Long before it had a name, the avant-garde was part of art's revolution. When Gustav Courbet thumbed his nose at the French Academy with images of wizened peasants breaking stones, an unspoken avant-garde was incubating. The entire history of 20th-century modernism has been a conscious codification and refinement of just that sort of search for the new. Whatever specific form it has taken - Cubism, Dada, and everything in between - avant-gardism always included escape from the norm, rejection of recognizable formats, and a certain iconoclastic irreverence on the part of a disenfranchised artist class.
What the avant-garde did not bank on was a voracious contemporary art audience that, by the 1960s, consumed and made banal every new art ``ism,'' and at lightning speed. This public acceptance neutralized modernism's efforts to baffle, titillate, and exclude its mainstream audience, and the vanguard has churned with existential crisis ever since.
This quirky state of affairs and its impact on contemporary art make up the conceptual core for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's current exhibition, ``Avant-Garde in the Eighties.''
Curator Howard Cox offers three categories around which today's avant-garde redefines itself: shared values and culture; originality and source; and the limits of art. Along these lines, Cox sees current artists as embracing rather than rejecting their milieu, questioning rather than lauding originality as a supreme value, and opting for artist-viewer dialogue over dogma.
Cox tries to neatly fit each work into one of his categories, but the lines of distinction are diffuse and the schema seem like unnecessary buttressing for a show that stands quite respectably on its own merit.
Looking over the stylistic hodgepodge of the 125 works in every conceivable media by 112 international artists working in this decade, we find that they have in common a restless experimentation and a tenacious insistence on freedom of expression.
The notion that work of the '80s is a wholly new brand of avant-garde, completely unique from the tradition of modernism that spawned it, seems itself like a bit of dogma.
In the '20s, Marcel Duchamp offered an everyday urinal as sculpture challenging the notion of what we call art. In the '80s, Robert Gober's ``Single Basin Sink,'' carefully constructed of fine art materials to replicate a non-art object, hits on similar issues from another angle. Nam June Paik's space-age robots assembled from dozens of outmoded television sets seem inconceivable without Dada's junk art, but Paik adds an age-of-technology twist: each screen blares over and over in mind-control fashion the fine-art videos for which Paik is acclaimed.
Like most avant-garde movements, today's vanguard still turns society's eye on its foibles: in Bruce Nauman's wonderful neon sculpture ``Punch and Judy: Kick in the Groin, Slap in the Face,'' an amorous couple exchange blows at electrically regulated intervals. In Justen Ladda's ``Don't Ask,'' the striated black lines that encode our consumer products are irreverently smudged across a plaster bust of Voltaire. Photos by Barbara Kruger and Gretchen Bender are effective and disturbing political commentaries.
The work on view confirms that today's avant-garde is less concerned with formal absolutes and more concerned with the unique contemporary experience. Some of the most engaging pieces invite us to consider the relative and context-bound nature of art, perception, and reality in today's radically diverse and shrinking world. Powerful works by Cindy Sherman and John Baldesari look at the nearly vertiginous and open-ended information we use to construct the illusion of ``fact.''
For staunch avant-garde styles from constructivism to minimalism, technical virtuosity, formal beauty, viewers' personal interpretations, narrative and symbolic nuance had no business in ``pure'' art; these came to be stigmatized as the keynotes of ``soft'' work. For the first time in a long while, the current vanguard is not afraid to openly invest work with overt elegance, religious and mythological narratives, or psychological allusions. The best of these works are grand and poetic without ever compromising conceptual sophistication or depth.
As Cox aptly puts it, today's avant-garde, rather than being a closed system, ``consciously allows a myriad of access points.'' One of these access points is a reconnection by artists with their art historical roots, not just from modernism but from the whole stockpile of Western art.
Modernized versions of classical, baroque, and romantic styles abound - some artificial, some effective. Pat Steir summarizes this viewpoint in the ``Brueghel Series,'' a re-creation of a 16th-century still life made from 64 separate panels, each painted in the style of a different art movement.
On the whole today's vanguard is no less incisive or inventive; it has perhaps mellowed a bit - matured, so to speak, from rebellious, somewhat tyrannical adolescent to self-analytical and socially aware yuppie. ``Avant-Garde in the '80s'' runs through July 12.