NSU Art Museum’s Retrospective a Contemporary-Art Smorgasbord

As one of the most celebrated artists of the 20th century, Andy Warhol doesn’t need any more praise. Yet, as with any essential art, we find more to lavish—more insights into his technique and his prescience—every time his work is hung.

Of all the contributions to the second half of NSU Art Museum’s sprawling “Remember to React” retrospective, it’s Warhol’s “Mao” series, which I’ve seen before, that transfixed me most. Following President Nixon’s historic visit to China and Life magazine’s proclamation that Chairman Mao was the most famous man in the world, Warhol saw fit to add Mao’s portrait, ubiquitous in the Chinese mainland, to his series of celebrity silkscreens.

To equate a totalitarian world leader with subjects like Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor was in itself a disruptive and controversial act, and it brilliantly forecast our present concept of political figures as pop icons, as pinup commodities, as cults of personality. But stressing the identical contours of Warhol’s assembly-line production of the series—there are eight or so versions hanging side by side in the museum—belies the artist’s hand at work, in deciding which colors to complement or clash with the subject’s iconic visage. Variably, from silkscreen to silkscreen, Mao appears angry, cheerful, emboldened, feminized, ghostly, even though his expression never changes.

That’s all the Warhol we get, and it’s all we need. This exhibition, whose first installment opened in September on the second floor of the Fort Lauderdale museum, offers tapas, not entrees, and it delivers a marvelous assortment of flavor. As a survey of 60 years of the museum’s history, it accentuates the depth and breadth of its permanent collection, which contains established masters and emerging visionaries alike. Upstairs, which I reviewed a few months ago, has its share of Picassos and Cindy Shermans, its CoBrA artists and African artifacts, its wall-sized masterpieces and 30-second videos.

Downstairs, which opened in time for Basel, is less eclectic than the top floor, but it’s also denser with work—more abundant with household names, and more centrally focused on 20th century contemporary art and the splintered subgenres that arose from the explosion of Abstract Expressionism. In addition to those priceless Warhols, there’s a miniature Frida Kahlo self-portrait painted onto one of her diary pages, which crystallizes the vividness of her imagination: She presents herself, in profile, with aquiline nose, facial armor, tree roots for hair and a severed hand melding into her ear. Her husband, Diego Rivera, is included as well; his haunting painting is of a Mexican corn peddler.

Masters abound throughout. There’s a Botero drawing, a Frank Lloyd Wright chair, a few of Robert Rauschenberg’s mixed-media combines, and one of Tom Wesselman’s “Bedroom Paintings”—a beguiling example of Pop symbolism, in which images with sexual overtones play with notions of perspective, atop a frame as oddly shaped as a redrawn Congressional district. Elaine de Kooning receives a pair of paintings that attest to her rare ability to move between the figural and abstract disciplines with equal aplomb.

Elaine de Kooning

Having reviewed exhibitions at the NSU Art Museum for more than a decade, I appreciated the nostalgia of revisiting artists that once had entire galleries dedicated to them. Back for encores are Frank Stella, the mesmerizing geometric abstractionist; Catherine Opie, whose observant inventory of Elizabeth Taylor’s home proved voyeuristically fascinating; Ana Mendieta, a video and performance artist who literally threw herself into the muck of her work; and Tom Scicluna, whose neon sign reading “Interest in Aesthetics” was a deceptively angry commentary on a South Florida homelessness ban.

But just as in the upstairs wing, the first-floor galleries contained an equal share of exciting discoveries—or work I had forgotten, and simply seemed new. An entire wall of constructed reliefs—48 works in total—creates a stunning collage of sleek, modernist wall sculptures that run a gamut from minimalist to maximalist. I loved the optically daring triptych of white(ish) canvases from Agostino Bonalumi, which contain sly 3D ripples, like washboards protruding from the material.

Jose Clemente Orozco’s “Successful People”

Other highlights include Shinkichi Tajiri’s “Mayday,” a colorful nightmare of techno warfare; Jose Clemente Orozco’s satirical painting “Successful People,” which depicts Mexican aristocrats as prim and humorless, with giant coifs, tiny mouths, elongated necks and bow ties wrapped Adam’s apples; the supernatural creepiness of Serge Vandercam’s “L’Echo,” which depicts a white-sheeted ghost in front of a tornadic column of black; and especially Jenny Holzer’s “Arno.” “Arno” is an LED sign in which a disturbing scroll of anxieties, affections, seductions, uncertainties, threats and cries for help moves across the screen as dispassionately as a stock ticker.

If you peruse this exhibition from left to right, the last work you’ll probably see is another of Holzer’s, and it’s the title piece: a cast aluminum sign reading, “remember to react.” This exemplary retrospective, with its seemingly countless innovations, provocations and aesthetic stunners, makes it easy to do just that.

“Remember to React: 60 Years of Collecting” runs through June 30, 2019 at NSU Art Museum, 1 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. Admission costs $12 adults, $8 seniors and military, and $5 students. Call 954/525-5500 or visit nsuartmuseum.org.