Los Angeles

“Beyond Geometry”

I have no doubt that Lynn Zelevansky’s “Beyond Geometry” began as a labor of love, because blurred but still visible in the midst of this desultory extravaganza there is a smaller, more original exhibition trying to get out. This embedded exhibition examines the cosmopolitan flowering of geometric abstract art in the years following World War II. It expands the canonical framework and “de-Americanizes” the art history of that period. It could have done more. If its curator had not been so anxious to rush forward into the comfort zone of post-Minimal tedium, that smaller exhibition might have traced the cultural transformation of this postwar geometric idiom from an international language of advanced art into the folk art of technological capitalism. It might even have tapped the sources of this idiom in the demimondes of postwar Paris during its last great expatriate moment. It might have situated this new practice amid the stunning array of artists, writers, and musicians from Latin America, North Africa, Southern Europe, Central Europe, and the United States who lived and worked in Paris at this time.

That would have been a gift. The late-blooming Parisian demimonde populated by Jesús Rafael Soto, Julio Cortázar, Eduardo Chillida, Albert Camus, and Ellsworth Kelly remains largely unexamined to this day, and by missing the opportunity it creates to chronicle this moment, “Beyond Geometry” distorts the context of the art it exhibits. It overlooks the fact that geometric abstraction after the war is always more Parisian than anything else, and that in Latin America and Central Europe the idiom was always more international than regional, more imperial than proto-postcolonial. When I was a kid, we called this kind of painting “Denise René–Art,” after the Parisian dealer who exhibited a lot of it, and the fact that Geometric Abstraction was flowering in Paris just as Paris was fading as a cultural center goes a long way toward explaining its subsequent neglect.

These caveats notwithstanding, however, “Beyond Geometry” does show us a lot of art from the period, and the memorable art outweighs the forgettable. The relevant art outweighs the irrelevant—although not by much, and only because a little good outweighs a lot of bad in these situations. There is also ample, if scattered, evidence of curatorial refinement in the selection and arrangement of the almost two hundred pieces included. There are wonderful, rarely seen artworks that deserve the new attention they are given, and there are serendipitous gifts of staging and association throughout the galleries. The sweet juxtaposition of Kelly’s Painting for a White Wall (EK54), 1952, John McLaughlin’s Untitled, 1953, and four small, luminous gouaches by Hélio Oiticica, 1957–58, need only be seen to justify the entire exhibition. The suave bouquet of Brazilian Neo-concrete paintings from the ’50s and ’60s, redolent with prescient hip-hop cool, is more than sufficient unto itself. The paintings of Blinky Palermo and Richard Paul Lohse are given new life in this noisy context, and the gracious but improbable neighborhood of “white-ish” paintings by Agnes Martin, Robert Irwin, Roman Opalka, Bridget Riley, and Robert Ryman must certainly qualify as the first and last time these disparate but covertly harmonious objects will hang together.

For these occasions alone, “Beyond Geometry” is worth visiting. Unfortunately—mysteriously even—these lucid, lyrical moments alternate with egregious dead zones devoted to failed experiments, historical curiosities, conceptual travesties, and peripheral constituencies unnecessarily acknowledged. Moreover—and even more mysteriously—Zelevansky clearly feels defensive and a little apologetic about the genuine virtues and small epiphanies that her exhibition does provide. In her catalogue essay she sternly reminds us that “in abstract languages false cognates abound” and that “works that look alike may well be conceptually unrelated”—as if her interest in such conceptual dissonance were somehow naughty or unseemly. Since false cognates and instances of false cognition constitute the virtual engine of style change in Western art, this seems a bit obdurate. More personally, the frisson of pleasure that I experienced seeing McLaughlin, Kelly, and Oiticica juxtaposed—seeing Opalka, Martin, Irwin, Riley, and Ryman in close contiguity—derives absolutely from the interplay of false cognates, from occasions in which physical harmony is wedded with conceptual dissonance.

Among the louche and permissive, this sort of experience is called fun, and Zelevansky’s prim caveat seems to suggest that we should abandon such tawdry pleasures, stop gawking at the centerfold, and start reading the articles. This discredits the raison d’être of art exhibitions generally, of course, and it certainly undermines “Beyond Geometry.” By ignoring the first principle of curatorial organization—that an exhibition is either about how it looks or what it means—“Beyond Geometry” tries to do both with a bipolar bricolage of graceful false cognates and visually dissonant “true cognates.” The false cognates always win. They are always more interesting, visually and intellectually. Moreover, since artists working in the same conceptual idiom usually distinguish their works visually, the visual dissonance between such objects is profoundly unsurprising and, after the third similar concept, their conceptual similarity is just boring.

The kindest construction I can put on the wildly erratic content of this exhibition is that, at some point, a civilized, specific curatorial agenda was steamrolled into pâté by outsize historical ambitions. Or, perhaps, the exhibition was expanded to fit the space. Or perhaps the curators opted for the work available to them. In any case, the end result is a sprawling, labyrinthine mess—an art history in the manner of Tristram Shandy that, rather than addressing works of art by artists, purports to examine “the role of radically simplified form and systematic strategies” in Western art after World War II. The “West,” in this case, is defined as the “post-cold-war West.” It includes Central Europe and Latin America but not Africa. The purported selection criteria of “simplified form” and “systematic strategies,” as Christopher Knight has pointed out, is not really the selection criteria at all. The actual logic of selection is defined negatively. Any art made between 1940 and 1980 that is not figurative, not expressionist, not narrative, and not too “Greenbergian” qualifies.

