Nobody hates war like somebody who's looked it in the eye--somebody like Otto Dix. Before World War I, the German painter and printmaker worshiped Nietzsche's philosophy of the "superman" and joined other young idealists who believed that even chaos was better than the stultifying conservatism of the regime. Thus he marched happily to his post as a machine-gunner in the war to end all wars. What he saw on the battlefield changed his mind about violence as surely as watching your mother have her throat slit.
By 1924 he'd sufficiently recovered from the shock to produce "Der Krieg" (War), a suite of 50 aquatint etchings. It bears comparison to Goya's "The Disasters of War" as a testament of revulsion against man's oldest profession. It now takes up the lion's share of the space in an exhibition of Dix prints on view at the County Museum of Art. Selected from the holdings of the museum's Rifkind Center, the style of these images could be called grotesque were they not so apt to the subject.
Dix's war experience did not turn him into a peacenik. It hardened into flinty anger that grabs your lapels and hisses: "Look at this! Look!" It's all there, the suppurating corpses, the bits of flesh hanging butcher-shop-style from a branch above a warrior reduced to blubbering madness. Soldiers appear like specters in deadly smoke wearing gas masks like skulls.
It's all bad enough at the front, Dix says, but look what it does to the guys when they get leave. They drink themselves senseless and romp with rented lovers. This is no glamorous victory high, it's the rutting of war's pure corruption.
Dix is not as well known here as he deserves. Last year was the centennial of his birth (he died in 1969). The catalogue of a retrospective that traveled to London's Tate Gallery is available to pacify whetted appetites.
Dix's art falls a bit short of Beckmann's universality but he brought the tradition of Durer and Hogarth tellingly into the 20th Century. He's more empathetic than Grosz and wonderful on the particulars, as seen in portraits and in his suite "Zirkus" (Circus). He shows a pair of entertainers called "The Distainers of Death," a strapping couple whose muscular bodies show enough age to remind them that the object of their contempt will take them at will.
\o7 Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., through Oct. 4, (213) 857-6000. Closed Monday\f7 s\o7 . \f7
The Riots in Paint: The collective civic mind can be forgiven for wanting to pretend the L.A. riots never happened. Those who do will probably at first mistake Peter Alexander's new paintings at James Corcoran Gallery for pure abstractions. The 10 small works on wood look like modernized versions of the purgatorial fantasies of 19th-Century artists like Gustave Dore. The clue that they are more comes from their thematic title, "Sky-Cam."
Alexander photographed televised images of the riots in progress and, being a landscape man, was particularly fascinated by the bird's-eye views taken from helicopters. What he's done with them in their transformation to paint is little short of astonishing.
His butter-smooth wood surfaces allowed the creation of unusual optical effects. In these paintings of conflagration you can't really tell what is in front of what else. Thus, one piece looks like a photographic negative of itself. There is a liquefied, molten quality about the images that perfectly captures the underlying volcanic quality of the uprising. While Babylon burned, it was also melting.
The eerie beauty of the images attests to a truth not often uttered about the riots. While the solid-citizen part of our mind was horrified at the destruction, the amoral romantic within found illicit exhilaration in the perverse antics of the rioters.
Alexander's fascinating show is actually the smaller of two solo exhibitions on view. The other is a revelatory spread of five sculptures and some 163 drawings by Ken Price, all untitled.
Price is the most admired of the generation of clay artists that emerged from L.A.'s Abstract Expressionist ceramics movement of the late '50s. The good reasons for that respect are seen in a couple of pieces that look like colorfully lichened rocks being magically transformed into gaping frogs or the posteriors of particularly rapacious Venuses of Willendorf. We sort of knew all that.
What we didn't quite know was the depth, extent and quality of Price's activity as a draftsman. Since this presentation amounts to a species of drawing retrospective it's too bad there is not a catalogue. Besides it would just be fun to have reproductions of work that unmasks such a wall-eyed, hilarious, quirky sense of humor and devastating aptness of observation.