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MORE FROM LESS AT A MINIMUM, MOCA'S LATEST EXHIBIT MAKES A PROVOCATIVE IMPRESSION.

Byline: Steve Rosen Correspondent

Museum of Contemporary Art director Jeremy Strick, at the media preview for his museum's new ``A Minimal Future? Art as Object 1958-1968'' exhibit, wanted to apologize.

``I'm standing in the way of one of the most beautiful views I've ever seen,'' he said. The view he was blocking was one awash in basic black.

In the downtown L.A. museum's first gallery, just behind Strick, was Carl Andre's massive ``6 x 6 Den Haag Steel Lock,'' 36 plates of hot-rolled steel covering a large portion of the floor like the world's hardest, darkest carpet. Along the walls, there were paintings by Frank Stella in which the enveloping black field all but overwhelmed the soft, chalklike lines. (The gallery also featured one brick and two wood sculptures by Andre.)

If you don't agree with Strick, this gallery - and much of what follows in this ambitious, first-ever survey of minimalism's crucial first decade - might seem repetitive and drab. You'll wonder how the definition of ``beautiful'' in art moved, in the course of a few decades, from Monet to Andre. And you'll wish this show's 150 works by 40 American artists had more variety and personality. Often the sculptural material is fabricated or of industrial origins; the paintings are spatially flat.

But if you agree with Strick (and I do), you'll respond differently. You'll embrace this show, discovering in it art that is transfixing and sometimes transcendent. By removing so much that is pictorial and decorative, by concentrating on disciplined formalism and subtle variations of line and form, minimalism achieves a mysterious purity that is, well, beautiful.

It forces you to concentrate - to move beyond its seemingly emotional blankness. It's understandable, then, why fans of minimalism find it has Zen-like selfless qualities. That may be why minimalism has maintained its popularity all these years - people find it spiritual.

And at its most intense, minimalism can have a serious, life-or-death purpose to it. One can see a metaphor for death in its use of black. One piece by Tony Smith in this show, a large steel cube completely black except for smudges of paint, is even called ``Die.''

Yet lightness is also part of this show. Hans Haacke's ``Blue Sail'' is a sheet of chiffon, suspended in the air by thread and fishing weights, that floats and twists from the current of an oscillating fan.

And a gallery devoted to Dan Flavin's work communicates lightness of another sort. His fluorescent lights, arranged around the room so that their placement creates balance and a sense of rhythm, bathe the viewer in their white, pink, red and yellow. A banal industrial product has been transformed in Flavin's hands.

Curiously, this exhibition seems to want to counter some of the rigorously austere aesthetic of minimalism. Ann Goldstein, the MOCA senior curator who spent six years planning and organizing this show, repeatedly tries to create a more inclusive definition for minimalism. ``The label has been much more narrow than the work, itself,'' she says.

Yes, there is the tough, gallery-dominating sculptural and conceptual work of Andre, Richard Serra, Sol LeWitt and Donald Judd - it could have stood more major examples of their art, actually. But the show also has quiet paintings and drawings, and tiny objects you have to search for as if in an Easter-egg hunt. (``A Minimal Future?'' which is up through Aug. 2, takes its title from a prophetic March 1967 cover of Arts Magazine.)

The show's earliest work consists of Stella's first black painting - 1958's ``Delta'' - and an early experiment with variations of white by painter Robert Ryman, 1958's ``OR.'' Goldstein makes an important point here, that minimalism is where abstract-expressionism went when pop art came along. As the 1960s happened, minimalist artists saw themselves as radical modernists undermining the glitz and glamour of pop.

In her most daring gambit, Goldstein tries to bridge the gap between minimalism and pop by combining Judd's work with a piece by Claes Oldenburg. Judd was a consummate minimalist - an intellectual whose nonfigurative sculptures are generally thought of as being only about themselves. They cast no allusions, tell no jokes.

But Goldstein has put several of Judd's works next to the funny, exaggeratedly angular ``Leopard Chair'' by Oldenburg. The placement makes such Judd sculptures as the wall piece ``Large Stack,'' a series of steel-and-Plexiglas platforms, look like loopy, goofy office furniture. One wonders if Judd would laugh.

Less successful is the decision to make Judy Chicago's ``Rainbow Pickett'' a signature piece for the show - it's featured on the large banner outside the museum. The rich pastel colors that Chicago (famous for ``The Dinner Party'' installation) has painted on six slanted plywood beams are attractive, like a walk through the deco hotels of South Beach. But they make the piece decorative - which minimalism shouldn't be.

I prefer Ronald Bladen's geometrically similar ``Three Elements,'' large painted and tilted slabs of wood with a silvery finish that one expects to be reflective but isn't. One stares as much at what should be there as at what actually is. It's a reminder that minimalism is neither easy nor about superficial surface appearances.

With so many works and artists, ``A Minimal Future'' holds plenty of surprises along with a few disappointments from those whose work doesn't measure up to the best on display. It does, however, give due to the contributions of female artists. Indeed, the finest minimalist painter of all, Agnes Martin, is featured with eight pieces, although they're too small to fully reveal the serene greatness of her determined exploration of grids.

The show gives the lesser-known Jo Baer a full room to show off her affecting flat, banded paintings. Using white or gray paint for her surface color, Baer adds narrow black borders adjacent to narrow lines of color. One painting, ``Untitled (White Star),'' does depict a star, except the bottom point is missing. It's as if Baer is removing the star from the canvas - intentionally minimizing its presence.

One of the most appealing aspects of minimalism is that less can be more. That's most evident in the amazing drawings by Eva Hesse. Small exercises in applying ink to graph paper, they show how one change can make everything seem different.

In this case, by placing ink marks inside the minuscule green squares of the paper, she completely changes our perception of everything we see on the paper. We can no longer tell which marks are handmade and which are manufactured, which are black and which are green. Hesse has completely changed the environment around her markings.

Or maybe she's just changed the way we perceive it. Minimalism can do that - which is why it not only has lasted so long but also seems so timelessly contemporary.

A MINIMAL FUTURE? ART AS OBJECT 1958-1968

Where: The Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave.

When: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays and Fridays, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursdays; through Aug. 2.

Tickets: $8 for adults, $5 for students with ID and seniors 65 and older, free for children under 12. Thursdays are free for all. For more information, call (213) 626-6222 or visit www.moca.org.

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(1 -- 2 -- color) ``A Minimal Future? Art as Object 1958-1968,'' at MOCA through Aug. 2, includes works from Judy Chicago, top, and Donald Judd, above.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 21, 2004
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