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PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 23.1 (2001) 112-118

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The Figure

Peter T. Nesbett


1900: Art at the Crossroads, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, May 19-September 10, 2000.

The Figure: Another Side of Modernism, Newhouse Center for Contemporary Art, Staten Island, June 4, 2000-January 14, 2001.

Every curious and surprising experience has been tried. Above all traditional constraints, in unlimited freedom, a plastic anarchy has been born. It is very seductive; the streets have no more sidewalks, everything is thrown in together; it is dazzling and imprecise. . . . In the midst of this romantic confusion it is hard to find one's bearings. Is it a beginning? Is it an ending?

--Fernand L├ęger (1945)


IMAGE LINK= If the many millennium-inspired exhibitions that have graced New York museum walls over the past twelve months have taught us anything, it is that the current state of the visual arts is a mess. I say this without condemnation, but as an acknowledgment of the range and variety of artistic sentiments that receive professional consideration these days. We are living in a moment that lacks a strong, dominant gravitational center: an age where numerous aesthetic communities jostle cheek-to-jowl, at times creating a provocative urban friction, while at other times existing in separate, seemingly uninflected worlds.

This situation is not new, of course. Since the 1970s, critics have either celebrated or lamented the pluralizing of art, attributing it to the influence of the human rights movements, to the widespread embrace of French theory, to the rise in cross-disciplinary activity, and to the development of new institutional systems to support the creation and exhibition of installation and public art. But a sea-change in curatorial activity has also helped to lead us into this exhilarating, if not dizzying, confusion. The trend away from didactic, chronological exhibitions towards loosely organized shows that are parceled into thematic mini-exhibitions is an effort to deal with this state of affairs. (Two prominent examples are the Tate Gallery's [End Page 112] Collection 2000 and the Museum of Modern Art's MoMA 2000.) In fact, curators seem to be acting less like art historians and more like artists these days, shedding aesthetic pedagogy for an open-endedness that favors poetic juxtaposition over prosaic sequencing. One of the pleasures of these shows is their elasticity. They demand a more active viewer, and those willing to think more for themselves can receive rich rewards. But they can also be too unstructured and offer too little guidance to the viewer, offering only isolated moments of pleasure in an exhausting and seemingly endless morass of art.

Two recent exhibitions make use of this new curatorial style to provide an opportunity for historical self-reflection at the turn of the millennium: the Guggenheim Museum's mammoth 1900: Art at the Crossroads and the Newhouse Center for Contemporary Art's The Figure: Another Side of Modernism. 1900 is a synchronic survey of art at the turn-of-the-century, organized by a team of curators from two internationally known museums--the Guggenheim (Robert Rosenblum) and London's Royal Academy of Arts (Norman Rosenthal, MaryAnne Stevens, and Ann Dumas)--and accompanied by a hefty catalogue. Its opening on this side of the Atlantic was trumpeted with a barrage of press from the daily newspapers and the art magazines. The Figure, by contrast, is a survey of figurative painting since 1950, with a heavy emphasis on art of the past three years. Organized by an independent New York curator (Lily Wei) for Staten Island's Newhouse Center, an institution that retains a scrappy, fringe presence, the ambitious exhibition opened quietly and has received little press. Both 1900 and The Figure are devoted almost exclusively to the figure in art--one by default, the other by intent--offering an opportunity to view its subject both before and after the triumph of abstract art in the mid-twentieth century.

In fact, The Figure makes 1900 feel particularly relevant today. While the former exhibition attempts to explore an underemphasized facet of modern art during and after the...


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