Culture: Warhol Favored a Sloping Down Tube

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, April 1996

Culture: Warhol Favored a Sloping Down Tube

A traveling exhibit makes us ponder: Is that art you're pedaling?
By Alex Frankel

"The design of this bicycle makes you think of all the ways in which the object sacrifices itself to come between the body and the hard rocks of the world outside," says a short, stocky man with slicked-back hair, a glam-whiskered jaw, and an exquisitely tailored Euro-cut suit. He's Aaron Betsky, the 37-year-old curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and he's beaming about the museum's most recent exhibit: a white room, artsily stuffed with camping gear and other outdoor equipage. In a show that will travel to two other North American cities later this year, tents dangle from the ceiling like hollow sides of beef, kayaks float in midair, snowshoes hang from the walls. "As tools," says Betsky, explaining his vision, "the items help us to eat, sleep, and move through nature with more grace. And yet, as objects, they exude fashion!"

Enthusiastically, if redundantly, titled "Wild Design: Designs for the Wild," the show was conceived two years ago when Betsky, who describes himself as a "dilettante day hiker," was shopping for equipment at A-16, a popular California purveyor of wilderness gear. "One of The North Face's tents looked almost bug-eyed to me," he remembers with a fascinated frown. He decided to kick things off with an installation in San Francisco, which of course is something of a capital of the outdoor industry.

During its initial four-month run, "Wild Design" has drawn large, if occasionally puzzled, audiences as well as widespread critical acclaim in the art world. But to the casual viewer, the scene looks a little like an explosion at a Boy Scout jamboree. Stuff is everywhere and at odd angles--a display style that, Betsky argues, helps viewers focus on form as well as function.

"As presented in this museum, these are floating objects--they don't 'work,'" he says, motioning to a Charlet Moser Quasar Ice Tool, a nylon-and-steel instrument shaped like a French curve. "At the same time, each object gives you a real sense of where you grip it, how you swing it, how your body fits with it." Betsky pretends to pick up the ax and drive it into an imaginary ice route. Then he pauses and notes, "I have reservations, though, about the sanity of climbing frozen waterfalls."

For their part, the flock of museum visitors on this rainy day are taking the edge off nature with their own selection of gear, including dripping umbrellas and Gore-Tex parkas. In the exhibit itself, the zippered flap on the backside of a Patagonia Gridman Suit generates much discussion, but most fans seem not to notice the bicycle helmet that, according to a plaque, "turns your head into an aerodynamic wedge." Around the Mountain Cycle San Andreas R8.6 mountain bike, a debate erupts. Some praise its geometry, others denounce its excessive flair.

"The exhibit looks a lot like my garage at home," a Dockers-clad wilderness enthusiast is overheard saying, a little boastfully. "I like how they display the shoes."

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