PRINT December 1997

Arthur C. Danto

1 Ellsworth Kelly (Guggenheim Museum, New York): Stepping from the final spiral into the museum’s topmost gallery was like walking into an aviary of brilliant birds. The paintings, liberated from the austere constraints of the notorious ramp, sported with one another in nonlinear dispositions up and down the high walls. All at once a dimension of Kelly’s oeuvre opened up—a lightness, a frolic—undetectable when the paintings are seen one at a time or shown lockstep along gallery walls. One felt that there is almost no point to encountering one Kelly alone: in a flock of at least half a dozen, they can chatter with one another rather than moon in monochrome silence about pure painting. So the show revealed the internal limits of Wright’s building as a venue for paintings by liberating the works to communicate, free from the helical tyranny.

2 Jasper Johns (Museum of Modern Art, New York): One senses in Johns’ paintings and sculptures a subjectivity stubbornly concealed. The most recent work in his admirable retrospective, just because of its tentativeness, allowed moods and preoccupations to flash, before being closed within the fortress of paint Johns ultimately interposes between the public and a self suspicious of being understood. Every painter paints himself, but the interest of Johns’ work lies in the tension between secrecy and parsimonious disclosure.

3 Robert Rauschenberg (Guggenheim Museum, New York): In contrast to Johns, one feels that nothing occurs to Rauschenberg without simultaneous translation into art, so that thought and action are of a piece, whether muddled or clear. The retrospective as a whole expressed the spirit of certain of the artist’s visionary attempts to make works that contained everything, like a photograph of the whole country inch by inch. Or the biggest print in the world. Or a messy work two furlongs long. Or a worldwide art-making project, involving everyone. The exhibition evidenced a creativity almost priapic in its urgency and in its indifference to limits, offering us more than we could hope to deal with—though I would not have wanted less.

4 Arakawa/Gins (Guggenheim Soho, New York): After seeing “Reversible Destiny,” I was awed by the transition Arakawa/Gins have made into a kind of utopian architecture, and by the streak of practicality with which they have managed to get some of their projects erected. Whether they are right that architecture holds the solution to the problem of death is something we can rationally doubt. Still, overcoming death is the theme of all religions, most particularly Christianity, and hence most art. What, after all, is Piero’s Resurrection about? In this respect their buildings connect with a fundamental reason for art, but the pair’s secularity insists on real rather than merely represented solutions. It’s rare to find art that is subject to empirical disconfirmation.

5 Leon Polk Smith (Jason McCoy, New York): This show was Smith’s unintended valedictory, for he died, at ninety-two, shortly after the work came down. The recent paintings extended and even refined upon the hard-edged abstraction he credited himself with having invented. And they had a clarity, an energy, an originality, and a beauty that transcended their historical moment as well as the asperities of Smith’s personality.

6 Mark Tansey (Curt Marcus Gallery, New York): Those who saw Tansey’s new work as “one-liners” have one-dimensional minds. One no more “gets” them than one “gets” Kant. Meditations on space, time, and the limits of (pictorial) representation, they sparkle with visual wit, invention, and dexterity. If Las Meninas is indeed “the theology of painting,” Tansey’s work is painting’s philosophy.

7 Robert Mangold (PaceWildenstein, New York): The scale and beauty of the four variations on geometrical and chromatic themes gave one a sense of privilege to be surrounded by this quartet of deceptively similar large paintings, before they get separated and taken off to various collections. Beneath the beauty, but inherent to their power, are truths about color, shape, physicality, and image that lodge in the mind behind the memory of the paintings’ magic.

8 Andres Serrano (Paula Cooper Gallery, New York): “A History of Sex” was roundly hated by critics. Too bad: appropriating the format of old-master paintings—Baroque, Rococo, and Romantic—as vehicles for illuminating the airless inward space of sexual fantasy was profound and stunning. The images were hard to take but astonishing, like the one of a man having intercourse with a female dwarf: the eye tried and failed to fuse her handsome head with the disproportionately tiny lifted legs. Nor was there anything prurient about the work, save in laying bare the secret toxic Sodom and Gomorrah suppressed in the sexual imagination.

9 William King (Terry Dintenfass, New York): Comedy is underappreciated in contemporary art, in part because the distinction between the comic and the merely laughable has become blurred. It is, however, robust in King’s brilliant and witty sculptures, which confirm a thesis of Hegel’s, that “comic action requires a solution almost more stringent than a tragic action does.” Had one of Giacometti’s attenuated figures been placed among King’s tall, skinny, almost Modernist bodies, it would no longer suggest existential gloom but an unsuspected lightness.

10 Nan Goldin (Whitney Museum, New York): The spirit of comedy is present by its almost total absence in Goldin’s dark images, which nonetheless contain some of the contradictions of true comedy. What I especially admired in her retrospective is the way she records, with full seriousness and affection, the ambitions of those with souls as fragile as paper, and vests futile, marginal persons with the attributes of tragic heroes and heroines. Goldin clearly identifies with the sexually confused, the hopeful stoned, the love searchers, the disease-doomed figures of a contemporary netherworld, whose habitat is squalid rooms featuring soiled sheets, peeling walls, filthy floors. But any antecedent sense we might have of superiority is dissolved as if holding ourselves in aloof judgment of Goldin’s characters is an act of inhibition, if not cowardice.

Arthur C. Danto is Johnsonian Professor Emeritus at Columbia University and art critic for The Nation. His most recent book is After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History (Princeton University Press, 1997).