The other beauty myth

At the turn of the century, with Picasso behind and Matthew Barney in front, does beauty still matter?

Published January 10, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Early last fall Harvard English professor Elaine Scarry published a thin book called "On Beauty and Being Just." The prospect excited me because, throughout the '90s, critics and artists had stirred up notions of beauty like the settled ingredients of a soup. In 1992, Arthur Danto wrote one of the first essays on the topic in "Beauty and Morality." The next year, Dave Hickey caused a minor but lasting fracas with his concept of transgressive beauty in his book "The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty." To reduce their arguments to one line, you could say that all three worry that, in the last 20-odd years, artists and academics alike have ignored beauty in favor of political question.

I hoped Scarry would bring to a boiling point the quarrels somewhat tepidly inaugurated by art critics Danto and Hickey. In her book, professor Scarry mounts a defense of the idea of beauty, which, she says, has "been banished or driven underground in the humanities for the last two decades." She tries to prove that, contrary to what the anti-aesthetes in the academy have written, promoting beauty in art is not an inherently elitist activity, nor is it harmful, as some feminist critics believe. (Scarry doesn't buy the feminist argument that the "male gaze" objectifies women.)

In the end, though, Scarry's book is a stale concoction. To those who attack beauty on political grounds, she replies with a similarly political defense -- that beauty leads to social equality; that beauty is democratic. Reading her book, I got the sense that her admirable liberal principles wouldn't let her deal with the truth: Beauty is elitist. Creating beautiful artworks or advancing their cause both entail recognizing excellence, establishing hierarchies, refining taste. However, the most annoying thing about "On Beauty and Being Just" is what Scarry chooses to leave out. She ducks telling us who exactly has been attacking beauty for the last two decades, she doesn't include any quotes from the anti-beauty crowd, nor does she refer to or reproduce any contemporary art, thereby depriving the reader of examples of what she's talking about.

Luckily, the curators of the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington have organized an ambitious exhibition called "Regarding Beauty: A View of the Late 20th Century," which addresses many of the recent arguments about beauty with an assortment of artworks by 36 artists from the last 40 years. As the double meaning of its title indicates, the show entails a two-part proposition -- regarding beauty in the sense of being about beauty and in the sense of looking at art that aims for beauty. It is a show crowded with words -- wall texts, quotes stenciled throughout the exhibition and long catalog essays. At times, all this curatorial verbiage gets in the way of the art itself, which ranges all over the scale of quality, media and age, from Picasso, dead for 26 years, to the American mulitmedia artist Matthew Barney, who turned 32 in 1999. The show is divided under two broad rubrics, "Beauty Objectified," which focuses on "the figure and changing ideals of physical beauty," and "Intangible Beauty," which "examines the subjective realm of perception."

For anyone expecting a break from the overdetermined messages of conceptual art, the show's first several rooms will be a trial. The first piece, an untitled installation presenting a doorway blocked by "fragments of reproductions of Classical and Renaissance sculpture and slabs of broken marble" by Jannis Kounellis, has all the sensuality and intellectual resonance of an art-school project. The pieces nearby dish up more of the same dry conceptual, all of which appropriated or speak to notions of classical beauty: a plaster-cast Venus facing a mound of rags by the Arte Povera artist Michelangelo Pistoletto; two reproductions of the "Medici Venus" facing each other in a work called "Mimesis" by Giulio Paolini.

Among the initial offerings by European art stars are pieces by the expected home-grown celebrities. Cindy Sherman's ubiquitous "History Portraits," in which the artist photographs herself costumed and posed in the manner of famous paintings such as Carravaggio's "Bacchus" and da Vinci's "Mona Lisa," thankfully inject some comedy into the first series of rooms. The Bahamian superstar Janine Antoni fastens on to "issues of the body's public presentation" in "Lick and Lather" (1993-'94), with its two rows of busts -- one in chocolate, one in soap -- in which the artist has licked or lathered away details from each of the faces. Some of these busts are already deteriorating, so if you don't find them appealing, you can take comfort in the fact that they won't be around much longer. On the other hand, what are they doing here in the first place?

When the opponents of beauty (named in the show's catalog as, among others, theorists Rosalind Krauss, Benjamin Buchloh, Hal Foster and Douglas Crimp) point to artists who oppose purely aesthetic art with issues-based work, people like Sherman and Antoni are the very ones they champion. I can only suppose that their works and many of the other conceptual pieces included in the show are there because they critique the concept of beauty. They may not strike the eye, but they're about beauty. Still, if I'd wanted messages, I could have stayed home and watched public service announcements on TV. I hoped to find aesthetically gratifying art at the Hirshhorn, not a bunch of installations assembled by studio assistants for artists with something to "say." Luckily, the curators saved the meat for the middle.

Oddly enough, I found some of the most compelling art in a room with the heading "Difficult Beauty," devoted to work that assigns ugliness an essential role in beauty. Hung only with paintings, the room also boasts the best known artists in the show. Pablo Picasso's "Reclining Woman Playing With a Cat" (1964) hangs next to Willem de Kooning's "Woman, Sag Harbor" (1964). In both, the power of execution -- the quality of line in Picasso's drably gray woman and the evocative color in de Kooning's woman -- is emphasized over the charm of the images themselves. Alone on another wall, three recent canvases by the English painter Lucien Freud stand up surprisingly well next to the two masters. Again, these paintings, two nudes of the mammoth, bald performance artist Leigh Bowery and one of an obese nude woman entitled "Benefits Supervisor Sleeping" (1995), defy conventional subject matter with their unappealing protagonists. But with his gorgeous paint handling and novel perspectives, Freud creates arresting, dignified and beauteous images.

