Big thematic exhibitions are almost always by definition flawed propositions. A curator comes up with a concept — often a single word — and selects work by different artists that lend it substance. Untethered by style, medium or geography, such ventures can seem both arbitrary and amorphous.
But if they give art history a different spin or shape, they can also be valuable, warts and all. This is the case with “Delirious: Art at the Limits of Reason, 1950-1980” at the Met Breuer, a nervy multimedia survey of postwar art. It is the third large theme show spearheaded by the museum’s department of modern and contemporary art in five years, after “Regarding Warhol,” in 2012 — a messy sprawl of work by artists who for better and usually worse were indebted to Andy Warhol — and “Unfinished,” the weird patchwork that inaugurated the museum’s Met Breuer annex 18 months ago. “Unfinished” reached back to the Renaissance with often fabulous eccentricities and then flamed out in its area of concentration: modern and contemporary art.
“Delirious” has been organized by Kelly Baum, a veteran of the previous curatorial teams. She seems determined to do better — and for the most part she has.
Ms. Baum is trying a new approach to postwar art. Her thesis is that in the wake of the barbarity of World War II, irrationality became a widespread focus among artists, who wanted to “simulate or stimulate delirium,” Ms. Baum writes in the catalog. The word’s Latin roots are “de” (away from) and “lire” (the furrow of the plow) — or in contemporary parlance, to jump the tracks.
Fomented by the unstable, frightening reality of the Cold War and the expansion of the military-industrial complex; inspired by the various liberation movements and variously aided by the counterculture’s psychotropic drugs and new artistic mediums (especially video), these artists answered life’s absurdities with more of the same, taking leave of reason in art since it already seemed gone from life.
This thesis ignores prewar developments like Futurism, Dada and Surrealism by artists who knew a thing or two about anarchy, and puts on hold Abstract Expressionism, Pop and Minimalism. It presents around 100 works by 63 artists from the United States, South America and Europe sorted into four loose categories — Vertigo, Excess, Nonsense and Twisted — maintaining a kind of useful tunnel vision that occasionally disintegrates. The thought occurs more than once that just about any artist who worked during the three decades could be included. Ms. Baum seems to admit as much when she writes that even the most rational art is at its core irrational.
As with most theme shows, you’ll argue with a lot of it, especially at the start. Is that large geometric abstraction by Dean Fleming that opens the show delirious merely because its forms are on the diagonal? Is that shaped painting from 1971 by Al Loving delirious because it flips optically between flat and dimensional? Does Larry Bell’s big early abstraction fit the Vertigo section because of its refracting mirrored surfaces? Doesn’t most important new art push at the limits of what was previously deemed reasonable?
Interestingly the subtitle here isn’t “art beyond the limits of reason.” (Let’s go crazy, but not too.) There is no outsider art here, for example, not even the visionary insider-outsider Forrest Bess, although labels note that the Brazilian abstractionists Ivan Serpa and Abraham Palatnik taught art in a psychiatric hospital and were influenced by the patients’ artworks.
“Delirious” is pushing at other limits. It is remarkably short on the blue-chip names that form the high end of the Western postwar canon, although omitting Cy Twombly and Robert Rauschenberg from a delirious roundup seems odd. Warhol is here, with six “Electric Chair” prints from 1971, still hallucinatory after all these years.
In keeping with curatorial fashion, the show includes all mediums, but not too much painting, please. It fully embraces painting in the show’s final, Twisted section, where works by Philip Guston, Jim Nutt, Peter Saul, Lee Lozano, Leon Golub and Christina Ramberg — all dealing with the body — come as a huge relief. And of course it adheres to the inflexible unwritten rule: No exhibition of postwar art today is complete without something by Robert Smithson or Dan Graham, and preferably both. (Smithson’s gridded cantilevered wall sculpture from 1967 is nicely unfamiliar although it has been in the Met’s collection since 1981.)
The opening section is called Vertigo, focusing on the breakdown of ideal geometry and the mounting abuse of the grid. Mel Bochner’s photo-relief of a crumpled grid rises from the wall like a cyclone; Lygia Clark’s tabletop sculpture, “The Inside Is the Outside,” pursues an irregular geometry in stainless steel and Henri Michaux’s mescaline-inspired drawings indicate chemical stimulants. Here you’ll find Dara Birnbaum’s 1979 video “Kiss the Girls: Make Them Cry,” which frantically repeats the grid of “Hollywood Squares” with the fake gestures and expressions of the contest show’s guests.
One of the best things is Lynda Benglis’s “Now,” a short video from 1973 in which facing profiles of the artist growl at each other like “Jurassic Park” dinosaurs. Unfortunately these sounds are confined to a head set, but nearly all the remaining films and videos, by Gary Hill, Anna Maria Maiolino, and Carolee Schneemann are audible — and provide the show’s real spine and a suitably delirious soundtrack.
The Excess section is announced by a largish sculpture of tiny grids rising to three Alpine peaks by Sol LeWitt, whose underlying irrationality and obsessive repetition was first noted by the critic Rosalind Krauss in a 1978 essay on the artist that was Ms. Baum’s original inspiration. The LeWitt plays off Alfred Jensen’s gorgeous but inscrutable number sequences organized in a bright, thickly painted grid, as well as examples of Hanne Darboven’s oceanic writing and counting pieces and, less predictably, Jennifer Barlett’s early enamel paintings, full of antic dots. Farther along, the dense confetti-like buildup of two small paintings by Howardena Pindell goes the distance with better-known and similarly obsessive sculptures by Yayoi Kusama and Eva Hesse. The sound accompaniment is Tony Conrad’s eccentric 1976 video “Cycles of 3s and 7s” in which he repeatedly divides and multiplies on a calculator, narrating the action as the machine clicks away.
The Nonsense section starts off with the majestic mouth of Ms. Maiolino’s “In-Out Anthropophagy” from 1973-74 and slows down for a lot of interesting reading, including Samuel Beckett artists-book collaboration with Jasper Johns. Claes Oldenburg’s small, proudly disheveled “Letter Tenement” picks up the visual thread again. A 1963 sculpture aptly titled “Tower of Babel” by León Ferrari is a crazed column of wire that seems to visibly speak in tongues.
This show is quite a ride, dense with informative labels and ideas. It teeters back and forth — which seems to fit its theme — gaining, then losing traction, and finally gaining it again. You grab your experiential richness where you find it.
In its last crowded last sections, the show is at its most accessible and appealing and nearly everything hits its mark, for example, Ms. Schneemann’s harrowing antiwar video “Viet Flakes,” and Ana Mendieta’s often-monstrous photographic imprints of her face against glass. Monster noises and silhouettes also dominate Stan VanDerBeek’s 1961 film of Mr. Oldenburg and Patty Mucha (his first wife) in performance, ending Ms. Baum’s restless, daring show on an especially delirious note.