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Up Close and Personal

With “Singular Visions,” the Whitney offers a show of rare intimacy.

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‘Singular Visions,” the temporary display of a sliver of the Whitney Museum’s permanent collection, is a spot-on experiment in close looking. Organized by promising young Whitney curators Scott Rothkopf and Dana Miller, the show features only twelve works, each installed in its own space. Museum shows rarely offer this kind of intimacy. I found myself surrendering to the art and participating in the premise in a unique way—slowing down and spending a lot of time with each work, thinking and musing about concepts and materials and love, life, and death, connecting one piece with another, and stretching my perceptions in ways I haven’t in a while. Every object on view is in artistic harmony with every other, adding unexpected synergy to individual works. Suddenly, pieces I thought I wasn’t interested in looked stronger, and so did work I already loved. Not to get too Zen about it, but “Singular Visions” essentially asks you to be one with art, to immerse yourself in a way that a gallery packed with objects won’t allow.

Right off the elevator you come face-to-face with George Segal’s Walk, Don’t Walk from 1976: three life-size plaster-cast figures waiting at a crossing light. I’ve generally dismissed Segal’s work for being too melodramatic. But here I instantly got that his figures don’t simply function as ancient guardians, updates on Classical sculpture and tomb figures in limbo; they predict the totemic figuration and premodern strategies now being taken up by artists like Huma Bhabha, Tom Thayer, Jessica Jackson Hutchins, and many others. Segal’s unnerving strangeness extends to the first room with Ladder to the Moon, a rarely seen Georgia O’Keeffe from the late fifties. In this visionary, symbolist painting, the otherworldly isolation of a ladder floating in a sensuously sapphire sky becomes a celestial sign for going up and getting out, for structure and transfiguration.

Otherness turns revolutionary in no title, a 1970 hanging sculpture by Eva Hesse. Composed of woven rope dipped in latex, it hangs in a corner like a leathery spiderweb, and in this new, solitary context I suddenly realized that what Hesse was doing with gravity and materiality was essentially the same as what Jackson Pollock was doing with his drip paintings: employing laws of nature while breaking away from geometry and the body, and radically redefining beauty.

Another artist who looks better than I remembered is Tom Wesselmann, whose Still Life Number 36—a 1964 billboard-size work, part painting, part appropriated material—predates the current obsession with co-opting pieces whole from the cultural landscape, giving them second and third lives. Ideas of appropriation, assemblage, and the afterlife turn stranger still in Edward Kienholz’s 1964–65 mise-en-scène The Wait, featuring a live parakeet and what looks like a mummified old woman, made of visible cow bone and clothed in faded fabrics, who is at once a memory machine and an uncanny ancestral figure. Given all the young artists regularly referencing the archaic and the homespun, the mythic and the otherworldly, Kienholz’s creation looks remarkably fresh.

But there is little that isn’t outstanding in the show, including AA Bronson’s gut-wrenching portrait of Felix Partz, dead in bed, Ree Morton’s fairy-tale tableau Signs of Love, and Robert Grosvenor’s maybe-masterpiece Tenerife, a glittering, polymer-covered wing shape cantilevered from a low ceiling, which hasn’t been seen for 43 years. All of “Singular Visions” unspools in ways so surprising, it’s best to go unprepared, the better to get lost not only in the works but also in their intricate interconnectedness. You might leave as I did: enriched by art and by a new generation of curators who are thrillingly sidestepping orthodoxy.

Singular Visions
Whitney Museum of American Art.
Ongoing

E-mail: jerry_saltz@newyorkmag.com.


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