Allan McCollum. Plaster Surrogates. 1982/84.

Minimalist art gets retrospective exhibit

By Frederick M. Winship

New York, NY, May. 9 (UPI) -- The last great art movement of the 20th century -- minimalism -- is receiving an exhibition that traces its development from the early 1950s in the United States to the present time on an international scale.

As art in its most modern and reductive form, stripped of figurative imagery and adornment of any kind, minimalism has been likened by some conservative critics to the emperor's new clothes in that there is not much there to see, although no one will admit it. Others have described it as the last refuge of artists with a modest degree of talent.

Despite such negative views, minimalism has spoken to at least two generations of art lovers, especially young art lovers, who have admired it, collected it and promoted it, so that now minimalist paintings and sculpture and related conceptual installations are eagerly purchased and displayed by museums around the world and fetch huge sums in the art market.

The Guggenheim Museum is celebrating minimalism's maturity with a large exhibition titled "Singular Forms (Sometimes Repeated): Art from 1951 to the Present" that identifies the movement as the logical conclusion of abstraction in art that dates to the early years of the past century. It was then the art of maverick artists who reveled in challenging rational taste, and it still is.

Most of the works exhibited through May 19 are drawn from the Guggenheim's own collection and fill the museum's rotunda and adjacent tower galleries. The show begins with Robert Rauschenberg's seminal "White Painting" of 1951, an all-white canvas that inspired the satirical play "Art," a recent international stage hit.

It then proceeds to works by such early minimalist U.S. flag-bearers as Ellsworth Kelly, Ad Reinhardt and Frank Stella, and on to Robert Ryman, Brice Marden, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Agnes Martin, Robert Mangold and Carl Andre. Completing the survey is the work of such post-'60s international "post-minimalists" as Rachel Whiteread, Charles Ray, Robert Gober, Damian Hirst, Gerhard Richter, Liam Gillick and Sherrie Levine.

The first thing seen by visitors is 100 polyester resin cubes cast from voids beneath chairs, displayed in a grid pattern on the entrance floor beneath Frank Lloyd Wright's great dome. Created by Whiteread in 1995, this sculptural suite looks like scattered blue, green, pink, and orange ice cubes rather than the catalog description of "a shimmering index of everyday life."

Minimalist and other modern art forms have given birth to such descriptive gobbledygook ascribing meaning and importance to works that are best enjoyed for their instant visual impact rather than a scholarly analysis couched in almost meaningless terms.

Robert Gober's two porcelain industrial sinks, mounted one above another on a wall, are described as part of the artist's "ongoing exploration of the intersection of emotional, psychological, and spiritual states with the social forces that shape our contemporary culture." Such language suggests that the "emperor's new clothes" diatribe about minimalist art might have some validity.

The early monochromatic canvases and multi-panel paintings by Reinhardt, Stella, Kelly, Ryman, Marden, and Mangold, enlivened only by paint textures or even the shadow of the viewer, are all too familiar, and walking over Andre's carpet of square steel plates is no longer a guilty thrill. Dan Flavin's strategically placed neon tubing actually can be boring, as are many of Agnes Martin's mind-numbing grid paintings.

Richard Long's 420 twigs laid on the floor in a concentric pattern and Richard Morris' steel mesh construction in the form of a fish trap are of passing interest. Gerhard Richter's panes of glass that swivel in a steel frame recall commercial easy-wash windows, and Bruce Nauman's "Triangular Depression," a funnel-shaped burlap form supported by a metal base, is an ugly object, weathered and rusting.

Things get more interesting from the 1960s on, although Karen Sander's white glass egg on a pedestal is less interesting than its title, "Chicken Egg, Polished Raw, Size O." Really arresting are Meg Webster's 6-foot salt cone created for the 1988 Venice Biennale as a reference to the city's historic salt industry and Wolfgang Laib's adjacent "Five Mountains Not To Climb On" made up of five miniscule cones of yellow hazelnut pollen.

Allan McCollum is given a whole wall for his "surrogate paintings" consisting of black panels in various sizes, nicely matted and framed. Roni Horn's two blue glass cubes, one illuminated, the other in shadow, look like sapphire dice cast on the floor, and Damian Hirst's "Armageddon 2002," an all-black wall panel formed of the bodies of countless thousands of houseflies mounted on canvas has a macabre fascination.

Felix Gonzalez Torres weighs in with a floor spill of paper-wrapped licorice candies and a hanging string of lighted 15-watt electric bulbs. But there is more light at the end of the tunnel -- in this case the big exhibition space at the top of the museum's ramp. It is empty and bathed in lavender luminescence by Doug Wheeler, who seems to be trying hard to capture the sculptural qualities of light, or so the catalog states.

Copyright 2004 United Press International