"Exquisitely Modern" is a doubly important show. On one level it brings 50 significant works of contemporary art to the Honolulu Academy of Arts’ permanent collection. On another it tells a story about two solidly middle-class New Yorkers: Herb and Dorothy Vogel, whose passion for art filled their apartment with conceptualist and minimalist masterpieces by the likes of Robert Barry, Mark Kostabi, Richard Tuttle and Judy Rifka.
Looking at these works today reveals some of the prehistory that influenced the so-called "street art" movement represented by the Banksys, Swoons and Barry McGees of the world. For our own young artists, especially those struggling with material, intellectual and conceptual constraints, this excerpt from the Vogel’s collection provides some much-needed perspective. The low-fi quotidian materials and do-it-yourself aesthetic can speak to them of a deep history that Internet culture has flattened into trivia.
‘EXQUISITELY MODERN: 50 WORKS FROM HERBERT AND DOROTHY VOGEL’
On exhibit: Through May 22, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays and 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays
Where: Honolulu Academy of Arts, 900 S. Beretania St.
Admission: $10; $5 seniors, students, military; children under 12 free
Some might be tempted to emulate Richard Tuttle’s highly deceptive series of simple watercolor paintings on loose-leaf paper, Mark Kostabi’s "Who put the dumb in freedom?" or Judy Rifka’s "Cardboard Painting," thinking they can get away with applying some color and line to a humble surface and calling it art — or, heaven help us, "eco-art" — just because Uncle and Auntie did it. But, and this matters in formal art history, they did it first, and under very different circumstances.
Our young artists with enough sense to be inspired by seeing these works in actuality shouldn’t overlook their significance any more than should the viewer who is tempted to react with the classic "My kid could do that!" when presented with Tuttle’s squiggles of color, Kostabi’s "naive" marker drawings of noodle-limbed, headless figures (which his friend Keith Haring would go on to make famous) or Rifka’s bold polygons against the industrial brown of cardboard box.
Their direct styles are "childish," their media and the choice of materials are "low" and the works might appear to be easy to make. But in all three cases, "childish" can be understood as a code word for a spirit of spontaneity that is readily recognized and celebrated as sophisticated in Chinese and Japanese painting. There is a humility in their use of everyday materials that comments on the circumstances of production (a chosen lifestyle of borderline poverty in New York City) and a rejection of previous standards of what constitutes "fine" art.
In Tuttle’s work we find a gently sculptural puckering of the paper, and subtle allusions to internal organs, people and emotional states that viewers interpret with surprising consistency. In Rifka’s work the visual energy comes from the specifically selected shades of red and white used to interact with the all-too-familiar brown, the precise relationship between the polygons’ sizes and angles, the creases and impressions in the cardboard, and the square of the "canvas." It is this intentional balance between an "unrefined" superficial presentation and deeply informed execution that differentiates such work not only from child’s play, but from earlier movements in art.
There is a punk-rock (in Kostabi’s case, hip-hop) energy alive in these and other works in the show, and as collectors this is what the Vogels recognized before any of their contemporaries. As artists themselves and as folks of average means (Herb Vogel was a postman and Dorothy a librarian), there was little social distance between them and the artists they collected. They were also driven by their passion for visual arts in general and the movement that they helped to cultivate at the time. They spotted the emergence of something new, and they nurtured it, not through grants or big shows, but with small, frequent and above all consistent purchases. (Megumi Sasaki’s 2008 documentary "Herb & Dorothy" is an excellent overview of the Vogels’ lives and should be seen before or after visiting the show.)
This is why the Vogels should be role models for all of us who believe in contemporary art in Hawaii. If we want to support and develop local contemporary artists, then they have to see art-making as a viable career. Which means we have to buy their work, which like the conceptualists and minimalists in this show will not be immediately recognized as "good" or even "local" art. Just as the Vogels challenged themselves to recognize the valuable in the new, so must we. Luckily the work of emerging artists is inexpensive! "Exquisitely Modern" is an educational opportunity for all who are willing to see with open eyes, and to dig into a background story that shows life itself to be art.