Hayden Gallery inaugurates Arts and MediaGiacometti to Johns: The Albert and Vera List Family Collection. Through April 21, at the new Hayden Gallery, Arts & Media Technology Building (E15); weekdays 10-4, weekends 1-5, free.
There is a sense of clarity, of fresh light and ample space, as one enters the relocated Hayden Gallery in MIT's new Visual Arts Center. The current unfinished state of the Arts and Media Technology Building adds to that a feeling of expectation, of work-in-progress, particularly fitting to a gallery intended to monitor the cutting edge of Modern Art.
Quite appropriately, the first exhibition mounted in this new environment amounts to a balance. And quite fortunately, the Albert and Vera List Collection featured in it is the kind of private collection combining a first-rate inventory with a refreshing sense of personal taste.
Not that it lacks scope, however. Indeed, the extent to which it is representative of Modern Art since World War II is remarkable. But it has that attractive blend of selection and contingency that sets it apart from the panoramic indifference of many museum collections.
The organization has arranged the objects in no particular order. It is worthwile, though, to sort them out a bit, to elucidate their role in the vast spectacle that is Modern Art.
One is drawn immediately to three pieces dating from the '40s, which set the scale for all the later work. Giacometti's Citysquare, on which figures in his unmistakeble canon wander aimlessly, helplessly, as if crushed by the naked space around them, sums up the cultural agony of the time. Against this image of emptiness, the bronze Tortue by Max Ernst, with its ambiguous, perhaps hieratic symbolism, sustains the reality of hidden layers of consciousness. (Arp's Winged Creature, though of later date, draws upon the same source.) In the Peasant in his Garden by Jean Dubuffet, we encounter that atmosphere of childlike spontaneity that is such an important innovation of 20th-century art.
A note next to Dubuffet's painting quotes him (from Prospectus aux amateurs de tout genre): "Art should always make us laugh a little and frighten us a little, but never bore us". It is a device to remember. (By the way, more than a few of the other exhibition notes enhance the understanding of the later Wittgenstein, rather than of the art to which they refer.)
Many objects in the exhibition, then, could (in a conceptual, rather than historical sense) be interpreted as direct continuations of that early work. Marisol's Baby Boy, for instance, adheres closely to the spirit of Dubuffet's Peasant. The spatial tension of the Citysquare is recaptured in the Untitled composition of Joel Shapiro (whose other works on display are not particularly inspiring), while the rough, tangible quality of Giacometti's figures reappears in Deborah Butterfield's clay Horse.
The spirit of continuation is less apparent, but none the less real in the different Pop-Art objects on display. Spontaneity and symbolism are fused in the idiom of comics and commercials, as in that textbook example, Roy Lichtenstein's I Know How You Must Feel, Brad. This leads to a highlight of the collection, the 1962 Diver by Jasper Johns. It has the best of its genre (here also represented by Rauschenberg's Summer Rental): a colorful dynamism, on the verge of the figurative and the abstract. But one of its five panels points in another direction, that of the rigorous abstraction of colorfield painting.
The formalized approach to abstraction of the hard-edge works of the sixties and their Minimalist successors constitutes probably the major departure from what a Giacometti, a Dubuffet or an Ernst has to offer. The exhibition gives a reasonable selection. Elsworth Kelly's White Over Black, or Donald Judd's Untitled retain a certain interest, but with Marden's Hydra I or Ryman's Region one inevitably starts to ponder Dubuffet's motto.
What, then, with very recent art? The pendulum is swinging, this time away from Minimalism, and this exhibition does not fail to illustrate that. Compare Frank Stella's 1981 Misano with his 1965 Sharpesville Sketch: both are abstract compositions, but movement and color are vastly expanded in the first with respect to the second. It is a commonplace by now to note that the work of fashionable young artists like Sandro Chia (Horse in the Metropolis) or Julian Schnabel (Spot) implies a return to communication by content as well as by form, founded on the more pronounced presence of the artist in his work. But these are but aspects of a reality which has become so multi-faceted as to defy a concise rendering.
It is this reality -- and its change -- which the new Hayden Gallery will have to address. One could envisage a less inspiring start.