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Art Review : At Newport: Into the Limelight

August 09, 1994|CATHY CURTIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Art museums worldwide exhibit their permanent collections (as well as the temporary shows that garner most of the publicity). Some of these collections are lures all by themselves. Have you ever heard of someone who didn't visit the Uffizi in Florence or the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam because he or she didn't want to see the stuff that was there all the time?

But at other museums, the collections--meager, spotty or seldom displayed--are not a draw. That's the situation at the Newport Harbor Art Museum, where limited wall space mandates that the 2,300 works of post-World War II art, with an emphasis on work made in California, usually are cooped up in storage while temporary shows occupy the galleries.

Still, periodic exhibitions of portions of the collection have given viewers a good idea of the museum's holdings. Although the current, museum-filling installation of 103 pieces (through Oct. 2) offers a few surprises, these recent acquisitions of varying interest confirm earlier assessments of the collection's strengths and weaknesses.

Despite the presence of significant and delightful works from the past 40-odd years, there is a lack of depth, both in relation to individual artists' careers and to art historical movements.

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Given Newport Harbor's collecting history and its difficulty in obtaining donations, the spottiness is only to be expected. (In the absence of an endowment earmarked for acquisitions, the museum has been heavily dependent on individual donors, fund-raising by its Acquisition Council, and the Purchase Grant program of the National Endowment for the Arts, discontinued three years ago.)

Founded in 1961, the museum didn't receive its first donated work until seven years later. Three years after that, the collection expanded abruptly with AVCO Financial Services' donation of 34 works by such artists as Louise Nevelson, Helen Frankenthaler, Franz Kline and Gene Davis.

Oddly, AVCO's Davis painting--"Canary Bang," a characteristic brilliantly hued Hard Edge work--hangs nowhere near his delicious early painting, "Oxford." A broadcloth-like swatch of wavering gray and forest green stripes that soak into the canvas, "Oxford" was donated by the artist's widow and dealer.

In fact, the installation as a whole is a curious mixture of artfulness and awkwardness. Certain works really "speak" to one another--particularly Richard Diebenkorn's "Ocean Park No. 36," Craig Kauffman's untitled painting and John Paul Jones' "Divining Rod," all of which reflect a tension between linear structure and a romantic image of the void. But there are also some jarring juxtapositions, like the intrusion of Nancy Graves' exuberant organic sculpture "Laciniform" on the monumental repose of the Bay Area Figurative works.

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It often is the case that a contemporary art museum acquires work from shows it organizes--thanks, in part, to heightened interest in the artist among museum supporters, and the gratitude (and self-interest) of the artist and his or her dealer.

So it isn't surprising that the Newport Harbor's exhibition history is linked closely to the growth of the museum collection. The representation of such artists as John McCracken, David Park, Frederick Eversley, Chris Burden, Vija Celmins, ceramists Kenneth Price and Ron Nagle, Tim Ebner, Barry Le Va, Mitchell Syrop, Buzz Spector, Margaret Honda and Nayland Blake reflects this vital symbiosis.

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During the past few years, however, major shows originated by Newport Harbor have been few, and recession and changing tax laws have played havoc with museum donations nationwide. Recent acquisitions have not significantly fleshed out either the modernist or postmodern portions of the collection.

Its high points remain the familiar ones: the two ravishing paintings by David Park and Elmer Bischoff, the fine early Joan Brown, memorable individual works by Edward Kienholz, Wallace Berman, John Altoon, John McLaughlin, Richard Diebenkorn, John Baldessari, Ed Ruscha and a few others.

Perhaps the strongest of the recent acquisitions of older work are Peter Alexander's "Six-Part Wall Piece" from 1971, in which the cool serial format is undercut by the subtle action of light on polyester resin, and an untitled painting by Philip Guston.

Guston's small painting of a white pointing hand (somewhat resembling a clown's gloved gesture or the work of an itinerant sign painter) dates from a pivotal year in his oeuvre . In 1968, he abandoned his lyrical, brushy abstractions to focus on bluntly rendered objects--hands, shoes, books--revealing a stubborn insistence on the materiality of everyday life and the difficulty of giving any familiar form an independent life in paint.

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Among the newly acquired postmodern works, Greg Colson's mapping of the Oakland Coliseum's seating chart on an inner tube, Spector's metaphorical book piece "North Sea (for M.B.)" and Barbara Kruger's untitled photograph are the standouts.

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