Maybe It Was Created When Eisenhower Was President, But It's Still 'Contemporary'

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 8, 2007

HEAD-HIGH CUBES MADE OF PARTICLEBOARD, THEIR SIDES HINGED TO LET YOU SHAPE THE STRUCTURES AS YOU PLEASE. Sections of industrial air ducts that can be assembled and configured as each curator pleases, into forms their maker can't control. In these sculptures from the 1960s, German artist Charlotte Posenenske -- who ditched art for sociology in 1968 and died in 1985 -- seemed to take the rarefied forms of modernist abstraction and let them collide with the materials and accidents of daily life. Many visitors to Documenta left thinking she, and several other little-known figures of her generation, made some of the exhibition's most notable art.

A huge square of pink rayon, covering a lawn as you walked into the show, looked like the latest thing. Incredibly, it was conceived in Japan in 1955, by a woman named Tanaka Atsuko.

Strange that the world's most important survey of contemporary art should score so many points with work that's decades old. Or maybe not so strange: The shelf-stocking attitude that rules the art world now, on loan from the commercial market, barely distinguishes between the old and new. Maybe it's hard to be too picky, when so little present art seems to command the degree of loyalty, or have the focus and ambition, of what came before. And when even the best new work is likely to be rooted in movements -- minimalism, conceptualism, artistic activism -- that date back decades.

Still, sometimes old ideas can seem merely tired, especially when they present themselves as attuned to our times. The Venice Biennale trumpeted brand-new abstract works by Gerhard Richter, Ellsworth Kelly and Robert Ryman. They were very, very much like the works these artists made when they were becoming famous, decades ago -- except with a new air of exhausted possibilities and diminishing returns.

Maybe the best result of all this old art passing as contemporary is that sometimes pastness itself becomes a subject to make art about.

In Venice, a recent slide show by Mario Garcia Torres, who was born in Mexico in 1975, revisited a legendary moment in late-'60s creativity, when radical conceptual artists from all over were invited to do projects with the students of the Nova Scotia College of Art. Torres reassembled the original participants from one such venture, only to discover that their recollections of the moment, or the art, couldn't be counted on.

At the Muenster sculpture show, various works from earlier years were resurrected or repeated, as though in an experiment to see how profoundly sense can change with time and circumstance.

A Bruce Nauman sculpture, planned for the 1977 edition of the show but never executed because of permit troubles, was finally realized, thanks to the resources its now-famous artist can enlist. "Square Depression" consists of a big inverted pyramid dug into the forecourt of a university science building. In 1977, it would no doubt have felt like a radical young artist's stab at invasive public abstraction. (Hence, no doubt, the permit troubles.) In 2007, it speaks of the tail end of modernist public design, of nostalgia, and of an older conceptualist looking back at simpler times. (And thus gets built.)

Nauman's younger colleague in Muenster, the French-born Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, chose not to make new work of her own at all. As though all options for original art had been exhausted, she simply made one-quarter-scale models of 39 other pieces spanning Muenster's 40 years of sculpture surveys, and put them in conversation with each other in a local park. That was possibly the most innovative, cogent, accurate reflection on the state of things that anyone's come up with.

More Articles in this Series:

"Welcome to Babel" | "Reverting to Form" | "Radical Public Art"

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