Sunday, September 10

14 things that caught my eye at the Hirshhorn

A couple of weeks ago I was in Washington D.C. for the afternoon so I went to the Hirshhorn Museum for a brief visit. What follows is a list of works that caught my eye. They are from two and a half exhibits at the museum. One is an exhibit of work in the permanent collection assembled by the museum. Another is the exhibit Ways of Seeing: John Baldessari Explores the Collection. This is an exhibit of works selected by Baldessari from the Hirshhorn's collection. The "half" exhibit is a small selection of works by Baldessari that include texts that explain, in the artist's words, what his intentions were. These texts, it seems, were taken from an interview with Baldessari conducted by the Hirshhorn curator Kristen Hileman. This is a list of works that, based on first impressions, appealed to me. I don't necessarily know what these works are about and several of the artists I'm completely unfamiliar with. Nonetheless, I find this sort of list, which is in part an outline of the current shape of what attracts me, intriguing.

Many of these works or other works by these artists can be found by searching the Hirshhorn collection. This is one of a few interesting resources on the Hirshhorn website. The page of podcast interviews is another (I linked to those above in my comment about the Baldessari interview).

1. Hyman Bloom, Apparition of Danger, 1951. This is in the exhibit Ways of Seeing: John Baldessari Explores the Collection not Collection on View. A Richard Diebenkorn painting is hanging adjacent to it. At this moment I very much wish I could go back and look at it in this context. This is an interesting exhibit because, I would argue, it is an esthete's selection from this particular collection. As conceptual as Baldessari's own work is, this sort of project (apparently not his first) demonstrates (not that it is any surprise to me) that Baldessari does have something of a traditional esthete's interest in art. In other words, there were no obvious Fred Wilson-style socio-political shocks or surprises. However, that said, Baldessari, does seem to tease this art world expectation in a selection that I would argue alludes directly to Wilson's Mining the Museum, 1992. In the foyer, outside of the main gallery where this show hangs, he's included one of Philip Guston's KKK hoody paintings, Daydreams, 1971. This work is also prominently featured on both the Hirshhorn web page about the exhibit and the accompanying printed pamphlet. It is something of a clever bait and switch. But, I would also argue that, like Fred Wilson, Baldessari is selecting things from the permanent collection that are possibly being overlooked. And that even though his aim may not be socio-political in Wilson's fashion (which is a perspective that itself could be described as an early to mid-90s fashion) he does, like Wilson, call attention to how selective our collective memory can be. Baldessari , though, operates on the level of taste and thus in terms of aesthetics.

2. Jack Youngerman, September White, 1967. This work is also in Baldessari's exhibit. This huge painting, which looks more like a figure to me than anything else, could be based on a silhouette of Bob Dylan. Whether it is or not it makes me think of Dylan and his bushy hair. In fact, that famous Milton Glaser poster of Bob Dylan comes to my mind. I'm not actually convinced that what I am looking at in Youngerman's painting is necessarily supposed to be a human figure. Stylistically this work relates more to Ellsworth Kelley's work than Glaser's poster. But, despite the similarity, the forms are too different for this painting to be mistaken for a Kelley.

3. Emily Kaufman, Girl on Fainting Couch, 1975. This is also in the Baldessari curated exhibit. It is a representational sculpture of a girl sinking into a fainting couch. When I first saw the work I thought that the term "fainting couch" was an instance of poetry by the artist but, having Googled the term, I have since discovered that it is a widely used term for exactly the type of Victorian couch depicted in the work. I can't help but wonder about this sculpture's relationship to miniature porcelain figurines. It looks to me like an enlargement of this type of object (which of course brings Jeff Koons to mind) -- but bleached of its color. The girl represented in the work brings Manet's Olympia to mind. However, this figure does not confront our gaze but, rather, perhaps since she is unconscious, invites it. There is something about this work that makes me think of Rococo (because it is like a porcelain figure?), but its muted (because it is monochrome in color?) which again, for me, links it on some level to Koons’s work. In my opinion Koons project is the invention of a contemporary version of the Rococo style. There is an odd erotic overtone to Kaufman's work.

4. Anish Kapoor, At the Hub of Things, 1987. This too (the last one my list) is in the show curated by Baldessari. I'm fascinated by what I have seen of Kapoor's work. It often seems to challenge our sight, to throw it into doubt. We are provoked to supplement this sudden inadequacy of our sight by a groping kind of touch. We must test our vision, our ability to see. At the Hub of Things is one half of a (literally) powder blue bisected egg. When I saw it in the museum the bisected face looked solid and flat but definitely not concave. It was incredibly black and I found it impossible to focus on its surface. It seemed to absorb all the light that touched it. But when I found a photograph of the sculpture on the Hirshhorn site it looked hollowed out a bit, somewhat concave. And furthermore, it looked as if it was the same powdery blue as the body of the object. Does Kapoor explore an area where Minimalism and Op Art overlap? When I saw the show A Minimal Future at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, I was struck by what many of the works did with the light striking them. They often created interesting reflections or shadows around their perimeters.

