Friday, 22 January 2010

Klee, Kandinsky, Bauhaus, Gabriel Orozco

When you've been looking at art for years and go to museums and exhibitions a lot, things start to connect to each other. In New York in December the exhibitions seemed more connected than usual. Last fall would have been an ideal time to be studying early 20th century painting there. Museums all around the city sponsored major exhibitions that intersected with each other showing art of the first decades of the last century: Kandinsky at the Guggenheim, the Bauhaus at the Museum of Modern Art, Serge Sabarsky's collection at the Neue Galerie, and even the Georgia O'Keeffe abstractions at the Whitney. The link among the first three of these is Kandinsky, who seems to have been everywhere. The link would also be Paul Klee, who seems to have had a really significant impact on Kandinsky when they were both at the Bauhaus. Kandinsky's painting moves from curved landscape-based abstraction to geometric compositions after he becomes Klee's colleague. In Washington at the Phillips Collection I overheard several people wondering where the Klees were; in New York he seemed to be everywhere, but working away in the corners, never the center of attention. For my fantasy art history course (who knows, professors may actually have been teaching it), the Kandinsky show at the Guggenheim would have been the centerpiece of the discussion and the focus would have been on Germany and Austria instead of the usual France (Of course the permanent collections at the Met and MOMA could fill in the French gaps quite well.).

The Kandinsky exhibition is huge and gorgeous. I love early Kandinskys and was sorry to see so few of them in the show. By the time we got about halfway up the ramp, we were starting to tire and the groups of abstractions from the same period were more than we really wanted to look at. Every once in a while a painting struck us, for example, when he changed styles. The didactic information was helpful, particularly the biographical outlines, but it also made us want more detail. Giving information in this way probably gets people to buy catalogues. We had already visited the Bauhaus show when we saw Kandinsky, so the confirmation of Klee's influence was reassuring. At some point, the thoroughness of such a huge exhibition is hard on the general viewer.

It was a relief to stop off at the huge room displaying the recently acquired gold curtain by Felix Gonzales Torres, Untitled (Golden), 1995 and one half of Roni Horn's Gold Field, 1980-82 in a large open room. The two works commemorate a connection between these artists as Gonzales Torres responded to Horn's work and subsequently made this curtain. We saw another of Gonzales Torres curtains in the Francois Pinault collection at the restored Dogana in Venice last summer. That one was red and suggested multiple aspects of blood at the same time it just divided a room. These curtains are lovely objects, sparkling in the light, rich with color, and inviting interaction, so they are both tactile and visual. It was cool that the Guggenheim decided to re-view the dialogue between the two artists. In one spot of the Horn the gold curves over itself and the reflection there is luminous orange, almost like fire. In the Roni Horn show at the Whitney a couple of days later, we were able to see the other half of "Gold Field" among some other paired floor objects. Somehow, knowing about the other half up the street with the Gonzales Torres made the Whitney sheet more evocative, as I looked for, and found, the flash of orange under the flap of gold.

On the theme of connections, I need to add something about the Gabriel Orozco retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Its centerpiece is certainly the grey whale skeleton Orozco and his crew dug up from a beach in Baja, then covered with extensive pencil lines. Installed in the huge atrium of MOMA, it actually looks a little smaller than I'd expected, but it's still impressive. I suppose one could think about the mortality of even the largest creatures, or the fragility of the environment, or any number of other meanings for the work. Mainly, though, it was big.

The whale was made for a library in Mexico and Lee Rosenbaum (Culture Grrl) made a great comparison of it to the whole whale at the Museum of Natural History. Coincidentally, we went to the "Shamu" show three times at Orlando's Sea World in January, watching live black-and-white killer whales do amazing things with their young and athletic human co-stars.
Another work, a recent MOMA acquisition, is Orozco's series of computer-generated prints, Samurai Tree Invariants (2006), starting with "a fixed arrangement of adjacent circles on a square background in a restricted palette of blue, red, white, and yellow." He varied the designs, starting at the center, by shifting the color based on the way a knight moves on a chess board: one space in one direction, two spaces perpendicular to the first, resulting in 672 variations. While most critics seem to have hated these works, I found them fascinating. I could not follow the chess-board color changes, but loved the variants they created.

The main body of the show had all kinds of stuff, recreating some controversial shows that left Tom completely uninterested, but then adding some works he liked a lot. He hated the empty shoe box on the floor and the gallery with one plastic yogurt lid on each wall. The yogurt lids look like simple blue circles from a distance and in that they seem to belong to minimal art. While I know it would be possible to write pages about the simplicity, the use of found objects, the emptiness of the walls as they reflect contemporary culture and art, I suspect that there is more creativity in what has been written about this installation than one can actually experience in it.

Tom liked the Citroen with its middle cut out and the multi-wheeled sculpture made of several bicycles. One work involved Orozco photographing his own yellow motorcycle next to identical ones he found parked on the street – interesting in a way as he found pairings, visually kind of neat, but maybe boring too. I liked the skull with a checkerboard pattern drawn on it (The Seventh Seal condensed into one object). And as a sucker for cute, I loved the photograph of a pile of watermelons in a grocery store with a can of cat food, cat facing out, on top of each (Cats and Watermelons, 1992). It looked like a totally impromptu juxtapostion (vegetable bins in the background), an unlikely combination, visually coherent, and without any special meaning, although I suppose someone could talk about consumerism and issues of nature.

What surprised me were the multiple connections between Orozco's work and the Bauhaus show next door. Orozco's large chess board with only knights seemed a response to the designer Bauhaus chess boards. His many geometric paintings, similar to the Samurai Tree Invariants, would have fit right in at the Bauhaus. The Bauhaus sparseness and clean lines seem reflected in much of what Orozco does today. I wonder if the Modern curators had thought about these associations between the two shows or if others have noticed them.

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