ART REVIEWS : Two Blasts From the Abstract Past

Times Art Critic

The past is an uncomfortable, impossible place to live--at least it is according to two substantial exhibitions that opened Sunday in the cavernous Temporary Contemporary spaces of the Museum of Contemporary Art.

The largest of the pair is "Lessons of Darkness," installations by French conceptualist Christian Boltanski. The most populous is "The Image of Abstraction," an international concatenation of 10 painters organized by associate curator Kerry Brougher. Both shows are on view to Oct. 10, to give us time to think them over.

Boltanski is little known here, although widely exhibited in Europe in such prestigious venues as West Germany's Documenta. He mainly makes shrines, using framed old photographs of children. Some are lit with votive-candle light bulbs that cast a religious aura, others are dimly illuminated by little spotlights that halo the children but also carry grim implications of interrogation room lamps. Large works make spectacular effect in big, cathedral-like galleries. Their mournful and accusatory aura is heightened by Boltanski's weakness for galvanized tin and dangling electric wires that seem to speak of matters basic to life--its fleeting spirit, complexity and interconnectedness.

Given its look, it is no wonder Boltanski's art is often taken as a rumination on children who died in the Holocaust--an effect heightened by the fact that the photos are from that grim epoch.

But Boltanski says no. Wiry, soft-spoken and helpful, the 43-year-old artist chatted briefly with a preview visitor as he finished a complex installation that must deal with galleries with walls 30 feet high.

"I am not particularly interested in children," he said puffing a French intellectual's pipe. "I don't even especially like children . . . or dislike them. I am interested in the fact that they are all dead. They are all dead even if they are alive, just as the child I once was or you once were had to die so we could grow up."

This work is every bit as autobiographical as that of Marcel Proust. Indeed, one installation consists of 25 years of snaps from Boltanski's family album. There is something very French about the whole thing--Jacques Henri Lartigue's precocious family photos, Francois Truffaut's autobiographical films. But where they sought to recapture the past, Boltanski seems obsessed with holding on to it by ritually rejecting it, reciting a litany, "The past is dead. The past is dead."

Of course the past is not dead.

The viewer is incited to Freudian hunches of some trauma in the artist's childhood. The suspicion (suspicion haunts the work) is not allayed by the fact that Boltanski's catalogue biography leaves out his childhood altogether.

Well, the artist says he is not interested in calling up particulars of the Holocaust or his own life. He is interested in making an art that we relate to our own experience and generalize into contemplation of the broad issues of life and death, evil and morality. One unfinished installation consists of photographs of murderers and their victims. Their stories are sealed in attendant boxes so in the end we cannot tell the difference between perpetrator and victim.

There are things in this art that impede our reading it as Boltanski would like--its potential narcissism, its weakness for little shadow-puppet voodoo figures that look too much like Neo-Expressionist cliches, its obsessive one-issue tone.

We are free to shrug and walk away. If we choose to stay, there is compelling matter here. Culturally the show somehow reignites thoughts of the French conscience, of collaboration during the Occupation. It parallels the way MOCA's concurrent Anselm Kiefer survey confronts the German past. Boltanski seems more interested in absolution.

He also does a fine existential job of evoking the nightmarish lumpiness of memory in a series of tin drawers containing objects attempting to re-create precious things from his childhood in clay--old slippers, a wooden toy car, a sweater.

This could give nostalgia a bad name. Maybe a good thing too. Boltanski belongs to a dwindling generation of artists of conscience. Curators Mary Jane Jacob and Lynn Gumpert have done a good thing in bringing such work onto today's frivolous stage.

"The Image of Abstraction" is based on a still more curious premise. It presents artists who make abstract art at a time when the form--so closely associated with modernism--is widely considered as patched up as a Midwest farm. The entire enterprise is carried out in an aura of self-doubt that makes for paintings short on conviction, long on defensive jumpiness.

New Yorker Sherrie Levine has the dubious honor of passing for a pioneer of the art of unoriginality. She started out taking photographs of famous photographs. Now she copies famous abstract paintings, like a couple of Malevichs on hand. She does add a certain homey funkiness to these and some check and stripe paintings whose sources are not immediately apparent. The work falls under the esoteric banner of appropriation and deconstruction. It reads quite simply as lazy sarcasm and depression insisting that the old stuff wasn't so hot.

Ross Bleckner adds a certain wistfulness to irony. One work has scalloped edges like a Baroque ceiling panel. Fuzzy stripes cover relief letters spelling "Remember Them," a bitter homage to past greatness. Los Angeles' Tim Ebner makes Neo-Finnish Fetish colored slabs so slick and end-paper fluxings so pretty that they either send up corporate art or beg to become part of it. Ambiguity is thick in the air.

One can feel for the mannered anxiety of artists wrestling with a stew of fin de siecle Weltschmerz. They seem to paint with a weary awareness that their audience will have seen it all before, setting up a dialogue between the jaded and the satiated. Newcomers are left out of the loop.

Germany's Gerhardt Richter slathers out crisply engineered Abstract Expressions colored like a telly with hues hyped to hysteria, folding old sincerity into technological artifice about to blow its amps. The other extreme of the Germanic sensibility comes from Helmut Federle. His chunky olive and gray rectangles are so sensitive that if they touched, they would race off the canvas like frightened cartoon characters.

This is abstraction in the intensive-care ward. Italian Domenico Bianchi hopes to revive it with infusions of metaphysics. New Yorker Gary Stephan introduces amoeba-shaped bacteria that open some healthy spatial passages but have numbing side effects.

Other artists think grafts are the way to cure abstraction's geriatric complaints. In Paris, Jean Pierre Bertrand experiments with alchemy, making big red rectangles of paint and honey, white ones of compressed salt, or is it sand? Who knows what all is in that wall of little frames filled with something (there is the hope it will turn to gold).

In New York Moira Dryer attempts to revive the patient with deadpan humor adding stick-outs to abstractions as if they needed rear-view mirrors. Back across the puddle in Dusseldorf, Imi Knoebel takes purist constructivism at its word, pushing it toward the real. Her "Braunes Quadret" looks like a Russian Avant-Garde clothes closet.

It is not clear if this art is out to praise abstraction or to bury it, but it seems to be going on everywhere with similarly resistant results.

There you have it: Two exhibitions about how art can neither dwell in the past nor find its future.

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