Blake Gopnik surveys fall 2009 contemporary art in N.Y.C.

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By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 22, 2009

The term "contemporary art" no longer refers to the art of the moment. It refers to a certain kind of art, born in the late 1960s, that's got a particular look and feel and way of doing things attached to it -- every bit as much as "Renaissance" or "baroque" art do. Watercolors of boats at anchor, or even heartfelt abstractions, don't really count as "contemporary art"; close-up photos of old pennies do.

Anyone looking for a crash course on the "contemporary" should head to New York City over the coming weeks. A recent blitz of the city's nonprofits and commercial spaces revealed one of the best seasons in years.

* * *

Performance art and '1969' at P.S.1

Right now, an art trip to New York needs to start with the better part of a day spent at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, in a huge old school in Queens.

The repurposed classrooms on its third floor are hosting "100 Years (version #2, ps1, nov 2009)," a survey of the first century of performance art. Don't be put off by the awkward title -- or by the unpromising-sounding subject. The glory of this show is that it lets you take in the very greatest hits of this influential art form, without also having to sit through some naked guy in a Batman mask peeling 1,000 bananas. The performances, dating from the first days of futurism, before World War I, up through Matthew Barney and beyond, are mostly on video, sometimes projected but also filling room after room of monitors. That means you can spend a few minutes watching Trisha Brown and her dancers walking across the walls of the Whitney Museum in 1971, move on to see the entire tape of Chris Burden getting shot in the arm, and then graze through any number of more current works, from Vanessa Beecroft's creepy accumulations of naked fashion models to a video of Sweden's Klara Liden doing wild dances in a commuter train, to the surprise of fellow riders.

One floor down, a survey show called "1969" fills us in on the more static origins of contemporary art. For this show, P.S.1 has plundered the collections at the Museum of Modern Art, with which it is affiliated, pulling out works from that watershed year. The show doesn't really give an evenhanded view of the art of that moment: It's short on all the splashy abstractions many MoMA curators would in fact have been admiring. Instead, "1969" gives a wonderful survey of the 40-year-old art that happens to matter most to us now, mostly of a conceptual or political bent. Carl Andre's floor works, Gerhard Richter's prints and Nam June Paik's experiments in video were crucial steps on the way to where we are today. Both shows continue through April 5. http://www.ps1.org.

Mike Kelley and Michael Smith at SculptureCenter

Performance art and late-'60s counterculture are very much at the root of a huge new installation being shown at SculptureCenter, a nonprofit in a huge industrial space a few blocks from P.S.1. Mike Kelley, one the most prominent art provocateurs in Los Angeles, and Michael Smith, a veteran avant-gardist based in Brooklyn and Austin, have teamed up to make "A Voyage of Growth and Discovery." Once again assuming a persona he calls Baby Ikki, Smith paid a visit to the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert. Six giant projections show us Smith, clad in a diaper and sucking on a pacifier, as he toddles wide-eyed through this festival of bizarre adult (mis)behavior. Blaring techno music and a setting of vaguely geodesic sculptures help complete the bizarre but irresistible effect. Through Nov. 30. http://www.sculpture-center.org.

Spencer Finch at Postmasters

Spencer Finch is at the opposite extreme from the noise of Kelley and Smith. His art whispers. Think of him as the Vermeer or Chardin of contemporary art. He's due to be featured next fall at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, but his latest Chelsea show makes a good introduction. It includes two casual-looking photos of a sunlit studio wall, shot identically but 24 hours apart. Only the shadows are different, quietly marking the 2.56 million kilometers Earth traveled on its orbit in that time. A nearby ceiling piece, also astronomical, shines 384 LEDs, of different colors and intensities, down through holes in the bottoms of suspended soup cans. Look up and you see a perfect re-creation of the constellations Hector and Achilles would have seen as they fought before the gates of Troy in about 1200 B.C.

In a darkened back gallery, Finch re-creates the light that's cast at night onto his studio wall in Brooklyn. Shining through a cardboard cutout of his studio window, naked light bulbs stand in for streetlights; a flashlight crudely taped to a model train replaces the moving headlights of passing cars. Through Nov. 28. http://www.postmastersart.com.

Simon Starling at Casey Kaplan

The latest show by this British conceptualist based in Copenhagen is titled "Red White Blue." It focuses on a tangled web of connections between works by British sculptor Henry Moore at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington and at the Hiroshima City Museum in Japan. The heart of Simon Starling's show is a huge, Calder-like mobile that balances a half-scale bronze model of Moore's "Atom Piece" (from Hiroshima) against two half-size copies of Hirshhorn pieces known as "Fallen Warrior" and "Bridge Prop." The back story -- about the Hirshhorn's founding by a uranium tycoon, the origins of "Atom Piece" as a tribute to atomic fission and Moore's role as a sponsor of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament -- is as important as the objects on display.


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