Shifting viewpoints on contemporary art

A shiny blue 10-foot-high "Balloon Dog" made of stainless steel. A gigantic room-filling table and six chairs that elicit a toddler's-eye view of the world. A panoramic 22-foot-wide painting dedicated to the artistic heroes of the Nazis.

Not every item in a new exhibition of contemporary art at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) is super-sized, but it's obvious that playing with scale is one way artists in the late 20th century have tried to say this isn't your father's way of thinking about art.

"Jasper Johns to Jeff Koons: Four Decades of Art From the Broad Collection," which opened last Sunday, collects work by an all-star lineup of 17 artists of the past 40 years, among them Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein as well as the aforementioned Johns and Koons.

While the show is hardly comprehensive in either breadth or depth (could any single show be?), it does have potential for wide appeal.

For those familiar with these artists, it presents a chance to see their iconic works gathered together, a mix-and-match comparison of the styles and themes of some of the leading artists of the late 20th century. For the newcomer to contemporary art, the medium-sized show (81 works) can be a useful introduction, with sufficient variety to intrigue (and raise the inevitable questions of "Is that art?") but not overwhelm.

The works are on loan from the Broad Art Foundation, founded by Los Angeles businessman Eli Broad (rhymes with "road") and his wife, Edythe, as well as from their personal collection.

The show's essentially chronological design begins with the Pop art movement, which sprang up to comment on consumerism and popular culture, creating works with references to mass media images such as TV and movie stars, advertising, and comic books.

Jasper Johns's "White Flag" (1960), the Stars and Stripes painted over newsprint, is the oldest work on display. Andy Warhol is represented by several iconic works, including "Elvis" (1963), "Two Marilyns" (1962), and "Nine Blue Jackies" (1964), a triple triptych of identical portraits of a somber, postassassination Mrs. Kennedy, perhaps the most famous woman in the world at the time, bathed in varying shades of blue.

Ten works by Lichtenstein illustrate some of his signature styles. The exaggerated Benday dots and bright, heavily outlined images in "Live Ammo (Blang!)" (1962) and "I ... I'm Sorry" (1965-66) mimic comic-book art, while "Rouen Cathedral (Seen at Five Different Times of the Day) Set III" (1969) pays tribute to Impressionist Claude Monet.

Next come the Conceptual artists, who sought to remove skill with materials and reduce art to pure ideas. In John Baldessari's "Tips for Artists" (1967-68), the canvas contains only a few words found by Baldessari in a magazine, painted not by him but by a sign painter he commissioned. The "tips" on the canvas offer banal advice to artists who "want to sell": Use light colors. Paint Madonnas, children, and flowers. Is it a comment on artists – or the viewing public? Is it true? Is it a joke with a stinger?

The exhibition concludes with a room devoted to Jeff Koons, the polarizing avant-garde artist who will talk about his work at the MFA later this fall. Three basketballs floating in an aquarium? Six Hoover shampoo polishers under glass? In these Koons works, Conceptual art lives on, abandoning the concept that craftsmanship, the work of the artistic hand, is an essential element of art.

Koons's "Michael Jackson and Bubbles" (1988), a life-sized white ceramic sculpture of the pop idol and his pet monkey, smile at visitors as they leave the exhibition. Perhaps the piece, gilt-edged and strewn with flowers like some giant curio or a tribute to a Hindu god, comments on celebrity? But is it a loving homage, or do the King of Pop's vacuous eyes and frozen smile suggest something sinister?

Visitors will draw their own conclusions – or not. All will have much to think about as they pass through the exit and back into the museum's permanent collection, where old masters peer down from the walls.

• 'Jasper Johns to Jeff Koons: Four Decades of Art From the Broad Collection' runs through Oct. 20 at Boston's MFA. It reopens in early 2003 at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.

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