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Though curiously soothing and hypnotic, works like Stations and Tiny Deaths — another stygian multiscreen installation trembling at the brink between being and nothingness — had run their course by 1997. Viola was ready for a change. His 1997 LACMA retrospective (organized by David Ross and Peter Sellars for the Whitney) culminated with the 1995 piece The Greeting, based on a 16th-century Mannerist painting. Set in an indeterminate time and space — vaguely urban, possibly contemporary — The Greeting took a single, subtly awkward 45-second social exchange among three women and stretched it into a minutely choreographed 10-minute drama charting evanescent human emotions and social negotiations that normally remain beneath the threshold of awareness. Quintet of the Astonished, 2000 (John Malpede, Weba Garretson, Tom Fitzpatrick, John Fleck, Dan Garrity)
"That's what got me in," says Walsh. "When I saw that piece, I thought, 'This man is capable of finding a way to re-examine older art with much more surprising results than our historians or analysts or critics can produce.' Because what he seemed to do there was to open out these various complexities of relationships so that you can actually look at them."
Originally a scholar in 17th-century Dutch painting, Walsh ran the Getty from 1983 until his retirement in 2000, overseeing the move from the antiquities-stuffed Malibu palazzo to the world-famous castle on the hill; the dramatic expansion of the Getty's role in the L.A. and international art worlds; and the museum's incorporation of contemporary art, an anathema to J. Paul himself. As he walks me through the partially installed Viola exhibit, I ask him if the insinuation of Modernism into what was meant to be a bastion of Old World stodge met with much resistance. Surrender, 2000 (John Fleck)
"I'd like to think that Getty is looking down and smiling, but he's probably pounding at his bronze casket. Still, things change. As to the board or the staff or anybody else, no. This is the most exhilarating thing you can do in a museum. We all feel that much contemporary art — looked at thoughtfully — has a way of changing everything you see, but older art in particular. And artists, sometimes very consciously, lead the way for you, and that's what Viola did. Viola, in midlife, feels himself empty and comes up dry, and decides to give himself a period of study — mainly of older art and older ideas — and discovers whole new subjects and a way to reconnect himself to what he was always making art about in the first place. Which is personal discovery, personal transformation — the big ideas of life, death, transcendence.
"He goes back and looks at how older artists have struggled with all these matters — including profound grief and other powerful emotion. He goes to the galleries, though, and he doesn't see what I'm going to see. I'm going to see how artists solved certain problems with the aid of other artists in the past — based on some givens and the needs of a client — and I'm going to look at a painting and say this represents a certain step in one direction, a certain discovery of something. Bill looks at the same picture — let's call it The Madonna Head and Shoulders With Tears Rolling Down Her Face — and doesn't see a historical advance in the iconography of the Madonna and Child; he sees the expression of an almost incomprehensible grief, and power of a still image to bridge all gaps and connect without words or logic or history. And he will be thinking, 'What freakishly high resolution.'"
IT'S BEEN A LONG JOURNEY FOR VIOLA FROM THE small fringe world of video art in the early 1970s to his current position as one of the most highly regarded artists working in any medium, but his odyssey has always been closely tied to the cutting edge of technology. Born in Queens, New York, in 1951, he was the captain of the "TV squad" in his public school, and by the time he was a junior at Syracuse University was already exhibiting nationally as that newly minted creature, the Video Artist. Syracuse was a flash point for the emerging medium, and Viola helped install one of the first campuswide cable-TV ä systems there, accumulating extensive technical expertise in the process. During the same period, future Whitney/SFMOMA director David Ross occupied the world's first video curatorial position at the campus museum, and hired Viola as a techie. Two years later, Viola was included in the Whitney Biennial.
"That's what happens when you're fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time and a new thing is changing," says Viola when he finally appears at the Getty. "I was assisting artists right out of school, because I was a tech-head at the time. I was helping established artists do their tapes, and I got a job in Florence, Italy, in a video-art studio that this crazy and wonderful Italian woman set up, and worked with some European artists there. It was more than being an assistant to a painter, where you might stretch canvases and stuff; this was more like engaging with someone collaboratively. That was my grad school."
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