Guggenheim show: rich in talent, but limited in scope

I was of two minds while viewing "19 Artists -- Emergent Americans" at the Guggenheim Museum here. On the one hand, I enjoyed the exuberant and very open and lively nature of the show, and the work of several of the artists represented in it. On the other, I couldn't help feeling that if this was the best that guest curator Peter Frank could come up with after a year's constant travel throughout this country, during which time he "may have visited over 1, 000 studios," well then, our artistic future is very much in doubt.

It's not a matter of talent or originality; there's a good deal of that here. Nor is it a matter of innovation, vitality, or inventiveness. On glance at the exhibition and we are convinced of that. No, it's a matter of breadth and scope -- the degree to which this show truly reflects the full range of what is emerging in art today -- as well as a matter of long-range cultural significance.

In both regards, the exhibition has severe limitations -- despite the talent, intelligence, wit, and shrewd reading of recent art history that went into the making of its art, and the dedication and devotion evidenced by Mr. Frank in his year-long search. And the sad part of it is that this show is no dramatic exception to the rule, the result of no gross curatorial quirk.

The quality of what we see here is generally extremely high and fairly typical of today's as-yet-not-quite-recognized artists. And that applies not only to the work of "advanced" artists such as these, but to the work produced by artists of very different artistic attitudes and persuasions. Everyone seems to be "doing their own thing," isolated and cut off from any genuine cross-fertilization beyond that of their own type, unwilling even to look closely at what the other fellow is trying to do.

The inbreeding and dogmatism in evidence today are still quite incredible -- witness the totally divergent nature of the art being presented in the Guggenheim and in the National Academy of Design only a few feet farther up Fifth Avenue. Take 19 "advanced" artists such as we see here, and 19 equally carefully selected "conservative" ones (although those distinctions hardly still apply), and the quality, the art, will very probably be much the same. And yet they'd never be persuaded to be seen together as representative of what really ism emerging in American art.

The problem with this Guggenheim show (and every other exhibition of new talent I have seen of late) is not that there isn't genuine and exciting talent on view, but that its overall representation of emergent American art is too narrow. The time when the "truth" in art lay almost exclusively in the mysteries and formulations of modernism is long past, as is the "villainy" of the various academies in keeping art exactly as it always had been.

The revolution is over, and it's time we genuinely tried once again to see art whole -- and not as the external form of a succession of narrowly defined "truths," each of which categorically denies the validity of the others. The "enemy" of art today lies not without, in the reactionary or revolutionary machinations of the opposition, but within, in our by now empty and ritualized insistences on categories and orthodoxies that no longer apply. It is true that we have made dramatic advances since the 1960s, but we still have a long way to go.

The herd instinct operates at least as much in art circles as anywhere else, with the result that most exhibitions of this sort are fairly predictable. What comes out of artists' studios in New York, Chicago, or San Francisco is echoed almost immediately in Topeka, Madison, or Fort Worth. The exceptions are relatively rare, and are always worth mentioning.

This exhibition includes several such exceptions, artists who have found something singularly true or original through their work. Chief among them are Michael Brakke's conceptually oriented works combining handrendered and photographic imagery; Manny Farber's object paintings whose complex iconography is based directly and obliquely upon motion pictures; Philip Larson's sculptures drawn from architectural history; Darryl Sapien's multi-media approach to symbols; and Norie Sato's delicate, video-inspired paper-works.

But my personal favorites were by Bill Richards. His dark, bold paintings in which formal activities occur as though on a blackboard, are among the best works of art being produced today. "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackboard" is a particularly impressive piece or work.

On the other hand, I found William Haney's hyper-realistic paintings of little more than technical interest -- despite the complex subjects they describe. They are, in the worst sense, academic, and differ only from similar work produced during the past few decades in that their pictorial and thematic ambiguities reflect strictly current preoccupations. "Each Time Around" will look as silly and forced 40 years hence as some of the pretentious allegories painted in the 1940s look to us today.

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