On the evidence at hand, these criteria are at once too exclusive and not exclusive enough. The seemingly inadvertent, or at least offhand, fatwa against Greenbergian abstraction is the most self-defeating, since the inclusion of works by Kenneth Noland, Larry Poons, Larry Zox, Anthony Caro, and Mary Heilmann would have almost certainly, illuminated the historical landscape more accurately—and classed it up as well. (Tony and David Smith are included, of course, because they couldn’t not be.) The prohibition against figuration, expression, and narration, however, does not prohibit nearly enough, especially when you remember that ninety percent of Western art since fifth-century Athens may be said to manifest “simplified form and systematic strategies.”

As a consequence, figurative and expressionist painting is excluded from this exhibition while everything else made between 1940 and 1980 makes the cut: Concrete art, Neo-concrete art, Neo-Plastic art, Kinetic art, Op art, American Minimal and post-Minimal art, New York Conceptual art, LA Abstract Classicism, Light and Space and Fetish Finish art, word art, book art, performance art, sound art, video art, Photoconceptual art, Earth art and any selection or combination of these “arts” given other names. In order to traverse this epic briar patch, “Beyond Geometry” proposes an improbable historical teleology that moves, post hoc, ergo propter hoc, from Max Bill, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Tomás Maldonado in the ’40s to Victor Vasarely, Soto, and Oiticica in the ’50s to Donald Judd, Bridget Riley, and Ed Ruscha in the ’60s to Mel Bochner, Joel Shapiro, and Bernd and Hilla Becher in the ’70s! Two bridges too far at least.

The truth, of course, is that this sort of shaggy-dog “history of ideas” may go anywhere it wants. With premises this loose, one might argue that Brazilian Neoconcrete painting is prefigured by Raphael’s harmonic intervals and Friedrich Froebel’s nineteenth-century “geometric” kindergarten. That would be easier than arguing that these ebullient Brazilians somehow prefigure Philip Glass, Eleanor Antin, and the Bechers. Fantastic transmigration like this cannot be effected without shifting the terms of the argument from decade to decade, so, of course, “Beyond Geometry” does. The exhibition is broken into six acts, and thanks to six catalogue essayists who dance around the nonexistent subject like fashion photographers around the naked emperor, the theoretical setting changes between each act. Sadly, it all begins happily enough with the embedded exhibition, a perfectly competent sketch of postwar Geometric Abstraction in the West, and quickly goes crazy, lurching into a sequence of increasingly elusive and nonlinear subcategories: “The Object and the Body,” “Light and Movement,” “Repetition and Seriality,” “The Object Redefined,” “The Problem of Painting.” You get the idea.

Even so, as wonky as this progression is, the resulting hodgepodge would not be worth complaining about if it were a local phenomenon. It is not. It is an epidemic critical pathology in this moment. It derives, I suspect, from recent curatorial efforts to create a new narrative of twentieth-century art now that the century’s over—a smooth history that bridges its stylistic chasms and paradigm shifts, that replaces its dialectic with teleology, that rationalizes the aporias that separate 1959 from 1962, 1968 from 1971, and so on. In their efforts to achieve this smooth post-Marxist master narrative, curators now strive to reintellectualize a tradition that has been intellectual from Jump Street. They gloss over the high degree of generational autonomy this chronology manifests. They begin, invariably, with a practice they deem to be “intellectual,” then presume that any subsequent evidence of “intellectual” activity derives from their base and may be taken as evidence of its “historical consequence.”

In Los Angeles this spring, we had the guarded pleasure of witnessing simultaneous instances of this smoothing logic at work: in MoCA’s “A Minimal Future: Art as Object 1958–1968” and LACMA’s “Beyond Geometry.” In neither exhibition was the putative subject sufficient to the curator’s ambition. Minimalist art? Oh, stop it! Geometric Abstraction? Who cares? We are striving after “History!” We must go smoothly beyond geometry! We must imagine a minimalist future! Unfortunately, to imagine this future/beyond, we must overlook the deeply fractured, irrevocably intellectual history of Western art itself. We must confound intellectual endeavors with conceptual constructs and tease ourselves into believing that plastic geometry looks forward to conceptual seriality, that literal objects prefigure disembodied narratives. Most critically, in both these cases, we must argue for the historical importance of rigorous, impersonal works of art whose very topicality derives from their lack of resonance in this neo-Victorian moment of business-class fairy tales, naughty moral pictures, tribal doodads, and maudlin personal testimony. It is easier, I think, just to admit that the repressed returns and be happy with that.

Curated by Lynn Zelevansky, “Beyond Geometry” closed at LACMA on October 3 before traveling to the Miami Art Museum, November 18, 2004–May 1, 2005.

Dave Hickey is an art critic based in Los Angeles.