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Art: Eight Cool Contemporaries

6 minute read
Robert Hughes

Now in its 46th year, New York’s Museum of Modern Art is still the most powerful certifier of taste in American visual art, and its choices come to us, willy-nilly, with the appearance of historical predictions. Hence the interest in its current show, assembled by Curator Jennifer Licht and entitled “Eight Contemporary Artists.”

What would the old Modern pick from the bewildering landscape of a decayed avant-garde in the 1970s? The result, though not wholly predictable, is not very surprising. Most of the eight artists are under 40 and (with the exception of a body-artist and performer named Vito Acconci) work in the area where minimalism makes contact with conceptual art. It is a grayed-out, low-pressure, cool show, and its pleasures are decidedly mixed.

Remarkable Tension. The more satisfying groups of work are by Canadian-born Dorothea Rockburne, Holland’s Jan Dibbets and New York’s Brice Marden. Rockburne’s art is neither painting nor collage nor relief, but it has some of the qualities of all three—coupled with the kind of inventive intelligence one expects from one of Rauschenberg’s contemporaries at the legendary, now defunct Black Mountain College. Starting with a rectangle of linen exactly 68 in. by 178 in., she folds, sizes and gessoes it until it becomes a geometrical plaque. “I had wanted,” she writes, “to approach painting in a way that takes as given certain conventions while questioning others.” The convention she rejected was that paintings should be rectangular. The one she used was a system of proportion, invented by the Greeks and widely used in Renaissance Italy, known as “the golden section”—a way of dividing a line so that the smaller part is to the larger as the larger is to the whole. At first, Rockburne’s Golden Section Paintings look homely: coarse cloth, stained creosote brown and traversed by lines in blue builder’s chalk. But they are suffused by a remarkable tension and rigor, conferred by the intelligence with which she manipulates her schemes of proportion.

Dibbets, 36, is preoccupied with landscape: flat swaths of beach horizon, photographed in nacreous blues and grays, enlarged, tilted and cut together in the form of mountains or—in this show—the curving tail of a comet. They are, in effect, “impossible” earthworks, or sky works, meant solely as configurations on paper: a simplistic idea, but carried out with elegance.

The paintings of Marden, 36, are almost too simple: they are groups of canvases butted together in diptychs or triptychs, each surface painted one uniform color—usually a drab, dense gray. It seems an inert formula but it is not, largely because of what Marden learned from Jasper Johns—how to spread a skin of oil and wax over the surface of a canvas with such subtlety that, though monochrome, it is full of half-suppressed or latent incidents. The paintings do become objects of contemplation, like landscapes; but their austerity is so low-keyed as to risk blandness.

With other artists in the show, low energy slides into mere inconsequence. Their work is elaborately hermetic, and so looks like a manifesto. But what is being manifested? Manual labor, apparently—endless somnambulistic notations, proffering not a whit of meaning. One could possibly train ants to do it. Thus the German conceptual artist Hanne Darboven, 33, has assembled two huge panels, each made of several hundred sheets of paper scrawled with words—strings of unrelated numbers, written out in German. This arithmorrhea, she assures the catalogue reader, has nothing to do with mathematics. Nor, apparently, is it meant to be considered a work of the imagination. “A number of something (two chairs, or whatever) is something else. It’s not pure number and has other meanings. If I were making it up I couldn’t possibly write all that.” What this explanation may mean is anyone’s guess, but it hardly matters. As they stand, Darboven’s flights of orthographical gibberish are as interesting as watching someone knit.

Watered Silk. Nevertheless, they are almost dramatic in comparison with the works of the Italian artist Alighiero Boetti, the Frenchman Daniel Buren or the Australian Robert Hunter. Boetti’s way of artmaking is to cover (or have his assistants cover) large sheets of paper with millions of tiny strokes of a ballpoint pen, thus turning all the paper blue except for some stray commas and capital letters which are left white. This laborious doodling produces now and again some pretty moire effects, like watered silk, but that is all, and the all is virtually nothing. It is, however, more than Robert Hunter’s piece, which consists of pale gray rectangular grids, the ghosts of Carl André’s floor tiles, stenciled on the museum wall, adding the consolation of near invisibility to the muteness of complete banality.

Daniel Buren’s is a more curious case. In the past few years, Buren’s enterprise, or gesture, has been to make striped panels that look exactly like awning cloth and hang them anonymously in public places. “Form, art’s quest throughout the centuries,” writes Buren, 36, “becomes a matter of no interest, superfluous and anachronistic. Of course then art is bound to disappear . . . Creating, producing, is henceforth of only relative interest, and the creator, the producer, no longer has any reason to glorify ‘his’ product.”

Buren is not bad at sounding like St. Just, but—alas for the purity of his sentiments—the Museum of Modern Art now enters, arms hospitably outstretched, clutching this inoffensive guerrilla to its bosom. If you look closely, you can just see the Burens in the MOMA show: four bland panels of black-and-white stripes, cut to the size of the museum windows and pasted up. What Buren’s work really seems to be about is words: vacuous configurations gift-wrapped in fighting language, revealing the curiously transparent game of certification by which art posturers now proclaim their avant-gardeness. These days, the only way to become an accredited foe of museum culture is to be in a museum show—which means, in turn, that the Museum of Modern Art is obliged to embrace entropy in order to seem “modern” at all. ∎Robert Hughes

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