"Claude Monet and Abstraction -- Kandinsky -- Rothko -- Richter --up to digital impressionism," Mar. 28-Aug. 4, 2002, at Fondation Beyeler, Baselstrasse 101, Riehen/Basel, Switzerland 4125
The Fondation Beyeler in Basel is a lovely museum in a city of museums. Opened in 1997 by the celebrated Swiss art dealer Ernst Beyeler (who still runs a townhouse gallery in Basel) with his wife Hildy, the 5,900-square-meter museum, designed by Renzo Piano, is clad in red porphyry blocks and set in a 19th-century landscaped garden. Its many inducements to the visitor include printed guides in four languages and a long veranda lined with comfortable couches and coffee tables with art books.
The Beyeler collection, which numbers some 180 works, is especially choice, with strikingly good paintings by Mondrian, Kandinsky, Cézanne and Miró. One huge gallery is dedicated to Picasso works from all periods, another contains several Giacometti sculptures, two more feature Rothko paintings. The entrance gallery is hung with three gold-framed works by Francis Bacon that actually look good -- Beyeler the art dealer was pivotal in establishing the British expressionist's reputation. The paintings all depict Bacon's sadomasochistic muse George Dyer, who famously burgled Bacon's studio in 1964 and died of a drug overdose in 1971.
The museum also mounts special exhibitions, and this summer it's the awkwardly titled "Claude Monet and Abstraction -- Kandinsky -- Rothko -- Richter -- up to digital impressionism," a blockbuster of a sort featuring 40 paintings by Monet plus works by another 40 artists, ranging from Bonnard to Pipilotti Rist.
The show even includes an installation by Icelandic weather artist Olafur Eliasson titled Your Spiral View (2002), a freestanding tunnel with a faceted mirror surface, placed in the gallery that usually holds the museum's large Monet water lily murals. The tunnel looks out at a garden through a floor-to-ceiling window, and though it's a fabulous construction, it promises more FX than it delivers. On the wall is a placard that poetically instructs the viewer to consider the weather as part of the art, and the art as part of the weather.
As for the exhibition proper, it seemed unpromising at first, dedicated as it is to what would appear to be rather trivial parallels between the Impressionist brush stroke and the digital pixel. After all, Monet does have a "general irrelevance for contemporary avant-garde artists," in the words of Michael Leja in the exhibition catalogue. And although 40 Monets makes for an impressive display, they don't exactly shine at the Beyeler, with its natural light louvered down to a cloudy dimness. The color here is definitely pre-electronic.
The paintings do retain the vigor of the artist's hand, though, with strokes fall like snow, build like bricks and fly through the air like a swarm of insects. After 100 years, Monet's pigment isn't juicy and fresh but looks dry, chalky and scumbled, an "embossed leathery surface," to repeat a 1955 complaint by Dorothy Miller, then on the lookout for an acquisition for the Museum of Modern Art.
Once the Monet section ends -- with a large gallery filled with several multi-panel Nymphéas -- the exhibition traces a Monet "revival" in the 1950s through his influence on Sam Francis (who once said, "I'm doing pure late Monets"), on Joan Mitchell (who moved to Giverny after World War II and even bought Monet's former house in Vétheuil), on Ellsworth Kelly (who painted his first monochrome after a 1952 visit to Monet's gardens).
Rothko's culminating achievement, the "chapel" installation of abstract paintings, was presaged by Monet, whose "grande décoration" of a painted water lily pond environment was started in 1917 and finally installed in oval galleries in the Tuilleries in 1927, just six months after the artist's death. The show points out literal correspondences with Monet's flower fixation, through actual flora imagery by Anselm Kiefer, Diana Thater, Cy Twombly and Andy Warhol, and also includes a latter-day copiy of Monet works by Roy Lichtenstein.
What's interesting about Monet today, however, only comes into focus downstairs, in the "Digital Impressions" section of the show. Here it's clearly of two minds, painting Monet as a source of Apollonian order and calm via a gallery of white paintings by Robert Ryman, and as a herald of Dionysian sensation through the flickering colors of several video and slide projections.
A corridor gallery of grainy and static-streaked videotapes, including Keith Sonnier's Color Wipe (1973) and Nam June Paik's Magnet TV (1965/99) (this section also includes more recent tapes by Norbert Meissner, Sabina Baumann and Pipilotti Rist), connects Monet to the techno-hedonism of the 1960s light show.
Two major set pieces complete the installation. First is a tour de force from the Canadian color artist Angela Bullock, whose Z Point (2001) is a wall-sized grid of 48 modules (she calls them "pixel boxes") that are computer-controlled to give a complete range of colors, hues that are composed in a series of combinations and permutations like a fugue on some 19th-century color organ. The tones are subtle and stately, despite the psychedelic accompaniment, music from the rock band Pink Floyd's soundtrack for Michelangelo Antonioni's 1970 film Zabriskie Point (thus Bullock's title, Z Point).
The final gallery is Rist's widely seen video projection from 1996, Sip My Ocean, which may still be the artist's signature piece. Its amorous, twin mirror images of underwater high jinks, accompanied by a goofy cover version of Chris Isaak's haunting song Wicked Game (which has the yodeling refrain, "No, I don't want to fall in love with you") is projected in a room with blue-painted walls and a blue carpet. This image montage of floating toys, waves, sunshine and the blue sky, coral and waving anemones, kissing lips and a yellow tank suit, with fluttering glimpses of Adam and Eve swimmers, is utterly Dionysian. Monet's realm of the senses, updated for our time as a music video.