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Material issue: Jeff Koons’ Baccarat Crystal Set.

Transform for Us
By David Brickman

Strangely Familiar: Approaches to Scale in the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York
New York State Museum, through June 29

It’s probably not a coincidence that nearly a third of the pieces in Strangely Familiar: Approaches to Scale in the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York are untitled, considering that so much of the work in the show succeeds by purporting not to be art at all.

The 10th installment of the Fleet Great Art Series at the New York State Museum, Strangely Familiar features about 30 pieces from the collection of the Modern that all date from the last four decades of the 20th century. The bulk of the work comes from the ’80s and ’90s, a period in which a movement often referred to as postmodernism held sway, resulting in hordes of people either being won over by or totally alienated from contemporary art.

This show is as good a demonstration as any as to why that happened. Because, among the names—both revered and notorious—in this selection, there is much to delight in and much to just look at and scratch your head in wonder (and then read the curator’s notes and perhaps scratch again). Part of the fun, though, is that you probably will make a completely different list of the delights and debacles than I did—and that’s what good ol’ postmodernism glories in.

Take No. 1 bad boy Jeff Koons, for example. Much reviled in his heyday, and for pretty good reason, this icon of the Me Decade seems to have held up surprisingly well through the test of time. His rather tame Baccarat Crystal Set shown here is a stainless-steel casting of decanters, ice bucket and drinking glasses, somewhat out of scale to each other, displayed together on a steel tray. Not too kitschy, not too shocking, just a solid representation of the Dada idea for found objects as art, and a pretty elegant one.

By subtly introducing the element of scale, Koons exemplifies a core issue that the show’s curator, Lilian Tone, emphasizes in her essay and the cogent, nicely written text accompanying the artworks. In fact, Koons does two key things to the crystal set: By altering the material, he transforms it, and by altering the scale, he slightly disorients the viewer. His purpose, one might assume—and that of the exhibition as a whole—is to get us to see things in a new way, which is largely the purpose of high art in general.

Time and again in this exhibition, the artists take everyday objects or archetypes and transform them. Many of them go to very extreme degrees of reproduction to accomplish this, which is ironic but nevertheless effective: If you create, say, a wooden facsimile of an art book so realistic as to be nearly impossible to distinguish from the real thing—e.g., Steve Wolfe’s 1999 Untitled (Cubism and Abstract Art)—but let the viewer know it’s a reproduction, you’ve undermined the viewer’s basic position vis-à-vis reality. After experiencing that faux book, one just might become a bit skeptical in the face of other accepted facts for the rest of the day (or longer).

Other examples of this technique of disorientation include Kiki Smith’s 1999 Yolk, where three yellow-orange glass lozenges perfectly imitate egg yolks; Robert Gober’s 1989 Cat Litter, a bag of same reproduced in plaster and paint, and 1992 Newspaper, in which Gober has created a bundle of what look just like newspapers ready for recycling, but which are in fact painstaking reproductions with changes in content and imagery; Robert Therrien’s No Title 1993, in which part of an ordinary wooden table has been recast as a monumental architectural element; and Things From the Room in the Back, in which Swiss artists Peter Fischli and Robert Weiss have re-created in polyurethane and paint objects unworthy of such attention, like orange peels, peanut shells, discarded video and cassette tapes, junky wooden pedestals and paint buckets.

In the same vein, but less effective, is another Gober piece from 1986 (this one untitled) that has re-created the artist’s idea of the prototypical child’s bed, such as the one that Goldilocks may have slept in. The gallery text makes much of the fact that the (male) artist sewed the sheets and pillowcase, thus appropriating traditional woman’s work. To that, I say, big whoop! It ought to take a lot more than being a guy who sews buttonholes to get into the Modern, and this boring bed is exactly the sort of work that reinforces many viewers’ beliefs that modern art isn’t very creative or impressive.

Which continues to be a big problem with art from pop to conceptualism, and particularly the “bad painting” of the ’80s (represented here by forward-thinking Neil Jenney’s 1970 piece Trash and Trashcan). Because, ultimately, art needs an audience—not just other artists and critics and so on, whom most of this type of work tends to appeal to, but regular folks too. The irony is that artists like Andy Warhol (who has four silkscreened boxes from 1964 in the show) used everyday objects in their work in order to popularize art and demystify the process of making it, not to create a subculture of people in on the joke.

In a nutshell, people want art to be about life as they know it, not about what goes on inside certain overeducated people’s heads and in the pages of esoteric publications. Go ahead, transform, confound, nullify, they might say—but do it in a way we can relate to. That’s why certain other works in this exhibition succeed where Gober’s bed doesn’t.

Laurie Simmons is one example. Her two black-and-white photographs from 1976-77 and 1989 are tours de force of efficiency and communication. The first, an 8-by-12-inch closeup of a doll in her dollhouse kitchen succeeds in making the mundane potently meaningful without trivializing it; the other, titled Walking House, is similarly created (here, a doll’s legs support a miniature suburban-style plastic house) but presented on a tremendous scale. It has rightly become one of the best-known images of the postfeminist generation of artists.

Simmons also contributes a set of 10 color photos made in collaboration with Allan McCollum in 1985. Titled Actual Photos, they are only about 6 inches by 9 inches but are extreme enlargements of their subjects, which are very tiny (about one-eighth-inch high) plastic figures made for train layouts, and which turn out in the enlargements to be horrifying grotesques.

McCollum also provides a piece of his own that is outstanding. His 1982-84 40 Plaster Surrogates recalls Malevich with its careful geometric arrangement of enameled hydrostone “paintings,” all of which are entirely black where the picture ought to be. Despite pulling the rug out from under our expectation of seeing an image inside each frame, McCollum’s piece is a tremendously satisfying aesthetic experience: You end up not caring that the imagery is missing, because the installation shows you something else worthwhile.

Another very strong piece in the show is a trio of wooden crates from 1994 by Richard Artschwager. This untitled sculpture at first appears to be the package, not the art. But the ascension from simple rectangular box on the floor, to more complicated and mysteriously shaped box leaning against the wall, to improbably angled box attached to a wall some 3 feet above our heads, helps us make the conceptual journey of discovery that the artist made before us.

And that, I believe, is what art is really all about.


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