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Powerful Pop

Not long ago I complained that a Museum of Art (MoA) summer show -- "Coming out of the Dark: Seldom-Seen Selections from the MoA's Permanent Collection" -- was a dreary little assemblage of mostly unimpressive works that seemed designed to take up empty space.

Now, only two months or so later, the Fort Lauderdale museum has compensated with a similar but much more satisfying exhibition called "Abstraction to Pop: Selections from the Permanent Collection." The show, which takes up most of MoA's first floor, is small in size: fewer than two dozen pieces by 18 artists. But its scope is considerable, given that it includes works by such influential figures as Frank Stella, James Rosenquist, Robert Rauschenberg, and the ubiquitous Andy Warhol.

About the only thing that really worked in "Coming out of the Dark" was Roberto Matta's beautiful and unnerving color etching Untitled (Series D'Amour). By contrast, almost everything in "Abstraction to Pop" clicks.

A few individual pieces such as Rosenquist's 1989 lithograph The Bird of Paradise Approaches the Hot Water Planet jump right out at you. It's a huge (perhaps ten feet by eight feet), two-paneled composition in which a sun just above the center looks almost like a reverse sunny-side-up egg, its white center surrounded by yellow and radiating red, orange, and more yellow. Above the sun is a colorful... thing -- the creature of the title, perhaps, configured as both plant and bird.

The bottom panel is a stew of red, orange, and yellow, accented with purple and green around the fringes. Jagged paper cutouts, some with human eyes, have been overlaid onto the colors, again evoking the shapes of a bird of paradise in bloom.

Not far away is one of Warhol's famous multipanel silkscreen portraits of famous people. In this case it's Mao (1972), with ten identical square portraits of the Chinese dictator, each in a different color scheme, most with little squiggly lines alongside his head as a sort of afterthought. By now such Warhol celebrity headshots are so familiar that they're somehow comforting.

The show's real strength, however, lies in juxtaposition. MoA curator Jorge Santis has hit on a handful of groupings that feels instinctively right without being forced. On the curving wall to the right of the entrance, for instance, hangs a group of abstracts: Gershon Iskowitz's Deep Blues (1973), Elaine de Kooning's Juarez (1959), Conrad Marca-Relli's Night Rider (1959), Norman Bluhm's Sappho (1972), and Larry Rivers's Daugherty Ace of Spades (1960). All but Rivers's, which includes elements of the title card to which it alludes, are resolutely abstract, and taken together they have a power no one image alone would have.

Elsewhere two big acrylics -- Ilya Bolotowsky's Red Rectangle (1972) and Allan D'Archangelo's Proposition 27 (1966) -- play similarly well together. The Bolotowsky is a Mondrian-style composition with areas of various shades of red and white set off by a long, vertical blue line. In the D'Archangelo, a background that's two-thirds vivid greens and one-third pale blue is dominated by a lengthy, jutting shape that seems to shift in perspective.

Two other large acrylics displayed side by side work so well together they seem to have been conceived in tandem, even though they were painted nearly a decade apart. Both Walter Darby Bannard's untitled 1991 piece and Jules Olitski's 1984 Divine Beauty are highly gestural paintings from similar palettes of earthy browns, oranges, and yellows with swirls and ridges of pigment that give them a topographic feel.

My favorite pairing is a large Chuck Close lithograph titled Leslie/Fingerprints (1986) and Richard Pousette-Dart's even larger oil on linen Radiance, Black Circle (1979-80). The Close is a portrait of a woman that has been built up using countless fingerprints in subtly varying shades of black and gray. Pousette-Dart uses similar daubs of black, gray, and white to create the shimmering, radiant black circle of the title.

Some of the show's most striking juxtapositions depend upon your vantage point. You need to stand back a bit, for example, to catch the way the bright pop colors and crisp lines of Nicholas Krushenick's Indoor Pastry (1970) and Frank Stella's Frontin de los Flores (1966), displayed on adjacent walls, play off each other.

An even greater distance is required to pick up on the ways each of these canvases works with two untitled, undated Jack Youngerman sculptures. Each is a symmetrical, four-sided steel cutout, one painted red, the other yellow. Standing alone on small pedestals in open space, they seem almost lost or out of place -- they are the only sculptures in the show -- but look through them from one angle so that the Krushenick is behind them, and you'll discover a wonderful interplay of shape and color. Shift a little to the right, and you'll see how the sculptures contrast with the faux-op bands of color in the Stella.

In the wrong hands, these juxtapositions might feel labored, but Santis has deployed them with such grace that they creep up on you. That's just the right approach to "Abstraction to Pop," a charming but modest late-summer exhibition that makes no sweeping claim about its own importance.

The remaining first-floor MoA gallery is devoted to a room-size installation called "Bocanada," by Argentine artist Graciela Sacco. As you enter the room, you're confronted by countless strands of monofilament of different lengths, suspended from the ceiling in a diagonal line that cuts across the space. Hanging at the end of each strand is an old silver spoon, and lights from above cast eerie shadows onto the gray-and-white terrazzo floor and adjacent walls.

The eeriness is amplified when you get close enough to see that each spoon bears the image of an open human mouth, printed directly onto the metal using an old photographic technique known as heliography. As curator Ginger Gregg Duggan points out in a handout for the installation, these disembodied mouths are instantly evocative of Francis Bacon's notorious portraits of screaming popes and Edvard Munch's The Scream -- classic images of existential angst.

More to the point, "Bocanada," which means "a mouthful," is a bitterly ironic rumination on hunger, with the spoons and mouths suggesting that which is absent: food. The beauty of this haunting installation is that it so deftly melds its aesthetic and political dimensions. It's the most emotionally affecting political art I've seen in South Florida since Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar's "Lament of the Images," a trio of installations about the genocide in Rwanda, presented by MoA in 1999.

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Michael Mills

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