Looking back

By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  January 2, 2007
A TOUCHSTONE WORK: A zig-zag chair by Gerrit Thomas Rietveld.
The first work she re¬ferred to was “Six Towers” (1987), a white wooden grid of open cubes perhaps seven feet tall. Among the things it suggests is that structures such as buildings can be deconstructed into pure form. Her second example was a large untitled 1968 canvas that simulates a chalkboard scrawled upon with looping gestural scribbles, some of which we can see as heart-shaped, as we might project shapes into cloud formations.
Many of the museum’s showpieces are on display, representing iconic artists in the history of modern art. Cézanne’s “On the Bank of a River (Au Bord d’une rivière)” (1904-05) employs his signature patches of color, the artist’s demonstration of how the eye assembles images; without such a precursor, LeWitt might not have attempted to break down vision with the grid work described above. The exhibition includes “Two Horses” (1912) by Cubist/Expressionist Franz Marc, which is not only a symbol-packed example of the Blaue Reiter group, but one of the most exquisitely composed examples of a favorite theme of the artist.
“Re-Viewing the Twentieth Century” has numerous touchstone works, their creators instantly recognizable. There is a Jasper Johns American flag; a Joseph Cornell box; a small Jackson Pollock; hovering Marc Rothko squares; a Roy Lich¬tensignificant and emotionally fraught image of a black man being bitten by a police dog.
To make the point that commercial and industrial design is always affected by the prevailing art world zeitgeist, there is an elegant valentine-red Olivetti typewriter from 1969. Cleverly, but subtle to the vanishing point, primary colors in the spacious “How did we get here?” gallery are intended to remind us of Piet Mondrian’s patchwork canvases, although the museum doesn’t own any of his works.
Another work that RISD can’t quite afford is Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude De¬scending a Staircase, No. 2” (1912), which is on the short list of the most seminal paintings of the 20th century. Neverthe¬less, the museum recently was able to include the work in its collection — as well as the most famous of the artist’s “ready-mades,” the equally scandalous “Urinal,” plus his mustachioed Mona Lisa. The trick was the 2003 purchase of one of Duchamp’s “portable museum” boxes. The most influential of the Dadists, the conceptual artist reproduced miniatures of most of his works in more than 300 such boxes, and the museum has his “Boîte, Série E” (1963) on display.
Duchamp was “the bad boy of the Armory Show,” as O’Brien put it, because of the above painting, although what purported to be a nude was rendered un¬recogniz¬able from overlapping images. The RISD exhibition also has several other prints from the Armory Show, contrasting the shock of the new with the more conventional images.
Looking at those prints, the curator smiled in pride. “We are lucky — we have a lot of depth in the collection,” she de¬clared. “We can tell a story very, very well with it."

RISD MUSEUM, 224 Benefit Street, Providence | Through March 4
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