“Art in America: 300 Years of Innovation”, a show that has spent a decade in gestation, is on display at the National Art Museum of China, here in Beijing. (360-degree scans of a 19th Century room here; a more contemporary room here.) It is an ambitious show, as anything trying to cover 300 years of art in a single show would be, and generally succeeds at both informing and entertaining. Supported principally by the Solomon Guggenheim Foundation and the Terra Foundation for American Art, it contains many of the names you would expect, if not, of course, their best works. But it is surprisingly broad church from the 1700s right up to the present.
It is quite something to walk through rooms starting with Benjamin West’s Penn’s Treaty with the Indians and Gilbert Stuart’s George Washington, and end up with Matthew Barney (Cremaster Cycle) and Kara Walker (Insurrection). On the way you will have seen: Albert Bierstadt (Sierra Nevada), Frederic Remington, George Bellows, John Singer Sargent, Winslow Homer (Watching the Breakers: A High Sea), Childe Hassam; then jumped to Edward Hopper (Dawn in Pennsylvania), Georgia O’Keefe (Red Poppy VI), Walt Kuhn (Clown with Drums); and then Pollock, Motherwell, Rothko, de Kooning, Lichtenstein, Ruscha, Bell, Warhol, Rauschenberg, Twombly, Judd, Serra, Nauman, Weiner, Schnabel, Haring, Gonzalez-Torres, Basquiat, Koons, Currin, Wiley and more. As I said, quite something. For those interested, the only artists that merited two works (as I recall) were John Singer Sargent, Edward Hopper, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg. Thomas Krens of the Guggenheim led the curatorial team.
I went partly to enjoy the walk, and encourage my art-student daughter to go, but also curious to see local public reaction.
Perhaps predictably, the members of the Beijing public I saw on the two days I went seemed to be most perplexed by the room containing works by Judd (Untitled 1970), Serra (Right Angle Prop), Flavin (Green crossing Green: to Piet Mondrian who lacked Green) and Nauman (None Sing – Neon Sign). Many walked straight across Carl Andre’s 10×10 Altstadt Copper Square without being aware of their intimate experience with a work of modern American Art. There were many more people looking at the more accessible 19th-century works and the, I suppose, more conceptually familiar late-20th-century video works. Indeed Matthew Barney’s Cremaster cycle had its own room packed with people sitting and standing around the room in front of the five screens. Also interesting, and consistent with Lawrence Weiner’s concern with context was the translation of his To See and Be Seen into 3-foot-high Chinese characters è€Œä¸ºäººæ‰€è§† alongside the English. Not that anyone seemed to take notice. One recent work that did seem popular was the Felix Gonzalez-Torres cellophane-wrapped-candy piece (“Untitled” Public Opinion). I saw a number of people pick up single sweets to try and one lady take a two-fisted bundle into her coat. The young fresh-faced guards, (more…)