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With a wry artist's eye

Is a curator supposed to say things like `I love it because it's so marginal'? Artist John Baldessari has fun as the Hirshhorn's guest.

September 24, 2006|Tyler Green | Special to The Times

Washington, D.C. — "DELUSIONS of Grandeur II," a 1948 painting by surrealist master Rene Magritte, shows a nude woman seemingly emerging from her own body, as if she were a Russian nesting doll.

At the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, it hangs next to a plastic sculpture of a mostly nude young woman reclining on a settee, Emily Kaufman's "Girl on a Fainting Couch." Nearly the entire sculpture, including the couch, is flesh-toned. The young woman, her hands clasped to her breast, has her eyes closed in unconvincing ecstasy. The work was purchased by the Hirshhorn in 1977, but the museum says it hasn't been on view -- since 1978.

That doesn't stop John Baldessari. The Los Angeles-based conceptual art pioneer, whom the Hirshhorn invited to create a permanent-collection installation, places the two nudes together in "Ways of Seeing: John Baldessari Explores the Collection." His show does just about everything you wouldn't expect a curator to do.

"I did a double take when I saw the Kaufman, and thought, 'What is that?' " says Baldessari, walking the Hirshhorn's basement galleries recently, where the installation remains on view until spring 2007. "This is going to make Jeff Koons eat his heart out," he adds, referring to the kitsch master who came to prominence in the 1980s.

Baldessari's installation is the first in what the Hirshhorn says will be a series of guest-curated permanent-collection shows.

Because the museum has a thin collection of conceptual art, Baldessari didn't have the option of doing a show of his contemporaries or one about art that relates to his work. Instead, he looked to his day job for inspiration.

"I'm sure a lot of my background in teaching comes out," says the UCLA professor of art. "I hope it's not too heavy-handed. I tried to go for the atypical."

Given the Hirshhorn's history and holdings, that must not have been too difficult. The museum was created in 1966 when financier Joseph Hirshhorn gave the nation his collection, via the Smithsonian Institution. The Gordon Bunshaft-designed building opened on the National Mall in 1974. But that's only part of the story: Hirshhorn was famous for buying impulsively and in bulk. Many of the objects he gave are considered eccentric and have been in storage for decades. Most, in fact, have never been seen by the public, curators say.

"I wanted to delve into those bulk acquisitions," Baldessari says.

He does. American landscape painter Albert Bierstadt is known for dramatic Western mountain-scapes 6 feet by 10 feet and larger. So Baldessari hangs a Bierstadt: a 5-inch by 9-inch painting of an iceberg at night.

In another room, Baldessari installs four busts: two Honore Daumiers, a Raymond Duchamp-Villon and a Charles Despiau. None of the artists has much to do with the others, but Baldessari likes the idea of installing four busts in profile.

And what about early American modernist Arthur Dove's painting "Haystack," hanging directly behind a garishly bright plastic-and-chrome sculpture of a cloud by Anthony Benjamin? Yes, the cloud shape in Benjamin's "Nimbus V" is eerily similar to the shape of a tree in "Haystack." But who is Anthony Benjamin anyway?

Baldessari shrugs and says he doesn't know. "I love it because it's so marginal," he says. "You don't know whether to love it or hate it."

As Baldessari explains the logic -- or lack thereof -- behind the juxtaposition, Hirshhorn curator Kristen Hileman, who worked with him on the show, just laughs.

"He sees things differently than curators see things," she says. "His installation encourages you to see things as images and as pieces of representation, rather than as a standard of why an artist is important or not. You can look at them as pictures and see what's going on."

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'A different kind of eye'

BALDESSARI is the first artist the Hirshhorn has invited to install a collection show, and partly because the museum recently purchased four early Baldessaris from the artist himself. They are "Exhibiting Painting" (1967-68); "Songs 1: Sky/Sea/Sand" (1973); "Cremation Project, Corpus Wafers (With Text, Recipe and Documentation)" (1970) and "Blasted Allegories (Black and White Sentence): Red To What Is Red All Over And Black And White" (1978).

"What we're hoping for with this series is to bring various kinds of people in to work with the collection," says Hirshhorn chief curator Kerry Brougher. "Artists, of course, but also filmmakers, authors and maybe other kinds of individuals as well. In the case of John, I think he brings a different kind of eye and a sense of humor as well. John has a way of putting image next to image. He's almost a filmmaker in the sense that he's creating these montages."

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