ART REVIEW : A Field of Dreams From Smithsonian

TIMES ART CRITIC

That summer the boy was a skinny 9-year-old, his cousin George--an awesomely seasoned sandlot pitcher of 11--dragooned the klutzy kid onto the diamond. The kid promptly broke a bat, stubbed his thumb on a pop fly and fell asleep in the outfield, covered with chalk dust. To George's disgust, the kid threw in the towel. Feeling wimpy and alienated, the boy has skulked about for the rest of his life pretending the national pastime does not exist.

Thus, when an exhibition of art about baseball turned up scheduled at the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, the thoughts it triggered in him were aesthetic, not sportive.

What's going on here? A seaside sanctuary normally devoted to purist avant-garde art hosts a Smithsonian traveling show called "Diamonds Are Forever" (to Oct. 21). The show includes fine art by people as well known as Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg and Lewis Hine. There are quotations from famous authors like Jacques Barzun and Neil Simon, not to mention a vitrine full of Babe Ruth memorabilia and a big projection TV broadcasting such classics as Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First?" routine.

Well, everybody knows museums are under pressure to popularize themselves these days. Trustees want to draw big crowds to help defray ever-escalating costs. Healthy attendance encourages benefactors and eases the getting of grants. Besides, it makes the board feel popular and successful to have a museum full of happy viewers who enjoy the art rather than an empty museum haunted by weird artniks and citizens who complain they don't get it.

On the whole, museums have shown great deftness in concocting exhibitions that successfully walk the line between popularity and respectability. Real disasters, like the time the San Diego Museum of Art showed the Muppets, are rare. All the same, "Diamonds Are Forever" ignited suspicions of trouble.

As it turns out, it's a delightful show. Only a crank with a tissue-thin epidermis would be offended by it. Even somebody who consciously ignores baseball is touched and illuminated by the affection it has inspired in artists and photographers, comedians and writers. Baseball isn't just about itself, it's about America's most cherished images of itself.

The United States was founded to be a rational Eden. The mental image that conjures up looks very much like a baseball stadium all neatly divided into bleachers for the fans, field and dugouts for the players. Ballparks depicted by artists like Jim Dow show fields green as pastoral emeralds. The point of the game, as a wiser man observed, is to get to home. Back home to the wife and kiddies, cozy and safe. French artist Raoul Dufy got the idyllic, playful feel of the grounds down just right. It's too bad Georges Seurat never did a baseball picture. The game's gentler poetry would harmonize well with Pointillism.

Americans like to think of themselves as competing fair and square, according to the rules and without violence. The layout of the baseball field is clear and rational. Rival pitcher and batter face each other squarely as individuals who will duel not with saber and six-shooter but with bat and ball.

The crucial team spirit operates more indirectly on the field with every player and runner in his position. It looks simple, but the subtleties of play, I'm told, are endless.

Richard Artschwager looks at a game from the point of view of a high fly, dwarfing players. Tina Chaden puns in a model stadium titled "The Baseball Fan," where the infield is made of a lady's fan.

Americans like to think they are straight-ahead folks whose prefered style is simplicity. Baseball uniforms have the functional naivete of turn-of-the-century boys' outfits with their caps and knickers. Artists like Gerald Garston and Robert Gwathmey see players in an ice cream colored folk-art style. Edward Larson made a weather-vane whirligig called "Ronald Reagan Strikes Out on Foreign Policy." Baseball blends well with Pop style and with the kind of populist realism practiced by Harvey Dinnerstein. Lance Richbourg renders a slide into second base with the metaphysical stillness of a Morandi. It all makes you wonder if there aren't baseball pictures by Eakins and Hopper around somewhere. If there are, they aren't here.

That's all fine but what does baseball have to do with art, really? Actually quite a lot. They share qualities of subdued competition, myth-making and hero-worship. Both need lots of style and graceful execution that cannot be too obvious lest they appear artificial. Among the nicest pieces here are a pair of bronzes by John Dreyfuss which share some of the manner of Elie Nadelman's blend of folk plainness and Cocktail Moderne chic. Dreyfuss depicts a pitcher at that moment of casual otherworldly contemplation just before the windup. He stands alone as sleek as Brancusi's "Bird in Flight" on a pedestal facing a praying mantis catcher across the way. The empty space between is ethereal. Only the relationship counts.

This exhibition never goes sour, but it does get a little edgy when it gets too cute or too serious about itself. When James Sullivan draws a hardball atop a classical column and Harvey Breverman puts one in the hand of Michelangelo's God as he reaches for Adam's finger, it's clear if obvious fun. When Jim Markowich presents a model cathedral whose stained glass depicts baseball scenes, you just shrug and walk away looking for something more fibrous to chew on.

Eric Fischl tries for it in "Boys at Bat" which shows a shy kid in uniform uneasily watching his nude father bat one in the back yard. It's heavy-handed Freudianism, and desire to shock is not worthy of the nuances of either sport or art.

Back to the wry gentleness of things that are more telling, like William King's shiny red vinyl sculptural fantasy, "Self as Doubleday," or Scott Mlyn's photo of fans ogling a New York Yankee hero. A young guy is as healthily worshipful as the girls.

"Diamonds Are Forever" might be accused of trying to perpetuate a myth in a real world where baseball has become big corporate business and scandals erupt around heroes like Pete Rose. Much the same thing has happened to art in a lobotomized bottom-line world seemingly determined to reduce everything to the same dreary commercial sludge. Well, recently George Steinbrenner was forced to give up ownership of the Yankees, which I'm told was a victory for the good guys. When a Van Gogh goes for $50 million at auction the painting rises above the fray and remains itself. Some human activities inspire irrepressible idealization, thank goodness.

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