Given the opportunity to dramatically expand the Minneapolis Institute of Arts' contemporary art collection, does "Until Now" showcase art the museum should pursue? Yes and no.
The show caps an 18-month search and seduction mission by the museum's new contemporary art curator, Elizabeth Armstrong, who set out to gather a potential collection of post-1960 art that the museum could acquire through gift or purchase. On loan primarily from collectors, artists and galleries, the 80-some pieces are not exactly tagged with "for sale" slips, but do represent the sort of art that the museum wants to bring its collection up to date. More than half is from collectors who might donate pieces that the museum could not otherwise afford.
The show is a bold, go-for-broke gesture that really challenges the museum's trustees to make good on a decade of murmurings about their desire to jump into the 21st century. They wouldn't have to buy all 80 pieces in "Until Now," but with some checkbook flourishes they could transform the institution.
The best of "Until Now" is international, multimedia, and eclectic in style and format. The most impressive and intriguing pieces are not necessarily by the best-known names, either. In fact, the paintings kindly loaned by Ed Ruscha, Jasper Johns and David Hockney seem decidedly second tier. Rather than buy those, the museum would do better to keep looking for great gifts.
Among the show's appealing surprises is a delicate painting/construction by Jesús Rafael Soto, a Venezuelan kinetic and op-artist, who creates dancing visual effects by dangling a fragile mobile in front of painted stripes. A group of collage and assemblage paintings and sculpture spanning 50 years deserves serious consideration, especially Alfred Leslie's "Einstein's Secret, 1958-61," John Chamberlain's crunched washing machine of 1969, a bizarre wax mobile that Petah Coyne concocted in the early 1990s, and Swoon's op-pop-figurative painting "Alixa and Naima," from 2008. Terrific, all of them.
Savvy collectors know that the best realistic artists will be vindicated eventually, even though they're out of fashion now. Among the finest is Michelangelo Pistoletto, whose mirror-polished painting on steel, "Girl With Coca Cola Bottle," is a highlight here. Ditto Neil Jenney's conceptual landscape "Atmosphere," and Jennifer Steinkamp's mesmerizing 2006 video of gently bobbing "Chrysanthemums."
The best of the Pop art is in the hands of private collectors, especially Gordon Locksley and George T. Shea. Their forays into Asian neo-pop paintings and sculpture by Takashi Murakami, Yue Minjun and Yoshitomo Nara bring a global perspective to a movement that otherwise seems frozen in history.
The show's most promising art is international work with a political edge, especially Iraqi painter Ahmed Alsoudani's dramatic depiction of the violence and chaos that has engulfed his country, and Siah Armajani's huge glassed-in room evoking the existential loneliness of exile. Prints, paintings, photos and sculpture by William Kentridge, Cy Thao, Zhang Huan, Kara Walker, Robert Polidori, Rebecca Belmore, Mona Hatoum and Lorraine O'Grady offer provocative meditations on how we as individuals relate to history, race, our own sexuality, exile, war and the ongoing traumas and travails of contemporary life.
Only by weaving these pieces among what the museum already owns would it be possible to grasp their full meaning in and to this community. All of the art won't make the cut, but "Until Now" lays out a promising blueprint for the future.
Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431