Art: Wednesday, August 13, 2003
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Permanent Waves

What’s on view at the Modern now is significant, but could be more ... fun.

By ANTHONY MARIANI

Selections from the Permanent Collection, now on display at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, seems to revolve around one crazy, wonderful piece of “edgy” contemporary art in the international style: Across the smallish tv screen where Hiraki Sawa’s black-and-white video installation plays, toy-like jet airliners of all different sizes fly lazily around inside in Spartan living quarters. In one scene, the crack of a slightly opened door spits out and ingests planes, their engines humming gently. In another scene, a single jet takes off from the flat surface of a dry, white bathtub. Like all good video art, “Dwelling” hints at the conceptual in a by-the-way way and is fun to watch, its nuances building into what the mind could read as a narrative, though no actual narrative exists. The pacing is like that of a classic Hollywood film — the video spends one long minute on one scene before moving on to the next. The camera fixates on a certain part of the interior space, like the bathtub or a bathroom sink, while the planes patiently follow their smooth trajectories across it. This seeming lethargy gives the video a somber, reassuring, euthanasia-like quality. A simple meditation on peacefulness, “Dwelling” is an open Tiffany’s box with nothing of material value inside — but everyone wants to see inside nonetheless. At the museum one day recently, viewing “Dwelling” was nearly impossible for all the people crowded around the set.

Apart from this and a few other pieces, the show from the permanent collection that’s on display through the end of the month is pretty much a nice, relaxed walk through the park — immensely rewarding but quietly, subtly repetitive enough to make even a studious art lover feel as if he’s viewing the same few works on a loop.

Still, there’s no denying Michael Auping’s brilliant eye. The Modern’s chief curator could spot a good-looking painting from a mile away. From what’s on display, Auping must get a kick out of circling the edges of A-list artists’ “important” works and picking out the gems no other curator or collector ever noticed before. (All the big names are here — Kiefer, Richter, Celmins, Judd, Flavin, de Kooning, Pollock, Motherwell, Serrano, Rothko, Kline, Lichtenstein, etc.) What we find then when we walk into the Modern today is mostly glorious modern and contemporary art and occasionally “edgy” work, with little variation in between. You’d be forgiven for confusing a Diebenkorn with a Guston, even though one usually works on small canvases and the other on large. And local artist Brian Fridge’s wall-sized video installation is adventurous enough, but it’s so beautiful in the traditional sense — with shiny silver liquid swirling in circles or being sucked into what amounts to a black hole — that it qualifies as just another classic Ab-Ex painting.

The Modern team’s goal on moving into Tadao Ando’s concrete-and-glass box this past December was essentially to knock everyone’s socks off. The mere thought of being able to adorn an incredible space with equally stunning contemporary and modern art was the height of Big Time museum philosophy, coming on the heels of Santiago Calatrava’s Milwaukee Art Museum and Herzog & de Meuron’s Tate Modern in London. But what good is a strong, art-friendly exhibition space if you can’t spice it up a little?

Among the few avant garde or “edgy” works on display, there’s some wonderful imagery. What piqued this viewer’s curiosity is the fact that most of the “interesting” stuff was purchased or acquired over the past couple of years.

Having an entire exhibition space to himself upstairs, Sean Scully proves that self-imposed limitations don’t always result in stultifying, stubborn work. His palette is simple — oranges, blues, reds, and the occasional yellow or aqua. And his canvas is even simpler — two or three huge canvases stacked on top of one another. The only movement comes in the form of free-hand lines; I thought “nautical flags” the first time I saw his work here. Unlike other minimalists, Scully bowls you over with his sense of color and ability to harness wonderful color combinations in such massive statements. His catholic approach to giganticism is refreshing.

Across the way, Carl Andre’s “Slit” fades into the dark floors of the museum. The work is made up of dark square steel plates, laid out neatly in a vertical strip on the floor. A long, thin piece of copper splits the piece down the middle. While I was at the Modern spending time with this particular piece, a few people walked right by, unsure whether it was art or ... something else (a construction job gone awry, perhaps). Since the piece is situated in its own narrow private space between exhibition areas, it’s there for the primary purpose of confusing viewers. Tip of the hat to Auping for this little coup.

Downstairs, there’s one hell of an entrance, albeit a conservative one. To your right, Robert Motherwell’s huge, black-on-white “Stephen’s Iron Crown” greets you — it’s a calligraphic masterstroke in an ambiguous language. Once you step past it, you’re in front of Francis Bacon’s “Self-Portrait.” A tower of an artist, Bacon made a mountain of a career traveling in darkness. “Self-Portrait” is gloomy, monotonous, and baffling. The man he renders here in oil appears to be sitting on the edge of a couch or bed. His face is grotesque, his soiled suit tattered. There’s absolutely nothing remotely decorative about this strong, haunting piece. What you’ll likely take away from “Self-Portrait” is a fresh outlook on your own self-loathing — nobody’s as ugly as Francis Bacon.

Selections from the Permanent Collection is smart but conservative — or is it really conservative? Maybe it’s just plain good and maybe my vision is distorted, having read too much about Young British Artists and their sharks in formaldehyde and giant heads? I hate to admit this, but looking at this type of contemporary-conceptual YBA crap is a challenge I enjoy once in awhile. I think most people feel the same way, even if they don’t realize it. I think the Modern does, too; it just doesn’t know it yet. Yet.


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