Visual Arts

Is “NOW: Selections from the Ovitz Family Collection” at ASU Art Museum average art hiding behind a reputation?

Walk into an art gallery on a First Friday and you'll see people with drinks in their hands, chatting and laughing — not noticing they just knocked a painting with their elbow. But the crowds at a contemporary art show at, say, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, are quiet, reserved, and very aware of their extremities. In fact, most keep a good distance of three to five feet, just to make sure they don't breathe wrong on a priceless work.

It's only natural. A painting on Roosevelt Row will go for a few hundred dollars — maybe even a couple thousand — while the works at MoMA are worth a gajillion. But why? Who says? And how does that happen?

Such are the questions I often ponder, especially after seeing "NOW: Selections from the Ovitz Family Collection" at ASU Art Museum.

The surname Ovitz should ring a bell. Michael Ovitz is that Hollywood guy who founded the controversial Creative Artists Agency, famously negotiated Letterman's move from NBC to CBS, and had a notorious stint as president of Disney in 1995.

A roller coaster of a career, to be sure. But Michael, along with his wife, Judy, deserves credit as an important force in the art world. The Ovitzes are avid art collectors and spawned their vast collection in the late 1970s with prints by über-famous artists like James Rosenquist and Jasper Johns. These days, the couple has a curator on staff to grow and manage their collection. But that's not to say they aren't still involved. According to ASU, it's understood that the couple makes the final decisions about its purchases.

So when it comes to art, the Ovitzes are big-time. In fact, Michael sits on the board of trustees of MoMA.

At this show, you see a smattering of works from the Ovitz collection, all created in the past two years by emerging artists.

I'll be honest: Facing down a clout-heavy family and trying to have an opinion can surely feel intimidating. The temptation is to give in, take the easy way out, and say, "These are all excellent because the Ovitzes say they are." But I have to tell you that some of the Ovitzes' choices are totally forgettable.

Take the works of Katy Moran, for example. This show includes two of her small paintings, My Night with Quercetin and Mulheany in Pink. Moran's method is to start with an image — a photo, a magazine page, a picture from the Internet, whatever — flip it upside down and then mark it up with a bunch of paint strokes. Gray, white, cream, thulian pink and black are smooshed, dabbed, squiggled, and globbed across the surface. You can see some of the original image poking through the pigment-light areas.

Sound boring? Well, it is. Truly, this is the kind of work I see every month on downtown Phoenix street corners.

Things get a little better with Untitled by Anselm Reyle. His work can certainly be thrown in the category of "over the couch" (granted, it would have to be a really huge couch because this mammoth painting checks in at around 7.5 by 11 feet). A polished, stainless steel frame borders this painting that consists of broad, equal-size vertical stripes. The colors are bright, the surface texture varies from stripe to stripe, and some panels are made of reflective plexiglass.

The work is pleasing, non-threatening (except, perhaps, for its size), and eye-catching. But non-objective geometric painting, around since the early 20th century, is too common to be exciting. And particularly because this work was completed sometime in the past couple of years, it's just not anything to scream about.

But who knows? The simple fact that the Ovitzes own these works may be enough to assert them as "extremely important" in art history. And if that happens, I will be seen as a misguided art critic.

So they've got some definite OTC going on, but We're All Mad by Richard Hughes is straight-up WTF. And I absolutely love it. This is where I hope the power of the Ovitz name gives this artist a major leg up.

We're All Mad is not only an irresistible title but a stellar work. Five garden pots sit on the ground. They're filled with dirt and have muddy, gnarled stems emerging from the topsoil. The pots are arranged on a green piece of ripped paper that has scrawled instructions for the viewer like, "Best view 315 cm" and an arrow pointing out. The work is pretty off the wall and is a mystery to me — I'm not going to pretend I completely "get" this piece. And that's exactly what makes it so refreshing.

Just as soon as I finished my mental applause for the work's quirkiness, I took a closer look and discovered that the pots and stems are actually made from polyester resin. It's completely fake (except for the dirt). This is a trompe l'oeil work (French for "trick the eye"). And it fooled me into thinking these were real, found objects. A trompe l'oeil of a found object? Yeah! Both art practices challenge the very definition of art and object. Hughes melds them beautifully.

The 14 works in this show range from excellent to mediocre to poor. But for my money, the real value of the exhibition is the debate it provokes: Are these works inherently "good" — and that's why the Ovitzes, with their impeccable taste, chose them? Or are these pieces deemed "good" simply because they now belong in a notable collection?

Which came first? Worthy art or elite collectors?

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Lilia Menconi
Contact: Lilia Menconi