ART : A Hodgepodge Display Lacks Focus, Not Value

The permanent collection of a familiar middle- or small-size art museum often seems to be perceived as a sort of frill; something to check out once you are there, perhaps, but hardly the reason you are handing over your admission fee.

Take the Newport Harbor Art Museum, whose major fall exhibit (on view through Jan. 1) is a group of more than 50 works from the permanent collection of postwar art from Northern and Southern California.

The permanent collection? Oh, well, that stuff isn’t going anywhere. No reason to rush over.

True, this exhibit does boast work that visitors haven’t already seen, either because it was recently acquired by the museum or because limited exhibition space has kept it in storage for months. (When the museum’s big new building opens, sometime in the early 1990s, that problem will be remedied.)


Recent museum purchases include work by Joe Goode, Edward Kienholz, Lee Mullican, Ed Ruscha, Allan Ruppersberg and Bill Viola--all significant figures in Los Angeles art (Kienholz, who no longer lives in California, is represented by an assemblage dating from his early years in Germany in the ‘70s).

Other pieces in the show are by such redoubtable folk as John Altoon, Ed Moses, John Baldessari, Wallace Berman, Vija Celmins, Irv Tepper, Llyn Foulkes, Joe Goode, John McLaughlin, Hassel Smith, Robert Irwin and John McCracken.

The younger generation is represented primarily by the more-ironic-than-thou work of the CalArts contingent.

There is important work here, no doubt about it--stuff that is puzzling and amusing and cool and sly and pensive and probing.


But we have become used to going to museums primarily to see art packaged into exhibits with a specific point of view. Intelligent temporary shows are assemblies of work by artists whose output has received little previous attention--or work that makes a particular point about culture at large or the artist’s influences or the idiosyncrasies of an artistic movement.

In the Newport Harbor show, the poop sheets that museum people call “didactic labels” hang near many pieces, to explain what is significant about the art--although generally in the lingo a professor of mine used to call “Fatuous Art Talk.”

There are also small groupings of pieces united by their source in an ethos prevalent at a particular period. In one corner, for example, the viewer can see one of the luminous disc pieces Robert Irwin made in 1969, an example of Larry Bell’s vaporous work in glass from 1968 and a glowing lacquer-plastic-and-neon artifact that Doug Wheeler produced the same year. A few artists are represented by more than one piece, which also helps to get a fix on their concerns.

But this is not at all the same thing as a show organized to make a particular artistic point. (The point here seems to be: “See how badly we need a new home to display all this stuff!”)

Permanent collections are, of course, absolutely necessary--as touchstones, as references, as a way of setting forth the kind of work a museum has decreed to be of lasting importance. In fact, one of the primary missions of an art museum is to collect art (the others include preserving, interpreting and exhibiting it).

But the hunger for “real” exhibitions is another kind of animal, and it makes different demands. And the hunger-level seems to be particularly pressing at museums devoted in large part to contemporary art.

The pleasures meted out by recent art, however, tend to be more cerebral than visceral or emotional. Frequently, the work in question seems either to reveal itself instantly (no need to go revisit it) or it is so bafflingly opaque that the viewer simply is not impelled to seek it out again.

Viewers today have also become novelty seekers, searching for whatever’s hot and hip; once they have seen it, they move on to the next thrill.


So we come back to the contemporary image of the art museum as a sort of living theater that never shows the same face twice. In that regard, the exhibition at Newport Harbor actually does have a drawing card: Bill Viola’s video installation, “The Theater of Memory.”

Housed in a darkened gallery, the piece consists of a large bare tree lying on its side and strung with a network of winking lanterns and a big screen. The gentle tinkle of wind chimes is interrupted by intermittent popping and crackling sounds.

On the screen, blips of visual information dance on and off: static-ridden color patterns, flashes of recognizable but unremarkable imagery and what appears to be a simple drawing of a flower lying on its side.

There is something weirdly mesmerizing about all this. The visual and aural effects mingle mundane, irritating and pleasant sensations into an experiential blur that does indeed (as advertised in the museum’s press materials) seem to serve as a metaphor for the raw data bank of memory.

You can absorb all this in a passive, wow,-isn’t-this-a-wild-piece way, or you can think about how cleverly the artist has simulated the delicate interconnections between perceptual fields.

It also suggests that Viola might be a ripe candidate for a show of his own--a temporary one, of course, for all the restless thrill-seekers hungry for context and fresh points of view.

“Selections From the Permanent Collection” remains on view through Jan. 1 at the Newport Harbor Art Museum, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, and noon to 6 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $3 general, $2 students and seniors, $1 children under 17. Information: (714) 759-1122.