Bookends of Modernism @Albright-Knox

Two for the show: reflections on the long arc of Modernism

Claude Monet, On the Bank of the Seine, Bennecourt, 1868, collection Art Institute of Chicago

Claude Monet, On the Bank of the Seine, Bennecourt, 1868, collection Art Institute of Chicago



Bookends. That’s the word that springs to mind to describe a pair of exhibitions now on view at theAlbright-Knox Art Gallery. Though the curators didn’t plan it this way, the shows are like buttresses on opposite ends of the hundred-year modernist experiment. One marks the first stirrings of the coming revolution and the other its closing salvo. And while the two exhibitions are markedly divergent, there are notable parallels.  

The showier of the two—the one drawing throngs of delighted art lovers—is Monet and the Impressionist Revolution, 1860–1910. The impressionists are proven A-listers of the museum world. Slap their names on an exhibition banner and the public will line up. Which it did—down the block—when in 1999 AKAG showcased the touring blockbuster Monet at Giverny: Masterpieces from the Musee Marmottan. The current offering, while less ostentatious and far less hyped, is in many ways better. Located in the 1962 wing of the gallery, it isn’t just a display of masterworks; curator Holly Hughes does a great job contextualizing the work to expand audience understanding and appreciation. This is the origin story of modernism. Everything following impressionism—even Duchampian challenges to the nature of art itself—had its beginnings in these defiant little unblended paint daubs.

The second of the two exhibitions, organized by curators Cathleen Chaffee and Douglas Dreishpoon, is titledLooking at Tomorrow: Light and Language from the Panza Collection, 1967–1990. Located upstairs, it comprises selected works from forty-five installations, photographs, films, sculptures, and drawings recently acquired from the collection of Giuseppe Panza di Biumo, renowned for American art of the 1960s and seventies. These are works of minimalism and conceptual art, movements that mark modernism’s swan song. The seed of reductivism sown with the impressionists’ rejection of detail and polished finish comes to fruition in minimalism. Conceptualism reduces art even further to unadorned idea, explicitly separated from craft. The curators try to help visitors understand these complex concepts with explanatory wall text, but it’s not nearly as user friendly as impressionism. Without pretty scenes or painting virtuosity to latch onto, finding a way into the work is challenging.

For instance, one of the first works visitors confront upon entering the exhibit is A Wall Stripped Clear of Plaster or Wallboard, by Lawrence Weiner, a seminal figure in conceptual art. It’s exactly what the title implies; one of the gallery walls exposed to its 1905 wooden foundation, a slyly subversive action that literally “deconstructs” the museum. Linguistic descriptions are the essential matter of Weiner’s art. A Wall Stripped Clear of Plaster or Wallboard is dated 1969, the year the concept was conceived and written down. The artist considers it equally acceptable for the work to be presented as text in a publication or lettering on a gallery wall. Either would be much tidier to execute. Give AKAG credit; they went all in.

Another prominent conceptualist, Joseph Kosuth, goes a step further with his Titled (Art as Idea as Idea)series, comprising photomechanical reproductions of dictionary definitions of the word “nothing” in six languages. Kosuth is known for exploring the interrelatedness of objects, images, and definitions, but here he considers how we go about defining the absence of anything. The title alludes to the strata of ideas at play here. In truth, there is a segment of the public that will reject this work out of hand, while delighting in the “real art” of the virtuosic impressionists. Some will view conceptualism as the art world version of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” It might be prudent, however, to keep an open mind.

“What do we see in the work of these men? Nothing but defiance. Almost an insult to the taste and intelligence of the public,” writes one critic, and another states, “They appear to have declared war on beauty.” One more opines, “Seeing the lot, you burst out laughing, but with the last ones you finally get angry.” Is this the critical response to conceptual and minimalist art? Um, no, it’s what critics had to say about the impressionists in their day. Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, Camille Pissarro, Berthe Morisot, and Edgar Degas, were ridiculed as “lunatics” and their work labeled “nauseating,” and “revolting.” The name “impressionism” itself was a derisive term coined by a critic. Success eluded them for many years, though they eventually achieved recognition in their lifetime. But by the time of Monet’s death they were all but forgotten again, rendered inconsequential by the newer art movements that they inspired. It wasn’t until the 1950s that audiences began rediscovering their work. And Monetmania was born.

Monet and the Impressionist Revolution, 1860–1910 makes the point that these were radicals who defied the conservative government-run academy that wholly possessed the authority to make or break artists. The exhibition starts out with works by the precursors of impressionism, setting the tone for the approaching revolution. Realists such as Honoré Daumier and Gustave Courbet were already chipping away at some cherished traditions in academic art. It’s worth noting here that the majority of this exhibition is drawn from the AKAG collection. Many of the museum’s most beloved works had been on a national tour for the past two years. Now that they have returned, the curators are gradually reintroducing them to local audiences. In this fresh context, these paintings look better than ever. But it is Monet’s name in the show’s title, so seven added paintings by the artist are on loan from other museums. From an early Manet-influenced bucolic scene, to a bleak ice flow, to a late career water lily painting, each has been thoughtfully chosen to spotlight an aspect of the artist’s career.

Monet was fixated with the play of light on surfaces under various atmospheric conditions. Like the other impressionists, he favors loose unblended brushstrokes, eschewing well defined forms and pictorial detail. His landscapes often have an indistinct foggy appearance. In Les Glaçons (The Ice Floes), for instance, the winter haze is so thick you almost catch a chill looking at it. Light and atmosphere is Monet’s stock in trade.

The same is true for Doug Wheeler, whose untitled minimalist work in the Panza show is so jaw-dropping amazing, it would make Monet weep. Wheeler goes to great lengths to construct something so seemingly simple. Installed in a small gallery, it consists of a large wall-mounted Plexiglas square, hazily illuminated from within at the perimeter. Our minds depend on subtle cues in the environment to comprehend our surroundings, and Wheeler takes full advantage of this. He rounds the corners of the room, eliminating the crisp shadows that normally unconsciously help orient us, and throwing our minds into a perceptual tizzy. What results is an illusion that the room is filled with fog. Try as you will, you can’t shake the eerie effect. Wheeler is a pioneer of the so called “Light and Space” movement, but I’m calling it “abstract impressionism.”

The work of another Panza artist, Jan Dibbets, reflects impressionism’s propensities for flattening the pictorial plane and adopting unusual visual angles, pushing them to extremes. On the wall he arranges multiple photographs shot in series to form minimalist geometric abstractions that challenge conventions of photography, much like Monet and the others challenged accepted rules of painting. In Big Comet 3°–60° Land/Sky/Land, numerous near featureless photographs of the horizon—each taken at a slightly different angle—cascade down the gallery wall, forming a stylized comet tail pattern.

When the impressionists cast off the moorings of academic painting, the art world rapidly sailed into the white waters of change. Monet and the Impressionist Revolution, 1860–1910 documents some of the many avant garde movements that followed in quick succession on impressionism’s heels. Over a few decades, an extensive new visual vocabulary was introduced into the art lexicon. For the next century and beyond this vocabulary would be amended, challenged, twisted, turned, and pared down. When you look at impressionist paintings, if all you see are vivid landscapes and rosy cheeked women, you’re missing the bigger picture (pun intended). If you want to fully appreciate the extent of the revolution Monet and his friends kicked off, take a careful look at the Panza show.

Bruce Adams is an artist, educator, arts advocate, and writer.