PRINT April 1981

The Hirshhorn: Danger, Curves Ahead

NAVIGATING THROUGH THE “DIRECTIONS” show at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., I had the sense of a good news/bad news joke. The good news is that curator Miranda McClintic had the guts to organize different concerns parading under the rubrics of post-modernism, pluralism, plagiarism, etc. “Artistry,” “Myth and Metaphor” and “Social Observation” are the three parts into which she divided contemporary art. The bad news is that the art didn’t fit its pigeonholes very snugly; art that, for me, is positively formalist, appeared in “Social Observation,” while pieces that seem incontestably metaphorical were classified under “Artistry.” But of all the current new-talent exhibitions, “Directions” was the least unruly.

How new are new art’s directions? “Artistry” (or art for art’s sake) goes back at least as far as the 19th century. Maurice Denis, whom McClintic cites in the exhibition catalogue (which suspiciously resembles a corporation’s annual report) saw a painting as “essentially a plane surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order,” and in our century, Arshile Gorky admired Stuart Davis because the latter understood a painting as something that wasn’t supposed to represent either holes punctured through it or protruberances emerging from it. “Myth and Metaphor” certainly are as old as the hills in which pictographs were painted and petroglyphs carved. “Social Observation” is a form of art plied by Hogarth and Courbet and hundreds in between and it’s reasonable to assume that as long as there’s been art there’s been social conscience. I suspect that McClintic quite consciously wants to prove that new directions are actually just trips along the beaten path, or, as Marie Antoinette’s milliner, one Rose Bertin, once quipped, “The only thing that’s new is what’s been forgotten.”

While I do appreciate McClintic’s effort to make her choice of work more accessible to the uninitiated, her categorizing does a serious disservice to the work. Judy Pfaff’s installation, Formula Atlantic, listed under “Artistry,” very obviously alludes to the experience of being underwater, to subaqueous flora and fauna—which surely makes it metaphorical. And so on.

Misfiling art at least gives the viewer a curatorial strategy to respond to. As far as taste goes, “Directions,” like the Guggenheim’s “19 Americans,” is wildly uneven. The inconsistency of the esthetic in both shows can only be blamed on that old devil “pluralism.” McClintic and Peter Frank (curator of the Guggenheim show) must have thought that to represent what’s going on in contemporary art they had to include a little realism, a little earth art, a smidgin of narrative installation, some formalist sculpture—in short, chop suey. But even if you’re going for a hybrid, gemixte selection, that’s no reason to include canned Chung King.

This isn’t to discount totally McClintic’s decisions: Conrad Atkinson, William Beckman, James Byrne, Vernon Fisher, Debora Hunter, Judy Pfaff, Ulrich Rückriem and Michelle Stuart are hardly mediocre; but these artists constitute only half the show, and the tepid counterweighs what’s hot in “Directions.”

There must be a better way to classify the works represented in “Directions.” I personally, would quarter the offerings into these subgenres: Modern Traditionalists, Earthworkers, Realists and Narrators.

Modern Traditionalists:
Rosemarie Castoro’s 7 x 3 = 21 (which McClintic mysteriously classifies as “Social Observation”) is an amusing, anthropomorphic lineup, in ascending order of height, of 21 black-painted lengths of sheet steel crumpled so they can stand up. The crumplings have a “reforming formalism” attitude—Castoro takes a flat sheet of steel and gives it dimension. But it’s an old-fangled, let’s-take-2-D-and-make-it-occupy-3-D sleight-of-hand that both George Sugarman and Jack Youngerman do far better.

Alain Kirili’s forged-iron artifacts, which emphasize the plinth that support them, have a mystico-esthetic base that Kirili calls “post-Puritanism” (meaning heterogenous means rather than homogenous; it’s post-minimalism by another name). But these graceful sculptural groupings (which McClintic lists under “Artistry”) have nothing on the works of Julio Gonzalez, on the new Anthony Caros or on the diminutive, domestic-scale sculptures that Beverly Pepper has been making of late.

Judy Pfaff, the woman of the next 15 minutes, (and also in the “Artistry” group) makes painterly environments with a panache and muscle that’s unparalleled in contemporary artmaking. What’s clear from the Pfaff piece in “Directions” (ditto her Whitney Biennial installation) is that her work has more effect when it’s set up in a corridor, where the route through it is cued, than in a bravura room-scale installation, where the path is less well indicated. Swimming through Formula Atlantic is museum-scuba, a phenomenological experience of underwater sights, lights and color.

