Being myself partial to Botticellian hair, and views looking out to sea, and nudes, and starry skies (sights that stab my being before they reach my mind), I now report, with pleasure, that Beauty's back in art.
She's been missing for a while. Startled into flight by the impudence of Dada, and shattered by Picasso, Beauty has been having a hard time for most of this century.
Beauty used to be what art was all about. But that's gone out of fashion. Artists used to seek her out in limpid pools, and draperies, and Greek white-marble statues, but shock art now makes headlines, and nudes are viewed as sexist, and beauty is elitist, say the politically correct.
"The impulse of modern art," explained the painter Barnett Newman in 1948, "is the desire to destroy beauty." Or at least to beat her up.
But not to worry. Beauty, it turns out, has taken all of this in stride.
That Beauty is still crucial to the enterprise of art is the notion at the core of "Regarding Beauty: A View of the Late 20th Century," the 25th-anniversary exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.
Its true subject is a hidden struggle, a kind of hidden battle fought beyond our sight.
Artists, we discover here, haven't given up on Beauty. They've been wrestling with her constantly. Some have hymned her, some instead have tweaked her, some have tried to hack her, but every single one of the artists in this show, in one way or another, has remained in Beauty's thrall.
"People do things to her but she can endure it, she can stand it, it doesn't affect her, mutilated as she is," wrote the sculptor Louise Bourgeois in 1985.
In the exhibit at the Hirshhorn, Beauty's ancient vehicles--her waterfalls and nudes and Greek white-marble statues, her vastnesses and mist-wrapped hills and famously fine women (Marilyn, Grace Kelly)--are everywhere acknowledged. Harshness is here, too. So is self-indulgence. What makes this show important is that Beauty, so long missing from the discourse of the art world, is a constant flowing presence here, bountiful and bruised, sweeping through the art.
"Regarding Beauty" opens with a vision of historical frustration. The first piece one encounters (a 1980 installation by Jannis Kounellis), is a doorway clogged with the detritus of antiquity, with bits of broken marble, whitened Aphrodites and pale plaster casts. Greek and Roman sculpture was once thought a door to beauty, but that portal is now blocked. The exhibition closes, in a mood of sweetness unabashed, with a new piece by Jim Hodges, a white wall strewn with flowers, like a pathway for a bride.
Beauty can be thwarting, stale, heavy, dead. Beauty can be lovely as a perfumed garden breeze. She is also here encountered in a more modern guise--as Beauty with an attitude.
The confident young woman who walks along a Zurich street in a video display by Switzerland's Pipilotti Rust holds aloft a flower, which is, of course, a symbol--an emblem of her loveliness and transitory beauty--but isn't only that. It's also a weapon, a weapon of Beauty-power. Every now and then, with a smile of pure joy, she swings it like a mace and magically that fragile bloom bashes out the windows of innocent parked cars.
Charles Ray's standing woman, hands on hips, has Beauty-power, too. Her lipstick is unmussed. Her stare is unforgiving. Mess with her, she seems to say, and you do so at your peril. She is fully eight feet tall.
Though stars in the night sky, and country barns, and clouds, are visions without gender, Beauty in the West has been personified for many centuries as feminine. And distilled into the curve--as if the flowing curves of a marble Aphrodite, or a fall of heavy drapery, or a petal's rounded edge, or a line drawn by Picasso, were somehow of a piece.
In "Beauty Objectified," the first part of this display, it is the Beauty of the female form, and that of the nude (and in the case of Lucian Freud's "Benefits Supervisor Sleeping" the anti-beauty of obesity), that carries the most charge. Here are Andy Warhol's Mona Lisas, as well as his "Gold Marilyn," and Cindy Sherman's starlets, and Yves Klein's paint-smeared women serving as live brushes. These halls are filled with goddesses of many different kinds.
Some of these are monstrous, for instance Willem de Kooning's toothy nude, and some of them seem ancient, for instance Louise Bourgeois's sphinxlike "She-Fox," and some are clothed with wit.
Wittiest of all are those of Janine Antoni, who is represented here by 14 life-size busts, each a classical self-portrait worn by passing time. Seven seem to be of bronze, seven of white marble, until you catch their smell. Her work's called "Lick and Lather," for the bronze ones are of chocolate, and the white ones are of soap, and it wasn't only passing time that wore their features down.
It's been 30,000 years since the Ice Age carver of the Venus of Willendorf, that rounded hand-held nude, first took the unclothed human body as his potent subject. The nudes in this exhibit are, of course, much newer, and more contradictory in message, but all are somehow kin to all the other nudes in all of Western art.
