By John D. Delmar
So, while the Metropolitan Museum of Art opens
three blockbuster shows at once - Thomas Eakins (see The
City Review article), The Lure of the Exotic Gauguin in New
York Collections, and European Paintings from Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen
(see The City Review article) - and the
Museum of Modern Art opens a whole new museum, the Guggenheim
opens - what looks like an attic tag sale: "Stuff We Had
Sitting Around In Storage." Well, it is not really titled
that. It is called "Moving Pictures" and covers videos,
films, photography and other "things" the Guggenheim
has acquired or been given recently.
It's an assortment of styles, media, formats,
and ideological slants - art you might expect to find at any recent
international art expo or fair, from Kassel to Miami. Much of
this work is similar to pieces currently or recently on exhibit
in Chelsea or 57th Street (where I first encountered several of
these works). Here are the ubiquitous large-format color photographs,
the fuzzy videos, the politically correct polemics, but, as one
spirals down (or up) Frank Lloyd Wright's vertiginous ramp, one
discovers many thoughtful pieces and works of value.
There are over fifty contemporary artists represented
by 150 works, from Marina Abramovic to Kara Walker to Robert Smithson.
Like a balanced political ticket, there's something for everybody.
The explanation of the aesthetic criteria used by the curators
sounds at times like Prof. Irwin Corey on peyote: obtuse and windy
explanations of "visible conceptual systems" and "ephemeral
or performative events" (aren't all events "ephemeral"?).
This becomes the rationale for linking works as diverse as Nam
June Paik's video installations with Vito Acconci's performance
documentation with Rineke Dijkstra's large photos of sullen teens.
Paik's "TV Garden" (1974) is placed
off to one side of the rotunda, lost up against a wall. When I
first encountered "TV Garden" (as part of one of Charlotte
Mooreman's Avant Guarde Festivals, I believe), it was installed
as an entire room of plants with television sets growing out of
lush foliage - video as organic (and contrasted with nature).
One crossed the video jungle on a bridge surrounded by the sprouting
video screens. The current installation, unfortunately, loses
the point. (Paik is also currently represented in a large outdoor
installation at 30 Rockefeller Plaza entitled "Transmissions,"
the car rather than the television type, through September 2,
More successful is Kara Walker's "Insurrection!
(Our Tools Were Rudimentary, Yet We Pressed On)" (2000).
Walker is given an entire room for her installation, a vision
of "Gone With The Wind" gone terribly wrong. Walker
takes negative black stereotypes - Mammies and racist images from
the antebellum South - and allows them revenge on their patronizing
masters. So Rhett and Ashley and Scarlett are beheaded, tortured,
molested and cut to pieces as the slaves get the upper hand in
a Nat Turneresque revolt. The life-size black paper silhouettes
are pasted on walls, while projections of flames and destruction
display the fall of Tara. As the viewer walks into the room, his
or her shadow is also projected onto the walls, becoming a part
of the picture (and, perhaps, part of the problem). Walker has
a similar-themed work at the new Queens MOMA, but MOMA hasn't
afforded her enough space, thus transforming the installation
into background wallpaper.
The Guggenheim provides a handy corner for
one installation, where the quirky architecture actually contributes
to the work. One of Wright's niches makes a perfect setting for
a small seated sculpture onto which is projected a film of Laurie
Anderson (see The City Review article),
perhaps the only artist displayed here who also was once number
two on the British pop charts (and who just gave a live music
and narration performance at the Lincoln Center for the Performing
Arts). In the work, "At The Shrink's" (1975), the spikey-haired
Ms. Anderson looks like a very little person narrating a story
about illusion and perspective, presumably to her psychiatrist,
who, of course, becomes us. While a tad gimmicky, the piece is
Ana Mendieta, Vito Acconci and Marina Abramovic
are primarily concerned with photographic documentation of performance
art. Many of these works make one feel "Well, I guess you
had to be there to appreciate the joke." Abromovic's work,
while often derivative of works by Yoko Ono and Chris Burden,
is represented by one thoughtful piece in which the artist traded
roles, briefly, with a prostitute. The artist posing as hooker,
and hooker as artist, raise questions on the nature of identity
and reality, and feminist questions on the narrow roles available
Among other photographers represented are Cindy
Sherman and Robert Mapplethorpe, both of whom have been over-exposed
and have launched thousands of less-talented imitators. One of
Sherman's iconic, mysterious film stills is on display, as well
as one of her large-format color pictures, "Untitled # 264."
The large-format pictures, which often use garish color and horrific
images, show that bigger is not necessarily better. Mapplethorpe
has three of his well-known images, including the stark portraits
of "Ken Moody and Robert Sherman" (1984), looking like
chiseled Roman busts. Thankfully, Mapplethorpe's more graphic
S & M photos (which Mapplethorpe said stood for Sex and Magic)
are not included.
Mapplethorpe's powerful black and white photos
also contrast with the large-format color photos by Andreas Gursky,
Anna Gaskell and Rineke Dijkstra. Gursky, given a much-hyped one
man show at MOMA recently, is represented by two fairly pedestrian
pictures, "Library" (1999) and "Singapore Stock
Exchange" (1997). Like most of Gursky's photographs, both
these works are digitally altered. However, they are still not
particularly interesting images. Dijkstra seems to specialize
in larger-than-life images of children with quizical or bored
expressions, as in "Coney Island, N.Y. USA, July 9, l993,"
but I think Diane Arbus created much more compelling images of
similar subject matter, and her pictures did not need to be six-foot
Peter Fischli and David Weiss display many
double-exposed images of flowers, apparently trying, like Jeff
Koons, to show the "sheer banality of everyday existence"
- and succeed admirably. Hiroshi Sugimoto, who takes photos of
wax figures, and Gabriel Orozco, who photographs objects that
resemble other objects, raise the question asked frequently in
this show - what is real and do photographs lie?
At the top of the ramp, the Guggenheim has
installed a mini-plex to display videos and films. Many of these
were projected to better effect when first presented in other
galleries, particularly the mysterious and haunting works of Shirin
Neshat. I first saw one of Neshat's work at the Whitney at Philip
Morris - in a dark room, suddenly I was surrounded by what appeared
to be pious Iranians in a mosque, chanting and wailing. Some of
the mystery is lost in the projection of Neshat's "Passage"
(2001), which has stark religious imagery, the saga of death and
burial in the desert, a story that needs no dialogue. Pierre Huyghe
is represented by an amusing video, "Third Memory,"
which is a bit like looking into a fun-house mirror, as a protagonist
of a real-life event depicted in a fictionalized movie deconstructs
the reality of the movie by reconstructing the real event. Got
Despite a very large and comprehensive show,
there are a few of the usual suspects missing. In fact, one could
create an entirely different show around the same themes with
a whole different crew: where are Sherrie Levine and Richard Prince
(expropriation), Andres Serrano (large format C-prints), David
Levinthal, Michal Rovner, Doug and Mike Starn, Catherine Wagner,
Chris Burden, and so on? Well, some are currently on view at the
Whitney, in a show of recently acquired photography (on view through
September 22, 2002). As for blurry videos and lots of hugh C-prints,
try any gallery in Chelsea.