Are 'Old Masters of Tomorrow' at Carnegie?

By Shaw, Kurt | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, June 8, 2008 | Go to article overview

Are 'Old Masters of Tomorrow' at Carnegie?


Shaw, Kurt, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


Last Saturday afternoon at Carnegie Museum of Art, Westview artist Paul LeRoy Gehres -- a.k.a. "LeRoy, King of Art" -- was standing in front of three large, semi-abstract figure paintings by Austrian painter Maria Lassnig, writing in his journal: "weak colors -- dumb monsters." While downstairs, in the museum's lower staircase leading up from the rear entrance, Holly Gessler, an artist from Regent Square, was commenting on the installation "deja vu 12" by German artist Manfred Pernice: "Who wants to look at that in 50 years?"

Gessler's point was not lost on those around her. After all, among other cast offs, Pernice's piece contains a smattering of empty food jars and cans, which look more than ready for the recycle bin.

Both of these local artist reactions bring up an interesting point. Begun in 1896 at the behest of industrialist Andrew Carnegie, the Carnegie International's original purpose, according to Carnegie himself, was to showcase the "Old Masters of tomorrow."

Looking around the current International, "Life on Mars," Carnegie's original intent seems lost: Are the 40 artists representing 17 countries the Old Masters of tomorrow?

Considering that critics from coast to coast have largely flat- lined the exhibition since it opened just over a month ago, arguably most are not. But, says the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust's Murray Horne, curator of Wood Street Galleries, Downtown, some, like Mario Merz (1925-2003), most certainly are.

"He has already been anointed by the art world as a contemporary master," Horne says of the late Italian artist, largely because he was one of the founding members of Italy's Arte Povera movement (literally translated as "poor art"), which advocated the use of simple, often ephemeral materials beginning in the late 1960s onward.

As Merz's "Fibonacci 1202" (1970), which is comprised of 11 black- and-white photographs and ten neon numbers, on display in the middle of the Heinz Galleries illustrate, the artist's work is based on the theoretically infinite mathematical sequence known as the Fibonacci series (produced when two consecutive numbers are added together to generate the next: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, and so on).

The sequence is found in natural forms, like spiral shapes in plants and shells. But it's also found in manmade forms, particularly architecture.

While the museum did not purchase "Fibonacci 1202," which is considered to be one of Merz's most important works, it does own one of the artist's "igloo" pieces, but it is not on display. That brings up another interesting point about the Carnegie International series: it was started as a way to build the museum's permanent collection. So, in that regard, the collection itself is a kind of archaeological record of the exhibition's history, not to mention something that chronologically tracks art history in general terms.

With the first exhibit came the acquisition of Winslow Homer's "The Wreck" (1896) and James A. McNeill Whistler's "Arrangement in Black: Portrait of Senor Pablo de Sarasate" (1884), the first Whistler painting to be acquired by an American museum.

Since then, at least 300 works have entered Carnegie Museum of Art's permanent collection through the Internationals, which initially were held annually and now are held roughly every three years.

Already, from this exhibition alone, the museum has purchased five works on display, one each by Vija Celmins, Bruce Conner, Daniel Guzman, Sharon Lockhart and Wolfgang Tillmans, with plans to purchase a few others before the show closes.

Looking at the paintings by Homer and Whistler today, both on display in the musuem's Scaife Galleries, it's hard to deny that they are clearly the product of the hands of masters. But, can we look at the art of today in the same way? Not exactly.

For starters, visual art as we know it has changed dramatically since Carnegie's time, largely due to the advent of modernism. …

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