House of not enough

"The best example of..."

A couple of weeks ago, local rich guy Howard Rachofsky spoke to a crowd at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary about how he's built his art collection, a vast yet fine-tuned cross-section of modern to contemporary works housed in his Richard Meier-built home. It's an ongoing process, certainly the biggest and best collection in the region alongside Raymond Nasher's, and he used a slide show of the works to better communicate his points to a packed room of art fans.

One implication of Rachofsky's talk: While his original impulse to buy an artwork springs from a kind of aesthetic lust at first sight, the deciding factor in plunking down thousands -- if not millions -- for a piece comes from the investor slice of his brain. His purchase has to pass a sort of business establishment test. While explaining why he went for certain pieces, a few of the phrases that repeatedly crossed his lips were "the best example of this artist's work," and "epitomizes this artist's work," and such. In other words, they retain or increase in value because of their familiarity, their cohesion to what the artist is most known for.

His Susan Rothenberg painting is undeniably a monochromatic, horsey Rothenberg. His Julian Schnabel had all the layered, pretentious markings of the cheekiest Schnabel. His Marc Quinn (in its custom built clear freezer) is undeniably the artist's head cast in the artist's frozen blood -- the piece for which Quinn is most famous.

Then Rachofsky clicked to a slide of a big, dark Robert Rauschenberg and kind of laughed. "I regret this purchase. I'd like to unload it." When someone asked why, he went back to his tune. "It's not the best example of the artist's work." And indeed it wasn't; off the top of this writer's head (and in the wake of last year's Houston Rauschenberg retrospective), I could conjure up countless images of R.R.'s varied contributions to the art world: his "Monogram" of 1955, a pioneering goat-belted-with-a-tire sculpture; his vast collages of agitpop imagery; his giant, photographic silkscreens. Rachofsky's sooty, depressing, near-menacing painting (Rauschenberg menacing?) falls through the cracks of the usual Rauschenberg vision.

But I wonder if I'm the only one in the room who, at the time, winced at Rachofsky's monied words. That big ugly work still sprung from the head and hand of the beloved Robert. It's just as much a Rauschenberg as a goat-threaded tire, and he created it from the same visceral place he creates anything. So it smarts that the business sector of the art world can dictate that Rachofsky's Rauschenberg is less Rauschenberg than it could be. It hurts even more that the collector might orphan a piece he once loved just because some art establishment says it's not worth as much as a goaty tire. If artists aren't allowed to stray from their known path or make evolutionary mistakes, then we're not recognizing the artist as human. Surely an off-kilter Rauschenberg is worth something, if not cash.

Rachofsky, who made a fortune on Wall Street, can certainly afford to make a few business "mistakes" of his own, especially if they're love-driven purchases. Yet I had the feeling his businessman's heart grew cold to the ugly Rauschenberg not because it's ugly, but because it wasn't stamped with elitist approval. Could be wrong, but that's how his comments came off that night.

Now I'll humbly swallow that assumption, because after walking through the new show at the Modern Museum of Fort Worth, House of Sculpture, I felt it could have used some of Rachofsky's brand of discrimination (though a couple of the pieces in the show are from his collection). House is chief curator Michael Auping's take on the expansion of sculpture's boundaries -- using 1960s and '70s works as touchstones, '90s works as current state and progress -- and the whole felt too mild, too watered down. Not that I was looking for extremes, for Chris Burden's army of airplanes to fly overhead, or clear boxes of Dieter Roth's rotting cheese. But while the 30 or so individual pieces are often (sigh) nice, there's an anticlimactic feel to a show that could make its point a bit better if the works themselves were more pointed.

I wanted to see a bigger Richard Serra piece, a more flagrant Jeff Koons, a meatier Claes Oldenburg; I wanted to see the David Smith sculpture outdoors, looming up through the vast space and wind in which it was likely born and raised, rather than sitting primly in a room. Granted, the stainless steel bust of Louis XIV is a Koons -- a decent piece from his brief statuary phase of 1986 -- but a giant polychrome statue of a panting terrier or the Pink Panther clutching a naked woman is even more Koons, and perhaps better examples of his push for "banality." A chest-high, gravity-mocking angle of lead supporting a long lead pole definitely follows Serra's aesthetic, but it's a junior version of his heart-stopping work -- those giant silent space dissectors you have to walk around or through if you want to get to the other side. If a museum is gonna show only one Serra, then show a Serra, and take it outside if you have to. Put it around the corner from the Smith.

All this, of course, is curatorial nitpicking. The show's overall lack of dynamic aside, some of Auping's choices are as surprising as they are exemplary: It seems the sculptural evolution had been leading up to grace as discomfort, to eloquence as unnerving. Robert Gober's "Prison Window" (1992), a thick-sided window cut into the museum wall a good 12 feet from the ground, barred with iron and showing a patch of "sky," is as sad and elegant as art gets these days. And Jackie Winsor's ominous green box from the mid-1970s, with small, darkened holes on each side that dare you to look inside, is a prime example of that era's evolving fascination with conceptual weight and its determination to leave "decorative" and "easy" in the dust.

Ron Mueck's diminutive, lumpy old woman (untitled, 1999) is so alive yet dying it will haunt you for hours after you leave it. There the old crone sits in her wool cardigan sweater and frosted hair, varicose veins peeking through sagging pantyhose, her pensive eyes downcast, lightly varnished fingernails clasped before her. New Realism meets Koons' banality meets Chuck Close's explicit detail meets Duane Hanson's sad everymen. This is one road in sculpture's constant expansion, slinking through our guts and imaginations in ways we can't define and may not want to.

The show's crowning piece is sculpture as installation. Bruce Nauman's "Left or Standing, Standing or Left Standing" was making its original audiences at Leo Castelli's Soho gallery pretty uncomfortable back in 1972, though in a different way than Mueck's old woman does today. Reassembled for the first time since then, it's a large area spliced into several connected wedge-shaped hallways, the center one bathed in yellow fluorescent light. The way the white lights on either side bleed into the yellow pointed space creates atmospheric tension -- your eyes sort of vibrate, and you start to hallucinate colors and undulations. Even after nearly 30 years, the work has retained its power. It seems to have a different visual and mood impact on different people, from subtle to truly disconcerting; whatever the case, you just thank God your office cubicle wasn't built this way.

Nauman's installation is really an introductory walkway to Auping's House of Sculpture, and while you may walk out of this buzzing yellow world and be thankful the rest of the show is a bit more passive, I have to wonder if the whole would be more memorable if the other works were as ambitious, repulsive, disconcerting, graceful, or luscious as this intro. Certainly, the show is worth the drive to Fort Worth -- any opportunity to look a Kiki Smith or Oldenburg in the eye is -- but you may be left wishing these were the Smiths and Oldenburgs that, instead of merely making you nod in quiet appreciation, make you actually forget to breathe.

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Christina Rees