ON KAWARA AT THE GUGGENHEIM
It's perhaps embarrassing to admit but New York pretty much means only two things to me: art and food. Should you ask me what shows I'll be seeing I always muff the answer. I assume 'exhibitions' when the asker more often means 'If/Then' or 'Beautiful'. Ask me where I shop, and I actually do have an answer but honestly, it's not why I go. I go to see art and to eat wildly good food. And so it was on a recent long weekend when I got to eat, see a lot of art and as it happens one perfect exhibition.
It is not often that an exhibition changes everything—the way you see and understand an artist’s work, the way you see and understand an exhibition space and, indeed, the way in which you see and understand an aesthetic movement. Yet this was just the experience I had a couple of weeks ago when I was at the Guggenheim to see On Kawara--Silence. It struck me as perhaps the most perfectly poised show I have ever seen.
Which has me thinking of my experience with exhibitions as framing devices and how fundamentally distinct this has been from my interest in a given artist’s work or my grasp of the curator’s intent. Perhaps more simply put--it has me thinking of the many ways there are to love exhibitions.
There are the blockbusters with their catnip appeal of cultural excitement. The first blockbuster I remember seeing was arguably the first of the genre: MOMA’s Picasso Retrospective in 1980. Everyone with even a peripheral interest in contemporary culture felt they simply had to see this show. It was so fun and exciting to stand in line in the summer sun waiting your turn. The buzz was almost physical. Truth be told, though, Picasso’s value has always had a certain opaqueness for me and I do not recall the show changing this in any way. I might as well have been looking at the 1000 plus works in the pages of a book. This was not necessarily the exhibition’s fault—I’m on record—I have no affinity for this artist’s work, notwithstanding his status amongst the immortals. But really who cares whether or not this was any one’s ‘fault’? I didn’t and still don’t. I was there along with everyone else and it was great, great fun. And it was the first time I understood that this might be enough for an exhibition—for it to be the cultural equivalent of a great big county fair: fun, crowded and boisterous and where everybody, simply everyone, comes to see the show.
So if that was for me a somewhat aesthetically inert experience what of the other kind—the sort that in some way grabs the cultural moment and slings forward? My own personal most perfect example of this is without a doubt the Pacific Standard Time (PST) series of exhibitions in 2011 and 2012. A proposed collaboration initially generated by the Getty to a few fellow museums, PST grew—and in a very short time—to involve over sixty institutions across Southern California all engaged in documenting the story of the California art scene, post-war to 1980. This series of exhibitions not only had a number of excellent individual shows--Now Dig This at the Hammer Museum; California Design 1930-1965: ‘Living in a Modern Way’ at LACMA and Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974-1981 at LAMOCA to name but a few--but collectively it could be said to have re-framed our understanding of the last several decades of American art. Roberta Smith’s review in the New York Times was, in fact, titled A New Pin On The Art Map—and almost every artist who had a significant presence in one or more PST show has seen a complete and upward reevaluation of his or her career.
So back to the On Kawara show which is neither county fair nor I suspect an exhibition that will fundamentally change or inform the larger cultural moment--and if it does that is not why I loved it. Quite simply, though, to me it was perfect. Conceptual art can so easily seem like a lazy man’s one-off trick. You say an idea and if someone buys or exhibits it then it becomes art. I was aware of Kawara’s work and given its central unalterable fixation on the experience and recording of time it has always had its appeal for me. But it has been until now the vague, sort of luke-warm-ish appeal of the ‘oh, yes, I get it’ variety. To see as one does in the Guggenheim exhibition a thorough and utterly comprehensive survey of his work is to understand in a true sense the currently fashionable art word ‘practice’. The works produce by this artist are not expressions of various and/or random ideas about time but rather an entire disciplined and immersive approach to living a life within the structure of these ideas about the nature of time and our experience of it. And here is where the Guggenheim itself adds inseparably to the experience. You move through the exhibition in very much the way we move through time itself in this ever-accumulating spiral of sight and experience until it ends at the top of what you have by now more or less managed to forget is a museum at all, it having merged with the work as an experienced whole.
For a far more comprehensive review please see Life Captivated By The Wonder Of Time, as it happens another Roberta Smith review from the NYTIMES. One of the most glowing—even joyful—reviews I can remember.
Go see this show if you are in New York. It’s really terrific. Up through May 3rd.