Mythological German Artist Joseph Beuys

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Joseph Beuys on the cover of Der Spiegel 5 November 1979
Joseph Beuys, on the cover of Der Spiegel, 5 November 1979

Joseph Beuys is considered by some as the most important of the post-war period – a sculptor, performance artist, teacher and political activist who shifted the emphasis away from the artist as ‘object maker’ to focus on his opinions, his personality and his actions. To others he was a conman and a showman. Francesco Bonami explores how contemporary artists have both borrowed from and developed his approach

Mechanical failures have often inadvertently shaped art history. Jackson Pollock’s fatal car crash in 1956 and Pino Pascali’s death in a motorcycle accident in 1968 immortalised the two artists. When Joseph Beuys’s Stuka plane crashed in the Crimea in 1944, he survived. A group of nomadic Tartars found him and wrapped him in fat and felt to keep him warm. It was a story that not only defined the source of his artistic materials, but also one that became an integral and enduring part of Beuys’s legend.

However, the creation of a personal mythology is not without its dangers. One of the most melancholic images in the history of modern art is the Joseph Beuys two-part multiple Enterprise 1973. The right-hand section is a photograph set in a metal box that shows the artist and his three children at home watching an episode of Star Trek on TV. The room is bare: they could be in any nondescript American motel. Despite that, they look relaxed and comfortable – except Beuys, who sits uneasily behind them, his gaze not fixed on the TV, his thoughts elsewhere, perhaps ruminating on how the future would judge his own contribution to the world.

Even after his death in 1986, at the age of 64, Beuys remains an influential and complicated figure. He used the framework of artistic practice to build a style that mixed politics, anthropology and Celtic and Christian mythology, through which he presented a loose philosophy manifested in his many installations, performances, lectures and sculptures. As a result, by the end of his career he emerged as an activist, a ‘social sculptor’ intent on sociopolitical reform.


Joseph Beuys talking to Richard Hamilton at Tate 1972

Joseph Beuys talking to Richard Hamilton at Tate 1972

© Tate 2005

His methods were never conventional. The most poignant example of this was his work as a political activist. He was involved in establishing the German Student Party in 1967 and later, with Joschka Fisher, the Green Party. Both groups were very active and highly visible, and in line with this Beuys felt the need to construct a powerful aesthetic around his actions and his performances, so that they would be remembered – a sensibility that he wanted people to regard as almost spiritual in nature. He believed he could single-handedly change the world, as well as influence the entire future of art.

Over the decades, Beuys’s ‘religion’ and his political goals never had the impact he would have wished. But his approach to art did have an effect. Breaking the boundaries of artistic practice, he allowed a more fluid definition of what an artist was and what an artist did. Today, a wide number of artists, working in a variety of ways, have inherited – if that is possible – aspects of the Beuys sensibility, though in each case for very different ends.

Thomas Hirschhorn’s work often has a social agenda with a political undertone. His 2002 Bataille Monument at documenta 11, the international exhibition in Kassel, saw residents of a German suburb build, install and invigilate a series of eight makeshift shacks, including a library with a topography of Bataille’s work, a television studio and a snack bar. Like many of his team-based projects, the emphasis was on social investigation, leading an audience beyond that of the gallery-attending public to find out about art for themselves, using Hirschhorn’s ideas as a framework. He has said that his approach to the political within his work is ‘a tool by which to experience the time in which I am living’. There are echoes of his predecessor’s practice, but Beuys favoured the tactics of loud, visible campaigning and protestation, hoping to attract a type of following normally enjoyed by influential political leaders. Hirschhorn’s preferred modus operandi is explicitly as an artist: rather than promote himself, he promotes the work. As he said recently: ‘I am an artist, not a social worker.’

While Hirschhorn’s stance works as a form of social participation, Maurizio Cattelan upturns the Beuys myth of the artist shaman and plays games with his legacy. The clearest example is Cattelan’s sculpture La rivoluzione siamo (We Are the Revolution) of 2000, in which a cast of himself, wearing a shrunken grey, felt suit, hangs from a coat hanger. It is a simple and witty reference to one of Beuys’s iconic works – Felt Suit 1970. Cattelan’s suit sad-looking figure suggests, somewhat contentiously, that Beuys has become a footnote in art history.

Beuys’s ambition to play a larger role in society is seen by Cattelan, and many of his colleagues, as delusional. As director and screenplay writer David Mamet suggested, art cannot really change the world, but it can prompt you to think about the world from a different angle, which, once you step out of the fiction of art, may help to make some changes in your life and eventually to the world. That’s a view today’s artists seem to share, which is perhaps why Beuys appears more as a conservative character than an innovative one: a born-again artist, we could say; someone who trusts only his own strong interpretation of his faith and his language, and holds on to the notion that his art could and would directly change the world.

Cattelan has made a career out of lampooning the behaviour of the art world, and his work thrives on account of his humour – in this case, at the expense of Beuys. In contrast, Beuys was a serious artist, who took himself very seriously, and whose work (unlike that of his contemporary Marcel Broodthaers) certainly lacked a sense of humour. He concentrated, perhaps too much, on spreading his word and on his Salvation Army-like strategy within an art world that in the 1970s was crippled by political schizophrenia. And his relentless self-promotion and determined politicisation of his words and actions became inseparable. For Beuys, the politics surrounding his work were much more clearly designated and driven by the difficulties inherent in post-war Germany.

When Beuys was alive, there was a belief that people could change things. He believed, somewhat paradoxically, in the idea that ‘everybody is an artist’, while his art was a one-man show. Succeeding generations have been very careful to clarify their positions as artists. For example, Rirkrit Tiravanija and Gabriel Orozco (both of whom have borrowed his focus on the active involvement of the viewer) are very clear in their minds that their role in society is one of an artist not political activist.

Beuys knew that he was an artist (and in some ways a very conventional one), who used his materials in a very classical way. Yet he understood, ahead of time, that the political storm and social transformation that arrived with the 1960s student revolutions would not have allowed him to play the artist any longer. As a member of an elite – the art world – Beuys did not see any possible survival in a political mood that was going to crush any kind of elite, be it economic, political, or religious. In a proactive move, he transformed himself into something else: a creative conman, a visual preacher, a political candidate – whatever was necessary to cross that moment in history and to emerge with a charismatic aura. And he succeeded by disguising himself as a man of economics. Under his new persona he tried to theorise an economic system by which to regulate the world through art. He knew it was not possible, but in the 1970s, an age delusionally attempting to subvert the economic rules of the Western game, he understood that he could utilise his gimmicks to perform an ambiguous role within his own defined community.

It is questionable whether any artist today could try the same approach – particularly the political preaching – without being ridiculed. And his physical appearance – the trademark hat, the fishing waistcoat – now looks like part of a strategy that belongs in the past. Integrating with the rest of society is now a better way for artists to infiltrate the communication channels, open up a dialogue and define their identity through the specificity of their artistic language.

The Polish artist Pawel Althamer, who we could name as a Beuys of the twenty-first century, has diluted the heroic and epic mood of Beuys’s days. A sculptor, performance and action artist and creator of installations and video art, he reflects upon the role and place of art, in particular in large cities. Himself a resident of a vast housing block in the Bródno district of Warsaw, he observed, collected and documented examples of the spontaneous artistic activities of his neighbours. He has also organised projects in co-operation with them, including the action Bródno 2000, during which the people living at 13 Krasnobrodzka Street created a vast ‘2000’ sign by turning on lights in specific windows. If Beuys’s ambition was to move through the darkness of life with a full-blown torch, today’s artists, such as Althamer, seem to be more interested in looking into the simple, but mysterious corners of daily life with the help of just a light bulb.


Pawel Althamer, The Dancers 1997 Video still

Pawel Althamer,
The Dancers 1997
Video still

© Courtesy Foksal Gallery Foundation

Beuys’s spectacular myth-making addressed a powerfully charged historical moment. He showed great contempt towards post-war Germany’s concentration on monetary recovery by adopting an artistic language of signs and symbols, characterised by his deliberate use of earthy, organic materials, including fat, felt, coal, olive oil and blood. He used these with precision to give grave symbolic meaning to his many vitrine installations and actions – and to provide his art with an enduring and immediately recognisable signature for which he would be remembered.

If there is one artist today who embraces Beuys’s love of myth and symbols, then it is Matthew Barney. In his cycle of films, the Cremaster series, he creates a parallel world of signs and actions, with a myriad of seemingly unconnected events taking place in strange, architecturally spectacular and surreal environments. As with Beuys, there is a strong focus on the physicality of the materials, often unspecified – such as the seeping white liquid mess (perhaps a descendent of Beuys’s fat?) that one of the protagonists finds himself stuck in. But Barney’s personal mythology is so opaque that we are not given any clues as to where he is going with his imagery. While Beuys deliberately ensured his art had the aura of a shrine, Barney uses the moving image to keep his work away from any semblance of reality.

The public role that Beuys played in his life seems less effective as a way of working in the twenty-first century. He liked the action and the polemics. He liked gigantic projects. His 7000 Oaks in 1982 at documenta 7, for example, took five years to complete, and saw him planning and implementing the planting of 7,000 trees, each paired with a columnar basalt stone throughout the city of Kassel. He intended this to be the first stage in an ongoing scheme of tree planting to extend across the world, as part of a global mission to effect environmental and social change.


Francis Alys When Faith Moves Mountains 2002 Video still

Francis Alýs
When Faith Moves Mountains 2002
Video still

© Courtesy Galerie Peter Kilchman, Zurich

Many of today’s artists seem more tame, if no less convinced that their role in society is as seminal and pivotal as that of their predecessor. They are more likely to respond with a symphony of whispers, a concert of hushed proclamations. Francis Alÿs’s Peruvian project When Faith Moves Mountains 2002, in which 500 people supplied with shovels moved a 1,600ft long sand dune four inches from its original position, was the kind of work, however grand in scale, that didn’t necessarily demand that anyone actually witness it.

Beuys’s sense of the physical belongs more to a modern sensibility than to a contemporary one. He is maybe the last member of a Brancusian family tree, rather than the first in a contemporary art lineage. The energy he talked about was that burned by the body in order to survive the effort of living. The Italian student movement of the time called for the harnessing of the power of the imagination, but that was never really an option for Beuys. Now artists such as Carsten Höller, Olafur Eliasson, Suchan Kinoshita or Koo Jeong-a have learned they cannot rely on the physical experience of our reality, and have chosen to search for the alternative energy of the mind, soul and feelings; to activate the power of our imagination to survive and succeed, maybe not in the Caucasian tundra, but more safely and peacefully in our no less uncertain times.

The Fat is on the Table
Maurizio Cattelan on Joseph Beuys

beuys is dead
beuys is also uniting love and knowledge
beuys is more present in a desert freak
beuys is sponsored by museum für moderne kunst
beuys is appointed professor of sculpture at the düsseldorf academy of art
beuys extends ulysses by two chapters at the request of james joyce
beuys is surely not a sartre follower, but of course there are many parallels
beuys is mentioned next to steiner
beuys is back in town
beuys is back in belgium, in berlin, US, active in germany
beuys is the contemporary artist responsible for the popular notion that politics is an aesthetic activity that anyone can engage in
beuys is inspired by steiner
beuys is not so reactionary as to deny the existence of the entire art history repertoire
beuys is widely acknowledged as one of the most influential post-war german artists
beuys is the identification with everything from mythological figures and historical personages to writers and artists
beuys is a mythical figure in the art world, however
beuys is particularly significant in the light of his introspective research on the possible reunification of human and natural life
beuys is in the creation of the social sculpture
beuys is either loved or hated
beuys is considered one of the most
beuys is widely regarded as one of the most important german artists since world war II
beuys is demanding sun instead of rain/reagan
beuys is more like an evangelist
beuys is famous for an extraordinary body of drawings
beuys is such an obvious candidate; he started making art following a breakdown that was a result of his experiences in world war II
beuys is represented in depth in dia’s permanent collection
beuys is
beuys is among the most famous of today’s artists
beuys is one of the most famous performance artists
beuys is valid because wolfgang laib shares his belief in the transcendent power of art
beuys is another sculptor that
beuys is one of the major figures in post-war german art
beuys is known for his shamanistic artist’s persona
beuys is among the world’s most comprehensive
beuys is in these digital photographs represented not by him directly
beuys is a real people’s artist understood by a professor
beuys is megjelent a kövek mellett és hamarosan heves vita bontakozott ki közte és a közönség között
beuys is a 1972 lithograph in which the essential feature is that of beuys as everyman
beuys is elvesztette
beuys is átvett és ami interszubjektiv jellege miatt nem volt
beuys is called to account by his presumptive offspring
beuys is veel materiaal verdwenen
beuys is questioned by the activities of maclennan
beuys is instructive
beuys is very important in mail art
beuys is understandable
beuys is known to
beuys is not completed by his death
beuys is i was never secure and happy in the world of galleries from the very beginning
beuys is and how it is pronounced
beuys is cleverly recontextualised in
beuys is of course enormously interesting
beuys is l’eminence grise of community building as an art form
beuys is interested in the proportions between crystal and amorphous states
beuys is able to evoke the experience of the past
beuys is a magnificent
beuys is based on three stages
beuys is a special case because of the build-up of a curious sense of obligation to respond positively
beuys is the generation of my father
beuys is talking about the much wider concept of creative potential
beuys is regarded as one of the most significant personalities of the past
beuys is steeped in the struggle of world war II
beuys is a big influence right now
beuys is unavoidable
beuys is purely a decorative artist
beuys is hype
beuys is cited as the great collaborator of the twentieth century because
beuys believed everybody was a potential artist
beuys is on e-bay
beuys is a mythical figure in
beuys is one artist i wanted to ask you about
beuys is one of the biggest art world phonies of recent years
beuys is probably unique in the history of art
beuys is supposed
beuys is a very controversial sculptor
beuys is grounded in a tradition of narrative sources that is often absent in american art of the same period
beuys is hardly a household name in the history of twentieth-century art
beuys is the great shaman of twentieth-century art
beuys is represented with his monumental work created shortly before his death, lightning with stag in its glare
beuys is best known for declaring “everyone an artist”; koons seems to declare that everyone is a consumer

Für Joseph Beuys
Tag seines Todes –
Von Rebecca Horn

Als Gegebenheit
die ewige Wunde
sie schützen bedecken sie isolieren
den Tropfenfluß in einem selbstgewählten Pumpsystem bewahren
daraus die Energie gewinnen
sie leiten
die bläulich gewonnene Materie
in einen Kreislauf binden
und ihm in einem gegenläufigen Konzert
zum Tanz des Sternenregens folgen

For Joseph Beuys
The Day of his Death –
By Rebecca Horn

As a fact
the eternal wound
protecting covering isolating
collecting the drip flow in his chosen pump system
extracting the energy out of it
conducting
the bluely extracted matter
connecting into a circulation
following him into a concert in reverse
to the dance of showering stars

Translation: Fiona Elliott with Rebecca Horn

The Spirit of Change
By Keith Tyson

When I first came across Joseph Beuys’s work, I thought it was impenetrable, because I was looking for something specific. But to fetishise his work, to see it as relics, seems like a sin to me, considering that’s not where his primary activity was. He was a polymath, who was interested in everything from language to physical energy systems. He saw the world as one homogeneous soup, one big whole through which we have to navigate the most compassionate route. Ultimately, I think an artist can do no more than that. He had a primitive view of being an artist, in that he was a shaman, a visionary. He was the same person who would walk in and say: ‘We need to build a huge new church in this clearing, so we need to invent a new type of buttress, so we can get a massive spire.’ It is nutters like that who can change society.

The idea that things are both real and symbolic, while part of a wider system, and that all that thought and action has a consequence, is the best form of consciousness to assume. Although I may fumble in my steps, that is what I try to do. I’m trying to look at a wider picture. When people criticise my work, it’s usually because they want to see some beautiful painting or amazing sculpture, but really all my work is a signpost to something else. So I have a lot of time for Beuys in that respect.

