Thursday, December 20, 2012

He Saw First

Last weekend, in DC, I saw Ai Weiwei's show at the Hirshhorn Museum. His work attempts to marry sleek formalism with political protest. The two aims clash, in my view, neither arising organically from the other. Is a huge serpent made ingeniously out of knapsacks really the most emotionally convincing way to protest the deaths of children in a Sichuan earthquake when their school collapsed due to poor construction and regulation? Ai has obviously learned a great deal from American minimalism during his stay in New York City in the 1980's. The application of these lessons to Chinese issues seems to have been unproblematic in his practice, and that is the problem of his art for me. His art is made for Western consumption. In two big photographs, he shows his middle finger to both the White House and Tiannanmen Square, but only in the latter is the image of the Great Helmsman poked in the eye. There is nobody in the White House photo.


Nam June Paik, "Zen for TV" 1963/1982


More exciting was the retrospective of pioneering video artist Nam June Paik at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Inspired by the then-new TV, Nam made works that were, in turn, playful, metaphysical, spectacular, self-reflexive. "TV Clock," "TV Buddha," "Zen for TV" and "TV Garden," once seen, are unforgettable. GH's older brother SH was one of Nam's assistants when he assembled his TV Robots series. He even traveled with the artist around Europe. I love how Nam took the functional form of the TV and made something beautiful with it. He saw first and then led others to see it. It was my first visit to the American Art Museum. I was very impressed by the curatorial arrangement of twentieth-century American art works. They spoke to one another in a big but elegant hall.

Today I saw the Matisse show at the Met. "In Search of True Painting" looks at the French Master's work in pairs and trios. The Vence paintings throbbed with radiant color in the last room. "Large Red Interior" (1948) is itself a study of pairs. On either side of a central black line are two tables, two rugs and two artworks. Of the artworks, a colored composition balances an India ink drawing. The central black line ends midway down the painting at the top of an empty chair.


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