A visit to The Frist Center this season can unfold like a story — the main gallery will provide the basic plot line of what's happened in art since old traditions were shrugged off in favor of more experimental techniques, while a smaller gallery in the back takes a chance, providing a twist that asks visitors to consider the age-old question, "What is art?" Both of the downstairs exhibits open on Friday, and they show a broad range of work — a collection of American art from one of the most distinguished private collections in the country, and a series of contemporary video installations and print posters by a pair of English artists.
The more expansive exhibit is To See as Artists See: American Art From the Phillips Collection. Duncan Phillips was an art critic whose collection is largely viewed as introducing America to modern art. The Phillips Collection opened in Washington, D.C., in 1921, and was the first American museum of modern art. The Frist exhibit will showcase nearly 100 works by 68 artists, such as Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, Georgia O'Keeffe, Jacob Lawrence, Adolph Gottlieb, Philip Guston and Mark Rothko. The works will give visitors a comprehensive look into the most important art movements of the modern era — the wispy brushstrokes of impressionism, the deconstructed planes of cubism, and the action-oriented, intense emotions of abstract expressionism.
In the alcove in the back of the downstairs gallery, Answers to Questions: John Wood and Paul Harrison offers a short respite from American modern art. This exhibit spans the pair's collaborative lifetime, beginning with the first videos they made together in 1993. The videos document dry, deadpan deliveries of absurd antics, such as balancing together on a round platform, or rolling around the back of a moving delivery truck in office chairs. Their videos feature minimalist aesthetics — the pair wearing the same black clothes, or completely white backgrounds — that allow the duo's actions to speak for themselves.
Plan to use the understanding and questions that these two exhibits provide later this month, when the contemporary art survey Fairy Tales, Monsters and the Genetic Imagination opens in The Frist's upstairs galleries. The conceptual and formalist breadth of the exhibitions should easily fill a few days' worth of visits — enough to stir up ideas about the trajectory of art, the function of heritage, and the stories we tell each other.