Inspired by Plato, art at the Getty Villa

“Play-Doh” (1994-2014), by Jeff Koons; polychromed aluminum. © Jeff Koons

“Intellect to Opinion” (2017), by Joseph Kosuth; warm white neon. © Joseph Kosuth

Poking the brain, but forgetting the heart
“Plato in L.A.: Contemporary Artists’ Vision” at the Getty Villa – a review

Why Plato? If Western philosophy is a drainage canal, Plato sits at the source and what he has deposited flows down the long meandering stream, to be joined by the conceptual droppings of Saint Augustine, Descartes, Leibniz, Hume, Kant, all the way in fact to Wittgenstein, Heidegger and others at the delta of the Great Philosophic Sea.
Apparently, Plato has in some way inspired a multitude of visual artists, and guest curator Donatien Grau has corralled eleven of them into an exhibit at the Getty Villa which is, and I’ll be upfront about this, both pretentious and provocative. For one, it’s a bit cerebral or dry, and I’ll always side with people like Bernard Rudofsky when they write: “I believe that in the arts and in architecture, the sensual pleasures should come before the intellectual ones.”

“No Title (Lightly, swiftly, absolutely…)” (2014), by Raymond Pettibon; ink, acrylic, graphite, and watercolor on paper. © Raymond Pettibon

Mr. Grau has drop-dead serious credentials, holding doctoral degrees in comparative literature from the Université Paris-Sorbonne and in philosophy from the University of Oxford.
In the very first paragraph of his introduction to the accompanying catalogue, Grau mentions Alfred North Whitehead, Joseph Kosuth, Aristotle, Philo of Alexandria and the early Christian theologians, Porphyry and the Neoplatonists, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Alain Badiou, and of course Plato. (I might add that the above mentioned Kosuth, in conversation with the curator, quotes Henry Miller: “Every man with a bellyful of classics is an enemy of the human race.”)
Do contemporary artists really give much thought to Plato when they’re in their studio or workshop? The Getty’s director Timothy Potts states that “Plato’s theory of a transcendent ‘ideal’ realm beyond what we see and hear has echoed down the centuries and still holds many thinkers and artists in thrall.”
Personally, I don’t mind being enthralled, but I don’t want to be in thrall to anyone. Still, one begrudgingly admires these artists (which include Paul Chan, Rachel Harrison, Huang Yong Ping, the late Mike Kelley, Jeff Koons, Joseph Kosuth, Paul McCarthy, Whitney McVeigh, Raymond Pettibon, Adrian Piper, and Michelangelo Pistoletto) for being in the know about Plato and Socrates and Aristotle. Did they bone up on this trio before Grau questioned them or did they already have a good handle on these wise men of yore?
I think if someone were to ask me which philosopher has been an influence on my life and work I certainly wouldn’t have reached back so far. Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Bertrand Russell maybe, but the ancients? Ideas become blurry after a century of two. And actually, if we’re looking for an influential triumvirate might it not more likely be Luke, Han, and Leia, or others of a filmic nature?

