Good things tend to happen when a museum invites an artist to sift through its holdings and curate an exhibition from other people’s works. Artists look at a collection more freely and greedily than most of us, from odd angles. They often ferret out neglected or eccentric treasures, highlighting what museums have but aren’t using; they can also reveal a collection’s weaknesses, its biases and blind spots. And in using the creations of others to make new connections, artists also show new sides of themselves.
So imagine what happens when the Guggenheim Museum invites six artists to select six separate yet cross-talking thematic displays, one for each ramp of its celebrated rotunda. You get “Artistic License: Six Takes on the Guggenheim Collection,” a rare, dazzling, dizzying cornucopia of objects, viewpoints and agendas.
The Guggenheim has never mounted an artist-selected exhibition and to take the plunge with six transforms what might have been a light summer project into a provocative, six-sided conversation. The artists, all of whom have had solo shows at the museum, were limited to works in the collection from 1900 to 1980 but were otherwise free to criticize — a smart move at a time when museums are under new pressures to stay relevant.
Organized by a team led by Nancy Spector, the museum’s artistic director and chief curator, the artists seem to be enjoying themselves.
Cai Guo-Qiang fastened on works that mostly show Guggenheim’s big names before they became cultural commodities. Paul Chan has mounted a beguiling essay on the crucial roles of pleasure and water as forms of renewal. Richard Prince and Julie Mehretu have concentrated on postwar abstraction, to very different ends. Seeking out work by artists of color and women — and not always finding it — Carrie Mae Weems and Jenny Holzer have each effectively tackled the Guggenheim’s lack of diversity issues.
The show starts with a delightful warm-up exercise selected by the Chinese-born, New York-based sculptor and installation artist Cai Guo-Qiang, who “paints” with gunpowder. Mr. Cai has hung the main wall of the High Gallery salon style with 75 fairly unfamiliar looking works on paper and small paintings mostly by canonical artists before they developed their “trademark styles,” as he says in his introduction: Kandinsky, Miró, Beuys, Picasso, Louise Nevelson and especially wonderful works by Franz Kline and Mark Rothko.
Others are by artists embedded in the museum’s history, like Hilla Rebay, one of its founders, represented by an agile collage of a female nude. Mr. Cai also included several of his own works here, little landscape paintings from the early 1980s when he was first using oils and adapting to Western styles and just beginning to find his way, like the young artists here.
‘Sex, Water, Salvation, or What is a Bather?’
Paul Chan is best known for rather arcane conceptual projects, but he turns almost romantic here, laying down a shock of bright blue carpeting that delights even before his invitation to “reflect on how pleasure renews us.” We can’t work for change in these punishing times without pleasure, Mr. Chan maintains, and he sees water — cleansing, healing, sybaritic — as its universal source, often joined in art with the motif of the bather, in which “the spiritual, the material and the sensuous coincide.”
Here, corroboration begins with a Lawrence Weiner language piece “To the Sea …,” and Mondrian’s nearly all-blue “Summer, Dune in Zeeland” (1910), and ending with an exuberant late de Kooning. Laurie Simmons, Ilse Bing, Rufino Tamayo, George Platt Lynes and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner conjure bathers and bathing (even in bathrooms). Pleasure, like water, is one of life’s essentials. We ignore the first, and waste the second, at our peril.
‘Four Paintings Looking Right’
Known for his own sardonic borrowing of images, the painter and photographer Richard Prince assembles a kind of riddle. His section, “Four Paintings Looking Right,” echoes the titles of his early photo works that commented on the deadening similarity of the models and poses in magazine ads, like his “Untitled (Four Women Looking in the Same Direction)” from 1977. But here, “right” is also a qualitative judgment, as in correct.
His target is the ascendancy of American abstraction in the postwar years, which he argues was actually a “transnational movement,” and also takes issue with the overemphasis on “originality and authorship.” He presents clusters of surprisingly similar abstract works, the great majority by lesser-known artists from several continents. Drawings by Philip Guston, Judit Reigl and Georges Mathieu are linear compositions that evoke attenuated scaffoldings. Paintings by Jack Tworkov, Afro and José Guerrero repeat a bold use of yellow and black. A fake Pollock from the artist’s collection is contrasted with the Guggenheim’s real one.
