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ART REVIEW : A New Dealer Bets On the Blue Chips

October 03, 1995|WILLIAM WILSON | TIMES ART CRITIC

New York's Pace Wildenstein gallery has opened in Beverly Hills. Its main inaugural exhibition is seven large new paintings by Chuck Close. Photography and drawings spaces are occupied by works of William Wegman and Georg Baselitz, respectively. This is not an ordinary event.

The art market is in ragged shape. Whether the situation is worse in New York or Los Angeles depends on who you ask.

Pace Wildenstein represents a 1993 merger of New York's leading contemporary art dealership, Pace, with its prestigious counterpart in the sphere of Impressionist and Old Master art, Wildenstein. The merger created what the press called an art world "superpower." Did its decision to open a gallery here signal revival for the L.A. art market or just desperation in New York?

Other Manhattan art purveyors also announced plans to establish L.A. operations. Are they correctly reading recent entertainment-sphere mergers as meaning a lot of show-biz money is around dying to buy blue-chip art? Are they ignoring the fact that Hollywood's relationship to the fine arts has always been quirky?

Although all this may be crucial to insiders, it is relatively meaningless to most people who love art. What is meaningful is that there is a new place in town where they can go once a month to look at some of the best of it.

The space, designed by leading New York architect Charles Gwathmey, takes up 10,000 square feet at 9650 Wilshire Blvd. The entrance is behind the building on a luxurious little alley. The whole creates an impression of genteel discretion. Galleries are the usual pristine white, the main one has a viewing balcony.

*

Chuck Close's art started out some 25 years ago looking like the work of a photo-realist. He airbrushed passport-style, billboard-scale portraits of friends and fellow artists. He's still at it. Current subjects are himself and such colleagues as Roy Lichtenstein and Dorthea Rockburne. But the work has changed, revealing Close as interested in the viewer's act of perception.S

These pictures dramatize that basic wonder we all had on seeing paintings for the first time. Gee, from far away it looks just like a cow but up close it's just dabs of paint. Seen across the room Close's new work looks rather like big photographs of faces glimpsed through the pebbled glass of a shower door, slightly distorted and vaguely liquefied.

Approached, this illusion breaks down. At a certain distance the faces seem to melt slightly recalling the work of Chicago monster artist Ivan Albright. As one closes on the images, there are intimations of Picasso, Francis Bacon and, finally, Gustave Klimt. The work has none of these artist's emotional vectors, only their sense of optical surface.

Pictures are gridded in rectangles about two inches square. Each tessera in the resulting mosaic is a decorative little amoeba. It's as if Close zoomed in from surface recognition to cellular structure. The show comes with a handsome large-format catalogue with an essay by John Yau.

Wegman is up to his usual two-decade habit of making irresistibly tender and funny images of Weimaraner dogs. Here one seems puzzled at finding he has eight legs. The next minute he's two dogs trying to figure out how he came to be standing on his own reflection or toppled over in the same position in which he still stands. The new wrinkle here is Wegman's first use of a special 20-by-24 inch Polaroid film. It has an excellence of resolution so rarely seen today the pictures take on the patina of vintage photographs.

Baselitz's drawings are loose, trademark works of flowers, birds and upside-down nudes a bit more decorative than of old. Taken together the exhibitions are accomplished, suave, entertaining and more than a trifle short on toughness and revelation. Maybe that's just too much to expect from a blue-chip gallery in Beverly Hills.

* Pace Wildenstein 9650 Wilshire Blvd., Wegman and Baselitz through Oct. 28; Close through Oct. 29. Closed Sundays and Mondays, (310) 205-5522.)

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