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"New Acquisitions: Part Two Contemporary Art"
2005-11-28 until 2005-12-31
Leslie Sacks Fine Art
Los Angeles, CA, USA United States of America

This exhibition at Leslie Sacks Fine Art consists of newly acquired works by important contemporary artists including Diebenkorn, Hockney, Hodgkin, Kitay, Rucsha, Stella, Sultan, Thiebaud and Warhol. The terms “modern” and “contemporary” are virtually synonymous in common usage, but they have taken on distinctly different meanings as used in art criticism. Modern art is deemed to be those styles that emerged mostly in the first decade of the 20th century, and these styles are generally characterized by abstraction in that they depart from the realistic representation of physical appearances. It may be said that the dominance of modern art began to wane with the advent of pop, as exemplified by Warhol’s use of photographs and commercial graphics, both of which are characterized by literal rather than abstract representation.

This literal and sometimes even literary approach is really at the heart of contemporary art, much of which is referred to as “post-modern.” An in depth discussion of post-modernism is well beyond the scope of this short writing, but let it suffice to say that post-modernism in its most radical forms is predicated primarily on concepts (intellectual content) rather than painterly, naturalistic, romantic or overtly spiritual concerns. However, to apply this criterion strictly to all contemporary art would be an error, as can be seen by reference to the artists in this exhibition, most of whom have taken the middle path by combining modern and post-modern qualities in their work.

Warhol’s pink Marilyn is an iconic and prototypical example of post-modernism, the conceptual strategy being to evoke a response based on the viewer’s association with the image, a response which is heightened by his use of color. Note the intellectual (conceptual) basis of this work is largely devoid of any personal statement about the artist’s feelings. Similarly, Wayne Thiebaud frequently presents images of food (especially pastries), and toys. These may indeed be metaphoric on one level, but they certainly evoke fairly predictable and universal reactions from the viewer. However, Thiebaud’s pictures are very much about painting, especially his cakes with their thick impasto frosting, and this concern with materials and process is certainly central to modernism. It should be noted that Thiebaud is also a master of landscape and retains a connection with impressionism as well as 19th and early 20th century American landscape painting.

Rucsha’s work is a similar hybrid, placing words (concepts and ideas) as if they were people or buildings set in his landscapes. One may also point to Diebenkorn’s Spades and Clubs; familiar symbols, like Marilyn, and similarly decontextualized (in post-modern parlance) to separate them from their original meaning and in so doing disengaging the viewer’s conditioned response which has the effect of opening the viewer’s eyes to new meanings. Like Theibaud and Ruscha, Diebenkorn was also into landscape, from a modernist point of view, his Ocean Park Series being an aerial take on the urban grid while evoking an association with Mondrian. As a footnote, it’s interesting to consider the common interest in landscape on the parts of Ruscha, Diebenkorn and Thiebaud – all Americans and California artists.

Much of David Hockney’s work might well be termed neo-modern, appropriating stylistic motifs from Picasso and Matisse and often being a caricature of such as if to suggest that his work is done from the perspective of another and more recent era, i.e., contemporary, looking back on an iconic historical image. Stella’s recent graphics involve computer generated patterns and extremely contemporary printing techniques (by the innovative Ken Tyler). Hodgkin’s “windows” seem at first blush to be color field paintings in the manner of Rothko, but are in fact aggressive efforts to dissolve the “flatness” of the (Greenbergian) picture plane -- the antithesis of moderns Rothko and Pollock -- by enhancing the illusion of pictorial space with frame like forms around the perimeters of his pictures.

Donald Sultan is deep into irony, a quintessential element of the post-modern mindset. Where one would expect to find the bright yellow of lemons or the rich red of roses, one often sees instead perhaps the richest blacks ever produced by an artist. Ironic indeed… just as the imagery of pop art was non-sequitur, placing images of Marilyn and Campbell’s Soup cans on the walls of museums and galleries. But, in his exploration of black Sultan mines the same vein pursued by Matisse and thus Sultan maintains a powerful connection with mainstream modernism while remaining a seminal figure in contemporary art.

R.B. Kitaj may well be the most iconoclastic artist of our times, bashing the idolatrous cult of label makers with the depth of his emotion, the courage of his vulnerability and the sincerity of his concern with socio-political issues. In his graphic works from the sixties and seventies he was as much an appropriationist as Warhol (appropriation being a fundamental post-modern strategy), making social comments through his particular choice of borrowed images. His more recent paintings are essentially those of a neo expressionist while borrowing heavily from the palette of the post-impressionists and most recently and directly from the style of the early moderns, such as Mondrian – an iconic modernist.

Lichtenstein weighs in with a silkscreen still life, a classic modern and proto-modern subject, rendered with his appropriated benday dots (the tiny dots that make up photo-mechanical offset lithograph imagery, such as magazine and newspaper pictures, i.e., the popular press). Here it may be noted that the benday dots are decontextualized: a mass media motif being used for fine art. Similarly, Lichtenstein’s use of silkscreen, which is typical of his graphics, is an appropriation of a printing process widely used for decorative commercial (read popular) art.

This show would not be complete without a Jasper Johns, in this case, the Two Flags Whitney Museum commemorative lithograph from 1980. Again we find the pop (anticipating post-modern) appropriation of an iconic image, the American flag. This litho clearly references painting, with brushstrokes and drips that read like gouache or watercolor. Perhaps more so than any other artist, Johns is the bridge between modern and pop art and by extension between modern and post-modern as his work is a perfect synthesis of erudite modern painting and high concept.

Most of the attention goes to the most extreme practitioners of a new style, perhaps because the most extreme examples are the easiest to spot and maximize the tickle of novelty. But in the final analysis it’s depth and genuine talent that count. So, as regards what’s contemporary, there’s always room for more angels on the head of a pin.  

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