Beauty And Beats

The Last Few Years Have Been Hard On visual art. To folks in the malls and on Capitol Hill, art is about as welcome as Calvin Klein at a PTA meeting. Hassles over Robert Mapplethorpe, Karen Finley and Ron Athey have taken their toll on the art world. Kathy Halbreich, director of Minneapolis's hip Walker Art Center, says, "It's obviously a more conservative time. The experimental is suddenly taboo." At the stupendously rich (and not dependent on public money) Getty Museum, director John Walsh concurs: "I don't doubt there's a chill in the air." But "the big general art museums haven't been in the forefront of shocking the public with what's new." Whatever, the autumn exhibition menu favors gold-plated art with a capital A.

Newt Gingrich -- or Hilton Kramer -- could wander into "Johannes Vermeer" at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in November and fear an excess only of beauty. Twenty of the 17th-century Dutch master's 85 known paintings will be in the show. (It might have been 21 if "The Concert," from Boston's Gardner Museum, hadn't been stolen in 1990. The Gardner's Joan Norris says the museum and the FBI chat weekly. "Many paintings are recovered between the five- and nine-yearmark," she says.) If there's a living artist about whom the anti-NEA crowd might exude "Painting--the way it oughta be!" it's our Yankee-values Leonardo, Andrew Wyeth. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, in Kansas City, Mo., mounts his "most comprehensive" show ever in September.

All the adroit, well-crafted painting this fall isn't in the museums. Catherine Murphy, 49, whose hyperreal picture of snippets of hair floating in a sink was a hit at this year's Whitney Biennial, shows solo in Manhattan at SoHo's Lennon, Weinberg, Inc., gallery in October. Murphy works on a single picture for months. "Time spent is going to be the metaphor of the 21st century," she says. "Spending time is something we don't want to do, more and more," she says. Oh, we'll be happy to linger in a roomful of Murphys for a couple of hours. And we could spend a couple of days looking at the flawlessly visionary sculpture of early modernism's Constantin Brancusi, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, beginning in October.

There are still young tyros out there, however, trying to epater the bourgeoisie or, as the English say, have them on. "'Brilliant!': New Art from London," at the Walker opening in October, in-eludes Damien Hirst, notorious for his dead animals in glass cases and a video of a guy in a bathtub impersonating legendary English King Canute. Halbreich says, "You don't get an obvious love of craft, but it's not because they don't know how to do it." We'll take her word for now. Artists' testing the boundaries of propriety has a long history, and the Whitney's "Beat Culture and the New America," coming in November, documents a memorable chapter. Never mind that the Beats weren't noted for visual art; their 1950s jazz/poetry/drug ambience started the counterculture that Newt dreads today. To check out the contemporary scene, from kooky to classic, try the 1995 "Carnegie International" in Pittsburgh the same month. "There will be a really good moment at the staircase entrance," says curator Richard Armstrong. "A socially interactive sculpture with Rirkrit Tiravanija cooking curried rice, five Joan Mitchell abstract paintings, then a Gary Hill video installation. And that's before you get into the galleries." It might be enough to make you forget the chill in the air.