Los Angeles

“Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Images”

Suzi Gablik, author of a key English-language study of René Magritte, noted that the Belgian master was a “son of boredom.” Possessed of “an almost constitutional dislike of painting, . . . he makes use of objects which have the appearance of paintings.” Instead of exploring his boredom, his tender antipathy, the curators of this show—in which the artist’s oeuvre is juxtaposed with a variety of contemporary selections—have opted instead to reify his commercial popularity, allowing the sweet smell of success to waft as the omnipresent odor of the lowest common denominator.

The price of admission to the show is steep, a not unsalient com- mercial fact about an exhibition whose crass installation, spearheaded by Michael Govan, curated by Stephanie Barron, and designed by John Baldessari, requires museum guards to wear bowler hats. Capitalizing on Magritte’s sign of the artist-as-everyman/businessman, the institution also makes hats available for sale in a gift shop housed within the exhibition space itself. Baldessari had the museum floors carpeted with wall-to-wall Magritte-y blue skies and clouds, covered the ceiling with pictures of looping Los Angeles freeways, and scrimmed one window with an image of the Manhattan skyline, design choices made even more awful by other decisions simultaneously frustrating and bizarre. Magritte’s painting The Red Model, 1937, for example, is displayed as a “full-scale” unaccredited photograph because its loan could not be secured for the exhibit’s entire run. Fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli, whose scent “pour l’homme élégant,” Snuff, is bottled in a pipe-shaped crystal flask, goes unacknowledged as an artist, even though her pipe is displayed in the same vitrine with Sherrie Levine’s Une Pipe (A Pipe), 2001, and regardless of the fact that both are contextualized by an exhibit in which an artist by design almost overwhelmed art. I’m not sure whether to chalk all of this up to an astounding mistranslation of Ceci n’est pas un pipe or an abandonment of criticality; either way, it’s depressing given Magritte’s inspiring demonstrations of the differences within the representation’s repetitions—that a painting of a pipe isn’t a pipe but is only, as Michel Foucault noted, “the least of the ambiguities.”

Limning Magritte’s “lasting and pervasive artistic influence” is the curators’ stated aim, but influence is a tricky, even treacherous, affair: Is an artwork that announces its indebtedness or homage necessarily more indebted than one that doesn’t? Some of the questions the curators never examine are nonetheless posed by many of the artworks themselves. What is demonstrated about influence’s constantly scrambling multivalence, for example, if Levine with her pipe negotiates, paradoxically, Duchamp “more than” Magritte, despite her patent and/or apparent appropriation of his iconic imagery?

But whatever its aporia and failings, this show still manages to wow. Whether Magritte’s madcap The Cut-Glass Bath, 1946, with its giraffe wedged into a water goblet, or his proleptically Sean Landers–like The Ellipsis, 1948, in which a natty Gumby-type worries about his shotgun schnoz, both look fresh and unlikely. Jasper Johns, from whose own collection of Magrittes many choice selections were borrowed, nods to Magritte’s Scheherazade, 1950, to Jack Smith, and to his own ambiguous past in Montez Singing, 1989–90, in which painted boards are unnailed from a window or closet to reveal a landscape in the guise of a face. Two selections from Douglas Huebler’s late, enthralling “Crocodile Tears” project, 1971–1997, hilarious and strange, call out for a much needed retrospective of that artist’s work. The art, despite the slavish installation, reminds one of how Gablik stressed Magritte’s elusiveness rather than his success when she wrote: “Bizarre . . . anxious . . . and rarely satisfied with himself, he looks more impulsively at the stars than at the price of candles.”

Bruce Hainley