New York

“From Brancusi to Bourgeois, aspects of the Guggenheim Collection”

Pairing Constantin Brancusi with Robert Ryman, Wassily Kandinsky with Carl Andre, and Jospeh Beuys with Louise Bourgeois, the inaugural exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum Soho reveals an institution caught between an outdated (but not yet dead) Modernist order and an emergent, more open-ended reconfiguration of its collection. WAC’s (Women’s Action Coalition) vociferous protest over Director Thomas Krens’ original plan to mount an exhibition that would include only male artists polarized critical response. While WAC has positioned itself as the new and improved conscience of the artworld, calling for a more open, flexible, and fluid approach to art, Krens has come to be seen as a savvy and ambitious speculator whose expanded and refurbished museum will do nothing more than provide a facelift for business-as-usual: the perpetuation of a lineage of masterpieces that excludes women and minorities. What this debate fails to account for are the real, if subtle changes within one of New York’s most powerful cultural institutions.

Krens’ unconventional couplings show that the museum is willing to play Scrabble with its permanent collection. Featuring no single masterpiece or artist as much as the museum’s own capacity to replay art history, with variation and improvisation, the exhibition suggests a break from Modernism’s linear self-reflexivity, just as its title promises a remapping of some familiar territory. Yet, rather than aggressively experimenting with the possibilities offered by an open-ended revisioning of recent art history, Krens falls back on a Modernist model, complete with direct lineages and suspicious pedigrees. Kandinsky’s and Brancusi’s pre-war explorations of abstraction are used to legitimate Andre’s and Ryman’s postwar endeavors. These juxtapositions of painting and sculpture are meant to demonstrate that Krens’ controversial Panza purchase makes sense as a compelling argument about recent art history, but neither of these pairings convincingly demonstrates that a continuous line of formal refinement leads from the beginning of the century to its end.

The Kandinsky-Andre installation is disjointed to the point of being incomprehensible. Kandinsky’s lyrical, graphic paintings, from 1909-40, could not share less with Andre’s flat-footed arrangements of rolled-steel and zinc, polished copper, and coiled aluminum. His five pieces from the late ’60s and early ’70s simply record an aggressive, nearly brutish American antipathy toward illusionism. In casting their reflections upon the gallery walls, or literally blocking one’s view of them, Andre’s industrial-strength objects assert that sculpture is at war with its surroundings.

By contrast, the Brancusi-Ryman pairing draws out the subtle richness of works usually recognized for their formal austerity and reductive elegance. Never before have Ryman’s predominantly white paintings looked so warm, dense, or physically engaging. Likewise, Brancusi’s quasi-figurative brass, marble, and wood sculptures have never seemed so weightless: Bird in Space, 1932-1940, has the presence of a razor-thin slice of color. The quietly stunning installation builds on Arata Isozaki’s architecture, using the columns, diffused light, and expanse of white-toned floor boards to create an environment suffused with beauty.

Presumably added in an attempt to rectify the museum’s extremely one-sided, male-dominated exhibition history, the Beuys-Bourgeois installation, both fits into and departs from Krens’ ambitious but inconsistent curatorial project. Unlike the other pairings, this one is based on the conventional practice of presenting thematically related works, and here Krens refrains from linking the present to the past in terms of seminal works and their offspring. It fits in, however, with his willingness to rearrange the permanent collection to reconfigure the cultural significance of canonical works. If Krens abandons his nostalgic fantasy of strict lineages, his approach to curating promises to provide fresh insights while accommodating a diverse range of art.

David Pagel