TO THE MAX

Beckmann in Paris takes "Best of Show"

This year has been an odd one in the visual arts. It seems that at this frenzied 11th hour of the millennium, artists and art institutions have behaved contrary to expectations: Instead of bold technical experimentation, bawdy body art (Karen Finley is finally -- fortunately -- passé) or cheap provocation, the year has witnessed a resurgence of art that is decidedly introspective, intellectual and quiet in nature. The Venice Biennale was heavy on video art, but by now that medium is hardly radical -- it rubs shoulders in the canon of high art with oil painting and sculpture. The biggest art controversy of the year isn't really about art at all: Damien Hirst's segmented cows and the elephant-dung Madonna at the Brooklyn Museum of Art make a convenient soapbox for New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, but the brouhaha should have little or no effect on how and why art is made and shown in the future.

The hyper-multiculturalism of the 1980s appears to have waned: The 1999-2000 Carnegie International in Pittsburgh features a solid, if rather tame, selection of mainly American and Western European artists. And the Whitney Museum's American Century, Part I, which was meant to revise the standard narrative of American art and culture, is nothing more than a gentle recasting of the story. A few artists who were formerly footnotes stepped up to "main gallery" status, but aside from that, the Whitney show is simply a straight-faced survey of American art of the century, with none of the fin de siècle nervousness one might expect, nor any grand statement about the future of art in this country.

In short, a lot went on in the art world in 1999, and much of it was tame and introspective. But the year in art might best be remembered for what didn't happen: The art world managed for the most part to avoid the millennium hype that has infected almost every other aspect of our culture. This has been a good thing. There is nothing more irritating than mock-serious assessments of the "best" and "worst" of this millennium, and there is nothing more pompous than some of the grandiose predictions about the future of our culture in the next millennium.

This year, the national and international art scenes carried on with business as usual, and the same can be said for St. Louis, much to the city's credit. The year saw the best (and even some of the worst) the region can offer in the field of visual arts. One of the great strengths of St. Louis' art scene is its intimacy. Once again this year, viewers were invited into the galleries of working artists, thanks to the open-studio tour through downtown's Loft District, as well as EAST Art 99, the tour of artists' spaces in Edwardsville and Alton, Ill. There's really no better way to see art than in this kind of setting, where the artists are available and the stuffy, sterile atmosphere of a "real" exhibit is absent. There is something to be said about living in a relatively small region, where that intimacy with the arts can be maintained.

That said, there is nothing second-rate about the quality of art seen in the St. Louis region this year. St. Louis galleries and museums use the close-knit character of the art community to great advantage. Last summer's Innovations in Textile Arts III, 1999's edition of the biennial textile fair, was a smashing success because of the participation of so many different arts organizations. The fair coordinated events and shows at places all over the city, from the Central West End to the City Museum, from the St. Louis Art Museum to the Portfolio Gallery, from the University City Library Gallery to the Forum for Contemporary Art. It was a chance to see and learn about the widely varied medium of fiber arts, but it also gave St. Louisans a chance to see a successful example of cooperative effort in the arts.

The St. Louis Art Museum's contribution to Innovations in Textile Arts III was Structure and Surface: Contemporary Japanese Textiles, an incredible exhibit that implicitly redefines what art is at the end of this millennium and what it may increasingly become in the next. The textiles in Structure and Surface reveal what can be done when artistic imagination is combined with scientific ingenuity. The textiles are beautiful and useful alike. They represent a vision of what the world might look like if the usual distinctions between art and industry, between art and function -- indeed, between art and everyday life -- were finally done away with. Yes, it's utopian. That's what makes it good.

Granted, the St. Louis Art Museum is the largest visual-arts organization in the city, and it certainly doesn't need more press than it already gets. But the fact is that in 1999 the museum also put on the best shows in the city. Period. Right away, in January, Currents 76: Gabriel Orozco opened -- a wonderful way to start the year. Orozco is quite simply one of the most talented artists currently working, and this small show of his recent photographs was tremendous. The museum's Currents series practically never misses a note, managing to feature such excellent established artists as Orozco and Diana Thater along with lesser-known but emerging figures like sculptor Jiro Okura.

The museum does a great job of staging a variety of exhibits, large and small, simultaneously. This year, the museum's Cohen Gallery featured intelligent, intimate exhibits such as Revealing the Holy Land: The Photographic Exploration of Palestine and My Nature: Works on Paper by Kiki Smith at the same time that big-ticket shows were featured in the special-exhibition galleries, giving viewers a reason to come back again and again.

And if anyone needs more convincing that the St. Louis Art Museum was the place to see art in 1999, three words ought to take care of it: Beckmann and Paris. More than an exhibit, it was an event. For the art world, the show allowed a reassessment of Max Beckmann's curious position in the history of modern art -- caught, as it were, between two national and artistic cultures, German and French. For St. Louis, it was another chance to re-establish the significance of Beckmann, the city's adopted son, who has figured so prominently in its own cultural history. For the St. Louis Art Museum, it was a chance to show the world the brilliance of its curator, Dr. Cornelia Homburg, as well as the breadth of the museum's own holdings of modern art by Beckmann and other important German artists. The exhibit and the catalog alike were beautifully done and received rave reviews in the local, national and international press. Beckmann and Paris was the most significant event of the year in art in St. Louis.

Of course, interesting art was to be found beyond the confines of the St. Louis Art Museum this year. Beautifully done shows were featured at Elliot Smith Contemporary Art and William Shearburn; Sue Eisler's Perforations at Shearburn last spring was a particular standout. But those galleries are so well established that it would have been surprising if they hadn't mounted several good shows this year.

What was more exciting in 1999 was the strength of shows at some of the city's smaller galleries and the emergence of some new, or newly refashioned, venues for exhibiting art. The Gallery at St. Louis Community College-Forest Park consistently stages solid shows; this year's exhibit of Gary Passanise's recent sculptural work was one of the most beautiful yet. And the University of Missouri-St. Louis' Gallery 210 likewise never lets viewers down. The shows of contemporary master prints and new works by Kit Keith put on this year were exciting in very different ways. It's wonderful to see that small gallery take on big challenges.

More good news: This year, the art galleries at the Sheldon Concert Hall became more accessible to viewers with the adoption of regular public hours (Tuesdays and Saturdays) and the inauguration of a lunchtime-lecture series. In addition, the Black World History Wax Museum emerged as an exciting place for art exhibits. In April, the museum held a show of civil-rights photographs by Ernest C. Withers, accompanied by a lecture on St. Louis' civil-rights movement by Norman Seay. In the future, the museum should prove an important venue for speakers and exhibits on African-American history.

Was there any bad news this year in art? Of course there was. The Midtown Arts Center appears to be blowing its chance to become a serious contender among exhibition spaces in the city, though it did mount a few nice shows, including the July-August show of photographs by Jeff Johnston and Peter Zwally. The much-anticipated Masks: Faces of Culture at the St. Louis Art Museum is bogged down by disappointing exhibition design. And lately there's been a rash of shows with "millennium" titles (Visions 2000 at the Portfolio Gallery; Millennium Madness at the Atrium Gallery; The Millennium Show: Looking Forward, Looking Back at the Center of Contemporary Arts). It doesn't make much difference, though: None of the works in the shows seems to have anything to do with the coming of the new millennium. And that's good news.

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