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Jewish World Review Dec. 26, 2001 / 11 Teves, 5762

Diana West

Diana West
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A tale of two exhibitions

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com -- NEW YORK | I am standing in a small, spare room at the Whitney Museum of American Art, which occupies a substantial corner of Manhattan's inviolably luxurious Upper East Side. I am trying to explain to my companions that the live image of the gray December sky they see on a television screen before them is a work of modern art. They don't understand. They are nine. I am old enough to be their mother. I don't understand either.

I study the catalog. It seems that the aptly named "Sky TV" (1966), a "video sculpture" by Yoko Ono, reflects Ono's "Fluxus-inflected, conceptual approach to video." This is not helpful. I read on.

"Significantly," the $45 catalogue continues, "the camera is aimed not at the viewer but at the sky, implying the necessity of considering an infinite world beyond the ego and the hypnotic pull of commercial television." Why, of course. Now I see: "Sky TV" is a Fluxus-inflected implication of televised ego and commercial hypnosis. And we just thought the thing was supposed to give "static" new meaning.

I decide to read the next wall card before looking at its accompanying installation to see if it is helpful to know in advance what the intended meaning of a "video sculpture" is. It has become readily apparent, here at the Whitney, that seeing has little to do with believing. The act of actually looking at the 19 exhibits that make up the show "Into the Light: The Projected Image in American Art 1964-1977" seems to have become a near-optional exercise intended only to confirm a series of explanatory tracts.

The wall card tells us that "Free Will" is a 1968 work by William Anastasi "focusing on one of [the gallery's] most mundane, ignored features, the corner." A quick look reveals that, yes, so it does. This "sculpture" is a black-and-white video monitor that relays a "live image" of one genuinely mundane and easily ignored corner. How this ties in with what is described as the "political, social and cultural turmoil of the 1960s" is not immediately clear. Of course, it gets no clearer later, either. The catalog tries to be helpful, in its way, explaining that the video image of the corner may also "be understood as an implicit critique of the institution of the museum and gallery, as well as of conventions of art presentation."

To what end? Don't ask. It seems that the "artist's" use of what the catalog calls "neglected locations" --you know, corners, floors, broom closets -- rejects "traditional hierarchies of value (such as the pedestal and the frame)." Got to watch those pedestals and the frames: No doubt they're in leagues with the Western patriarchal whatsis, if not the vast, right-wing conspiracy.

Anastasi, meanwhile, is said to be responsible for another video sculpture of ... a wall socket. This particular artwork, alas, is not on display, so there is no word on which traditional hierarchy the artist has implicitly rejected this time (desk lamp? blender?). The fact is, while such "sculptures" are made from the most accessible and easily understood media in existence -- film and video -- they are totally senseless without explication. They are also totally senseless with explication. They are, in fact, totally senseless.

Nevertheless, the arts mainstream -- the avant garde has gotten so crowded it qualifies as a mainstream --insists they are a kind of art.

So be it. Worth noting, though, is that there is no such consensus on another exhibition farther uptown at the Guggenheim Museum. There, on a different day, my companions and I take in the Norman Rockwell traveling show, now ending its run with a stint at what has always been thought of as a temple to abstract art. Now, amid a genuine, if limited, surge of artworld interest in the Rockwell oeuvre as "art," not "illustration," huge crowds are filling the museum's Robert Mapplethorpe Gallery (of all places) to see dozens of Rockwell's tableaux. After Sept. 11, these museum-goers look through eyes less jaundiced against Rockwellian themes of national community.

As a preternaturally gifted painter of anecdote and illustration, Rockwell tells folkloric, often humorous tales of the common American man with an unmistakable clarity -- too unmistakable for some people (for a lot of people) who regard him only as a commercial artist for an illustrative style that leaves little, if anything, to the imagination.

No Fluxus-inflected implications here. But like him or not (or, even as I do, like a good deal of his work, but not all), it seems capricious to deny this one painter a foothold in a seemingly boundless art world, one that finds a corner for just about anything -- even video sculpture.

JWR contributor Diana West is a columnist and editorial writer for the Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2001, Diana West