In the public eye

In a dynamic new exhibit, Las Vegas’ best private collectors show off their art

Dan Flavin Untitled (to S. A., lovingly), 1987 Blue & red fluorescent light 48 x 48 x 8 inches Collection Glenn Schaeffer © 2008 Stephen Flavin/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Courtesy of Stephen Flavin/Artists Rights Society
Susanne Forestieri, Danielle Kelly

Given that Las Vegas Collects Contemporary is a display of works on loan from more than 30 Southern Nevada collectors, you expect diversity, but even better—and somewhat improbably—the exhibition could pass muster as a curatorial tour de force illustrating the cross-pollination of painting and sculpture over the last 50 years. The addition of such media as fluorescent light tubes and digital video only adds to the feeling of hybridization, with light-emitting “paintings” that sculpt the air and a flickering video image that redefines art.

The most lucid conflation of painting and sculpture are Karl Benjamin’s columns. These hard-edged, meticulously painted geometric abstracts on canvas are mounted on rectangular wood pillars whose earth tones and sky blues make the works appear monumental when they are, in fact, only 30 inches high.

Donald Judd, one of the founders of minimalism, known for his embrace of industrial materials, is represented by two wall hangings. Although he’s nominally considered a sculptor, his untitled arrangement of brightly painted aluminum boxes is worthy of the finest colorist. The forms, reminiscent of pre-school cubbies, make what could be a dry exercise in geometry a delightful experience.

Whereas Judd uses paint to enhance his sculpture, Jason Martin and Roxy Paine use paint like a sculptural medium. In “Oriel” Martin slathers a thick layer of baby blue paint on a deep horizontal slab of aluminum, then rakes it to create deep grooves. In “PMU #20,” Paine uses a machine to throw thick gobs of white acrylic paint at a canvas, arrested in motion as they slouch off the linen. The juxtaposition of “sloppy” bright white paint and finely textured, subtly hued canvas is attractive.

Superficially similar to the work of Martin and Paine is Gerhard Richter’s ravishing abstract “Grün-Blau-Rot” (“Green-Blue-Red”). Created simply by dragging and smearing pigments across canvas, it proved to me that painting is still a vital medium in the right hands.

Richter’s confidence in painting to hold its own against a slew of new media is shared by David Reed, whose long horizontal painting “No. 223” employs several techniques and forms. Thin gestural washes, hard-edged rectangles and old-fashioned illusionistic painting are seamlessly fused together by the use of colors at the cool end of the spectrum—from turquoise through ultramarine blue to the deepest purple.

One of the new media that has grabbed some of the limelight in recent years is fluorescent light installation. One of its originators is Dan Flavin, whose arrangements of radiating fluorescent tubes seem to sculpt space.

An even more cutting-edge example is Jennifer Steinkamp’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man (Matillija Poppy),” an eye-popping video installation. Its only connection to the traditional medium of painting is the subject matter (flowers are a favorite of artists as diverse as Monet and Warhol). The flickering image of white poppies with bright orange centers, dancing and swaying to unheard music and unfelt wind, is almost too evanescent to be called art, but I was entranced.

The most ambitiously conceptual work is Anish Kapoor’s “Wound,” a triptych of box-like forms. Using a host of media (paper, fabric, silk, photographs, drawings and aluminum in wood box), all three components have at their center an identical shape redolent of a geological configuration. The lowest component has the shape cut out in shallow relief; the second, taller component, constructed of layers of various papers, is cut into more deeply; the third and tallest component is a sealed box with the same shape raised in relief and painted red. This work reminds us that we are complex beings who have much that is hidden in “boxes” and many layers to peel away. You could say the same for this exhibition.

As the name points out, the Las Vegas Art Museum’s freshly opened Las Vegas Collects Contemporary features a selection of work from private local collections. The occasion of the exhibition sets the stage for another milestone in the evolution of an art community: the symbiotic relationship between collector and museum. It would be easy to misdirect critical consideration of the exhibition to include ruminations on the well-worn territory of the (necessary) dynamic between collectors and museums. But the mutually beneficial museum/collector handshake is ultimately not as important as the rewards the community reaps. We get to look at some cool art that we may not have had a chance to look at—ever.

Andy Warhol
$, 1981
Synthetic polymer paint and silkscreen ink on canvas
90 x 70 inches 
Collection Frank III and Jill Fertitta
©  2008 Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts/ARS, New York

Andy Warhol $, 1981 Synthetic polymer paint and silkscreen ink on canvas 90 x 70 inches Collection Frank III and Jill Fertitta © 2008 Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts/ARS, New York


Las Vegas Collects Contemporary
Through November 30
Las Vegas Art Museum, 9600 W. Sahara Ave, 360-8000

Perversely juxtaposed are Andy Warhol’s “$” and Anish Kapoor’s “Wound,” a quiet trio of aching forms. Two elements are constructed of stacked paper and photos incised with a gaping gash in their rock-like topographical surfaces. The third is a box suspending what appears to be a sliver of the extruded material, a shocking stratum in blood red, suggesting both physical and earthly trauma. Installed next to Warhol’s giant screen print of the symbol that makes the world go ’round, it creates a dialogue that is a rich and cruel reminder of global excess and senseless violence. This paring is subversive in a show of this nature.

A similar tension, although more formal in nature, is created by the proximity of a small Gerhard Richter painting with a stunning and rare Dan Flavin of 1968. Both elegantly and directly negotiate the visual punch of the power play between complementary colors red and green.

Uta Barth’s photo triptych “Untitled-nw 15” is a hauntingly framed experience of the image as a window. The photos themselves peer through to the outside. Are we trapped on the inside, or are we prisoners of our own making? They smell of fear and uncertainty.

A surprise and thrill is a Joseph Cornell box. Covered in maps of the end of the Earth, it holds simple elements: a red ball, a petite wine glass, a building block bearing a unicorn. Yet the master of collage manages to alchemically conjure the promise of a mystical netherworld. Collage is super hot right now, as evidenced by Damien Hirst’s trendy pieces in the exhibition—but this small gem puts his flat offerings to shame.

There is not enough room to give justice to the exhibition’s numerous pleasures: striking paintings by Roxy Paine, Ray Dowell and Jason Martin; unexpected drawings by renegades David Hockney and Tony Fitzpatrick, not to mention the ever-studly Ed Ruscha; menacingly joyful works by Ken Price and Takashi Murakami; an immensely satisfying Alex Katz installation; the chance to fall in love all over again with Kara Walker. Not one but two Donald Judds.

But the shimmering shaman is Michael Heizer’s “45 degrees, 90 degrees, 180 degrees,” silently commanding the presence of the entire space. Steel geometric forms people a wooden base, creating a kind of ancient map or reconstructed ruin. One of a number of maquette-like versions, the work has been reconstructed on a monumental scale at the artist’s infamous Nevada compound “City.” An ominous keeper of secrets and promises, the piece is an alluringly mysterious vortex around which the entire exhibition spins.

Surveys can be inconsistent, but overall LVAM’s Las Vegas Collects Contemporary does not disappoint. It does, however, leave one curious. Is this exhibition foreshadowing an institution that wants the standard permanent collection? Or should our community have a museum that reinvents itself with each and every exhibition? Is a Las Vegas Art Museum for tourists or for locals? The depth of work to be found in this exhibition is apparently only the tip of the iceberg of local collections. Whatever form the museum ultimately takes, here’s hoping locals will be able to continue sneaking peeks into the vaults.


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