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Art Review : Bridges Fail To Link 'More Than Meets Eye'

July 22, 1987|LEAH GOLDMAN

SAN DIEGO — Museums have assumed several different functions throughout their 2,000-year-old history, serving originally as the ancient Greek home of the muses and in later centuries as houses of amusement.

Evolving from a place of study and learning to a cabinet of curiosities, the museum has landed in the present era as the host of blockbuster exhibitions marketed with Wall Street's commercial acumen and Hollywood's flair. The art museum, for a variety of reasons economic and cultural, is suffering an identity crisis, trying to be both entertainer and educator, financially viable and intellectually credible.

The San Diego Museum of Art has had trouble with this balancing act, and in recent years has tended to favor the light and easily digestible at the expense of more substantive, challenging fare.

But one of its programs this summer, "More Than Meets the Eye: History and the Permanent Collection," attempts to redress the imbalance by putting the museum back in touch with the educational side of its nature. Sponsored by Great American First Savings Bank and curated by the museum's education department, "More Than Meets the Eye" attempts to provide historical context for works in the permanent collection through the use of video stations and photo kiosks in the galleries, expanded labels on selected works and a vigorous schedule of art historical and other specialized lectures.

In adopting this approach, the museum shows that it recognizes its audience's need for connecting links between the world outside the museum and the objects displayed within it. But recognition of a need is only the first step toward solving it and, unfortunately, the museum's subsequent steps are embarrassing stumbles. "More Than Meets the Eye" is well-intended but so superficial that it defeats its purpose, creating more voids than bridges to cross them.

The program's fundamental flaw lies in its emphasis on facts rather than ideas. The expanded wall labels next to selected works do not deal with the artists, techniques or contents of the works, but instead list a variety of events that occurred during the same years as their creation.

Next to Georgia O'Keeffe's 1935 painting "Purple Hills Near Abiquiu," for instance, hangs a new label with the information that 1935 was also the year that Persia changed its name to Iran, Huey Long was assassinated and the opera "Porgy and Bess" was written. Such dates and facts do not automatically congeal into concepts and meaning, as the museum's curators must have hoped. Instead, they show history and the permanent collection as entirely separate entities, having no impact upon each other.

The video programs and wall labels in the galleries of 20th-Century art are particularly disappointing because here viewers seem to require greater ease of access into the work, ways of relating to its unconventional forms. This could have been accomplished if the videos, photo kiosks and wall labels had used specific works in the collection to demonstrate how social, political and economic conditions affect the creation of art. But instead, they isolate history from art and ignore their interrelationship.

The video program begins with a segment describing the political evolution of World War I. After a brief pause, the second segment begins, skipping to 1929 to discuss the political prelude to World War II. Not even a mention is given to the artistic expressions evoked during these periods of turmoil and instability--the cynicism of Dada, the spiritual idealism of German Expressionism, or Surrealism's escape into the dream world. The historical data presented thus lacks any cultural dimension whatsoever.

The last video segment in this gallery deals with communication and space travel, concentrating on how advances in communication systems have so dramatically altered and expanded our vision of the world. Just across the room from the video station hangs Robert Rauschenberg's assemblage, "Cloister Series-Rush 12" (1980), a large amalgam of disparate photo-silkscreened images.

The work suggests that the media's instantly transmitted barrage of imagery may bring distant phenomena closer, but it doesn't necessarily make them more comprehensible. The video examines this same notion, but makes no reference to the Rauschenberg or any other works of art with similar themes.

"More Than Meets the Eye" is an extravagant display of lost opportunities. This would have been an ideal time to highlight the collection's strengths, its four Georgia O'Keeffe paintings, or its three Francisco de Zurburans. A paragraph or two describing these artists and their milieus would have done much more to give these works coherence and to bring them to life than displaying them next to a facilely compiled list of coincident events in history.

The museum has made a worthy effort with this program, however imperfect, and should be encouraged to manifest its concern for contextual understanding of art throughout its future programming. "More Than Meets the Eye" continues through Aug. 23.

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