The Jonathan Borofsky mid-career retrospective at the Whitney Museum here is a highly charged, unconventional event. In it, 14-foot figures of men hammer relentlessly, an 11-foot dancing clown sings ``My Way,'' a giant bubble-wrapped figure moves up and down as though breathing, other figures chatter or fly, a free-standing painting emits sounds, computer-programmed neon hoops systematically light up, and viewers are invited to play at a Ping-Pong table. But that's not all. Scattered throughout the four large galleries given over to this exhibition are paintings of all sorts and sizes, numerous sketches and drawings executed directly on the walls or on scraps of paper, video performances, photographs, and many other odds and ends. Taken together, it adds up to an extremely lively, provocative, and often humorous installation of works the artist has been working on for the past 15 years.
It is a show that will delight many, confuse others, and anger more than a few. But whatever the individual reaction, it is obvious that in Borofsky, American art has found someone disposed to view art much as Calder did when he fashioned his famous ``Circus'' several decades ago.
Mr. Borofsky was born in 1942, studied at Carnegie-Mellon University and at Yale, and began his career in the early 1970s with a series of works devoted to numbers. His first attempts consisted of simple numerical sequences, which were soon followed by a longer-ranging project in which he counted on paper continuously from No. 1 to, ultimately, the low millions. In 1972 he returned to figurative work, and in 1975 he began the full-scale, room-size installations based on dream images, childhood memories, symbolic objects, and personal statements for which he has since become famous.
Since these installations are closely supervised by the artist, and vary from museum to museum, this version at the Whitney is somewhat different from the one presented at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where the idea for the retrospective originated. As Richard Marshall, co-curator, with Mark Rosenthal, of the exhibition, writes in a short guide to the show, ``Where and how things are placed in Borofsky's installations reflect his efforts to create a multi-dimensional space. . . . Borofsky activates all parts of a room by the use of objects suspended from the ceiling, wall drawings that continue around corners or extend across doorways and windows, sounds that permeate the space, and fliers littering the floor. His installations envelop the audience physically, emotionally, and intellectually.''
The question, of course, is to what effect and purpose. Is there substance to all this fun and fanciful activity? Is anything of real interest and significance left once the shock and the charm of seeing flying men, sound-producing paintings, and Ping-Pong tables in a major museum wear off?
To a certain extent, the answer depends on what's expected. Those who insist on a traditional museum experience complete with hushed, cathedral-like atmosphere and numerous ``serious'' paintings and sculptures will be disappointed -- if not annoyed and angered. Those, however, who can accept the fact that art can be highly informal, participatory, and provoking, will probably enjoy it -- and will almost certainly receive something of value from it as well.
The secret lies in experiencing the installation as an extravagant public event, and not as a solemn display of important objects lined up for objective examination. In an exhibition of this sort, the flow of energy emanating from the spectators, their curiosity, doubts, enthusiasms, and exclamations of delight or anger all contribute to the overall sense of liveliness and excitement the artist had in mind. As is also true of Calder's ``Circus,'' such response and active participation on the part of the viewers is essential. Without it, many of the individual works appear limp and lifeless, and even the more straightforward paintings and drawings lose some of their impact.
There are those, of course, who would insist that this very fact negates any argument in favor of Borofsky's validity or importance as an artist. Repeated viewings of this installation, however -- before it was fully assembled, during the party-like atmosphere of its opening, and a few times afterward when the galleries were less crowded -- have convinced me that that isn't necessarily so, that there is indeed something interesting and valuable going on in this artist's work.
Its effectiveness and value lie in its accessibility, immediacy, outrageousness, and willingness to go to any extreme to make its point. In Borofsky's hands, art has moved one step further toward a totally open and non-elitist position, a position in which enthusiasm, imagination, and a total lack of creative inhibition are sufficient for the production of art. In this world, anyone can create art -- and everyone can enjoy it. All that is needed is the desire, the passion to shape and to communicate ideas and experiences within an art-world context -- and the drive and ability to make others sit up and take notice.
Lacking in Borofsky's work is any dramatic evidence of talent or skill, any sense that only a rare and very special sensibility or intelligence could have produced it. In their place we find a freewheeling and very active imagination, a belief that what is of interest to the artist is of interest to the world, a modest talent for drawing and color, and a truly remarkable sense of showmanship.
Put that way, it doesn't sound like much, and indeed, in the light of what Matisse, Mir'o, and Calder produced, it isn't all that impressive. Who can tell, however, where it might lead? During my most recent visit to the exhibition, I was struck by its openness and exuberant goodwill, by the life-enhancing quality of its intentions. I left with very ambivalent feelings. On the one hand, it seemed somewhat simplistic and sophomoric, on the other, open-ended and challenging -- and one more example of how broadly based and far-reaching art in this century has become.
After its closing at the Whitney on March 10, this fascinating and provocative exhibition travels to the University Art Museum, Berkeley, Calif. (April 17-June 16); the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (Sept. 13-Nov. 3); and the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington (Dec. 14-Feb. 9, 1986). A Monday column