The challenges of modern art

Exhibit: At the Corcoran, the Broad Collection is a showcase, risks and all.

March 28, 2002|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

What motivates the passionate collector?

That is a question even the experts can't answer completely. Every collector is unique, and people collect artworks for widely varying reasons. But one thing they all have in common is an intense interest in the world around them and a desire to engage it through the objects they collect.

Over the past 25 years, Eli and Edythe L. Broad of Los Angeles have assembled one of the finest collections of contemporary art in the United States. Like most collectors, the Broads were motivated as much by their passionate involvement with people and ideas as by their love of art. The commitment they made to the art of our time reflects their belief that artistic creativity is a vital element of any thriving civic community.

The result of their activities may be seen in a new show at Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art, Jasper Johns to Jeff Koons: Four Decades of Art from the Broad Collections. The exhibit, which runs through June 3, brings together nearly 80 works by such artists as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Cindy Sherman and Cy Twombly.

In an interview for the catalog that accompanies the exhibition, the Broads admit that their interest in contemporary art evolved gradually.

By the late 1960s, Eli's real-estate development business had become successful enough for the couple to purchase significant contemporary works of art, but their first purchases were prints and drawings by such early modernists as Toulouse-Lautrec, Matisse and Braque. By the late 1970s, they had begun buying works by Pop artists Jasper Johns, Warhol, Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg, and in the 1980s their purchases accelerated with acquisitions of Cindy Sherman, Anselm Kiefer, Jeff Koons, Eric Fischl and others.

Sherman occupies a pivotal place in the present exhibition, which is dominated by artworks created since the 1960s. The Broads began collecting her early black-and-white "untitled film stills" in the 1980s, when the artist still was relatively unknown, and continued to buy her large color photographs as her reputation grew. Eventually they owned more than 100 works by this seminal artist, who has been acclaimed as a pioneer of postmodernism.

Sherman's self-posed photographs embody nearly all the important changes that have overtaken the art world during the last 25 years. She was among the first to combine performance art, photography, conceptualism and feminist identity art into a unified body of work that both reflected and criticized the pervasive influence of mass media in American society. In her later work, she extended these ideas to interrogate the representation of women in art history by creating deliberately harsh, ugly pictures mimicking Old Master paintings that challenged traditional notions of beauty and the concept of aesthetic value.

The Broads were fascinated by these developments, though they candidly admit having had to struggle at times to understand them. Their collection became a way for them to come to terms with the rapid social change and revolutionary technological advances that marked the second half of the 20th century, and whose impact still is being felt today.

This is a nervy and thought-provoking exhibit, whose appeal lies as much in Eli and Edythe Broad's adventurous sense of new possibilities and their willingness to take risks -perhaps best exemplified by the giant, one-ton stainless steel poodle they purchased from artist Jeff Koons - as in the challenging nature of the works themselves.

It hardly matters that not every work in the show will turn out to be a masterpiece; in this case, it's the engagement in an artistic journey that matters, and by that standard, the Broad Collection exhibition is well worth the ride - literally and metaphorically.

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