Modern Art's Last Gasp

By Gopnik, Blake | Newsweek, June 5, 2013 | Go to article overview
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Modern Art's Last Gasp

Gopnik, Blake, Newsweek

Byline: Blake Gopnik

Has all the art in the world been made?

I magine a single work of art that captured a sense that, after all these decades of trying, modern art hasn't managed to change the world, or even much affect it. A sense that, for all its variety, modern art--maybe most of Western art for the last 500 years--has been nothing more than a series of moves in a series of games, like clever new plays in clever new versions of football. And imagine that this imaginary artwork managed to condense all the longings of every artist, curator, and critic for an art that was much more than such games, for an art that truly mattered. And then imagine that this work packaged that longing as one giant sigh, from knowing it could never be more than longing.

That artwork is this year's Venice Biennale, the 55th edition of the world's most prestigious aesthetic pulse taking, which opened to the public Saturday. At the heart of the this year's Biennale is a giant group exhibition called The Encyclopedic Palace, put together by Italian curator Massimiliano Gioni, on secondment from his day job at the New Museum in New York. And Gioni's group show, more focused and polished than any previous year's, utters the pungent sigh I've described.

Rather than offer up a sampling of the best and brightest work being made today, the show digs back into the last 100 years or so of making art, looking for all the times when art has had ambitions beyond merely being good. At the show's beginning, in the Central Pavilion in the Biennale gardens, there is a room dedicated to Carl Jung's Red Book, the manuscript in which the famous analyst recorded the images he saw in his dreams and that he thought would grant new access to our hive mind. (The drawings are vaguely medieval and corny, like something out of Game of Thrones: "Bring forth the Red Book of necromancy! We shall conjure the spirits of Targaryens past.")

Scattered elsewhere throughout the show are works by outsider artists (even more "outside" than the nutty Jung) whose manic objects arose in response to compulsions or madness. There are the lifelike plaster dolls of a Chicago man named Morton Bartlett, made and kept in the privacy of his home; there are private erotic drawings by a repressed Soviet teenager and secret naughty photos of a visionary's wife; there are arcane images made in the 1920s by Rudolf Steiner and at various times by any number of his colleagues in theosophical and mystic pursuits. These people's works weren't meant as clever art-world conceits or witty decoration or fancy goods for sale. However bizarre the look of this outsider art, it almost always has a function that transcends simply looking.

Gioni balances that strangeness with works that take a very different, but equally "functional," approach to art making: images that address reality with an almost scientific reverence for what's in it. They give a sense that the world itself, rather than the artistic act of picturing it, is what's really at stake. The second half of Gioni's show, filling the vast warehouses of Venice's old Arsenale, begins with J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere's wonderful photos of elaborate Nigerian hairstyles, but also touches down on the stunning bird photography of Eliot Porter (son of Fairfield, the great realist painter) and on Kan Xuan's giddy slide show of every surviving imperial burial mound in China.

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