5. John Baldessari, Cremation Project, Corpus Wafers (with Text, Recipe, Documentation), 1970. This is a hilarious project. I've read more than once about how around 1970 Baldessari destroyed all of his paintings up to that point, clearing the ground for the work we came to know him for. In fact, in the current issue of Frieze (September 2006) Robert Storr mentions it yet again. But what is usually left out is the fact that Baldessari turned this act, which itself seems like a bit of a cliché (in the tortured, passionate artist vein), into a completely absurd, ritualistic art project that culminates with him baking cookies with the cremated remains of his work. A jar of these "corpus wafers" is on display and Baldessari, in the statement included here, says that the viewer is meant, in this case, to be an eater -- of his cookies and in turn his work (which is itself a representation of his body). Baldessari's obviously riffing here on both the concept of a "body of work" and the Catholic rituals involving transubstantiation and the Eucharist. It is both hilarious and strange. The whole thing is done with that same deadpan tone that characterizes most of Baldessari's work. I would love to see slides of the work he destroyed. Did he destroy those too?

6. Patrick Henry Bruce, Still Life: Transverse Beams, 1928-32. I came across Bruce’s work when I recently read Barbara Rose's American Art Since 1900 and it left an impression on me. She reproduces in that book Still Life (1928-30). The Hirshhorn has a couple of very similar paintings in their collection. In her book Rose writes that Bruce studied under Matisse, “worked under” Delauney (from 1912 to 1914), gave up painting because of indifference to his work in 1932 and then killed himself in 1936. This painting must have been one of his last.

7. Nadia Khodassiaritch-Leger, Suprematism: White Square and Movement of Forms, 1924, revised 1970. There were three (somewhat similar) Suprematist-style works displayed together here. I know nothing about this artist. I'm not sure if I've ever even come across her name. I assume she was married to Leger. Her work here looks nothing like his. It does, as one would expect with such titles, owe something big to Malevich's but it looks a bit different. The palette is far more "Soviet" than Malevich's. I would love to know the story behind these works. And I'm completely intrigued that she revised them some forty plus years later.

8. Louis Lozowick, Machine Ornament #2, 1927. Where does this work fit? Somewhere between Francis Picabia (especially something like Ici, c’est Stieglitz, 1915) and Morton Schamberg’s work on the one hand and (especially in terms of the year it was made) Charles Scheeler. This would, it seems to me, be more an instance of Precisionism than Dada. And again, like Nadia Khodassiaritch-Léger, I know absolutely nothing about this artist. The work is semi-abstract and it is based on some sort of machine. The machine-figure is rendered with black ink on paper. I found some other examples of this artist's other work in the Hirshhorn collection, paintings, and based on those I would have to say he must have been a part of the Precisionist group.

9. Josef Albers, Bent Black (B), 1940. This work intrigues me because it looks nothing like what we generally know of Albers. There is a definite resemblance to his later work but this painting is concerned with some very different formal issues. For one thing it is black and white. And for another, it toys with dimensional illusionism. It seems to owe something to early 20th Century Russian art but, at the same time, it seems different.

10. Sergio Camargo, Column, 1967-68.

11. Leon Polk Smith, Black-White Duet with Red, 1953. In comparison to the reproduction on thre Hirshhorn site this work is hung in the museum rotated 90 degrees counter-clockwise. So, if this is a duet, the question is, who is leading? What is foreground and what is background?

12. Alma Thomas, Sky Light, 1973. Unfortunately there is no reproduction of this work on the Hirshhorn site. I did notice that the Hirshhorn has eight paintings by this artist in its collection. Thomas was born in Columbus, Georgia in 1891. This work seems to me to make an assertion about what links Robert Ryman’s work with Impressionist painting. But who is this artist? The earliest works by her in the Hirshhorn collection are from 1952 and 1958 when she was 61 and 66 (or so). She was 81 (or so) when she painted the work I've included here. Sky Light does not look like an outsider work to me and if it is one, interestingly, it is not presented as one.

13. Nam June Paik, Video Flag, 1985-96. I actually find that I don't typically like Paik's work. I tend to be annoyed by the fact that it seems to dwell more on the television unit itself, which is a kind of frame, than what I take to be the actual medium of television, the signal passing through the damn box. Yes, the signal does depend on the box (or some such similar device) and it is easy to ignore this. But the thing is this: I find televisions, the physical unit, to be a rather dull, utilitarian form. And much of what Paik does with this unit just seems plain goofy. Is Paik's preoccupation with the box itself at all analogous to Greenberg's preoccupation with the support in painting?

14. Giacomo Balla, Futurist Flowers, 1918-25, reconstructed 1968. I may be more attracted to this work than any other on this list (this and Patrick Henry Bruce's painting). Some of these "flowers" look more like explosions than literal flowers and others look like ornaments. They do not look like the work by Balla I am familiar with, paintings such as Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash (Leash on Motion), 1912. They also do not look particularly Futurist in style to me (even though an explosion might be, arguably, a part of the Futurist iconography). There is, nonetheless, something Cubist about these forms. They, in terms of their planar structure or architectonics, seem connected to Archipenko's Medrano II relief sculpture or Naum Gabo's First Construction Head, 1915. These flowers look like something that has some serious design product potential as the sort of Modernist gewgaw one might find at the MOMA design store but, even so, I still like 'em a bunch.


Anonymous said...

I remember reading a couple years ago that Louis Lozowick visited Russia in the 1920s or 1930s. I'm not sure exactly when, but the trip happened when Constructivism was still happening and before Social Realism was deemed the official and only style of art. Thus he was the only American artist who incorporated these ideas into his art.

Precisionism, it has been said, was America's first modern art movement.

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