Installation view of works by Paul McCarthy; pencil on paper. © Paul McCarthy

Now, the idea here that Grau makes mention of a couple of times is that there’s an arc from Plato in Athens to the current crop of artists in Los Angeles: “Los Angeles is a city of artists, a place where they thrive, where they feel welcome, and where they produce some of today’s most important work.” As photographer Zoe Crosher told me recently, Paris is the art capital of the 19th century, New York the 20th century, and L.A. the 21st. That said, the only artist in this group who is currently living in Los Angeles is Paul McCarthy. The others (apart from the deceased Mike Kelley) seem to reside mostly in New York, plus Paris, London, Berlin and Turin. This implies that if or when the exhibition shifts to the Big Apple it’ll have to replace a few letters on the marquee: “Plato in N.Y.C.” and so on.
As for McCarthy, Grau told an interviewer: “Plato lives in L.A. today: his name is Paul McCarthy. Just look at Paul’s work.”
I’d rather not. His contribution to the show is a suite of eleven pencil drawings, with several characters–Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Nietzsche, Eve, etc.–in the midst of an orgy (Socrates kissing Plato as Plato defecates in Aristotle’s mouth is the one illustrated in the catalogue). I imagine it’s a bit tongue-in-cheek despite the artist’s explanation of his concept behind the work. Maybe it’s a little of both, pulling our leg and twisting our arm. Nonetheless, McCarthy is quoted saying, “In a sense, this series is not about trying to understand; it is a fuzzy narrative.”
Personally, I’m not concerned about the explicit subject matter, art doesn’t bother with “morality,” I’m more bothered by the dubious quality of the sketches. At any rate, this is a new body of work, 2017, so McCarthy may have developed it with “Plato in L.A.” in mind, even though he says that, for some time, he’s been “interested in the subject of drinking in the ‘Symposium’” (adding that “The drawings are a ludicrous projection on my part.” In that, he certainly nailed it.). I realize that “drinking in” can be read two ways, so think wineskins.

“Le Baigneur 1” (2016), by Paul Chan; nylon, fan, concrete, shoes, and specially made cords. Courtesy the artist; Greene Naftali, New York; and Regen Projects, Los Angeles

This may go towards bolstering Grau’s claim that his selected artists “engaged with Plato’s writings and thought, and they are all preeminent figures in the contemporary art world. Their work, in various ways, provides lessons to better understand the contributions the ancient Greek philosopher can offer to our contemporary lives.” I dunno, this seems a bit of a stretch, and reads like the words of a young academic. I was looking very carefully at the photos that Ryan Miller took at the VIP party, a couple of days after working journalists were shepherded through the galleries, and as usual at an art opening everyone was chatting, hobnobbing, networking, and clearly neglecting the pictures and installations.

“Caverne 2009” (2009), by Huang Yong Ping; resin cave, sculptures of buddhas and talibans, projected bat shadows. Pinault collection. Photo by Marc Domage

I would say that very, very few people, VIPs or otherwise, will look at the work on view and think of Plato, let alone take any “lessons” (lessons!) from it that will enable them to connect fifth century B.C. Athens with today’s Los Angeles. For example, Paul Chan’s black nylon “breather” is a figure reminiscent of those inflatable tube dancers that dealerships and repair shops employ to draw attention. You’ve seen ‘em, flailing about; but you never thought of Plato when you did, right?
That’s not to say that Chan’s adaptation of the idea isn’t clever and amusing.
As Chan notes in his interview with Grau, “There are very few artists who take philosophy seriously–and there is no reason why you should. Philosophy is terrible.” However, he adds, “But it is part of who I am.”
No doubt. Just remember what Warhol said, “Art is what you can get away with.”
Some of the interviews are worth reading carefully because these are intelligent people with whom Grau is speaking. But if you’re too smart (for your own good and the good of others), like Adrian Piper, you’re simply useless to the average viewer. Ditto with Huang Yong Ping, to whom one may be tempted to say: C’mon, man, what are you really talking about?
(At least Ping’s model cave is worth a look; a page with markings and underlinings by Piper is not)
Grau doesn’t help matters. He calls Mike Kelley’s book “Plato’s Cave, Rothko’s Chapel, Lincoln’s Profile” (1986) “one of the most important books written by an artist in the last half century.” Maybe yes, maybe no. In some circles, Kelley remains a minor god. What makes him so venerated? Grau doesn’t say, and the answer isn’t evident.

