RENO, Nev. — People who say they don't know much about art but know what they like should find lots to enjoy in the current exhibit at the Nevada Museum of Art.
That's because in many instances the artists whose works are displayed in "An International Legacy: Selections From Carnegie Museum of Art" leave it to the viewer to decide what they're seeing.
Lawrence Weiner's "Ever Widening Circles of Shattered Glass" (1984-85) consists of just those six words of text. It's the observer's job to envision the circles. "Untitled" (1969), by Dan Graham, is composed of a triangle of three mirrors -- one one-dimensional, one three-dimensional, one nearly opaque. The beholder becomes part of the sculpture-like work by walking around the three vertical planes.
"That's what contemporary art is all about. It's about challenging the viewer," said Steven High, director and chief executive of the museum.
"It's also about engaging the viewer and sometimes confusing the viewer and sometimes completely bewildering the viewer. In a way, it should be a great game. It should be a great experience to come and try to get it."
People in the area will have the opportunity to "try to get it" until April 4, when the exhibit moves to Charlotte, N.C.
"An International Legacy" features about 50 works from the Carnegie collection in Pittsburgh and represents key artists' works from the minimalist and conceptual period of the 1960s and 1970s, the expressionism and figurativism of the 1970s and early 1980s and more recent new image works.
"Today there are typically 35 artists in the show. In the old days there could be 200," said Richard Armstrong, director of the Carnegie Museum. "I'm sure you've seen pictures of the way paintings were installed in the old days. There used to be four and five on top of one another. Paintings have gotten a lot bigger and video has changed installations and also has changed artists' spatial expectations."
The roomy Nevada Art Museum easily accommodates large works such as Robert Morris' "Untitled" (1976), a drooping felt nearly 13 feet wide and more than 6 feet high, or Mike Kelley's "Gussied Up" (1992), an 8-by-12-foot tabletop ensemble, alongside television-size video presentations.
"It's the only show like this that happens inside a museum," Armstrong said. "Venice [Italy], Sao Paulo [Brazil], all of its international counterparts, are brought together and take over an entire city or very large convention center-like places."
The concept of the exhibition was born in 1895, when steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, who devoted more than $350 million of his industrial wealth to education, libraries and the arts, founded the Carnegie Museum of Art. The annual exhibition began in his native Pittsburgh the next year. "It was Carnegie's idea of how to bring a sort of isolated industrial center into contact with the big world," Armstrong said. "That evolved over time into a triennial thing that brings together sculpture, painting, video and everything. All the new media."
In Reno, the show was a perfect fit with the Nevada museum's current displays, High said. "We develop exhibitions on our own and then we bring in exhibitions from away that can expand what we do. This exhibition came to us through the American Federation of Arts, and we were knocked out by the quality of the art. It's a 'Who's Who' of the last 30 years.... It's the first opportunity to see these pieces in this community."
One of a select few
Helaine Posner, curator of exhibitions for the American Federation of Arts, joined Armstrong and High on a tour of the exhibit before it opened in Reno. The Nevada museum is one of a handful chosen for the show, she said. It already has been seen in Oklahoma City and heads next for Charlotte, then Columbus, Ohio, and Mobile, Ala. "We say, 'OK, who would be most likely to be interested in a survey of contemporary art; what would be the right fit, what museum is large enough to handle this?' We offer it to institutions where we think we've targeted the exhibition to their particular program and interests," she said.
Visitors entering the Reno exhibition may walk across a 6-foot checkerboard of 72 black and silver squares without realizing they're stepping on Carl Andre's "Aluminum-Lead Plain" (1969). Other works incorporate doll clothes, an upside-down bathtub, planks secured by thousands of nails and more conventional expressionist paintings. There's also "Self Portrait" by Andy Warhol (1986). At the other end of the spectrum is John Currin's "The Old Fence" (1999), two nudes painted in a Renaissance style that may make more sense to some observers than the abstract pieces.
"Some of the work is more accessible than others," Posner said. "You look at a John Currin painting. He's a very important and hot artist, and it's good figurative representation. Everyone knows how to approach that because they have years of looking at figuration.
"When you see something like a Dan Graham [the mirrors] or a Robert Morris [the felt] or a Lawrence Weiner [shattered glass], it's not immediately apparent what these works are about. So it takes a certain learning curve to understand it. But it rewards you, if you take the time to learn about it."
Carnegie said more than a century ago that he wanted his museum to show the "Old Masters of tomorrow." Pointing to the more challenging pieces in the current exhibition, High said, "If it's fed to you, everything is obvious. There's no mystery. There's nothing exciting. That's why I love contemporary art. There's always challenge. It hasn't been sifted by history yet, and that's the fun part."