Sept. 7 2011 12:00 AM

Andrew Kuo paintings are Broad Museum’s first art purchases


“Here I am…now what?”

The anxious morning face of New York
artist Andrew Kuo, 31, is the face of post-modern art — unwashed,
self-obsessed, unsure whether to shoulder the burden of art history or
shrug it off. 

Kuo’s is also the first human face on
Michigan State University’s Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum. Director
Michael Rush picked two paintings by Kuo, including the artist’s scruffy
self-portrait, as the museum’s first art purchase.

The Broad Museum, dedicated to contemporary art, is under construction and headed for an April 2012 opening.

Kuo’s work combines a consciousness of
art history with self-deprecating humor and a multi-media sensibility
that catches the zeitgeist to a Z.

“It’s very of-the-moment, but I think
it’s really got some legs and it’s going to endure,” Rush said. “He’s
not overtly political, but he brings a sense of personal-as-political to
the canvas.”

Rush is proud that the Broad’s first
purchase is also the first museum buy of Kuo’s work anywhere. “We’re
announcing that we’re interested in emerging artists,” he said. “We want
to identify those voices that are just cropping up.”

A graphic artist, painter and drummer,
Kuo is best known for elaborate, absurdly specific charts of his
emotions and thoughts during rock concerts, posted on The New York Times
ArtsBeat blog.

In the bigger of the two Broad paintings,
Kuo sprinkles moment-to-moment commentary of his inner life, expressed
in text, onto clean modernist forms, like ants on a sheet cake. The fun
begins with the prolix title: “The More You Know About Me, The More
You’ll Think Twice Before Calling/I’d be More Tolerable If I Smoked Weed
Because … .”

The diptych is dominated by two vivid
sets of telescoping rectangles — Kuo’s homage to the famous “Homage to
the Square” series of paintings and prints by American artist and
teacher Josef Albers. In the satirical style Kuo has made his own, each
color in the painting is keyed to a mood or thought, the same way colors
are keyed to altitudes on a relief map of South America.

“It’s as if he’s Tweeting while he’s painting,” Rush said.

In “The More You Know,” the forest-green
band signifies that Kuo is “retiring from returning all e-mails and
speaking.” The orange band is keyed to a typically mundane Kuo
confession: “I only hang out when there’s nothing I haven’t seen on
premium cable.”

The right side of the diptych, the “Weed”
graphic, lists color-keyed reasons for firing up a joint, including the
confession that “these days, beer reminds me of depressing songs about
beer and being sober reminds me of myself.”

Rush saw Kuo’s New York gallery show in
April, “My List of Demands,” and was hooked by the combination of bold
graphics and confessional text. Both of the pieces purchased by the
Broad Museum were featured in “My List of Demands.”

“We’re constantly making associations,”
Rush said. “We’re walking down the street, we’re thinking about what’s
coming later, concerned about a friend, thinking about work. What Andrew
does in these so-called music critiques is giving us everything he’s
thinking and feeling.”

For Rush, “The More You Know/Weed” has
potential to grab diverse audiences in different ways, making it the
perfect opening salvo for the Broad. Lovers of Josef Albers and the
modernists, people who enjoy Woody Allen-ish introspection, social media
freaks and marijuana smokers are just a few of the groups who will
gravitate to it.

“Older people can plug into it visually
and then try to make sense of the commentary,” he said. “Younger people
can plug right into the commentary and then go, ‘What’s with the
squares?’ They’re opposite points of entry but equally valid.”

Rush acknowledged Kuo may also be having
fun at the expense of impatient viewers who demand specific meanings
from abstract works.

“I think he’s playful, but he’s not being
a smart-ass,” Rush said. “Some people have said it’s a mockery of
Albers, but I think it’s quite the opposite. He’s having fun with it,
but he’s claiming modernism for himself, in a personal way.”

Lack of pretension is another winning Kuo
trait. In the other painting purchased by the Broad, “Self-Portrait
(Rise and Shine),” from 2009, the artist stares straight at the viewer,
eyebrows furrowed. The brush strokes are bold: jet black hair, a
question mark nose, lips like congealed bacon.

“It’s funny, it’s self-deprecating. It’s
like he just woke up, with that backwards T-shirt,” Rush said. “It’s as
if he’s not taking it all seriously, but if you probe the work,
he knows exactly what he’s doing, and he’s doing it with enormous skill
and intelligence.”

Kuo works in a variety of media and styles, and that also
endears him to Rush. “You put these two works next to each other, you
would never guess they were by the same person.”