He called society a ‘sculptural structure’, one that needs healing from itself. He was trying to cause a change and give a gift back to his fellowman through the action of a lecture or an artwork. I do find some of it problematic though, such as the deep mythology he invented, which becomes more of an adoration of the freakish than being a truly communicative vehicle. Then again, it was necessary because he was trying to tap into something essential. I realise it’s a nebulous idea. Marina Warner got it just right when she was contrasting Warhol and Beuys. She said: ‘While Andy Warhol copied things, saying he wanted to be like a machine, Beuys intervened, communicated his dreams, and wanted to change the world.’ But for some reason the art world seems to have taken the other path, the Pop art Warhol path, just reflecting back culture’s mechanics, and not questioning them, not talking about them, not investing them with any power, choosing instead to act in irony and with cynicism, and using those things to instigate change. But those things don’t produce change; they are just a narcissistic response to culture.

Beuys, on the other hand, no matter how bizarre his methodology, was essentially a positive artist, which is interesting when you remember that, at the time when he was working, people were extremely jaded – what with the Second World War and Vietnam. He didn’t have an optimistic environment in which to act: people looked to the empowerment of the 1960s and the failure of the associated movements, and thought that there was no point.

The notion that he believed his actions and those of any one man could transform the world is a misreading of him. His was not the idea of an individual Übermensch striding out into the landscape. He understood that the activity he was contributing was catalytic. It required everybody to make changes. He offered the possibilities, and tried to do it in the most expansive way. He understood that it had to be an integrated, group effort.

frieze magazine

Issue 101 September 2006 RSS

Class Action

Joseph Beuys set up more educational institutions and political parties than most people know jokes. Was he, as has been claimed, aspiring to be the last Modernist visionary or seeking to undermine the role of authority figures by becoming one himself?

image‘To be a teacher is my greatest work of art’, said Beuys in 1969.1 He had a point. Beuys’ persona has arguably come to be perceived as one of the most iconic embodiments of the artist as teacher in postwar art. As a professor at the Dusseldorf Academy in the 1960s, in his political activism of the 1970s and in his performances and lectures Beuys incorporated the role of the teacher to great public effect and in various guises, ranging from progressive art instructor to political agitator to self-styled spiritual educator and messianic healer.

One major consequence of the way Beuys foregrounded teaching in his artistic practice was that his work has come to be interpreted predominantly on the basis of the theories that he himself taught. It seems no coincidence, however, that Minimal and Conceptual artists in the US at the same time were also discovering critical writing as a means of preparing the ground for the reception of their work. In fact a certain ‘pedagogical turn’ seems to mark the historical developments of the 1960s as artists, through teaching and writing, increasingly began to integrate theory into their practice as a tool to produce their own discourse and effectively also steer the interpretation of their work.

The nature of these theories is, of course, where the similarity between Beuys and his American contemporaries ends. While the lesson of Minimal and Conceptual art is analytical in essence and implies that art should reflect and change its material conditions, the teachings of Beuys are a syncretic brew of Modernist myths and endorse art as the cure for alienated humanity through the release of its primordial creativity. As a result of this disparity, the generation of American critics then writing for Artforum and later for October succeeded in developing the analytical momentum of Minimal and Conceptual art into a fully fledged contemporary art history, whereas Beuys’ interpreters and disciples never really managed to unravel the murky belief system underpinning his teachings. What makes it so difficult to engage with Beuys today, therefore, is that the work is still wrapped in a thick cocoon of ideology just as his pedagogical practice continues to be overshadowed by the mythical persona of spiritual guide that he later assumed. Yet just as new perspectives on Minimal and Conceptual art have in recent years been opened up through the highlighting of aspects and positions that had previously been sidelined by the canonical self-interpretation of these movements, so it could now be productive to penetrate the Beuysian ideology and perhaps uncover some of the complexity, irreverence and even humour of his artistic and pedagogical work.2

An alternative approach to reading Beuys as the ultimate authority when it comes to the interpretation of his work could be to look closely at how he dealt with the issue of authority itself in his work and teaching. In effect, I want to argue that Beuys’ historical relevance lies not, as has often been said, in the fact that he was the last to claim the authoritative position of the Modernist visionary (before Pop and Postmodernism rendered such a position obsolete), but that, on the contrary, in his work and teaching he subjected this model of authority to a process of scrutiny and gradual erosion. This is not to suggest that Beuys ever fully crossed that threshold and abandoned the myths of Modernism as Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter did – both of whom were students in the Dusseldorf academy in the 1960s while Beuys was teaching there, albeit in a different class. Nevertheless there can be no doubt that Beuys was not only affected by, but played a very active role in, the political and cultural upheavals that the Fluxus and student movements instigated at that time. One of the most pivotal issues at stake in these upheavals, particularly in postwar Germany, was precisely the critique of the old models of authority that had remained in place in everyday life and institutional routines throughout the 1950s despite the official ‘de-Nazification’ of the country. In the light of these struggles Beuys’ performances and approach to pedagogy could indeed be seen as a purposeful if largely intuitive attempt to performatively dismantle the role of artist and teacher as a figure of mythic authority in the process of staging it.

The accounts of Beuys’ students collected in Petra Richter’s study Mit, neben, gegen: Die Schüler von Joseph Beuys (with, next to, against: the students of Joseph Beuys, 2000) confirm that a highly ambivalent attitude to his authority as a professor marked Beuys’ teaching style from the moment he took over the sculpture class at the Dusseldorf academy in 1961. On the one hand his approach was radically anti-authoritarian; he rejected teaching art according to a curriculum (which most of his colleagues still did) and instead helped students to develop their work individually, spending up to ten hours a day in the classroom. On the other hand, his critiques of students’ work are reported to have been (at times) uncompromising and delivered with the full force of his professorial authority. In fact Beuys’ reputation for being both too progressive and too provocative initially led every student bar one, Hede Bühl, to leave the class when he took over. The second student to enter the deserted class was my father, Walter Verwoert. My mother, Elfi Weimar, joined some time later as one of a generation of students that included Blinky Palermo, Jörg Immendorff and Rainer Ruthenbeck. So I am writing from the implicated position of being quite literally a child of the idealist spirit of that moment.

My father remembers many situations in which Beuys’ critique of students’ works was highly confrontational. He told me about the time Beuys physically attacked a well-executed realist ceramic sculpture of a monk, slapping its face flat with a broad knife and then drawing a smiley in the flat clay. On another occasion, when the same student, Bonifatius Stirnberg, had sculpted a Crucifixion scene, Beuys put a wooden board in front of it, hiding everything but the heads of the figures, before explaining that religion was after all about mystery. In the same way my father recollects having learnt about the effects of negative volume through Beuys simply carving a big chunk out of the clay sculpture he had just finished. Yet my father says he found these interventions very liberating and in tune with the spirit of the moment. The rough but precise treatment of material that Beuys taught was the same approach he found inspiring in, for instance, Arman’s Accumulations, glass boxes crammed full of numerous identical everyday objects (shown at that time in the Dusseldorf gallery Schmela) or in the performances staged by Yvonne Rainer and Robert Morris at the academy in 1964 (an event financed by Schmela but hosted by the Beuys class). On the whole, my father recounts, the break with the conventions of craft that the materialist aesthetics of Beuys, Nouveau Réalisme and American Minimalism all implied, created an overwhelming sense of, as he puts it, ‘Anything goes. Just go for it.’

However, this sensation of potentiality, my mother tells me, was at times also mixed with an oppressive feeling of turmoil. For instance, she recounts Beuys locking the doors during a performance at the academy by John Cage, thereby granting the students no release from the experience. She describes this physical sense of being locked in a space full of people and forced to undergo an event of an utterly unpredictable nature and duration as the closest she ever came to reliving the nights she spent in a bomb shelter during air raids as a child. Probably the best-known example of actual violence erupting in such a situation is the Fluxus event ‘Festival der neuen Kunst’ at the College of Advanced Technology in Aachen in 1964, when local students were so upset by the onslaught of absurdity unleashed by the performers that they stormed the stage and started a fight. What survived from this clash is the iconic portrait of Beuys with a bloody nose and a commanding stare, one arm raised in a Roman salute and the other stretched out, holding a cruxifix.3 What makes this image so fascinating is that it epitomizes precisely Beuys’ ambivalent relation to authority in this historical moment of change. One the one hand he instigates a provocation that results in chaos; on the other he contains that chaos in a dramatic pose of authority. This pose contains chaos in both senses of the word. It stops the violence through a powerful gesture, yet it also incorporates the clash of forces since Beuys is simultaneously hailing the victor and displaying the martyr in a disturbingly contradictory pose that casts him as both perpetrator and victim.

Beuys indeed had a talent for striking poses that contain chaos. In the performance ÖÖ-Programm (1967), for instance, he staged his public persona as a professor in just such an ambivalent manner. During an official matriculation ceremony at the academy he greeted the new students carrying an axe and uttering inarticulate sounds into the microphone for ten minutes. Beuys adepts will tell you that these noises are supposed to symbolize the secret nature of the creative act – namely, the gradual transformation of the formless into the formed. Be that as it may, I believe the local tabloid Express was nearer to the mark when it reported, ‘Professor barks into microphone!’ This is what happened. Beuys intentionally turned his professorial authority into a laughing stock, but in doing so he pushed humour to the point where it becomes painful. By holding an axe he in fact posed as a lictor, the guard of the Roman magistrates, who, as a symbol of authority, carried an axe wrapped in a bundle of sticks – the so-called fasces. This is where the term ‘fascism’ comes from. It has been observed that Beuys never really addressed the Nazi past in his talks and teachings. I would argue, however, that it was precisely on the level of how he both staged and dismantled mythic authority in his performances that he continuously brought it into play.

A compelling example of this is the performance Der Chef / The Chief. Fluxus Gesang (Fluxus Song), put on in the basement of the René Block gallery in Berlin in 1964. As the entrance to the space was blocked, people could only watch the event through the door. Beuys spent eight hours wrapped in a felt blanket, making inarticulate noises into a microphone linked to a PA system. On each side of the blanket lay one dead rabbit. Among other paraphernalia a copper rod wrapped in felt and patches of margarine and fat were installed in the space. At times a tape of a composition by Danish Fluxus musicians Henning Christiansen and Eric Andersen would be played. After the working day of eight hours was over, Beuys got up and, as my father recounts, took everyone to Block’s flat to cook the rabbits for dinner.5 With laconic directness the title pinpoints the subject of the performance to be authority. In German Chef means ‘boss’, but in colloquial use the word can also serve as a cheery form of address, just as the Spanish jefe or the American ‘boss’ can just mean ‘dude’. In performing the Chef Beuys surely plays the boss by commanding the attention of the viewer and showing off how heroically he gets a tough job done. But by doing the shitty work of grunting into a blanket for half a day Beuys also plays a dude, the fellow worker you sympathize with, and the dude, the man of the moment you admire for putting on quite a show with only a few crappy props.

Walter Benjamin observed that aura is produced through the simultaneous suggestion of distance and proximity. This is the trick Beuys pulls off here. By at once casting himself as the boss and the fellow sufferer, the hero and the martyr, the invisible figure at the centre of attention, he generates an aura around his authority. The auratic Chef therefore is also the Führer, the Duce, the fascist leader. Beuys taps into the mythic source of authority and mobilizes the energies of fascination that constitute auratic leadership. But in so doing he also exorcizes them by exposing the material workings of the ceremony of their invocation. In the process of the performance the auratic effect of Beuys’ theatrical presence is constantly set against the sheer absurdity of a guy in a blanket making inarticulate sounds for hours. Through these noises and the grungy artefacts littering the space the performance produces an excess of physicality that is similar in its effect to an illusionist destroying the illusion by fiddling around with too many props. Der Chef is not about the triumph of auratic authority; rather, it dramatizes the futile desire to make its magic work. It casts the mythic leader as a tragically comic magician not entirely unlike the one played by Tommy Cooper.

It’s hard to say if this deconstructive drive in Beuys’ actions is the manifestation of a conscious effort or of a more intuitive need to work through the mythic grounds of authority. There clearly is an almost compulsive dynamic in the way Beuys returns to, and in his very own way repeats, the ritual of staging auratic leadership that had put Germany, Italy and Spain under its spell. Looking at ÖÖ-Programm, however, you also cannot deny the humour if not glee with which Beuys publicly pushes the ciphers of authority to the point of absurdity. He seems provocatively to incorporate the crisis of authority to act it out. Yet, it is equally clear that he also remains spellbound by its myth and neither as a teacher nor artist ever entirely abandons it. Allegedly because of this, Fluxus pioneer George Macunias, for instance, broke with Beuys as early as 1964 and tried to exclude him from the Fluxus circuit.4 Likewise, Petra Richter observes that Beuys’ position towards the anarchy that his students began to create with increasing intensity towards the end of the 1960s was also ambivalent. He supported the political agitation of Jörg Immendorff and Chris Reinicke, whose activities with the ‘Lidl-academy’ led to a police intervention and the temporary closure of the Dusseldorf academy in 1969. But apparently he strongly disapproved of actions by students who sought cathartic release through pure destruction.

Still, there can be no doubt that his relation to the institution of the academy remained antagonistic. Tensions came to a head in 1971, when Beuys repudiated the official routine of entrance exams and instead offered the rejected applicants unconditional access to his class for a one-year probationary period. As a consequence he was sacked the following year. The postcard multiple Demokratie ist lustig (Democracy is Fun, 1973) shows a photo of his eviction from the academy. Beuys is leaving the school framed by policemen, wearing an old army coat and a broad, knowing smile on his face, again never at a loss for a good pose. Beuys’ dismissal happened only days after the end of Documenta 5, where he had spent the 100 days of the exhibition talking politics with the visitors in the office of the ‘Organization for Direct Democracy by Referendum’ he co-founded in 1971. This organization grew out of two others Beuys had set up previously: the ‘German Student Party’ in 1967 and the ‘Office for Political Public Relations’ in 1970. During the struggles at the academy in 1971 Beuys and writer Heinrich Böll also published a proposal for a long-term project to establish a ‘Free International University’. Finally, in 1979 Beuys was also a founder member of the German Green Party.

Like his artistic cosmology, Beuys’ political theory is largely based on the teachings of the founder of the Anthroposophy movement, Rudolf Steiner. The ideal society is thought to be composed ‘organically’ of three spheres governed semi-autonomously according to their own principles, so that there is liberty in culture, equality in law and solidarity in the economy. Instead of political parties, workers’ councils and direct referendums are to represent the interests of the people. Benjamin Buchloh once gracefully summarized these theories as ‘simple-minded Utopian drivel lacking elementary political and educational practicality’.5 Objectively speaking, that’s what they are. And judging Beuys by his own intentions to enter into politics proper, this verdict is probably unavoidable. Even the Greens got weary of his missionary zeal and sidelined him early on. Yet there is something about the hyper-intensity of Beuys’ political commitment that puts it in an entirely different league. Like the excess of physicality in his performances, his passion for politics and education is just too much. In his life Beuys dreamt up as many political and educational institutions as, say, Aleister Crowley inaugurated occult places of worship. In the same way as we are now beginning to uncover some of the more disruptive moments behind the canon of Modernism, I would suggest that we look at Beuys as an unruly Modernist who set up parties and schools the way others invented religions or avant-gardes: out of the spirit of the moment, out of the realization that this is part of what an artist can do, and perhaps also out of a certain exuberant humour.

Jan Verwoert is a contributing editor of frieze and teaches at the Piet Zwart Insitute in Rotterdam. He has recently published a book Bas Jan Ader – In Search of the Miraculous (Afterall Books/MIT Press 2006).

