The distorted face of beauty: In the late 20th century, a Hirshhorn Museum exhibition suggests, beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder.


October 17, 1999|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

The poet John Keats wrote that beauty and truth are two aspects of the same thing, that to know one is to know the other. But if the art of our time is to be truthful, how can it be beautiful too, given the terrible events this century has witnessed?

The century started out by declaring war on beauty, or at least the notion that beauty was necessary for a definition of art. As the painter Barnett Newman declared in 1948, "the impulse of modern art is the desire to destroy beauty."

The misadventures of beauty in the 20th century -- its early exile by the avant garde and its shy reappearance as the millennium approaches -- serve as backdrop for an endlessly intriguing show at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington titled, aptly enough, "Regarding Beauty."

This is a large group show that fills most of the second floor of the museum and contains nearly 90 works by 36 contemporary artists whose ideas helped shape the art of the last 40 years.

It opens with an installation by Paolini and Jannis Kounellis that re-creates a doorway whose opening is blocked by fragmented reproductions of Greek and Roman statues.

The meaning of the piece is implied by the open door, which leads to the art of the future. But no one can pass through that door without negotiating the heavy weight of the past.

That past is evoked in quite a different way by Cindy Sherman's quirky, self-posed color photographs that rework 17th-century Old Master paintings by Caravaggio and others.

In the same section, Yasumasa Morimuras updates Manet's 19th-century picture "Olympia" by casting himself in drag as both the legendary beauty and her maid.

Sherman and Morimuras' staged photographs, made deliberately ugly by the poses and costuming, mock the classical concept of beauty by draining famously beautiful pictures of the very quality for which they are best known.

In the next gallery, the show presents some contemporary interpretations of the nude, a form traditionally associated with the ideal of beauty.

Yet the 20th-century nudes here are angular and unlovely. A reclining figure Picasso painted in the 1960s, and Willem de Kooning's brutally distorted woman from the same period, stubbornly refuse to conform to classical ideals.

Picasso and de Kooning were less interested in the body's physical appearance than in the complex emotional and psychological interplay that produces character and personality -- inner beauty, if you will.

Yet both men achieved their most shocking distortions while painting the women they loved most, their wives and mistresses.

Elsewhere in the gallery, Lucian Freud's hideous male and female butterballs and Marlene Dumas' monumental portraits of newborn infants seem less interpreted than transcribed with a deadpan acceptance of nature's embarrassments.

There is a section on beauty based on mass-media images that includes Andy Warhol's pop art pictures of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, and an oddly out-of-focus painting of Playboy bunnies by Sigmar Polke. Photographer Mariko Mori also weighs in with one of her signature high-tech heroines modeled after comic book characters.

But it is the second half of the show that argues most vigorously for the idea that beauty is not dead in contemporary art.

Vija Celmins' amazing paintings and drawings of the ocean and the sky at night are rendered in such patient and meticulous detail one can only wonder at the artist's technique. Yet the works have a magical, hypnotic power that makes them deeply rewarding to look at.

Photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto's serene seascapes, taken at different times of the day or night in several locations around the globe, share this wordless approach to the sublime, a quality the eye needs no tutoring to recognize as beautiful.

One of the most truly wonderful pieces in the show is James Turrell's "Milk Run," an installation that the viewer enters through a light-proof corridor. The corridor leads to a darkened chamber that glows a deep crimson from lights reflected and refracted by a projector at the front of the chamber.

Turrell's piece, like a lot of contemporary art, is designed to produce an intensely personal experience unique to each viewer. Alas, that also makes it difficult to describe in words. Suffice it to say most people will come away from the experience feeling as if a potent yet inviting mystery had been revealed.

Artists and philosophers have always debated the nature of beauty. Is beauty a quality inherent in objects themselves, or does it exist solely in the mind of the beholder? Is it governed by rational rules that can be codified, or does it spring from unconscious, unclassifiable intuitions and emotions?

The Greek philosophers were the first to establish beauty as a tangible, definable characteristic of art. For the Greek artist, beauty was associated with the values of order, balance and harmony.

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