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Eye To Eye With The Avante-garde

May 03, 1987|WILLIAM WILSON

The County Museum of Art is on a roll. Its new Robert O. Anderson Building for modern and contemporary art has galvanized both its architecture and its artistic character. In five months since its opening, a series of special exhibitions has tumbled into the museum like boot-camp recruits answering reveille.

Fall in for Picasso drawings and Renaissance bronzes. Dress right for "Treasures From the Holy Land." Double-time upstairs to the new graphics and photography galleries. Quickly, quickly to the basement for the new Rifkind Center for German Expressionist studies. Hup, hup, hup. Fall out for the smart Smooke collection "From Degas to Picasso."

The energy level of the place is amazing. Instead of taking a well-deserved breather after a major construction, it is functioning with the drive of the Met. Its inaugural modernist exhibition, "The Spiritual in Art," was a landmark look at metaphysics in modernism, intelligent and timely, despite notable muddling. Originated by museum curator Maurice Tuchman, it added itself to shows like "The Avant-Garde in Russia" and Stephanie Barron's "German Expressionist Sculpture" to prove that LACMA at its best rivals the Museum of Modern Art at its best.

But that's it for a while, right? Nobody can reasonably expect a museum to author shows of this quality more than every couple of years. Yes, but this museum is not currently reasonable; it is ecstatic. The mood has clearly seized young contemporary art curator Howard Fox. His first major exhibition grabs a very unruly bull by the short horns.

"Avant-Garde in the '80s" is the first exhibition known to me to have the guts to try to define the decade's Post-Modernism. Whatever may be said hereafter, it is an exhibition that moves Los Angeles to the forefront in the thoughtful evaluation of the present, an act that requires as much courage as brains. This exhibition combines the useful trendiness of the Whitney Biennial with the thematic boldness of Germany's Documentas. That the show raises questions and hackles on all sides is not as germane as the fact that it confronts the beast.

Fox has assembled about 150 works by almost as many artists, ranging from art-market superstars like Robert Longo and David Salle to indigenous chieftains like Roland Reiss and Masami Teraoka. The show is so crammed that it begins to feel like LACMA's energy has already overrun the new gallery space. It fans out vertiginously, scooping up European trans-avant-garde carpetbaggers like Francesco Clemente and Giulio Paolini and strains at its seams by stuffing in a bit of architecture in photos and models by the likes of Philip Johnson and Charles Moore.

Such surveys are messy by definition. The desire to see artists in depth is frustrated. The eye is overloaded, causing meltdown in the mental circuits. The only hope is that the exhibition's catalogue essay and arrangement of the works will blend into epiphanies of insight about the state of art and the condition of the cultural soul.

Fox's essay bravely undertakes to define the Post-Mod phenomenon. He says advanced artists of the '80s are particularly preoccupied with the notion of originality, questioning the crucial value placed on it by the old modernist avant-garde. They are concerned about the relationship of the artist to society, often rejecting the hermit-like outsider role, purposely played by pioneers from the Dadaists to the Abstract Expressionists, in favor of making art more accessible to a broad audience and more actively involved in the political and cultural life of the society.

"It may be," says Fox, "that contemporary artists are indeed engaged in creating an art that is related to a moral order, as were their predecessors. "

Unlike the subversive posture of the modernists, however, Fox suggests that the Post-Mod artist may be out to resume the role of the pre-modernist artist, "to sustain religious beliefs, perpetuate ethical values, maintain a historical continuity of the culture with its past and further the artistic traditions of that culture."

Somewhere between the words of the essay and the contents of the show an impression is created that is disturbingly conservative and judgmental. There is a vapor in the air that smells right-minded and wrong-headed, like John Gardner's essay, "On Moral Fiction."

Fox, perhaps inadvertently, sets the values of Mod and Post-Mod art into conflict. The Post-Mods are the white hats and Fox is their white knight.

As thoughtful and generally in the ballpark as Fox is, there is a serious gulf between the way the art is characterized and the way it comes across in the exhibition. Something similar happened in a show he organized in his old post at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington. It was called "Content," and Fox, who has an academic background in literature, was inclined to put more emphasis on ethical and verbal values that could be read into the art than on the visual and emotion wavelengths that emerged from it. Something like that is happening here.

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