1 Beuys in conversation with Willoughby Sharp, Artforum, no. 4 (1969), p. 44.
2 Among the few books that propose a re-reading are the excellent anthology Gene Ray (ed.): Joseph Beuys. Mapping the Legacy (D.A.P., New York, 2001) and the sceptical study by Barbara Lange, Joseph Beuys. Richtkräfte einer neuen Gesellschaft (Reimer, Frankfurt am Main, 1999).
3 The iconic pose is at times referred to as being part of the performance Kukei, akopee – Nein! (1964), although it was more likely simply a spontaneous reaction to the riots.
4 See Joan Rothfuss, ‘Joseph Beuys. Echoes in America’, in Ray, op. cit., pp. 37–53.
5 Benjamin Buchloh, ‘Beuys: The Twilight of the Idols’, first published in Artforum in 1980. Here taken from Ray, op. cit., p. 201.

Jan Verwoert

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DW.de

Culture

Joseph Beuys — Artist Who Expanded Art’s Boundaries

Joseph Beuys is considered one of the most important and controversial artists of the second half of the 20th century. Always on the cutting edge, Beuys thought artists had a central role to play in society.

A current exhibition provides a photographic record of Beuys’ working life

Those who know Joseph Beuys often think of two things when they hear his name: fat and felt. These were two materials that he often used in his works that were unsettling to some, simply incomprehensible to others.

On the 20th anniversary of the artist’s death, the Kunst Palast museum in Düsseldorf is holding an exhibition called “Joseph Beuys in Action: the Healing Powers of Art.” The exhibit features some 100 from different photographers who shot the artists at different phases of his career. They show Beuys in his different manifestations: teacher, political activist, withdrawn introvert or fighter for environmental causes.

Beuys was also involved in German politics and helped found of Germany’s Green Party. His experiences during World War II led him to become a pacifist and he was active in the pace and anti-nuclear movment.

Born in 1921 in the town of Krefeld, Beuys served in the German air force throughout World War Two. In 1943, his plane was shot down over the frozen Crimea. Those who found him tried to restore his body heat by wrapping him in fat and an insulating layer of felt, which is likely the origin of the recurring materials in his sculptural works.

After the war, he studied sculpture at the state art academy in Düsseldorf, where he taught from 1961 to 1972.

Ritual

During that time, starting in the mid-60s, Beuys worked with the avant-garde art group known as Fluxus. It was during this period that he began to stage “actions,” where he would perform works in a ritualistic way. One of the best known of these was How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare from 1965. Beuys covered his head with honey and gold leaf, wore one shoe with felt on its sole, another soled with iron. He walked through an art gallery for two hours, explaining the art hanging there to a dead hare that he carried.

Joseph Beuys in 1980

But it was in the 70s and 80s that Beuys was most active on the international stage and his works were displayed around the world, from Vienna’s Biennale to New York’s Guggenheim to the Seibu Museum of Art in Tokyo.

Photographer Bernd Jansen accompanied Beuys in 1970 during his “Friday action, First Class Fried Frishbones,” which presents the bones of a fish displayed in a wall-mounted box as if they were a saintly relic.

“The fish is a sign for Christ,” said Jansen. “Beuys often dealt with Christian themes and this ‘Friday action’ was also a religious act, if you will.”

Beuys’ better known works are Felt Suit (1970), a felt suit exhibited on a coat hanger; the performance piece Coyote, “I Like America and America Likes Me” (1974), for which Beuys wrapped himself in felt and stayed in a room with a coyote for five days. In the sculpture Fat Corner, Beuys piled fat into the corner of a space, left to melt and turn rancid over a number of days.

For those who prefer their art to be sofa sized and depict idyllic landscapes or quaint country roads, Beuys’ art generally induced a good deal of head shaking.

New definition of art

But for Beuys, every person was an artist; every action a work of art. His expanded definition of art caused both sensation and fierce debate during his life. For him, works of art were as fleeting as life itself. He didn’t want to create eternal works, but to start people thinking.

Pictures taken during the art work named ‘Action in moor’ in August 1971

Beuys not only mounted fish bones on walls and ceilings, he also put them on a pair of his own jeans. That pair is now owned by Hinrich Murken, a medical historian and collector of Beuys’ works. Murken admits that his passion for Beuys was not always met with understanding.

“When I bought the Beuys jeans in 1971, it wasn’t easy for my immediate circle and my family to get why I brought home a pair of old jeans as art,” he said. “And then a pair that had fish bones on it. But the bones were what make the work really mysterious and puzzling and gave it the aura that it now has.”

Art, science and healing

The connection between art and the natural sciences, between art and medicine was something that Beuys discovered by looking at Leonardo da Vinci. He conducted research into nature and explored the topic of healing in his works like no other artist. Many of his works, drawings, actions and lectures contained motifs and allusions from the worlds of healing and medicine.

“The Temptation of the 20th Century” by Beuys

In his final creative period, the artist devoted much thought to shamanism, which for him was a natural philosophy which invoked a primordial world where all being lived in harmony.

“No other artist has such a variety of references in his work,” said Murken. “Beuys’ work continues to lives from this openness, from the fascinating variety of interpretations that are possible.”

DW recommends

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Hans Dieter Huber
The Artwork as a System and its Aesthetic Experience.
Remarks on the Art of Joseph Beuys

(This article was given as a lecture at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, at the University of South Florida, Tampa and at the University of Texas at Austin in September/October 1989)

I

The art of Joseph Beuys in many cases provoked his audience as much as the media. He enraged people wherever he appeared. He was viewed as a madman, a charlatan, or a messiah. The intensity and emotionality of the public discussion about him and his works, which he consciously encouraged and his enormous influence on the arts, contrast strangely with the ignorance of his achievement in German art history. German scholars still have great difficulty comprehending the specific nature of his artistic conception and its aesthetic effectiveness. Beuys himself on the other hand, was always highly critical of the academic system and the lack of involvement on the part of university scholars in social processes and social evolution. (1)

Only in recent years have students and scholars recognized his fundamental influence on the visual arts, despite all the negative reaction. They have begun to reconstruct the historical processes and to discuss his conception of art and its aesthetic and social effects. As scholars we still stand at the beginning of a historical understanding of his art.

In the case of Beuys, it is often difficult to define which parts belong to the artwork and which do not. Traditional concepts such as unity, integrity, harmony, proportion, composition, scale etc. are of little assistance. So we are obliged to develop a new descriptive vocabulary and a new theory of interpretation. His various showcases illustrate the problems involved in identifying the objects and placing them into a significant relation with the other ones. In most cases it is unclear whether the objects are individual or different elements of one larger work. The problem of individuation and identification is central to any attempt to construct a new method of describing and interpreting his work.

II

General Systems Theory is especially suited for the description and analysis of such complex installations by contrast with many concurrent models, because it is able to account for the complexity and interdependence of all phenomena, the intense entanglement of all things, properties and relations internal to the work, as well as its relationship to the environment, including space, time, viewer and society. (2) Systems theory also permits an interdisciplinary and problem-oriented approach. But first it seems necessary to make certain distinctions in order to rule out possible misunderstandings.

Each object in the world and each relationship between objects in the world can be conceived as a system. Which object one conceives as a system and which not, depends only on one´s scientific interests and not on “objective” properties of the world. Contrary to Niklas Luhmann I hold that systems do not exist outside us in an independent reality. Systems are descriptions of the world, and the world is not describable without description. (3) The conceptual logic of Systems Theory employed as a descriptive and explanatory tool has an especially high heuristic value.

A system is generally defined as follows: It consists of elements ( which can be things, objects, components, parts, members) with certain properties. Elements are linked by relations (which can be references, correlations, connections, bonds, linkages, couplings). Despite differences of definition according to scientific discipline the fundamental constituents “elements”, “properties” and “relations” remain the same.

First. The elements of a system can be of any sort of physical entity, atoms, cells, things, individuals, or complete social institutions, and they need not to be homogeneous like the elements of a class. What functions as an element within one system, can be a complex subsystem within another system. So atoms are treated as elements in the chemical system and as complex subsystems in nuclear physics. What is defined as an element within a given system, depends on the choice of the basic units of that system. And this choice depends on the scientific interests at hand. (4)

Second. The only properties of an element taken into consideration are those relevant to the scientific enterprise. Others, non-relevant properties of an element are neglected. These significant properties are disposed into certain functional groups defined by our everyday experience of the same objects in different contexts and situations. The different object properties and employments are stored in our brain by a systematic semantic structure, the so-called semantic field.

Third. The relationships between the elements of a system can also vary in kind and number. They can be one-sided or double-sided, mutually dependent, active or passive, real or ideal, time/space-dependent or independent and they can have a certain history. The relevance or irrelevance of relations among elements of a system again depends on the scientific point of view. From the relations between the elements, we can make inferences about the specific properties which are operative only in these specific relations. This is a very important insight. The properties are established through relations. Only in a certain relation is a certain property of an element active or dominant. Unused, but still existent, properties of an element can be activated through relations. We must keep this in mind in discussing Beuys because the activation of potential properties through a setting-into-relation is one of his main strategies. To bring different elements together in order to activate certain properties of each is a central aesthetic method in his sculptural work.

Fourth. The wholeness of all relations which exist between the elements of a given system makes up the structure of that system. Anatol Rapoport says:

Structure is a description of the interrelations among the components of a system: the arrangement of its parts and the potential influence which they may have upon each other. (5)

Fifth. General Systems Theory has introduced the concept of the environment as an equivalent notion to the concept of the system itself. As far as I know, Systems Theory is the first scientific approach, which is not only concerned with the internal conditions and relations of its objects, but also with the exchange between the system and certain external conditions, which influence the system in parts and as a whole. On the other hand, possible influences of the system on the environment can also be specified and described.

In the art of Joseph Beuys the viewer is at least as important as the sculptural system itself. The concept of the environment of a system allows the interpreter and observer to turn his attention towards important influences and effects. He is enabled to take into account certain influences, which cannot be explained from the internal functions of the system. Taking into account the specific environment, the context or situation in which such a sculptural system operates, prevents us from artificially restricting our investigative focus. All elements or objects within one of Beuys’ sculptural systems at first refer to the beholder, who has to constitute actively the aesthetic meaning during his perceptual participation. The sculptural system together with its viewers forming part of the environmental conditions constitute the field of aesthetic effectiveness.

The works of Beuys are explicitly designed for and concerned with an exchange of energy from the sculptural system into the social environment, first to an individual as a representative member of the human community and then second to the whole community.

III

First, the material elements of an artwork can be substances such as blood, paper, plaster, marble, bronze, metals, glass, fabrics and so on.

Second, because all physical substances or materials are composed, their specific composition yields their specific form. Plaster for instance can be sculpture, architecture or wall decoration, depending on how it is composed. The difference between a wooden plank and a wooden beam is not a difference of material, but a difference of form. It is a syntactic difference. Composed physical materials make up the syntactical elements of an artwork such as form and color. They are complex physical subsystems, which are composed in a specific way. If their internal organisation, their physicality is of no interest,and only the relations to other elements are significant, the syntactical subsystems can be treated as elements.

Third, objects and things make up the semantic elements of an artwork. They are defined by labeling through verbal concepts. If a viewer or interpreter names an object or an element with a linguistic concept, this element functions as an instance of that concept. It exemplifies that concept, if the labeling was correct. The named element can no longer be seen without that linguistic concept. For instance,if I label these two bottles as containers for blood, they are from this point on always seen through this concept. If I alternatively label them as Mary Magdalene and St. John the Baptist one would always see them through these names and within the semantic field of a certain biblical story. If I describe the pieces of paper as particles of a newspaper, where fragments like “effective increase”,”balance”, “debt”, “decreased” are readable, these elements are seen in the semantic field of economics.

These few examples indicate how our perceptions are influenced by the concepts and labels, we use to describe objects and how it becomes difficult to separate these linguistic labels from our object perception. Through the process of naming every element of an artwork and every part of it becomes a semantic element. This conception allows us to interpret each material, syntactic and semantic element as meaningful, insofar it has been labeled linguistically.

Equipped with these linguistic tools, let us now turn our attention to Beuys and try to describe a relatively small sculptural work. It consists of five elements. Two melting pots for bronze casting are coated with cinnamon red pigment. In the right hand melting pot a plastic tube for blood infusions is arranged together with clamps, connections, a regulator and an infusion bag. A Jacob´s shell with blue copper sulphate is laid inside. It is a strange and hermetic arrangement which does not “speak” to the viewer. At first glance no coherent meaning is extractable from the structure of the system.

The viewer has to work hard in order to constitute the specific interrelations of the objects and to fill in the indeterminacies, which result from the unusual arrangement. The hermetic structure of the system, in respect of its environment, is revealed as an intentional strategy to force the viewer participate actively, to react , to use his imagination to constitute the relatedness of the elements as an aesthetic image.

To constitute the aesthetic meaning of these elements we must first ask for the semantic context in which the single object normally functions. This happens by labeling. Through the cognitive activation of the semantic context of the elements, their history as a history of linguistic use becomes available for epistemic appraisal. The semantic context of the infusion instrument is that of hospital, of life-saving after an severe accident, as an important instrument to support the forces of life. The bloodstream of the human organism is one of the most important systems of life maintenance. The Jacob’s shell normally contarns an animal,a creature of nature. Today it is one of the most endangered animals as the result of environmental pollution, since it needs extremely pure water. The creatures collect toxic substances like heavy metals in their flesh and thereby accumulate their toxicity. Copper sulphate is a very poisonous substance which kills microorganisms such as bacteria and plankton.The shell is already dead, having been killed by the dangerous chemical. The two melting pots stem from the semantic field of industrial production, of smelting of ore and the refining of metal. It belongs to the inorganic sector of the world. But it also has to do with artistic production, for it is a tool for modelling ,for giving amorphous melted substances stable form through casting and cooling down. The red coating gives the melting pot an active power, a force of life, of heart. The right hand melting pot functions as the heart of an organism, the plastic tube as a symbolization of the blood circuit.But the organism is endangered. The shell as the receptive organ is blinded. It has been poisoned by chemical substances. The blood does not circulate anymore, it has coagulated and is also dead. The state of the system is alarming. Hence the title “Alarm II”.

In this process of mentally constituting the semantic interrelations of the elements, their relevant properties become apparent. Step by step the work of art opens itself up to the active viewer. Parallel to the aesthetic constitution of meaning questions arise about the state of environmental polution and the toxic processes of our present social systems. We cannot hold back these thoughts nor exclude them from the aesthetic exerience. On the contrary, this stimulation of thought is the clear intention of the artist, as we shall see later. The artwork functions as a trigger for the shaping of thoughts about our contemporary life and society. This is one of the stated aesthetic strategies of Joseph Beuys.

IV

The beholder’s aesthetic experience can be divided into two stages. First, the constitution of aesthetic meaning through an active process of perceiving and thinking and secondly the processing of the experienced aesthetic meaning. These are two totally different cognitive processes with different epistemic functions.

Let us turn to the first part and ask how aesthetic meaning is constituted. During perception the artwork functions as a trigger for certain cognitive processes. The elements of the sculptural system are transformed into the subjective realms of knowledge and experience of a certain person. Through the process of naming and classifying the art object is set into relation with our own epistemic network of concepts and beliefs. This is the moment when the object begins to affect us. The viewer himself as a complex and dynamic organism is part of the environment of the sculptural system. He is equipped with sensory surfaces, which allow him to extract information from the environment and process this input in the upper regions of his brain. This capacity of the human organism to extract information from his environment,to process it, to store it, to retrieve and recall it, is the ability for mental representation of the world. Human thinking is a complex system for the symbolic representation of information, which functions in a certain medium: its entire biological and physical organism.

When a person comes into contact with a sculptural installation of Joseph Beuys the artwork opens up a dialogue in which the art object and the beholder are equivalent partners in a situation where both function as independent systems which mutually refer to each other. Without this basic interrelation or dialogue no artwork can ever be experienced. For each kind of aesthetic experience this interrelation between viewer and artwork is a necessary condition. Without this there is nothing to observe, describe or interprete.

