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The power of paper
‘Visions and Revisions’ at the MFA, plus Jocelyn Lee, Abelardo Morell, and Sol LeWitt
" Visions and Revisions: Art on Paper Since 1960 "
At the Museum of Fine Arts Torf Gallery, through September 21.
" Abelardo Morell: Survey 1987–2003 "
" Jocelyn Lee: Portraits "
At Bernard Toale Gallery, 450 Harrison Avenue, through July 3.
" Sol Lewitt: Models for Proposed Dome Structures and Recent Gouaches "
At Barbara Krakow Gallery, 10 Newbury Street, through June 28.

I have visited the MFA’s Torf Gallery three times in the last two weeks to see and re-see " Visions and Revisions: Art on Paper Since 1960, " and I’ll probably go again. That means something, both what you’d expect and not what you’d expect. On the one hand, it means that the show’s sufficiently inexhaustible and compelling to deserve going back to: with each successive pilgrimage, a different work emerges to captivate and delight. Curated by Clifford Ackley, the museum’s visionary curator of prints and drawings, " Visions and Revisions " stands out as an almost fat-free exhibit; there’s hardly a frame that doesn’t sustain and nourish.

Ackley’s acumen as a curator proves both conservative and progressive, historic and anticipatory. The show features watershed achievements by the well known and established — Lichtenstein, Hockney, Freud, and Johns, among others, are represented with exemplary, spirited pieces. Equally well represented are lesser-known but no less gripping artists whose career trajectories are on the ascent — Robert Bauer, Howard Johnson, Abelardo Morell, and John O’Reilly, among others, weigh in with contributions as authoritative and exciting as their household-name counterparts.

The problem with " Visions and Revisions " is that it’s a tremendous exhibit and a terrible show — what’s on display proves mesmerizing all right, but you can hardly see a thing. One hundred twenty-two works on paper — photographs, drawings, watercolors, collages, prints, and mixed media — have been crammed into the diminutive Torf Gallery, with the result that experiencing it feels like eating an Epicurean, five-course dinner on rollerblades. While all the constituents are marvelous, taking them in feels mercilessly rushed. I keep going back to digest. (As a point of comparison, consider the other group show currently on view at the MFA, " John Currin Selects, " in which one-quarter the number of artworks are allotted more than twice the wall space.)

Not surprisingly, the art hardest hit by the shoehorning is that which requires the most breathing room, namely, the subtlest. A remarkable, towering black-and-white photographic triptych by John Coplans, his 1990 Self-Portrait, depicts three giant close-ups of the artist’s hands. The work achieves its drama by the gradual unfolding of the images’ content. Because it’s so oversize (each of the three components may be two square feet) and dark, it takes a while to figure out that the aerial view of a mountain and a ravine is actually a man’s knuckle. But positioned as it is in a poorly lit corner and abutting other, more speedily recognizable art, Coplans’s masterful achievement is rendered nearly invisible.

I had the same troubled reaction to another dark, oversize, black-and-white photograph by Gary Schneider, which suffers from being placed at a height that almost guarantees no one will see it. Schneider’s 1992 John with His Eyes Closed initially reads like a brooding study of a decapitation. A giant man’s head barely emerges from the molten umbra of its background. On inspection, however, this seemingly inwardly directed, vaguely ominous portrait reveals itself as something else entirely — playful, kinetic, even funny. The subject’s eyes are closed, but you realize he’s ever so slightly grinning, which means he’s looking at something behind his closed eyes.

Immediately beneath Schneider’s layered, nuanced, and demanding photograph sits Lucian Freud’s 1991 Kai, an etching of the head of the artist’s son. Angular, small, comparatively bright, immediately recognizable, and placed at eye level, Kai assures that nobody will look up and put in the considerable work necessary to see John.

Eating while rollerblading goes far to decide one’s diet; obviously you’ll go for the spring roll over the soup, the asparagus over the peas. In other words, with such relentless overcrowding — and there isn’t a single frame that can be seen without multiple others making simultaneous demands on your visual field, the showcase equivalent of a roomful of students waving their hands to be called upon — the show itself selects what its audience will and won’t take in. The sparest art, the most graphic art, art whose images are marked by high contrast and relatively minimal surface complexity — these are the works that " Visions and Revisions " inadvertently and unfairly highlights.

