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Review: “Delirious: Art at the Limits of Reason, 1950–1980”

By Anne Doran
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What a friend recently called the Met’s anti-MoMA show, “Delirious: Art at the Limits of Reason” eschews conventional chronology in favor of a more, well, delirious approach to telling the story of postwar art. Rummaging through the decades between 1950 and 1980, curator Kelly Baum brings together works by American, European and Latin American artists, dividing them into four thematic sections: “Vertigo,” “Excess,” “Nonsense” and “Twisted.” The exhibition proposes that a kind of global delirium formed in the wake of World War II with social and political upheavals ranging from Cold War and decolonization to the counterculture and various liberation movements. Artists reacted with their own delirium, experimenting with new formats, materials and technologies.

Peter Saul, Criminal Being Executed, 1964
Photograph: Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin

The show takes an unexpectedly conservative tack, however, with outsider art, craft or performance omitted in favor of pieces that engage formalist concerns, even as they undermine artistic and social conventions. In “Vertigo,” a variety of artworks, including Gego’s hanging wire sculpture, upend the modernist grid. A video shot by Bruce Nauman with the camera on its side does something similar with the concept of the White Cube space. Rationality is dispensed with entirely in pieces ranging from Lygia Clark’s Möbius-strip sculpture to Bruce Conner’s trippy ink drawings. In “Excess,” serial repetition and number systems go into overdrive in contributions such as Yayoi Kusama’s ladder bristling with women’s high-heeled shoes and stuffed fabric phalluses. The show turns more political in “Nonsense,” in which Anna Maria Maiolino’s filmed close-ups of mouths taped shut or spouting gibberish respond to the censorship imposed by Brazil’s military dictatorship of the 1960s and ’70s. Nancy Spero pays homage to Antonin Artaud in drawings combining his writings with drawings of agonized figures.

Ana Mendieta, Untitled (Glass on Body Imprints—Face), 1972
Photograph: Princeton University Art Museum, © Ana Mendieta

“Twisted,” the final section, presents images of the body tortured and exploited in works such as Peter Saul’s gonzo painting of a man in an electric chair and Carolee Schneemann’s video collage of atrocities perpetrated on North Vietnamese villagers during the Vietnam War. Her use of then-new technology to indict “technocracy gone berserk” sums up the kind of subversion that marks many of the offerings here. “Delirious times demand delirious art” writes Baum in the catalog essay for this excellent exhibition, which seems to offer lessons for our own terrifyingly unhinged moment.

Philip Guston, The Street, 1977
Photograph: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, © The Estate of Philip Guston, Courtesy Hauser & Wirth

The Met Breuer, 945 Madison Ave (212-731-1675, metmuseum.org). Through Jan 14.

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