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At Whitney Museum of American Art, a consistency in excellence

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Thursday, July 22, 2010

MoMA has been turning out plenty of fine shows. Before the splendors of Matisse there were excellent ventures into Marina Abramovic, Gabriel Orozco, the Bauhaus, Aernout Mik and others.

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It has also had its share of duds.

A New York institution that seems to be pushing even further, harder, more consistently has been the Whitney Museum of American Art. Its surveys of Gordon Matta-Clark, Dan Graham and Roni Horn already feel like landmarks in contemporary art. Its roster right now is typical of the Whitney's pavement-to-roof excellence.

The top floor has a show of the sound artist Christian Marclay, one of the best figures working today. In the world of experimental DJs, he's best known as a pioneer of turntable tricks, but he also has made lots of spectacular, winning artworks: a four-screen compilation of Hollywood's noisiest moments; a moving video where Marclay drags a "live" electric guitar behind a speeding pickup truck until it dies. Those aren't in the Whitney exhibition, however. Instead, its curators are taking chances on works that pretty much get made during the show. One wall of a huge gallery has been turned into a blackboard ruled as music paper. Visitors are invited to "compose" on it -- with musical notes or any other kind of mark they want -- and professional musicians then come in to play the bizarre scores that result.

In another piece, the Whitney is showing Marclay's collection of secondhand ties and sweaters and dresses that feature musical notes. Those scores, too, will be "played" by musicians, during a kind of fashion parade.

This isn't the side of Marclay that is easiest to understand, which is a fine reason for the Whitney to give it such close attention.

The Whitney's middle floor is devoted to a touring show of the works of Charles Burchfield, the illustrator, wallpaper designer and "regionalist" painter who hit his stride in the 1920s. He is a fascinating, disconcerting figure who sidesteps all the critical cliches that work for dealing with most art. The Whitney is showing several of his later watercolor landscapes, which are reworkings and expansions of expressive paintings he made as a young man. They are slippery even by Burchfield's standard.

And on its lowest exhibition level, the Whitney is featuring "Off the Wall: Part 1--Thirty Performative Actions," pulled from its permanent collection. Most such shows are built around a premise just strong enough to hold their miscellaneous works together. The Whitney's version feels tighter than that, truly exploring a crucial tradition in the history of art that had artists such as Cindy Sherman, Robert Longo and Vito Acconci performing their art as they made it.

-- Blake Gopnik


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