The situation is much the same in Asia, where a spate of fall biennials with elastic themes celebrate homegrown artists in an international context. In Singapore, the theme is "Belief." In Gwangju, Korea, it's "Fever Variations," exploring Asian aesthetic roots and urban life. Shanghai's "Hyper Design" sounds relatively specific, but it branches into three sections: "design and imagination," "ordinary life practice" and "future and history." A concurrent show at Shanghai's year-old Museum of Contemporary Art, "Entry Gate: Chinese Aesthetics of Heterogeneity," offers a full spectrum of works by Chinese artists living in their native country and abroad.
Heterogeneity is no novelty in the West, where American and European audiences expect to have an international, multimedia menu of choices. Still, the ever-increasing variety of contemporary art taken seriously by curators, critics, dealers and collectors amounts to a profound change.
The progression of schools from Abstract Expressionism to Pop to Minimalism to Conceptualism has led to a Postmodern attitude that allows multi-tasking artists to take cues wherever they find them -- mining history and placing it in a new context, or digging into personal experience while combining styles and media. Almost anything goes if it's packaged right or catches the art world's attention.
Identifying the art that matters
AMONG living artists, Rauschenberg and Johns are so thoroughly written into art history and their work is so well represented in major museum collections that their immortality seems assured. Other over-60 contenders include German painter Gerhard Richter, Russian installation artist Ilya Kabakov, British painters Lucian Freud and David Hockney and Americans Baldessari, Lee Bontecou, Louise Bourgeois, Robert Irwin, Ellsworth Kelly, Sol LeWitt, Bruce Nauman, Edward Ruscha, Richard Serra and Frank Stella. Plenty of younger artists are waiting in the wings, but only time will tell who will be remembered.
"Take somebody who is very important to artists doing video," Lawson said, "somebody like Douglas Gordon, who just had a big show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and is on the cover of the fall issue of Artforum." The British artist known for appropriating and altering commercial films "seems to have hit the zeitgeist because he did a film portrait of Zidane just before Zidane head-butted the Italian player in the World Cup," Lawson said. "Douglas is a truly significant player. At the moment, he's as visible as Johns was when he had his first retrospective at the Whitney in 1976, but he's only going to influence younger artists doing time-based work."
The art world has ways of measuring such things. Auction houses with a rapidly expanding reach track who's on top -- or new and hot -- in sales boasting record prices. Museum curators cast votes for artistic posterity as they decide who deserves the next big mid-career survey or retrospective. But artists also have a lot to say about the art that matters. The work they look at, think about, respond to and build upon is the art most likely to last.
Given the complexity of today's scene, that covers a lot of territory.
Photographer Catherine Opie -- who recently showed her work at OCMA, is represented at Site Santa Fe's biennial and is looking forward to a retrospective at New York's Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 2008 -- is partial to Baldessari and Richter. She sees Baldessari, who serves on the board of Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art and is known for helping young artists, as a model of artistic rigor and community-minded generosity. Richter is a soul mate. Intrigued by the German artist's proclivity for blurring boundaries between painting and photography, she senses that they share an approach to exploring "basic ideas of representation."
For Baldessari, LeWitt is the most enduring model among living artists. "He has figured out a way to sidestep taste," he said of the New York-based artist known for devising plans for wall drawings and paintings to be carried out by someone else.
Charles Gaines, another veteran conceptualist -- whose "Snake River," a collaborative film with Edgar Arceneaux, is on view at CalArts' Gallery at REDCAT -- gravitates to other artists who treat art as a critical discourse. Some are his former students at CalArts. Sam Durant, for example, investigates notions of class. McMillian, he said, "is struggling with the possibility of art on a critical level" and "exploring his own conceptual limitations and understandings in a political context."