This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 22, 2009 - The Kemper Art Museum at Washington University continues to offer some of the most interesting and challenging exhibits in the region, and its current offerings bring added distinction to its reputation.
"Chance Aesthetics" is a stunning historical overview of the enormous role that chance operations have played in avant-garde art throughout the 20th century. Along with the show of the work of Gordon Matta-Clark show at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, "Chance Aesthetics" is the exhibit of the year.
The exhibit, curated by the Kemper's Meredith Malone, is divided into three sections: "Collage, Assemblage, and the Found Object," "Automatism," and "Games and Systems of Random Ordering."
Each work is characterized by the artist's conscious avoidance of rational control (the oxymoron is intentional: contradictions are everywhere to be found here, a byproduct of this kind of aesthetic approach).
The results are wide-ranging, from Raoul Hausmann's Dada random phonetic poster poems, to paintings made with Jean Tinguely's "Metamatic" machine, to Surrealist and Fluxus games, Marcel Duchamp's "canned chance" exercises, to Jackson Pollock's drip paintings.
This exhibit is required viewing for anyone interested in the art of the past 100 years. Not only is the subject absolutely fundamental to the history of avant-garde art, the works themselves are visually engrossing -- for here are several artworks that are frequently featured in art books but rarely seen in person, works like Duchamp's "Green Box," Nam June Paik's "Zen for Film" and Claes Oldenburg's garbage, preserved in a Plexiglas cube by French artist Arman (which makes an interesting nod to Gordon Matta-Clark's cube of garbage at the Pulitzer -- there's a college theme paper waiting to happen!).
On a less academic note, "Chance Aesthetics" offers plenty of ideas for DIY art projects and games to spice up your next party.
Also at the Kemper:
Heather Woofter's "Metabolic City"
Fifty years ago, in the wake of the damage wrought by World War II, a handful of architects and designers in Europe and Japan were engaged in some of the most forward-thinking approaches to urban redesign the world has ever seen. They're featured in "Metabolic City" at the Kemper Art Museum, an extraordinary exhibit of works by members of the avant-garde architectural groups Archigram (from Great Britain) and Metabolism (from Japan), along with the Dutch artist Constant Niewenhuys.
These artists built very little, but they designed a great deal, from communal apartment blocks, to cities made of "plug-in" disposable components, to vast urban designs based on network models.
On display are photocollages by the British architects Peter and Alison Smithson, pop-art inspired proposals by Archigram's Peter Cook, Constant's proposals for a new urbanism, and the biologically based urban designs by Metabolists Fumihiko Maki and Kisho Kurokawa, among many other works.
The designs are extremely bold, unconventional, and -- were they to be built -- capable of revolutionizing not only urban planning but social relations in general. "Metabolic City," curated by Heather Woofter, is an exhilarating lesson in what might have been.
Ivy Cooper is a professor of art at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville.