Simple pleasures

Minimalist works, maximum impact at TMA

click to enlarge CROSS PURPOSES: Robert Mangold's "Red/Aqua/Yellowgreen + Painting" (1982-83), pencil and paint on wood and aluminum. - ©2006 Robert Mangold/artists Rights Society (ars), New York
©2006 Robert Mangold/
artists Rights Society (ars), New York
CROSS PURPOSES: Robert Mangold's "Red/Aqua/Yellowgreen + Painting" (1982-83), pencil and paint on wood and aluminum.

"Less is more" goes Mies van der Rohe's famous in-a-nutshell explanation of minimalism's appeal.

Franco-American curator Gilbert Brownstone had something similar in mind when he collected minimalist works during a career at French museums and as owner of his own gallery in Paris. The pieces are "simple to the point of complexity," he wrote about the collection he donated to West Palm Beach's Norton Museum of Art from 2000 to 2003.

Now on view at the Tampa Museum of Art, Minimal to the Max: The Brownstone Collection finds itself in some strong supporting company: a series of colorful geometric screen prints by German-born artist Josef Albers, the timely acquisition of an elegant plywood sculpture by former USF professor Richard Beckman and recent paintings by Tampa icon Theo Wujcik, whose use of a grid of square pixels owes something to the movement showcased in the larger gallery.

After a year of TMA shows featuring visually and conceptually dense work — illustrations by Where the Wild Things Are author Maurice Sendak; abstract paintings, plastic sculptures and video in underCURRENT/overVIEW 8; myriad forms of narrative, from Greek amphorae to 20th-century advertisements, in What Does It Mean? — an exhibit about minimalism feels like a breath of fresh air. Prepare yourself for the kind of nirvana moment that comes from the simple pleasures of symmetry, color and void.

The first such moment comes in the form of a painting by Swiss artist Olivier Mosset that is, quite simply, the thick black outline of a circle centered on a white canvas. According to the label text — always great at TMA, but especially helpful in the context of these laconic works — Mosset completed over 200 paintings exactly like this one in his lifetime, a perverse challenge to the idea that an artist's work evolves over time as well as to a market that purports to value originality above all else. (Warhol, who blew the top off the latter idea with his repetitive Campbell's soup cans, has two screen-prints nearby.)

With his obsessive exercise, Mosset seems to say: I've found the perfect shape — no need to paint anything else. He went on to paint the giant red X hanging just a few feet away from the black donut, but at the time he wasn't alone among artists who thought they had reduced art to its fundamental element. Take a grid of white cubes by Sol Lewitt, who was outspoken in his enthusiasm for the simple, six-sided shape, or the punctured holes in a red-lacquered ellipse by Lucio Fontana, who was famous for slashing holes in his canvases. (His perfect shape was the one created by letting real space into the two-dimensional canvas.)

Several works play with crosses and anthropomorphic shapes suggestive of human figures. Imi Knoebel's acrylic-on-wood t-shape of pink and red rectangles bears an uncanny resemblance to Wujcik's wall painting of a figure he calls "ball bat Jesus." The figure, which he glimpsed on the wall of a pizza parlor in Ybor, makes a recurring appearance in his cheerfully apocalyptic paintings about global warming. Robert Mangold creates his own unique homage to the cross in wood and aluminum with bands of red, green and almost-invisible blue painted along the edges. The piece has a simple purity that reminds me of Le Corbusier's rustic-futuristic cathedral, Notre Dame du Haut, in Ronchamp, France.

Prints by Ed Ruscha, arranged with a group of works that combine pop art with minimalist sensibilities, give voice to the movement's subconscious, as if blurting out revealing concerns in a moment of free association. Block letters spell out thought fragments on a smoldering background of sunset hues. "Hydraulic/Muscles/Pneumatic/Smiles," a mysterious four-line poem, paints a picture of alienation from the mechanization of everyday life, of feeling reduced to sign and advertisement. (By the way, if you'd like to see more Ruschas of a slightly less austere tenor, head over to the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts — they've got several, pulled by printers at Tampa's own Graphicstudio, on display as part of a show of photogravures.)

A recently acquired sculpture by Beckman, a USF art professor who died in 2004, makes a wonderful complement to Minimal. Purchased this year with funds donated by friends of the artist, it is the last work he sculpted before his death.

Taking on unglamorous plywood, Beckman transforms it into something decidedly more ethereal than chemically-treated boards from Home Depot. He cuts tear-shaped holes into the wood until it resembles lace or an elaborate paper cutout, and fans them out around a central point. The final, 7-and-one-half-feet-tall, 5-feet-diameter construction looks like a giant, perfectly symmetrical candlestick with voluptuous curves — or a larger-than-life chess queen, its round top casting a crown-shaped shadow onto the wall. It's well worth paying a visit to the museum to see in its own right.

In one of the museum's smaller galleries, visual variations on a theme by Joseph Albers suggest a thin line between color genius and color madness. Using a set of nested squares in one series of prints and overlapping rectangles in another, Albers changes only the color of the shapes in an experiment on color's role in perception. With each transformation, from harmonious blues to contrasting oranges and greens, the eye reads different depths of space, emotional resonance — and even interprets objects, like windows, doors, faces and eyes — a testament to the mind's powerful compulsion to make sense of things.

If printing the same set of squares and rectangles over and over again seems kinda crazy, here's food for thought: Albers, a Bauhaus-trained German artist who fled his country with the rise of the Nazis, taught at Black Mountain College in North Carolina before becoming dean of Yale's art program. A number of the late 20th century's most influential visual artists and brilliant colorists — from de Kooning to Rauschenberg to Motherwell — were Albers' Black Mountain students around that time.

Maybe some of that color genius was contagious.

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