On the Edge

'Delirious' at the Met Breuer

Header Image - Philip Guston (American, 1913–1980), "The Street," 1977, Oil on canvas 69 in. × 9 ft. 3 in. (175.3 × 281.9 cm.), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace and Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Saul Gifts, Gift of George A. Hearn, by exchange, and Arthur Hoppock Hearn Fund, 1983 © The Estate of Philip Guston, Courtesy Hauser & Wirth. Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

BY: Zach Wampler

The year is coming to a close, and I think many can agree that 2017 has been one hell of a rollercoaster.

When it comes to the concern of what art can do for us in these tumultuous times, we have to obvious answers: protest or escapism. The exhibition Delirious: Art at the Limit of Reason, 1950 – 1980 at the Met Breuer offers us a third, more complicated, answer.

Curated by Kelly Baum, Delirious is comprised of dozens of paintings, drawings, video, and sculptures that range in their origin and movement. However, according to the press release, “delirium … serves as an umbrella concept that includes a range of analogous experiences, all of which flirt with the irrational.” Irrationality is then split into various categories across galleries with labels like “Vertigo” or “Twisted.” This allows the viewer some level of organizing thought and principle when moving through this vibrant– and sometimes overwhelming –exhibition.

With that in mind, don’t expect to have your hand held through this show. The thirty years that Baum is examining is perhaps the most fraught decades of the twentieth century: the aftermath of the Second World War, the Cold War, and the political and social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. Irrationality seems like a natural point of departure for artists being exposed to the horrors of wars, the souring of “free love” movements, or the political turmoil and corruption of the 1970s. This is all very fertile grounds for exploration, and this exhibition proves that there were a multitude of ways to engage with delirium.

The perennially haunting presence of Warhol’s Electric Chair, a BDSM head by Nancy Grossman, the ghastly figure of Miss E Knows by Jim Nutt, or the gritty and visceral video work of Dara Birnbaum leave you feeling jarred, to say the least. At certain points throughout the show, I heard hushed giggles of nervous laughter. It makes sense because one does feel nervous, along with feeling disturbed and melancholic. Suddenly, amongst the feeling of darkness, I genuinely felt the absurd humor in the exhibition. Lee Lozano’s quasi-instructive drawing which says to “THROW THE LAST TWELVE ISSUES OF ARTFORUM IN THE AIR” made me think some of the nervous laughter in the galleries was actually sincere. Laughter and wit is sometimes the best solution to a bleak reality.

One leaves this exhibition feeling sobered, but hopeful, too. It speaks to the power of these many artists (across borders and generations) that turned to their art practices to confront the irrational worlds in which they lived. Art as a medium to confront trauma and to channel catharsis can be deeply unsettling, as one can see in Delirious. However, it also offers the opportunity for release and healing, and in light of this past year, that message feels more vital than ever.

 

Photograph by Ana Mendieta
Ana Mendieta (American, 1948–1985), ‘Untitled (Glass on Body Imprints—Face),’ 1972, Eleven gelatin silver prints from a set of thirteen, each 10 × 8 in. (25.4 × 20.3 cm). Princeton University Art Museum, Museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, Fund. © Ana Mendieta (1948–1985). Photo by Princeton University Art Museum / Art Resource, NY

 

Video still by Dara Birnbaum
Dara Birnbaum (American, born New York 1946), ‘Chaired Anxieties: Slewed,’ 1975, Single-channel video, black-and-white, sound, 13 min. 6 sec. Courtesy of Dara Birnbaum and Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York.

 

Painting by Dean Fleming
Dean Fleming (American, born 1933), ‘Snap Roll,’ 1965, Acrylic on canvas, 653/4 × 995/8 in. (167 × 253.1 cm). Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Gift of Mari and James A. Michener, 1968 (G1968.54). © Dean Fleming. Photo by George Helms.

 

Painting by Jim Nutt
Jim Nutt (American, born 1938), ‘Miss E. Knows,’ 1967, Acrylic on Plexiglas with aluminum and rubber; enamel on wood frame, 755/8 × 515/8 in. (192.1 × 131.1 cm). The Art Institute of Chicago, Twentieth-Century Purchase Fund (1970.1014). The Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource, NY.

 

Drawing by Lee Lozano
Lee Lozano (American, 1930–1999), ‘Untitled (Stoned Drunk Sober; Pot Baller/Pun; Throwing Up Piece), vol. 2, p. 38, no. 401,’ 1969, Ink on graph paper, 11 × 81/2 in. (27.9 × 21.6 cm). Private Collection.

 

Wall piece (neon) by Bruce Nauman
Bruce Nauman (American, born 1941), ‘Human Nature/Life Death,’ 1983, Neon tubing with clear glass tubing suspension frames, 72 × 72 × 4 in. (182.9 × 182.9 × 10.2 cm). The Art Institute of Chicago, Acquired from City of Chicago Public Art Program Collection, through prior gifts of Florence S. McCormick and Emily Crane Chadbourne (2004.151). © 2017 Bruce Nauman / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Photo: The Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource, NY.

 

Wall piece by Howardena Pindell
Howardena Pindell (American, born 1943), ‘Memory Test: Free, White & Plastic (#114),’ 1979–80, Cut and pasted and painted punched paper, acrylic, watercolor, gouache, ink, thread, nails, mat board, sprayed adhesive, and plastic on cardboard, 207/8 × 207/8 in. (53 × 53 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Arthur Hoppock Hearn Fund, 1980. © Howardena Lindell. Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, photo by Hyla Skopitz.

 

Screenprint by Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol (American, 1928–1987), Printed by Silkprint Kettner, Zurich; published by Bruno Bischofberger, ‘Electric Chair,’ 1971, Screenprint from a portfolio of ten, 35 1/2 × 48 in. (90.2 × 121.9 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Robert Meltzer, 1972. © 2017 Andy Warhol Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York. Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, photo by Kathy Dehab.

 

Collage by Jacques Mahé de la Villeglé
Jacques Mahé de la Villeglé (French, born 1926), ‘Jazzmen,’ 1961, Torn posters mounted on canvas, 857/16 × 6911/16 in. (217 × 177 cm). Tate, Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery 2000 (T07619).

 

Painting by Philip Guston
Philip Guston (American, 1913–1980), ‘The Street,’ 1977, Oil on canvas, 69 in. × 9 ft. 3 in. (175.3 × 281.9 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace and Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Saul Gifts, Gift of George A. Hearn, by exchange, and Arthur Hoppock Hearn Fund, 1983. © The Estate of Philip Guston, Courtesy Hauser & Wirth. Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art.