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From Here To There (and Back Again)

Jeff Wall, “Citizen” (1996). Gelatine silver print on aluminium panel, framed, 192 x 244 cm. Photo: Öffentliche Kunstsammlung Basel, Martin P. Bühler, courtesy Kunstmuseum Basel, © Jeff Wall.

Collection shows, by their very nature, often feel more like “Best of…” CDs than a well-curated mix-tape. They usually feature the hits—a stripe-y Barnett Newman, an invariably awesome Pablo Picasso—but context and a coherent thesis is usually, almost inevitably, missing. How to connect the Picasso to the Newman without invoking a stutter and hiss on the tape (as elucidated by the invisible crease in the white wall they share), by which we know that one work really wasn’t supposed to follow the other, and that a lucid argument about their relationship might be lacking?

These were some of my thoughts, anyway, on entering “Holbein To Tillmans” (there’s a leap for you), the Schaulager’s summer show of some 200 works culled from the Kunstmuseum Basel’s deeply quirky collection (Holbein and friends, an orgy of Swiss Alpine landscapes, a remarkable group of Ab-Ex works bought in toto on a trip to New York in 1958) as well as a few others from the Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation.

Matching the Schaulger’s own improbably seismic concrete-and-concrete space, deftly orchestrated by local heroes Herzog & DeMeuron, the exhibition’s scope—the Middle Ages to the present—is large in the extreme. The curatorial premise, by necessity, is vague in the extreme: to look at all the works “with today’s eyes,” and to perceive the “world around us by looking at people or things.” If this sounds doubtful, the show succeeds by merit of the works themselves, as well as by odd and inspirational pairings that together advance a kind of humanist argument: everything’s linked—past, present, future—and we’re all in this together.

Rodney Graham, “Allegory of Folly: Study for an Equestrian Monument in the Form of a Wind Vane” (2005). Lightbox, two parts, each: 306 x 141 x 18 cm. Photo: Tom Bisig, Basel, courtesy Kunstmuseum Basel, © Rodney Graham.

To make her point, curator Theodora Vischer starts things off with Rodney Graham’s Allegory of Folly: An Equestrian Monument in the Form of a Wind Vane (2005). The huge light box, which features a diptych of the Canadian artist reading the phonebook while seated backwards on a horse, is a spirited nod—at once irreverent and reverent—to Holbein’s famous portrait of Eramus, author of the 16th-century text Praise of Folly. The insinuation that the past is present is apparent in a nearby hallway as well, which is hung with one of Candida Höfer’s elegant art-about-art portraits, this one Kunstmuseum Basel 1 (1999), featuring a museum wall hung with a middle-century portrait of a mother and child; Picasso’s Man, Woman, and Child (1906); and Ilja Kabakov’s arresting room-size installation Mother and Son: The Album of My Mother (1993). If the curatorial conceit here was crystal clear, it fell by the wayside upon entering the Russian artist’s dark room (a flashlight was provided to each visitor), which was strung with a grid of strings from which hung mementos and detritus and stories from his mother’s life. As moving an evocation of a life as I can remember seeing, the installation was mysterious, melancholy, and a bit, well, noir, casting the viewer as voyeur and explorer both, snooping about in the darkened recesses of the rooms of someone’s life. The fact that the “someone” represented was the artist’s mother imbued the work with a palpable tenderness, and a common feeling—that beneath the intimate familiarity, the lives of our parents are mysteries we can hardly fathom.

Vischer’s focus on the familial subject as the relationship between such disparate works soon morphed into more formal concerns. A gallery in a distinctly greige palette featured an inspired juxtaposition of a suite of works by Bruce Nauman and Toba Khedoori, as well as singular offerings by Monika Sosnowska, and Mario Merz. All pale, provisionary, and profoundly disorienting propositions, Nauman’s static-y man-in-studio videos and enigmatic body casts played off Khedoori’s huge wax drawings on paper.

Nearby, Sosnowska’s gigantic metal sculpture bulged out of the gallery just barely enclosing it, while Merz’s floor fluorescent piece evoked Nauman’s own linguistic turns with fluorescents. In the same vein, a beautiful room of Wolfgang Tillmans‘ and Andy Warhol’s photo-based works, with a bit of realist Richter thrown into the mix, quickly filled in the artists’ shared formal concerns while also shedding light on their distinctly differing conceptual sensibilities.

The cohesion of these rooms played counterpoint to more indiscriminate organizing principles: a few of Schaulager’s tall, banner-like walls were hung salon-style with a magpie of works: Swiss landscapes in thick oils, more modern abstractions, figurative works. Nevertheless, by the end of the show the curator’s thesis had begun to seep into my brain. Older pieces began to evoke contemporary methodologies and concerns, and to suggest relationships to current works that were not even in the exhibition.

Picasso’s small, wonderful tempura Compotier et fruits (1908), for example, with its muted-tropical palette and geometrically abstracted pears and apples, recalled, to me, nothing so much as the geometric abstraction of young photographers like Walead Beshty and Eileen Quinlan, artists who are more often aligned with the Constructivists, early avant-garde photography, and conceptual photographic practices. To that end, “Holbein To Tillmans” was less a visual essay than a suggested methodology for the viewing of artworks, which hews pretty close to its stated curatorial intentions. If the relativism of such an approach is not to everyone’s taste, nor to be utilized everyday, it still brings up some interesting questions; namely, that the big questions—self, family, one’s place in the world—have stayed remarkably consistent for so many centuries.

Bruce Nauman, “Storage Capsule for the Right Rear Quarter of My Body” (1966). Galvanized iron sheet, 72 x 6.1 x 9.6 in. Photo: Öffentliche Kunstsammlung Basel, Martin P. Bühler, courtesy Kunstmuseum Basel, © 2009 Pro Litteris, Zürich.

Barnett Newman, “White Fire II” (1960). Oil on canvas, 244 x 193 cm. Photo: Öffentliche Kunstsammlung Basel, Martin P. Bühler, courtesy Kunstmuseum Basel, © 2009 Pro Litteris, Zürich.

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