Refuge In Refuse

A Collection of Art From Motor City Alludes Eerily To Our Own Dispirited Downtown.

DETROIT HAS BEEN a city in trouble at least since the 1960s. White autoworkers in those years were fleeing the old city of homes for flim-flam suburbs, leaving the decaying inner city to impoverished black migrants from the south. The famous Detroit riot of 1967 had to be quelled by no less a force than the U.S. Army. And in the 1970s, the auto industry went on the skids, outmaneuvered during the oil crisis by the Japanese penchant for small, fuel-efficient cars.

"The city that spawned the auto age is the place where everything that could go wrong with a city, did go wrong," writes urban critic James Howard Kuntsler in his 1993 book The Geography of Nowhere. The downtown skyscrapers are still decomposing, and the "innermost ring of houses is now almost completely destroyedäA scattering of once-beautiful, now hopelessly decayed mansions stand in these blocks like inscrutable megaliths in a wilderness of rubble. Ailanthus trees corkscrew through broken porches and bay windowsäRemaining denizens come and go on an informal basis, in a fog of drugs, crime and hopelessnessä."

Yet this devastation spawned a new urban art that took its forms from the rotting buildings, its colors from asphalt and crumbling brick, its materials from the trash of the vacant lots. Art pioneers homesteaded the burned-out Cass Corridor, where they found cheap spaces to rent and a wonderland of unconventional art materials just lying around for the taking. Splintery boards, paint-can lids, paper and bedsprings found their way into their sculptural assemblages. And when this debris didn't actually become part and parcel of the art, it nevertheless inspired paintings of a rough geometry, oils on canvas whose rhythms echo the tumbling buildings and junk heaps.

A sampling of these gritty urban works is showcased in The Tsagaris/Hilberrry Collection: A Sustaining Passion, a traveling summer exhibition at the University of Arizona Museum of Art. A pair of Detroit professionals--the extravagantly named Andronike Antigone Tsagaris, a Brooklyn-born civil rights commissioner, and architect John Hilberry, a Michigan native--both began collecting the work of inner-city Detroit artists in the 1960s. Their mutual interest eventually triggered a meeting and a marriage. It would have undoubtedly also provided for a consolidation of their separate collections, but for an unfortunate demonstration of the adage that art mirrors life. Like much of the rest of the neighborhood, Hilberry's art holdings went up in flames in a fire in the downtown office he had designed.

Nevertheless, the couple kept on collecting. Their pieces now total about 200 works, split between contemporary and Native American art. Nowadays they're as apt to buy New York art as Detroit, but the most interesting pieces in the show were midwifed by Detroit's horror. Tucson's own artists, dispirited by still another downtown downturn, might find the work instructive. Art, so far, hasn't saved Tucson, and it certainly didn't save Detroit, but it's hard not to be taken with the Detroit artists' spirit.

Robert Sestok made his 1982 "Assemblage #4" wall sculpture entirely of trash. This artwork has everything that might trip you up as you flee down a dangerous alley and more: a sharp metal grill, paint can lids and indeed paint cans themselves, splintery boards tossed out of broken-down houses by squatters, rusty pipes descended from some ancient bathroom. Sestok set about imposing order on this chaos, and came up with a lovely bit of three-dimensional cubism, its dangerous components softened by a rhythmical composition, and colored in pale blue, rust, gray and black. Similarly, his "Pinewood Decal," from 1977, recasts urban detritus as an orderly collage.

More strident is Michael Luchs's "Untitled (#7)," a wiry piece of urban archaeology excavated the same year as Sestok's assemblage. Luchs hasn't done much to pretty up his findings. Sitting in unruly fashion on the tidy museum floor, #7 is a nightmare knot of pointy metal put together from bed springs and chain link fence, a thick electrical wire serving as a circular frame for the whole wiry tangle.

Paul Schwarz replicates old buildings before they tumble. He's made a pair of small plaster likenesses of actual facades in "Untitled (2R)." Two 19th century mercantile buildings, of a kind built on Main Streets all over America, including Tucson's Congress Street, stand side by side, elegant in tan. Arched windows parade along the second stories, above the old storefront windows and the doors. A tape measure wittily serves as decorative cornice, a reminder that this is just a tiny replica of a building soon to die. And indeed, the little stores have the blank look of disuse, like a body that's recently succumbed to death.

There are some fine paintings, too. Cay Bahnmiller paints a graffiti abstraction on blueprint paper in "Untitled (#15), 1980." (Architectural references are plentiful here, reflecting both the built environment of the works' origin, and Hilberry's professional interest in structure.) Thick paint in broad bands of grey streak across the paper in stripes veering off horizontally, diagonally and vertically. This lively work suggests at once the geometry of the city and the auto engine that once powered its economy. Not for nothing, after all, is Detroit called the Motor City.

A homeless person loading up a shopping cart with whatever she can find has nothing on the media mix Gordon Newton brings to his 1979 "Bent Vertical Cabin VI." Graphite, paint, crayon and paper collage combine to create a disciplined abstraction of dark lines and rectangles against a pale background. But again this is an abstraction that suggests bricks and mortar: a mournful doorway, and a house tilting toward oblivion.

A few of the pieces in the collection jump way out of the prevailing urban aesthetic. Albert York paints an impressionistic man lit by sun against a broad blue sky in his 1978 "Man with Moustache," and Ruth Leonard depicts the wilderness in "Beaver Dam," a 1984 oil on canvas. These paintings speak to the city dweller's intermittent desperation for a day in the country, but there's something oddly mechanistic about Leonard's trees and stream. They have a '30s look to them, orderly and almost cubist; landscape that looks man-made. All of which just may go to prove that you can take the artist--or the collector--out of the city, but you can't take the love for a city's sights and sound out of either of them.

The Tsagaris/Hilberry Collection: A Sustaining Passion continues through Sunday, July 23, at the University of Arizona Museum of Art. Summer hours are 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, noon to 4 p.m. Sundays, closed Saturdays. Admission is free. For more information call 621-7567.