The County Museum of Art needed a blockbuster to launch its new Robert O. Anderson Building for Modern and Contemporary Art. Not just your ordinary razzle-dazzle strew of twinkly treasures. Something smart. Something with a touch of originality. Something to plant the new LACMA's banner on the terrain of modern arts movers and shakers.
Fat chance. Concocting such a brew within the harum-scarum din of bulldozers, cranes and cement mixers putty-putting around all that new construction? How could anybody achieve even ordinary cerebral function, much less brilliance, amid such racket and disruption?
Well, some people thrive on adversity, and evidently LACMA's chief curator, Maurice Tuchman, is among them. In tandem with his associate Judi Freeman and an international team of a dozen scholars, he whipped up "The Spiritual in Art," a large but not unwieldy survey of some 350 artworks and books dedicated to the proposition that the abstract art made since 1890 actually means something.
Rubbish. Every right-thinking red-blooded American knows that abstract art is a vacuous hoax perpetrated by charlatans and consumed by sissies.
Balderdash. Each properly trained, visually literate person of taste, intelligence and cultivation suckled upon the austere critical doctrines of Clement Greenberg knows that abstract art exists for its own sweet sake. Ars gratia Artis . Has the glorious Frank Stella himself not suggested the equivalent of "What you see is what you get"?
"Benighted error!" intones the exhibition. Abstract art, at least a lot of it and especially in the beginning, represents modern mankind's search for the transcendent in a world despairing of the promises of conventional religion. This hypothesis is posited, illuminated, illustrated, argued, evoked and cajoled in artworks ranging from the flaming landscapes of Edvard Munch to the ecstatic galaxies of Wassily Kandinsky and the cool structures of Piet Mondrian. It is pressed forward in the monosyllabic images of Russian radicals and the glowing ruminations of American votaries.
If the show had no theme at all it would be illuminating just to contemplate a splendidly assembled group that sweeps from such rarities as delicately enervated Art Nouveau illustrations by Jan Toorop to Marcel Duchamp's sardonic bicycle wheel or the ritual atonement in Joseph Beuys.
But the show (which spearheads today's public opening of the new Anderson Building) has a theme that is pursued with remarkable clarity and intelligence in a 435-page book catalogue that establishes itself instantly as the standard work on the subject and a must for every serious art library. In it, Tuchman and the others set forth evidence of linkage between radical abstract art and a wide spectrum of occult and mystical movements that fascinated the modern mind.
Mondrian and Kandinsky were both actively interested in Theosophy. Paul Serusier was magnetized to sacred geometry. Abstract Expressionists such as Barnett Newman and Jackson Pollock were drawn to the rituals behind American Indian art and to Jung's theories of the mythic archetype. Scarcely a California artist exists who has not been affected by notions of Zen.
Anyone familiar with the lexicon of modernism already knows all this. One senses it early on in the work itself and finds confirming literature in such classic tracts as Kandinsky's "Concerning the Spiritual in Art." This exhibition is important for taking a pervasive and obvious idea and delving into it, pro and con. In that way and several others, it resembles the Museum of Modern Arts 1984 "Primitivism and Twentieth Century Art." Both are landmarks of curatorial aptitude that touch a central nerve in the modernist aesthetic.
"Primitivism" kicked up an intellectual ruckus and with any luck at all "The Spiritual" will do the same because controversy is the blessed fruit of those rare exhibitions that actually set us thinking. "Primitivism" took the noble risk of suggesting that future generations might come to regard the glories of modernism as nothing more than a decadent Euro-American rip-off of tribal art. "The Spiritual" dares to allow us to entertain the idea that our best art is nothing but cult objects from a failed surrogate religion produced by superstitious flakes and isn't it funny they made the show out there in Lotusland where they once had a chief executive called Gov. Moonbeam, har-har.
What prevents such caricature from congealing into perceived fact is the poetic success of the work itself. At best, it is never about the substance of the various metaphysics that might have inspired it but about some humane essence that transcends specific ideologies. Significantly, virtually none of the cult organizations that fed these artistic imaginations took any interest in the product. The Theosophists didn't give a fig about Kandinsky's art.