Open This End Themes

Organized and Sponsored by The Skylark Foundation
Written by Joseph R. Wolin, Senior Curator
More information on Open This End is availible on the Skylark Foundation Website

An exhibition of both iconic and lesser-known works from some of the most significant and compelling artists of the last fifty years, Open This End: Contemporary Art from the Collection of Blake Byrne will trace a number of intertwined narratives in the history of recent art, from the 1960s to the present.  The exhibition’s title comes from a 1962 painting by Andy Warhol, a gift from Blake Byrne to The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and the earliest work in the show; the title constitutes an invitation, an exhortation, and a semi-ironic direction to the viewer.  This title frames the exhibition as a present to be unpacked, a surprise that audiences will delight in discovering.  By extension, it also suggests that contemporary art may comprise a sometimes puzzling package that we can unlock for both pleasure and edification.  In a more humorous vein, the title implies that there exists a certain way to approach contemporary art and its history, a particular end from which to open the box, an implication belied by contemporary art itself, and by the multiple, parallel, interconnected, open-ended, and at times contradictory artistic and historical threads the exhibition gathers together.

Open This End: Contemporary Art from the Collection of Blake Byrne does not attempt to track a single theme or narrative.  Rather, it utilizes the strengths of Byrne’s collection to chart a broad but personal overview of contemporary art.  Naturally, despite the remarkable scope and depth of the collection, this exhibition cannot pretend to an encyclopedic or comprehensive presentation, but this selection does allow us to follow a multiplicity of paths through its subject, to articulate a number of artistic movements and periods, to chart themes, formal developments, and poetic affinities throughout the evolution of recent art.  Much like contemporary art, the themes of the exhibition are diverse, branchy, intersecting, and sometimes challenging.  When possible—and within the collection it is fortunately possible in many instances—major artists will be represented by more than one work to allow for an understanding of their practices in some depth, to give audiences a sense of these figures’ artistic progression over time and of the complexity of their concerns sustained throughout the course of a career.  While the exhibition derives entirely from the particular strengths of one man’s collection and his gifts to museums, it is not, primarily, an examination or celebration of Blake Byrne’s activities as a collector and philanthropist (although it is, of course, inherently that).

The exhibition was born from a desire to share the collection with a wider public and has been conceived primarily as an educational tool.  It will travel to university art museums and galleries in locations where Blake Byrne has lived and worked.  The Senior Curator was chosen for his vision for the exhibition and brings with that his experience as an instructor of twentieth-century art history, contemporary art, photography, and theory, as well as his work as an independent curator and critic.  Open This End: Contemporary Art from the Collection of Blake Byrne is organized around a core group of twenty-nine artists that enables us to articulate the broad outlines of many developments in contemporary art during the last half century and to examine specific moments in those developments in some detail.  Many of the narratives the exhibition traces began in the 1960s, and work from some of the major figures of that era forms the basis of much that comes later.  We can see Warhol’s Open This End, for example, as a starting point for more than one historical trajectory.  As a small but early and seminal specimen of Pop Art, this image of a shipping label introduces the enduring fascination artists have held over the last fifty years for commercial, pedestrian objects from the real world transported into the realm of art.  A mass-produced item rendered in the infinitely reproducible technique of silk-screening, the label, of course, relates closely to Warhol’s more familiar work using photographic imagery, and thus to his contemporaries’ photographically-based Conceptual Art that also concerns itself with mechanical reproduction, found images, and banality, such as that of Ed Ruscha and John Baldessari.  Pop Art and Photoconceptualism—in particular, Baldessari’s work with found stock photos, such as the later example, Mesa, 1990—leads us to the work of the influential artists who came to the fore in the 1980s and have come to be known as the Pictures Generation, Cindy ShermanLouise Lawler, and Sherrie Levine, who are similarly concerned with popular culture and the life of images.  Lawler’s work, such as This Picture Is the Same Size as the Painting I Was Asked to Photograph, 1999, takes Pop’s interest in the worlds of commerce and stardom and turns it back upon the mercantile and status-seeking aspects of the art world.  Levine’s subject is art history and the strange relationship of images and objects in terms of notions of originality and authenticity, here represented by uneasy objects: a Brancusi head cast in black glass—Black Newborn: 7, 1997—and Magritte’s pictorial pipe made solid and three-dimensional in Une Pipe: 1, 2001.

Sherman’s examination of the indignities of the body and the masquerade of the self in Untitled, 1999, finds affinities in the self-portrait Polaroids of Warhol in a fright wig from 1986, but also in the body-oriented performance art of the 1960s and 1970s exemplified here by Vito Acconci and Paul McCarthy.  (It is conceivable that this selection could be broadened to include European figures such as Dieter Appelt and Rudolph Schwarzkogler.)  Acconci’s Step Piece, 1970, and McCarthy’s Face Painting/Floor White Line, 1972, each involved the artist submitting his body to a grueling action of ambivalent, somewhat degrading significance.  These performative acts evolved into McCarthy’s later work, such as the 1994 Masks series in which rubber masks become stand-ins for an abject, mortified body.  (Again, we can relate such a practice closely to Sherman’s work.  Douglas Gordon’s Monster Reborn, 1996/1997/2002, provides a British counterpart.)  Along with the powerful work of his younger colleague Mike Kelley, McCarthy’s practice explores emotional extremes of human psychology.  Kelley and McCarthy also represent two towering figures of art in Los Angeles during the last three decades, a regional designation that points to one of the great strengths of the Blake Byrne collection, and part of a lineage that can be traced back to Baldessari and Ruscha.  This lineage finds a more recent efflorescence in the work of artists like Martin Kersels.  Christopher Williams stands not only as a major figure in recent Los Angeles art, but as an artist deeply interested in the condition of photography in a post-photographic moment, a logical and contemporary extension of the concerns of the Pictures Generation artists.

