The new exhibition that opened Sunday at the Museum of Contemporary Art sports a big title that's an even bigger mouthful. "Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949-1979" doesn't exactly flow trippingly off the tongue, but it does suggest two things.
One is that the wildly diverse paintings, sculptures and installations under scrutiny can't be corralled by a universally accepted name, like Pop or Minimal art. The other is that, by far, this is the most extravagantly ambitious historical exhibition of postwar art to have been mounted by an American museum in many years.
What's more, it works.
Currently we're slogging through a grim period of general timidity in art museums, where safe celebrity names! names! names! tend to be the first order of the day. The potential cash revenue an exhibition might provide often seems of weightier institutional concern than its artistic and scholarly benefits.
At the Geffen Contemporary, "Out of Actions" bucks that depressing trend, and it does so in an enterprising way. It's not flawless; it's just provocative, well considered and critically challenging. And it's a show the likes of which you won't see even being attempted at other American museums.
Organized by MOCA chief curator Paul Schimmel and an international advisory team, "Out of Actions" looks at the wide array of objects made by postwar artists for whom actions, Happenings, performances and a general curiosity about creative process functioned as an artistic engine.
Sometimes, an artist's action was aimed directly at making a painting, sculpture or other art object, as when Georges Mathieu diagramed historical events in the form of monumental abstract canvases, or Giuseppe Pinot Gallizio cranked out "paintings by the yard" that are exhibited like paper towels on a roll. At other times, the art object was more a kind of residue of an event, like leftovers after dinner--which, in the case of Daniel Spoerri's restaurant works, is pretty much what they are.
The relationships between such actions and objects are not easy to articulate. When you consider how widespread the activity has been, however, and how influential for the direction of international cultural life, the signal importance of the show is plain.
The Geffen Contemporary, MOCA's warehouse space in Little Tokyo, has been divided into a chronological, surprisingly coherent itinerary of 36 discrete galleries. The sequence begins with a 1949 drip painting by Jackson Pollock; it ends with a sculptural installation made from props used by Mike Kelley in several performances in the late 1970s.
In between, the show roams far and wide. Nearly 150 artists and collectives are surveyed, representing 30 years of performative actions undertaken by artists in some 20 countries around the globe. The New York School, the Gutai Group and Hi Red Center in Japan, Viennese Actionism, Italian Arte Povera, international Fluxus and any number of independent artists who were not affiliated with named movements have been brought together here.
To elaborate the time-based context in which this art was made, 20 user-friendly video monitors are dispersed throughout the Geffen. Clips from films and videos of related performance actions can be randomly accessed by visitors.
The first gallery includes work by artists from North America, Asia and Europe. The international sweep of the show gets established straightaway, as are three important conceptual parameters.
Jackson Pollock's beautiful web of dripped and splashed paint, "No. 1," is proposed as a kind of Ur-object for all the action-oriented art that follows, in which chance and indeterminacy are critical. In marked opposition to the rationalism of our scientific, business-oriented age, a visually elaborate score for an avant-garde composition by John Cage hangs nearby, proposing music as a paradigm for performative art. (Sculptural pianos turn up often, in works by Nam June Paik, Dieter Roth and Raphael Montan~ez Ortiz.)
The Pollock is first glimpsed through "Entrance," a reconstruction of a 1955 work by Japanese artist Saburo Murakami in which he burst through a wall made from gilded paper, smashing an object akin to the traditional shoji partitions of Japanese architecture; symbolically, he also smashed a revered but constricted way of life.
"Entrance" is a dramatic elaboration of actions taken five or six years before by two other artists represented in the first gallery, who worked independently on opposite sides of the globe. Shozo Shimamoto, also Japanese, and Italy's Lucio Fontana are represented by paintings that they punctured and lacerated.
Space in these perforated paintings is real, not illusionistic. In a devastated postwar world living beneath a nuclear shadow, processes of destruction became a darkly ironic creative force.
In fact, much of this work extends the 20th century tradition of anti-art, prominent ever since the Dada movement arose in the aftermath of the chaos and mass-destruction of World War I. If painting and sculpture couldn't escape the status quo, an emphasis on ephemeral processes, absurdity, ritualized play and nihilism might pull the rug out from underneath.
In a sense, "Out of Actions" is about a world view, which is glimpsed in the residue of a wide variety of art activities. Socially, the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s constitute an extraordinarily volatile period. Much of this work reflects the perpetually contested status of individual liberty, from the stultifying conformity of mass culture to battles for black civil rights and women's liberation.
The exhibition is very good at coherently presenting the work of many artists and historical movements that haven't been seen much in L.A. before, and in recontextualizing others. The Freudian themes of erotic violence and spiritual chaos at the core of Viennese Actionism--the often bloody and ritualistic work of Gunter Brus, Hermann Nitsch, Rudolf Schwarzkogler and others--is especially revealing, given its importance as a precedent for such now-influential L.A.-based artists as Paul McCarthy and Kelley.
Indeed, one of the slier aspects of the show is its geographic trajectory. It starts with Pollock in New York, immediately goes global, then at the end comes home to roost in L.A. With closing galleries prominently devoted to McCarthy, Kelley and Chris Burden--artists central to Schimmel's influential 1992 mega-hit, "Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the '90s"--the history of postwar art comes home, so to speak.
If anything gets short-shrift here, it's Process art circa 1970. Work by a few Process artists will be encountered, but major examples are nowhere to be seen.
Instead of the polyurethane pours, scattered debris and splashed lead sculptures of such critical figures as Lynda Benglis, Barry Le Va and Richard Serra, the show emphasizes work more closely attuned to ephemeral principles aligned with Conceptual art. This curatorial capitulation to current dogma is distinctly at odds with the rebelliousness of most everything displayed in the galleries.
In the end, though, "Out of Actions" doesn't only chart a significant thread that twists and turns through art's postwar history. Rambunctious, wide-ranging and finally unnameable, the exhibition embodies an attitude central to the present moment. Art today simmers in a post-movement, transnational moment, and "Out of Actions" captures that dizzying spirit with magnificent elan.
* Geffen Contemporary, 152 N. Central Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 626-6222, through May 10. Closed Mondays.