In consequence we have to differentiate between the art object “itself” and the process of its apprehension, its “concretion”. (6) Each percepted artwork contains many indeterminacies. Not everything is represented that would be necessary for a precise identification of the meaning of internal elements or relations. As beholders we are therefore in a certain state of disinformation in front of the artwork and the intentions of the artist.

Let us take an example.I should like to show you the sculpture “Snowfall” from 1965. Three pine trunks are covered by layers of felt. We cannot perceive how far the pine trunks reach under the felt layers. This is a very simple case of indeterminacy which we tend to fill up, “to concretize” as Roman Ingarden would say, through our own imagination and thinking. A more complex indeterminacy is the relation between the felt layers and the three pine trunks. Why do they lie on the floor horizontally and not stand upright as usual? Why are they covered with layers of felt as if they were sleeping? The trunks are dead and rotten, still they seem to emanate or transmitt energies out of the center of the felt as if the whole were a transmitting station. Surely we can produce answers and we do produce them from our perceptual questions. But, what I intended to show was that this always happens in a subjective, unverifiable way which goes far beyond every verifiable basis of what is actually there. This is the crucial point of the argument.

Each color, each form, each figure, each material, each element, each interrelation can contain numerous loci of indeterminacy. These points signify no weakness of the artistic system. On the contrary they are the cardinal points in the process of unfolding the work’s aesthetic effectiveness. In the process of concretion we tend to overlook these indeterminacies and to fill them in with arbitrary and subjective determinations, which are not at all justified by the artwork itself. At such points we go beyond the given system without being conscious of what we are doing in our imagination.

Subjective concretion is the essential turning point where the artwork is transformed into a mental representation by a subjective being. This is the first part of the perceptual process which I have called “the constitution of aesthetic meaning”. To the second part, “the processing of aesthetic meaning”, we shall turn later.

V

Let us turn back to the work of Beuys. One of his most significant ensembles is “The Capital Space 1970-77”, now permanently installed in Schaffhausen, Switzerland. It is a complex system with different elements, complex interrelations and different histories. The whole is installed more as an open working situation of individual parts than as a closed unit. The viewer until recently was able to walk around the individual parts and to look at them from a close distance. The “Capital Space” is only perceivable step-by-step, in a selective focus.

One rather homogeneous subsystem of elements is formed by the group of blackboards, on which diagrams, sentences, formulae, words and drawings are written with white chalk.They hang from the wall, lie on the floor or lean against the back walls. Another subsystem is defined by its connection to electricity. Two 16 mm projectors are standing with two empty filmspools on a projection shelves. They are plugged into the electrical system by a white cable. Two tape recorders with empty spools and headphones are standing next to them on the floor. They are plugged in to the electrical system by a black cable. A microphone-stand with a microphone is connected to one of the tape recorders. The tape recorders themselves are connected to an amplifier and two loudspeakers. A quite separate subsystem is formed by the zinc bathtub filled with water, white linen and two flashlights attached on the handles. A zinc watering can, a white enameled dish with a piece of soap in it and a towel are placed nearby. Between the microphone-stand and the bathtub lies a tin lid with a heap of gelatine. A ladder with gelatine pieces is standing in the corner of the room. The installation is completed by a piano, a spear and two felt covered wooden laths.

The relationships between these elements prove to be opaque to the viewer, so that an active effort is required to observe the aesthetic connections among those elements and to construe their aesthetic meaning. We are familiar with most of the objects of the installation from our everyday knowledge. It should therefore not be difficult to infer the internal coherence of the different elements.

In this work of art we are confronted with a collection and recollection of different media which all have something to do with the process of creation and of forming. Film for instance can be used as an artistic medium for the representation of actions, of events and of time. The projectors and the screen stand in the installation, as if they are waiting to be switched on and to show what they have to show. They are standing around as a potential, which can be used if necessary. The projecting system stands as as a symbol for visual transformation. It symbolizes the capability of visual storage and visual recollection.

The acoustic system serves for the sound recording for example of the human tongue, for language, singing and other sounds and for the reproduction of the recorded signals by the connected speakers system. In artistic use, it also is a system of representation, a medium for the creation of acoustic forms. The acoustic subsystem is therefore, like the projectors, a potential element and symbolizes the process of information extraction from the environment, the extraction of sound waves and their transformation into electric impulses. It symbolizes its storability and its reproduction. Like the human brain it is a system of transformation, storage and recollection. The written blackboards represent the linguistic medium of information storage and exchange.

The said elements are all different systems of representation, different visual, acoustic, linguistic media. They are able to represent different cross-sections and experiences of the world. In the installation they are presented as possible elements of creation and transformation. Hence the title “Capital”. Capital is a potential (of money), with which something can be achieved, can be designed or formed.

The ladder, the spear, the axe,the watering can, the soap and the dish in its most general meanings are tools for achieving certain results through action. All the objects in the installation are embraced, as we already know, by their semantic context. They are perceived through the semantic properties of their concept. But the semantic context is modified and transformed by the unusual relations in which these objects stand.

The objects are imbued with their own history, of how they have been used and how they can be used., of the process of thinking that went into their form and material. They carry a collective and an individual history of use; the history of how Joseph Beuys used these objects. These two histories, the general more than the individual, always envelop the object, even in this installation. The collective and individual fields of functioning are always more or less present for the beholder during the process of aesthetic perception.

One part of the elements are relics of an action, others, especially the blackboards on the walls, are the results of lectures and workshops, which Beuys gave on various occasions. Nearly all elements which occupy the floor space of the installation stem from two performances: the first with the title “Celtic (Kinloch Rannoch) Scottish Symphony”, which he performed together with the Danish composer Henning Christiansen at the Edinburgh College of Art, twice a day, from 26-30 August 1970. (7)

In the photographs several elements of the installation are to be seen. in action and in use. The projectors, the tape recorders, the microphone-stand, the axe, the gelatine, the piano, the spear and the felt angle.

The two systems of blackboards, which hang from the wall and which Beuys has added to the installation, result from his discursive activites during the two documenta-exhibitions of 1972 and 1977 at Kassel The drawings, notes and diagrams function as a visualized representation of collective language and thinking processes. Explanations, notations and diagrams can be seen which came into being during discussions, lectures or workshops. They form a close network of related concepts and ideas, which overlap the single blackboard and make up a manifold simultaneity of ideas. They directly lead the beholder into Beuys´ complex theories of social sculpture and of the transformation of creative energy, which is the real human capital, into society. The blackboards altogether form a system of visual ideas and collective thinking processes.which otherwise would have remained at an abstract and nonvisual, verbal level. The system symbolizes the multiplicity and continuity of such a teaching method. They are carriers of thinking energy, which is stored and preserved in visual form. Like the other media, it is a system of representation, storage and recall of collective thought processes. The system of the blackboards generally signifies the work of the collective, whereas the objects and the instruments stand for the work of the individual. Collective sculptural processes as represented by the blackboards are contrasted to the individual creation and human capability, as symbolized by the single objects and tools. The relation between wall and floor is analogeous to the relation between society and individual. (8)

The whole installation therefore can be comprehended as a potential model for the creative transformation of individual human energies into collective social processes for the evolution of the whole social fabric. The installation as a model fulfills a mediating function between the theoretical ideas and concepts of Joseph Beuys and the visual objects, which can be observed by the beholder during the process of aesthetic perception.

VI

The model functions as a transmitter of concepts about the creative transformation and evolution of society. How does this mechanism work? At a former stage of our argument we made distinction between the constitution of aesthetic meaning in a situation of indeterminacy and the processing of aesthetic meaning which means the integration of the evoked thoughts into one´s own system of beliefs.

Our experiences of the world are not arbitrarily stored in our memory, but they must have, for functional reasons, a systematic structure. Because we are able to find a single recollection in our memory,to retrieve and to work with it, it is necessary that our experiences have a systematic and hierarchical structuring. Social psychologists have therefore postulated the existence of so-called mental reference systems or categorial systems. (9) They are hypothetical descriptions of how our brain manages to store, compare and recall sensory input systematically .

The conception of a mental reference system means that a single experience is always related to a individual framework of storage. During the course of life such mental reference systems become more and more differentiated and refined. Knowledge-based categorial systems function as stable decision and evaluation frameworks. They are cognitive background systems, which normally function inconspicuously and unpretentiously. But surely there are situations of experience, where their existence immediately becomes conscious. This may be caused by a certain strain between a single,new experience and its inability to be classified or the occurrence of a totally new, never hitherto preceived situation. Here the lack of present knowledge systematization suddenly becomes apparent.

My argument is that the epistemic function of art precisely affects this cognitive mechanism of a beholder´s knowledge systematization. The cognitive background of aesthetic perception – our systems of knowledge organization-, suddenly becomes itself the object of perception by a certain tension between a single stimulus and its inability to be classified. The whole system is turned inside out. The systems of knowledge organization suddenly become transparent and accessible to observation. (10)

Caused by a conflict in mental processing, they themselves become the subject of observation against a background of impulsion towards adequate adaptation to and consistent ordering of the external world. Here we come into close touch with a specific structure of aesthetic experience. Because of the tension between an aesthetic experience, triggered by a relatively new and unknown work of art and his own well-known, but insufficient systematization of knowledge and belief, the beholder must seek a restoration of equilibrium.

In their epistemic function works of art bring the beholder into a cognitive dissonance (11) with his own beliefs and attitudes. He must reduce this dissonance by either adapting and therefore distorting the single experience to a preexistent reference system, or by adapting the whole categorial system to the new aesthetic experience which seems to be for me the only appropriate way.

VII

When we turn again to the art of Joseph Beuys we are able to describe the cognitive effects of his installations on the belief systems of different beholders. The installation “The Capital Space” exhibits turned-off machines and objects not in use but with a certain productive potential. The whole system is potential capital for creation. This character of potentiality is incorporated into the title, because capital in its first function is a potential for production. But the specific account of capital, as it is embedded in the various elements is a very different one from that which we would normally associate with the concept of capital. As beholders we have therefore to adapt and refine our categorial system of capital knowledge to understand this unaccustomed model.

In a programmatic essay in 1972 Beuys called for the transformation of the essential concepts of thinking, action and sculpture:

Only on condition of a radical widening of definition will it be possible for art and activities related to art to provide evidence that art is now the only evolutionary-revolutionary power. Only art is capable of dismantling the repressive effects of a senile social system that continues to totter along the death line: to dismantle in order to build A SOCIAL ORGANISM AS A WORK OF ART.
This most modern art discipline -Social Sculpture/Social Architecture- will only reach fruition when every living person becomes a creator, a sculptur or architect of the social organism. (...) Only a conception of art revolutionized to this degree can turn it into a politically productive force, coursing through each person and shaping history.
But all this, and much that is as yet unexplored, has first to form part of our consciousness: insight is needed into objective connections. We must probe (theory of knowledge) the origin of free individual productive potency (creativity). We then reach the threshold where the human being experiences himself primarily as a spiritual being, where his supreme achievements (work of art), his active thinking, his active feeling, his active will, and their higher forms, can be apprehended as sculptural generative means,(...), and then recognized as flowing in the direction that is shaping the content of the world right through into the future. (12)

The first step is the “revolution of concepts”, a notion which Beuys took from Eugen Löbl, the political economist of the Prague Spring. Beuys writes:

Only through the 'revolution of concepts', through a new revision of the basic relations of the social organism, does the way thereby become free for a revolution without constraint and arbitrariness. Because a far-reaching practice is always connected with concepts, the kind of thinking about states of affairs is decisive for how one handles these states of affairs and - firstly: how and whether he understands them at all.(13)

In this context Beuys speaks of the "remelting of indurated conceptions and theoretical approaches". (14) What is required for the process of transformation of aesthetic experiences into social-evolutionary practice is a new quality of thinking and of action. He sets up the question whether the actions of man, his information, his informing character (to give something a form) is a process of free decision, an expression of the freedom of that human being.

With this character of impression we have reached a point, at which a sculptural process is addressed. The impressing of an action into material. In this action a sculptor is hardly differentiated from a printer. In this character of impressing the sculptor differs not at all from the mechanical engineer, who applies his impressing character through his forming will to mechanical-motor tasks. Therefore it can be proved in this action, whose impressing character can be perceived immediately, that still another sculptural process precedes this sculptural process.
It can be traced back by reflexion, description and unbiased perception of what happens in this sculptural character of impression by human action, by bodily organs, from where the decision for the design of this impression character stems. The revolutionary can trace back the process up to that form, which he has first of all developed in his thinking or in his imagination.
When he carries that out and looks at all of his forces, which are effective and alive in himself, he will experience that he is already able to ascribe this sculptural character to thinking itself. It then comes into the world as a character of impression by his bodily organs and other tools and into a form, which informs, being information as a product, or which also conceives information as news, which the other is willing to receive.(15)

Thinking in itself is an invisible sculptural process, which becomes visible by impression into material, into form. The material sculpture functions as a model or as a transmitter of these unobservable sculptural qualities of thinking for a human receiver, who is able to apprehend the material model. The physical substance as materialized thinking energy is able to trigger the perceptual and thinking capacities of another person. A transmission takes place in this model, a flow of sculptural energy from one point of the world to another.

Through this epistemic mechanism the aesthetic perception is transformed step-by-step into new thoughts and questions about social interrelations, the contemporary state of the social organism, and the evolution of a future human society. The installation functions as the transmission model of those thought energies.

VIII

Artistic models have a representative function. They allow for the visualization and illustration of theoretical thoughts and conceptions. An artistic model such as the “Honeypump at the workingplace” does not manifest all the properties and relations of the theoretical conception it is a model of, but only some of them. It links several of the theoretical relations, which are taken as relevant and essential in this model, with other observable features, which have to be explained through the theory.

“Honeypump at the working place”, executed in 1977 for the documenta 6 at Kassel, was conceived as a model for the energystream of society.

With Honeypump I am expressing the principle of the Free International University working in the bloodstream of society. Flowing in and out of the heart organ - the steel honey container- are the main arteries through which the hones is pumped out of the engine room with a pulsing sound, circulates round the Free University area, and returns to the heart. The whole thing is only complete with people in the space round which the honey artery flows and where the bee´s head is to be found in the coiled loops of tubing with its iron feelers.(16)

In the sump of the engine room the three maior principles of Beuys´ theory of sculpture -thinking, feeling and will- are represented in a seemingly scientific model. Beuys explains:

Will power in the chaotic energy of the double engine churning the heap of fat. Feeling in the heart and bloodstream of honey flowing throughout the whole.Thinking powers in the Eurasian staff, the head of which rises from the engine room right up to the skylight of the museum and then points down again. (17)

Unobservable elements of Beuys´ Theory of Sculpture like ” will”, “feeling”, “thought”, “bloodstream” or “society” are represented by a model which takes as its elements industrial machinery like ship engines, drive shafts, plastic tubes, fittings, fuses, switches, low pressure pumps, natural products like honey and margarine and three archaic clay pots standing besides. But these objects are not taken for themselves, but they refer to a complex theoretical conception of evolution and transformation of human creativity into future society. The elements of the installation build up a system, which because of its specific type of reference is a visual model. It functions as a visual bridge between the theoretical concepts and the observational capacities of the beholder.

That we are in close touch with the thinking and the ideas of Joseph Beuys and do not deviate from his central premises, is clearly indicated by the following statement which he published separately to the installation of the “Honeypump”. It is entitled “The model of the FREE INTERNATIONAL UNIVERSITY (‘Honeypump’)”.

'The Honeypump at the working place' shall refer to the fact that something has to be brought near to all working places, which presently is mssing them - and thus is something new. (...) Therefore to begin with, this deficiency shall come into appearance as honey, which is a precious nutritive substance -and namely in the sense, that it circulates and supplies all manufacturing plants with precious nutritive substance and connects them like in a circulation system, where everyone is mutually dependent from one another.(18)

The natural product honey serves as the essential model substance for the flow of a positive thinking energy, which is able to trigger and to support social transformation processes.

