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Review: Variations on Theme: Contemporary Art 1950s—Present

There’s always some of the Dallas Museum of Art’s vast contemporary collection on view, but it’s more than a year since contemporary art has taken over the Barrel Vault – the spacious arched main gallery of the museum.  Commentator Joan Davidow applauds the unlikely, yet rewarding groupings of art from post World War II to the present. 

As I strolled through Variations on Theme: Contemporary Art 1950s—Present, I thought I’d walked into the two courses I teach to masters’ students at Southern Methodist University. It has it all, from the early masterpieces to the most energizing ideas of the 21st century.

Jeffrey Grove curated the exhibition that inventively exploits the museum’s elegant Barrel Vault and its four quadrant galleries to highlight the cream of Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism. These movements faced the confusion of post World War II and rocked the art world.

Now in Dallas two years, curator Grove makes a brilliant mark in his new museum environment. Many museums and galleries, proud of their collection or an artist’s work, install too many pieces, cramming them in chock-a-block. In Texas we have space, and Grove uses it to advantage. Seldom do I see a thoughtful installation with plenty of air around the works and opportunities for comparisons.

A museum favorite welcomes you: Jackson Pollock’s energetic poured painting Cathedral from 1947 that defined Abstract Expressionism. It immediately meets the new: Jack Whitten’s Epsilon from 1976, when he used large troughs to drag paint across the surface - a different way to lay paint, each artist experimenting.

Grove’s placement of Donald Judd’s 1988 elegant vertical column of aluminum boxes accentuates the barrel vault’s vertical window. He builds new relationships with familiar pieces we’ve seen over the years: The newly acquired Stack of Vinyl from Jiro Takamatsu, a square floor piece with its peaked middle in the gallery center, links us to Ellsworth Kelly’s proud arc seen through the window. Michaelangelo Pistoletto’s Infinity Cube, 1966, a humble cube with hidden mirrors points to Simon Starling’s Venus Mirror, 2011, propped against the wall.

Grove inventively groups the works among the four galleries. Each houses its own art movement: he gathers still-life, uses electricity for text and video, presents the figure, and shows more new expressionism.

Enter the vanitas gallery - vanitas meaning vanity - and you become the art by standing in front of Gerhard Richter’s Mirror. New finds by Texas artists thoughtfully weave around this German master: Dallas’ Stephen Lapthisophon riffs on modern masters in spray paint and eggshells, and Brooke Stroud of Houston mimics the museum’s masterpiece painting, The Icebergs by Frederick Edwin Church.

In the midst of the most familiar abstract expressionist paintings, Grove surprises us with the new, little known, rarely seen early 1960s Gutai movement from Japan. Straddling a decade of Japan’s post war years, Gutai, meaning embodiment, celebrated the beauty and inner life of an object revealed through its destruction or decay. We see the newly acquired, high-color, high-energy poured painting, Untitled Whirlpool, by Shozo Shimamato.

This dramatic, meaningful exhibition came on little cat’s feet. No big splashy opening. Instead curator Grove chooses to let the exhibition evolve, reprising the familiar and introducing the new, letting the art speak for itself. Since my initial visits, new works have appeared, complementing the already strong presentation. Art lovers won’t wait for the next opening. They’ll learn to revisit often to witness its growth.

Professor Joan Davidow teaches contemporary art survey at Southern Methodist University’s Master of Liberal Studies program. Variations on Theme: Contemporary Art 1950s—Present is on view at the Dallas Museum of Art through January 27.