Fortunately, those works are also tremendously accomplished, and they’ve been organized around 10 distinct and thoughtful themes, which help temper the viewer’s sense of standing at the foot of a tidal wave. While some of those thematic groupings are tighter than others (Painterly Abstraction, Human Image, and Still Life enjoy a cohesiveness that can’t be ascribed to Urban Scenes and World Concerns or Web-like Imagery), they all work to provide both visual compartments and some interesting dynamics between various works.

Within the Still Life set, I’d never laid eyes on Roy Lichtenstein’s 1964 Untitled (Sandwich and Soda), a screen print on transparent Mylar. The two images look like cut-outs superimposed on a photographer’s light box — flat as a newspaper ad, they’re nevertheless suspended a full inch above the wall on a see-through surface. The effect is strangely humorous; I was stopped in my tracks. Lichtenstein’s ability to transform banal, mass-produced objects into images both sensual and cerebral registers as oddly redemptive. The deliberately phony 3-D quality of the sandwich and soda — they look like they’re levitating — heightens them emotionally. It’s the visual equivalent of the opening to William Carlos Williams’s famous poem " Red Wheel Barrow " : " So much depends/Upon a red wheel barrow ... " The build-up of the first line makes us rethink the seemingly insignificant object that follows. In the same way, Lichtenstein’s literal build-up makes us reconsider the appeal, aesthetic rather than nutritional, of fast-food artifacts.

Nearby, Jim Dine’s 1973 etching Five Paintbrushes enjoys a playfulness of a different kind. In his wry homage to the painter’s craft, Dine’s brushes read like characters from a Disney film — they’re not on display, they’re dancing. With their varying widths and heights and coiffures, the brushes become characters — animated and idiosyncratic.

There is no shortage of great stuff: Richard Diebenkorn, Alex Katz, Robert Rauschenberg, Anselm Kiefer, Claes Oldenburg, Frank Stella, Christo, and Louise Bourgeois all put in an appearance. If you’re in the mood for a big party, the kind where the music’s too loud and the space too small, but where everybody’s worth talking to, " Visions and Revisions " can actually be a blast.

WORKS ON PAPER of similar quality and far greater depth can be seen at two of Boston’s finest commercial galleries. A two-person show at the Bernard Toale Gallery, a retrospective of Abelardo Morell’s stately black-and-white photographs and a group of color-drenched, C-print photographic portraits by Jocelyn Lee, constitutes one of the most intelligent and rewarding shows I’ve seen in a while.

Morell, who also appears in " Visions and Revisions, " takes a deep interest in the tension between monumentality and humility, and he resolves that tension by rendering everyday objects as if they were monoliths. A hand mirror suggests a giant monstrance; a pair of books tower like turrets in a medieval castle; an aerial view of a floor in a library suggests an entire city. There are risks to such formality, lack of humor being among them, but when the artist expresses even the slightest bit of whimsy or serendipity, which he does often, the results are breathtaking.

It’s hard to pinpoint precisely what gives Jocelyn Lee’s portraits their nearly assaultive power. Is it the intensity of the colors and the contrasts she sets up — the naked white body, eyes closed, mouth open, stiff as a hieroglyph, of the prostrate, three-year-old Untitled (Aidan) on a carpet of blue-green grass — or is it the artist’s bizarre and astute compositional sense? Framed by bushes and grass as if in a sniper’s scope, two young teenage girls crouch on the ground to examine the carcass of a dead beaver in Lee’s 1999 Untitled (Beaver Anatomy). You can’t tell if the scene’s meticulously staged or utterly candid, if the gross pun implied by the title is intentional or coincidental. Lee is a master at captivating her viewers with a voluptuous surface that gives way to a charged, unsettling content.

Finally, an exhibit, alternately intelligent and amicable, of Sol LeWitt’s gouache paintings at the Barbara Krakow Gallery demonstrates the artist’s mastery of complex, colorful yet subtle abstraction. LeWitt appears to have an ambivalent relation to mathematics. Each of these paintings involves recurrent, balanced, interweaving bands of essentially two colors. They look like they’re in motion, suggesting ribbons in the wind or waves in a rainbow sea. However, were the speed turned up, these decidedly flat surfaces also look like they could accelerate into spheres. You look at them expecting that at any moment something’s going to happen.

Issue Date: June 6 - 12, 2003
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