I love the story of Herbert and Dorothy Vogel, the New York art collectors who lived on his post office salary so they could spend her librarian salary on contemporary art. But it was with some trepidation that I went to the Arkansas Arts Center’s new show, “50 for Arkansas,” fifty works from the Vogels’ collection donated to the Arts Center, because I thought it would be dominated by minimalist art. Ditto with the Smithsonian exhibit “Multiplicity,” which has been properly paired with the Vogel collection.
To this reviewer’s eye, there’s good minimalist art and there’s dated minimalist art, and there were both varieties in the show. Call me a philistine (I can hear you already!), but Brice Marden’s lithographs on paper in the “Multiplicity” exhibition — at least the ones in this particular exhibition — haven’t worn well. That might be because these fat brushstrokes and thin lines against flat stripes of white or black have been imitated to a fare-thee-well by succeeding artists; we’ve all seen something like them. Compare them to “Multiplicity” work “Untitled” by Caio Fonseca, an aquatint that, like Marden’s lithos, is composed of tightly etched abstract forms in black and a dirty white. But Fonseca’s composition of black and white shapes with fine stitch-like lines running through the space is gorgeous and not a bit trite. Fonseca’s drawing dates from 1998 and Marden’s from 1972, so it hasn’t had as much time to become familiar.
Black and white works were common in both “Multiplicity” and “50 for Arkansas”; the oversized lithographs of Kara Walker (in “Multiplicity”), who enlarged engravings from “Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War” and then placed against them silhouettes of slave figures, their features exaggerated but their worth diminished, are magnetic (the engravings themselves are quite beautiful as well). Donald Sultan’s “Black Roses” (also in “Multiplicity”) are lush black aquatints, flattened images of roses and leaves, fuzzy around the edges, against the white paper.
The minimalist works in “50 for Arkansas” turned out to be minimal. There’s much that’s figurative here, like the charming drawings of cats by Will Barnet and the funny line drawing by Michael Kostabi of a couple, he with a plug head and she with a receptacle head. There’s fantasy, such as Daryl Trivieri’s airbrush and inkwash drawings of a girl child whose torso, arms, legs and head are marked with line drawings — a bird’s head torso, fish on one arm, a peacock’s head on the other, work that is fascinatingly weird, though not as weird and funny as his frog-fish head paintings, wrought in equally odd technique. There’s abstract work as well, like the mixed media paintings by Charles Clough — fingerstrokes of paint across printed images that are surprisingly and happily fresh given how widespread compositions of that sort are.
In the good-but-I-don’t-care-anymore category of works in the Vogel collection are the tangled lines of William Anastasi. There’s conceptual work on paper by Robert Barry and wood by Jene Highstein that those with a finer eye and more cerebral nature than I will appreciate.
The star of the Vogel collection is, to my mind, a ceramic vessel by Michael Lucero dating to the mid-1980s. (My contemporary craft slip is showing, I know.) This flattish form is like a closed vase with ears, is painted in jarringly different abstractions, juxtaposing Robert Delaunay geometrics with dark scratchy landscapes. I liked it better every time I passed it.
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