What does a landlocked museum do when thirty-five million dollars worth of contemporary art, much of it larger than a breadbox, falls into its lap? Such was the happy conundrum of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, which has just unveiled the John Kaldor Family Collection to the public. If I call the Gallery’s architectural solution the institutional equivalent of refurbing the basement of a Boston three decker to house returning in-laws, then I mean that as high praise of the Gallery’s willingness to make the most of what they have. The AGNSW’s situation, surrounded by inviolable parkland and very much heritage listed, has required an economical use of space in its subsequent expansions, which trade big architectural gestures for a seamless flow between old and new. The Kaldor Collection is now housed in former storage space on the third basement level, now renovated by architect Andrew Andersons, designer of the Bicentennial wing in which it sits, to open up 3300 square meters of new gallery space, essentially an additional floor. Though the Kaldor Collection leaves the Gallery’s appearance unchanged, the sudden materialization of arguably the greatest collection of contemporary art in Australia will certainly change the institution for good.
John Kaldor has been collecting the art of his time for fifty years. Through the Kaldor Public Art Projects he has been patron to 23 major new works since 1969, when Christo wrapped Little Bay just south of Sydney. The donation of his entire collection to the AGNSW is the largest art gift ever received by the museum and very much refocuses and expands the story the Gallery is able to tell. The art of the past fifty years now stands in rough balance with the superb collection of 19th and 20th century Australian paintings which has long been the Gallery’s high point. Initially the Kaldor works have been hung together, but starting next year they will be integrated with the Gallery’s own contemporary collection which, in its emphasis on conceptual works by Australian artists, very much complements the big international players in the Kaldor Collection.
The gift has been used as an excuse to rehang the Gallery’s small but pithy 20th century collection (20th century Australian art remains upstairs). The modern gallery provides a permanent harbor for Cy Twombly’s Three studies from the Temeraire (1998-99), one of the triumphant acquisitions of Edmund Capon’s directorship. The juxtaposition of the Twombly triptych and Marino Marini’s bronze Rider (1936) is, whether intended or not, very moving. Both works depend on historical allusion — Twombly to Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire (1839), Marini to heroic equestrian sculpture — and both express the exhausted confusion which follows the discrediting of heroes, or of heroism as an idea. Their melancholy is itself a form of humanism, a recognition that a modern individual floating in the universe cannot help but drift even as his intellect demands an unerring path through life. This idea, so alien to the homo technologicus who is the perpetual superhero of his own life, makes the art of the 20th century now seem very much a part of history. Marini, as the label tells us, sought to express “the last phase of the decomposition of a myth – that of the heroic and victorious man, of the ‘uomo di virtu‘ of the humanists.” Twombly’s ships (or the same ship painted seven times) are as ghostly as the Flying Dutchman, their dripping outlines bereft of even the comfort of a horizon line. There is as much Homer in them as Turner. The epic qualities of Three studies from the Temeraire did shine through more clearly when it was hung in the main foyer, but the modern gallery is its proper context. Of course the city of Sydney, conflicted by its spectacular harbor, could not be a more appropriate landing for such a watery painting.
Seen in isolation, the Kaldor Collection becomes both a portrait of the past fifty years in art and of a collector. The collection is deep, including multiple works by artists, such as Sol LeWitt, Christo, Robert Rauschenberg, Carl Andre, Jeff Koons, Bill Viola and Ugo Rondinone, with whom Kaldor has developed a rapport over his years of collecting. As those names suggest, the collection brings together artists of diverse and even clashing sensibilities. This plays out in the renovation of the former storage space, dominated as it is by two large parallel galleries, one centered on Sol LeWitt and the minimalists, the other mixing Rauschenberg found object sculptures, Christo’s Two Wrapped Trees (1969) and works by Koons, Richard Long and other surprises. Smaller spaces, some darkened for video art, branch off these two axes. This description may be a bit of an over-simplification, but the clear logic of this arrangement does keep at bay the entropy that can turn contemporary exhibitions into a mish-mash.
