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The Object Seems to Be Evolutionary

Art: The 20th century survey of American still lifes demonstrates modern movements' marks on a 400-year-old form.

June 28, 1997|ZAN DUBIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEWPORT BEACH — Suddenly, from coast to coast, the world is alive with still life. The "M" word is responsible, curator Bruce Guenther says.

That's M as in millennium.

Before leaving one century for the next, in hopes of understanding where we've been and where we are, "you're going to see people looking at various aspects of the last 100 years" explained Guenther, of the Orange County Museum of Art. "It's about [reexamining] all the sources of our collective and not so collective culture. To look at still life is to readdress the issues we've absorbed ourselves with. Objects, iconic objects [function] as metaphors for personality and identity."

OCMA just opened "Still Life: The Object in American Art, 1915-1995." The exhibit's 66 paintings by 59 artists, including Georgia O'Keeffe, Franz Kline and Marsden Hartley, were culled from the permanent collection of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is touring the show to six U.S. cities with help from the American Federation of Arts.

"Still Life painting has found a new relevance and respect" in 20th century American art, write the show's co-curators and catalog authors, Lowery Stokes Sims and Sabine Rewald of the Met. Further, they write: "Within the context of modern art, the very premises and techniques that had governed the development of still life--spatial and formal illusionism and sumptuous rendering of surface--made it the perfect vehicle for an aggressive deconstruction of the surface, texture and form of academic painting."

Meanwhile, Washington D.C.'s Phillips Collection is displaying a group of its 20th century still lifes, and New York's Museum of Modern Art will offer "Objects of Desire: The Modern Still Life" through the summer.

The New York show is the most comprehensive, surveying work in several media from Europe and the U.S., while the exhibit at OCMA is confined to Met-owned American paintings. Both efforts, however, demonstrate how the modern era's major movements--Cubism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art--radically changed the look and feel of a 400-year-old tradition.

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Indeed, the local exhibit spotlights artists who employ the same immaculate realism of still life classics by such 17th century titans as Jan Brueghel the Younger of the Netherlands. There's no mistaking the plump fruit and tarnished pitcher in Luigi Lucioni's "Pears With Pewter" (1930).

Other works, however, wouldn't have passed for still life in Brueghel's day. The flattened, abstract shapes in sculptor David Smith's "Seashell and Map" (1933) would be tough to identify without the painting's title. O'Keeffe's transcendent "Clam Shell" (1930) poses the same challenge, and who'd think of a cadaver, a puppet or a baby doll, all layered with symbolism beyond each object's literal meaning, as traditional still life subjects?

With his painting of a wide-eyed doll wrapped in shiny rainbow-hued cellophane, James Rosenquist "has transformed an otherwise banal object, wrapped for display, into a portent of psychological horror," co-curator Rewald writes. "That horror, according to the artist, is the AIDS epidemic."

"Gift Wrapped Doll No. 16" (1992) also reflects Rosenquist's view of female stereotypes, Guenther said. "He sees in [mass-produced girl dolls] an essential truth about the way our culture enshrines and encases concepts of femininity, of beauty.

"At same time, he's wrapped into it . . . the vulnerability of childhood and the loss of innocence, and the loss of the simplicity of an earlier time."

Rooted in 16th and 17th century Europe, still life found early supporters in wealthy bourgeoisie, although the form was seen as a stepchild to portrait and landscape painting, Guenther said. It grew into its own in the 18th century with Jean-Baptiste Chardin's masterful renderings, then blossomed into a key format for avant-garde expression.

"It became an independent vehicle for art making, from Mary Cassatt's Expressionism to Picasso's Cubist structure, to Leger's wonderful proto-mechanical imagery," Guenther said. "Cezanne's radical redefinition of the object in space came through his great still lifes of peaches and pears and apples."

Cezanne's seminal "Still Life With a Ginger Jar and Eggplants" (1890) is owned by the Met but had been loaned to MOMA for its still life exhibit. Rewald admitted that the still life traveling show is limited by what the Met owns and had on hand. Also, it doesn't include fragile works on paper or sculpture, which don't travel well.

If Guenther could add anything to the exhibit, he'd install some photography, he said, which can so dramatically alter an object's scale, context and meaning. However, "Still Life" (1976) by Andy Warhol brilliantly serves that purpose, he said.

The black, red and gray painting, created during the reign of Soviet Communism, depicts a hammer and sickle. The latter bears a manufacturer's logo showing it as unmistakably American, "the bastion of capitalism," Guenther said. "He subverts this international symbol of Communism."

"What will be most surprising about this show to viewers," he added, "is seeing how complete a form still life can be. It's not simply a jug of wine, a candle and a couple apples. It's the table top, the wall and the window and the scene beyond the window."

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