A big 1956 painting by the American Paul Jenkins, “The Prophecy,” offers an apocalyptic vista similar to those of the 19th-century British painter John Martin. And two canvases from 1961-62 (also owned by Mr. Prince) by Stuart Sutcliffe, a very early bass guitarist for the Beatles who gave up rock ’n’ roll for art, look completely “right.” So do a string of marvelous, little-seen sculptures by Herbert Ferber, Claire Falkenstein, Michael Lekakis and Étienne Hajdu.
‘Cry Gold and See Black’
The painter Julie Mehretu takes a completely different tack on the same postwar period: its underrecognized “global turmoil” — from the aftershocks of the Holocaust to the advent of the atomic age, the rise of the American civil rights movement and Africa’s wars of independence — and the way it all reverberates through art.
“Abstraction,” she writes, “provided an experimental vocabulary with which to signify the magnitude of destruction caused by the war.” She finds conflagration echoing in a burned-wood relief by Alberto Burri as well as in works by James Lee Byars and Norman Lewis. The fragmentation of bodies comes across in the efforts of Francis Bacon, David Hammons, Wifredo Lam and the Chilean painter Matta; an early torn-lead sculpture by Richard Serra and a performance in three photographs by Senga Nengudi.
Ms. Mehretu also resurrects the blurred performance-based self-portraits of the forgotten Blythe Bohnen followed by a big painting by Asger Jorn that exuberantly evokes chaos. Ms. Mehretu finds plenty of Sturm und Drang in abstraction; it is a mirror of its times.
‘What Could Have Been’
Carrie Mae Weems
The artist Carrie Mae Weems finds the Guggenheim’s collection painfully wanting in artworks by black, brown or female artists. In her wall text she compliments the museum for its “many wonderful, jewel-like objects,” but bluntly states that “it lacks the complexity of truly diverse representation,” which could have been easily achieved, if its eyes were open.
To accentuate this absence she has turned to metaphor, confining herself almost entirely to works that are black and/or white. The only work with real color is Max Beckmann’s 1934 painting, “Ali With Mask,” which portrays an indolent odalisque whose black mask makes her seem all but blinded — like the museum, Ms. Weems seems to say. Her selections form an elegiac procession of paintings and sculptures by Alberto Giacometti, Mondrian, Armando Morales and Franz Kline.
Such works reflect a formal integration, the dynamism and even the interdependence of black and white. A group of photographs from around the world depict black or white people, but never both together. The exception is chilling: George Platt Lynes’s “Frederick Ashton With Dancers,” a 1934 portrait of the British choreographer, in a suit, with three black men, nude, arrayed before him. In one of the show’s most striking juxtapositions, Marilyn Lenkowsky’s fin-shaped black painting from 1977 overlooks “Bask,” a 1976 stained-pine sculpture by Martin Puryear that rises from the floor like a wave or the edge of a rock.
Continuing Ms. Weems’s examination of the museum’s weaknesses, the provocative text-based artist Jenny Holzer addresses the collection’s small percentage of works by women in an impressive display devoted to their efforts. (The museum says that approximately 15 percent of the works in the collection from 1900 to 1980 are by women artists.) Her section is at once a celebration and a rebuke of the museum’s shortcomings. It includes a ghostly painted-canvas wall piece by Lee Bontecou and Nevelson’s enormous 1971 painted wood relief, whose evenly rhythmic composition make it one of her best.
Color re-emerges in Joan Mitchell’s feisty “Canada I” (1975), the beginning of her late, great period, hanging in a bay of its own and then explodes with dark yellows shared by Natalia Goncharova’s “Cats (rayist percep.[tion] in rose, black and yellow) from 1913, and Helen Frankenthaler’s sumptuous 1963 “Canal.” Spanning half a century, they form one of the show’s best moments and seem to underscore Ms. Holzer’s message: At any point in history there are always “good artists” who happen to be women.
There is an admirable tautness and clarity between the artists’ statements and what they have put on view that makes “Artistic License” dense and exciting and will sustain repeated visits. The sections complement or contradict one another, making the show more than the sum of its considerable parts. It all but turns the Guggenheim inside out, revealing what the museum’s emphases accomplished both within and outside the canon and also where it needs to turn next: toward the area of the mainstream formerly known as the margins, which is really everywhere.
Artistic License: Six Takes on the Guggenheim Collection
Through Jan. 12 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Manhattan; 212-423-3500, guggenheim.org.