Confusion of the '60s finds certainty in its artwork

November 24, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

Art reflects its time, they say -- and whoever they are, they're right.

As evidence, visit the Baltimore Museum of Art's recently opened show of drawings from the 1960s. It was a decade that produced strange interfacings and interlacings of sincerity and cynicism, illusion and reality. As the decade of Vietnam wore on, it was hard to tell what was illusion and what was reality. Those who opposed the war and those who supported it did so with a blend of sincerity for their own cause and cynicism about the opposition.

In art, the emotional commitment of abstract expressionism gave way to the deadpan mockery of pop. And the questions pop asked about the nature of art made it seem at times that the idea of art's high purpose was a total illusion.

Certain comparisons that jump to mind in a tour of "Drawings of the 1960s" reflect these aspects. There are, for instance, the straightforward, representational "Landscape" by Isabel Quintanilla and Jean Dubuffet's identically titled "Landscape," an abstract drawing whose thousands of pen and ink strokes are much more about mark-making than they are about landscape. Most of us would say that the Quintanilla drawing looks much more like a "real" landscape than the Dubuffet, but what do we mean by real? It's the Quintanilla drawing that contains the illusions of space and light and atmosphere, while in the Dubuffet we see the marks for what they really are -- marks.

Sharing a corner are Claes Oldenburg's "Proposed Colossal Monument for Grand Army Plaza, New York: Baked Potato" and Jasper Johns' "Study According to What," two works that have something in common superficially but could not be more different in spirit.

Both artists relate themselves to pop by picturing everyday objects: Oldenburg a potato and Johns a spoon and a coat hanger. But Oldenburg indulges in the pop artists' mockery toward earlier art; he thumbs his nose at traditional monumental art by proposing to make a monument out of a potato, and draws it in a gestural style that pokes fun at the pretentious seriousness of the abstract expressionists. Johns, on the other hand, achieves a balance between abstraction and figuration that respects them both.

If Johns comes off as the sincere artist here and Oldenburg as the cynic, the mockery of the latter is gentle and never nasty. For a single work that shows the viewer his own cynicism with devastating sincerity, we have R. B. Kitaj's "Little Suicide Picture." A figure lies on the ground while a handsomely dressed skater glides by looking the other way. Not only doesn't the skater care about the suicide, neither do we, for our eyes are drawn to the elegant figure in the center of the picture and not the simple little guy on the ground.

ART REVIEW

What:"Drawings of the 1960s from the Thomas E. Benesch Memorial Collection"

Where:Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; through Jan. 30

Admission: $5.50 adults, $3.50 seniors and students, $1.50 ages 7-18

Call:(410) 396-7100

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