Progressby Jen Schwarting
Whitney Museum of American Art, July 11–November 30, 2008
Progress is an excellent exhibition of work from the Whitney Museum’s permanent collection. Hot on the heels of Buckminster Fuller: Starting with the Universe, Progress only mildly concerns itself with the technological advancements considered synonymous with the term and integral to Fuller’s utopian designs. Rather, Progress charts the evolution of an aesthetic language developed principally to signify a political idealism, and to further civic engagement. From early twentieth century Russian Constructivism to contemporary west coast conceptualism, Progress recounts the teleological rise of Modernism to the current decline in American optimism.
“Linear Construction No. 4” (1958), an abstract sculpture in plastic and steel, is an exemplary late work by Naum Gabo, one of the early proponents of Constructivism. An artist and leading figure in Moscow in 1921, Gabo’s “Realistic Manifesto,” written with Antoine Pevsner, proclaimed geometric abstraction’s radical potential to communicate a vision of a “new civilization.” Constructivism’s powerful formalism and social imperative led to the hallmark of Modernism, German Bauhaus, defined by the interdisciplinary integration of art, architecture and industry, and the goal of improving humanity through the mass production of good design.
As a teacher at the Bauhaus, László Moholy-Nagy conducted groundbreaking experiments across traditional mediums, particularly sculpture and photography. In 1930, he exhibited “Light Play: Black-White-Grey,” a mesmerizing, wholly abstract film that traces the shapes and silhouettes of his built, mechanical sculpture “Light Space Modulator.” On view in Progress, Moholy-Nagy’s 1938-40 painting “Space Modulator” is a vibrating, futuristic grid, synthesized in yellow and orange, capturing one frame of potential energy from an infinitely intricate system.
Moholy-Nagy’s influence is manifest in the recent work of Los Angeles-based artist Paul Sietsema, whose suite of multimedia objects—a black, geometric sculpture, text collage, and monochromatic, 2003 film “Empire”—revives the codes of a formal language. The 24-minute, 16-mm film creates patterns and pockets of light and dark by tracing the contours of Sietsema’s sculptures, as well as the history of 1960s avant-garde film. “Empire,” references Warhol’s 1964 masterpiece of the same name and Michael Snow’s 1966 Structuralist film “Wavelength”—and possibly Kubrick’s epic “2001: A Space Odyssey,” as it begins in the fold of a primitive cave and ends in an 18th Century French palace. Set squarely between is a still image—first featured in Vogue in 1964—of the living room of Clement Greenberg, art’s most iconic critic. Greenberg famously insisted that art’s progress must be purely aesthetic and independent of social or political concern. “Empire” ruminates on the abstract paintings—notably, a double-Zip Barnett Newman—that line Greenberg’s domestic space. Sietsema slowly zooms in on the image, crops, inverts and flips it from the positive to the negative.
Constructivism’s signature black, white, and red palette-—as well as its powerful combination of photography, graphics and text—has been skillfully employed by Barbara Kruger for three decades. Her prominent billboard “Untitled (We Don’t Need Another Hero)” (1987) shouts the dystopian pop anthem across a 1950s-style illustration, of a girl admiring a young boy’s flexed bicep. The combination of image and text is a persuasive appropriation of Soviet propaganda posters portraying glorified men and women, designed to move Russia forward following World War I. Displayed in Los Angeles in the late 1980s, Kruger’s billboard publicly decried patriarchy and patriotism—and the declaration still resonates in the current economic crisis, war, and pervasive disappointment in failed leadership.
Next to Kruger’s billboard hangs Andrea Bowers' equally impressive work “One of the Largest Urban Farms in America (South Central Community Garden, South Central)” (2008), positioned eight feet vertically on the wall, just inches above the floor. Opposite in approach to a public attraction, it requires the viewer to crouch down over the bottom right corner of the piece to read the reproduction of a 2006 Los Angeles Times article. The text chronicles the arrest of activists protesting the destruction—by a developer intending to sell it to a corporation—of a community garden, and one protester’s desperate attempt to stall the bulldozer by clogging the machine’s exhaust pipe with a vegetable. The work epitomizes the contemporary contradictions in the modern concept of progress that are so difficult to reconcile: development in the face of environmental destruction, and corporate wealth privileged over the self-sufficiency of the poor. Bowers’ piece beautifully lays this out in a stark abstraction in which the Google-earth view of the small farm plotted within the immensity of the city creates a graphic equal sign, one that does not add up to stability or equality.
Radiating alone in a back room is Diana Thater’s Six-color video wall (2000). Across a bloc of stacked monitors, the sun slowly rotates. It scorches and flares, multiplied six times in strength, like a vision of the apocalypse. Thater’s approach proves a fascinating antithesis to the end-of-the-world projections seen in the challenging, recently-closed exhibition After Nature at the New Museum. There, the planet in decline—and the impact of development, pollution and war—were represented literally and allegorically in wretched landscapes and barbaric figurations. Legless men and decapitated beasts symbolized a world so bleak as to be devoid of the prospect of regeneration. Thater, conversely, situates her work within the dialectics of transcendence. The video wall’s elemental, circle-in-a square composition points resolutely to geometric abstraction’s history and the theoretical space of possibility. As Progress contends with visible shifts in perspective, values and expectations, it rationalizes the continual hope, and need for societal transformation.