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Rabbit redux: Jeff Koons’ blow-up Rabbit. .

Witness to a Half-Century
By Rebecca Shepard

From Pop to Now: The Sonnabend Collection
The Tang Teaching Museum and Gallery, Skidmore College, through Sept. 29

Ileana Sonnabend has been called the “mom of pop.” In the early ’60s, she was the first to give pop artists a place to show their work, and as the stable of artists in her gallery grew, so did her own collection. She has said, “I am not really a dealer; I am an amateur, a word I use in the French sense: ‘one who loves.’ In this case it’s a love of art.” Now 87, Sonnabend has continued to be drawn to what is new and challenging (and often unmarketable) throughout her life.

The Tang Museum is presenting a significant portion of Sonnabend’s collection in an exhibit titled From Pop to Now, which will be on display through Sept. 29. Despite the title, which suggests a historical survey, the show is best viewed as one person’s passion—or, in Tang director and Pop to Now curator Charles Stainback’s words, “memoir as art collection.” That perspective allows you to take the pieces at face value, without trying to understand the past 50 years of artmaking as a cohesive whole (which would only frustrate you).

The works in the entry foyer send you ricocheting between sensibilities and decades, letting you know right off that this will not be a methodical trip through history. The pop pranksterism of Jeff Koons’ New Hoover Convertibles bumps up against the sensual gravity of Robert Morris’ minimalist Nine Fiberglass Sleeves. Installed high above is Roy Lichtenstein’s Wall Explosion, a cartoon blast in his trademark red, yellow and blue. Its placement is ingenious; you feel like you’re in the cartoon, and may find yourself exclaiming, “Oh Brad, I . . . I just don’t know what to think about all this art!”

After the preliminary shake-up, the first room presents a more focused approach, with works from the late ’50s and early ’60s by the likes of Rauschenberg, Rosenquist and Johns. Many pieces here look (figuratively) moldy and yellowed, no longer a part of current affairs. You can tell that once upon a time they shocked, pushing the parameters of canvas and materials. But now they look poignant, an archive suddenly come to light and blinking in the glare, the tender beginnings of something significant.

It is in the second room that these beginnings bear fruit, and the exhibit takes off. This room vibrates with color and energy. Koons’ shiny stainless-steel blow-up Rabbit greets you with an insouciant wit. Andy Warhol’s simulacra Boxes sport bold Kellogg’s and Brillo logos, and his Four Colored Campbell’s Soup Cans silkscreen is piquant in pinks, greens and oranges. In spite of Warhol’s parody of popular culture, what strikes me is how sweet and upbeat his images seem; he genuinely loved our burgeoning commercial culture, and found the streak of pure optimism amid the hype. But the highlight for me is Haim Steinbach’s Ultra Red #1 (1986), a simple but precise arrangement of enamel cooking pots, digital clocks and lava lamps on a custom-made shelf. The objects have rich cultural associations, but the piece is also a vivid arrangement of color, a Japanese garden of reds. Handsome and enigmatic, it speaks to all the other pieces in the room, incorporating Duchamp, conceptualism, pop, even color-field painting, but living as something entirely its own.

The third room is dominated by photography, most notably Bernd and Hilla Becher’s Water Towers (1988), a grid of 21 black-and-white prints of water towers viewed from the same head-on perspective and in the same overcast weather. This constant makes the eccentricities of shape and detail readily apparent, a deadpan documentation of the unexpected whimsies of industrial architecture.

On the mezzanine, Andrea Robbins’ and Max Becher’s photo diptych Co-Landscape —Arizona and Namibia presents the titular sites side-by-side, and it is startling to see that they are almost identical in their hilly, desertlike terrain. The image provokes a postmodern thought about how small the physical world is compared to our mental preconceptions of distance and otherness. Indeed, foremost among its attributes, From Pop to Now is an excellent photography exhibit, with far more engaging photographs than there is room to mention. This strength is no surprise, as Stainback came to the Tang after directing the International Center for Photography in New York. His introductory essay reveals his view that photographs are emblematic of all that is significant in latter 20th-century art: He states that the Pop to Now organizing principle was “to feature artworks that symbolized an artist’s move off the easel, out of the studio, away from the unique handmade object to works that increasingly were mechanically reproduced, namely photographs.” This view may give photography preferential treatment, but with interesting conceptual underpinnings and a high level of craftsmanship, the photographs here are phenomenal, confirming the progression of the medium from a perceived documentation of “reality” to a complex expression of an artist’s creative agenda.

Upstairs, the energy of the show dissipates somewhat. The problem seems twofold. First, the main room features a number of arte povera works, a conceptual approach that favored the use of modest materials and not a lot of manipulation. Taken together, these pieces look depressingly plain, and their anti-esthetic feels dogmatic. Beyond that, the installation choices do not encourage the lively connection of ideas and forms that is achieved in other rooms.

There are, however, a number of delights: Bruce Nauman’s My name as if it were written on the surface of the moon, a strip of neon featuring “bruce” written in cursive and stretched to 17 feet, suggests a wittily skewed conflation of ego, metaphysics and gravitational principles. Rona Pondick’s steel Dog, a self-portrait combined with stylized canine body, crouches in an alcove looking troubled by its own existence. But while engaging in themselves, in the context of the room’s arrangement these pieces feel like facile one-liners, and the enjoyment of them is over too quickly.

It’s interesting how collections reveal their owners. Seeing the work Ileana Sonnabend has amassed, you get the sense of a person who is smart, prescient, rather prickly, and not given to easy sentimentality; the artwork is also smart and prickly. And as presented here, the art is not always seen in context, which can leave some viewers feeling confused. Bear in mind that From Pop to Now is Charles Stainback’s view of what is significant from the past 50 years in art, filtered through Sonnabend’s daring collecting preferences. But whatever your interests—art, collections, or recent history—having so many seminal and celebrated works gathered in one place is a fantastic opportunity. This “memoir as art collection” is not to be missed.

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