There may be some great-looking specimens of postwar art in Re-View: Onnasch Collection — an exhibition that turns Hauser & Wirth’s cavernous Chelsea outpost into a mini-museum offering the kind of intimate experiences that have been all but lost in New York’s uptown behemoths — but the show also arrives with some huge caveats.
While the term “Re-View” may suggest, to the optimistically inclined, a reassessment of the period’s overriding white-and-male-centric worldview, no such critique is forthcoming. The list of names responsible for the works in the show, which are drawn from the collection of the German art dealer Reinhard Onnasch, reads not as a corrective but a time capsule.
In fact, out of twenty-seven artists, there is exactly one woman, Hanne Darboven, whose installation — an enormous grid of 424 framed prints covering two walls — is an elaborate homage to another male artist, Kurt Schwitters.
In an interview with Whitewall Magazine, the show’s curator, Paul Schimmel, not-so-diplomatically states, “frankly one cannot describe it as a plethora of women in the Onnasch collection,” which was one reason why he was “hell-bent” on including the Darboven, the largest work on display.
If anything, the exhibition, with its graceful installation and sensitive, often surprising selections, is an opportunity for New Yorkers to take account of Schimmel’s considerable (Jerry Saltz has called them visionary) curatorial skills.
If you’ve been following the travails of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art over the past couple of years, you would recall that Schimmel was the most visible casualty of Jeffery Deitch’s ill-starred appointment as MOCA’s director. As chief curator for twenty-two years, Schimmel was responsible for such defining exhibitions as Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s and Hand-Painted Pop: American Art in Transition, 1955-62. His ouster in 2012 prompted the resignation of the artists Catherine Opie, Ed Ruscha, Barbara Kruger and John Baldessari from the museum’s board. It also led Schimmel to sign on as a partner at Hauser & Wirth. Re-View is a good indication of just how much Los Angeles lost.
In the first room there is a Clyfford Still — “PH-131” (1951) — that will take your breath away. Painted in bright, complementary colors of orange and blue, with a river of white in between and a slice of black in the bottom right corner, it gleams in the natural light washing down from the gallery’s skylight.
Compared to the relatively dim surroundings afforded the artist’s work at the Metropolitan Museum, the change in light, which juices the color as it throws the swirls and scrapes of paint into sculptural relief, is a revelation. You may feel as if you’ve never properly seen a Still before.
The same holds true for “Uriel” (1955), the Barnett Newman hanging on the adjacent wall, a flatly painted horizontal expanse of aquamarine and leathery brown separated by the artist’s trademark zip. Here the astringent combination of colors exerts a palpable magnetism, whereas elsewhere, in another space and under a different light, it might simply feel empty.
The light also plays a crucial role in Robert Motherwell’s “Wall Painting No. III” (1953) in the next room, a piece that recalls, in its color and composition, the artist’s overly familiar “Elegy to the Spanish Republic” series.
Motherwell’s intellectualism and eloquence in both his painting and writing tend to skew the perception of his art as unfailingly formal and elegant, but the natural light filling the room prompts a closer look, revealing a startlingly tough, hard-bitten surface.
The black, white and raw sienna with which he creates the vertical arcs pushing from right to left feel less like a gambit on a restricted palette, knowingly invoking the earth tones of Spanish painters from Velázquez and Zurbarán to Goya and Picasso, than an unembellished expression of plaintive emotion.
Throughout, Schimmel seems determined, within the circumscribed narrative represented by the collection, to upend expectations. This is especially the case with an early Jim Dine that inhabits a world apart from the endlessly recycled tools, robes and other motifs that make up the bulk of the artist’s work.
The painting, “Hair” (1961), is ugly, endearing and more than a little off-putting. On a field of Caucasian flesh tones, the artist has squeezed out strings of black and metallic copper paint in a sendup of all-over painting, not unlike the ones that Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg were doing at the time. With its evocation of a hairy chest, it also acts as a wry comment (like Johns’ “Painting with Two Balls,” 1960) on Abstract Expressionism’s strutting machismo.
In the upper right quadrant, near the central axis, the word “HAIR” is crudely painted in all caps, except that the “I” is dotted. The dumb, funky literalism of the word underscoring the image denotes an unselfconsciousness and freedom conspicuously absent in the creeping conservatism of Dine’s later work. The painting is also distinguished by its aggressively worked surface — the thick, overlapping curls of oil paint rise noticeably from the canvas with an anarchic bravura that is both bracing and abrasive.
In a period that was supposedly tilted toward the dematerializaton of the object, Schimmel repeatedly emphasizes surface and tactility, the thingness of the art. A tower of cardboard matchboxes stacked vertically end-to-end rises nearly four feet in George Brecht’s magical “Little Anarchist Dictionary” (1969). Dieter Roth encases twenty-one decorative garden gnomes in crumbling blocks of chocolate (“Zwerge (Dwarves),” 1970). And Richard Serra leans a large, heavy steel plate against the corner of a room while balancing it atop a similarly large, heavy vertical steel plate in the terrifying “Do It” (1983).
Larry Rivers and Cy Twombly are both invigorating in their blithe undermining of painting’s authority with elements of drawing and desultory compositions (“The Journey,” 1956, and “Leda and the Swan,” 1960, respectively) while Robert Rauschenberg and David Smith meld painting and sculpture — Rauschenberg’s combine, “Pilgrim” (1960), featuring a oil painting/collage paired with a tri-colored chair, and Smith’s “Seven Hours” (1961), made from elements of pre-painted steel: a black rectangle with a biomorphic cutout welded above a yellow, concave circle with a dark blue, paddle-like shape attached.
The closest that the exhibition comes to revisionism is the amount of space devoted to eight of Edward Kienholz’s anti-art assemblages — which, as Schimmel noted in his remarks during the press preview, were anathema to the New York art establishment at the time, and they retain their unkempt, uncivil temper. But where, we may ask, is Nancy Reddin, Kienholz’s wife and full artistic partner?
From our perspective, it is staggering to think of a major collection without a significant representation of women, especially one that was assembled at a time when the contribution of women to the aesthetic conversation was taking off like a rocket.
Darboven’s homage to Schwitters is impressive, but it is among the least sensual works in the show, setting the viewer at a conceptual remove. One can only imagine how an exhibition of this caliber would have been enhanced by the work of female artists who were more materially, emotionally or politically engaged: Eva Hesse, Ana Mendieta and Adrian Piper, to name only three. Onnasch has a keen eye and independent tastes; if only he were more inclusive in his frame of reference, a curator like Schimmel would have been able to come up with the kind of survey this inordinately fertile period deserves.
Re-View: Onnasch Collection continues at Hauser & Wirth (511 West 18th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through April 12.