I was looking forward to “Delirious: Art at the Limits of Reason” at the Met Breuer, which promised to be one of the big adventures of the fall art season. In addition to having a catchy title, the sprawling group show comes with a theme that seems tailor-made for these politically warped times. The idea was to present art from 1950 to 1980 in a daring new context, and show how World War II and the post-war years inspired a generation of artists here and abroad to push their work into the realm of irrationality and even madness.
But I am afraid the title is misleading, and the show sorely under-delivers. It offers, in essence, a tame, academic view of a small swath of modern art – the Conceptual art movement of the 1960s and 1970s. As most everyone knows, Conceptual art emphasizes ideas and philosophy over visual pleasure. The mind matters more than the eye. Its leading figure is probably Sol LeWitt, the visionary and much-loved draftsman and sculptor whose commanding wall drawings and pristine geometric structures are generally viewed as emblems of rationalism and intellectual purity.
But the Met Breuer show asks that we re-consider. It wants to highlight the madness and despair that underlie the most fixed and orderly systems. This claim feels imposed by curators, rather than generated from within the artwork – a problem.
On the plus side, there are 60 artists in the show, and the Met is to be commended for seeking out new names. About one-fourth of the artists come from Latin America, and several excel at playing havoc with the form of the grid. The Venezuelan artist Gego (also known as Gertrud Goldschmidt) opens the show with a commanding but delicate sculpture, a seven-foot-tall metal lattice twisted into loopy permutations. Women artists are well-represented, and among the standouts are Eva Hesse, Martha Wilson, Dara Birnbaum, and Howardena Pindell, whose giddy “Memory Test: Free, White and Plastic (#114), of 1979-1980, combines thousands of pieces of hole-punched paper into a gridded system that has clearly gone haywire.
In 2011, when the Met announced it would take over the former building of the Whitney Museum and announced a new interest in exhibiting modern and contemporary art, many of us were skeptical. There were already several world-class museums in New York devoted expressly to the art of the 20th century. The Met, in turn, countered that it alone could present modern art in a broad and even encyclopedic context, because its collection is culled from every continent and every century.
Yet the “Delirious” show ignores many countries that should have been included, especially Japan, whose artists might seem especially relevant in a show devoted to the trauma of World War II. Moreover, there is no explanation why a group show that could have spanned 300 years or even 3000 years spans only 30 years. “Delirious times demand delirious art,” trumpets a press release for the show. It’s an appealing slogan, but a slogan alone does not make a show.