The Line of Wit
June 11, 2020 – February 06, 2021
The artists represented in the exhibition employ unusual materials and techniques, and many playfully defy aesthetic conventions demonstrating ingenuity and wit. In his iconic series Mrs. Lenin and the Nightingale (2008) Baselitz presents the human figures upside down in expressive, large-format canvases, which serves to distance the viewer and to achieve a form of abstraction while maintaining figuration. Hichiko Happo (2014) by Yoko Ono is a gestural painting made during a poignant public performance that the artist staged on the occasion of her 2014 exhibition at the Museum that synthesizes her performance and painting practices.
The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao presents The Line of Wit, a selection of works from the Museum’s Collection and long-term loans that can be characterized as clever and experimental. Bringing together artists of different generations working across a variety of media, the presentation includes rarely seen treasures from the Museum’s Collection alongside many beloved works. Relentlessly inquisitive in nature, the artists represented in the exhibition employ unusual materials and techniques, and many playfully defy aesthetic conventions demonstrating ingenuity and wit. The Line of Wit is the first exhibition curated by Lekha Hileman Waitoller, who came to the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in October 2019 from the Art Institute of Chicago.
Gallery 305, Defying Tradition – The exhibition is organized thematically with the first gallery dedicated to unorthodox art-making processes and systems of display. Some works in this room occupy space in unexpected ways as in Cristina Iglesias’ Untitled (Alabaster Room), (1993) which relies on the architecture of a corner for its display. The translucent sheets of white alabaster hover lithely above head, gently sloping downward on each end, altering both the surrounding light and space. Alyson Shotz’s Object for Reflection (2017), consists of countless small pieces of perforated aluminum bound together by steel rings. From a distance, the object appears to be a solid, voluminous sculpture, but a closer look reveals translucence and malleability of the material. Indeed, the work takes on three-dimensional form only once it is installed: suspended from the ceiling, tension and gravity transform the metallic sheet into a sculpture.
Yoko Ono’s Hichiko Happo (2014) provides a unique example of artistic process as the painting was created during a performance the artist staged during her retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in 2014. On the nine canvases that comprise the work, Ono painted the phrase “seven happinesses and eight treasures” in Japanese. The black sumi ink she energetically employed drips down each canvas at once recalling the traditions of action painting and ancient calligraphy from her native Japan. Hichiko Happo embodies Ono’s performative and plastic art-making practices. In the ultimate demonstration of wit, artist collaborators Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s The Way Things Go (1987) cinematic chain reaction creates the illusion of continuous movement between ordinary materials such as tires, fireworks, and a balloon. Misleadingly simple in its presentation, the film is a sequence of orchestrated failures in the form of falls, spills, and small explosions that create a continuum of controlled chaos. In a delightfully inventive combination of play and experimentation, The Way Things Go is an embrace of absurdity and the everyday object, challenging the foundations of high culture.
Gallery 306, Modes of Representation – The second gallery in The Line of Wit includes a selection of works that are representational or figurative in nature and exemplify the myriad ways in which artists explore the human form as subject. Serial repetition across multiple canvases or within one composition is a strategy used by several artists in the room. Through artworks spanning fifty years, a variety of approaches to figuration are explored highlighting formal and conceptual experimentation through the motif of the figure. A selection of George Baselitz’s iconic sixteen painting series Mrs. Lenin and the Nightingale (2008) form part of the exhibition. In a twist on traditional portraiture, these expressive, large-format canvases present the subjects of the painting upside down. Half of the works in the series contain brightly colored figures on a white ground and the other half are painted mainly in gray and blue hues on a black background, a framing device that puts the focus on the figure.
Baselitz has remarked that this strategy of inverting the figures in his work serves to distance the viewer, requiring that one carefully consider the content. Formally, the paintings achieve a form of abstraction while maintaining figuration. A selection of Alex Katz’s Smiles (1994) series of eleven portraits of smiling women will also be shown. An ongoing theme for Katz is portraiture in a style characterized by flattened planes of color, shallow pictorial space, and reductive but acutely descriptive lines, set against a monochrome background. His subjects function as a tool for artistic investigation of the traditional figure-ground relationship. Katz’s aim is not to represent the sitter’s personality, but rather to present a more profound reflection on the nature of representation and the perception of images. By repeating the same framing device, figure-ground treatment, and gesture-the smile-Katz beckons the viewer to focus not on the specific subject but on the pictorial experimentation across these varied depictions.
Gallery 307, Methods and Materials – The final gallery draws together a selection of abstract works that are experimental in methods and materials. These experiments were undertaken to achieve a particular effect, pushing the boundaries of different mediums. Some embraced nontraditional materials, such as commercial paints, ordinary plates, or a blackboard and chalk. In these works, the viewer is invited to contemplate the critical choices artist’s make in selecting materials and techniques and how they lend themselves to different possibilities. Julian Schnabel began exhibiting his signature plate paintings in 1979, featuring shards of broken crockery embedded in Bondo (a putty-like polyester resin), loosely overpainted with crude images in oil paint. Notable for their heroic scale, distorted subjects, and flamboyant textures, the plate paintings were inspired by a 1978 visit to Barcelona, where Schnabel encountered mosaics by the Catalan architect Antonio Gaudí. In works such as the monumental Spain (1986), he transferred the mosaic surface to painting, transforming both in the process: the broken plates and cups project out from the surface like jagged, sculptural brushstrokes, disrupting the picture plane.The work of Erlea Maneros Zabala explores the role of mass media in shaping contemporary narratives through their treatment of images and subjective view of history.
Her 2013 work entitled Basque Graphics; Typography and Ornament: 1961–1967 employs appropriated imagery charged with political and historical significance and subsequently inverts, transforms, and serializes it. The thirty-nine etched copper plates that comprise the work do not show the printed page itself, but rather the matrix from which the text springs, like an archeological presentation that attempts to demonstrate the process of mechanical reproduction, an obsolete industrial technique.Many of the artists in this room experimented with the physicality of paint. Prudencio Irazabal’s primary medium is a thin liquid polymer, which he thickens with gel, before adding small amounts of liquid pigment to create different colors with varying degrees of translucency. Because of the paint’s viscosity, the artist temporarily places borders around the edges of the canvas to prevent it from running the sides. Once the surface has been built up, the borders are removed revealing the depth of the surface and the luminous quality of color as in Untitled #767, (1996). Through a close examination of themes centered on artistic choice and process, The Line of Wit presents profoundly experimental holdings from the collection marked by ingenuity.