World disaster viewed through the artist's brush
New York — An ominous, prophetic mood has often been favored by artists in their work. From Bosch, Breugal, and Durer to Goya, Munch, and Bacon, it has been used by them to make their forecasts of cataclysmic events more convincing, their predictions of impending doom more plausible, and their vision of divine retribution seem more inevitable.
It has never been more blatantly and uncompromisingly used, however, than it is today by some of our younger artists who are concerned about nuclear devastation and who intend to do something about preventing it through their art.
What effect such art will have upon world events is an open question. Political leaders, after all, have never been known to consult art before making their decisions. There can be no doubt, however, of this art's pictorial effectiveness. It makes its point with great conviction and with often devastating impact - even though it is frequently naive in form and substance and a bit obvious in presentation.
An excellent sampling of this art can currently be seen in the New Museum's ''The End of the World: Contemporary Visions of the Apocalypse.'' It consists of the work of 24 artists, all of whom have made man's fate a central focus of their art. The show itself was curated by Lynn Gumpert, who also contributed an excellent essay to the exhibition catalog.
Not all the artists included are represented by depictions of a nuclear holocaust. Some zeroed in on natural, urban, or technological disasters, and others created images that represent a more interior and private view of impending doom or that actually prophesy the end of the world. What they all share, however, is an acute awareness of the apparent insecurity of man's physical existence in the face of possible natural or man-made catastrophes.
The most impressive thing about this show is its intense seriousness and general lack of hysteria. What could easily have turned into a display of self-serving sensationalist imagery masquerading as a solemn antiwar declaration is actually a sober, well-considered, and convincing presentation of a deadly serious human dilemma. It is also an excellent sampling of some of the best work in various media being produced today by some of our more free-spirited younger - and somewhat more experienced artists.
Singling out exceptional works is difficult in an exhibition that creates such a thoroughgoing ensemble effect and whose level of quality is generally so high. The narrative thread that runs throughout this show unifies even very dissimilar works and gives even basically nonrepresentational images the force of dire warnings.
A few works do stand out, however. I was very taken by Katherine Porter's painting, ''The Sun Is Black in Yellow Night,'' Helen Oji's two huge drawings, Robert Morris's large drawing from his ''Firestorm'' series, Melissa Miller's ''Against the Wind,'' Linda Burgess's ''Night Tornado,'' and Roger Brown's haunting oil, ''The Beast Rising From the Sea.''
Also extraordinarily haunting and effective is Beverly Naidus's installation, ''This Is Not a Test.'' It depicts a darkened, decrepit, cavelike basement area after an atomic attack. A large, rumpled bed dominates the space and supports a miniature landscape setting. While a six-minute soundtrack plays a conversation between a slightly panicked individual and a rather cynical one, the viewer watches tiny projected slides of pastoral landscapes that no longer exist.
Another effective installation is Michael Smith's and Alan Herman's meticulously detailed ''Government Approved Home Fallout Shelter Snack Bar.'' And a fallout shelter and snack bar is precisely what this work is, down to such authenticating details as an actual washing machine, a dryer, several records and games, and almost everything else one would need to survive comfortably in such a shelter.
This large installation and most of the other pieces on view add up to a fascinating and important show. It will remain open to the public at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, 583 Broadway in SoHo, through Jan. 24. 'Sculptural Ideas'
A much less urgent but equally excellent exhibition is the Max Hutchinson Gallery's ''Varieties of Sculptural Ideas.'' It was curated by Eric Siegeltuch - one of the most perceptive and committed of our younger art professionals - and consists of 67 drawings, maquettes, documentary photographs, and small sculptures ranging from a 1931 drawing by David Smith to a number of works executed just last year.
The selection is broad, and the quality of the pieces included is consistently high, with no more than two or three works - most particularly Lin Emery's slick, vacuous ''Glissade'' - failing to make the grade. My only other criticism concerns the exclusion of Calder, which strikes me as unfortunate, considering his quality and ieportance and the fact that several of his contemporaries are included.
Outstanding among the latter are Marcel Duchamp (for his 1941 ''Valise''), Alberto Giacometti, Gaston Lachaise, Theodore Roszak, and of course, David Smith.
Very justifiably, however, the show's main emphasis is on much more recent work, especially the work of sculptors who have only come into their own during the past decade or so.
I was particularly pleased to see excellent examples by Alice Aycock, Bill Freeland (who must be the most underrated of all contemporary sculptors), Donald Lipski, Robert Stackhouse, Michelle Stuart, Christo, Sol LeWitt, Kenneth Snelson , Budd Hopkins, and Ansgar Nierhoff.
This excellent and informative show will run through Jan. 28 at the Max Hutchinson Gallery, 138 Greene Street, in SoHo.