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Less is More: The Judith Neisser Collection

Last week, I sneaked into Contemporary Collecting: The Judith Neisser Collection a few days before the official opening. Like many people, I admit to bringing certain preconceived notions about what an exhibition comprised primarily of American Minimalist and Conceptualist art from the 1960s to present day would look like. While there was no shortage of stark geometric compositions by the likes of Blinky Palermo and Sol LeWitt, I was rather surprised by the wide range of artworks under the Minimalist and Conceptualist umbrella. The life-size nude drawing at the center of the exhibition by Marlene Dumas, in particular, forced me to reconsider my previous ideas about the collection. Judith Neisser’s rigorous selection of key works from these movements allows both the novice and the adept to not only see these largely misunderstood disciplines by virtue of their most essential artists, but also a diversity in practice that seems all the richer in light of its limitations.

Roman Opalka’s 1965/1-∞ (Detail 4135702-41622229) looks from afar like a white on white canvas composition similar to the works of Robert Ryman, also featured in this exhibition and explored in greater detail in a recent post. However, upon closer inspection, the texture in the composition is, in fact, sequential numbers meticulously handwritten to cover the canvas space. Part of a never-ending series of “details” which begin with number 1 and continue toward infinity, I couldn’t help but consider the artist’s experience in this seemingly tedious task of writing number after number, piece after piece. Also part of a series, Lucio Fontana’s Concetto spaziale il’oro e bello come il sole explores the use of monochrome and destruction as a force of creation. What deceptively looks like a thick block of gold-enameled metal is, in fact, an oil canvas hanging squarely on the wall with no frame. Holes, which appear to be melted through the otherwise plain, smooth surface, expose the wall behind it. In these works that force the viewer to consider both the composition and the process, a point converges where Minimalism and Conceptualism meet.

Few disciplines force us to question the nature of art like Conceptualism and, likewise, few movements raise the ire of the public so dramatically. Sherrie Levine, who gained notoriety in the 80s for photographing public domain photographs by Walker Evans and then copyrighting the photographed photos, expands upon her notion of appropriation with a cast bronze sculpture of a steer skull, clearly evoking while updating iconic O’Keeffe imagery. A marble bench by Jenny Holzer shares one of her engraved take-it-or-leave-it truisms, which range from the droll (“DYING AND COMING BACK GIVES YOU CONSIDERABLE PERSPECTIVE”) to the doleful (“TORTURE IS BARBARIC”).  Holzer neither subscribes to nor disowns her readymade adages. Rather, the often playful statements interact with the permanence of their inscription, forcing us to not only to question Holzer’s advice but the presentation of subjective opinion as art.

Many of the pieces from Judith Neisser’s rich Contemporary collection are promised gifts to the museum and include, among others, works by Roni Horn, Cy Twombly, and Donald Judd.