Artistic Rites of Passage: Triumphs and Failures

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at100831a.jpgMost artists, before developing their own unique voice and signature style, go through lengthy and often difficult rites of passage. The amazing exhibition of Arshile Gorky currently on view at LA's Museum of Contemporary Art has numerous examples of his earlier works, where we see the young artist gradually absorbing the ideas and energy of Modern Art – a kind of art he knew next to nothing about before emigrating from Armenia to the United States in 1920.

at100831b.jpgIn these early works one can see his intense dialogue with various masters, among them Matisse, Cezanne, and particularly Picasso. Rather than simply copying their works, Gorky sinks his teeth into their art, trying to extract its juice, its creative essence. What's especially appealing and interesting is the ferocious energy with which he does it. And while he's still far away from finding his own unique style, these early paintings nevertheless radiate a surprising amount of heat. It's clear that we are witnessing the development of one hell of a talented artist.

at100831c.jpgHowever, for many other artists, such rites of passage are rather tentative and not very successful attempts to establish a dialogue with well-known artists they admire, and the results are often lukewarm at best. It's definitely pure coincidence, but two current exhibitions at MOCA, Arshile Gorky's and Dennis Hopper's, perfectly illustrate this dichotomy. Being an admirer of and often close friend to a number of important American artists, Dennis Hopper, in his attempts to establish an artistic dialogue with them and find his own artistic voice, was never able to go beyond merely mimicking the Masters by creating pale, unconvincing versions of their paintings and sculptures. Hopper definitely made a splash as a photographer as well as a film actor and director, but when assessing his achievement as a painter and sculptor, one wants to borrow a quote from Gertrude Stein: "there was no there there."

at100831d.jpgAnd talking about learning...When I first saw Ellsworth Kelly's 1960s lithographs with their minimalistic images of various plants defined by a single line, truth be told, I dismissed them without much thought. I just didn't get it. My only excuse is that this encounter happened 25 years ago, and I didn't know any better. Last week I rushed to the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena to see these very same lithographs in a small, focused exhibition that delighted me to no end. Not only did I enjoy the exquisite, fluid elegance with which the artist outlined these plants, but I was much surprised by the highly theatrical presentation of this exhibition. The walls of the small gallery were painted an intense blue color, and the lithographs, with their white frames, were hanging in unusually tight clusters. I've never seen a more dramatic presentation for such minimalistic artworks, and the effect was both smart and beautiful. Sorry to say, this exhibition just closed.

at100831e.jpgBut dry your tears; there are three more wonderful exhibitions that you might still be able to see if you hurry up. I've started to write for the Huffington Post a monthly column highlighting my choice of the three best museum exhibitions currently on display around the world. So if you go to the Huffington Post and search for "Edward Goldman," you'll find information about these three truly splendid exhibitions. I'd love to hear what you think about it.

Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective
On view at MOCA Grand Avenue through September 20, 2010

Dennis Hopper: Double Standard
At the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA through September 26, 2010

Plants, Flowers and Fruits: Ellsworth Kelly Lithographs
On view at the Norton Simon Museum through August 23, 2010

Banner image: Installation view of Plants, Flowers and Fruits: Ellsworth Kelly Lithographs, on view at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California