The interest in the performative and abject body evinced by the work of McCarthy and Sherman can also be seen in that of David Hammons.  His Untitled (For a Gathering of the Tribes, Inc.), 1991, comprises a masklike face formed by direct prints of his own sleeved arms.  The fact that the mask resembles a tribal African one and the face inscribed on it recalls stereotypically black features points to his skewing of artistic practice towards a pointed consideration of African American experience.  Such considerations similarly pervade the work of Glenn Ligon and, to some degree, Mark Bradford and Paul Pfeiffer, whose Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, 2001, employs technological wizardry to make the body of the black athlete something uncanny, expressionistic, and awesome.  Steve McQueen’s Drumroll, 1998, which he filmed while being rolled down the street in a barrel, shares close thematic affinities with Hammons’s work (in particular his 1995 video Phat Free, which is not in the exhibition), the triptych format with Pfeiffer’s Three Studies, and the revolving image with Kersels’s video.

Along with Pop Art, Conceptual Art, and performance, the 1960s gave us Minimalism.  We can view Warhol’s Open This End, in fact, as an especially Minimalist Pop work, its spare formal geometries complemented by its deliberately anonymous facture.  More traditional Minimalism comes in with Tony Smith’s trapezoidal cube, New Piece, 1966, and Agnes Martin’s Untitled #10, 1994, which, although a painting of only horizontal bands, resonates with human presence.  Echoes of Minimalism’s formal rigor can be seen in works such as Robert Gober’s Untitled, 1998, yet Gober gives his sculpture of an X-shaped door corporeal, sexual, and disciplinary overtones, as well as a Pop-influenced relationship to everyday things; the inclusion of his Genital Drawing, 1989, helps to highlight these aspects.  Similarly, Felix Gonzalez-Torres used Minimal forms and readymade industrial objects to speak about the body, particularly the gay male body, beset by oppression, illness, and loss.  His Untitled (Last Light), 1993, for instance, comprises a string of regular light bulbs with plastic electrical cords that create elegiac poetry when we consider them burning out, one by one, over the course of their exhibition, just as so many of his friends, acquaintances, lovers, and even the artist himself fell victim to AIDS in the 1980s and ‘90s.  Gonzalez-Torres’s Untitled, 1994, is a seldom-seen but deeply moving billboard piece that records nothing but the index of an ephemeral human presence, footprints in the sand.

Gonzalez-Torres’s work leads quite naturally into a consideration of recent gay and lesbian artists, another great strength of Blake Byrne’s collection, and a group of these artists will comprise a segment of the exhibition, including Jack Pierson.  This art also relates strongly to the “identity politics” of artists like Hammons and Ligon.  There is re-emergence of figurative painting exemplified by Marlene Dumas and Luc Tuymans, while Pierson’s Nothing (Yellow, Blue, Red), 1992, connects to the wry text-based art of Warhol and Ruscha.  

Like that of Gober and Gonzalez-Torres, the work of Rita McBride infuses the ethos of Minimalism into the forms of everyday life.  Servants and Slaves (domestic), 2003, makes something precious out of ductwork, while Parking Structure Interior, 1997, memorializes the ramps of a garage in bronze.  The combination of form and material in Chair (smoked), 2003, a bentwood Thonet chair made of Murano glass, seems to speak of the absent body, thus connecting it across genres and generations with Gonzalez-Torres’s affecting footprints and Martin’s transcendent stripe painting.

In Europe in the 1960s, a significant movement was a German variant of Pop Art, represented here by its two most important practitioners, Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke.  Richter’s Farbtafel, 1966 – 78, explores the legacy of Constructivism, thus allying itself with American Minimalism, but its use of automotive paint reveals its relationship to Warhol’s Pop.  In addition, Richter’s play with Duchampian ideas of randomness, chance and a kind of disavowal of authorship align this work with that of Levine.

Polke’s deconstruction of the image seems to have spawned entire schools of art, here represented by two of his major disciples, Albert Oehlen and Martin Kippenberger.  Kippenberger carried his symbolic breakdown of art-making itself to parodic extremes, including, as here, even appropriating Gober’s images into his work, a strategy that connects him also to Lawler and Levine.  Marlene Dumas and Luc Tuymans carry on a European tradition of figurative art, influenced both by Polke’s expressionist deconstruction and Richter’s investigation of the photograph and the weight of history.  Dumas often takes for her subject the female body, parsing the violence of oppression, abjection, sexuality, and self-image.  In this aspect, we can see her work’s relationship to that of Sherman, but also to Hammons, McQueen, Pfeiffer, Kersels, and Gordon.

Open This End: Contemporary Art from the Collection of Blake Byrne aims to present contemporary art as a compelling subject, rich in connections to, and considerations of, history, culture, politics, and human subjectivity.  A dense and heady weave of interconnected themes, formal affinities, and historical alignments, the works in this exhibition provide both visual and intellectual delights.  Open This End: Contemporary Art from the Collection of Blake Byrne will offer viewers a carefully chosen gift, just waiting to be unwrapped.

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