Your head will be spinning if you take in "The Global Guggenheim: Selections from the Extended Collection," on display at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum until April 22. The vertigo comes not just from circumnavigating the spiral ramps of Frank Lloyd Wright's building. It stems from the intensity of "isms," all higgledy-piggledy confronting your eyes.
If you're into isms, this exhibition is the ultimate in blissful exhibitionism. Two hundred paintings, sculptures, and works on paper from roughly the 1860s to the 1970s represent major avant-garde art movements like Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Futurism, Constructivism, Expressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, and Minimalism. Even a few non-isms, like Stijl and Pop, are thrown in to complete the hyper-eclectic effect.
What makes the show different from another chronological stroll through art history is the non-sequential installation. The curator, Carmen Gimenez, has reshuffled the deck, slapping masterpieces from different periods and movements side by side. Call it "Cezanne meets Picasso" or "Kandinsky takes a meeting with Van Gogh."
But the jumble of genius works. Seeing each art icon out of its usual context - especially in dialogue with dissenters or heirs - is a fresh idea.
Take a pair of paintings by the original inventor of abstract painting, Kandinsky, and the Dutch-American Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning. A major visual element of Kandinsky's "Black Lines" (1913) is the lines - all nervous, jittery, and wiry. Although self-effacing, the lines tie the composition together, imparting unity and structure. De Kooning's "Composition" (1955) consists of fat, aggressive brushstrokes criss-crossing with a feel of high-speed, macho attack.
The two works embody the different zeitgeists of the prewar and post-war worlds. Kandinsky expresses a highly cerebral, spiritual vision, while Kooning manifests his own emotion. Before World War I, it's all about a system to achieve utopia. After World War II, it's turn inward and cultivate your own garden.
The raison d'etre behind the exhibition is to showcase the concept of expansion that drives Guggenheim director Thomas Krens. The exhibition brings together works from the scattered outposts of the Guggenheim Foundation, with venues in Bilbao, Spain; Berlin; Venice; two sites in Manhattan; and a location under construction in Las Vegas.
Krens has also forged partnerships with the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, (wonderful paintings by Matisse and Picasso are on loan to this show) and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
The exhibition rebuts the criticism that, by operating at so many locations, the collection has been spread too thin.
Not that the works are always the best examples of the artists' achievement. Jackson Pollock is represented by one superb poured canvas, "Enchanted Forest" (1947), composed of all-over swirls of white paint and ropes of black, punctuated by red splatters. Further along Pollock's "Ocean Greyness" (1953) is just that - ugly, opaque, and muddy, a sad reminder of his descent into alcoholism.
And for all its purported globalism, the show is pretty Eurocentric. One notable standout among the Americans is a giant sculpture by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen: The canvas "feathers" of "Soft Shuttlecock" (1995) droop over the fifth ramp like a giant turkey in hiding.
Another notable less-known work is "Les Reines de France" (1995), by Anselm Kiefer. The German artist made his name with scorching paintings that resembled charred earth, an implicit commentary on the Holocaust. Now that he's moved to France, he takes French history for a subject. The huge painting resembles a mosaic wall in Ravenna, Italy, with gold-leaf snippets depicting the names and partially obscured faces of the queens of France, implying that their roles have been erased by history.
The exhibition affords an opportunity to reassess 20th-century art. A whole room full of '60s Pop Art, including paintings by Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, looks rather empty in terms of lasting artistic contribution. An exception is an eye-popping new work by James Rosenquist, "The Swimmer in the Econo-mist" (1997-98).
Minimalism looks like another been-there, done-that, what-was-all-the-fuss-about? movement. Carl Andre's "Zinc Ribbon" (1969), a curlicue of metal meandering around the floor, already seems to fade into insignificance.
One could ask - besides the estimable Louise Bourgeois and Agnes Martin, as well as Oldenburg's wife - where are the female artists like Eva Hesse and Helen Frankenthaler?
Such quibbles aside, the show offers copious visual pleasure and mental stimulation. Global indeed - it's world-class art.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor