Arvind Murthy: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts: Review of Contemporary Art


I’m no art critic, but I think I can safely say that the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond has a splendid collection of contemporary works of art. Ashamedly, I must admit that I have shied away from becoming too acquainted with 20th century art in the past, especially because I grew up with very conventional standards of art and beauty. Contemporary art seldom jibes with convention, to say the least. But this course has convinced me to reexamine my reluctance to embrace modern art, and while I am still very far away from being able to fully appreciate many of the artists’ messages, I find their work extremely intriguing.


"Action Painting"
Jackson Pollock, "Number 15" (1948)


One of the first paintings I looked at was by an artist I could recognize: Jackson Pollock’s "Number 15" (1948). He is one of a handful of contemporary artists who have crossed over into the mainstream (like Andy Warhol), perhaps because of his unique style of throwing the paint onto the canvas rather than using brushstrokes. Usually, his works are quite large, but "Number 15" was relatively small. However, it probably started out as a much larger piece, as we learned in class that he would often decide the dimensions of his painting after, not before, he finished – the determination of the borders would become part of the creative process. For this work, the panel description said that he first spread a layer of black paint over the entire canvas, then dropped white paint while the black was still wet, causing the white paint to feather out in a very unique sort of way. The preponderance of black and white in the painting gives it a sort of bleak look, while the bits of color try to free the work from its desolation. Most of Pollock’s works jump out at me, as this one did, by the sheer confusion of the lines that seem to have a mind of their own and that care little about following any sort of convention.

Another painting in the collection that seemed to share some of Pollock’s seeming randomness and busy style was by Sam Gilliam, called "Cities of America" (1982). Although not nearly as risky as Pollock’s work, Gilliam’s was just as engaging, largely due to the emulsions of acrylic paint and gel compounds he used to create a bumpy, three-dimensional texture. Unlike Pollock’s, Gilliam’s "America" was much brighter and had a distinctly traditional American countryside feel to it, thanks to the earthy colors (green, brown, yellow) he used. Almost hidden beneath the randomness were lightly drawn geometric shapes, perhaps representing the juxtaposition of free-form nature and rigid architecture found in America’s landscape today.
painting by Immendorf
Jorg Immendorf, "Cold Courage" (1982)
Another huge painting completed the same year as Gilliam’s was Jorg Immendorf’s "Cold Courage" (1982), a fictitious representation of a post-war café in Germany. From a "thumbs-up" giving Hitler on the left to Mao seated at a table on the right and the artist himself in the foreground, Immendorf’s subjects are much more clearly defined than Gilliam’s or Pollock’s, but he shares with them an incredibly detailed and busy style. In "Cold Courage," the café was full of flying dead horses, a variety of different people, and pieces of something being carried out – what was left of Germany, perhaps, after it surrendered.

On the other side of the spectrum we have Ad Reinhardt’s "Red Painting" (1952). Although not the famous "Red Painting" that seemed to show up on every website I went to, this one shared its reductive style – a simple collage of differently sized and shaded red squares with no trace of brushwork at all. The focus here was on the geometry and the subtle variations in color – if you stare at it long enough your eyes will play tricks with you. Its simplicity and seeming homogeneity became mesmerizing, as you found yourself searching for something to jump out at you. According to the panel description beside the painting, Reinhardt’s style led to the Color-Field and Minimalist painters who came a bit later, like Ellsworth Kelly. His "Four Panels: Green Black Red Blue" (1966) was featured in the adjoining room, and Kelly shared with Reinhardt a minimalist style, with no trace of brushwork and contrasting colors. Here, however, the colors were much stronger, and there was no need to search for differences – the panels were obviously different colors. "I am less interested," Kelly revealed, "in marks on the panels than in the presence of the panels themselves." Here, you found yourself thinking about the spaces between the panels (which were separated by a good deal of wall space), looking for what’s hidden between the objects rather than the objects themselves. The panel description said it was a reflection of nature – that what’s going on in between the trees is often just as beautiful and important as the trees themselves.  

Roy Lichtenstein, "Gullscape" (1964)
Roy Lichtenstein’s "Gullscape" (1964) is an extension of the above artists’ simplistic stylings, although he adheres to the Pop Art formula more than that of the Color Field painters. Here, Lichtenstein uses large dots and simple, bold lines to create a comic-book sort of feel. Adding to the fictional feel is the fact that "Gullscape" is a painting of a bird flying over a landscape on the horizon, giving it a sort of postcard-type artificiality. As with most postcards and the places they represent, they may look like paradise from far away but once you get closer you see the irregularities among all the perfection, the spaces in between the dots – perhaps similar to what Kelley intended for his "Four Panels."

Guston, oil on canvas
Philip Guston, The Desert, 1974

Philip Guston’s "The Desert" has a similar cartoon-like feel to it –
where else could you find a cigarette-smoking cyclops
with a whip in his hand and a pile of shoes behind him?

The overall red tint gives "Desert" a sort of hellish atmosphere –
there’s one place you’re glad you’re not in.

The sculptures were impressive, too, and the Museum had a wide variety of them ranging from the abstract to unnerving, lifelike presentations. Sol Lewitt’s "1 2 3 4 5 6" consisted merely of cubes stacked on top of each other; it is a simple concept, but one that yield amazingly intricate and complex results when one stares into the sculpture at an angle. The rows of lines in each cube create a dizzying array of line arrangements almost inconceivable if the original concept had not had been so simple.  
outdoor version
Claes Oldenburg,
"Typewriter Eraser" (1976)
  That idea that things are more complex that they seem may have motivated Claes Oldenburg to create his monstrous "Typewriter Eraser" (1976; a larger version of which – again, the only one available on the internet – I have included). Rather than persuading us to focus on its complexity, he probably wanted to show how art can come out of everyday things when taken completely out of context. I have never even seen a typewriter eraser, but it still impressed me.

The exhibit I took a great liking to was the Realist collection,
both the sculptures and paintings.

Gregory Gillespie’s "Self-Portrait" (1975)
amazed me with its lifelike quality,
a quality it retained even when
you put your nose up against it.

You could literally see each hair
on Gillespie’s head.

oil, acrylic on wood panel
Gregory Gillespie’s "Self-Portrait" (1975)

One of my favorites, the "Paris Street Scene," (1972) Richard Estes uses the windows of a sidewalk store to reflect the other half of the picture on to itself, creating a clever, never-ending feel to the street. His style was a bit different than Gillespie’s – as you moved closer you could clearly tell it was a drawing, but his the uniqueness of his style made a close inspection thoroughly rewarding, more than just a detail-finding mission. A more recent painting by Stephen Fox called "Roadside" (1990) drew attention to a part of Central Virginia surely everyone knows about – the ubiquitous toll booth.  
Richard Estes, "Paris Street Scene" (1972)
  The last piece I looked at was by Yukinori Yanagi, entitled "Dollar Pyramid", (2000) – a most unique work indeed. It consisted of sections of the U.S. dollar drawn out in colored sand, encased in plastic frames, and arranged in a pyramid. The final touch was to allow ants to burrow through each on of the sections, creating irregular lines, or cracks, through each of the sections. A video documenting the entire process was shown continuously off to the side. One can only begin to imagine the many interpretations that can be drawn from this, but one thing’s for sure: only in contemporary art would it have been possible.