Aw, my kid can do that! Yes, but did your kid do it? And did they do it within a contextual language that redefined accepted avenues of fine art? It’s easy to pooh-pooh a painting, sculpture or creative whatnot — say, a white canvas enclosed in metal mesh or a circular board covered in corks — when its construction is not much of a mystery.
What’s not so easy is to bore into the mind of the artist, to study and scratch the surface of why they made the crazy thing, to decipher what this means to them, other artists and the rest of the world, and then to swing on back to how these physically manifested ideas — pretty or not — affect you. The Detroit Institute of Art’s On the Edge: Contemporary Art from the DaimlerChrysler Collection is ready to test your powers of focus and concentration in an exhibition that dons the brand of big business, which sometimes manages to find its way into the art itself.
Founded in 1977, the DaimlerChrysler collection has grown to about 1,300 works by approximately 300 corporate-approved artists. Featuring more than 100 selections borrowed from DC conference rooms, dining halls and business offices, On the Edge has been up in the DIA since October, and will continue to fill the north wing through Jan. 18.
Just as private collectors have particular tastes, so do corporations, and this corporate collection relies heavily on the past and present artistic activities of the German arm of DaimlerChrysler and its German curator. The majority of the art is made by European artists, much of it is contemporary, and most of it is idea-driven (not representational), consisting of paintings, sculpture, photography, video installations, readymade constructions, automobile-inspirations/company-commissions and a hearty helping of abstract minimalism from Bauhaus and Concrete group participants to the Zero Group art of today.
As I stood before On the Edge’s first “Classic Abstraction,” a man entered the show with two young women in his wake. They quickly scanned a couple of the rooms, and on their way out the man said, “Yeah, actually, almost anything that’s good is gone because of the renovations.”
Minimal plus conceptual is a dry and dreaded abstract combo for unsuspecting patrons. While walking through these rooms, don’t expect any “from the guts” abstract works like those of Jackson Pollock or Franz Kline, where paint and pigment hit the canvas like an explosion of the artist’s lifeblood. This show begins with and continually returns to art pared down to its absolute straight-edged basics, apparently the least accessible species, like the works of former Bauhaus member Joseph Albers.
His piece “Structural Constellation F-14” presents a series of engraved white lines, cubelike, unstable, but somehow organized in their own way on the edge of falling apart. To the right of the work is an Albers quote on the wall, “Art means presenting, not representing.” Minimalism gets the job done with as few components as possible, and conceptual art treasures ideas and processes rather than formal concerns such as “who can paint the fleshiest flesh?” The core give, take and pull dynamics of relationships can flourish in movies or lush figurative paintings, but even simple and minimal lines, colors and geometric shapes can capture its dynamic essence.
To help demystify some of the world’s most tough-to-crack art, the DIA has recruited Gilda Snowden, local artist and instructor at the College for Creative Studies. Twice a week since the show began, Snowden has been giving an introductory lecture to bused-in high school students. She focuses on a handful of pieces in the exhibition. It’s work that may be unfamiliar to teenagers, but when they take the time to really look at it, they begin to recognize things within this art-from-another-planet that might trigger the familiar. Snowden’s not out to convert, but to expose young minds to a means of understanding contemporary abstract art and more.
“I see how this kind of work is not understood,” she says. “It’s seemingly so far from most people’s experience that it’s easy for them to dismiss it. So if I can make any kind of bridge between the concepts in the work and their experiences, then they’ll stay with it longer.”
While looking at the art, adults sometimes whisper among themselves, but almost always make sure to look thoughtful, whether they’re thinking, “What the hell?” or not. Kids will say exactly what they’re thinking, loud enough for the whole room to hear. Standing in the art-cluttered Zero Group room, I watch a little boy go from one piece to another, identifying the objects, “Feathers. Money. Corks.” This satisfies him enough to bounce off to another room. But when a woman examines Jan Henderikse’s “Cork Relief,” she says, “That’s not significant to me,” then grumps away.
“Zero is a new view of reality in which the individual role of the artist is reduced to a minimum.” Jan J. Schoonhoven’s words cover the wall above works by the Zero Group. In a way, it makes sense that DC collection curators would embrace the Zero Group. Schoonhoven’s ideology, which thrives on impersonality and objectivity, can be seen as an extension of a corporate mindset striving to capture a practicality, void of emotion and/or personality. Patterns and planes dominate the room in a conservation, or conservativeness, of material, saying more with less.