IX

As a last example of that evolutionary model character of the sculptural work I would like to present the project “7000 Oak Trees”, executed from 1982 to 1987.

As his contribution to the ‘documenta 7’ in 1982 Joseph Beuys ordered the planting of 7000 oak trees inside the city limits of Kassel. Beside each tree a basalt column was to be erected as a sign marking the historical moment, when people began to bring their lives into line with the transformation of the whole social organism.

As a first visible sign and a preliminary model for the abstract and inconceivable quantity of 7000 trees, Beuys arranged 7000 stones in the center of the city opposite the Museum Fridericianum as a wedge-shaped triangle. For each planted tree one basalt stone was taken from this sculptural arrangement so that as the work progressed the basalt triangle progressively diminished and finally disappeared. Being asked about the exact number of trees he replied:

I think this is a kind of proportion and dimension,firstly, because the Seven represents a very old rule for tree plantations. You know that from already existent places and cities. In the United States there is a very large city, called Seven Oaks and another in Great Britain. You see that Seven as a number is in some way organically connected with such an enterprise and it also fits with the seventh documenta. I said to myself that it is a very small decoration, seven trees. Seventy does not bring us to the idea of that, what I call in German "Verwaldung" [afforestation]. This suggests the idea of making the world into a large forest, making cities and environments wood-like. 70 would not signifiy the thought, 700 on the other hand was not enough. So I felt, 7000 was something, which I could do in the existing time, for which I could bear the responsibility of completion as a first step. Thus '7000 Oak Trees' will be a very strong visual result in 300 years. So you can imagine the dimension of time ... (19)

Through this process which lasted from 1982 up to 1987, and whose completion Beuys did not live to see, the inanimate, crystalline basalt sculpture underwent a transformation of site and state into a living element of a spatially distributed, collectively executed and socially effective charged potential which discharges its powers over the period of the next centuries, as long as an oak tree takes to grow. Thus this sculptural project proved to be a paradigmatic model for the whole body of a social sculpture and his theoretical conception of transformation of creative thinking energies into the deadly sick social organism.

It is a new step in this working with trees. It is not a really new dimension in the whole conception of a metamorphosis of all this on earth and of the metamorphosis of understanding of art. It deals with the metamorphosis of the social body in itself, to bring it into a new social order for the future in comparison with the existent private capitalistic system and the centrally governed communistic system.(20)

It is extraordinary difficult to define that project in terms of a work of art and of aesthetic experience. I am convinced that this paradigmatic model we are confronted with is a totally new concept of art, where individual aesthetic experiences are transformed into collective evolutionary forces which most directly affect not only the self-consciousness of an individual beholder, but also the orientation of the whole social organism. ( in this case a whole city). This project has absolutely nothing to do with land-art projects. The whole intention is totally different. It is not a work of art which is transportable like a painting and which could be shown in museum exhibitions. It is not autonomous, but dependent on the situation and the site for which it was created. It is therefore a site-specific work. It cannot be possessed by a single proprietor, but it belongs to nearly 3000 persons from all over the world who have donated one or more trees. For these reasons, it also cannot be sold, so that the accumulation of economic capital through speculation with art objects in this case is not possible. It is also publically perceivable to everyone who walks, bikes or drives through the city; even if he or she does not know that it is a work of art. For the aesthetic and social functions of the work it is no longer necessary for the beholder to know whether it is a work of art or not. The art character has dissolved into a direct social effectiveness benefitting the inhabitants and citizens. In contrast to traditional works of art, it is also a very useful one, because the leaves of the trees transform carbon dioxide into oxygen, they filter tons of dust out of the air by their immense surface, cool the surroundings and so on.

X

All in all, we still have great difficulties with this very new type of a socially effective art work. Our methods of description and analysis still derive in great part from the 19th century art theory which deals with categories like harmony, autonomy and the closedness artistic systems against thier environment. Out of the confrontation with such radical developments, taking place in the visual arts at present, we have to rethink the traditional concepts and theories with which we describe and explain historical change. Because our scientific language is necessarily a verbal formulation of our ways of thinking, an externalized model of our theoretical conceptions, we first have to transform our scientific strategies of thinking and of knowledge systematization. We have to expand, through dialogue with contemporary artistic developments, our notion of science to include human creativity as the basic capital of all enterprises. Affecting the social organism through the infusion of thought energies into this circulation system, must be the scientific goal of our future art historical work.
Footnotes:
1 Joseph Beuys im Gespräch mit Knut Fischer und Walter Smerling, (= Kunst heute Nr.1), Köln:Kiepenheuer&Witsch 1989, p. 26
2 A more detailed discussion can be find in my book “System und Wirkung. Rauschenberg – Twombly- Baruchello. Fragen der Interpretation und Bedeutung zeitgenössischer Kunst. Ein systemtheoretischer Ansatz”. München: Fink 1989, S.39-52
3 And if that description is true, it is also true that the described objects in fact are systems. See also: Hilary Putnam, Realism and Reason,in: Meaning and the Moral Sciences,London 1978, p.138
4 Nelson Goodman: The Structure of Appearance,(1951),Boston 1977, p.99-106
5 Anatol Rapoport, Systems Analysis: General Systems Theory, in: Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, (ed.) David L. Sills, Bd. 15,1968, p.454
6 Roman Ingarden, Vom Erkennen des literarischen Kunstwerkes,Tübingen: Niemeyer 1968, p.49-55
7 Caroline Tisdall, Joseph Beuys, London:Thames and Hudson 1979,p. 190
8 JOSEPH BEUYS und DAS KAPITAL. Vier Vorträge zum Verständnis von Joseph Beuys und seiner Rauminstallation “Das Kapital Raum 1970-77” in den Hallen für Neue Kunst, Schaffhausen…, Christel Raussmüller-Sauer (ed.),Schaffhausen 1988,p. 81
9 See for instance Wolf Lauterbach/Viktor Sarris: Beiträge zur psychologischen Bezugssystemforschung. Huber: Bern 1980, p.15-55
10 Huber (1989),p.78f.
11 Leo Festinger, A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford: Stanford University Press 1957
12 Tisdall 268f.
13 “Aufruf zur Alternative”.First published in Frankfurter Rundschau, 12/23/1978. Reprinted in: Harlan/Rappmann/Schata, Soziale Plastik. Materialien zu Joseph Beuys,Achberg 1976,p. 131
14 “Eintritt in ein Lebenwesen”. Lecture – given during the Free International University-Project, at the documenta 6 at Kassel on 08/06/1977. Reprinted in: Harlan/Rappmann/Schata, p.135
15 Harlan/Rappmann/Schata, p.125
16 Tisdall 254
17 ibd.
18 Johannes Stüttgen/Joseph Beuys: Das Modell der FREE INTERNATIONAL UNIVERSITY (“Honeypump”), p.1
19 Interview with Richard Demarco; in: Fernando Groener und Rose-Maria Kandler (Hrsg),7000 Eichen-Joseph Beuys, Köln: König, 1987, p.16
20 Groener and Kandler, p.18/19


designed by Hans Dieter Huber


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e-flux

Jan Verwoert

The Boss: On the Unresolved Question of Authority in Joseph Beuys’ Oeuvre and Public Image

To be certain, art offers answers. Its strength, however, often lies in its unresolved problems. In his statements about his own work, Joseph Beuys absolutely inundated his listeners and readers with answers. As a consequence, the inner tensions and unanswered questions at the heart of his oeuvre are scarcely recognized. An unconditional acceptance of Beuys’ interpretive authority over his own practice has caused the discourse surrounding the oeuvre to fail to touch on a central unresolved question within it: the question of authority itself. In order to understand the significance of Beuys’ work in the context of the artistic and political debates of the 1960s and 1970s, however, it is crucial to grasp the inner conflicts and unresolved contradictions that run through it, as well as the way Beuys publicly performed the role of the artist with regard to this question of authority. On the one hand he incessantly attacked traditional notions of the authority of the work, the artist, and the art professor, with his radical, liberating, and humorous opening up of the concept of art with regard to what a work, an artist, or a teacher could still be and do beyond the functions established by tradition, office, and title. On the other hand, however, it seems that in the presentation of his own interpretative discourse, Beuys regularly fell back on the very tradition of staging artistic authority with which he was trying to break.

While he abolished the common understanding of the artist’s role and demonstrated in his own practice that an artist could be not only a sculptor or painter but also a performer, politician, philosopher, historian, ethnologist, musician, and so on, he nonetheless had recourse to a traditionally established role model when projecting an image of himself to the public through the role of a visionary, spiritual authority or healer in full agreement with the modern myth of the artist as a messianic figure. While at one moment he provoked free and open debate through perplexing, if not deliberately absurd, actions that left himself open to attack as an artist, at the next moment he would bring a discussion on the meaning of these provocations back to orderly paths by seeking the seamlessly organized worldview of anthroposophy as an ideological justification for his art practice. On the one hand, he gambled on everything that traditionally secured the value, claim to validity, and hence authority of art and artists, while on the other hand he assumed the traditional patriarchal position of the messianic proclaimer of ultimate truths.

That Beuys sought such a role is affirmed in the artist’s own words. The style and content of his programmatic statements—the ceaseless explanation of his art, the world, its problems, and their solutions—appear to be consistent with the image he projects of himself as a shamanistic healer: he speaks with the authority of a man who knows all the answers, and in doing so consolidates his auratic authority as an artist with his message of salvation. Orthodox interpretations of Beuys’ work accept this authority without reservations, and this makes a critical understanding of his work more difficult, if not impossible. In the following section, I will use the example of one such orthodox interpretation to delineate the artistic and political impasse that inevitably results from such an understanding of Beuys’ oeuvre. In contrast to this, I will subsequently try to develop an approach to understanding the problem of auratic authority in Beuys’ work and self-image through a close reading of selected works. Using several performances as examples, I intend to argue that the artistic quality and historical significance of Beuys’ work are not, as the common view would have it, based upon a realizing of his declared intentions, but rather upon his staging of an unresolved conflict between the urge to demolish authoritarian definitions of what artists are traditionally supposed to be and the need to recoup certain aspects of fascination with the auratic authority of the artistic act and the artist’s role.

1. The Questionable Authority of the Artist as Healer

One revealing example of an art historical interpretation of Beuys’ oeuvre that is wholly under the spell of the artist’s authority is found in The Cult of the Avant-garde Artist by the American critic Donald Kuspit.1 Kuspit reads Beuys’ entire practice through the image of the shamanistic healer that Beuys projected to the public, portraying him as the last representative of the venerable tradition of avant-garde artists who believed their task to be one of helping humanity to heal the alienation of modern life (in Kuspit’s view, Warhol’s consent to alienation sealed the decline of that tradition). As evidence for this interpretation, Kuspit quotes two programmatic statements by Beuys: “My intention: healthy chaos, healthy amorphousness in a known medium which consciously warmed a cold, torpid form from the past, a convention of society, and which makes possible future forms.”2 And in conclusion: “This is precisely what the shaman does in order to bring about change and development: his nature is therapeutic.”3 Now, the concept of healing raises a series of questions: whom does Beuys claim to heal? And of what? By what means, and by whose authority? Kuspit answers these questions succinctly: the Germans, of the trauma of national collapse, and through the healing energy of an original, pagan creativity that he taps, for them, by virtue of his authority as healer.

Kuspit then proceeds to interpret National Socialism as an expression of exaggerated faith in technocratic rationality (and hence as an exemplary symptom of modern alienation), arriving at the conclusion that recovery from the pathologies of this strain of rationalism can only be achieved by liberating a Dionysian creativity of the very sort Beuys claimed to have released. Kuspit writes: “The Germans had to be cured of their pathological belief in the authority of reason, which they readily put before life itself.”4 Beuys, the shamanistic healer, is thereafter portrayed as the antithesis of Hitler, the technocratic dictator: “Beuys was warm where Hitler was cold.”5 This interpretation is bizarre. Nevertheless, it unfolds the logical implications of the concept of healing that Beuys established. The figure of the healer is messianic in nature, and is therefore of the same ilk as the messianic leader of men. A direct comparison therefore seems obvious. On somewhat closer inspection, however, this juxtaposition necessarily leads to a result that directly contradicts Kuspit’s interpretation. The messianic goal of healing modern man of his alienation by tapping primordial forces does not distinguish Beuys from Hitler but links them. The assertion that the German people could be cured of the maladies caused by the decline and decadence of modern culture through the rediscovery of their mythical, pagan (allegedly “Aryan”) creative powers was, after all, the core of the ideology by which the National Socialists justified their claim to power. The motto “Am Deutschen Wesen soll die Welt genesen” (The German spirit shall heal the world) was taken to articulate the association of the idea of healing with just such an ideology.6

However, the fact that, in the course of history, the idea of healing came to be associated with this particular ideology does not discredit Beuys’ approach to it per se. The motif of mythical healing—the notion that a rediscovery of a mythical creativity would offer a cure to the alienations of modern society—has occupied a central position in modern social criticism since early Romanticism (at the latest).7 In this form and function the motif can be found in the work of many modern thinkers artists, including (as Rüdiger Sünner has shown) Friedrich Schlegel and Nietzsche, as well as Helena Blavatsky (one of the key figures of modern occultism, the founder of theosophy, and an inspiration for Rudolf Steiner).8 If Beuys was enthusiastic about Celtic myth, for example, and saw James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake to be the expression of the buried mythical, spiritual creativity of—as he literally says—“Indo-Aryan” culture, it is certainly reasonable to assume that his use of the term stems from authors such as Blavatsky.9 Channeled through authors such as Adolf Lanz and Guido von List, Blavatsky’s teachings were, however, also a source of inspiration for Hitler and Himmler, who developed the racial doctrine implicit to some extent in theosophy into a justification for their “völkisch” (racist and nationalist) doctrine of national recuperation.10 One application of the concept of healing cannot be directly reduced to the other. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that, seen in the context of the history of ideas, the idea of modern culture’s return to the supposedly mythical powers of a premodern culture was the impulse behind both Romantic projects to reform life and National Socialist ideology. That this ideological aspect is never really questioned or even acknowledged by Beuys and his orthodox interpreters (such as Kuspit) exposes the limits of the interpretive discourse Beuys established: he never submitted his own key concepts to a critical, historical analysis.

While he frequently dipped into the history of ideas for his discourse, Beuys did not apparently feel compelled to consider the fact that ideas have specific histories—ones that, in certain instances, might make it necessary to reject them, and the traditions they have come to stand for. In his artistic practice, however, the critical reconsideration of traditional forms was at the heart of his approach. The postcard work Manifest (Manifesto, 1985) offers a poignant slogan for this. In handwriting it reads: “Manifesto the error already begins when someone is about to buy a stretcher and canvas. Joseph Beuys, November 1, 1985.” The absence of a similarly critical approach to tradition in Beuys’ use of theoretical concepts may not ultimately be that problematic in terms of the content of the particular ideas he cites. What does have a significant bearing on the politics of Beuys’ overall practice is his adoption of a speaking position that is inextricably bound to the articulation of certain ideas precisely because this position is traditionally justified by these ideas: the position of the messianic speaker whose mythical authority is justified and authenticated by the invocation of the idea of primordial healing powers. The use of the concept of healing is thus synonymous with the creation of an unquestioned—and, by virtue of its superior justification, also unquestionable—position of power. However, if Beuys’ liberating approach to conventions of sculpture and to the possibility of art in general is understood as evidence of a critical attitude, it seems only fair to assume that the creation of such an unquestionable power position can hardly have been his primary concern. In positioning himself as a speaker, then, it would even appear integral to Beuys’ practice to distance himself from the power mechanisms at play.

