LOU'S VIEWS: IMA acquires 50 head-scratching works

January 5, 2009

"My 6-year-old could do that."

Stand around the Indianapolis Museum of Art's Forefront Gallery long enough and you are likely to hear some variation on that contemporary-art-bashing cliche.

The current show, "Collected Thoughts: Works from the Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection" (through April 12), seems to actively court such thoughts. Why else place Richard Tuttle's work—simple watercolor abstractions on torn notebook paper—at the gallery's entrance before a visitor is acclimated? "Rationalize this," Tuttle's work seems to whisper. And the mind immediately starts justifying or rejecting.

And then you see Tuttle's "Five Madrid Ones," a series of ... wait, is there anything on those pages?

Yes, there it is, subtle to a point of invisibility. Yes, there's something there. Something that your 6-year-old could pull off.


The backstory: Dorothy and Herbert Vogel started acquiring art in 1962. The couple soon decided to live off her salary as a reference librarian and use his, as a postal employee, to buy art. Both dabbled in painting, but soon, their interest in art became much more about collecting than creating.

The Vogels were unusual in that they never sold a piece of the work they collected. In 1992, much of their collection was donated to the National Gallery of Art. More recently, a program was created to disperse 2,500 works—50 museums in 50 states would each receive 50 pieces.

More unusual than the methodology is the work itself: pieces that almost immediately mix up the mind of the viewer.

Said Herbert, "Most of the things we have we bought because we didn't understand them ... . A real work of art you never entirely understand, and, anyway, if I had waited until I thought I understood, I'd never have bought anything."

In addition to Tuttle's work, the IMA scored Edda Renouf's acrylic on linen "Wing Piece II," with hints of who knows what emerging from a blue field, as well as her "Incised Point Progression" series that looks like something really bad happening on your TV screen. Also at IMA is Stephen Antonakos' silkscreen paper with partial cuts of angles ("JA#54-1980 Berlin") and circles ("JA#57-1980 Berlin").

No surprise that the music sheets of Jon Gibson's open-ended musical composition (for unlimited musicians) seems the most concrete object on display.

But there's no denying the importance of the collection. Or its impact on the viewer.

Even if your 6-year-old's work is indistinguishable from that of Lynd Benglis or James Bishop or any of the other artists nurtured by the Vogels—even if the "skilled" artists from the European, African, American or Asian galleries are turning in their graves at the thought of Robert Mangold's swirled "Looped Line Torn Zone"—even if you imagine Richard Tuttle with a mortgage payment due thinking to himself "You know, I could use a few more bucks this month; I think I'll staple something to the Vogels' wall and charge them for it"—even if you have all of these reactions, you'll spend your time at the Forefront Gallery thinking about art.

And, if you are like me, you'll want to go back and think some more.

Unlike going to theater or a concert—where the event is the event—a trip to a single show at the constantly changing IMA rarely exists in a vacuum.

In this case, my visit included an initial stop at the off-putting stacks of black rope monoliths by Orly Genger now in residence in the main lobby, turning that welcoming space into a Home Depot ennui warehouse. It doesn't help that the work feels like the less-interesting second cousin to the all-over-downtown Chakaia Booker tire sculptures.

Elsewhere in the galleries proper, it was encouraging to see previous Forefront Gallery work find a home in the permanent collection. Ingrid Calame's "#258 Drawing"—part of her series based on the odd combination of Los Angeles River/Indianapolis Motor Speedway tracings—was more impressive on its own, liberated from the gallery full of similar pieces where I first met it. Similarly, it was good to find Emily Kennerk's bright "Welcome Home" awning (from her Forefront "Suburban Nation" exhibition) fitting comfortably and intriguingly into the IMA's exhibition halls. More so now, its shadows are as important as the piece itself. I also took time to revisit the stylish "Simply Halston" exhibition, which closes Jan. 4.

A "Hey, when did that get here?" discovery this trip was the Design Gallery, located amid the contemporary spaces. With the lofty goal of being "a laboratory to juxtapose design concepts, showcase major designers and display seminal objects," the space is now on my list of must-stop IMA spots. In the current iteration, Frank O. Gehry's "Bubbles Chaise Lounge" dominates. Look for changes roughly annually.

Then there's "The Viewing Project," a creative nook giving select works new context. In addition to a small selection of work from various IMA galleries, the room includes a computer terminal to store your impressions of the work and read those of others. And you can click "an art historian's view." Think of it as a Facebook page for art where you'll find the insightful, the curious and the funny. (Said one visitor of Jusepe de Ribera's "Aristotle": "Between the papers and the pained look on his face, I think he must be closing on a house.")


This column appears weekly. Send information on upcoming events to lharry@ibj.com.

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