Alexej Jawlensky at Long Beach Museum of Art
Surf Culture at Laguna Art Museum
If the world were really, truly a perfect place, then every exhibition would be an eye-opener, every artist would be able to completely and fully realize his or her artistic ambitions, and my program - instead of a meager 4 minutes - would be five minutes long so that I could exalt the healing powers of art for an extra minute.
Oh well, back to reality. On Saturday, I visited three museums in three cities and each was worth the trouble of getting there. First, was the MOCA exhibition at Geffen Contemporary, "Arte Povera," an excellent survey of Italian art of the 60s and early 70s. Hungry with ambition and fearless, young Italian artists rejected established traditions of fine art intended to hang above the sofa of some bourgeois house. Untraditional materials and the volatile energy of street life permeates and informs the art works by such practitioners as Michelangelo Pistoletto, Jannis Kounellis and Alighiero Boetti, to name just a few. After sleeping at the wheel for a few decades, Italian artists of the early 60s picked up where the filmmakers of Italian Neorealism left off. And like the post World War II Italian movies which shook the world, one can see the far-reaching influence of Arte Povera on young artists everywhere, even today. The only difference is that now, the revolution is gone and smart posturing replaced sincere beliefs. Today's graduates of art schools - with their emphasis on conceptual art - mostly rehash what once was a daring gesture, a devil may care attitude denouncing bourgeois values. There is much to learn and enjoy in this exhibition, full of art still delivering a mighty punch.
Boy, it's already 2 pm and two more cities to go. Driving south to Long Beach, I pass through a mind-boggling variety of shapes and colors of thousands of crates being unloaded in this, the world's biggest, port. The Arte Povera artists would love this place.
I have a soft spot for the Long Beach Museum of Art, with its spectacular location and two buildings, one an Arts and Crafts mansion, the other a slick and elegant recent expansion. A small, delicious exhibition of 21 tiny paintings by Russian avant-garde artist Alexej Jawlensky is drawn from the collection donated to the museum two decades ago. A bigger collection of the artist's works belongs to the Norton Simon Museum, though it is rarely on display there. A contemporary of Kandinsky, Jawlensky became famous for his spiritual abstractions. His art's trademark is a woman's face, which through the years, slowly and gradually has been transformed into an interplay of abstract shapes; elegant, romantic, instantly recognizable, but never stale and formulaic in spite of decades of focussing on virtually the same subject.
How to end a perfect day? Off I go to Laguna Art Museum for an opening of the exhibition "Surf Culture: The Art History of Surfing." Do I care for the subject? No. But is it fun to watch a crowd of surfers, many in their 50s, 60s and 70s? You bet. Orange County is the birthplace of surfing, which conquered the world as the romantic dream of perpetual youth, rebellion and freedom. The exhibition, made on a shoestring budget, brims with mischief, and like the celebrated motorcycle show at the Guggenheim, it will no doubt bring in crowds of people who don't usually go to museums. As one may expect, there is a lot of silly, bad art and plenty of amusing paraphernalia, but also a number of good works by California cool artists like Billy Al Bengston, Robert Irwin and Craig Kauffman, whose art was nurtured by surf culture. This exhibition about cool dudes trying to catch a perfect wave is quite a serious attempt at capturing the essence of an important chapter of American culture. Don't be fooled by the relaxed and easy-going facade of this show: there is more than meets the eye.
For more information:
"Zero to Infinity: Arte Povera, 1962-1972"
ends September 22, 2002
Museum of Contemporary Art
at Geffen Contemporary
152 North Central Ave.
Little Tokyo, CA
"Icons for a New Era: The Spiritual Abstractions of Alexej Jawlensky"
ends April 6, 2003
Long Beach Museum of Art
2300 East Ocean Blvd.
Long Beach, CA
"Surf Culture: The Art History of Surfing"
ends October 6, 2002
Laguna Art Museum
307 Cliff Drive
Laguna Beach, CA