Getty Villa Goes Modern

Fresh Show Will Roam from New York to Asian Avant-Garde

By JOHN HARLOW | Editor-in-Chief

Whoever said a pun is the lowest form of humor but the highest form of intelligence—usually credited to Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde, but again he boasted about the genius of intellectual theft—will enjoy the Getty Villa’s first exhibition dedicated to contemporary art.

It’s too early to tell whether New York poodle fabricator Jeff Koons is an authentic disciple of Andy Warhol, a chewy concept on its own, or merely a slick marketing man. But the decision to pair up Plato with Koons’ “Play-Doh” piece (which comes in five different flavors) is either brilliant or bonkers. Or possibly both.

It’s a large, twisted, colorful pile of the kids’ stuff rendered in aluminum that will undoubtedly draw many to the Getty show Plato in LA: Contemporary Artists’ Visions when it opens at the PCH villa in April.

It may not be “Infinity Mirrors,” the Broad’s phenomenon that sold out again and again in minutes, but it may be blockbuster.

All the invited artists had to “relate” to a classical forbearer, even if only in wordplay, which promises to create one of the villa’s more ecumenical outings in recent years.

The guest curator, Donatien Grau, is one of those Oxford-based French thinkers who appears in countless “brilliant people under 40” lists. Some are only talking to their tribe and well-endowed patrons. But they also like to upset applecarts, and occasionally, far less than they hope, can be worth lending an ear.

Jeff Spier, the Getty’s senior curator of antiquities, may have been talking slightly tongue-in-cheek when he said that the Koons might be considered the Platonic Ideal form of Play-Doh.

Arguably, this might mean that the Koons version is more “real” than the real stuff, or at least has something to teach us about something.

As philosophers go, Plato can be cryptic to modern minds. There is a reason why even today some confused souls admit wearily, “It’s all Greek to me.”

Plato gave his followers an allegory known as The Cave, where hapless souls spend their lives chained seeking to understand the shadows on the wall—a manufactured understanding of reality.

Of course, in this allegory, it’s a philosopher who breaks free and explains the nature of the true and yet incomprehensible world to us mere prisoners.

This brings the visitor to Huang Yong Ping, a leading light in the Xiaman Dada avant-garde art group who, in the 1980s, destroyed its own Taoist-based art, saying mankind would never be peaceful until such art was extinguished.

This provocation must have been more powerful than a Palisadian might expect—it got him banned in Beijing and exiled in Paris.

Huang Yong Ping’s work at the Getty is called “Caverne” and appears like a large rock—maybe it’s the missing inside of Plato’s cave made solid.

In conjunction with his other works, large-scale mammoths, ancient tigers and cave-dwellers, it also references the Taliban’s destruction of images and culture.

Other pieces have been commissioned for the show, bringing in respected conceptual artists such as Adrien Margaret Smith Piper of New York and Joseph Kosuth of Ohio.

Their work, exploring connections between classical and modern worlds, at first may be baffling. But, as art champions point out, one would not expect to walk into a football or baseball (or cricket or hurling) sports event as a stranger, unfamiliar with the rules, ideas, history and personalities behind such a clearly-weird ritual, and expect to understand it all.

Not without any work.

This show promises something for those who are open, patient, willing to ask questions and looking for something to chew on—something that will be remembered.

And that at least is an attitude that could earn a Platonic nod of approval.