The new gallery is superbly hung and lit throughout, especially considering that it is a basement, and Sol LeWitt’s sculptures and wall drawings seem to come off particularly well. Both for scale and number of works, LeWitt is probably the most strongly represented of any individual artist. The five wall drawings date from the 1970s to 2003’s Wall Drawing #1091, which originally comprised a room in Kaldor’s home. After LeWitt’s death, the works, being nothing less and nothing more than the instructions to make the finished art, have achieved something very close to immortality. The extremely labor intensive Wall Drawings #337 and #338 (1971) both consist of rectangles made from fine hatchings, with the latter in colored pencil. The work is devilish to photograph; from a distance the hatching blends to becomes a patchwork of muted blocks which in the case of #338 subtly foreshadow the exuberant colors of #1091. In their implicit encouragement to “pixel peep,” these two wall drawings in particular seem to presage our society’s preoccupation with the resolution of images. The very idea of a LeWitt wall drawing both requires and undermines the drawing’s own physical presence. Even as it is only possible to appreciate the drawings in a gallery (and the same wall drawing would be an entirely different experience in North Adams), the actual artwork — the instructions for its creation — exists perpetually as a kind of analog software with no physical presence.
Whether it was the quality of the works on display or their juxtaposition with the AGNSW’s own more strident contemporary collection, the minimalist works really grew on me over the course of my visits to the Kaldor Collection. Minimalism’s historical moment may be over, but the style’s relevance seems assured; the idea of forming art out of a predetermined series of operations, whether in a piece of music by John Cage or in the LeWitt’s belief that “irrational thoughts should be followed absolutely and logically,” is the underlying assumption of much contemporary creativity and destruction. Architects, always a few decades behind artists, have long separated the conception of a work from its fabrication (and LeWitt once worked for I.M. Pei) but have only in recent years become besotted by parametric design as a way to, perhaps misguidedly, detach themselves from the generative idea of a project. More consequentially, it now seems the fate of our planet will be left to chance operation, the “irrational thoughts” of the free market playing themselves out “absolutely and logically” in nature, no matter whether anyone wants or can live with the result. Once unleashed, our systems tend to play themselves out these days, be the result triumph or tragedy. We the operators and operated upon are left as paralyzed as Marini’s Rider, hands off the reigns (if only there were reigns), blank eyed, more vacant than sad.
As inevitably as death, taxes and political disappointment, Kaldor’s video art is a mixed bag. Australian Shaun Gladwell’s Approach to Axis Mundi (2007), part of a series called MADDESTMAXIMVS, looked its best projected on the Gallery’s sandstone facade one recent Wednesday night. In the gallery the work consists of a double sided screen onto which is projected an endless moving shot of a motorcyclist riding through the Australian desert. We see him from behind as he takes his hands off the bars and extends them at ninety degrees to his body, thus creating both a cross and an incipient grid on the empty landscape. Is this no-handed rider free or nihilistic? Without seeing his face we shall never know.
Bill Viola’s works tend to play with the aspect ratio of the screen, distinguishing them as works of art rather than experimental movies shown in a gallery. Strongest of the Violas is Observance (2002), an extended reaction shot in which a group of mourners, undeniably American, rotate into view in extreme slow motion, their faces a mixture of concern and grief. They are not dressed for a funeral, and their expressions suggest that they are reacting to an unfolding disaster (such as, possibly, 9/11) rather than the aftermath of one. The screen, hung in portrait format, forces the figures to interact (or not) in a constrained space. Why don’t they spread out? Why are they taking turns? Why aren’t they helping? Are they voyeurs? Do they relish their grief? Almost ten years after its creation the work raises some very relevant questions about our emotional reaction to high definition video. The look of high-def has become so ubiquitous that we often fail to see it as a very particular style of image. Color, 16:9 aspect ratio high-def is so ubiquitous that it sometimes appears to be the kind of “neutral style” which, as Andre Malraux writes in The Voices of Silence, never exists. Whether one thinks it looks good or bad or “luminous” or “plasticky,” high definition video is as particular a look as black and white cinemascope, and watching the evening news in such resolution must surely have an effect on our spongy human brains.
Kaldor’s photography collection demonstrates the camera’s capacity to be a dissector of reality, rather than just a recorder what it sees. Each of the photographers is looking as much through a conceptual agenda as a lens. Thomas Demand’s process consist of recreating found images using detailed paper models and then photographing the result. This filtering process produces images of eerie clarity, especially in Gangway (2001), a photo of stairs leading to the open hatch of an airplane under harsh light. Demand’s successive abstractions of the original image allow the gangway to take its proper place as one of the memorable settings of contemporary life, so that an ordinary flight between two small airports has the capacity to evoke a Nixonian arrival or a papal departure.