No doubt, the desire for healing was an important motif in Beuys’ oeuvre. The question is whether the specific way in which he dealt with this desire in his work does indeed have a considerable artistic and historical significance, not because Beuys succeeded in being or becoming the healer he purported to be, but precisely because he (whether consciously or not is hard to say) allowed the inherent contradictions of the concept of messianic healing to become manifest within his work. One example to start with is Beuys’ complex interpretation of the motif of the Messiah in Zeige Deine Wunde (Show Your Wounds, 1976). In the Christian tradition, the act of showing the wounds is the gesture by which Christ reveals himself to his disciples as the resurrected Messiah. Strictly speaking, therefore, there can only be one person who is entitled to show his wounds: the Savior himself. The title of the work, however, is an appeal addressed to another person. Beuys here effectively changes the monologue of messianic revelation into a dialogue and thus multiplies the available speaking positions: anyone who feels addressed by the appeal is here invited to adopt the messianic position. This moment of multiplication is in fact also the primary formal characteristic of the installation. All of its elements are doubled. The central elements in the work are two stretchers on wheels, underneath each of which a zinc box and an empty glass vessel are placed. Anyone who encounters death or healing here does not do so alone. Death or convalescence is presented as an existential experience in which our lives come to mirror each other. The claim to uniqueness associated with the role of the Messiah is thus eroded linguistically in the title and literally in the space of the installation.

2. The Problematic Reversal of the Roles of Perpetrator and Victim

Admittedly, there may not be many more examples of Beuys so openly breaking away from the exclusive singularity of the Messianic role. Still, the way in which he deals with the notion of the Messianic in his artworks never lacks complexity. In fact, he continued to dwell on one particularly irresolvable ambiguity at the heart of the Messianic: to the extent that the Messiah of the Christian tradition redeems humanity by taking its suffering upon himself, he becomes both victim and savior, both sufferer and healer. It was precisely this double role that Beuys took on in the performance I Like America and America Likes Me of 1974. The performance began (if the reports are to be believed) with Beuys being picked up at the airport in New York by an ambulance and transported to the René Block Gallery. There he spent three days with a coyote and, wrapped in a felt blanket and holding a walking stick upside down like a shepherd’s crook, played the shamanistic healer and messianic shepherd. As the patient or victim of an unspecified accident, he had arranged to have himself delivered to a space where he would then turn himself into the healer.

Again, the crucial question is: who is claiming to heal whom of what (and by virtue of what authority)? Since patient and healer are the same person, one obvious way to understand the performance is as an attempt at self-healing. In this sense, Kuspit’s interpretation of Beuys trying, as a German, to heal German culture by tapping mythical sources of energy (represented here by the coyote) would seem justified. However, the highly problematic question that this interpretation leaves unanswered is: by what right does this German claim to be not only healer, but also patient and sufferer (if not even victim)? Victim of whom? Why would a German—in the historical wake of Germany’s responsibility for the crimes of the Holocaust and its instigation of two world wars—ever be entitled to play that role on an international stage? Beuys’ statements on the performance are no help: “I believe I made contact with the psychological trauma point of the United States’ energy constellation: the whole American trauma with the Indian, the Red Man.”11 (The symptoms of the American trauma, according to Beuys, manifest themselves in the alienated culture of capitalism, represented in the performance by issues of The Wall Street Journal spread out on the floor on which, as he recounts, the coyote urinated now and again.) Despite the change of geographical context the problem with this scenario of trauma and healing remains the same. By interpreting the trauma of the genocide committed against the Native American population as a trauma for the modern United States caused by this genocide, Beuys essentially declares perpetrators to be victims. In this picture, the supposedly painful alienation of the United States from its roots is given the same status as the suffering of the victims of genocide, which fall out of the picture entirely. Though surely unintentional (and nevertheless effective), murder is equated with a regrettable destruction of nature. The historical victims have no voice here. The coyote cannot complain.

Almost inescapably, one feels compelled to read this constellation as a parable of the German situation and the exchange of roles as the expression of Beuys’ notoriously unclear position in relation to the historic role and guilt of his own generation. Benjamin Buchloh articulated this criticism with all possible harshness. In his essay “Beuys: The Twilight of the Idol,” Buchloh in principle accused Beuys of deliberately blurring the historical facts by mythologizing the concepts of suffering and healing, thus of avoiding the question of responsibility.12 The evidence that Buchloh offers of Beuys reversing the role of perpetrator and victim is a particular passage from Beuys’ often-cited wartime anecdote in which he describes his rescue by Tartars after his bomber had been shot down over the Crimea in winter 1943. Canonical interpretations of this story focus on the detail that, as Beuys recounts, the Tartars rubbed him with fat and wrapped him in felt to warm him, and therefore these materials (and warmth in general) came to stand for the mythical principle of healing found in his work. However, a crucial turn in this narrative that Buchloh concentrates on is the Tartars’ proposal that Beuys remain with them: “‘Du nix njemcky’ [You not German] they would say, ‘du Tartar’ [you Tartar] and persuade me to join their clan,” Beuys reported.13 In this story, Beuys not only changes his identity from being a bomber pilot to a victim of the war; part of his healing is the absolution from his origin offered by the members of a mythical people. Buchloh reads this scenario of absolution as the symptomatic expression of a certain emotional condition in postwar Germany, namely the need of the German people to acquit themselves of their recent crimes and of an unscrupulous readiness to do just that: “In the work and public myth of Beuys the new German spirit of the postwar period finds its new identity by pardoning and reconciling itself prematurely with its own reminiscences of a responsibility for one of the most cruel and devastating forms of collective political madness that history has known.”14

If we take the messianic role adopted by Beuys at face value, this criticism touches a sore spot. Surely, one could object that both Buchloh and Kuspit assume Beuys was acting as a representative for an entire nation, whereas for many years his actions de facto stood in crass contradiction to the dominant cultural climate in Germany, which was aggressively hostile towards him. This objection, however, would immediately have to be countered by observing that, when he adopted the messianic role, Beuys simply conferred on himself the mandate to express collective needs. This position was affirmed first (as Kuspit’s book demonstrates) by his international reception as an exemplary German artist (which also consolidated after some time in German academia). Against this backdrop, it would indeed seem justified to see Beuys’ oeuvre and the way he chose to play the role of an exemplary German artist in public as indicative of a struggle to come to terms with German identity. It remains nonetheless problematic that neither Buchloh nor Kuspit makes any distinction between his public image and his oeuvre, considering Beuys’ position instead as an integrated whole. They do not take into consideration, however, that more often than not in his work Beuys fails to fulfill the programmatic claims that he asserts in his commentaries, as his works always remain, in their crude material specificity and inner tensions, at least partially resistant to conclusive interpretations. This specific failure is so crucial because it makes clear (if one is prepared to see it) that Beuys did more in his art than simply illustrate, and thus consolidate, preexisting ideologies.

I Like America and America Likes Me stands as an example of such a failure. Upon closer inspection, one would have to admit (despite Beuys’ own statement that he successfully touched on a point of trauma) that his ritual of healing has carnivalesque, exaggerated features. The old European is delivered to a New York gallery incognito and proceeds to emphatically perform obscure ceremonial gestures, posing as a pagan sorcerer wrapped in felt as if wearing a complete carnival outfit. Meanwhile, the coyote, unmoved, just does as coyotes do—Beuys’ meaningful posing does not concern him; he inhabits a different world. This clearly delimits the allegorical meaning of the performance. Through everything he does, the coyote demonstrates his utter indifference to the artistic allegory being constructed around him and, in doing so, destabilizes it. The photographic documentation of the performance is somewhat misleading in that it makes the animal look as if it were an integral part of one single overarching allegory. If, however, the performance is understood as a performance—that is, as a process that unfolds in space and time—then this picture falls apart. It is only then that the particular fascination and comedic quality of the coyote’s presence during the performance begins to emerge. The comedy lies in the situation: two unequal characters, for whom communication constantly fails, somehow find a way to deal with each other and with the failure of their communication simply because they live together in close proximity. Anglo-American sitcoms about modern family life function in much the same way. This comedy of living with the failure of communication, however, also has its tragic aspects. It demonstrates the impossibility of a symmetrical exchange between two divided worlds of experience. Yet still, a trace of utopia resides in the pragmatism of the arrangement: what collective violence destroys, one person alone cannot heal. At best, one small thing or another may be resolved on the level of daily coexistence, but only if one side is prepared to face and live with unclarified conditions.

The fact that Beuys exposed himself to, or provoked, such unclarified situations could be understood in this sense to be precisely what makes up the quality of his art, irrespective of its program. The fact that the boundaries between the role of the perpetrator and the victim also remain unclarified is impossible to deny. Yet, if one is prepared to see this confusion not simply as a desperate attempt at self-vindication, it could in fact also be read as a sign of the times. Consider for example the complex implications of the iconic pose Beuys adopted at the end of the out-of-control action Kukei, akopee—Nein! (Kukei, akopee, no! recorded in an eponymously titled photograph by H. Riebesehl): during the Festival der Neuen Kunst in the auditorium of the Technische Hochschule Aachen on July 20, 1964, a group of students (whom Caroline Tisdall has described as right-wing) stormed the stage to put a violent end to the Fluxus performance Beuys was engaged in; during the ensuing scuffle Beuys received a bloody nose. His reaction to the violence was to strike a pose in which he provocatively embodied both victim and perpetrator. With a defiant stare and bloody nose, he holds up a small crucifix to the audience in his left hand while he extends his right arm in a Roman salute. It is not necessary, though possible, to see this gesture as a variant on the Nazi salute.

In one sense, Beuys’ pose has an accusatory character: he holds a mirror up to the students, interprets their violence as tendentially fascist, and presents himself as their victim. In another sense, however, the pose is also clearly triumphant. In combination with the Roman salute and the defiant gaze, the crucifix in his outstretched arm conveys the message that Christ shall be victorious. In the end, the martyr, here embodied by the bleeding artist, will prevail. Beuys thus intuitively drew on several registers of body language at the same time to produce an impromptu pose of auratic authority, presenting himself as accuser, victor, and martyr all at once. The impromptu character of the pose, in turn, shows how Beuys, through free improvisation, managed to orchestrate the chaos that he had himself provoked. The example of the events in Aachen thus demonstrates impressively the extent to which Beuys’ artistic practice is based on his intuitive ability to improvise freely in unclarified situations, to absorb the energies released in the situation, and manifest them in strong—if contradictory—gestures. Yet, the example also shows that the gestures he uses to manifest the absorbed tensions are taken from a repertoire of postures for the staging of auratic authority. One possible explanation of this may be that, when improvising, Beuys intuitively fell back on familiar gestures of authority that enabled him to control the situation for the moment. If, however, we take into account the observation that Beuys was not just displaying his own emotions but in fact reflecting the tensions inherent in a given situation, this suggests another conclusion: namely, that Beuys channeled the violent energies of collective conflict over the foundation of authority that was in the air at the moment.

The art of provocation lies in forcefully bringing about a debate over the legitimation of authority. Fluxus cultivated this art of provocation as a method. So did the incipient culture of student protest in its successful attempts to expose and dismantle the authoritarian structures on which the National Socialists based their power, and which had not really disappeared from daily life after the collapse of the regime. The conflicts at the Fluxus festival in Aachen thus marked a historical juncture in which particular artistic tendencies coincided with general political developments. The contestation of the legitimacy of traditional structures of authority and the question of the origin of fascist power were on people’s minds. In a commentary on the event in the Aachener Prisma newspaper that year titled “Eine gutgemeinte Panne” (A well-meant mishap), the author Dorothea Solle accordingly interpreted the events as a flaring up of fascist violence brought on not only by the rampaging students, but equally by the aggressive irrationality of Fluxus performers’ actions.15 Still, it would be too simplistic to interpret the outbreak of violence as a moment of cathartic release. This interpretation would suggest that something had been resolved in the situation when, ultimately, the reverse seems to have been the case. After the festival had ended, Beuys apparently discussed what had taken place with students until two in the morning.16 It seems unlikely that they arrived at a conclusion. Nevertheless, a collective experience had been articulated. On the one hand, Beuys’ actions therefore need to be seen in the context of the critique of dominant structures of authority that the Fluxus performers gathered at the festival put into practice by destroying the conventions of authoritative (in the sense of being awe-inspiring) musical stage performances. On the other hand, Beuys’ martial poses also reflected the desire of the rioting students to see authority restored. They got the Führer-savior they wanted, if only in the form of a reflexive, inherently contradictory theatrical pose.

If one takes the Fluxus festival in Aachen as exemplary, one could argue that the manner in which Beuys made his contribution to the historically powerful critique of traditional structures of authority was more intuitive and improvisational than most. The quality of this contribution could then be understood to lie precisely in his capacity to improvise in unclarified situations and, in this process, to evoke, absorb, and manifest the prevailing tensions. This surely is not an excuse for his mythmaking and the afore-cited confused statement concerning the trauma of the perpetrators (in the North-American context). Still, it might help to explain the role Beuys may have played for his generation by articulating in a similarly improvisational way its collective experience of not being able to determine the relationship between their own share in the blame and their trauma suffered during the war. Beuys was equally incapable of resolving this problem. Whether it has ever been resolved, or if it can be resolved at all, remains doubtful. One might actually go so far as to argue, with Buchloh, that not only was the mythologizing of war trauma an expression of the desire to grant oneself absolution, but that, mutatis mutandis, the German postwar intelligentsia’s emphatically conscientious manner of reckoning with the past may have equally been such a technique, as if serious reckoning would enable one to make a clean break with the past and switch from the side of the accused to that of the accusers. A real effort to grapple with the experience of the victims of the crimes this is not. In general, it worth exploring at what point exactly German artists and intellectuals began to go beyond self-criticism and self-mirroring and instead actively confronted the outside perception and critical assessment of German history and identity in other countries. Beuys’ later travels and discussion workshops in Europe and America may have offered a forum for precisely that. But whether he listened long enough to others in these discussions to absorb their experience or simply propagated his own truths is a different question altogether.

3. The Strategic Debate over Interpretive Authority on the Threshold of a New Understanding of Art

Seen in its historical context, Beuys’ position marked a crucial threshold precisely because of its inner contradictions: politically, Beuys found inspiration in the incipient culture of student protest to challenge the attitude of his own generation and to attack the structures of mythical authority that made Nazi Germany possible, though without being able to overcome them entirely. Artistically, he also stood at an epochal threshold that he was never really able to fully cross. Buchloh describes this set of problems very accurately as well. In “Beuys: The Twilight of the Idol,” he locates Beuys’ work in the context of the decisive artistic developments of the 1960s—by incorporating everyday objects and industrial materials into his repertoire, Beuys, parallel to Minimal and Pop art, took a step toward the radical materialist aesthetic that would influence contemporary art from the 1960s onward. At the same time, however, as Buchloh convincingly demonstrates, Beuys did not draw the same consequences from this step that his contemporaries did. In finally realizing the implications of Marcel Duchamp’s use of the readymade, Buchloh argues, Minimal and Pop art contributed, in the spirit of a critically reductionist positivism of Anglo-American provenance, to the disenchantment of the work of art and dismantling of myths—myths that, in the tradition of Old Europe, had ensured art’s aura. Yet it was precisely this tradition that Beuys revived by tapping its mythologies in order to provide his art and persona with their magic. About to cross the threshold to the present, Beuys, it seems, turned his back to the future and stepped back into the lost past of Old Europe.

Buchloh thus takes the nature of Beuys’ self-interpretations as evidence of a reactionary position within the framework of the artistic developments of the 1960s: instead of developing a contemporary analytical understanding (based on Duchamp’s findings) of how artifacts obtain significance in art via the context of their presentation, intertextual cross-references, and the open play of their interpretation, Beuys, according to Buchloh, restored the traditional one-dimensional model of the authoritative attribution of meaning through the declaration of the artist’s intention: “[Beuys] dilutes and dissolves the conceptual precision of Duchamp’s readymade by reintegrating the object into the most traditional and naive context of representation of meaning, the idealist metaphor: this object stands for that idea, and that idea is represented in this object.”17

This criticism of Beuys’ interpretive discourse is no doubt completely justified. Again, however, the question remains: to what extent does the problematic character of Beuys’ self-interpretations truly affect his artistic practice? One could even go so far as to accuse Buchloh’s own critique of clinging, in a sense, to the very same one-dimensional model that he attributes to Beuys. After all, Buchloh himself also presumes an identity of intention and artwork when he dismisses the work in the name of Beuys’ stated intentions rather than subjecting the work to a more precise reading irrespective of what the artist may have said.

