High & Low

This exhibit explores the knotty relationship between `high' art and `low' pop culture. It raises the question: What is modern art? Two writers who saw the show rekindle the debate.

FEW recent exhibitions have raised hackles in the art world like ``High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture.'' Art critics pummeled the show when it first opened. But museumgoers poured in anyway. In tightly organized galleries, Kirk Varnedoe, director of the department of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, and Adam Gopnik, art critic for The New Yorker magazine, juxtaposed ``low'' vernacular source material (graffiti, caricature, comics, and advertising), with the art of high modernism, for which the museum is the standard-bearer.

The populist premise of the show's title is expertly borne out in the exhibition: Detailed descriptions carefully composed by Mr. Varnedoe and Mr. Gopnik explain the influence that street graffiti, ads, and even comic strips have had on 20th century art.

``High and Low'' was anticipated by the critics to be Varnedoe's inaugural statement (he took over as head of the painting and sculpture department in 1988, only the third person to hold that job since the museum opened). This position gives him enormous influence on the way modern art is presented, valued, studied, and understood by the public. As a result, the exhibit continues to receive extra attention from the press.

In a telephone interview last week, Varnedoe said that critics expected the ``High and Low'' to be handled differently. He said that art critics were ``dismally unhappy'' at the way he chose to interpret history. Some ``came in feeling themselves to be specialist[s] and didn't feel catered to'' he said. ``Some of the [negative] reviewers specifically say `I'm an expert and I don't want to go to a show that's pitched for the general public.'''

In fact, conversations with museumgoers when the show opened in New York showed a level of satisfaction that never seemed to register in the press. Several people said that ``High and Low'' was organized in a way that helped them understand the reasoning behind the exhibit. The idea that ``high art'' finds inspiration and draws energy from ``low'' source materials made sense to them. Compared to the usually rarified atmosphere in these galleries, the exhibit exudes a down-to-earth feel. Varn edoe clearly demonstrates transactions between ``high'' art and popular culture.

What's clear throughout this exhibit is that the artists maintained an ascendancy over the objects they appropriated and reproduced. Andy Warhol's Brillo soap pad boxes (``Various Boxes,'' 1964) could be an indictment of America's obsession with order, a cheap shot at commercialism, or a simple play of shapes and colors. But because Warhol did them first, because he forced the question ``Is this art?'' he will be remembered.

Modern art thrives on shock value, uncertainty, and experimentation. Dissatisfaction with the status quo pushes artists to try to engender fiery reactions among thinking people.

Though art critics didn't like the show's didactic approach, people who walked in off the street did.

Brenda Birdsey of Allentown, Penn., said ``many of the exhibitions are so high brow, this was fun.... I could understand it.''

Back home in Helsinki, Finland, Rainer Seipajarvi heard about the ``High and Low'' and planned to visit. After walking through the exhibit, he wasn't surprised that many regular people liked it. ``What counts here [in the United States] is money and advertising,'' he said.

Tricia Griffin of Brooklyn, N.Y., said that the exhibit helped her understand changes in the ``way advertising people look at the public.'' She speculated that the show was popular because ``the American public can relate to advertising.''

Critics and viewers do agree on one problem with the ``High and Low'': Today's art scene is given short shrift by the exhibit's inclusion of only three '80s artists - Jeff Koons, Elizabeth Murray, and Jenny Holzer.

Ms. Holzer's electric display boards - with ``light-emitting diodes'' - have streams of phrases flowing across them. Thoughts represented are intensely personal, but because the medium is so electronically ``processed,'' little of the person remains. The show's lucid catalog states that Holzer manages to define ``the spiritual crisis of the decade'' in her art.

In defense of his choices, Varnedoe says ``Not only did each one of them ... pick up themes that had been established earlier, but ... they were three very broadly spaced points on the palette of possibilities in the '80s: Murray was warm, organic, intimate; Koons was armored, hard, cynical; Holzer had this religious, chapel-like darkness to it. They represented three ... different ways of engaging with contemporary culture.''

Varnedoe says he is pleased with the exhibit: ``I was asked a month before the show opened whether I considered the show a personal manifesto. I didn't consider it either personal or a manifesto, I think it's an objective piece of history.''

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