HIRSHHORN MUSEUM, WASHINGTON, DC
The same old questions The same old answers. Nothing like them
Situated between aggressive electronic media and two hundred years of industrial vandalism, the long-held idea that a tiny output of art objects could somehow "beautify" or even significantly modify the environment was naive.
Back in 1919 as Dada was coming on in Paris, Marcel Duchamp designed L.H.O.O.Q. like a flaming arrow crackling with sympathy for the movement. He described the Mona Lisa with mustache and goatee as "iconoclastic Dadaism." Forty-four years later, the ruthless purge of beauty led Robert Morris to the point that he felt duty bound to eradicate every bit of aesthetic content from his Litanies--legally. Accompanying the sculpture is a "Statement of Esthetic Withdrawal," a notarized document that reads in part: "Robert Morris, being the marker of the metal construction LITANIES ... hereby withdraws from said construction all esthetic quality and content." By 1963 Duchamp's whimsical gesture had become a matter of gray and airless bureaucracy, with all the requisite signatures and seals necessary to make it official: When it came to beauty, no one was kidding around anymore.
That was then. Today, beauty is the new Lazarus. It took breath within the pages of Dave Hickey's radiant 1991 essay "Enter the Dragon." Hickey admits that "Beauty," his answer to the question of what would be most central to the culture of the '90s, was "a total improvisatory goof--an off-the-wall, jump-start, free association that rose unbidden to my lips from God knows where." And a jump start it was. Philosophers, artists, critics, curators, and other art-world denizens scrambled to grease their brains on the subject. After all, we're a little rusty when it comes to beauty: Not much fresh thinking has gone on there since the appearance of the readymades, when--to paraphrase Joseph Kosuth--art's focus changed from the form of the language to what was being said. If Duchamp flipped the beauty switch to Off, Hickey flipped it back on.
Our response to beauty's comeback, though, has by and large not been virtuoso. The greater part of what you hear on the subject is bland, monotonous recitations, not at all what Hickey, Peter Schjeldahl, Arthur C. Danto, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and very few others had in mind: to know what it means to utter, "is beautiful"--that is, to know something of how the very form of this utterance modulates in the present. Instead, the some old questions and the same old answers have seemed handy, the expedient way out of the hullabaloo beauty stirred. This comfortable path is certainly the one taken by the curators at the Hirshhorn Museum, where "Regarding Beauty: A View of the Late Twentieth Century" was presented.
"Regarding Beauty," as the title implies, is more than a little passive. There are eighty-eight works of art on a checklist that runs aground. in predictability. Historically, the entire exhibition sits on this side of 1960; stylistically, it's all the usual suspects: the requisite late Picasso and de Kooning; John Baldessari's PURE BEAUTY; a bunch of Richters, and the Polke painting of Playboy bunnies. Matthew Barney and Sugimoto put in appearances, as do Pipilotti Rist and James Turrell. One supposes that "daring" in this context means the inclusion of Warhol's Oxidation Painting.
The exhibition is tidily divided into two categories: "Beauty Objectified," which brings together the likes of Giulio Paolini and Warhol's Gold Marilyn and "Intangible Beauty," which includes (among others) Vija Celmins and Roy Lichtenstein. That creaking sound you hear is the wobbling wheels turning as the old subjective/ objective dualism lumbers into view. There is also a gaggle of wall-text quotes about beauty (Aristotle: "Chief forms of beauty are order and symmetry"; John Cage: "Beauty is now underfoot wherever we take the trouble to look"; Gandhi: "Show them the truth, and they will see beauty afterwards"). …