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ART REVIEW : 'Selections I' Prods the Mind, Not the Spirit

February 11, 1988|LEAH OLLMAN

LA JOLLA — "Selections From the Permanent Collection I" at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art is a show that elicits respect more than passion.

Most of the work exhibited in this first of two installments adheres to the "what-you-see-is-what-you-get" aesthetic prevalent in art of the 1960s and early '70s. The work isn't meant to stir the spirit but to prod the mind into re-examining traditional definitions of art and formal expression.

Culled from the museum's 3,500-piece collection of works made since 1950, "Selections I" focuses unevenly on several different movements in art, casting long stares in some directions and only fleeting glances in others.

Curators Ronald Onorato and Lynda Forsha have geared the show to dwell the longest on Minimalist art, an area of particular depth in the museum's collection and a movement characterized by cool, emotionless detachment.

Nevertheless, the exhibition does have its quietly exhilarating moments, especially when the stark geometric forms of Minimalism appear alongside more recent works that rest on that movement's foundations but stretch its boundaries to embrace wider, more humanistic concerns.

The legacy explored by these "Post-Minimalists" is well defined here by a 1972 Donald Judd aluminum and steel construction of calculated regularity; one of an endless series of permutations on the grid form by Sol LeWitt (1976), and Carl Andre's notorious "Magnesium Zinc Plain" (1969), an orderly formation of metal squares laid out like a checkerboard of floor tiles.

John McCracken's acrylic and wood planks (1970) lean stolidly against a gallery wall, while Dan Flavin's blue and yellow fluorescent tubing of the same year straddles a corner. Both stubbornly refuse to have a dialogue with the outside world, preferring instead to comment only on art's internal history.

All of these works disown the heavy emotional baggage carried by art of the preceding, Abstract Expressionist generation, and point the way toward a form of expression or exploration in which the art object argues itself out of existence.

In one of the museum galleries, a dramatic face-off occurs between Expressionist and Minimalist camps. Three gestural paintings by John Altoon (1958-9), two wood-scrap and paint works by Edward Kienholz (1955-7) and a musty nylon and junk assemblage by Bruce Conner (1960) are pitted against a wall of spare, Minimalist works.

A subtle Robert Irwin painting of a single tone offset by two raised lines (1962); black and white hard-edge paintings by John McLaughlin (1964) and Leon Polk Smith (1956), and the cool, obsessively patterned paintings of Agnes Martin (1962) blink coldly at the impassioned physicality of their neighbors.

In the midst of this civil war between styles, Jake Berthot's 1971 painting "Brown Horse, Silver Dragons" offers a breath of fresh air, a stroke of moderation and mediation between the room's two extremes.

Minimal in format but sensual in execution, the canvas is dominated by an atmospheric surface of warm, foggy gray. An inset square that interrupts the canvas's rectangular border is defined by a light, narrow line and a greenish tinge clinging to its edge.

Berthot's work airs out the sterile rigidity of Minimalist painting, making room for intuitive gesture, sensory response, beauty and worldly--if not otherworldly--associations.

Mary Corse, in her 1986 "Untitled (White Painting from the Grid Series)," exhibits a similar balance between respect for and rebellion against the Minimalist legacy.

In broad, gestural strokes, she has applied a shimmering, granular surface (micron glass spheres in acrylic) to a large, white canvas divided into equal quadrants. The resulting surface gleams like the phosphorous residue of the tide on fine beach sand.

Brilliantly placed next to the museum's span of windows facing the ocean, Corse's work glimmers and shifts according to the changing conditions of light and the position of the viewer. This combination of a square, static format with an animated, fluid surface results in a subtle and absorbing work, resonant with the California tradition of "Light and Space" art.

Another example of second-generation work imbued with a hand-hewn sensuousness that the first round never deigned is Ron Cooper's "Light Trap 8210" (1982), a polyester resin, fiberglass and plexiglass construction that, when viewed directly, hints of murky, limitless ocean depths.

In actuality, the mottled greenish-blue surface is only a synthetic panel suspended a few inches in front of another, this one black. Air and light are held captive in the intervening space, yielding a captivating illusion of depth and motion.

Although the Minimalist work exhibited here has undisputed significance, it is the inclusion of the so-called Post-Minimalist works that saves the show from a potentially deadening regularity and reveals the curatorial insight of its organizers.

Richard Serra's imposing 1976 drawing for Documenta VI, Jene Highstein's 1981 charcoal drawing of an ovoid mass (rendered biomorphic rather than geometric) and others present a dialogue with the earlier work that makes this show both educational and enlightening.

"Selections I" continues through March 13, followed by "Selections II," opening March

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