The Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art’s anniversary exhibition, “Conversations — Marking 20 Years,” offers a fresh and rewarding take on the museum’s evolving permanent collection.
Organized by Kemper executive director Barbara O’Brien and dedicated to the memory of museum co-founder R. Crosby Kemper Jr., who died in January, this handsome and spacious show in the museum’s main gallery is neither a conventional chronological survey nor a showcase for the museum’s greatest hits (indeed, many of the Kemper’s most familiar works are absent).
Rather, it presents just 29 objects out of the institution’s many hundreds, organized into five carefully chosen “clusters” intended, as the museum’s website explains, “to spark dialogue between the visitor and the works of art, questions amongst friends … and conversations about the relationships between artists and the art that is a testament to their time.”
While these presentations of objects in clusters should indeed catalyze comparative discussions, the generous spacing of the artworks also invites absorbed consideration of each in isolation. Encouraging such contemplation is the welcome lack of individual didactic labels that might lead visitors to fall into the common trap of spending more time reading about the art than actually looking at it.
Significantly, the exhibition includes only two artworks from Crosby and Mary “Bebe” Kemper’s founding gift, versus eight pieces acquired in the last five years. It gives the ensemble a forward-looking aspect, as signaled by the display of two attractive new acquisitions on the opening wall, Matt Rich’s “Double Twist” (2012) and Roberto Juarez’s “Flowers and Pearls VI” (2013).
Rich’s work is a carefully structured arrangement of horizontal and diagonal bands of paper and linen tape colored with latex, acrylic and spray paint, while the Juarez, a monoprint, is a painterly composition comprising scattered floral motifs and a string of outsize pearls.
The first cluster of works in the main gallery, “Outside My Window — The Changing World,” features pictures that, in the words of the wall text, “focus on observation and interpretation of the artist’s world.”
Here hang several gems from the Kemper’s holdings of 20th-century American painting, ranging from Blanche Lazzell’s captivating cubist-inflected landscape, “Untitled” (1926), to Arthur Dove’s frieze-like nature abstraction, “October” (1935); Marsden Hartley’s stark Maine forest scene, “Backwaters Up Millinocket Bay” (1939-40); Rockwell Kent’s seductive “Adirondack Valley, Winter Night” (1945); and Lois Dodd’s bracing, hard-edged urban view, “Men’s Shelter, April” (1968) — a highlight of the Kemper’s 2012 Dodd retrospective.
A startling contemporary presence among these older pictures is Richard Mosse’s large-scale photograph “Men of Good Fortune” (2011), in which the trees and grasses of a pastoral hillside are weirdly rendered in shades of crimson and pink.
Part of a powerful series by the Irish-born and New York-based artist featured in the Irish pavilion at last year’s Venice Biennial, “Men of Good Fortune” depicts a Tutsi pastureland in war-ravaged Eastern Congo, which Mosse photographed with a discontinued type of infrared film originally developed for use in aerial reconnaissance to detect camouflage.
Intended to raise political awareness of an overlooked, far-off conflict through a visual language of strange beauty, Mosse’s photograph is a sterling addition to the Kemper collection that gestures significantly beyond its largely American emphasis. One hopes to see more like it.
Splendidly isolated on its own wall, and escaping the boundaries of this section’s stated theme, Malcolm Morley’s striking vertical painting, “Approaching Valhalla” (1998), shows an unmanned red World War I-era Fokker triplane flying toward an enormous orange moon, while below four pilots descend on colorful paragliders toward a midnight blue sea plied by three ancient Greek warships.
Morley’s whimsical conflation of military imagery from different historical eras gives no hint of war’s bloody violence but instead charms through its rich colors and childlike sense of fantasy.
Keltie Ferris’ impressive nonobjective painting, “The Wrestler” (2009), anchors the next grouping, “Gestures, Angles, and Fields — The Abstract Gesture.”
Exemplary of the continuing vitality of abstraction in today’s pluralistic art scene, Ferris’ vibrant composition of large, layered patches of red, blue, lavender, yellow and silver with a surface accented by meandering dots of silver spray paint offers an exciting update to the Kemper’s strong holdings of older abstract painting.
Also included in this cluster: the large color-field canvases of Helen Frankenthaler (“Warming Trend,” 2002), Jules Olitski (“Prince Patutszky Pleasures,” 1962), and Dan Christensen (“Lisa’s Red,” 1972). Also featured are a tall, rollicking abstract print by Frank Stella, “Pergusa Double Three” (1984), and Chakaia Booker’s “El Gato” (2001), a spiky black sculpture in her signature medium of cut and twisted rubber tires.
The next cluster, “The Gaze — The Figure,” features images of human subjects, all of them female save for the genderless “Sage Y” (1988), sculptor Magdalena Abakanowicz’s backless burlap-and-resin shell of a headless figure seated stiffly on a stepped steel base, regally aloof from the artworks surrounding it.
