I have no doubt that Lynn Zelevansky's "Beyond Geometry" began as a labor of love, because blurred but still visible in the midst of this desultory extravaganza there is a smaller, more original exhibition trying to get out. This embedded exhibition examines the cosmopolitan flowering of geometric abstract art in the years following World War II. It expands the canonical framework and "de-Americanizes" the art history of that period. It could have done more. If its curator had not been so anxious to rush forward into the comfort zone of post-Minimal tedium, that smaller exhibition might have traced the cultural transformation of this postwar geometric idiom from an international language of advanced art into the folk art of technological capitalism. It might even have tapped the sources of this idiom in the demimondes of postwar Paris during its last great expatriate moment. It might have situated this new practice amid the stunning array of artists, writers, and musicians from Latin America, North Africa, Southern Europe, Central Europe, and the United States who lived and worked in Paris at this time.
That would have been a gift. The late-blooming Parisian demimonde populated by Jesus Rafael Soto, Julio Cortazar, Eduardo Chillida, Albert Camus, and Ellsworth Kelly remains largely unexamined to this day, and by missing the opportunity it creates to chronicle this moment, "Beyond Geometry" distorts the context of the art it exhibits. It overlooks the fact that geometric abstraction after the war is always more Parisian than anything else, and that in Latin America and Central Europe the idiom was always more international than regional, more imperial than proto-postcolonial. When I was a kid, we called this kind of painting "Denise Rene-Art," after the Parisian dealer who exhibited a lot of it, and the fact that Geometric Abstraction was flowering in Paris just as Paris was fading as a cultural center goes a long way toward explaining its subsequent neglect.
These caveats notwithstanding, however, "Beyond Geometry" does show us a lot of art from the period, and the memorable art outweighs the forgettable. The relevant art outweighs the irrelevant--although not by much, and only because a little good outweighs a lot of bad in these situations. There is also ample, if scattered, evidence of curatorial refinement in the selection and arrangement of the almost two hundred pieces included. There are wonderful, rarely seen artworks that deserve the new attention they are given, and there are serendipitous gifts of staging and association throughout the galleries. The sweet juxtaposition of Kelly's Painting for a White Wall (EK54), 1952, John McLaughlin's Untitled, 1953, and four small, luminous gouaches by Helio Oiticica, 1957-58, need only be seen to justify the entire exhibition. The suave bouquet of Brazilian Neo-concrete paintings from the '50s and '60s, redolent with prescient hip-hop cool, is more than sufficient unto itself. The paintings of Blinky Palermo and Richard Paul Lohse are given new life in this noisy context, and the gracious but improbable neighborhood of "white-ish" paintings by Agnes Martin, Robert Irwin, Roman Opalka, Bridget Riley, and Robert Ryman must certainly qualify as the first and last time these disparate but covertly harmonious objects will hang together.
For these occasions alone, "Beyond Geometry" is worth visiting. Unfortunately--mysteriously even--these lucid, lyrical moments alternate with egregious dead zones devoted to failed experiments, historical curiosities, conceptual travesties, and peripheral constituencies unnecessarily acknowledged. Moreover--and even more mysteriously--Zelevansky clearly feels defensive and a little apologetic about the genuine virtues and small epiphanies that her exhibition does provide. In her catalogue essay she sternly reminds us that "in abstract languages false cognates abound" and that "works that look alike may well be conceptually unrelated"--as if her interest in such conceptual dissonance were somehow naughty or unseemly. …