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The Tannen School

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He's everywhere. An urban planner by profession, Robert Tannen is also a social activist and a prolific artist. Born in Brooklyn in 1937, he arrived in this area in 1969 and has maintained a hyper-creative local lifestyle ever since. He played a seminal role in the founding of the Contemporary Arts Center in 1976, and has more recently worked to develop venues for local artists to show their own work concurrently with the Prospect.1 New Orleans international biennial. Perhaps because he's peripatetic and multifaceted, and perhaps because his work can seem a tad prankish, Tannen the artist has always appeared as something of a blur in our local collective consciousness.

This Stardust retrospective at the Ogden Museum brings much of his prolific body of work together in a clear context for the first time, so now everything suddenly makes a lot more sense. What really emerges here is that he is a classical, if puckish, modernist in the tradition of Marcel Duchamp and Allan Kaprow, artists who made careers out of redefining the relationship between art and life, between aesthetics and ordinary, everyday stuff. If Duchamp and the Dadaists invented conceptual art, Kaprow and fellow travelers like Robert Rauschenberg took it to the next level with their assemblages and 'happenings." This was the pure, original form of conceptual art, not to be confused with the more scripted 'postmodernism" that became so widespread in the 1980s. After Tannen arrived on the Gulf Coast, where he worked as an urban planner in the wake of Hurricane Camille, he soon began pioneering his own local garden variety of conceptual and environmental art, a project that continues to this day. This show provides a chance to revisit some of his golden oldies, many of which still look as fresh as they did when they were created.

Inner-Tubes is a circa 1963 assemblage of old deflated auto-tire inner-tubes in overlapping horizontal arrangements reminiscent of ruffled fabric or baroque filigree, only here their identity as industrial junk contrasts strikingly with their otherwise fancy or frilly patterning. While equivalent to some of Claes Oldenburg's soft sculpture from the same period, this also seems to presage some of Lynda Benglis' poured latex sculptures as well as work by other Louisiana post-minimalists active in New York in the '60s. By the '70s, the Gulf Coast influence is obvious in his fish-trophy sculptures. Marlin Brando features a blue marlin held upright by its spear-like snout lodged in a heavy base. Crucifish features another big-game fish mounted on a wooden upright to form a large cross, elaborating the ancient symbolic associations between Christianity and the fish kingdom. Another gem from the disco decade is a horse skull with some steer horns grafted on. Titled Gerogia O'Keefe, it's an irreverent commentary on the great New Mexico painter's famous cattle skull paintings.

Visual puns involving found objects and occasional fabricated forms such as his stackable shotgun-house sculptures like oversize Monopoly pieces, extend the trajectory over time. For instance, his 1995 Folded Glass Sculptures, a mass of partially melted wine bottles, reprises the overlapping lines of his 1963 Inner-Tubes sculpture, but Tannen keeps it all challenging with more recent efforts such as his post-Katrina rock sculptures, actually large boulders transported from Arkansas, lending new heft to the notion of 'found objects." Some are installed at Lee Circle, while others can be viewed at 527 Julia St., where he collaborated with sculptor Aria da Capo. The boulders refer to the creation of the solar system from particles emitted by dying stars, but some smaller star-shaped stones become Rock Stars, and a stone in a bowl becomes a Rock'N Bowl. Here the cosmic become prosaic even as the prosaic becomes cosmic. What better legacy could a sculptor ask for?

Robert Tannen's Gulf Coast genre of conceptual art includes fish trophy sculptures such as Crucifish, left, and Marlin Brando.
  • Robert Tannen's Gulf Coast genre of conceptual art includes fish trophy sculptures such as Crucifish, left, and Marlin Brando.

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