He orchestrates slovenly elements in a sensuous minuet of texture and color. The mottled flesh and shadows in the benefit supervisor's sleep-slackened face virtually rhyme with the camouflage colors in the couch's torn fabric where she rests. In the two male nudes, Freud attends to every lump and wrinkle with all the lingering care one would expect if he were painting an odalisque. His is an unidealized beauty, one that forces us to reconsider what it is in a painting that triggers aesthetic pleasure.

Freud's affecting ugliness has an unlikely counterpart in Matthew Barney's stills from his series of "Cremaster" films. Barney, the youngest artist in the show, evinces one of the most personal visions of beauty on view. His unsexed faeries with crimson hair from "CR 4" (1994) and his bizarre giant standing in enormous flower petals, with its ribbon-sheathed penis and birds roosting on its arms and shoulders, reveal the delight of monstrosity in a manner not unlike Freud's paintings. Barney composes the grotesque in exquisite color photographs that gesture at sexuality without ever affording release.

One of the few arguably conceptual artists whose ideas actually result in beautiful canvases, French artist Yves Klein, who died in 1962 at age 34, also operates in the realm of sexuality. To make "FC1 (Untitled Fire Color Painting)" (1961), Klein used naked women as paintbrushes, directing the movements of their paint-slathered bodies on the canvas, and then burning it with a blowtorch. One sees in the outcome the ghostly forms of the naked bodies floating in a haze of International Klein Blue and burnt orange pigment.

The show's second half, "Intangible Beauty," mixes conceptual works with paintings, photographs, sculptures and drawings that deal with landscape and abstraction. Although one-liners like California conceptualist John Baldessari's "Pure Beauty" (1967-'68), a square canvas with nothing more than the words of the title painted across it, speak less to the topic of beauty than to the gullibility of curators over the last 30-odd years. Why such visually inert work needs to be included remains a mystery, particularly when the curators already have conceptually based work like Andy Warhol's "Oxidation Painting" (1978), where urine is used as paint, evincing an aesthetic richness. Beautiful like a natural phenomenon, like a rust pattern, "Oxidation Painting" has such decorative qualities that it might be taken for mall art, if it weren't for the association with Warhol.

Since the Romantic era, aesthetic philosophers have considered awe-inspiring landscapes -- mountain vistas, say, or the churning ocean -- and grand abstractions as instances of the sublime rather than the beautiful. For "Regarding Beauty," the curators sought out a number of small-scale landscapes (largeness having everything to do with sublimity) and unheroic abstractions to demonstrate how the beautiful can modulate into the sublime. For instance, American painter Vija Celmins' depictions of seascapes and stars in the night sky might ordinarily fall into the category of the sublime because they take the vastness of nature as a subject. But Celmins has wrought these drawings on relatively small sheets of paper, so the viewer attends to the delicacy of treatment rather than the overpowering force of nature they portray.

An entire room is given over to paintings by the venerable German artist Gerhard Richter. In this show they alternate between complete abstractions and eerie landscapes painted from photographs. Composed with squeegeed or rolled on layers of oil paint, Richter's abstractions appear to embrace the local details of texture and color, rather than the grand gestures usually associated with sublime abstraction. His landscapes, with their almost photo-realist technical bravura, attend to the banality of the countryside with a sort of snapshot matter-of-factness, suggesting that the actual subject of these paintings is the photographs instead of the landscapes within the photographs.

Closer to the sublime, American minimalist Agnes Martin's wondrously still grids provoke a sense of infinitude and majesty, qualities that some might argue put her paintings beyond the category of the beautiful. Yet, upon closer inspection, you can't help noticing that the imperfect lines and tiny stray marks are exactly what save these paintings from grand sterility, keeping them in the fallible, human precincts of the beautiful.

With their tactile pleasures, the sculptures chosen for the exhibition fit neatly into this show's themes. An involute red hole receding into the wall, British sculptor Anish Kapoor's abstract "My Body Your Body II" (1993-'99) shifts its color depending on where the viewer stands. Its graceful sensuality doesn't get bogged down in fashionable statements, but it does suggest the kind of emotional connection common to true works of beauty. That same sort of emotionalism is apparent in American sculptor and installation artist Louise Bourgeois' metamorphosed bodies made of rubber, fabric or marble.

Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist's video installation, "Ever Is Over All" (1997), juxtaposes on adjacent walls floral images with a sequence featuring a woman walking down the street, smashing car windows with a flower. An insouciant rhetorical tone, not to mention the loveliness of its music and images, allows this video to explore the intimate relationship between violence and beauty without seeming preachy.

Not many exhibitions jump right into current art-world disputes. "Regarding Beauty" should be praised for its willingness to do so. About the worst that can be said of this show is that its two discrete aims often confuse the choices of art included: Some are here for how they look, some for what they mean, and the two groups do not measure up equally. One dictum could have clarified the choices: Art that is about beauty is not always beautiful, whereas beautiful art always says something about beauty.

By Daniel Kunitz

Daniel Kunitz is a New York writer.

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