The Beauty of geometry is another sort of Beauty--colder, more severe, and less tied to the miracle of feminine fruition. The Beauties one encounters in "Regarding Beauty's" second chapter are those of endless oceans, and just as endless skies, and color for its own sake, and of recent abstract art.
Agnes Martin's gold-leafed grids have a Beauty beyond questioning. So do Vija Celmins's drawings of the waves of cold gray seas, and Hiroshi Sugimoto's glowing photographs of oceans, and the environment of colored light installed by James Turrell, just bought by the museum, which seems part wedge in empty space and part blood-red sunset burning in the wall.
John Baldessari's "Pure Beauty" (1967-68), a white and empty canvas bearing those two words, has a smile in its seriousness, as Andy Warhol's painting done by urination contains a schoolboy's naughtiness, and Gerhard Richter's abstract art is chilled in its restraint, but these works are exceptions. This abstract art, or most of it, is earnest in its motives, deeply mindful of the beautiful, meant to invoke awe.
Beauty can be old and dead. The Pyramids are beautiful. Beauty can be abstract, timeless, and invisible, as in a proof in mathematics. Beauty can be juvenile. "Men's ideas of beauty," Fran Lebowitz observed in 1997, "are forever rooted in high school." Beauty can be raucous. "Artists always want to do things that are forbidden," said the painter Ed Ruscha. "They want to be tough, they want to break rules, and when it's done right, it can be truly beautiful."
Beauty can't be pinned. No single definition can be stretched enough to wrap around the many meanings of the word, but Beauty is still real. It's a sort of visitation, both familiar and miraculous. You know it's present when it grabs.
"To feel beauty is a better thing than to understand how we come to feel it," wrote the philosopher George Santayana in 1896.
It grabs often in this show. Neal Benezra, the Hirshhorn's assistant director for art and public programs, and associate curator Olga M. Viso, who together picked its objects, might well have included more line drawing, and not so many photographs, Matthew Barney's in particular, but these are small complaints. That their exhibition summons Beauty--in peacefulness or struggle, in so many different guises--is a victory achieved.
The Hirshhorn is fortunate. Its director, James T. Demetrion, is a museum professional of scrupulous intelligence. And one sees that in his shows. "Regarding Beauty" is no exception. It is hip and smart and careful. Neither radical nor retrograde, it walks a middle line.
"Regarding Beauty" dodges battle. It doesn't declare war on the art that's been approved by the contemporary-art establishment. It reinterprets it instead.
Benezra and Viso have gone for the same mix of startles and scavengings, performance art and word art and video projections, that visitors might expect to find in any other survey of art since 1960. Their artists aren't surprises--Lichtenstein and Warhol, Picasso and de Kooning, Polke and Freud, Richter and Bourgeois--though they've also introduced a few less familiar although worthy names, Beverly Semmes, for instance. They've acknowledged feminism. And multiculturalism. They've included in their show artists from around the world--from New York and Los Angeles, Tokyo and Turin, London and Cologne--and lots of Cindy Shermans. None of this is new.
What is new in this exhibit--and somehow ancient, too--is the unexpected power of this contemporary art.
When we recognize the Beautiful we do so with our thoughts--our memories, our biases, our attitudes toward paint, and fashion, and photography, are, of course, engaged--but Beauty reaches deeper. Our reaction to the Beautiful, elusive as she is, is somehow physiological, a response of the body more than of the mind. No wonder artists need her, and cannot do without her. If you've ever felt her presence, you know just what I mean.
"Regarding Beauty: A View of the Late 20th Century" will travel to Germany, to the House of Art in Munich, after closing at the Hirshhorn on Jan. 18.
In "Regarding Beauty: A View of the Late 20th Century" at the Smithsonian Institution's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, at Independence Avenue and Seventh Street SW, 36 artists of our era wrestle age-old questions: What is beautiful? And why? The exhibition, which celebrates the Hirshhorn's 25th anniversary, includes 88 objects all made since 1960. More than five hours of film and video will also be shown in conjunction with the exhibition, which closes Jan. 18. "Regarding Beauty," organized by assistant director Neal Benezra and associate curator Olga M. Viso, is accompanied by a 232-page catalogue ($36.95). Major funding for the show was provided by the Holenia Exhibition Fund in memory of Joseph H. Hirshhorn; Robert Lehrman; and the Hill Family Foundation. A grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts helped pay for the catalogue. The media-arts gallery was funded by the Peter Norton Family Foundation. The Hirshhorn is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. For information call 202-357-2700. Admission is free.