Though the Kaldor Collection mostly avoids the more cynically provocative or scatological tendencies of contemporary art in favor of something not too far from b-b-b-be-beauty, the more “pop-y” art left me pretty cold. I find it hard to pay enough attention to anything by Jeff Koons to form an opinion (though his White terrier (1991) well captures the vacuous evil of the puppy farm spawn that cause sleepless nights throughout the developed world). The painting Untitled (man with baseball hat) (2000) by Barry McGee is unexpectedly poignant, at least to the extent that the shapeless, tired-eyed, open mouthed figure reminded me once again of Marini’s aimless Rider. McGee’s man has strong blue collar overtones, depicted as he is in house paint on discarded typesetting trays. He seems to want to tell his story, but the gap between thought and speech is too much for him to bear. At least his struggle is captured for posterity.
Two works have been specially commissioned for the new gallery. It’s hard not to think of Richard Long’s Southern gravity (2011) as a response to LeWitt’s wall paintings. Long literally used the local context in making the work, which consists of mud vigorously spattered across a black ziggurat form which takes up most of one wall. It very neatly distills the conflict between, to quote art dealer Flan in Six Degrees of Separation, chaos and control which charges the entire gallery like an impending lighting storm.
The other site specific work amounts to an addition to the Gallery itself. By extending up the northern stairwell nearly to the level of the entrance foyer, Ugo Rondione’s clockwork for oracles (2011) literally spreads the news, broadcasting the presence of the Kaldor Collection to the rest of the museum. The work itself consists of copies of one day’s Sydney Morning Herald used as wallpaper and whitewashed, except for a frame around the edges. The wall is then punctured by variously sized windows clad in tinted mirrored glass which reflect gallerygoers as they descend the staircase. For locals, it is amusing to see articles about the perfidious former state government committed to posterity, but the work has a deeper resonance in the way those frozen pages of yesterday’s news contrast with our own reflection, by definition the most contemporary image in the room. Though fleeting, a reflection remains the only way to frame the present (without, very arguably, a camera). Turn off your iPod and what do you see staring back at you in the dark?
Coincidentally, the Museum of Contemporary Art on Circular Quay is also undergoing a major expansion, setting up, if not a conflict, then a revealing comparison of the two institutions. I will reserve judgment of the new MCA wing until I see it in the flesh, but the MCA and AGNSW fill very different niches. The AGNSW is the closest thing Sydney has to an encyclopedic museum, while the MCA is well placed to be a perpetual biennale of art as it plays out in the present (a comparison between the Kaldor Collection and the Museum of Old and New Art, which opened in Hobart earlier this year, would also be interesting since both are personal collections).
The most striking moment in the current spat over whether Australia is to have its new Venice Biennale pavilion chosen by open or invited competition was Biennale Commissioner Simon Mordant’s shot across the bow to architects, “We’re not looking to build something architecturally outstanding but something that works for the artists.” The phoney war between big, flashy museum architecture and white boxes, er, I mean, galleries that work for artists, seemed to be dying down, which makes it a bit disheartening to see the old coals raked over (and some Australians have made billions off of old coals!). More urgent are the questions about the role of museums raised in a recent lecture by Australian photographer Bill Henson at the National Gallery of Victoria. Henson ‘s suggestion that the most radical thing museums could do would be to stand still, or more precisely to become places where stillness is possible, seems obvious. One encouraging aspect of the Kaldor Collection is its lack of editorializing. The art is pretty much allowed to speak for itself and the labels —which we at the Berkshire Review always read — mostly confine themselves to describing the historical context of a work. This is as it should be in the AGNSW which, being free of charge, tends to be visited repeatedly and in small doses. One may linger or go away, ruminate and come back. Thinking over recent museum experiences as I listened to Henson, it occurred to me that museums are hiding places; just as the Accademia provides escape from the worst of the Serenissima, so the Kaldor Collection provides space to contemplate art’s recent past, and whether and how much of it we can fairly call history.
The opening of the Kaldor Family Collection is accompanied by a film series called “New Hollywood” which, though tenuously related to the art, is a rare opportunity to the likes of Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Taxi Driver and Five Easy Pieces on the big screen. The people who run the AGNSW screenings are obsessive about showing the best prints available and all screenings are free of charge.