Spiraling through postwar art history. Guggenheim show: more than the sum of its parts

Even by 20th-century standards, the art of the past 40 years has been remarkably varied and complex - as full of surprises as any easily bored art lover could wish. First, there were the Abstract Expressionists, who quite casually wiped out two generations of talented but less passionately focused American painters while making New York the art capital of the world. They were followed by the Hard-Edge and Color-Field painters. And they, in turn were succeeded by artists dedicated to Pop, Op, Body, Earth, Photo-Realist, Conceptional, and Minimalist art. Not to be outdone, Europe came up with Art Informel, British Pop, Nouveau R'ealisme, Arte Povera, Neo-Expressionism, and the Utopian idealism of Joseph Beuys.

But even that wasn't the entire story. There were, for instance, the ``rugged individualists,'' such as Alberto Giacometti, Jean Dubuffet, and Francis Bacon, and the numerous New Realist, narrative, and landscape painters and sculptors, who can only be categorized as idiosyncratic.

Together, all these movements created a complex situation, not easily clarified in a book or a half-dozen exhibitions, and altogether impossible to summarize in one show, no matter how large or carefully planned.

What one can expect of one exhibition is that it touch upon the highlights and illuminate a few of the more obscure corners of post-World War II art. And that is precisely the achievement of ``Viewpoints: Postwar Painting and Sculpture from the Guggenheim Museum and Major Loans.'' By saying that, I do not mean to criticize, only to point out the problems inherent in assembling such a show - especially when most of the works are drawn from one museum's holdings, and its curator, in this case Diane Waldman, has limited space.

The space is tight, even though the exhibition takes up the Guggenheim's entire spiral from the seventh ramp down to the main floor of the Rotunda. A part of the problem, of course, is the size of the paintings. Many are very large by ordinary standards.

Some of the most pleasant surprises, however, are the relatively small works. Chief among them are drawings by Matta and Gorky. Coming at the very beginning of the show, they serve both as excellent introductions to the larger Abstract Expressionist works hanging just a few feet beyond, and as reminders of the importance of line in the evolution of the styles of these artists, as well as Pollock, Rothko, and deKooning.

Even more impressive and not all that much larger are three matching Jasper Johns canvases of 1981 on loan to the museum for this show. They represent Johns at close to his best. Size is also not an issue with Giacometti's 1933 ``Diego,'' a painting that holds up beautifully no matter how often one sees it.

By and large, however, an imposing size is crucial to the success of much of what is on view, including Pollock's important ``Ocean Greyness,'' Bacon's 1962 triptych entitled ``Three Studies for a Crucifixion,'' Enzo Cucchi's ``Untitled'' of 1986, Sandra Chia's ``Running Men'' of 1982, and Georg Baselitz's ``The Gleaner'' of 1978.

Anselm Kiefer's huge ``Seraphim'' (1983-84) is also outstanding, as is (surprisingly) David Salle's recent ``Landscape with Two Nudes and Three Eyes.'' On the other hand, Jim Dine's ``For Margit van Leight-Frank'' is much ado about very little.

In this exhibition, it is not so much the individual works that claim our attention, however, as the accrued impact of some 150 paintings and sculptures representative of the postwar period. We move easily through time as well as space on the museum ramps - something we cannot do as well in other museums. And we get a good idea of how styles and movements evolved from one decade to the next.

The exhibition offers as good a way as any to learn the basics about postwar art - even though it wasn't intended to be definitive, is purely modernist in nature, and a few of the movements are not ideally represented. Abstract Expressionism, for example, was more passionate and effective than one would suspect from the examples included here (the Guggenheim desperately needs a few more major Pollocks, Klines, and deKoonings). The 1970s weren't quite as dominated by formalist concerns as the museum's holdings would suggest. (One of Philip Guston's wildly idiosyncratic works of that decade would help round things out nicely.). But that's nitpicking. Everything considered, this is quite a show.

At the Guggenheim Museum through Jan. 22.

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