"Directions 1983," which goes on view today at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, is a partly awful show. But its awfulness is useful. It includes work by the hottest of the younger art stars. One by one, they crash.
Julian Schnabel, David Salle and photographer Cindy Sherman have set New York atwitter. So have Robert Longo and Jonathan Borofsky. They've been incessantly discussed, incessantly promoted. The Hirshhorn is the first Washington museum to hang their pictures side by side.
According to the gush put out by their champions, theirs is the new art that's revived the avant-garde. It didn't take long.
"The eureka moment," writes critic Peter Schjeldahl in Vanity Fair, came in 1979 when Schnabel, "who at 31 is still the most controversial artist in the known universe," first showed at Mary Boone's gallery. "Through the breach made by Schnabel's broad shoulders has come the torrent," Schjeldahl continues. That torrent carried with it "media-related images" by Salle, Longo and Sherman that "had the feel of fire and ice, of emotional ferocity locked in gelid presentations." Rare indeed the artists who could survive such hype. These don't.
Longo is the best of them. His large figure drawings (based on photographs he took, but drawn by hired hands) are mysterious, graceful, chilling. Sherman is the weakest. Her play-acting self-portraits drip with ennui. Borofsky's giant flower painting, cloaked in bubble-wrap and duct tape, may well be the ugliest picture in the show, though Schnabel's Greek vase painting, "The Return from the Hospital" (1982), is not far behind. Perhaps this art, like wine, simply does not travel. Perhaps curator Phyllis D. Rosenzweig, who put the show together, subversively selected works that show these artists at their worst. At any rate, they do not have the look of masters. They cannot even bear the competition offered by the other artists--all of them less famous, some of them unknowns, such as Washington's Kendall Buster--who run off with the prizes in this otherwise intriguing, well-selected show.
The viewer does discover here that Schnabel and his ilk share a few small tricks. Schnabel's bows to Greece, Salle's house plans-superimposed-on-nudes, Longo's life-sized victims, Borofsky's giant ruby and Sherman's portraits of herself, promise narratives they do not deliver. And all these artists steal (the chic term is "appropriate") images and styles from art history and ads, pulp magazines and movies. Schnabel's biggest picture, on carpet mat and velvet, although full of verve, is really nothing more than an energetic rehash of '50s action-painting. Sherman loots the movies. Salle, in "A Number of My Subjects," appears to combine borrowings from sources as diverse as Brice Marden, Tom Downing and soft-porn magazines.
These pessimistic pictures--and those of Ida Applebroog, and California's Pierre Picot--are intentionally disjunctive. Field paintings of a sort, they use their stolen elements--a window shade, a golden hand, a row of discs, a skyscraper--as one might use parentheses to open up a mental void into which the gullible can pour anything at all. Their look is big and brash. But they are empty at the core.
Rosenzweig's 17-artist exhibition is installed in four sections. The first, "Melodrama," includes Longo, Salle, Sherman, Applebroog's storyless cartoons and the mildly amusing plays upon Pearl Harbor Day of Alexis Smith. The second, "Expressionisms," becomes, as soon as one gets by Schnabel's gestures and Borofsky's giant crudities, a rather mild and restrained account of the "neo-expressionist" painting now so much in vogue. It is in its last half that this show begins to fly.
The viewer, by now thirsty for the well-made, the benign and the unpretentious, will find the third part of this show as cleansing and refreshing as a cool drink of water. Scott Burton's "Granite Settee" is exactly that, a monumental, comfortable sculpture full of references to geology, to thrones, to well-considered elegance. And--or so it seems, in the context of this show--it offers a respite to the beat-the-viewer bombast of the art that came before. Siah Armajani's doors and windows are modest, beautiful, well-made. They manage to suggest, in thoughtful, subtle ways, the anonymous master craftsmen who built this nation's homes. They conjure elm-lined streets and quiet, light-filled days. Judith Shea's handmade and hand-colored shirts, vests and trouser legs are not particularly original--the idea goes back to Duchamp--but they look fine on the wall. And Robert Wilhite's furniture, his chairs and lamps and tables, also help remind that there is ample room for the useful and the handsome in the realm of art.
The large installations in the show's last section, "Real Space/Illusion," greatly entertain. Anita Thacher's slide show (with music by David Byrne, the head head of The Talking Heads) uses lap dissolves, colored light and a simple story to eerily, effectively transform an empty room.
Then comes Kendall Buster. She graduated from the Corcoran in 1981, she does not yet have a dealer, and yet her witty and ambiguous walk-through installation is as strong as any work by any of the big-name artists in this show. It is a sort of stage set, half sinister, half playful. Buster, in this handsome piece, skillfully deploys forced baroque perspectives, complicated shadows (some painted, others cast by light), wall-size field paintings, tricks of vision and of memory, and bows to the inventions of the early Russian avant-garde.
The exhibit ends with a less successful installation by New York's Elyn Zimmerman. She, too, plays with perceptions, with walls and depths and shadows that shift in pleasing ways as one walks through her space. But Zimmerman's materials--masonry walls, steel screens, fancy lights and gravel beds--are so heavy that they make the soft effects she aims for seem extremely slight.
"Directions 1983," the third such exhibition mounted by the Hirshhorn, is certainly uneven. But that is its chief virtue. It reminds us of the difference between the kindly and the gross, the shallow and the thoughtful. And it gives us a good look at the arid chic of the phony avant-garde. It closes May 15.