Let’s be honest: All of my boyfriends are in the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art’s Lichtenstein, Warhol & Friends exhibit. This thing is packed to the gills with Art Studs. There’s Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, of course. Then there are the Friends: Oldenburg, Kelly, Still, LeWitt, Mangold, Hofmann, Stella, Andre, Flavin and ... gulp … sigh … Ed Ruscha. Swoon!
It’s a breathtaking list on loan from the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. But—so what? Pop art, minimalism, abstract expressionism …old news. What makes them so special?
It is easy to forget exactly why these guys are revered. Art boyfriends, just like real ones, can sometimes be taken for granted. Art lovers become so caught up in this post-post-post … whatever era that the daring essence of its progenitors sometimes fades as our eyes thirst for the new and the now. The aesthetic modes pioneered by these artists are fully integrated into the contemporary vernacular. That can make it hard to imagine the impact of seeing this work when it was made—just how dangerous and truly edgy it was at the time. And, frankly, still can be.
Also, blockbuster balloons like this sometimes sail on simple virtue of the big names involved. The mere fact that all the cool guys are present and accounted for is no guarantee that they—or the curator—will actually deliver. Everybody has off days in the studio, and some have off decades (cough, Frank Stella). But the work selected for this exhibition really hits the mark; none skates by on name alone, and there is a well-considered mix of tried-and-true and unexpected.
Always the man in the room with the most swagger, Ruscha (“Ace,” 1962) leads the pack. A pop/conceptual dreamboat, Ruscha does with words what Warhol did with soup cans. Popular language supplants the preferred cultural references of his peers, and slang words like “Ace” become charged imagery in their own right. The cast-off word attains barbed monumentality, immortalized as it is in that most historical of mediums—paint. Applied with a thick physicality, the paint has a specter of the abstract expressionism that pop artists were so vigorously shaking off. It’s like patting your teacher on the back with one hand while giving him the finger with the other.
If that weren’t enough to make girls cry, directly in front of “Ace” is Carl Andre’s “Magnesium-Zinc Plain” (1969). In contrast to the calculated inclusion of Ruscha’s hand in “Ace,” “Magnesium” offers the calculated exclusion of Andre’s hand. Like industrial tiles, the piece combines alternating zinc and magnesium square plates to create a perfect floor square. All machine-made/minimalist/screw-the-institution/how’s this for a sculpture?/proto-punk sexy, it still feels dangerous. Walk on it—please! It’s a really good time.
The two giddy surprises in the show come from Dan Flavin and Roy Lichtenstein. Flavin’s work always intelligently—if not aridly—accentuates architecture in a most unexpected way, but “Untitled (To Marianne)” (1970) is sweetly shy. Hiding in the corner right in front of your eyes, a yellow-and-blue neon rectangle creates a window that erases part of the room. The functional elements of the piece recede as the intersection of the walls disappears and the corner expands and breathes, modestly levitating.
Lichtenstein’s adjacent “Mirror’” (1971) is most unexpected, and pleasantly so. Famous for his use of a dot matrix that looks machined but betrays the inclusion of his own hand, the artist here abandons his usual noir-ish comic-book damsels in favor of a thing. Sidestepping his affinity for serial two-dimensionality, “Mirror” is also a bona fide object. A fabulous contemplation of painting, it is image-obsessed, abstract and minimal.
All of the work has gusto. The Bellagio is a tough space, and the modest scale of the galleries could easily have been overwhelmed. But everything works exceptionally.
The only glaring drawback: Where are the women? Lee Krasner, Yayoi Kusama, Jo Baer and Agnes Martin are several of many who would have added a rich and necessary truth to an already satisfying survey.