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Electric Eclectic Inevitable 

In the 1980s and early '90s, prior to his death in 1994, Fred Weisman became one of this city's most important collectors. There were, of course, other important local collectors, but the striking thing about Weisman was that he wasn't really local. He lived in the other LA, Los Angeles, but traveled here often, had a home here, and never hesitated to buy what he liked. He even funded the New Orleans Museum of Art's contemporary Louisiana artists wing. Although he was supportive of local artists in many places, only California, where he lived, and Minnesota, where he was born, have benefited more than New Orleans from his largesse.

As a collector, he was notably eclectic, even flamboyant, yet he appears to have begun rather cautiously in the 1950s and '60s with some quality specimens of work by blue-chip abstract expressionists and minimalists. Actually, an entire gallery of this exhibit is devoted to work by such abstract and minimalist artists as Kenneth Noland, Donald Judd, Frank Stella and Bauhaus avatar Josef Albers, whose aptly titled Homage to the Square series of paintings, begun in 1950, presaged minimalism by at least a decade.

And what is it with minimalism, anyway? Some people just don't get it and assume it must be one of those trendy art-world put-ons, all spin and no salami. But not really. Albers painted squares within squares, and if they were not part of minimalism as a movement, they help explain its appeal. Upon Arrival, a black, red-brown and orange oil painting suggests a telescopic, even architectural, experience as the squares ride low on the canvas in much the way perspective lines might appear in a square-shaped tunnel. By reducing everything to forms and colors with a quality of faux-perspective, Albers heightens forms and colors into something Platonic, ideal, a quintessential distillation of experience.

Such repeating forms are like repetition in the music of, say, Philip Glass or old Kraftwerk albums, incantatory at best, annoying at worst. In Frank Stella's 1981 Sinjerli Variations, minimalism takes a side trip in what looks like cross-sections of multi-colored expressway clover leafs that hark back to art deco and the Bauhaus. But it was Sol LeWitt who launched conceptual minimalism in works such as his Bands in Four Directions, a square divided into four panels like window panes, each with multi-colored bands in vertical, horizontal and diagonal configurations that express his credo that "the idea becomes a machine that makes the art."

Which sounds cold, but Weisman's collection is far better known for heat and light, bright light at that. In fact, much of this stellar accumulation of big-time art melds LeWitt's lack of affect with the electric colors of artists such as Andy Warhol, whose classic Flowers (Red) is a 1980 reprise of his seminal Flowers of the 1960s. (Weisman's patronage of Warhol included Frederick R. Weisman, a portrait that said much about their shared aesthetic.) No less emblematic is Luis Quinones' Crushed Orange, a big photorealist canvas of a crushed aluminum orange soda can, like the kind you find on the street. An oversized icon of our throwaway culture, it's not just big (7-by-8 feet) but super-real, a glowing, vastly oversized reminder of what happens when a factory-made object has a sudden, violent encounter with the laws of chance. Faithful to the outer appearance of a photograph, it's as poignant as it is impersonal, a transcendentally garish memento of impermanence rendered with remarkable fidelity. No less playful is Korean-American artist Nam June Paik's Michelin Man Laser Robot, a collection of TV monitors of various sizes, mounted in vintage wooden cabinets and configured to look rather like the Michelin Man. For a head, it sports one of those classic Sylvania stand-alone swivel TV screens from the late 1950s, with a metal horn from an old wind-up phonograph for a hat -- a touch that gives it a distinctly Stephen King kind of aura. Paik, along with John Cage and Yoko Ono, was one of the original Fluxus group of abstract performance artists in the early 1960s and has remained au courant ever since. Something similar might be said of Weisman, whose flair for bold yet oddly classical choices makes for a collection that remains crisply contemporary in tone.

click to enlarge Frederick R. Weisman's patronage of pop artist Andy Warhol led to Warhol's eponymous portrait of the famed collector.
  • Frederick R. Weisman's patronage of pop artist Andy Warhol led to Warhol's eponymous portrait of the famed collector.
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