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Exhibitions of Contemporary Energy : UCLA’s Wight Art Gallery shows off part of the Frederick R. Weisman collection and the art of Frank Stella

Two new exhibitions at UCLA’s Wight Art Gallery are about energy in contemporary art. A show of oversize prints by Frank Stella focuses with laser-like intensity. A swath of some 60 works from the Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation scatters libido like shotgun pellets.

The Weisman name is probably the most familiar among Los Angeles collectors of present art. He surfaced in the ‘60s--along with his former wife Marcia--as a big player in the heady era of the Pasadena Museum of Modern Art and La Cienega’s gallery row, along with names like Factor, Asher, Phillips and Rowan. The Weisman name stood out because it was linked to that of Norton Simon, Marcia being his sister. Somehow, the Weismans were supposed to be Simon’s contemporary equivalents. Visitors to their home did see fabulous matter on the walls.

In the ensuing two decades, the name has burned steadily in the local firmament, most recently due to his travail in finding a place to establish a boutique museum for his collections. First it was supposed to be in Beverly Hills’ Greystone Mansion--a building noted for the number of times it has failed to become an art museum. Since that deal fell through, Weisman has been beating the bushes looking for an appropriate nest, aided and abetted by his museumless museum director Henry Hopkins and his curator, Nora Halpern Brougher. UCLA has been rumored to be among the places being considered, so the present show may not be altogether coincidental.

It is a welcome event, since--despite all the fuss--the Los Angeles public has yet to get a deep, concentrated peek at whatever pigs Weisman has in his poke.

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Actually, this exercise (on view to Feb. 25) is more like a glimpse of Little Egypt dropping one corner of her first veil outside the tent than a full and frank disclosure. Weisman has three collections and this is only one-fifth of one of them. Since, however, it is characteristic of carnival teasers, movie previews and political TV spots to show the product at its most enticing, it is hard to believe that Weisman would parade his swine in preference to his pearls.

If that be the case, this show is a little discouraging.

It has the attention span of a gnat--albeit a fairly studious one. The selection lurches around like a castaway at a deluxe Sunday brunch, engorging canapes of Abstract Expressionism with one hand while grabbing a leg of wild boar with the other. Oh boy, a Duane Hanson Biker. Yum yum.

Have a napkin, old fellow, the juice is running down your chin.

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Time to clear the palette with a Kalifornia Kool School fruit cup, titivate the taste buds with tarty Pop art and finish off with some nice sour Neo-Expressionist paranoia.

Excuse the burp. Considered polite in the Middle East, you know.

Oh looky, let’s just waddle over to the international cuisine. Hey, you know what, bratwurst by Anselm Kiefer goes great with sushi by Tadanori Yokoo.

As to the wine, more attention is paid to the genre than the vintage. Everybody knows California has produced master vintners from Ed Moses to Peter Alexander, but this collection has to have an example of every label even if it was a bad year. Weisman’s Moses, for example, is from the second-worst batch of paintings he ever bottled, while his Tom Wudl is from the artist’s only good period.

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The collection lacks focus, appears to have little or no grasp of abstract art and is seriously deficient in connoisseurship. At the same time, something immensely likable emerges from its falstaffian gourmandizing. Something generous, enthusiastic and upbeat wafts from the ensemble. If a rejection of the tragic dimension leads to the selection of a silly Kiefer, an embrace of the comic brings in all manner of art that is, well, fun. And--since art is a fundamentally serious pursuit--the fun is often tempered by the elegiac, the wistful mood that causes one to leave the crowd at the party and stare out the window at the winter garden.

Weisman comes off best as a high-rolling humanist whose greatest failing may be a sense of duty to art or fashion or the desire to be a great collector that causes him to acquire work because he thinks he should, and then compensates by caving in too readily to a desire to be amused.

The best work here grows from a humanist sensibility, a realistic optimism that wants everything to be OK while knowing life is sad. Ed Kienholz’s “Pedicord Apartments” is a tragicomic boardinghouse corridor where we eavesdrop on domestic spats, a ballgame on the TV, a noisy party and a woman crying (or having an orgasm). Its bittersweet wisdom is perfectly matched by a number of the best works in the show, suggesting an authentic expression of sensibility. George Segal’s “Woman in a Coffee Shop” gives us a pinched plaster lady sitting alone, bravely trying to look pretty with her Princess Leah hairdo and high-fashion boots. In this company, Hansen’s lugubrious biker looks better.

There’s a great Tom Wesselmann “American Still Life Number 31" that incorporates Gilbert Stuart’s classroom portrait of George Washington and a real TV broadcasting “The Flintstones.” Andy Warhol’s suite of Marilyn Monroes is a classic that is somehow clarified by Sarah Charlesworth’s feminist “Figures,” where a Jean Harlow dress is equated with sadomasochistic bondage.

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John Baldessari’s “Horizontal Men” will yield to being read as either a sight-gag or a complex semiotic exercise.

If the long view will find that Weisman took too many chances on lesser-known artists, it is an endearing failing that occasionally pays off in the delicate visual haiku of Japan’s Mitsuko Miwa’s “Coat,” where a floral wallpaper pattern becomes a spring shower, or in Tadanori Yokoo’s “Shadow,” which captures a sense of elegant ritual violence not characteristic of the collection.

At some point, the high-spirited omnivorousness of the Weisman collection will give way to sorting and discrimination. Shaken down to its own essence, it should be a very solid piece of work.

In an art world that has become a commercialized shadow play of fizzling comets and flickering starlets, Frank Stella is a phenomenon. For almost a quarter-century now he has maintained an unassailed reputation as the master abstract painter of his generation--plowing through a decade when the genre was considered dead and outflanking the competition of younger artists of every stripe.

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It is easy to see why in a series of oversize mixed-media prints Stella made with Tyler Graphics from 1981-85. Called “The Circuits” and on view to Feb. 19, they are works of dazzling virtuosity and devastating intelligence.

Saying what they look like is no easy matter. Maybe they look like Jasper Johns prints of numerals but rendered as if all the numbers were stacked on top of one another and rendered unreadable. Stella’s line has the velocity of figure skaters drawing arabesques in the ice and the power of race cars zooming around tight curves. (The prints were inspired by race tracks Stella visited.)

They anticipate every criticism. If visual complexity often leads to decorative vacuity, Stella makes sure these works retain structure. If this much energy often leads to garbling, Stella makes sure of refinement in series so closely worked you have to look twice to see the difference from one to the next while realizing that the cumulative change is marked. If this degree of flamboyance is often the hallmark of brainlessness, Stella makes sure of his intellectual ground. From his very first black stripe paintings he has questioned the idea of idiosyncratic originality, replacing it with a notion of conceptual originality.

Today craftsmen work up his big reliefs from small maquettes, and these prints were largely produced by the guys in the shop, but you still can’t take your eyes off them.

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In a way Stella is a historical classicist who simply set out to re-enact the conventional trajectory of stylistic development. There was Archaic Stella followed by Early Classical Stella right on down the line to this present Baroque Stella. These works have a degree of ironic playfulness that may herald Rococo Stella.

The work is so much fun to look at and so smart one feels almost ungrateful to find it vaguely unsatisfactory. There is an aura of arrogance about its flamboyant technical mastery and strategic calculation. It insists imperiously that we will be satisfied with a kind of aesthetic high-tech and that any demand for human feeling is puerile and beneath contempt.


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