Stale Collectors And A Fresh Sculptor
The Logan Collection at Vassar College; John Anderson’s sculpture at Allan Stone Gallery
SEEKING TO EXPAND ITS OWN CONTEMPORARY HOLDINGS, Vassar College is wooing the Logan Collection, one of the world’s largest stockpiles of contemporary art. “Out of Shape: Stylistic Distortions of the Human Form from the Logan Collection,” now at Vassar’s Loeb Art Center, showcases 34 works on paper by 27 contemporary artists from the collection of Kent Logan, a retired partner at Montgomery Securities, and his wife Vicki, a 1968 Vassar alumna.
|Francesco Clemente, 1995
The couple began collecting contemporary art in the early 1990s and quickly amassed over 900 works by 200 artists, including what they contend is the biggest private cache of contemporary Chinese art in the United States. Though an inflated market has admittedly put a crimp in recent acquisitions, the couple bought over 100 pieces a year at the height of their shopping. In 2002, they built a 7,300-square-foot kuntshalle on their property in Vail, Colorado, to garage the inventory.
While the bulk of the collection concentrates on artists of the last 15 years, a third or so dates back to the 1960s. The exhibition catalog tries hard to project an aura of intellectual engagement onto a styleless hodge-podge of figurative images that, with few exceptions, cluster around a bad-boy urge to stick it to the viewer.
On show are speculative pieces dating mainly from the 1990’s to the present, with a sprinkling of predictable brands: Francesco Clemente, John Currin, Lisa Yuksavage, Bruce Nauman, post-”Sensation” Chris Ofili, and the inevitable Warhol. You cannot keep up with the Kravises without at least one Warhol; the Logans have more than 30 of them. This one, from 1981, is a lackluster outline drawing that has the look of a cursory tracing from a poster for the 1978 Superman movie.
Mel Ramos’s pencil “Study for Dr. Midnight” (1962), slated for donation to the San Francisco MoMA, is the oldest work here. It is also the best, but then Mr. Ramos had Stanley Aschmeir’s dynamic art for DC Comics as a model. Mr. Ramos’s lively draftsmanship leaves you wondering what he might have achieved if he had grown up when Pop Art’s moment passed. Of Ms. Yuksavage’s two entries, one is a negligible pastel of a faceless, big-thighed female with a stick for an arm. The other is a disconcertingly beautiful (the execution, not the subject) black and white impression of a fembot party ninja with impossible breasts. You almost wish the handling had been trashier.
“Post-feminist examination of the female body” is the posture du jour. Cecily Brown does her bad girl thing with a slipshod wash drawing of one schoolgirl spanking the bare behind of another. Kim Dingle takes a jab at childhood innocence with “The Nelson: Takedowns and Pinning Combinations (messy shoes).” Her lumpish schoolgirl duo, in Mary Janes and underpants, are locked in a suggestive wrestling hold.
Bruce Nauman’s sketch “Eating Buggers I” (1985) sticks a finger up the nose and into the mouth of a crudely drawn, generic head. It is the rehearsal for a blinking neon wall piece in which a finger flicks back and forth in timed intervals from nostril to mouth. This is school yard grossness tarted up as “the use of the human body as a site of curiosity and investigation.” More such sites greet the viewer in Nicola Tyson’s drawing of … not sure, really. “Untitled #67” (1997) looks suspiciously like a hot dog in a tutu or, if your mind works that way, a phallus complete with testicles. Either way, we are prompted to view it as “an evocation of the strength and vulnerability of the human form.”
John Currin is true to type with a grotesquely top-heavy blonde bombshell aimed at grownups who still daydream about groping Daisy Mae. The refined delicacy of Kurt Kauper’s pencil study of Cary Grant posing nude beside a fireplace belies the common campiness of the subject. It is a tongue-in-cheek excuse for frontal male nudity. Su-en Wong battles racist and sexist stereotypes by exposing herself naked amidst tropical vegetation. This, in plucky defiance of “the role young Asian women play in male fantasy.”
