Philippe Parreno and Rirkrit Tiravanija, “Puppets” (2009), mixed media, 29 1/2–34 1/4 inches each. Centre Pompidou, Musée national de art moderne, Paris; promised gift of Thea Westreich Wagner and Ethan Wagner (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

Opening in the shadow of the Paris attacks, the exhibition Collected by Thea Westreich Wagner and Ethan Wagner represents —as Adam Weinberg, the director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, said in his remarks at the press preview — “a celebration of what matters in life.” The connection between the artwork and the massacres, however, is not simply rhetorical.

The show marks what the museum is calling a “transformative gift” of 550 works by U.S.-based artists from the Wagners’ collection, a donation that is being shared by the Centre Pompidou in Paris, which will receive more than 300 works by artists from Europe and elsewhere.

The exhibition’s curators, Elisabeth Sussman and Elisabeth Sherman of the Whitney and Christine Macel of the Centre Pompidou, chose to round out the collection’s context by including artists whose works are destined for the Whitney as well as the Pompidou, some of whom, Weinberg noted, have their studios in the 10th and 11th arrondissements, the areas afflicted by the worst of the carnage, where poets, dancers, critics, artists and architects were among the dead — “a strike against the heart of Paris’s creative community.”

Christopher Wool, “Untitled” (1990–91), enamel and graphite pencil on aluminum, 108 x 72 inches. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Gift of Thea Westreich Wagner and Ethan Wagner (click to enlarge)

The historical weight foisted on the show by timing and circumstance is not something it was particularly designed to bear. Although the bulk of the artwork was produced from the late-1980s on, it gives politics and social concerns a wide berth, with little evidence of the AIDS epidemic, 9/11 or the Bush wars, except by indirection.

AIDS is mentioned in the wall label for Robert Gober’s “The Ascending Sink” (1985), which is remarkably the first of the artist’s sink sculptures to enter the Whitney’s collection (“This sense of bodily fragmentation, combined with the themes of hygiene and cleanliness implied by the sink, found pointed resonance during the AIDS epidemic, to which the work dates.”)

And the Vietnamese artist Danh Vo’s “16:32, 26.05” (2009), consisting of a 19th-century chandelier, evokes the backstory of the Parisian hotel where it once hung — the setting for, among other events, the Paris Peace Accords, which ended the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War. (From the wall label: “By divorcing the opulent chandelier from its function and historical setting, this object, designed to convey elegance and celebration, holds within it the memory of the difficult moments in global history it has witnessed.”)

David Wojnarowicz, “Untitled” (1989), gelatin silver print; sheet, 15 7/8 x 19 7/8 inches, image, 14 1/8 x 18 5/16 inches. Edition no. 3/5. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; promised gift of Thea Westreich Wagner and Ethan Wagner

Otherwise, the show is based mostly in the personal and the formal, with the exception of a stunning untitled photograph from 1989 by David Wojnarowicz, for whom the personal was nothing if not political, depicting a pair of bandaged hands holding a bird’s nest that’s as spiky as a crown of thorns. But within that range, the works run from the ultra-reductive (Hito Steyerl’s “Red Alert,” 2007, a looped three-channel digital video presenting the color red, period) to the ultra-decorative (Marc-Camille Chaimowicz’s “Basel Sequence,” 2011, an acrylic painting on five plywood panels mimicking wallpaper designs).

Joyce Pensato, “Reclining Glove” (1983), charcoal on paper, 21 7/8 x 22 3/16 inches. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; promised gift of Thea Westreich Wagner and Ethan Wagner (click to enlarge)

Those demarcations aside, the biggest dividing line running through the show is between those works that proceed from life (including experience, imagination and the material stuff of the artwork itself) and those based on a conceptual twist — not art pour art but art about art.

