a credit to the cu­ra­tors — the Guggen­heim’s Va­lerie Hillings and the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria’s Tony Ell­wood and Amy Bar­clay — be­cause it would have been just as easy to ex­tract a dis­as­trous show — ei­ther too staid or too messy — from the same 8000- work col­lec­tion.

As you move from the first part of the show into the sec­ond and third, for in­stance, you can’t help but no­tice a shift away from work that is es­sen­tially hu­mour­less ( ei­ther pas­sion­ately earnest or coolly aloof) to­wards work that is openly funny.

You would never say, for in­stance, that Rothko was a funny artist. The Euro­pean sur­re­al­ists who in­spired Rothko and Pol­lock could be hi­lar­i­ous, but for some rea­son — let’s call it World War II — hu­mour seemed to dis­ap­pear from the creative reper­toire of the post- war ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ists.

Min­i­mal­ism, as you would ex­pect, was even less in­clined to­wards hu­mour.

But slowly — at first through the ar­bi­trary as­sem­blages of Robert Rauschen­berg, then the sunny irony of Licht­en­stein — post- war art got its sense of hu­mour back.

At a cer­tain point, as the in­no­cent so­cial out­look of the ’ 50s turns to the more trou­bled moral am­biva­lence of the ’ 60s, ’ 70s and ’ 80s, the light- fin­gered hu­mour of pop slowly turns darker, more scabrous. Licht­en­stein’s huge mu­ral- style paint­ing called Pre­pared­ness ( 1968) is the first sign of this shift. It’s a re­sponse to the mil­i­taryin­dus­trial com­plex in the bor­rowed lan­guage of su­per­hero comics ( and Fer­nand Leger), and it’s shot through with irony and fore­bod­ing.

Next comes Warhol, whose irony in the face of death and dis­as­ter was mor­bidly cor­ro­sive, like acid. His won­der­ful screen­prints of elec­tric chairs are so re­splen­dently coloured here that you al­most for­get their ghoul­ish, so­cially di­vi­sive sub­ject ( that, of course, is Warhol’s in­ten­tion).

And then we are con­fronted with con­tem­po­rary artists such as Paul McCarthy, a spe­cial­ist in nasty hu­mour and per­sonal hu­mil­i­a­tion, rep­re­sented here by a su­perb block­ish sil­i­cone sculp­ture of Michael Jack­son with his chim­panzee. It’s called Michael Jack­son ( F--- ed Up) .

Hang­ing along­side McCarthy are two paint­ings by Jeff Koons ( well, by his team of as­sis­tants, ac­tu­ally), who once treated the same sub­ject. Koons’s hu­mour at­tracts many dif­fer­ent in­ter­pre­ta­tions, but I think of it as so blackly ironic that it has turned it­self inside out and be­come a kind of mon­strous, wholly fraud­u­lent in­no­cence.

To­wards the end of the show, pho­to­me­dia artist Sarah Anne John­son, the pho­tog­ra­pher of elab­o­rate cin­e­matic sce­nar­ios Gre­gory Crewd­son, the bril­liant Matthew Bar­ney and Robert Map­plethorpe ( th­ese last two bizarrely shar­ing a fond­ness in their art for sym­me­try, gen­i­talia and horned self- por­traits) prove hu­mour is an es­sen­tial com­po­nent of con­tem­po­rary art.

But per­haps the fun­ni­est work in the show is a life­like sculp­ture called We are the Revo­lu­tion by the Ital­ian prankster and art- world court jester Mau­r­izio Cat­te­lan. It’s a minia­ture ef­figy of the artist wear­ing a felt suit. The suit, like the ti­tle, is a ref­er­ence to Ger­man artist Joseph Beuys, him­self some­thing of a jester, but with delu­sions of grandeur that Cat­te­lan does not share.

