Hot on the heels of Santa Monica Museum’s tightly curated and visually spectacular pairing of Giorgio de Chirico and Philip Guston in “Enigma Variations” comes its sprawling, ambitious doppelgänger at LACMA, “Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Images.” Not only is René Magritte known for the very sort of hauntingly insoluble pictorial puzzles that were de Chirico’s stock in trade, but he basically arrived at that point in an uncanny parallel to Guston — seeing a de Chirico reproduction and abandoning his previous oeuvre of nonrepresentational abstraction. The premises of the two shows are fundamentally similar — tracing the older artist’s influence on a younger generation. Except instead of one painter engaged in a lifelong dialogue with another, “Treachery” delivers 31 artists working in a variety of media (including Guston), often with only a tenuous or indirect link to Magritte’s imagery or conceptual concerns.
This is due in no small part to the weirdly ambivalent position Magritte holds in the art world — and the enormous impact his work had on popular visual culture. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, the late Belgian (he died in the Summer of Love) was adopted by stoners and disseminated broadly through posters, trade paperbacks, album covers, etc. Simultaneously, Magritte’s formula for creating arresting visual conundrums spawned an entire subgenre of advertising design — much of which relied on direct cannibalization of his signature symbolism — men in bowler hats, silhouettes filled with impossible cloudscapes, everyday objects blown monstrously out of proportion, trompe l’oeil picture-in-pictures that mesh perfectly with the representational landscapes in which they’re set. Magritte was already on the wrong side of the Surrealist fence — the dominant New York School of Abstract Expressionism had unquestionably evolved from the improvisational automatist camp, and Magritte was lumped in with the unfashionable (and even more popular) Dalí, and dismissed as an illustrational hack. When Pop displaced AbEx, Magritte gained some currency from the superficial similarity of his deadpan pictures, but once Styx got a hold of him, it looked to be game over.
Lucky for him (or rather his estate) that he painted that pipe. I mean that image of that pipe. The small 1929 oil on canvas from which the exhibition draws its subtitle was the linchpin that allowed for Magritte’s historical rehabilitation. A simple commercial sign-style painting of a pipe with the caption “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”), The Treachery of Images derived its design as well as its conceptual intention from children’s reading primers. With his simple and profound encapsulation of the central paradox of representation and perception — the map is not the territory — Magritte managed to posthumously win his way into the good graces of the language-based conceptualists of the ’70s and ’80s — and their academic and critical champions. Much of the credit for this comeback is attributable to Michel Foucault, the untouchable French post-structuralist philosopher whose slight volume This Is Not a Pipe was published in English at the height of his art-world influence in 1983.
So there are three more-or-less mutually exclusive spheres of influence at play in “Magritte and Contemporary Art”: those displaying formal visual correspondences with the Belgian’s paintings (Charles Ray, Ed Ruscha, Vija Celmins), those exploring strictly language-based paradoxes in their art (Mel Bochner, Lawrence Weiner, Joseph Kosuth), and those dealing with Magritte’s legacy of pop-culture market saturation (Douglas Huebler, Jim Shaw, Sherrie Levine). In terms of the works assembled for the exhibition, the last category predictably gets the short shrift, although Pierce Brosnan gives plenty of audio-tour airtime to Shaw’s deliciously prole reading of Magritte’s significance.
But overwhelming that token populist concession, overwhelming the gift shop with its bowler hats and “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” ashtrays — overwhelming everything else when it comes right down to it — is the dazzling, absurd installation designed by John Baldessari. Alongside subtler homages (the security guards wearing bowler hats), Baldessari has carpeted the entire first floor of the Ahmanson with cloud-patterned wall-to-wall and paneled the ceiling with aerial photos of an L.A. freeway interchange, creating a sandwich of disorientation from which Magritte’s cheese emerges triumphant. It’s a courageous and unexpected elevation of Magritte’s stigmatic kitsch-cred to a transcendent and domineering immersiveness. The ridiculous has seldom looked so sublime.
The exhibit itself, co-curated by LACMA’s Stephanie Barron and Michel Draguet of the Musees Royaux des beaux-Arts de Belgique, is — predictably — a heterogeneous mixture of sometimes complementary, sometimes WTF?! elements. First and foremost is the strong survey of Magritte’s oeuvre — familiar to most from endless glossy reproductions but considerably more substantial and unslick in person. Particularly compelling are the series of dark — both psychologically and in the hard-to-photograph — works from 1928. These include the hysterical Subjugated Reader, the nude-assaulted-from-within Titanic Days and the facially enshrouded Lovers, said to refer to the artist’s mother, whose similarly draped corpse was recovered from the Sambre River more than two weeks after her suicide when Magritte was just 13. It’s no wonder his work was so deliberate.
If there’s anything that unifies the bulk of the work in “Treachery,” it’s this quality of deliberation. In spite of comically repeated disavowals of actual Magrittean influence from several artists — Ed Ruscha in particular — most of them at least forgo the intrusion of chance or improvisational image making in their work. It is planned, then executed. While some of the artists — Jasper Johns, Ray Johnson, Raymond Pettibon — leave room for real-time invention in the art-making process, most of those represented — including the two most legitimately Magrittean of the lot, Marcel Broodthaers and Richard Artschwager — are steeped in rationality and craft.
While this is appropriate and affords us a chance to see some great works of art, the high point of the show for me is the exception to this rule. In 1948, Magritte made a brief and radical break from his familiar style with a body of work referred to as his “vache” (“bovine”) period. These goofy, slapdash cartoons are completely out of left field — brimming with giddy life and completely in tune with the primitive European Zeitgeist that produced Asger Jorn and Dubuffet. In The Stop, a bald man in a yellow coat pisses on a fluorescent orange tree against a plaid citrus sky. The Cripple shows a bearded, bespectacled scholar checking his pocket watch, with five loosely rendered versions of Magritte’s signature pipe jutting from his mouth — one from his beard, another from his left eye, and one from his forehead.
These works are linked in “Treachery” to the emphatically improvisational paintings of Martin Kippenberger and Sigmar Polke but are split up throughout the show. The Cripple is in the “pipe imagery” section, and the the anomalously erotic Pebble is off in the corner with the giant apple and rock. After his Paris solo debut when this work was panned critically and failed to sell, Magritte beat a retreat to the comfortable exhaustion of his familiar and already popular symbolic poetics, where he served out the remainder of his sentence. There’s a not entirely disagreeable claustrophobia to Magritte’s best-known work (reinforced here by Baldessari’s installation) but the “vache” paintings are like little chinks in the prison wall, letting in a few flashes of light.
MAGRITTE AND CONTEMPORARY ART: THE TREACHERY OF IMAGES | Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. | Through March 4 | (323) 857-6000 or www.lacma.org