Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Arts: Modern Art Generational Divide?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - For most of my life, I have been less than impressed by--and in fact have sometimes avoided--modern art exhibits. It's not like I hadn't seen any; I have been exposed to special exhibits at institutions from the diminutive Bellevue Art Museum (in Washington state) to the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Germany, and in permanent collections in places like the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. However, I failed to find anything aesthetically engaging in works by Andy Warhol and marveled at how Novartis had wasted money (in my opinion) on "rusting" sculptures by Richard Serra at their world headquarters in Basel, Switzerland. These pieces really did nothing for me.

Thus, I saved the modern art areas at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) here in Toronto for last during my recent visit, figuring I could skip them if I ran out of time. I did have time, so I headed up the Frank Gehry-designed "fanciful circular" staircase up to the fourth floor of the tower. On that level, which covers contemporary art in the 1960's to the 1980's, I found what I have come to expect from such exhibits--Andy Warhol in one corner, bizarre and graphic depictions of civil rights protests in another, and utterly incomprehensible and visually uninteresting abstract pieces in another. I almost didn't want to bother walking up the steps to the fifth floor to see more of the same.

Yet, when I arrived at the "top" of the AGO, I discovered that fifth floor focuses on contemporary art from the 1990's to present day, and I found myself actually enjoying a lot of it. In one room, a long line of old books and papers formed a visually-appealing 25-foot line across the room, with the smallest pieces of paper on one end and the largest on the other. A set of three slide projectors beamed strange messages onto a wall, but that made sense when one read the explanation and realized that they were the contrived reactions of three different family members to another's vacation pictures. With that background in mind, that display became downright funny. Heading into another room, a sculpture headed for the ceiling made entirely out of backpacks, an object that I related to and appreciated. Another piece of art explored globalism by creating a model city of souvenirs collected from around the world--and a guide around the side noted the cost in the local currencies of the various trinkets. Suddenly, I was actually experiencing what people had always told me modern art was supposed to be--accessible, somehow familiar, and thought-provoking about things that were relevant in modern times.

When I eventually headed back down the stairs to the main floors of the AGO, I was very glad that I had made it all the way up to the fifth floor and the truly contemporary art. I immediately started to contemplate why I had never had an experience like that before--was it because these artists were concerned with the contemporary world that I was living in, instead of the 1960's and 1970's that I had never experienced? Was it purely generational--I was now old enough that artists that had my common cultural experiences were gaining recognition? Or is the AGO somehow unique in its selections and my resonance is actually more with the institution and not with "contemporary art" from recent years per se?

I haven't found those answers yet, but if not for the interesting division of the contemporary art exhibit at the AGO, I might not have ever asked the questions.

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