Museum got taken for ride in bigger-is-not-better art

ROGER SIMON

April 18, 1993|By ROGER SIMON

WASHINGTON -- The four artists on stage were visibl uncomfortable.

They had produced the four "great" works of art -- "and I use that word carefully," the moderator of the press conference said -- for the new United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

And now they were here to answer questions about their work, something artists rarely enjoy.

Before they speak, however, I would like to interject a personal note. Having gushed over the architecture of the museum last week, let me offer this opinion about the art:

It is dreck. A Yiddish word that can be translated as "crap."

The four pieces of "great" art, each by a highly regarded artist, are perfect examples of what I loathe:

Giant pieces of corporate art that litter the plazas and lobbies of buildings all over America and are supposed to say: "Hey, ain't I grand?"

So let us review them in order of grandiosity:

Outside, on the museum's west plaza, there is a 25-foot-9-inch pile of bronze girders.

I thought it was supposed to be a twisted swastika, but that would have made too much sense. ("How literal!" I can hear the art critics sneering. "What a Philistine!")

But when I took my first tour of the museum, my guide said it was "a mother bending over a child."

L Then I found a pamphlet describing it as a "fractured tree."

Below it and about 25 yards away, there is a 9-foot-tall, squarish piece of bronze that may be an upended house.

But let's hear what the artist, Joel Shapiro, says about his work.

"It is about the loss of possibility and the possibility of overcoming loss," he said.

Thank you, Joel!

Now, let's move on to the next-largest piece, in which the Holocaust museum snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

As one enters the museum, one sees in the Hall of Witness a large, black granite wall. The architect of the building, James Ingo Freed, wrote in an article: "The Hall is ended by a deliberately cracked wall -- symbol of the rupture of civilization during the Holocaust."

I would have liked that. We all could have understood that. It would have been symbolic and metaphorical, just like the architecture of the museum itself. But the idea was scrapped, and the wall was never cracked.

Instead, artist Richard Serra placed in front of the wall at an angle a 10-inch-thick, 30-ton piece of steel plate measuring 12 feet by 12 feet.

Before the press conference began, we were told that we could ask questions of the artists only by writing them down in advance and that the questions had to be "friendly."

So somebody wrote out a question asking Serra what he had done to the surface of the steel plate, which, to me, was a cleverly "friendly" way of asking what Serra had done other than buying a piece of steel and plunking it down.

"Nothing has been done to the plate," Serra replied. "I take them right out of the mill. I take the steel as I get it."

Thank you, Richard!

Now, perhaps the most audacious piece of art in the museum: In a white-walled room, Ellsworth Kelly has placed a white triangle and three white rectangles.

But perhaps he would like to describe his work in more detail?

"I can't describe it," he said.

Why three rectangles? somebody asked in writing.

"I'm not sure," he said.

Thank you, Ellsworth!

The least awful piece is by Sol LeWitt and is made up of large squares of color in combinations of red, yellow, blue, gray and black "which have been rubbed directly onto the wall, layer upon layer, using cotton rags" according to a press release.

But what is it supposed to represent about the Holocaust?

"There is no symbolism to it," the artist said.

Thank you, Sol!

If, by the way, you think these artists donated their work, think again.

An official at the museum informed me that the museum paid $1 million for the four pieces of art. I could not get a breakdown, however, because "one artist might get angry that another artist got more."

Angry? I think these four guys are probably giggling with joy.

But maybe they ought to forget about future press conferences.

Sometimes it's better just to take the money and run.

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