According to current art-world mythology, artists are no longer alienated loners surrounded by H. L. Mencken's hostile booboisie. The new, better-adjusted postmodern artist is a Master of the Universe, at home with a sophisticated public and different from an investment banker only in visual inventiveness and slyly subversive politics. A symptom of this alleged new health is an appetite for working in groups, and an exhibition called "Team Spirit" surveys some recent results. (Organized by New York's Independent Curators, Inc., the show debuted at the Neuberger Museum in Purchase, N. Y. It opens next on Feb. 8 at the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art and then travels to Vancouver, Miami, Charlotte, N.C., Davenport, Iowa, and St. Louis.)
The definition of a team in "Team Spirit" varies widely. Among the 26 American, Canadian and European combos are a married couple (Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison) and a nuclear family (Boyle Family). But there are also identical twins (Mike and Doug Starn), gay lovers (Martha Fleming and Lyne Lapointe), self-help groups (the Bronx's Tim Rollins + Kids of Survival) and fine arts platoons attached to larger multimedia cooperatives (Yugoslavia's IRWIN). Taken as a whole, their work is generally hip, flip, short on abstraction, heavy on irony and deep into the environment and art-about-art jokes. Almost all of it is complicated assemblage or installation sculpture. (Team players don't seem to go in much for you-sand-and-I'll-polish reductionism.) And it's as cocksure as an old Rooney-Garland musical. There's not a scintilla of Giacometti-like angst or Pollock-like self-doubt in the whole show.
The best piece is "The Third World War Ends" (1982-83), by a couple of Soviet emigres, Komar & Melamid. Although send-ups of heroic social-realist painting look a little more limp in the aftermath of the cold war than they did in the Brezhnev days of their origin, these two artists are old pros who know their craft. They augment a painting of a Russian soldier with a cape and gold sword holding a black child swathed in stars and stripes with an actual baby crib crushed by a beam. The combination tells us they're satirizing a repressive regime, not just a suffocating style. Among the offerings of younger artists, Kristin Jones and Andrew Ginzel's "Alkahest" (1990) a big skeletal globe cradling a clear glass plate of lush green leaves afloat in mineral oil - is a haunting sculptural poem about the fragility of the earth. And Seymour Likely's "The Unexpected Return of Blinky Palermo from the Tropics" (1989) is funny - but how can you miss with a bunch of plaster piglets in sunglasses and gold chains waiting for a lecturer to show up?
"Team Spirit" has, however, too few pieces this good. Much of the show veers toward ponderous and overloaded art that aims to mean something by touching on everything. IRWIN huffs and puffs to come up with "L'Etat" (1988). It's an enormous light box - with a photo of business-suited male artists and a nude female on one side and self-portraits of old masters embedded in gold leaf on the other - underpinned by some oily, ominous revolving gears. Let's see: repression of women artists, check; a false art history of celebrities, check, and the nasty machinations of the international art world, double check. Very correct, but very cute. "Proposal for North Carolina Museum of Art" (1989) by Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler is, on the other hand, insufferably patronizing. The model in the show features a row of toy farm equipment, but the finished piece in Raleigh would require full-size vehicles, painted bronze, to be returned to real farmers when the installation is over. The artists must figure the Carolina locals will relate to that. (Where's Jesse Helms when you really need him?)
So why doesn't collaboration work better with visual artists? If showbiz can have Penn & Teller, if lawyering thrives on those august, silver-haired partnerships, if baseball needs its batteries, why don't contemporary art's duos, trios and quartets fare as well? Perhaps it's because there's nothing in "Team Spirit" startlingly different from the fashionable produce of today's star-billed single acts (who usually work with a raft of assistants anyway). While a solo artist wrestles with a conscience, art teams have to clear things through committee. Maybe all that intra-team conferring somehow dissipates an essential blast of passion that would better energize the work of art itself. The Boyle Family, which describes itself as "four feuding dictators arguing bitterly about every color choice," contributes to the show "Broken Path Study with Black and White Tiles (West London)" (1983), a reproduction of a section of crumbling sidewalk containing almost no color choices.
The times, it turns out, aren't quite as brightly postmodern as we might think. The best artists still work essentially alone, with more intuition and less strategy (a word mentioned at least four times in the catalog essays) than "Team Spirit" evidences. Art from groups may be like sex from a solo participant: enjoyable in a pinch, but not quite the real thing.