This is by no means an isolated problem. In relation to the artistic practices of the 1960s, the relationship between artists’ statements about their work and the actual work has generally not been investigated as critically as it probably should be. Beuys is far from being the only artist who intentionally sought to impose a certain meaning on his work. In fact, particularly in the context of early conceptual art, artists aggressively used interpretation as a strategy. The interpretative practice of Art & Language and the artist Joseph Kosuth, who was for a time associated with the group, is symptomatic in this regard. The performative contradiction between the content of their statements and the way they relate them to their work is even more flagrant than it is in Beuys’ own practice. Kosuth and Art & Language legitimized their work and imbued it with an awe-inspiring air of authority by citing not myths, but the entire tradition of analytical philosophy (of language), only to declare—in utter contradiction with the complex semantic models that this tradition offers—a one-to-one correspondence between this philosophical content and their art’s meaning.18 They identified critical theory with the literal meaning and the content of conceptual art with the same naïveté that Buchloh detects in Beuys’ discourse.

If anything, the crude Neo-Platonism that Kosuth propagates when he claims in his essay “intension(s)” that conceptual art can make an artist’s intentions immediately transparent can certainly be considered naive.19 At the same time, the insistence on the authority of the artist to determine the meaning of his or her work is, for Kosuth, part and parcel of a critical reflection on the power politics of interpreting art. He identifies the practice of artists making statements about their own work as a strategic practice geared towards disputing the interpretive authority of critics and historians and shifting the power balance in the artist’s favor. Kosuth writes: “art historians and critics play an important role in the struggle of the work’s ‘coming to meaning’ in the world. But that is the point: they represent the world. That is why a defining part of the creative process depends on the artists to assert their intentions in that struggle. One of the greatest lessons defending the primacy of the intention of the artist, and the increasing importance of writing by artists on their work, is provided by this period of the sixties.”20

Motivated by power politics, the main reason for artists to offer their own interpretations would thus be in the interest of eliminating the middleman. In this spirit, Kosuth quotes one of his own statements about the work of Art & Language in the journal Art-Language from 1970: “This art both annexes the function of the critic, and makes a middleman unnecessary.”21 It seems fair to assume that Beuys—perhaps less consciously, but all the more effectively for that reason—realized the historical opportunity which Kosuth articulates to use the propagation of his own interpretations as a means to reinforce his own position of authority vis-à-vis critics and historians. The increasing media interest in (his) art offered him (and not only him) an excellent platform for that.

Against this backdrop, viewing Beuys’ practice of interpreting his own work as a strategic gesture can perhaps enable us to more accurately describe its function in relation to his other artistic activities—namely, as a praxis in its own right. As such, it is not situated on some meta-level but on the very same level as the other manifestations of Beuys’ work—as a parallel practice. In this context, Beuys’ participation in the founding of various political initiatives and utopian institutions, such as the Free International University he cofounded with Heinrich Böll in 1971, for instance, could equally be seen as a gesture that matters in its own right—as an expansion of the concrete possibilities of artistic practice irrespective of any ideological program.22 Founding institutions thus becomes one artistic medium among others. Seen in this light, Beuys’ practice of speaking publicly should be treated not as a metadiscourse on his art but as an artistic medium sui generis. Beuys’ statements could therefore be regarded as having the status of material that he produced in parallel with other material. The chalkboards with scribbled lecture notes strewn on a stage constructed of wooden pallets in the installation Richtkräfte (Directional forces, 1974–77) offer a graphic example of this. Discourse becomes material, loads of material. And, because of the sheer number of chalkboards and the simple fact that some boards cover others in the pile, the sheer accumulation of material makes it partially illegible. The fascination with the material then could be seen to lie less in its ideological content than in the immanent tension between its legibility and its opacity as material.

Of course, this defense of the installation contradicts Beuys’ own interpretative discourse and declared intentions in its application of a concept of material derived from the school of Anglo-American criticism. Against the backdrop of Kosuth’s reflections, this interpretation could surely also be read as a critic’s strategic attempt to reclaim some ground in the battle for the authority to interpret a work. If interpretation is understood as an antagonistic practice, then indeed no speaker’s position within this field is neutral. It therefore seems necessary to explicate, if it is not already obvious, the position from which the author of this essay speaks: in contrast to the apodictic gesture of Beuys’ own statements (and the statements of his orthodox defenders and intimate enemies), the gesture of this essay is probably more that of unfolding a form of reflexivity from a position of historical and rhetorical distance. In terms of style, this reflexive speaking position may be typical of a (my) generation, whose experience of the patriarchal artistic gestures of Beuys’ generation is already mediated by the intervening generation’s struggle with the same gestures. In other words, a more distanced reflection seems possible today because the need and necessity to position oneself “with–alongside–against”23 Beuys is no longer as strongly felt as it may have been by the previous generation, which was immediately confronted with his persona. Buchloh belongs to the latter generation, as does my father, Walter Verwoert, who was one of Beuys’ first students. While Buchloh seems to have experienced  Beuys’ manner of embodying the role of the (German) artist in the international art world as unbearably reactionary, my father describes his experience with Beuys as a teacher at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in the early 1960s as radically liberating in artistic, personal, and political terms. The reasoning in this essay is born out of a desire to reflect on these opposed positions rather than from a need to take one side or the other.

The freedom in approaching his work created by the distance of one generation is of a peculiar nature. You could liken it to the situation of the coyote in I Like America and America Likes Me: Beuys is present. That is undeniable. But because the horizon of a common language has disappeared, there is no prescribed protocol for engaging with that presence. In this situation, critique could perhaps be a medium for creatively developing a certain form of conviviality—that is, a way to live in the present with the spectral presence of a figure who contributed decisively to shaping this present but did so without ever fully entering it. This form of conviviality need neither be peaceful nor intimate. Photographs of the action show the coyote biting Beuys’ felt robe and tearing at it in one moment, only to accept his presence in the room and return to going about his own business in the next. Perhaps this could serve as a model for the further reception of Beuys’ work.

4. The Still Unresolved Question of Authority in Artistic Practice: The Boss

Independent of this experience of historical distance, however, certain unresolved questions in Beuys’ work have not lost their relevance, and neither have the artistic means through which Beuys channeled these questions and manifested their problematic implications. The questions concern the foundation for authority itself: have we ever fully understood what generated the fascination with the auratic authority of the messianic leader that made fascism possible in its various manifestations in Germany, Austria, Italy, and Spain? To what extent have we succeeded in distancing ourselves from a fascination that endures despite all we have learned since? This is a thorny issue not only in art but very much also in intellectual discourse. It could be argued that in this field (even, or perhaps especially, in the tradition of leftist political engagement), the ability to project a certain auratic authority is a basic prerequisite for making your voice heard in the public debate. To the extent that the claim not only to act and speak in one’s own name but to also hope to act and speak for others is a condition of artistic practice and intellectual discourse, this form of practice and discourse as such will necessarily generate an aura of exemplary action or speech. The question of why—by virtue of what authority—someone could legitimately hope to act or speak on behalf of others (on behalf of the general public or simply on behalf of an unknown number of people who perhaps have similar feelings) is therefore a question that persistently haunts artistic practice and intellectual discourse—especially since certain catastrophes of modernity called the legitimacy of auratic authority into question. On a constitutive level, the justification for one’s own practice and discourse as an artist and intellectual is challenged by this unresolved question.

With particularly pointed humor, Beuys acknowledged the implications of this question in the performance ÖÖ-Programm (1967). At an orientation event at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, he welcomed the new students by taking a stand at the microphone, an ax in his hand, uttering inarticulate sounds for minutes. On the following day the Düsseldorfer Express titled its report on the event “Professor bellt ins Mikrofon” (Professor Barks into the Microphone).24 Short and succinct, that describes the situation.25 By turning the official occasion of an address by the academy staff into an absurd event, Beuys deliberately subjected not only himself but also the office and authoritative speaking position of the professor to mockery. At the same time, however, he also exposed the foundation of this authority: as a professor it was within his power to do such things. By carrying an ax, he intensified this ambiguity even further. If one recognizes the ax as an attribute of power, it is impossible not to see the parallel to the axes wrapped in rods that the lictors (the bodyguards of Roman consuls) carried as a symbol of their authority. The name for these rods—fasces—is considered to be one possible origin of the term fascism. If we also take “barking into the microphone” to be an expression that describes the style of Hitler’s public addresses conspicuously well, Beuys’ action could indeed also be understood as a caricature of the dictator. Rather than deny the structural authority that accrued in his role as professor (for example, by appearing as an emphatically liberal pedagogue), Beuys exposes this structural authority in a deliberately exaggerated way and demonstrates its complicity with forms of mythical authority. Given the obvious absurdity of the presentation, it seems fair to assume that he did it with the idea of pushing his authority to its limits and thus instigate resistance—for example, by provoking laughter.

As its title makes unmistakably clear, the performance Der Chef (Fluxus Gesang) (The Chief [Fluxus song], 1964), was another occasion on which Beuys openly addressed the question of authority, here adding a particular twist. The length of the performance was specified to equal the duration of an ordinary workday, and over the course of eight hours from 4 p.m. to midnight he performed the job of embodying authority. He appeared, rolled up in a felt blanket, in one of the exhibition spaces of the Galerie René Block in Berlin. The space could be looked into, but not entered, from the adjoining room. Hidden inside the blanket, Beuys could not be seen, only heard. He had a microphone with him, and at irregular intervals would make inarticulate sounds that were amplified via a PA system. This noise performance was interrupted periodically by a composition by Henning Christiansen and Eric Andersen played from tape. Two dead hares lay at either end of the rolled up felt blanket. Other props from Beuys’ repertoire (copper rod, fat corner, fingernails, etc.) were placed all over the room to identify it as a space for ceremonial activities. In the announcement for the event, Beuys stated that Robert Morris would carry out the same performance simultaneously in New York. To my knowledge, it has never been confirmed that this actually happened. The announcement may well have been a joke made at Morris’ expense, since Morris’ own elegantly sober, analytically self-reflexive use of felt was certainly being undercut here by Beuys, who subjected the same material to a protracted, wearisome, and on the whole not very elegant process.

In accordance with Beuys’ own mythology, the performance could certainly be interpreted as an attempt to relive the experience of his healing on the Crimea. Yet this interpretation neither accounts for the title of the action, nor its time limit based on a workday, nor the central role that the PA system plays in the performance. If we take into consideration the historical resonance that the act of “barking into the microphone” had in the action ÖÖ-Programm, it is perhaps not too farfetched to see a parallel in Der Chef: the performance is centered around the experience of loudspeakers giving the guttural voice of an unseen speaker an uncanny physical presence in a room. This experience effectively resembles that of hearing propaganda speeches on the so-called Volksempfänger, the “people’s radio,” introduced into the German family home by the Nazis, the novelty of which very likely made for a formative media experience for an entire generation. If we assume that the distortion of the speeches by poor radio reception would have been a regular feature of that experience, then the indistinct muffled noises from the PA system (and its irregular interruption by music) would be, phenomenologically speaking, an echo of this experience. The “Chef” is in that sense also the “Führer.”


Der Chef, 1964. © 2008 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

In a grotesque and highly pointed manner, Beuys thus frames the experience of the auratic. Walter Benjamin characterized this experience as one of “proximity with simultaneous distance.” It is precisely this fascinating contradiction that Beuys foregrounds on several levels in his performance: his voice filled the room, while the source was nowhere to be found. The artist was the focus of attention, yet remained invisible, rolled up in a felt blanket throughout the duration of the event. Due to his previous appearances in the media, the Der Chef performance brought a number of visitors to the gallery, according to contemporaneous reports.26 For the duration of the exhibition, these visitors were, however, forced to stay in the neighboring room. They could see what was happening but remained barred from direct physical access to the event. The partial closing-off of the performance space from the space for the audience created distance, and at the same time increased the attraction of the artist’s presence. He was present acoustically and physically as part of a piece of sculpture, but he was also absent, invisible, untouchable, and this staging of simultaneous presence and absence made his stage presence particularly auratic.

The title further reinforced this ambiguity of proximity and distance. On the one hand, it designates the leader at the top of a hierarchy. On the other hand, however, in colloquial German the word Chef—like jefe in Spanish and boss in American English—is equally used to jovially address a coworker. This double entendre lent a humorous quality to the title. Still, it did not really deflate the authority associated with the term Chef but, when seen in conjunction with the performance, rather auraticized it: on the one hand, Beuys was the highlighted artistic personality, art professor, and incipient media star who could only be perceived from afar. On the other, he was also the “coworker” who “did his job” for eight hours and made it known through moaning and groaning noises how hard he was “slaving away.” That was bound to create sympathy and proximity. This simultaneity of distance and proximity gave the artist his auratic authority in his role as “Chef.” Political leaders traditionally create an aura—that is, the appearance of absolute credibility—in an analogous way by presenting themselves as idealized, powerful paternal figures and simultaneously as approachable “men of the people.”

The crucial thing, however, is that Beuys did not simply produce an aura of authority but that he also exhibited the material conditions of its production in all their crudity, and exposed the contradictions inherent in this process in all their obvious absurdity. In this way, Beuys simultaneously constructed and dismantled an aura of authority. The performance constituted an event. Its eventful qualities were, however, simultaneously also reduced to a minimum—not much happened. A man lay wrapped in a blanket between two dead hares and made strange noises for hours. The scaling down of the performance to an activity that could scarcely be perceived as an activity at all, the stretching and expanding of time, the death rattles from under the blanket, and the overall gravity of the mise-en-scène in general creates a peculiar regressive atmosphere. Very much in line with the analysis of auratic authority that Werner Herzog developed in his films, Beuys here too foregrounds the peculiar regressive pull (Freudians would call it the “death drive”) inherent in the peculiar gravitas of auratic authority—a pull that equally also creates its limitation, in that its own weightiness sooner or later weights auratic authority down and brings it to the point of collapse. And indeed, in Der Chef Beuys staged the mechanisms producing this auratic authority together with the event of its slow collapse.

Der Chef could thus be understood to expose and exorcize, in a pointed manner, the fascination with auratic authority that constituted a crucial historical condition for the possibility of fascism. Admittedly, Beuys did not perform this act of exposing and exorcizing from a distanced position. Rather, he lived through it physically and thus, in a symptomatic way, manifested its unresolved contradictions. Beyond the discussion of historical conditions, however, the fact that Beuys chose an immanent position from which to work through the problems of auratic authority brings us back to the question raised earlier, namely, whether certain structures and contradictions of the auratic are not structurally inherent to artistic practice. A structural feature of art practice, for instance, that Beuys deals with in Der Chef, is not only the adoption of the position of an auratic speaker but also the ascription of that position to the artist through the expectations of the audience: Beuys came to Berlin and people expected an event. By appearing in public, but making himself invisible, Beuys both satisfied and frustrated their expectations. The aura that Beuys generated around himself by virtue of this strategy became a means as well as a medium to both protect himself against and play with these expectations: to throw them into relief and change them.

