The Line of Wit

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao presents The Line of Wit, a selection of works from the Museum’s

Collection and long-term loans that can be characterized clever and experimental. Bringing together artists of different generations working across a variety of media, the presentation includes rarely seen treasures from the Museum’s Collection alongside many beloved works. Relentlessly inquisitive in nature, the artists represented in the exhibition employ unusual materials and techniques, and many playfully defy aesthetic conventions demonstrating ingenuity and wit.

The line of wit is the first exhibition curated by Lekha Hileman Waitoller, incorporated into the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in October 2019 from the Art Institute of Chicago.

Gallery 305. Defying Tradition

The exhibition is organized thematically with the first gallery dedicated to unorthodox artmaking processes and systems of display. Some works in this room occupy space in unexpected ways as in Cristina Iglesias’ Untitled (Alabaster Room), (1993) which relies on the architecture of a corner for its display. The translucent sheets of white alabaster hover lithely above head, gently sloping downward on each end, altering both the surrounding light and space. Alyson Shotz’s Object for Reflection (2017), consists of countless small pieces of perforated aluminum bound together by steel rings. From a distance, the object appears to be a solid, voluminous sculpture, but a closer look reveals translucence and malleability of the material. Indeed, the work takes on three-dimensional form only once it is installed: suspended from the ceiling, tension and gravity transform the metallic sheet into a sculpture.

Yoko Ono’s Hichiko Happo (2014) provides a unique example of artistic process as the painting was created during a performance the artist staged during her retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in 2014. On the nine canvases that comprise the work, Ono painted the phrase “seven happinesses and eight treasures” in Japanese. The black sumi ink she energetically employed drips down each canvas at once recalling the traditions of action painting and ancient calligraphy from her native Japan. Hichiko Happo embodies Ono’s performative and plastic artmaking practices.

In the ultimate demonstration of wit, artist collaborators Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s The Way Things Go (1987) cinematic chain reaction creates the illusion of continuous movement between ordinary materials such as tires, fireworks, and a balloon. Misleadingly simple in its presentation, the film is a sequence of orchestrated failures in the form of falls, spills, and small explosions that create a continuum of controlled chaos. In a delightfully inventive combination of play and experimentation, The Way Things Go is an embrace of absurdity and the everyday object, challenging the foundations of high culture.

Gallery 306. Modes of Representation

The second gallery in The Line of Wit includes a selection of works that are representational or figurative in nature and exemplify the myriad ways in which artists explore the human form as subject. Serial repetition across multiple canvases or within one composition is a strategy used by several artists in the room. Through artworks spanning fifty years, a variety of approaches to figuration are explored highlighting formal and conceptual experimentation through the motif of the figure.

A selection of George Baselitz’s iconic sixteen painting series Mrs. Lenin and the Nightingale (2008) form part of the exhibition. In a twist on traditional portraiture, these expressive, large-format canvases present the subjects of the painting upside down. Half of the works in the series contain brightly colored figures on a white ground and the other half are painted mainly in gray and blue hues on a black background, a framing device that puts the focus on the figure. Baselitz has remarked that this strategy of inverting the figures in his work serves to distance the viewer, requiring that one carefully consider the content. Formally, the paintings achieve a form of abstraction while maintaining figuration.

A selection of Alex Katz’s Smiles (1994) series of eleven portraits of smiling women will also be shown. An ongoing theme for Katz is portraiture in a style characterized by flattened planes of color, shallow pictorial space, and reductive but acutely descriptive lines, set against a monochrome background. His subjects function as a tool for artistic investigation of the traditional figure-ground relationship. Katz’s aim is not to represent the sitter’s personality, but rather to present a more profound reflection on the nature of representation and the perception of images. By repeating the same framing device, figure-ground treatment, and gesture—the smile—Katz beckons the viewer to focus not on the specific subject but on the pictorial experimentation across these varied depictions.

Opening on June 11