PRINT December 2000

Robert Rosenblum


1 Jeff Koons, Puppy One of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World blossomed this summer in New York, usurping for the time being the sacred site of Rockefeller Center’s Christmas tree. A joy for all, save those who prohibit smiling in the presence of art, it united the Great Sphinx at Giza with Disney-style topiary, while adding the chromatic and textural delights of burgeoning marigolds and petunias to the monumentality of an archaic idol. With one giant step, Koons defined a new public sculpture that brings pleasure to city dwellers.

2 Frelinghuysen Morris House & Studio (Lenox, MA) Opened to the public in 1998, this private Wonder of the Modern World today looks like a time capsule left by the buried civilization of modernism. Wafting us to a ’30s Shangri-la, the hideaway was the dream child of the aristocratic couple Suzy Frelinghuysen and George L.K. Morris. While their own paintings kneel at the Cubist shrines of Picasso and Gris, at times enlarged to mural size, the house and studio, marvels of International Style purism transported to the Berkshires, bow to Le Corbusier. The period nostalgia is overwhelming. Fred and Ginger might still be dancing here.

3 “The American Century: Art & Culture 1900-2000” (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York) There was plenty of nostalgia, too, in the two-part BC/AD epic curated by Barbara Haskell (1900-50) and Lisa Phillips (1950-2000). It’s easy to complain about any effort to present cultural history as popular spectacle, but this one blinded many ungenerous viewers to the fascinating variety of trees in the museum’s son et lumiére forest, where even such wonders as movies by Thomas Edison and Carolee Schneemann could be found. I relished not only seeing the usual suspects, from Sargent to Sherman, but discovering in this huge mix of high and low, mountains and foothills, endless surprises by the lesser likes of Gertrude Käsebier, Winold Reiss, and Jay DeFeo. Sometimes more is more.

4 Jules Olitski (Ameringer/Howard Fine Art, New York) Back in the ’60s, Greenberg anointed Olitski the spearhead of truth and beauty, and only ten years ago declared him to be the greatest living painter. By now, such blessings sound like curses, but the show of the artist’s latest work gives one pause. If hardly the savior of Western civilization, Olitski is now eccentric and remote enough to leave a pleasant, lingering aftertaste. The once thin stains of Color Field’s early heyday have evolved into a memorably fruity chaos of pigment, like a mixture of saltwater taffy and the Book of Genesis. Whatever they are, I find these paintings, at once high serious and kitschy, hard to forget.

5 Bridget Riley (Dia Center for the Arts, Pace Wildenstein, New York) Riley, another ’60s taste swept under the carpet of relevance, suddenly seems fresher than ever. Now the latest and the earliest of her canvases look like scintillating classics, redefining visual pleasure as something as sharp-edged as steel blades and as sensuous as undulant candy stripes. She offers the shock of the old and the new. Can Yaacov Agam and Victor Vasarely be far behind?

6 Philip Taaffe (Institute Valenciano de Arte Moderno, Valencia) Actually, it was Taaffe who, by culling and recycling Riley’s oscillations on equal terms with Newman’s and Still’s no less remote abstract epics, first made me suspect that her work might again be alive and well. The Valencia retrospective, perfectly installed in the noble spaces of IVAM’s Centre del Carme, was also testimony to painting as high-class pleasure and, unexpectedly for such extremes of refinement, a politically correct tribute to multiculturalism. Within these gorgeous patterns, Taaffe has woven everything from Japanese sword guards and Ethiopian churches to Moroccan embroidery and Danish grillwork.

7 Vanessa Beecroft (Deitch Projects, New York) Beecroft’s latest pageant combined memories of Busby Berkeley, Duane Hanson, and the real and virtually real navy on the U.S.S. Intrepid, whose officers and enlisted men and women, docking on the Hudson, mingled and dined with guests. Coagula’s house ethicist, Charlie Finch, asked in a howling poetic protest a la Allen Ginsberg whether we’re not monsters to be aestheticizing a branch of the military so tainted by the legacy of Vietnam. Still, to borrow from Harold Arlen, “I love a postmodern parade.”

8André Raffray (Achim Moeller Fine Art, New York) I can hardly believe it was only this year that I learned about Raffray’s mind- and eye-boggling contributions to “art about art,” especially since he’s been at it since the ’70s. For me, he now looms large as a venerable French magician who has added dazzling tricks to the metaphysical sleights of hand of such artist-counterfeiters as de Chirico and Bidlo. For example, he photographs sites painted by Seurat, Cézanne, and Picasso as they exist today, then ups the ante by re-creating these camera facts with hand-painted oil on canvas. Even Pirandello might be nonplussed by the results.

9 Walter Robinson’s Yard Sale Facing eviction and a move to much smaller quarters, painter and writer Robinson notified art-world friends that his abundant estate was up for modest bids. Amid the domestic confusion was strewn a Robinson retrospective that, from the vantage point of 2000, kept jaws dropping. There, years ahead of today’s young and famous, was a prodigious profusion of overlooked canvases—spin paintings, True Romance illustrations, pharmaceuticals, kiddie toys, you name it. An unsung prophet.

10 Julian Schnabel, Before Night Falls At last, the screen brings to life the raw, documentary facts of Castro’s Cuba, transforming what for most of us is a political abstraction into flesh and tears, dance halls and prisons. With a human sweep that parallels Bruno Dumont’s equally awesome L’Humanite (1999), Schnabel’s grand epic tells the true story of Reinaldo Arenas, a gay, counter-revolutionary poet who escaped to New York and then, smitten with AIDS, committed suicide. As enacted by Javier Bardem, this desperate tale of life and love in the shadow of dictatorship and death is the stuff not only of contemporary news but of universal myth.

Robert Rosenblum, a contributing editor of Artforum, is professor of fine art at New York University and a curator at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.