“Divine Rules” (2018), by Whitney McVeigh; found books. Courtesy of the artist

I’d like to comment at some length on Whitney McVeigh’s “Divine Rules,” completed just this year. It’s listed as being comprised of wood and found books, but what it is in layman’s terms is an elevated, wall-mounted bookcase that’s five shelves (or six feet) high and a bit over 17 feet in length, containing several hundred books that seem mostly to be from the middle of the last century.
McVeigh, currently a creative research fellow at the University of the Arts, London, speaks at length about this work, if we can call it that, since it’s largely an “installation.” She says, for example, “In collecting these books, I have a sense that I am retrieving and acknowledging past lives and connecting them to the present.” Also, “the library is commenting on a need to pay attention–not only to universal truths, but to time, layers.”
All of which sounds good. But this block of books is a closed entity, an artifact rather than a living bookcase because it is merely a representation of a library rather than one where somebody is allowed to take books down, thumb through them or read them, and access their knowledge.
It’s like comparing a stuffed eagle or bear to the real thing, but to go further the impression is that these books were not gathered up over many years, searched for and discovered in many secondhand bookstores and, more importantly, read. It appears that most of them were acquired from one source: “I’ve visited the same man in the early morning for years; he clears the homes of the deceased, and unpacks from the back of his van onto the street.” She adds: “There’s a significance in rescuing the books,” and I’ll agree with that; but the result, as we see it here, seems more like an affront to books, and to book collecting, than it does an homage or paean to them. And lastly, to paraphrase Tina Turner, “What’s Plato got to do with it?”
(There’s some connection here to another current Getty show, “Artists and Their Books/Books and Their Artists,” where the books are again untouchable, although in this case it’s more understandable even if no less frustrating: Who wants to look at a book behind glass?)

“Play-Doh” (1994-2014), by Jeff Koons; polychromed aluminum. © Jeff Koons

Oddly enough, I suppose, the piece that makes the most sense to me, platonically speaking, is “Play-Doh” (1994-2014), a polychromed aluminum pile of vibrant colors, like a dozen bright ice cream scoops heaped up, one upon another. But we can take this Jeff Koons molehill and make a mountain out of it. That is, it’s a metaphorical mass of ideas-in-waiting or perhaps ideas yearning to transcend from concept to realization. In short, it depicts art not as a finished product but as its potential.

“La Habana – Venere Cubana” (2015), by Michelangelo Pistoletto; silkscreen on polished supermirror stainless steel. Courtesy of the artist and Galleria Continua. Photo by Ela Bialkowska

That sense of the impending moment, before promise and anticipation vanish in fulfillment (see “The Bill,” an essay by Lászlo Krasznahorkai), emerges in another thought-provoking work, “La habana – Venere cubana” (2015), a lifesize image of a middle-aged woman standing behind an open grilled gate, silkscreened onto a stainless steel mirror. This casually dressed Cuban woman could be seeking our attention or assistance or perhaps offering hers–not necessarily in an erotic sense, but possibly. And if the latter is the case, then that gate is going to swing open and either we’ll go in or she’ll come out. So there’s some unspoken, impending dynamic here that’s largely missing from the show as a whole.
I prefer images that engage us right off the bat, that throw down the gauntlet as soon as we make eye contact, like Celeste Dupuy-Spencer’s “Durham, August 14, 2017” that’s part of the biennial survey at the Hammer. It’s an impressionistic portrait of a crumpled Confederate statue, pulled down by a mob in North Carolina last summer.
And I’d much rather see surveys like Peter Greenaway’s “100 Objects to Represent the World,” the likes of which never seem to make it to the States, or even the current “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” which currently enthralls us with sound and shadow at the MET in New York City. (“Icons of Style” at the Getty has a few costumes on view to accompany its century-worth of fashion photography, but it’s still predominantly a photo exhibition without the dramatically conducive setting and Michael Nyman’s tension-mounting score or soundscape that distinguishes “Heavenly Bodies”).
Overall, what I find in “Plato in L.A.” is too conceptual and bloodless, with an aura of gimmickry, although I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from seeing it for themselves. We all have our opinions, and others will certainly be more generous in their conclusions.
Plato in L.A.: Contemporary Artists’ Visions is on view through September 3 at the Getty Villa, 17985 Pacific Coast Hwy, Pacific Palisades. Hours, Wednesday through Monday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and closed on Tuesday. Parking, $15 per car. Free admission, but a ticket is required to enter. Available in advance or on the day of your visit by calling (310) 440-7300 or going to ER


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