Currently Hanging

Raiding the Storage Racks:

The Guggenheim’s Good Stuff

What a thrill it is to visit the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum right now. You heard me: thrill . From Picasso to Pollock: Classics of Modern Art , an exhibition culled from the museum’s permanent collection, is a sterling example of truth in advertising: They’ve got classics, and plenty of them. The show is so good you could almost forget the museum’s recent crimes against civilization-Matthew Barney, Armani, a plague of motorcycles, the rotunda as black hole and Thomas Krens’ Ming the Merciless–like aspirations to global domination. Clearly, the museum is better off resting on its laurels. For the first time in ages, I don’t pity the tourists lining up to buy tickets at $15 a pop-they’re getting their money’s worth.

Where to begin enumerating the glories of From Picasso to Pollock ? Not at the beginning: The first thing greeting viewers on the way up Frank Lloyd Wright’s ramp is Alicia (1965-67), a ceramic-tile “painting” by Joan Miró (with the assistance of Josep Lloréns Artigas)-a regrettable reminder of a great artist’s not-so-great late style. An alcove featuring five sublime works by the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi lifts the spirits, and after that the hits just keep on coming. From Picasso to Pollock makes the curator’s job look easy: a casual browse through storage racks packed with early Modernist masterpieces. Picasso, Braque and Matisse, you know; Chagall and Klee, too. But what about Albert Gleizes, Liubov Popova and Juan Gris, whose Newspaper and Fruit Dish (1916) finds him looser, less complicated and better off for it? Miró is redeemed by The Tilled Field (1923-24), Piet Mondrian is at his starkest with Composition No. 1 (1930), and Vasily Kandinsky generates a spiky tension in Black Lines (1913), contrasting cottony flurries of color and scratchy linear elements that barely know their purpose. Superb pieces by Robert Delaunay, Amedeo Modigliani, Kazimir Malevich, Alexander Calder and Max Beckmann are also on view.

The show falters, somewhat predictably, in its mid-century selections. Jean Dubuffet holds up pretty well, and Hans Hoffmann is an unfailing upper. Fernand Léger is better seen in Nude Model in the Studio (1912-13) than in the later, cloyingly populist The Great Parade (definitive state) (1954). And, boy, is Abstract Expressionism looking like a period style. Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko are put to shame by minor lights like Alberto Burri and Asger Jorn; and we won’t mention Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell or Willem de Kooning’s Composition (1955). Chalk up the flabby ending to the Guggenheim’s inability to think outside the box. Then be grateful that the box is as full of good stuff as it is.

From Picasso to Pollock: Classics of Modern Art is at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Avenue, until Sept. 28.

Cacophony

You’d think the organizers of an exhibition honoring a musician would have given some thought to how it would sound. Whoever put together Black President: The Art and Legacy of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti , an exhibition of 34 artists on display at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, sure didn’t. While not headache-inducing, Black President is cacophonous, an insult to a man venerated by musicians and music-lovers of all stripes. The Nigerian-born Fela (1938-1997) earned his fame with politically charged, polyrhythmic dance music. Snippets of songs can be overheard and sampled at the New Museum, but it’s impossible to get a sense of the music’s body or momentum-there are too many soundtracks blaring, competing for one’s attention.

Many of the artists in the show accentuate Fela the “utopian visionary.” His persistent and often brutal struggles with the Nigerian government are referred to; so, too, his outlaw status, 27 wives and death from AIDS. Only Barkley Hendricks captures the spirit of the man; the coursing vulgarity of the painting Fela: Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen (2002) avoids the glib, didactical tone and general amateurism typical of Black President . As for the man’s music: A trip to Tower Records will offer greater testament to Fela’s legacy than this hobbled crazy quilt of a show.

Black President: The Art and Legacy of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti is at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, 583 Broadway, until Sept. 28.

Room to Grow

The warehouse aesthetic-you’ve seen it in Chelsea galleries, and also at museums enduring outer-borough exile while their home locations undergo renovation and expansion-is part of a worrying trend. Whenever this kind of institution privileges architecture-whether brute or overdetermined, or both-at the expense of art, you know the culture has taken a hit. How many times have you heard someone gush about a gallery’s expanse of space without mentioning the work on display?

The Museum for African Art’s temporary digs in Long Island City are a welcome exception to the rule. (The museum is scheduled to re-open in Harlem in 2006.) Frank Hereman, who was responsible for the simple, beautiful installation of Material Differences: Art and Identity in African Art , the museum’s current show, should take a bow. The cavernous industrial environs have been deftly broken up with hanging sheets of paper, rich accent colors and labels that state their case intelligently, then sidle out of the way. Material Differences brings a gentle proportion to the examination of how materials, process and spirituality reinforce each other in a variety of African societies. You could almost get lost in the exhibition’s flow, until certain pieces-a reliquary figure by the Beembe peoples of the Congo, say, or a gourd by the Ewe peoples of Togo-snatch the eye and nag the memory. This is the best show the museum has mounted, and augurs well for its future.

Material Differences is at the Museum for African Art, 36-01 43rd Avenue, third floor, Long Island City, Queens, until Oct. 6.