Cat­te­lan shows him­self sus­pended idi­ot­i­cally, with dumb smirk to match, from the hook on a Mar­cel Breuer- de­signed cloth­ing rack at the end of a cor­ri­dor. The work is a sheep­ish con­fes­sion of fail­ure, an at­tempt to prick the bub­ble of self­im­por­tance. It’s one of the show’s high points.

Other sub­plots emerge as you wan­der through the show: for in­stance, the in­creas­ingly ten­ta­tive and self- con­scious at­ti­tude to­wards aes­thetic con­cerns in post- war art and the ac­com­pa­ny­ing search for wider so­cial mean­ings. Or dif­fer­ent

ways of think­ing about colour, from the nat­u­ral and har­monic to the ar­ti­fi­cial and gaudy.

Some re­cur­ring mo­tifs only be­come ev­i­dent as you re­trace your steps. One is the in­ter­est of var­i­ous artists at var­i­ous times in grids.

We see it early on in the gor­geous min­i­mal­ist paint­ings of Agnes Martin and the wall draw­ing of Sol LeWitt, and then again in the loud, mul­ti­pan­elled photo pieces by Gil­bert and Ge­orge, which are di­vided into grids. A se­ries of pho­to­graphs of hori­zon lines by Ola­fur Elias­son is dis­played in grid for­ma­tion, as is a dis­play of hu­man and an­i­mal teeth by Ann Hamil­ton.

A work by Brazil’s Adri­ana Vare­jao ap­pears to be a white, min­i­mal­ist grid ripped open at var­i­ous points to re­veal hu­man or an­i­mal vis­cera. For Vare­jao, whose work is partly con­cerned with the de­struc­tive legacy of colo­nial­ism in South Amer­ica, the white grid evokes the Por­tuguese tiles used in Brazil­ian con­vents in the 18th cen­tury, just as for Gil­bert and Ge­orge the sat­u­rated colours di­vided by black lines may evoke English stained glass win­dows. So what was once, in the hands of the min­i­mal­ists, sup­posed to be ob­jec­tive, non- ref­er­en­tial and emo­tion­less be­comes charged with emo­tion, so­cial his­tory and sub­jec­tive ex­pe­ri­ence.

The show has its weak mo­ments. The con­tem- po­rary sec­tion be­gins with a whim­per rather than a bang, with a room de­voted to con­cep­tual treat­ments of land­scape by a slew of for­get­table artists. There may be a lit­tle too much pho­tog­ra­phy in the fi­nal rooms. Pho­tog­ra­phy is not in it­self the prob­lem: it’s sim­ply that the artists cho­sen tend to have elab­o­rate con­cep­tual un­der­pin­nings, which means they ben­e­fit more from be­ing shown in depth than as iso­lated in­stances.

But such prob­lems are off­set by the show’s many plea­sures. One of them is the room de­voted to si­mul­ta­ne­ous screen­ings of Bar­ney’s five Cre­mas­ter films. I don’t think any­one will be pre­pared to stand through all five films, but sam­pling each of them ham­mers home Bar­ney’s per­ver­sity, his al­most un­lim­ited in­ven­tive­ness.

It’s apt that the key episode in Cre­mas­ter 3 , the cen­tral film in Bar­ney’s se­ries, is set in the Frank Lloyd Wright- de­signed Guggen­heim Mu­seum in New York. The Guggen­heim has backed and sup­ported Bar­ney since he got go­ing on the Cre­mas­ter se­ries, which made him one of the most cel­e­brated artists of his gen­er­a­tion. There’s no bet­ter sym­bol, per­haps, of the Guggen­heim’s de­vo­tion to the art of the present. Let’s hope it con­tin­ues, and that Aus­tralian mu­se­ums con­tinue to be in­spired by it.

Man in the mir­ror: Michael Jack­son ( F--- ed Up)

Hang­ing in good com­pany: From far left, Al­berto Gi­a­cometti’s Nose ; Pre­pared­ness by Roy Licht­en­stein; Adri­ana Vare­jao’s Folds ; Mau­r­izio Cat­te­lan’s We are the Revo­lu­tion

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