PRINT December 1997

Lisa Liebmann

1 Platée (The Royal Opera at the Barbican Theatre, London): Mark Morris directed and choreographed Rameau’s rarely performed, rococo delight—a fête galante set to music, concerning a soulfully vain and froglike naiad wronged by Roman gods. Dancer-members of the Morris Group seemed at times to be singing their steps, while the singers moved with intelligence, humor, and verve. The costumes, by Isaac Mizrahi, were expressive and friendly rather than, say, Beatonesque. With sheer enthusiasm and a few ribald turns, Mizrahi warmed up a rather low-rent set, and, most important, unbuttoned the characters, whether the barflies of the prologue, set in a saloon out of Reginald Marsh, or the other kind of marsh denizens in the drama proper, or Jupiter and Junon, those mundane and feckless deities, who turned up dressed like a pair of yacht club arrivistes. The players all prevailed. But the evening belonged to Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, the improbably seductive Frenchman in the amphibiously female title role: never has so green and pendulous a diva loved and lost so trillingly.

2 Sol LeWitt (Ace Gallery, New York): Almost unbelievably, this installation of large wall paintings by the master of abstract tectonics was as spectacularly great as his show, in this same space a couple of years ago, of enormous cinderblock structures. These majestic designs, occupying six of the gallery’s cavernous bays, were visually engulfing to the point of emotional overload and yet—as always—incorruptibly matter-of-fact. A Cheshire smile did seem to linger over a few of these big easies: insouciant riffs on such highbrow hits as Reinhardt’s introspective squares, Kelly’s taut-physique curves, and Warhol’s glamorous, diamond-dusted black surfaces.

3 Matthew Barney, Cremaster 5 Why I wept, I dunno, but Cremaster 5 really shivered my timbers. Maybe it had to do with the sight of Ursula Andress—all forehead, hair ornaments, and ruche, like a natural-born Barney—as a kind of tragic, mock-Tudor queen. Or with the weird fusion of Mozartian bonheur, Mahlerian douleur, Wagnerian tempi, and old Peking-opera glitz that informs the production as a whole and Jonathan Beplers’ grand, dissonant score in particular. Or with the body-pathos leitmotivs involving feet (in chopines, for example, or spherical and soft), skin (moulting and amphibious—a bit like Platée, come to think of it), anuses (the tufting of a throne!), and of course balls (sheathed, undescended, emergent, even tethered to pigeons). Or with the fab Budapest locations—the Opera House, the Gellert Baths, an icy Danube under a spooky Chain Bridge—that frame Barney’s big themes and magnificent images with the oomph they demand.

4 Edgar Degas (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York): Both empathetic and predatory vis-à-vis his subjects, Degas was also an avid hunter of other artists’ work—Ingres was the oedipal obsession, Manet the infernal-fraternal rival—and regarded his trophies (including some of his own best pictures) as a museum-in-the-making. Dispersed at auction after his death in 1917 and now seen en masse again, “The Private Collection of Edgar Degas” is a blockbuster for cognoscenti, and a once-in-a-lifetime event.

5 Sigmar Polke (Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der BRD, Bonn): Sigmar the Great—caustic, charming, prescient, and ecstatically prolific—has triumphed in yet another retrospective. He pretty much organized this one himself, in collaboration with writer-curator Martin Hentschel, whom he picked. The result was big, bold, and uncluttered—no wee notepad sketches, no ephemera—and unfurled like a lordly elephant trunk, spraying us with energy, ideas, and germs of beauty.

6 William Kentridge (Documenta X, Kassel): History of the Main Complaint is a short animated film—drawn as if in a cold sweat, in the best Expressionist tradition—about a white, middle-aged South African businessman who commits a highway hit-and-run and is subsequently injured in a crash himself. By means of an X-ray examination of what turns out to be the patient’s unconscious, we get to see his life flash before us in combustive shards. Succinct and absolutely electrifying, the artist seems destined to do even greater things—including the set for an upcoming Brussels production of Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno di Ulisse in Patria.

7 The Portrait of a Lady (dir. by Jane Campion): I have never seen a period film in which the evolving costumes and hairdos of the heroine do so much to illuminate character and situation. Rarely have I been more thoroughly surprised by a performance than by Nicole Kidman’s white-hot, stately turn in the title role.

8 Douglas Gordon (Sculpture Projects in Münster): Located in a particularly dreary pedestrian underpass (“Purgatory,” according to the artist), Between Darkness & Light (after William Blake) comprised a large, centrally positioned screen onto which a set of Hollywood flicks—The Exorcist and The Song of Bernadette—were simultaneously projected from either side. The resulting palimpsest of images and dialogue was hypnotic, funny, and profound by turn: a treatise trouvée on the metaphysical nature of cinema, not to mention girls good and bad.

9 Gillian Wearing (Royal Academy, London; Jay Gorney, New York): A video—in the currently popular semidocumentary, talking-head mode—in which adults, both ordinary and unusual-looking, seem to utter personal revelations in voices that actually belong to children. The artifice rings poignant and true.

10 Gaetano Pesce (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lille): If Rem Koolhaas’ multifunctional building complex helped put Lille on the Chunnel-zone commercial map, the renovation of the nineteenth-century Musée des Beaux-Arts could position the city between Bilbao, say, and Mönchengladbach, along the pilgrimage route for devotees of architecture and art. The building looks grand and the collection (particularly the nineteenth-century stuff) is fun, but two gargantuan, colored-glass chandeliers in the main lobby by the inexhaustibly original Pesce—outrageous, filipendulous affairs that extend some twenty feet across, nearly touching our heads, and whose bumpily pregnant forms evoke cornucopias, piñatas, and Santa’s bag of presents—proclaim a nouvelle belle époque for this old mercantile town.

Lisa Liebmann writes about art, fashion, theater, film, and literature for various publications, including Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, and Interview. She is a life long resident of New York.