Chris Ofili’s “Black Grapes” (2004), an Afrocentric riff on Adam and Eve, is the prettiest piece here. Nothing beats gold leaf and red on black for effect. It sports a red frame to emphasize decorative properties borrowed from Chinese lacquer ware. Yang Lijun’s oversized 4-panel scroll in coarse grisaille succeeds better as a political comment on the loss of individuality in Communist China than a work of art that animates the page. Anthony Gormley’s blots of burnt chicory funning down a male back are idiosyncratic defacements of the torso that could mean anything or nothing.
All the conformist tropes of transgressive fashion are represented; there is a sexual cast to much of the work and an undercurrent of unspecified violence. Overall, the collection reflects the buying habits of an investment connoisseur who understands markets but has no independent sensitivity to art itself.
The Logans emphasize that their collection is a set of ideas, not mere images. They state that the human figure is used only “in a conceptual sense” and advance the term “figurative conceptualism.” It is a rhetorical dodge that discounts the entire history of art. The human figure has always been a conceptual tool. In every age, from the Cycladic to the present, concepts guide the hand and determine form. The greater the art, the more distinctive its conceptual dimension. What counts is the nature of the shaping idea and the quality of expression.
If the Logans had conceded that, they might have chosen more enduring work. To be fair, this is a small selection from a huge collection. Still, it is enough to suggest a subprime sensibility with a limited life span.
“Out of Shape: Stylistic Distortions of the Human Form in Art from the Logan Collection” at the Francis Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College (125 Raymond Avenue, Poughkeepsie, NY, 845-437-7404).
John Anderson began as a logger in Seattle. Since heavy snow halted logging in winter, he went to art school during the hiatus. Discharged from the army after the Korean War, he studied full time on the GI Bill, first in California, then at Pratt. Even then, he went back to logging in the summer.
His recent sculpture has the spirit of a lumberjack’s tall tale: monumental, heroic, yet with mythic whimsy at the heart of it. If Paul Bunyan took to the woods with a buzz saw and carpenter’s tools, he would come up with something similar. Not as sophisticated, but just as vigorous, sui generis and larger than life.
|John Anderson, gallery installation
Mr. Anderson’s achievement outweighs his name recognition among audiences reliant on the assurance of brands. His was one of the first artists exhibited by Allan Stone. With his eye for the fey and uncommon, Stone took the sculptor on board in 1962 and continued to exhibit him over the decades. This is Mr. Anderson’s 13th solo exhibition at the gallery. Work on view has a muscular beauty that is singularly its own and stands askance of any fashion.
Earlier sculptures were carved objects reminiscent of tools; some were painted. Recent pieces are massive accumulations of sectioned tree limbs, stripped of bark and carved into varied cylinders and and spools. Raw surfaces and suggestive shapes carry the frisson of bleached skeletal remains.
Some sections retain the anatomy of a branch and resemble the articulations of vertebrae; others are planed in ways that recall intricate hand and foot bones. Segment contours vary as finger bones do; one plane might be convex, another concave or straight. Distal ends tend to be smaller than the proximal, increasing the viewer’s association of them with tapering phalanges.
Overall effect is at once archaic and thoroughly contemporary. It takes a moment to grasp what you see but once you do, it is hard to let go. You might even want to climb on it,
Each untitled assemblage is an much of an installation as a work of sculpture. It sheds immobility, a classic characteristic of sculpture, for potential movement. There is a provisional quality to each arrangement, a sense that all would drape differently if Babe the Blue Ox gave it a shove.
Individual wooden forms are strung together on a metal cable. The cables are grouped and suspended from a central steel plate or bar attached to the ceiling. One hangs from two supports, like a sling or hammock. Another runs across a parallel bar in the manner of a mammoth beaded curtain. Surprisingly fluid for something so bulky, each cascade of threaded cable provides it own hem. Mr. Anderson’s end run around installation art’s discarded pedestal allows the work to drop as gracefully in descent as traditional sculpture rises.
“John Anderson” at Allan Stone Gallery (113 East 90th Street, 212-987-4997).
These reviews appeared first in The New York Sun on March 20 and March 13, 2008, respectively.
Copyright 2008, Maureen Mullarkey