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Two Late Bloomers on Display : MOCA Mounts Works of Artschwager, Spero

Talk about late bloomers. New offerings at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s handsome red stone home on Bunker Hill include a big survey of deadpan sculpture and painting by Richard Artschwager who is 64 and didn’t get rolling as an artist until he was 40. Then there is an installation by Nancy Spero, who is 62. She has been showing since the ‘50s, but she’s a complete cipher around here.

Anyone spooked by the idea of aging or worried that it is too late to start making art will be comforted by these shows. Basically, you can’t tell an artist’s chronological age from his work, although there is such a thing as artistic age. A beginner of 50 is liable to make art that looks 25.

Character counts. So does intelligence and skill but not actual age.

Artschwager counts as a New York artist but he makes more sense when you know he grew up partly in rural New Mexico. There is a kind of leathery monosyllabic working-man’s frankness about this art that sits puffing its pipe like Gary Cooper listening to the city folks chatter away until they all finally turn to the sheer vacuum of silence in the corner and shut up. It’s like a switch on that stock brokerage ad on TV. When Artschwager is quiet, people listen. When they listen, he hoists his bottle of Bartles & Jaymes cooler, says, “Thanks for your support,” and walks out leaving the glitterati feeling vaguely idiotic in the wake of such philosophical wisdom. He’s like a carpenter who knows how a toggle bolt works.

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It helps if you know Richard Artschwager started out thinking he was going to be a scientist until his first wife said he really had the temperament of an artist. He decided she was right and pursued the study only to get sidetracked by domestic responsibility, winding up logging a couple of decades as a professional furniture maker. His art has that sense of firm indecision and poetic practicality that knows it really doesn’t make a hell of a lot of difference whether you make art or furniture or raise a family, it all expresses what you are. Art should be made more or less unintentionally.

There are about 60 pieces in the show (through Jan. 29). Apparently cut down by more than half from its original appearance at New York’s Whitney Museum, there is still plenty here to convey the idea. The biggest hunk consists of large squared-off sculpture covered with Formica. It is clearly intended to look like furniture--tables, desks, chairs, sideboards, pianos and the like. The other bit is made up of gray images of buildings, interiors and images of sailors, musicians and fashion models. They look like copies of old photographs--paintings that look like drawings done on textured plaster. Round about are scattered hairy balls that seem to stand for life’s threats and frustrations.

Plugged-in au courant art mavens immediately see links to Marcel Duchamp’s idea art, Jasper Johns’ common-object ambiguity and references to minimalism. Those for whom art is a game of hip insider connections can congratulate themselves for recognizing an allusion to Joseph Beuys’ felt-covered piano in Artschwager’s piano.

Maybe it helps to recognize that Artschwager is really a sophisticated guy who speaks fluent German and plays the piano. Otherwise it’s not interesting. It leads to an interpretation of the art as sly in-group satire and plays up its nastiness.

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It is nasty in its way. The work evokes that hoary joke about the couple out driving who stop to ask directions of a local lounging on a fence. He can’t tell them the directions to anywhere so finally the exasperated driver says, “You don’t know much do you?”

“Maybe not,” says the local, “But I ain’t lost.”

I used to hate that hayseed. Smirking self-satisfied jerk. There is some of him in Artschwager’s work. A piece called “Unit” consists of a schematized chair facing a big shadowbox. Both are covered in Formica that imitates luxuriously burled wood. The whole set-up satires bourgeoise vulgarity with its own smugly symmetrical conventional rigidity.

Cheap shot until you begin to detect a kind of affection in the careful way Artschwager has done the work.

Makes you realize that in the back of your mind you’ve always harbored a certain tenderness for the mocking hayseed. Somehow he is more lost and more vulnerable than the tourists as he sits there on the fence. He’s trying to figure out what life is about and he’s not getting very far. There’s a melancholy emptiness about the guy.

In the accents of artspeak it is accurate to call this work conceptual but that only leads into another dead-end of jargon. It is clearly about ideas. You could call any of the sculpture “The Idea of a Table” or “The Idea of a Desk.” Everything is schematized like our neatly rationalized notions of the mess of reality. But “idea” doesn’t take in the strange pictures and in the end the two should be about the same thing. The pictures are about memory as clearly as the snapshots in your wallet.

When you put the painting and sculpture together they become a deep and troubled philosophical inquiry into the idea of memory and the memory of ideas. Artschwager is trying to figure out how our minds filter and reconstruct reality.

According to the work, we come up with either a muzzy sentimentality that is essentially artificial and empty or a set of vivid prejudicial mental caricatures as powerful as they are sterile.

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The work’s freedom from illusion surrounds life with a chasm of threatening meaninglessness, which Artschwager skirts through the exercise of playful skepticism, deadpan but not without empathy. He chooses to get a kick out of our exaggerations--the way the keys of the piano become huge in the mind or the grain of wood expands to gobble up a chair.

When he is done chuckling, mourning and fuming over daily life he takes refuge in the pleasures of enigma. An Alice-in-Wonderland door is flanked by a hugely exaggerated typographical sign pointing away from it. He loves the mystery of the closed door so that when he inevitably comes to thinking of religion he has the decency to be skeptical of his own iconoclasm. His pipe organ may be a raspberry at the rooty-toot-toot of churchly ritual and his confessional a gesture of disgust at its politics but it is only the irritation of a believer in true mystery.

Nancy Spero is billed by the museum as a “political and feminist artist.” Somehow I cannot make that label come out right, especially the feminist part. Seems anachronistic. At one end it oozes out as special pleading for an artist we know is going to be propagandistic, at the other it reads as vaguely condescending. Isn’t labeling an artist feminist dangerously close to the old woman artist or lady novelist ?

Artists are artists. Their sensibility should come out in the work. Some people see a gay sensibility in David Hockney’s work but we don’t say, “homosexual artist David Hockney.” Well, what do I know? Presumably that’s the way Spero wanted it.

Her installation is far less ambitious and definitive than Artschwager’s. A couple large of galleries are festooned with of strips and scrolls of paper bearing images of figures that look like drawings translated into rubber stamps. There is also writing. The largest of the handsome Arata Isozaki spaces housing the show has a pyramidal ceiling which gives it a temple-like dignity. Spero heightens the effect in paper friezes bearing nude male images drawn from Greek attic art. Some come off the paper and drift toward the ceiling. As they move down the space figures become at once more primitive and more like pedestrian illustrations.

Spero appears to have mined old books for drawn images of women from every historical epoch. A woodcut-style picture shows a medieval witch being hanged. A modern porno nude sprawls wearing her high heels while nearby parades a holy Mesopotamian courtesan.

The work does convey a general aura of being a sacred-cult celebration of women and a historical polemic on the roles they have been cast in over the centuries.

It is hard to get further than that with the work because of what it says in pure art-school terms. Despite her maturity and experience Spero operates like a beginning art student. Freshmen are generally scared to fill up the paper with a drawing so they make lots of little figures well inside the borders. Often they are so shy and self-conscious they fall back on the most conventional kind of imagery so everything looks like fill-inside-the-lines coloring-book pages.

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Students unintentionally express all their scattered insecurity, tentativeness and naive idealism. It is impossible to tell from looking at this work whether Spero remains a naive amateur in spite of maturity or a canny pro loading her feminism with cutting and contradictory irony.


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