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ART REVIEW

Examining 'Prints' in a Millennial Mood

March 11, 1997|WILLIAM WILSON | TIMES ART CRITIC

By the year 2000 there are bound to be a bunch of cultural manifestations like the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's "End of the Century: Prints Since 1970 From the Collection." Put together by LACMA curator Bruce Davis, it's a retrospective sampling of about 70 works that really has its roots in the '60s, when a general art boom revitalized fine art printing.

The exhibition is just the latest in an ongoing series designed to show the institution's permanent collection. In that sense it's routine. It's notable, however, on several important counts. It includes numerous recent acquisitions on public display for the first time. Quite a few accord attention to under-recognized artists. Because of its millennial mood, the show has the effect of being less a specialist exercise and more a contemplation on general questions of modern aesthetics.

By suggestion it takes us back to the end of the last century. Paris was art's world capital and there was a print boom. Artists of the stature of Paul Gauguin made prints. Toulouse-Lautrec's lithographic posters were a form of popular art. These were great artists but they were succeeded by artists who were arguably greater, towering formal innovators like Picasso and Matisse.

At the point Davis' show begins, New York had succeeded Paris and artists like Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg were taking the spotlight from the European masters. America finally had its own great artists as we are reminded by Johns' "Fragment--According to What-Bent Blue." The question of whether or not they were greater than their immediate Old World forerunners was a little embarrassing. Certain baseline Modernist ideas had been used up by the likes of Mondrian and Kandinsky. We were left to simply Americanize them by making things bigger, more spectacular and vernacular, as is evident in James Rosenquist's "F-111: North, East, South, West." It must be 20 feet long.

Overt passion virtually disappeared from mainstream American art in the '60s. Andy Warhol was mordantly funny about everything from Mao Tse-Tung to electric chairs, but his imagery is frankly depersonalized. Frank Stella is intelligent and impressive in his "Sinjerli Variation Squared With Black Ground III," but it's about as cuddly as a skyscraper's skeleton. Both artists achieved huge reputations attracting battalions of younger people to the idea that art was now apparently a path to the American ideal of "rich and famous." The idea of greatness was supplanted by the lust for celebrity.

We discovered we were good at being stand-up showmen whose humor betrays a certain moral seriousness. Edward Ruscha's "Two Similar Cities" is a night panorama of starry sky that far outshines the lights of two urban areas below. This is not just a gag.

Such idea-based work prompted artists to think that if formal innovation was getting tapped out, perhaps the old idea of art with a message would play. Maybe art could find new relevance by concerning itself with the same issues as the mass media. Thus arose Conceptualism, an art of advocacy. A particularly effective example is Hans Haacke's classic "Tiffany Cares." It reproduces an advertisement actually placed by the renowned jewelry emporium headlined, "Are the Rich a Menace?" It goes on to argue that millionaires are good because they create jobs. Haacke adds, "The 9,240,000 unemployed in the United States of America demand the immediate creation of more millionaires."

One danger in the Conceptual imitation of the media is that both might appear equally ephemeral. It seems almost inevitable that some artists would try to revive soul by working in the manner of marginalized groups. Keith Haring made himself notable by using his origins as a street artist. The very welcome inclusion of such L.A. people as John Valadez, Frank Romero and Carlos Almaraz demonstrates their interest in grass-roots barrio art and graffiti murals. Almaraz's "West Coast Crash" is particularly vivid.

Viewed chronologically, the number of artists here regarded as "great" or even "celebrated" dwindles to virtually none. This may be a result of the historical lag time required to sort out talent but it feels more like the zeitgeist at work.

The final section of Davis' show is devoted to "art about art." A typical inclusion is Richard Hamilton's "Picasso's Meninas." Since it is itself a variation on Valazquez, that makes Hamilton's rendition art about art about art. In a wall label, the curator says, in effect, that the creation of such work can be read either as an homage or an admission of bankruptcy.

* Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd.; to May 16, closed Mondays, (213) 857-6000.

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