By Richard P. Townsend
It made sense that the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles’ super exhibition Suprasensorial: Experiments in Light, Color, and Space came to the nation’s capital. Richard Koshalek, former MOCA Los Angeles director, brought the well received work of his talented longtime curator Alma Ruiz to his new institution. Furthermore, the Hirshhorn has an excellent collection of Latin American art (Joseph Hirshhorn having begun collecting it in well over a half century ago), and the museum hasn’t let up since, with leaders in the field like Olga Viso continuing the tradition, helping mainstream it into the international contemporary art scene. Even more to the point, Koshalek and his team clearly saw this exhibition as a piece to their puzzle. On my recent visit to the Hirshhorn, it was all about installation art. Not only on view was the present exhibition of interactive, optically challenging installation art, but Doug Aitken’s new outdoor video projection Song 1, Ai Weiwei’s Zodiac Heads handsomely arrayed around the circular pool of the interior plaza, and a permanent collection display of installation pieces. This all anticipates Koshalek’s “installation-like” inflatable structure, the “Bloomberg Balloon,” designed by Diller Scofidio+Renfro, opening for programming in 2013. All this activity acknowledges that some of the most exciting work today is occurring with installation art and Suprasensorial—a word coined by Hélio Oiticica—is an excellent reminder that the artists included in this show—Carlos Cruz-Diez , Lucio Fontana, Julio Le Parc, Oiticica, and Jesús Rafael Soto—were engaged in this experimental medium decades ago.
The exhibition—originally shown in MOCA’s handsome and flexible Geffen Temporary Contemporary—in many ways worked better there, for example in terms of circulation. This is not to say that individual installations looked as good or better at the Hirshhorn, however. Modernist architect Gordon Bunshaft’s circular building—a compressed Guggenheim—is a difficult space to display art, and especially the large-scale installation works as seen in the special exhibition. But Bunshaft’s take on imitating the cinematic effect of viewing art and its watchers in the round and in motion as Frank Lloyd Wright had earlier achieved, made for some cramped quarters, especially for the Cruz-Diez Cromosaturción (Chromosaturation, 1965) and the Le Parc Lumière en mouvement—Installation (Light in Motion…, 1962). It’s a terrific reminder that these artists coming out of Latin America (yes, Fontana, too, being born in Argentina of Italian parents) were at the cusp of interactive installation art practice a half-century ago. The Cruz-Diez, an environment which creates a visually hypnotic state with its glowing reds, greens, and blues suffered from its curved walls (as compared to the pleasing rectilinearity at MOCA; incidentally, it was just announced that both museums have jointly acquired the piece). But oddly enough, its exterior was interesting; a beautiful, pristine white object with transparent windows of brilliant green, red and blue. The Fontana hanging neon piece looked fantastic floating above the third floor escalators at the Hirshhorn (if however slightly removed from the rest of the exhibition one floor below). The Soto Penétrable BBL Bleu (1999), literally a work that one penetrates or walks through, composed of bright blue nylon cords suspended from a white metal frame, looked and felt gorgeous, another beautiful “object” which offered a sensuous, if slightly suffocating, textured swim. At MOCA, it was a marvelous predicate to Oiticica and Neville d’Almeida’s Cosmococa—Programa in Progress, CC 4 Nocagions, 1973, with its indoor swimming pool cum gathering spot (a great hit in LA). Not possible within the Hirshhorn, this was replaced with another of the Cosmococa installations created by Oiticica and D’Almeida while they were in New York, the CC 1: Trashiscapes. Two of five collaborations in this series, like the others they utilize slide projections (of magazines and album covers with lines of cocaine and pen knives) and a rock soundtrack (Jimi Hendrix et al.). Gathering in Trashiscapes is achieved through mattresses laid on the floor rather than a dip in the pool. My personal experience was telling: after lowering myself down on to one of the mattresses, I felt something jab me. I had just discovered that the installation calls for nail files to be supplied, so you could file (or while!) away the time and leave with great nails…what a ‘70s thing I thought with a smile. At the same time, I also noted with interest the correlation between what Oiticica and D’Almeida were doing and the happenings of Marta Minujín a few years before, such as the famous (or infamous) La Menesunda (Mayhem) of 1965, where couples made love on psychedelically colored “love mattresses.”
Also diverging from the exhibition’s original manifestation in LA was the inclusion of four works from the Hirshhorn’s amazing permanent collection, more “traditional” wall-hung pieces by Soto and Fontana from the 1960s, including the elegant Soto Three and One and a beautiful, monochromatic white Fontana Concezione Spaziale with five vertical slits, testimony to Joseph Hirshhorn’s collecting acumen. Attesting to the museum’s ongoing efforts in this area, walking out of Suprasensorial one emerges into highlights of the permanent collection with installations by Mario Merz and Joseph Kosuth. But the highlight was the stunning recent acquisition in 2010 of an example of Dan Flavin’s Barrier series from 1974, Untitled (to Helga and Carlo, with respect and affection). Referring to Carlos Haber, then director of the Kunstmuseum Basel where it first installed in 1975, the Hirshhorn piece debuts for the first time anywhere installed in a semi-circular space. It worked. The artist’s directions indicate that the piece be positioned right at the entrance and move directly away towards the far point in the room. It is magnificent in its spatial effect of compression and release like that employed by Baroque master architect Gianlorenzo Bernini (quite an inspiration given we are talking about a master of minimalism). In the dark, the blue neon on white framework creates an enchanting pink fluorescence. It is an apt and pleasing reference to the optical effects of the Cruz-Diez Chromosaturation seen a few steps away and demonstrates highly intelligent museum practice. (Speaking of Flavin, don’t miss the lovely and unexpected exhibition of his drawings at the Morgan Library in New York until the 1st July; www.themorgan.org/exhibitions/exhibition.asp?id=56.)
Doug Aitken: Song 1
Well, if the circular plan of the Hirshhorn’s building isn’t conducive to every installation in Suprasensorial, its exterior was picture perfect for Doug Aitken’s Song 1. Aitken, one of today’s most talented artists, especially in the arena of video, has created a 360-degree outdoor video projected on the entire façade. It is engaging and aesthetically beautiful. Aitken has become well known for his work in outdoor video projections, beginning with his acclaimed sleepwalkers on the façade of MoMA in 2007, a commentary on the vicissitudes of urban life and starring actors Donald Sutherland and Tilda Swinton. (We acquired that work while I was at Miami Art Museum; watch for a customized version of it with scenes set in Miami—truly site-specific—to premiere on the Herzog and de Meuron-designed building façade when the new museum opens next year.)
Song 1, part of Koshalek’s effort to enliven the museum and its campus after hours, took me back to my childhood of Cinerama and summertime drive-in movies. This retro theme continues in Aitken’s choice of soundtrack to accompany the video, the 1934 pop classic song,” I only have eyes for you.” This music informs both the subject and the narrative, or non-narrative really, of the video projection. Both retro and progressive, for the video’s soundtrack this music staple has been covered by numerous groups, including, fittingly, a doo wop version that is viewed on a black and white television screen by characters in the video—a sort of play within a play—which is tranformed into color to become for a moment the main story. The “liquid” architecture created by the projection as the artist has put it is reflected by the fluidity of the enigmatic storyline. These moments, peopled with actors both well known like Tilda Swinton and otherwise, are interspersed with ravishing images of both our built world and nature. To borrow the title of another pop classic, while I gazed up at the triple-story image curving around the museum’s edge, hard up against the night sky and moon, all I could think was how “unforgettable.”
For more information go to www.hirshhorn.si.edu.