I conned my 9-year old son into coming out with me to the Brooklyn Museum of Art on the pretext of visiting Pulp Art: Vamps, Villains, and Victors from the Robert Lesser Collection , an exhibition of paintings created for the covers of mystery, science-fiction and adventure magazines published earlier in the last century. My real goal was to see Egypt Reborn: Art for Eternity , the newly renovated galleries devoted to the museum’s renowned collection of Egyptian art.
I didn’t have to work too hard at my deception. My son enjoys mummies, scarabs and hieroglyphs as much as he does space aliens wreaking intergalactic havoc. An Egyptian sculpture of a father, mother and son-all three roughly the same size-held his attention for quite some time. Still, when he heard that “pulp” magazines were the literary precursor to the comic book, my favorite collector of Silver Age superheroes and funny animals wanted to find out more about his hobby’s birthright. His patience for Egyptian artifacts grew thin. Truth to tell, so did mine. Egypt Reborn is a disaster.
Not a total disaster-the quality of the collection saves it. The trouble is that one can’t see the steles for the installation. Egypt Reborn is badly designedandoverdetermined, text-burdened and noisy. The day my son and I walked through the galleries, the crackle of static on the soundtrack of an accompanying video ruined the mood. Who can appreciate anything with all that chit-chat going on?
Even if the volume were turned down, the galleries themselves do their utmost to stifle reflection. It all adds up: The kitschy temple-like enclosures; the hokey Art Deco designs, painted in green and purple, on the museum’s columns; the oversized quotes on the walls from Herodotus, Henry Moore, Sigmund Freud and Gloria Steinem; the unwieldy display cases that recall the bullet-proof environs of my old pharmacy in Brooklyn; the spectacularly amateurish painting of Egyptian motifs on the ceiling of the entrance gallery (it would look at home on a sideshow tent-at a major museum, it’s an embarrassment).
One might ask whether the Brooklyn Museum can still be considered major . It’s now known primarily for scandal. You remember: pickled sharks; the Virgin decorated with porno snippets; elephant turds; Rudolph Giuliani busting a gasket over the lot. Sensation wasn’t an isolated travesty. There was the coy Exposed: The Victorian Nude , a hapless exhibition of contemporary art influenced by Japanese anime, and a hip-hop extravaganza. In Brooklyn, art has become an adjunct of showbiz, theory and politics. Not a few New Yorkers have written the place off as an art-free environment. Who can blame them?
Still, I was hopeful about Egypt Reborn . My reason? The first completed phase of the museum’s re-installation of its Egyptian holdings, the Morris A. and Meyer Schapiro Wing, which opened in 1993. As an example of museological display, it’s just about perfect. Open and airy, the Schapiro Wing highlights the objects on display with the aim of clarifying their beauty, underlining their authority and celebrating their mystery. The viewer is confronted by history’s familiarity and strangeness; installation takes a respectful and supportive back seat to art. With Egypt Reborn , in contrast, our responses to art are manipulated, as if we were incapable of independent thought and feeling. One begins to wonder if a gift for condescension is now a prerequisite for museum curators seeking steady employment.
In recent years, the only visit to the museum I’ve enjoyed (the Schapiro Wing excepted) was an exhibition of vintage toy robots-another hit with my son. It was culled from the collection of the playwright Robert Lesser, who also provided material for the show of pulp-magazine cover paintings. In two fell swoops, Mr. Lesser has done more to revitalize the Brooklyn Museum than the people purportedly in charge of the place. Not that hokey pictures of fetching damsels, horny robots, Doc Savage and Thrilling Wonder Stories qualify as art. They don’t, nor are the featured illustrators anything more than adept journeyman. (Alexander Leydenfrost and Laurence Herndon are perhaps a cut above.)
What Pulp Art does provide, obviously, is fun-and also a heartening, because guileless, sense of purpose. It’s giddy with love: Mr. Lesser takes a palpable delight in the things he surrounds himself with. And it’s delight, whether soaring or superficial in character, that has been lacking in Brooklyn. Though I’d hate to see the museum turn into a showroom for nostalgia, I’d rather have nostalgia than cynicism. I’ll even forgive the installation of Pulp Art -its ungainly theatricality and smug P.C. wall labels-if only because there’s so much less at stake when you’re dealing with the Shadow. The lamentable Egypt Reborn is another, more serious matter.
Pulp Art: Vamps, Villains, and Victors from the Robert Lesser Collection is at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, 200 Eastern Parkway, until Aug. 31; Egypt Reborn: Art for Eternity is on long-term view.
Back on the Map
If a shamelessly atrocious exhibition at the Paul Kasmin Gallery was Frank Stella’s way to get attention, his last show sure worked. Those monstrous tangles of steel garnered a lot of press and a lot of groans; they put Mr. Stella back on the map. His new show, also at Kasmin, will probably keep him there, though the new pieces find him in a less lugubrious mood. Mr. Stella continues to create effusive calligraphies of steel accented here and there by fiberglass. A newfound openness is welcome, as is the fact that the materials have been left unpainted-Mr. Stella never knew what to do with that pigment stuff, anyway. He doesn’t know what to do with the sculptor’s stuff, either-that is to say, space. As fervently as they propel themselves off the wall or from the ceiling, the pieces remain pictorial events, doodles aspiring to sculpture-hood. The work is all bluster and no flow, flat-footed and pointless. How someone so clueless about art could become a major player will be the subject of a juicy exposé someday. For the time being, we just have to put up with him.
Frank Stella: Recent Work is at the Paul Kasmin Gallery, 293 10th Avenue, until June 28.