Reverting to Form: Aesthetics Push Meaning Aside

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

AT THE VENICE BIENNALE, A GALLERY IS HUNG WITH THE CIRCULAR PAINTINGS OF ARGENTINE ARTIST GUILLERMO KUITCA, documenting the meanderings his artist's brain went through on the day each one was made. Catty-cornered to them are wall reliefs by Algerian-born artist Adel Abdessemed, consisting of rounds of razor wire. The crucial link between them: circles, circles, circles.

At Documenta, a suite of galleries includes finely striated abstract drawings by Pakistani artist Nasreen Mohamedi, who worked through the 1960s, '70s and '80s and died in 1990. They're near a striped wedding cloth made sometime last century in rural Mali. Then, as the punch line to all this -- you could almost hear the rimshot -- comes a big canvas by legendary American abstractionist Agnes Martin, covered top to bottom, edge to edge, in her trademark chalk-striping.

Stripes, stripes, stripes.

For several decades now, the rule in talking about art has been that meaning should trump form. And that even the surface look and style of a work of art -- its stripiness, for instance -- can be laden with as much meaning for its viewers, in the particular time and place it was made, as any subject it may represent. Purely formal and "aesthetic" considerations ("I like the way circle pictures look!"; "See how all those very different works are striped?") have been seen as a cop-out. The term "aesthetic" has barely been used.

No longer. Aesthetics and good looks are back, along with an aesthete's attitude toward them.

At Documenta, wall colors, sometimes vivid ones, were chosen first, then artists were told where their works would go. At the show's opening, famous artists griped that they were playing second fiddle to decor.

In that suite of stripe pictures, the walls were painted a dark decorator olive and all works were lighted with spots, as though to unify their look. Dark-adjusted eyes could hardly see the subtle Martin painting in the glare of lights, but that hardly hurt the larger design effect curators sought.

Shades of the art market yet again, since all of this starts to recall the MO of a lesser collector: Choose your furniture and rugs, then expect whatever art you buy to fit right in. Or better yet, buy stuff that looks good over the sofa.

In stating the organizing principles behind their show, Documenta curators Roger Buergel and Ruth Noack spoke of a "migration of form" across the varied works they put on view. They seemed to be revisiting the old idea that the same "aesthetics" (they've been reviving that dirty word) can cross over between art from different places, times and cultures.

Trouble is, when you choose to focus on migrating forms, their content comes to seem like excess baggage. Or sometimes, heartfelt content -- the left-wing politics in a billboard project, the gender struggle in a painting by a feminist pioneer -- comes to feel like just another fashionable style, not so different from the colorful abstractions from the 1960s that also are included in the show.

One room at Documenta features goofy animal drawings made in 1966 by a 6-year-old named Peter Friedl, who grew up to be a conceptual artist on Berlin's contemporary scene. They're opposite very recent drawings by Inuit artist Annie Pootoogook, reflecting on the troubled life that's really lived in Canada's far north. The pairing seems to depend on the candy colors and simple renderings in both. Never mind that one speaks of the dysfunction that affects native culture as it comes to grips with change. And the other's a walk in the park.

More Articles in this Series:

"Welcome to Babel" | "It's Still 'Contemporary'" | "Radical Public Art"

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