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Exhibition of the year!


Tehching Hsieh, "Punching the Time Clock on the Hour, One Year Performance" (1980-81)

Tehching Hsieh, "Punching the Time Clock on the Hour, One Year Performance" (1980-81)



When I predicted 2009’s top five museum shows for ARTINFO, I hedged my bets by concluding that “this time next year we’ll be reflecting on a whole bunch of other shows that turned out to be at least as good.” What I hadn’t imagined was that before the snow had melted we’d have so obvious a candidate for exhibition of the year as “The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860-1989″ which opened at the Guggenheim last week. But then, I hadn’t anticipated that this was going to be one of the best exhibitions that I’ve experienced anywhere, ever. But that’s what it is.

One indicator of a really important exhibition is that it immediately shifts your perspective on everything else you see. This is genuinely the case with “The Third Mind”: everything from On Kawara’s One Million Years at David Zwirner (that I was delighted to participate in last week) and the Islamic calligraphy shows at Asia Society (that I caught just before they closed today) were lent added resonance by the inspirational experience of the Guggenheim show.

“The Third Mind” starts out with Whistler-era Japonaiserie, and there are some striking bits of Georgia O’Keeffe and Arthur Dove, but the show really hits its stride when it approaches the second half of the twentieth century, and dedicates a section to what is called “Abstract Art, Calligraphy, and Metaphysics”. I knew that Mark Tobey had looked at Asian calligraphy, but it had honestly never occurred to me that David Smith had been similarly inspired. Jackson Pollock, Sam Francis, Philip Guston all look quite different in this context, and make the tradition that leads to Bryce Marden‘s “second style” perfectly palpable.  

If it is trust in the chance gesture and the unconsidered act that underpins this work, then that becomes all the more evident in the show’s next section: “Buddhism, and the Neo-Avant-Garde,” which for someone of my sensibilities is an utter delight. Much of the work that John Cage, Bob Rauschenberg, Allan Kaprow, Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik, Dick Higgins, Alison Knowles, and the whole Fluxus crowd made was regarded in its time as throwaway nonsense in its time. Nowadays anyone with any intelligence realizes its significance, but it is thrilling to see so much of it brought together and celebrated here. There’s the score for Cage’s infamous silent piece, 4′ 33″, and a video of him performing it; there’s Nam June Paik’s glorious Zen for Film – a movie that’s totally transparent and becomes simply a shadow-casting device; and here are bits of the script for Allan Kaprow’s first happening, 18 Happenings in 6 Parts.  

If performance art is where this strand of the tradition leads, then congratulations to Alexandra Munroe and her curatorial team for acknowledging that fact and indulging it. As you approach the top of the Guggenheim rotunda, there is all sorts of performance documentation to contemplate and enjoy, and more to the point, starting in March there will be “Third Mind Live” that’s going to feature performances and presentations by everyone from Robert Wilson to Marina Abramovic, from La Monte Young to Laurie Anderson. Unmissable, I’d say.

I shall be coming back to “The Third Mind” again here on A Sky filled with Shooting Stars, and not simply to report on that performance program. There is so much in the show that I haven’t had space to even mention here: a wonderful James Turrell installation, a Dream House, Ad Reinhardt, Richard Tuttle, Andy Warhol’s Sleep, the whole Beat generation, and two pieces that deserve their own posts: Tehching Hsieh’s epoch-making Punching the Time Clock on the Hour, One Year Performance, and Ann Hamilton‘s joyous human carriage, which is one of the most remarkable pieces of site-specific art ever created. Watch this space.

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