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ART REVIEW : Walbridge Exhibit's Power Weakened by Indulgence

May 23, 1988|LEAH OLLMAN

SAN DIEGO — Apathy, and worse, antipathy toward art have bruised San Diego over the last year, forcing several leading contemporary art galleries to fall like dominoes and paralyzing action on a major public art commission.

Against this scenario, "The Walbridge Legacy" seems to have come at a good time. The exhibit, at the San Diego Museum of Art through May 29, applauds personal commitment to art and community by spotlighting the collection of Barbara Walbridge and the late Norton Walbridge, much of which has been donated to local museums.

Through the show and its catalogue, the Museum of Art expresses hearty thanks for the Walbridges' generous spirit. But another, unstated message recurs like an annoying refrain throughout the show, prompted by the work itself: Don't look a gift horse in the mouth .

Whether through excessive generosity of its own or a truly diminished sense of standards, the museum allowed the Walbridges' worst to be shown alongside their best, resulting in an exhibit that begs to be edited. Trimmed of its unsightly fat, this show has the potential to be strong and compelling. Instead, it plods along, its muscles and bones inhibited by the weight of unwise indulgences.

The museum has done nothing in its installation of the show to capitalize on the collection's strengths, especially in the area of early 20th-Century art. Rather than highlighting similar concerns and styles, the show rambles in a random, loosely chronological order from the late 19th Century to the present, segregating European artists from Americans as if charting two separate evolutions and ignoring the natural affinities between works and styles that should have dictated their placement.

This shameful insensitivity to the sequencing of images causes whatever potency the show could have mustered to lie untapped, diffused, presumably for the sake of breadth.

The dialogue, for instance, between Franz Marc's 1914 drawing, "Abstract Forms," and Abraham Walkowitz's 1911 watercolor, "Landscape," is stifled by the distance between them. Both early ventures into abstraction reduce natural forms to colored patterns and shapes in an effort to distill experience to its purest formal essence. Likewise, a marvelously energetic John Marin drawing of "Circus Ring Horses" (1941) is separated from Yasuo Kuniyoshi's contemporary (1939) and equally vibrant pencil drawing of a "Tightrope Walker" by a group of saccharine, academic studies of walls and figures from the 1960s. Four glorious paintings of shells, hills, flowers and barns by Georgia O'Keeffe are similarly abandoned to unsympathetic neighbors.

Unlike those that have been professionally curated, private collections require no unifying principle other than the buyers' own idiosyncratic taste. Idiosyncrasies, in fact, are to be cultivated, as protection against the deadening predictability to which other, institutionally determined collections are prone. Unfortunately, when the Walbridges ventured off on their own, beyond the canon of historically sanctioned artists, their sensibilities faltered, and their fond, acquisitional gaze fell on varieties of stiff academic realism and excessively sentimental illustration.

In their selections of postwar American art, the Walbridges shied away almost entirely from idiosyncratic choices, purchasing instead work made by acclaimed artists in sizable editions. Roy Lichtenstein's "Cathedral Series" and "Haystack Series," selections from Josef Albers' "White Line Series" and Robert Rauschenberg's "Stone Moon Series" are all admirable and important lithographic projects, but their inclusion tips the balance of the collection toward predictability, away from ambition and individual vision.

The badge of credibility evades this show, as it would be impossible to stick to such insignificant work as John Rosenbaum's polarized light construction of 1967 (which carries as much aesthetic weight as a lava lamp), David Herschler's 1970 rip-off of Brancusi and a pair of downright tacky acrylic and plexiglass sculptures. These major lapses, however, are regularly punctuated by important and evocative works. It simply takes a sifting, swap-meet sensibility to find them.

FO Charles Sheeler's "Conversation Piece," part of "The Walbridge Legacy" exhibit at the San Diego Museum of Art.

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