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Connect the dots? Don't even try

June 14, 2004|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

Usually, describing an art museum exhibition is easy. It surveys an artist's work. Or it looks at what similarly inclined artists were doing at a particular moment. Or a theme is considered. Or -- well, you get the idea.

The big show that opened Sunday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is different. On its face it defies simple description. Established masterpieces sit cheek by jowl with howlers, and curiosities abound. In fact, defying easy description seems to be part of the show's point. The challenge to convention is presented as a key to success.

The show is titled "Beyond Geometry: Experiments in Form, 1940s-70s." LACMA describes it as a history that examines "the role of radically simplified form and systematic strategies" in international abstract art. But that doesn't quite do it. Instead, here's how I imagine the unusual show might have been conceived and put together.

Start with a time period, roughly the 35 years between jubilant V-J Day in the summer of 1945 and the dreadful taking of American hostages in Iran in the fall of 1979. Socially, politically and culturally, a lot happened in the world between the explosion of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima and the petty theft of Jimmy Carter's debate notes by Ronald Reagan's rival presidential campaign.

Pick a place, a vast and diverse landscape that encompasses all of Europe and the Americas (North, Central and South). The name for this expansive swath of territory arises from a simple compass point -- the West -- but the term fairly vibrates with ideological overtones.

Next -- the easy part -- identify the artistic mainstream. It has two parts.

One is the art that the general public likes: figurative and realistic painting, in the vein of Andrew Wyeth and commercial art. The other convention is Modern art -- specifically Expressionist painting, principally abstract -- which came to dominate the West after World War II. Once its authority was firm, Expressionist abstraction became the focus of opposition for other advanced artists who didn't fit the established mold.

Finally -- the hard part -- assemble a couple of hundred works, including one or more examples by just about every artist you can think of within the relevant time and place. How do you choose what to include? Here's the aesthetic criterion: The work can be anything except mainstream, no figurative painting or Expressionist painting, abstract or otherwise.

The result is "Beyond Geometry." In it you will find -- hang onto your hat -- Concrete art, Neo-Concrete art, Kinetic art, Op art, American Minimal art, L.A. Perceptual art, Post-Minimal art, Process art, Conceptual art, word art, performance art, sound art and Earth art.

And more. To acknowledge the cross-disciplinary nature of so much experimental work, a sound-absorbent room is devoted to avant-garde music. Because Earthworks can't move from the desert or the Great Plains indoors to a museum gallery, these (like some performance works) are represented in the show by artists' films and videos. There are artists' books.

The result is also visual and theoretical chaos -- which, I hasten to add, isn't necessarily a bad thing. In fact, that ranks among the virtues of this very strange exhibition.

The show's target is Western art between the powerful rise of Abstract Expressionism after World War II and the international hubbub over Neo-Expressionism in the 1980s. LACMA curator Lynn Zelevansky clearly means to upend conventional ideas about significant art in the period. The show grabs the familiar historical rug that's been woven beneath your feet by standard scholarship over the years -- and then it yanks. You pick yourself up off the floor, shake off the dust and try to regain your bearings.

The effect can be salutary. For instance, here "the West" has not been strictly defined in Cold War terms, meaning the United States and Western European nations on this side of the old Iron Curtain.

Artists who worked in Eastern Europe and Latin America, from Poland and Yugoslavia to Uruguay and -- especially -- Brazil, are very much in evidence. They include well-known artists such as Roman Opalka, who has spent decades counting toward infinity with numbers painted in pale acrylic on canvas, and Helio Oiticica (1937-1980), who turned the Brazilian samba into a personal expression of ungovernable liberty.

Certainly American and Western European artists dominate the big and rambling show -- all but 40 of its 137 artists. (Oddly, Canadians are left out.) That's understandable, given the relative postwar prosperity of those regions. But artistic similarities and connections among Eastern and Western Europe and the Americas are persuasively shown to be at least as strong as inevitable (and significant) differences.

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