The first category includes a striking head shot by Diane Arbus, “Puerto Rican woman with a beauty mark, N.Y.C.” (1965), an indomitable-looking woman with thick masses of black hair, painted eyebrows and misapplied lipstick. Other compelling works include Steven Parrino’s untitled, aggressively materialist painting in black enamel, whose canvas is all but pulled off its stretchers, turning it into a sculptural relief; Joyce Pensato’s charcoal drawing “Reclining Glove” (1983), which appears to belong to her signature appropriations of Mickey Mouse; and Charline Von Heyl’s “Boogey” (2004), a red and yellow abstraction in acrylic, oil, and charcoal, which is the show’s poster image. Interestingly, the painting, at least to my eye, looks tangled and harsh in reproduction, not at all indicative of how it feels in person, where the coloring and texture are soft and sumptuous. A real knockout.

Charline Von Heyl, “Boogey” (2004), acrylic, oil, and charcoal on canvas, 82 1/16 x 78 1/8 inches. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; promised gift of Thea Westreich Wagner and Ethan Wagner

The four works cited above are in fact all from the same room. The show is organized according to the ideas the works represent, rather than genre, medium or chronology, an approach that fills galleries with like-minded imagery across disciplines. (The art in the room displaying Arbus et al., according to the wall text, “embodies a rebellious punk attitude aimed at upending established norms and power structures.”).

It is a mark of the tightly-focused curation that I found myself  responding viscerally, either positively or negatively, to an entire room, with a few exceptions for individual works. The gallery devoted to the artist-as-celebrity, for instance, which typifies the work based on a conceptual twist, is off-putting in its self-regard and facile irony, though the puppets seated in a corner of the floor, which were conceived by Philippe Parreno and Rirkrit Tiravanija as stand-ins for fellow artists at a 2005 panel discussion, possess a certain flat-footed charm.

It is intriguing to note that perhaps the most entrancing room was one that the curators decided to leave context-free, where there is no wall text and the artworks, mostly photographs, are apparently grouped intuitively. This is where the Wojnarowicz is hanging, and beside it is “Failed Portrait” (2013), a highly evocative gelatin silver print by Eileen Quinlan in which a blank gray field is bracketed by a mysterious pair of abstract smears.

Cheyney Thompson, “The Production of an Unevenly Distributed Surplus Results from the Facticity of Format and Ground” (2006), oil and graphite pencil on linen, 84 1/8 x 72 1/16 inches. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; promised gift of Thea Westreich Wagner and Ethan Wagner

A series of starkly geometric photos, mostly of landscapes, from the late ‘60s-early ‘70s by Robert Adams are on an adjacent wall, and beside them hang a pair of dreamily murky silver prints by Zoe Leonard, dated 1986 and 1988, depicting a field of grass and a map of Krakow, respectively.

Other thematically unrelated but visually cohesive works include a trio of Early Modernist knockoffs from the mid-1980s by Sherrie Levine, which remain conceptually irritating but here look refreshingly, crisply graphic; a 45-minute video from 1994 by Gary Hill; a 2009 color photograph of a child in a white Levi’s t-shirt by Josephine Pryde; some bundled pseudo-newspapers by Robert Gober (1992) and, in a collaboration between Gober and Christopher Wool, a photograph of a girl’s dress hanging in a tree (the dress presumably Gober’s handiwork; the photograph, Wool’s), near one of the latter’s enamel-on-aluminum pattern paintings.

Christopher Wool, “Untitled” (2002), enamel on linen, 108 x 72 inches. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; promised gift of Thea Westreich Wagner and Ethan Wagner (click to enlarge)

Wool emerges as the star of the show, with seven works in all. A smudgy, untitled abstraction in enamel on linen from 2002, the first thing you see as the elevator opens, meets you with the unexpected power of Robert Rauschenberg’s “Erased de Kooning” (1953). (I had previously found Wool’s gestural abstractions dispiriting and wan.) His word painting “Untitled” (1990-1991), in enamel and graphite on aluminum, which begins with “THESHOWISO / VERTHE AUDIEN / CEGETUP,” dominates the room devoted to art based on language and advertising, which includes a joke painting by Richard Prince (“Nancy to Her Girlfriend,” 1988) and the mock liquor ad, “Come Through with Taste⎯Myers’s Dark Rum⎯Quote Newsweek” (1986) by Jeff Koons. There is even a photographic suite in the “punk attitude” gallery, “Incident on 9th Street” (1997), in which Wool documents his wrecked studio after a fire.

