Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

On the Twentieth Century

Fine Arts

Untitled (1990) by David Wojnarowicz, stencil printed with spray paint and collaged papers on found paper. Photo: Tim Nighswander/Imaging4Art, courtesy of the Estate of David Wojnarowicz
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The San Jose Museum of Art ups its game this summer with Legacy: The Emily Fisher Landau Collection, a traveling show of postwar art organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. This exhibition and Modernism from the National Gallery of Art, which opens Saturday at the de Young Museum, should help fill the gap and feed the appetite of the modern art-deprived in the wake of SFMOMA's extended absence from the scene during its renovation.

San Jose's wide-ranging survey, with 70-some works by 38 artists – a fraction of the 367 objects New York philanthropist Landau has promised to the Whitney, a gift estimated to be worth upwards of $70 million – the exhibition spans the 1960s through 2002, with the 1980s as its strong suit. The artworks subtly channel or directly comment on the art movements and social and political upheaval of the second half of the 20th century, a period that saw the Cold War, the civil rights struggle, the rise of feminism, the polarizing effects of Vietnam, the expression of openly gay sexuality, and the onset and ravages of AIDS.

Landau started amassing art in the late 1960s for what is now one of the world's largest privately held collections of contemporary art (approximately 1,200 works.) The late Cy Twombly, Willem de Kooning, Carl Andre, Barbara Kruger, Robert Mapplethorpe, Agnes Martin, Martin Puryear, Susan Rothenberg, Mark Tansey, gay, Cuban-born artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres, the sexually uninhibited photographer Peter Hujar, and his lover and friend, agitator artist David Wojnarowicz, both of whom died of AIDS, are just a few of the artists who caught Landau's eye.

She became enamored of the New York art scene in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, visiting galleries and studios and cultivating relationships with adventurous younger artists, some of whom were toiling in obscurity when she began collecting their work. Warhol's portrait of Landau hangs at the entrance to the show; being an art patron has its perks.

Painting predominates, though there's a selection of sculpture and mixed-media pieces. But enjoyment of a show that specifically reflects the taste of a collector (and their advisors) is predicated on whether or not you share that taste. Landau's proclivities to some extent tilt toward simplicity. Take Agnes Martin's Rothko-esque "This Rain" (1960), a geometric, minimalist painting with translucent squares of sand and brackish grey that simultaneously mingle and set each other apart on a winter-white canvas. Nearby is Martin Puryear's sculpture "Ardea" (1981), an irregular, warped hula-hoop circle of painted pine and cedar, spare and Scandinavian neutral. Be sure not to miss Kiki Smith's small but visceral white bronze and phosphorous sculpture "Head with Bird" (1994). The severed head has a bird perched on its neck, inches away from the unfortunate fellow's face, who, one assumes, is beyond pain. Smith, who trained as an emergency med tech, mixes the sacred and the profane in works that are a confluence of feminist ideas, fluid gender and a clinical obsession with bodily functions and dismembered forms that borders on the grotesque.

Threat and Sanctuary (1969) by Neil Jenney, oil on canvas, with wood frame. Photo: Tim Nighswander/Imaging4Art, courtesy of the artist

Landau is partial to Richard Artschwager, Jasper Johns (who's represented by eight color screenprints and two collages), and Ed Ruscha, whose trio of works on view here include the gimmicky palindrome "Lion in Oil" (2002), a foray into what Ruscha called "the tangled relationship between art and language." The title, which reads the same way backwards and forwards, is written across what could be mistaken for a travel poster of a formidable mountain, in shadow except for its sunlit summit. Look closely and note the left side is joined with an inverted version of itself on the right, a clever but ultimately shallow conceit.

There's a smattering of photography and, save for a few forgettable staged pictures shot by Matthew Barney on the set of his ponderous epic Cremaster 3, what's here is interesting. Some images, like Robert Mapplethorpe's "Chest" (1987), a picture of a buff specimen with noteworthy pecs and an enviable six-pack, must have been risque purchases at the time, especially for an Upper East Side doyenne. The black & white photograph of a male torso segmented into three quadrants with one left blank is an example, albeit a relatively mild one, of Mapplethorpe's penchant for combining elements of classical statuary and porn, an uneasy juncture where sex is in mind, even when it's off-camera. In "Love Letter from the War Front" (1988), a memento of a relationship that ended tragically, unconventional photographer Felix Gonzalez-Torres depicts a marred portion of his typed correspondence with life partner Ross Laycock, who died of AIDS in 1991. That work, along with Peter Hujar's self-portrait and his photograph of the street-wise Wojnarowicz looking like a hardened, older version of the young street hustler he once was ("David Lighting Up," 1985), are displayed in a section focused on social issues. Wojnarowicz, whose art became energized politically in the late 80s, spray-painted the silhouette of two men kissing on a map of the world as a petri dish hangs over their heads like the sword of Damocles ("Untitled"). He created the piece, one of many that rage against homophobia and the epidemic, in 1990, after the disease had stolen the lives of countless friends, including Hujar. "When I was told I'd contracted this virus," he said, "it didn't take me long to realize I'd contracted a diseased society as well."


Through Sept. 14. Info:


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