Thomas Rose (assigned by McClintic to “Myth and Metaphor”) is dealing with the unlikely fusion of virtual and illusionistic space. He is a neo-Constructivist, apparently much affected by the Guggenheim’s “Planar Dimension” exhibit of 1979, whose assemblages—wood, canvas, wire mesh and other media freely mixed—come out from the canvas like actual stairways. His work is a compendium of painting and sculpture tropes, ranging from Duchamp’s Three Standard Stoppages to Jasper John’s “Targets.”

I have no complaints about McClintic’s placement of Jerry Zeniuk in the “Artistry” category. He is the token pure, formalist painter, whose oils look like bronze in the process of oxidizing—looking at them is like watching rust spread. But where’s the drama? Zeniuk’s painted himself into a corner, not unlike Jules Olitski has done—though Olitski carries it off with more bravado.

There’s more than one way to split a stone, and no trio can demonstrate this better than Lita Albuquerque, Ulrich Rückriem and Michelle Stuart. Of the three, Albuquerque’s work, always so resonant in the color photographs I’ve seen that document her outdoor projects, looked awkward inside the museum. It is as though a Museum of Natural History diorama got waylaid en route to the Smithsonian Institution (or maybe to a Robert Smithsonian homage?). McClintic (who classified the work as “Myth and Metaphor”) makes the point that Albuquerque’s projects can best be seen aerially, “from the vantage point of a plane.” True—interior constraints of the museum don’t allow Albuquerque’s installation to breathe.

Rückriem, whose work has never particularly excited me before, looked eloquent and direct in this context (it was shown as part of the “Artistry” grouping.). Two split bluestones, both from 1979, were arranged in configurations that suggested an approximation of the Golden Section: in the first, two rectangles bordered four squares; in the second, a pyramid was trisected. Imposing unnatural order on natural phenomena, is an eloquent metaphor for the function of art that McClintic classifies narrowly, as “Artistry.”

Michelle Stuart’s elegant earth-hangings (put in the “Myth and Metaphor” category)—dirt “veneers” pulverized and ground into the surface of handmade paper—record the geological composition of actual sites (dark rock from Moray Hill, say, or bone-colored rock from Mesa Verde). Stone/Tool Morphology, a photograph/ground-rock “quilt” of images, complements the rock scrolls, contrasting the panoramas of the actual sites, with the dirt and fossilized objects found there. Stuart’s an archaeologist and preservationist, representing on-site experience with the empiricism of a documentarian and the transformational magic of a poet.

How can McClintic classify William Beckman, a Realist who handles pastels like an angel, under “Artistry”? Beckman’s thundering clouds have a density and menace rivaling that of Turner and Constable. From far away, you’d think Beckman’s pastels were Cibachrome prints—that’s how intense his colors are. Beckman’s landscapes are the cloudy side of Rückriem’s orderliness—where Rückriem imposes a system on nature, Beckman yields to the caprice of weather. Everybody talks about the weather, but few can paint it like Beckman.

James Byrne, likewise under “Artistry,” also has an extraordinary feel for landscape. Phase is a one channel, four-monitor video loop installation. Four monitors are positioned at right angles and clamped together, dangling from the ceiling by a cable in the configuration of a swastika. As in a kiddie-kaleidoscope, the image produced by a camera moving through a building and its surrounding landscape is shown in quadruple. This is sculpture and video.

Debora Hunter is a realist more interested in people than landscapes. While her autobiographical self-portrait triptychs (combining snapshots of the artist as a child exhibitionist with a bare-breasted photo of the artist today) can be written off as art-school art (and certainly out of place in McClintic’s “Social Observation” category), the “Hospice Series” has more resonance. Patients are slumped in exhaustion on exercycles, staring at the photographer, (reflected in a surgical mirror) looking up from their beds with sly smiles on their faces as though they know something we couldn’t possibly. Hunter does not sentimentalize their terminal conditions, nor does she turn these patients into characters out of an Arbus grotesquerie. These subjects are otherworldly, occupying some extra-terrestrial realm about which their portraitist makes no value judgment.

