New York — Triviality, I'm afraid, is triviality, no matter where it is found: on the street, in a comic book -- or in a major museum like the Whitney. I wish I could think of something really positive to say about "Developments in Recent Sculpture," a current exhibition at the Whitney. All I canm say for it is that it should interest anyone personally or professionally involved in the production, display, sale, or evaluation of recent American sculpture -- and that it should be of particular interest to young and ambitious sculptors eager to see what is being given at least limited recognition by such a major museum as the Whitney (and so possibly clue them in on the route they themselves should take).
Beyond that, however, the most I can say is that some of the works are rather handsome -- in a highly stylized and chichi sort of way -- and that a few can safely be described as interesting.
Other than that, most of the pieces on view would cease to exist as art if forced to stand on their own and without the heavy verbal support they now enjoy:
The show itself is wonderfully well intentioned. It was conceived as a means to assess the evolution of form and content in the works of five artists -- all born between 1939 and 1944 -- and thus to gain some insight into various aspects of American post-Minimalist sculpture of the 1970s and early '80s.
Lynda Benglis, Scott Burton, Donna Dennis, John Duff, and Alan Saret came to artistic maturity when Minimalist painting and sculpture held center stage. These artists were unwilling to proceed within Minimalist doctrine, which demanded that art take the simplest possible geometric form, in the most immediate of materials, without specific reference to anything other than itself. Yet they were also unwilling to strike off completely on their own, so they set about creating their individual responses to the Minimalist ideal.
They did so by once again allowing content into their art, permitting sculpture to make references to something outside its purely formal structure.
Thus Scott Burton's work is all about -- in fact is -- furniture, and Donna Dennis's pieces refer to architectural forms. Not in the sense that the first creates furniture for us to use only as furniture, or that the second creates miniature buildings; but each sets up an interior dialogue between our appreciation of pure form and our familiarity with everyday life such as chairs and buildings.
The only problem is that we have to be vitally concernec abuot this ongoing art-historical and formalist dialogue to get the point or to fully appreciate this work. And even then, the issue is so narrow and precious, and the work so casual and minor, that nothing essential is accomplished -- and we leave this show with about the same concern as we would a convention of 13th-century philosophers arguing the question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
The issue here is not understanding that these artists are trying to do. (Why is it that artists assume that if we understand their work we will automatically like it?) Nor whether they are dynamically up to date or vitally aware of what theoretically constitutes art for the 1980s. The issue is whether they are any good -- and whether they leave the viewer with anything of significance. In both cases my response is more negative than positive -- although less so in the case of John Duff than with the others.
At the Whitney Museum through Sept. 27. Georgia O'Keeffe
What can one possibly say about Georgia O'Keeffe that hasn't already been said -- except that her art isn't really as good as her numerous fans insist it is.
That, at least, has been my consideration but unhappy reaction to the large number of her paintings I have seen recently, not only individually, but also in group shows, in books, and in her large retrospective of a few years back. And this feeling has only been reinforced by my half-dozen visits to the Whitney Museum's current exhibition of its holdings of her works.
One cannot deny her originality, her talent, and her human courage. She is certainly one of the great women of our time. But I'm afraid that time will increasingly insist that her highly touted art is more prettified streamlining than true creative distillation. Her paintings are more lovely pictorial invention than art, more fantasy than life.
I'm not happy about it, and I don't write this lightly. But there it is.
For those who are her fans (and I wish I could once again number myself among them), this show should be a pleasant but minor event. And I say minor only because it is so small.
At the Whitney Museum through Oct. 4.