The Contemporary Museum opening exhibit evokes human absence and alienation in a revealing statement about art and our modern world

Isolation Chamber

September 25, 1999|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

The Contemporary Museum opens its season today with a new show in a new venue, both of which mark the museum's evolution from a traveling road show to a permanent institution with its own building.

The new show, "Impact: Revealing Sources for Contemporary Art," is a thoughtful essay on the question of what is art. The new space, at 100 W. Centre St., houses a 3,300-square-foot exhibition space with white walls and high ceilings that would be the envy of any SoHo gallery in New York.

It's an impressive setting for the nearly 50 works of art by 27 internationally renowned artists, chosen for the broad influence they have exerted on the contemporary art scene. Big names include Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Joseph Beuys, Eva Hess, Louise Bourgeois, Gerhard Richter, Vito Acconci, Anselm Keifer and Bruce Nauman.

For years the Contemporary was a maverick institution with no permanent collection or location. Its programs consisted of two shows a year put on in such venues as abandoned bus depots or vacant shopping malls.

The museum's current show reiterates a problem that nearly all its previous shows also have addressed: In the late 20th century, what is art and what is its relationship to the culture that produced it?

For many people, the art of the present is either a mystery or a joke. After more than a decade in which new art has made the news only after some public official has denounced this or that work as indecent, it's no wonder people simply tune out.

New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani's threat on Wednesday to cut off city funding to the Brooklyn Museum of Art because he was offended by an exhibition of British contemporary art is only the latest example of this disconnect between art and the public.

Yet contemporary art is as much a mirror of our times as are our politics and entertainment. If we don't like what we see, perhaps the fault lies not with the artist but with the world in which we all find ourselves.

Two works in the present show, one by Andy Warhol, the other by Joseph Beuys, set the terms by which artists today represent a world that seems sadly awry.

Warhol became famous for his reworking of images from popular culture, like "Jacqueline Kennedy 1," a stark, black-and-white silkscreen portrait of the former first lady.

The image combines the two sides of Warhol's artistic personality, both the mawkish sentimentality of his obsession with celebrity, and the cold, impersonal technique he employed in his imitations of mass-produced media images.

It was the latter quality, the detached sensibility and the machine-made appearance of his images, that made Warhol's work seem at once revolutionary and completely devoid of human feeling.

The German artist Joseph Beuys believed life was infinitely more important than art (he was once fired from a teaching post for refusing to discuss such matters as composition and form with students).

For Beuys, art was merely a by-product, or residue, so to speak, of lived experience. That attitude is embodied in his "First Class Grilled Fishbones," which consists of the boxed and mounted remains of a smoked herring Beuys once ate as a performance artist.

In both Warhol and Beuys, the strategy seems to be to drain the artwork of all those elements -- uniqueness, formal ingenuity, the individual mark of the creative hand or eye -- that previous ages considered essential.

This is the approach taken in one form or another by nearly all the artists in this show.

For example, John Cage, the composer-cum-artist whose theories emphasized the role of chance and happenstance, is represented by two works created by letting smoke rising from an open flame imprint random patterns on paper.

Rebecca Horn, whose installations are based on quirky mechanical contraptions, makes marks with an automatic drawing machine that crushes sticks of graphite against a wall and scatters the dust over a large goose egg below.

The theme of impersonal, mechanical process is elaborated in quite a different way in Vito Acconci's "Fluorescent Sofa Modules," with its highly polished aluminum surfaces and faintly menacing aura of high-voltage electricity.

Is this piece of furniture for a living room or for death row?

In all of these works, the human presence is suggested rather than represented literally. The artworks operate by evoking the residue of a human presence that is conspicuously absent.

The critic Clement Greenberg theorized that modern art must engage in a continual process of self "purification" by dispensing with everything extraneous to its own materials and processes. Contemporary art is an extension of this idea taken to its logical extreme.

An art nearly emptied of human presence may in fact accurately reflect a contemporary world of individual alienation and repeated humanitarian disasters. Yet by evoking absence, these works also force the viewer to reconsider humanity and its meaning, perhaps in ways more conducive to happiness in an uncertain world.

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