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