Italian artist Dadamaino’s “The Rational Unconscious” is a simple composition comprised of gridded and varied black lines on white paper, but the suggestion living between his title and black marks is all it takes to stir the imagination toward previously unseen unconscious country. As in math’s lowest common denominator, lines, shapes, blocks of colors and/or ideas can exist at the base of all of us. The Zero Group as well as other minimalists tap into a potential so universally simple it can connect to the human condition and the cosmos at the same time. The catch: It requires more effort than representational art fare.
“Artists are just responding to what they see around them, and then they distill it,” Snowden says.
One of the pieces Snowden highlights for local students is a work DC commissioned: “Sixty-Name Watercolor (A Portrait of the DaimlerChrysler Corporation)” by Simone Westerwinter of the Zero Group. A series of 60 rectangular, semi-flat watercolor washes in blues, light grays, blacks, etc., cover the inside walls of the show’s entrance hall, and inside each block is the name of a car model (Mercedes-Benz), or an artist (Warhol), or the corporation itself (DaimlerChrylser). Visually, the portrait seems worlds away from Renaissance royalty instructing the court artist to paint a picture of the king, but on a conceptual level, they’re very much alike. Snowden tells the students that when it comes to creating a portrait of a faceless corporation traditional notions of portraiture must be redefined.
When the lecture concludes, the kids must fend for themselves in the galleries. For the rest of us, we can resort to an audio tour with the comforting art-savvy voices of Graham Beal (director, president and CEO of the DIA) and Snowden. The two respond to selected pieces in a sort of off-the-cuff dialogue, helping to humanize the stark facade many of the works tender. Inevitably, Snowden finds a way to link aspects of the work to her personal life; it’s a tendency that comes out of an inherent primal urge to make things practical. When discussing Gunter Fruhtrunk’s painting “Garden in the Monastery” (a dramatic weave of angled orange bands across white canvas), the intense streaks of orange trigger shadows on a sidewalk and jazz for Snowden, feeding her with the energies of those associations.
Nowadays, you can get a picture of your kid Warhol-ified (at select galleries of course) — reinterpreted in flashy, scratchy neon pinks and blues. But DC had the real thing done when they commissioned Andy Warhol to silkscreen a not-so-abstract “Mercedes-Benz Formula Race Car.” It’s a color-bright repackaging of the product with fine art frosting, right next to two Robert Longo graphite portraits of Mercedes-Benz models (also commissioned by DaimlerChrylser). Because of their recognizable automobile content, Warhol’s and Longo’s works, as well as Westerwinter’s corporate portrait, come off as a kind of esoteric advertising, but advertising nonetheless. Some motor-driven art, however, like Kirsten Mosher’s videos “Carmen 1” and “Carmen 2,” transcends pro-auto interests. In each video, a mechanized G.I. Joe-type toy crawls across a traffic-busy intersection. With danger impending, interesting twists of sympathy take hold as our emotional connection to the mechanized human shape overrides our connection to the actual humans riding inside boxy machinery.
In Snowden’s lecture, she reasons that any art succeeds if it can get you thinking about the world. “Don’t Do It! (Readymades of the 20th Century),” is a collection of everyday items that looks as though artist John Armleder went on a scavenger hunt through 20th century art history: He picks up a TV with questionable reception from Nam June-Paik, a urinal from Mr. Duchamp, cans of Campbell’s soup from Andy, and so on. The work is a microcosm, as well as an ode to, 20th century art, and a history of transforming ready-made practical objects into museum pieces by taking them out of context.
Whether you’re a Vincent depending on a Theo to feed you and buy your paints, or an institute forever scrambling to raise enough money to keep those art-adorned walls standing, the ugly truth is, it takes cold cash to keep art from starving. Thanks to funding from the Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs, the City of Detroit and DaimlerChrysler Corp. (which even provided transportation in some cases), hundreds of Detroit high school students are able to experience and explore one of the most perplexing art shows going at one of the top seven art museums in the country.
“If you’re not familiar with it, ask yourself questions about it — give it time,” Snowden says.
Her procedure to understanding art is something to take to heart. Don’t give in to “easy” and just walk away throwing your hands up in the air and calling it garbage on your way out. You don’t have to like the art to get something out of it. You just need to take the time.Anita Schmaltz is a freelance writer. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org