During a walk-through at the press preview, curator Sussman discussed the diverse ways Wool and Gober drew upon their experiences and environments as they developed their practices. (Despite his commitment to abstraction, Wool was invariably influenced by the street art and graffiti of the Chinatown neighborhood where he lived.) It is arguably this life/art interchange that keeps the works of these two artists, among others in the show, vital and engaging more than a quarter-century after they were made.

Wool also offers a key to the aesthetically cool, intellectually sharp vibe running through much of the art in the show, where the last room is filled with much more recent work, including geometric abstractions by Scott Lyall, Sean Paul, and Blake Rayne, all from the past several years. Steyerl’s “Red Alert” is here, as well as a very fine copper-clad, plastic-and-steel scroll by Sam Lewitt, “Weak Local Lineament (ICF 01)” (2013). Like Wool’s paintings, the pieces in this gallery feel at once alien and familiar, presented in materials and forms that carry on the legacy of High Modernism, while their conceptual systems seem to lie just beyond our grasp.

Hito Steyerl, “Red Alert” (2007), three-channel digital video, color, sound, 00:30 min. Each, looped. Three 30-inch flat-screen monitors, three Apple Mac minis, mounting system, and connecting hardware. Edition of 3, 2 AP. Centre Pompidou, Musée national de art moderne, Paris; promised gift of Thea Westreich Wagner and Ethan Wagner

No artist exemplifies that quality better than the late French painter Martin Barré, whose queasily vacant striped canvases were expertly parsed by Gwenaël Kerlidou in Hyperallergic last month. His “74-75-C-113×105” (1974–75), a J-shape composed of diagonal and horizontal stripes along the right and bottom edges, leaving the rest of the surface blank, hangs in a corner beside a juicily painted monochromatic grid, “The Production of an Unevenly Distributed Surplus Results from the Facticity of Format and Ground” (2006) by Cheyney Thompson, who brought Barré’s work to the attention of the Wagners.

There is a sense of estrangement in both paintings (as there is in much of the work in this room), with their subtle departures from the conventions of abstract painting — Thompson’s perfect geometry drenched in oil bleeds; Martin’s imperfect geometry quavering on a flimsy armature — stirring a shift in expectations and the anxieties that accompany it: a locus of confusion, hostility, and acceptance that the art critic and historian Dore Ashton called “the unknown shore.”

Martin Barré, “74-75-C-113×105” (1974-75), oil on canvas, 44 1/2 x 41 5/16 inches. Centre Pompidou, Musée national de art moderne, Paris; promised gift of Thea Westreich Wagner and Ethan Wagner

The events of the past week evince a world spinning out of control, but Parisians have been flocking back to their cafes in a show of defiance, and — as Weinberg expressed in his remarks about this exhibition — culture continues. The magnanimity and civic-mindedness of the Wagners’ gift to the Whitney and the Pompidou constitute a bracing denial of current trends and values, an inestimable investment in the free exchange of ideas over the Darwinian logic of commerce.

Like the legendary collectors of Minimalism and Conceptualism, Herbert and Dorothy Vogel, the Wagners have decided to give their collection away in its entirety. Unlike the Vogels, who amassed their trove on working-class salaries, the Wagners are people of means, but not at all on the scale of billionaire museum board members. They collected blue-chip names (again, like the Vogels) when they were nobodies, or near-nobodies, and their work was affordable. And they plan to continue discovering new art and artists, undistracted by the siren song of the auction block, into the foreseeable future, all for the good of the public sphere.

Collected by Thea Westreich Wagner and Ethan Wagner continues at the Whitney Museum of American Art (99 Gansevoort Street, Meatpacking District, Manhattan) through March 6, 2016.

Thomas Micchelli is an artist and writer.

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