Jeff Wall, also a realist/photographer, makes huge Cibachrome transparencies, mounted in luminous, backlit frames. The images in the two pieces he showed at the Hirshhorn were bisected down the middle, the whole picture a composite of two butted transparencies. Picture for Women is a portrait of the artist (Wall himself) as objectifier of woman; he is shown taking a photograph of a T-shirted young woman who is standing at a table. Her pose is reminiscent of the woman in Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, while the suture dividing the butted images of photographer and model bisects the center of the camera lens. The photograph itself is of a reflection in a mirror, as the model herself is a reflection of the artist’s desires. Weirdly, McClintic categorizes this monumental photograph (and a second, The Destroyed Room) as an example of “Artistry” when it obviously is a structural analysis of the act of image-making.

Conrad Atkinson, Vernon Fisher, Grover Mouton and Earl Staley are storytellers whose concerns range from editorializing on political and social struggles to constructing personal allegories. All appear to be well aware that every picture tells a story, but also that every picture has a different moral.

Atkinson, who’s the most politically engaged, and is included here under “Social Observation,” is a formalist storyteller. He has arranged on the wall filecards with statistics and newspaper clippings about casualties in the Northern Ireland struggle. He also addresses the issue of occupational hazards in a bulletin-board information-accretion about Asbestos. Atkinson is less interested in an art that transforms experience than an art that records it: he provided information for the un- (or mis-) informed.

Of the installations Vernon Fisher had in each of this year’s three new talent shows, the select ion of his work at the Hirshhorn—where he’s listed as a “Myth and Metaphor ” representative—is the best and most varied. His Whitney and Guggenheim installations are too cramped. Fisher uses diptychs and triptychs, juxtaposing different images in heterogenous accretions. He takes images from pop culture (hand-drawn enlargements of frames from Ernie Bushmiller’s comic strip, Nancy; a painting made from a still in a Tarzan movie), and from various industry sources (the color and grey scales from a photo lab). Like Rose, he deploys both virtual and illusionistic imagery (a real yardstick measures the edge of a laminated canvas), but unlike Rose, many of his paintings have autobiographical narratives “burnt” in with stenciled letters—stories about watching movies, about being attacked by wasps in his studio. Fisher’s work has great presence, but it doesn’t always hold up to close scrutiny. My favorite piece is Desert Malevich IV, a composition in which Fisher’s handpainted desert landscape mingles with Suprematist rectangles and triangles. Malevich’s own words from Nonobjective World are stenciled in. The viewer must “see through” the text to the painting. Usually Fisher’s narratives have no moral. Like nouveaux romans, they have beginnings, middles and ends, but not necessarily in that order. Ambiguity is his stock in trade.

Grover Mouton’s sound installation (under “Social Observation ”), is audio-verité: in a room in which sketches of the Capitol dome are pinned on the walls, speakers play live sounds piped from the dome itself into the museum over telephone cables. What the spectator is supposed to get, I guess, is a sense of displacement: the sounds removed from their context, the words stripped of their original meaning. Regrettably, there’s no punch to Mouton’s untransformed, raw material. The sounds are neither interesting as noise nor do they have a quirky, “Laugh! You’re on candid microphone” appeal. Atkinson and Fisher give some meaning to their raw notes; sadly, Mouton does not. Hearing his installation isn’t the next best thing to being there—even a photograph of the Capitol would be more fun.

McClintic rightly categorizes Earl Staley, a painterly-allegorist with a palette of astringent yellows, violets and greens, in “Myth and Metaphor.” The artist refers to mythical subject matter like The Judgment of Paris, but his four paintings also mix mythical and autobiographical narrative. There’s a diaristic quality to paintings like Staley’s The Studio and The Dance at the Mill (this latter a representation of the Day of the Dead ceremonies in Oaxaca, Mexico), and a concern for quick painting, where the image records experience. I don’t much like this work—the combination of lavender with bile green in Judgment physically ravages me—but the energy in his brushwork makes everything else at the Hirshhorn look positively lethargic.

McClintic’s categories are less “directions ” than starting points. Divisions that considered the “destinations” would have made this a more ambitious show. What are the destinations of the categories I’ve proposed here? Modern/Traditionalists is like a uruboros worm that has to feed itself by consuming its own tail, its destination—the repeated cycle. Earthworkers find generative systems in the actual landscape; their destination: an understanding of where we live in order to know where we are. Realists see the world as reflections of their subjective vision, no matter how objective the means (like photography or video) taken to capture the image; their destination: the artisanal extension of their personalities. Narrators try to give autobiographical shape to the rhythmless flow of events; their destination: straight to their own hearts.

Carrie Rickey a film critic for the Village Voice, frequently contributes to Artforum and other art journals.