Across the way, Philip Pearlstein’s masterpiece of traditional studio painting, “Two Models on a Kilim Rug” (1983), presents two larger-than-life-size nude female models reclining diagonally on a boldly patterned rug. Their bodies are rendered with clinical precision and cropped by the edges of the vertical canvas.
Next to Pearlstein’s serious and formally ambitious painting, Liu Hong’s big, slickly painted grisaille image of a coquettish young Chinese woman with artificially red hair, “Beautiful Language, No. 12” (2008), looks glib, while the anatomically awkward standing model in Childe Hassam’s “Nude, Appledore, Isle of Shoals” (1913) appears self-conscious amid her impressionist-style surroundings.
More successful is Jamie Wyeth’s “Bones of a Whale” (2006), a dreamlike vision of a slender adolescent girl in a scarlet dress who gazes at the viewer with an ambiguous expression while standing in a welter of whale bones, beneath a cropped view of the Southern Island lighthouse (Wyeth’s Maine residence) and a shadowy silhouetted figure on the horizon (the painter’s mother, Betsy).
Rounding out “The Gaze — The Figure” are Paula Rego’s “Recreation” (1996), a commanding pastel depiction of a woman in a bathing cap and swimsuit incongruously straddling a seat cushion placed over the arm of an easy chair, and Lalla Essaydi’s “Les Femmes du Maroc: Grande Odalisque” (2008), a large photograph of an Arab woman in the reclining pose of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ 19th-century orientalist icon, “Grand Odalisque.”
Unlike Ingres’ nude harem denizen with her coy smile and bedroom eyes, calculated to appeal to Western sexual fantasies, Essaydi’s model is draped from the armpit down and looks out at the viewer coolly. Her exposed skin, robe and all of the surrounding white fabrics have been covered with calligraphic writing in henna by the Moroccan-born, American-educated artist — words drawn from her personal journals.
A conceptually rich feminist riposte to orientalist stereotypes and an assertion of modern Arab female identity, Essaydi’s work, like Mosse’s “Men of Good Fortune,” introduces to the Kemper collection a much-needed glimpse of the wider global context in which much of the most important art of our time is forged.
The fourth section of “Conversations,” titled “I Cannot Look Away — Mediated Realities,” concerns the “ways that artists have depicted and interpreted the people and events of their time.” Visually dominant here is David Bates’ enormous triptych, “The Storm” (2006-7), one of his many works responding to Hurricane Katrina’s devastating impact on New Orleans.
Painted in Bates’ trademark expressionist style, each panel of this accusatory opus is crowded with the larger-than-life size faces of neglected African-American victims of Katrina, staring out at the viewer with expressions of either suffering or indignation.
More meditative is Christopher Brown’s lushly painted “Elm Street” (1995), inspired by Abraham Zapruder’s film of the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, showing bystanders observing the doomed passing motorcade. The painting’s smudged forms suggest the effect of memory in clouding our knowledge of the past.
By contrast, Ben Shahn’s tempera, “Scorn” (1952), makes no reference to a specific historical event. The skewed facial features and contorted hands of Shahn’s abstracted pair of conjoined figures convey a sense of victimization — perhaps, given their dark faces, due to racial prejudice.
The exhibition’s final cluster, “Signature Moments — The Icon,” features four works “indelibly tied to a specific artist” on the basis of subject: a beautiful composition of stylized flowers by Georgia O’Keeffe (“Yellow Jonquils #3,” 1930); a silkscreened portrait of a Hollywood celebrity by Andy Warhol (“Dennis Hopper,” 1970); a reclining horse fashioned of tree branches subsequently cast in bronze by Deborah Butterfield (“Ahulani,” 1991); and a showy painting of desserts by Wayne Thiebaud (“Cakes & Pies,” 1994-95).
While each of these works merits appreciation individually, they fail to cohere as a group either visually or in terms of content, making this the least-satisfying section of the exhibition.
Of course one can, without denying the exhibition’s overall success, always quibble with certain curatorial choices evident in a show such as this one. While the inclusion of 11 women among the 29 artists is laudable, the roster could have benefited from more racial and ethnic diversity. It would also have been nice to see more sculpture and photography — not to mention new media — in the mix, which is painting-heavy.
And the absence of Kansas City artists from the exhibition must be noted, though the Kemper deserves great credit for featuring local work in other spaces: Barry Anderson’s beguiling video, “Pigeon,” screening in a separate gallery; Jarrett Mellenbruch’s “Float,” inviting visitors to relax on hammocks on the museum’s lawn; and the stimulating group show, “The Center Is a Moving Target,” at Kemper in the Crossroads — a fine cross section of the quality art being made in the region today.
Here’s hoping that the significant exposure the Kemper has been offering lately to Kansas City artists will lead to increased acquisition and integration of their work into the museum’s growing collection of nationally and internationally recognized artists, so admirably highlighted in the 20th anniversary exhibition.
“Conversations — Marking 20 Years” continues at Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, 4420 Warwick Blvd., through Sept. 21. Hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday. Closed Mondays. The exhibit is free. For information: kemperart.org or 816-753-5784.