The fact that this attempt to renegotiate the relationship between artist and audience is, moreover, formalized as an eight-hour workday, potentially turns the performance into a parable of the constitutive tensions between the private and public that define artistic or creative work in general. As is a form of work that traditionally takes shape under conditions marked by extremes of self-isolation (in the studio, at a desk, in nature) and the act of making oneself public (in exhibitions, actions, publications), certainly there are other approaches to art practice based on participation. But experience shows that they too require a certain moment of isolation and concentration that allows for collective action to be planned and forces to be gathered. A fascinating aspect of Der Chef is that Beuys does not in fact treat isolation and publicness as polar opposites, but as inseparable qualities of a single action. The self-isolation inside the felt roll takes place in public. Kept at bay spatially on the one hand, and addressed through the loudspeakers on the other hand, the public is simultaneously excluded and included. In this situation, the microphone and PA system become the medium that establishes the relation between isolation and a publicness. In this sense, Der Chef can be read as a parable of cultural work in a public medium. The authority of those who dare—or are so bold as—to speak publicly results from the fact that they isolate themselves from the gaze of the public, under the gaze of the public, in order to still address it in indirect speech, relayed through a medium. What is constituted in this ceremony is authority in the sense of authorship, in the sense of a public voice. In Der Chef, Beuys stages the creation of such a public voice as an event that is as dramatic as it is absurd. He thus asserts the emergence of such a voice as an event. At the same time, however, he also undermines this assertion through the lamentably powerless form by which this voice is produced: in emitting half-smothered inarticulate sounds that would have remained inaudible without electronic amplification. This performance offers no answers. But it articulates the unresolved crux of a question that deeply concerns both art and politics: by virtue of what authority is it possible to embody a voice in the public and for the public?

×

© 2008 e-flux and the author

1 Donald Kuspit, The Cult of the Avant-garde Artist (New York: Cambridge University Press,
1993).

2 Ibid., 93.

3 Ibid., 95.

4 Ibid., 89.

5 Ibid., 81.

6 The motto comes from a line in the poem “Deutschlands Beruf” (1861) by the Romantic poet Emanuel Geibel (1815-1884). Geibel invokes here the spirit of German rationalism as a mediating force he believes can create peace and political stability in Europe. In its later, more notorious application, however, the phrase came to be associated with German colonialism and with the Nazi ideology of racial superiority.

7 The philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy describes very pointedly this modern design for self-healing by tapping a supposedly sovereign creativity of myth formation: “Romanticism itself could be defined as the invention of the scene of the founding myth, as the simultaneous awareness of the loss of the power of this myth, and as the desire or the will to regain this living power of the origin and, at the same time, the origin of this power…. This formulation in fact defines, beyond romanticism and even beyond romanticism in its Nietzschean form, a whole modernity: the whole of that very broad modernity embracing, in a strange, grimacing alliance, both the poetico-ethnological nostalgia for an initial mything humanity and the wish to regenerate the old European humanity by resurrecting its most ancient myths, including the relentless staging of these myths: I am referring, of course, to Nazi myth.” Jean-Luc Nancy, “Myth Interrupted,” in The Inoperative Community, trans. Peter Connor, Lisa Garbus, Michael Holland, and Simona Sawhney (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), 45–46. See 43–70.

8 Rüdiger Sünner, Schwarze Sonne: Entfesselung und Missbrauch der Mythen in Nationalsozialismus und rechter Esoterik (Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder Spektrum, 1999), 34-35.

9 See Götz Adriani, Winfried Konnertz, and Karin Thomas, Joseph Beuys: Life and Work (New York: Barron’s, 1979), 29.

10 Sünner, Schwarze Sonne, 36n7.

11 Quoted in Caroline Tisdall, Joseph Beuys (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1979), 228.

12 Benjamin Buchloh, “Beuys: The Twilight of the Idol,” originally published in Artforum 18, no. 5 (1980): 35–43; quoted here from Joseph Beuys: Mapping the Legacy, ed.Gene Ray (New York: D.A.P., 2001), 199–211.

13 Tisdall, Joseph Beuys, 17n10.

14 Buchloh, “Beuys,” 203n11.

15 Aachener Prisma 13, no. 1 (November 1964): 16–17, quoted in Adriani, Konnertz, and Thomas, Joseph Beuys, 112n8.

16 Ibid., 111.

17 Buchloh, “Beuys,” 206n11.

18 A perfect example of this is to be found in Kosuth’s text “Art after Philosophy” (1969), in which Kosuth, in the best Hegelian manner, declared his art to be the historically necessary endpoint of the history of philosophy since Kant, and his works to be direct, transparent illustrations of these lines of thought; see Joseph Kosuth, Art after Philosophy and After; Collected Writings, 1966–1990, ed. Gabriele Guercio (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991).

19 Joseph Kosuth, “intention(s),” originally published in Art Bulletin 78, no. 3 (September 1996): 407–12; quoted here from Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, ed. Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999), 460–68.

20 Ibid., 462.

21 Ibid., 464.

22 These included the Deutsche Studentenpartei (German Students’ Party, 1967), the Organisation für Nichtwähler, freie Volksabstimmung (Organization for Nonvoters, Free Plebiscite, 1970), the Organisation für Direkte Demokratie durch Volksabstimmung (Organization for Direct Democracy by Plebiscite, 1971), the Free International University (1971) cofounded with Heinrich Böll, and his participation in the discussions of the founding of the German Green Party (1979).

23 “Mit-Neben-Gegen” (With-Alongside-Against) was the title of an exhibition of works by Beuys’ students at the Frankfurter Kunstverein in 1976.

24 Express (Düsseldorf) December 1, 1967; quoted from Barbara Lange, Joseph Beuys: Richtkräfte einer neuen Gesellschaft (Frankfurt am Main: Reimer, 1999), n. p., fig. 3.

25 After a lecture on the present topic, a Beuys disciple instructed me (with an authority that tolerated no dissent) that the action ÖÖ-Programm was not in fact about the question of authority but rather, as Beuys himself had said, a demonstration of (if I remember correctly) a Mongolian technique for articulation, and at the same time an illustration of the creative process of forming the quintessentially unformed by articulating the still unformed. The only reaction that occurred to me was a standard line by the Rhenish cabaret artist Jürgen Becker: “Well, you know more than I do there.”

26 See Wolf Vostel’s description of the action in Adriani, Konnertz, and Thomas, Joseph Beuys, 120n8. Among other things, Beuys’s provocative statement that the Berlin Wall would have to be raised five centimeters to improve its proportions had certainly made him a media figure by this time. When he left the room at the end of the performance, that statement was apparently the subject of the first question posed by someone in the audience.

Jan Verwoert is an art critic based in Berlin. He is a contributing editor at Frieze and writes regularly about contemporary art for magazines such as Afterall and Metropolis M. He teaches in the Fine Arts MA program at the Piet Zwart Institute, Rotterdam.

America’s Artistic Shaman: Bruce Nauman

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WALL STREET JOURNAL

Magazine – What’s News

 

Pioneering Artist Bruce Nauman Releases a New Monograph

Throughout his long career, the famously reclusive artist has rarely agreed to interviews, so this month’s publication of Phaidon’s book on the artist, ‘Bruce Nauman: The True Artist,’ is truly a red-letter occasion

SIGNS AND SIGNIFIERS | The first of Nauman's many neon signs, 'The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths,' 1967. ENLARGE
SIGNS AND SIGNIFIERS | The first of Nauman’s many neon signs, ‘The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths,’ 1967. The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths (Window or Wall Sign), 1967, Artist’s Proof, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Bruce Nauman ©Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York/DACS, London

Pioneering Artist Bruce Nauman Releases a New Monograph
Throughout his long career, the famously reclusive artist has rarely agreed to interviews, so this month’s publication of Phaidon’s book on the artist, ‘Bruce Nauman: The True Artist,’ is truly a red-letter occasion

By Carol Kino
May 1, 2014 1:53 p.m. ET

FOR MANY YEARS, Bruce Nauman has occupied an unusual position in the art world. Known as a vastly influential pioneer of everything from performance to video to conceptualism to installation, with nearly half a century of international biennials and museum exhibitions behind him, Nauman is the rare artist who seems entirely uninterested in pandering to the demands of his own celebrity—and he’s been able to get away with it. In 1979, he moved to New Mexico, and he now spends most of his time on a 700-acre ranch south of Santa Fe, emerging from his cluttered studio only to train, breed and ride horses (and presumably to spend a little time with his wife of 25 years, the painter Susan Rothenberg). Communication with the outside world is conducted via his studio manager and gatekeeper of 29 years, Juliet Myers. And inquiries are often fruitless, as Nauman is known for almost always saying no to retrospectives, interviews or anything else that might “totalize,” as he’s said to put it, his work and career.

So this month’s publication of Phaidon’s monograph on the artist, Bruce Nauman: The True Artist, is a red-letter occasion, if only because it represents one of the rare moments when Nauman said yes. Written by Peter Plagens, an abstract painter who was the art critic for Newsweek from 1989 to 2003, the book has been in the works since 2008—or even longer, if you count the fact that Phaidon’s co-publisher, Amanda Renshaw, had been trying to get Nauman to agree to a project since she joined the company more than 20 years ago.

Early on, Renshaw says, “I made a list of the artists I thought any self-respecting publisher of art books should make a book on. Nauman was one of the artists on the top of my list.” Over the years, she adds, she must have suggested 20 different writers to him, always in vain. “‘I don’t want anyone to write a complete career retrospective on me,'” Renshaw recalls hearing from Nauman’s studio over and over. “‘That’s not what I want.'”

But when Plagens came on board, the obstacles evanesced. The two men had known each other in Los Angeles in the 1970s, when Plagens was trying to establish himself as a painter and critic, and Nauman was, as Plagens writes, the “neighborhood famous artist,” jetting off to shows and grappling with his first career survey, which opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in late 1972, traveled to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and then toured Europe and America until 1974. For most of that decade, Plagens and Nauman had studios on the same block in Pasadena and they played in a weekly Santa Monica artists’ basketball game. Plagens also performed in Nauman’s 1975 film Pursuit, which features more than 24 minutes of footage of men and women running on a treadmill against a black background, panting desperately into the void while staying in place.

But other than that relatively casual acquaintance, “I couldn’t say why Bruce said yes to me,” says Plagens over lunch in the East Village, as we retrace the footsteps of his last interview with Nauman in New York. Maybe it was because they used to shoot the breeze about the Lakers, he suggests, or because they’re both originally Midwesterners—Plagens born in Dayton, Ohio, and Nauman in Fort Wayne, Indiana. On another occasion, Plagens posits that it might just be because “we are grizzled old white guys of a certain age.” (

Either way, they make for a curious pairing. While Nauman looms as a cross between the Marlboro Man and an art-world Greta Garbo, Plagens, who contributes art criticism to The Wall Street Journal, is an unrepentant chatterbox who tends toward mighty digressions. But that’s also what makes the book such a delight. Full of riffs on subjects ranging from the use of neon in art to the history of the Venice Biennale, it’s as much a social history of the modern-day art world as it is a guide to Nauman’s life and career.
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Plagens begins with Nauman’s graduate-school days at the University of California, Davis, where he starts out as a figurative painter but ends up making sculptures from studio detritus and using his own rangy body to create performances and films. He also conceives of his first sculptures of negative volumes, like A Cast of the Space Under My Chair (1965–68). Next come the early years in San Francisco, where working in a storefront studio, he makes his first neon sign, a blue-and-red spiral that reads “The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths” (1967).

During this period, Nauman also makes a lot of punning color photographs that show him enacting verbal clichés, like Bound to Fail and Eating My Own Words. Plagens, encountering the images at the 1968 German art exhibition “Documenta,” writes in the book that he found them “superficial” and “smart-alecky.” In 1973, he gave Nauman’s LACMA retrospective a damning Artforum review, which he quotes from extensively.

Yet as Plagens grew to realize over the years—”I was wrong,” he writes—Nauman’s work seems discomfiting at first, precisely because it is so original. With time, it also grows increasingly hard to categorize. In New Mexico, as Nauman starts training horses, his pieces become more challenging, and oddly grotesque, as in the 1988 sculpture Hanging Carousel (George Skins a Fox), which puts taxidermy casts of animals circling on a merry-go-round. There’s also the cartoonish 1987 video installation Clown Torture, featuring clowns who perform gags ad infinitum, one screaming, “No, no, no, no, no!”

‘”I just found him kind of regular. He was never censorious. He never said, ‘I’d really wish you didn’t say this about me.’ “’
——Peter Plagens

A strong sense of Nauman himself emerges in the book. In Plagens’s description, he’s certainly taciturn but also loyal and straightforward—a man’s man who loves horses, picks up technical know-how quickly, maintains old friendships and enjoys good food. (“For all his everyday-ness, Nauman has a way of ferreting out good restaurants when he’s out of town on a project,” Plagens writes.)

Nauman also, surprisingly, comes across as quite funny, even something of a wry practical joker. Asked to contribute an earthwork to a 1969 show in Pasadena, he plans to hire four planes to skywrite “Leave the Land Alone”—a counterintuitively pollution-spewing project that wasn’t realized until 2009. And years after trying to skip large rocks across a river with the painter Frank Owen, who shot Pursuit, he gathers 40 pounds of perfectly shaped skipping stones from California and lugs them across the country to Owen’s New York loft as a gift.

Despite the wealth of anecdotes and quotes, however, it turns out that Plagens interviewed Nauman for the book only three times: once at the ranch, when they stayed up most of the night watching Elvis Costello on TV while Nauman drank neat whiskey; once in Venice, Italy, when Nauman represented the United States at the Biennale in 2009; and once in New York, over lunch at the same restaurant we are visiting today. How did Plagens get so much out of him? “Bruce makes it sort of easy,” he says. “I just found him kind of regular.” Plagens was also surprised to find that Nauman, whose work is often described as “controlling,” never once tried to control his depiction. “He was never censorious. He never said, ‘I’d really wish you didn’t say this about me.’ ”

People who are close to Nauman seem to agree with this portrayal. “Bruce controls his sphere, his output, his production, his art,” says Angela Westwater, his longtime New York dealer. “But if it’s someone else’s job or profession, he sees it differently.”

Maybe that’s why Nauman finally agreed to be “totalized” by Plagens. Maybe he realized someone would do it eventually, and he’d rather it be someone who was unlikely to indulge in hagiography.

But when I try to interview Nauman to find out if this is true, he won’t speak with me directly. Instead, he sends a message through his devoted studio manager, Myers, who calls as Nauman is returning to the studio. “Bruce said yes to this monograph,” Myers repeats carefully, as if she is reading from a script, “because Peter is a different kind of writer and he’s known him on and off for many years.” Then she delivers the kicker: “But what Bruce really loves about Peter is that Peter does all the talking.”

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NEW YOR TIMES

Photo

“One Hundred Live and Die,” 1984. Credit Fujitsuka Mitsumasa

As one of the contemporary art world’s pre-eminent jesters, Bruce Nauman is hardly a barrel of laughs; known as much for his deadpan wit as for his dire take on mortality, his art engages bleak themes (the failure of language; the body’s betrayals; the repetitive, claustrophobic nature of daily life) even as it sparks a knowing, gallows grimace. How else to react to, say, “Sex and Death/Double ‘69,’ ” one of his trademark neon sculptures, which arrays four figures of indeterminate gender in an arrangement (two hang down between two standing) felicitous for simultaneous oral and genital copulation by both pairs? The iconography may owe a debt to high school bathrooms, but the tension between the pulsing colors and the matter-of-fact postures of these doleful sybarites evokes the title’s universal and enduring linkage, as well as the more particular moment of its creation at the beginning of the AIDS crisis in 1985. The scary sense that the core of our human enterprise may be nothing more than a garish amusement park diversion feels inescapable — and as such we are invited to grin and bear it.

“Bruce Nauman: The True Artist” offers the fullest survey yet of this protean artist’s work. Still, even with its numerous reproductions of Nauman’s sculpture, photographs and drawings, the volume necessarily falls short of adequately representing his videos, performances and installations (included stills and photos must suffice), and that is no small issue for an artist whose efforts in those media are regarded by many critics as decisively influential. Indeed, it’s impossible to talk about the careers of any number of contemporary video artists without referring to Nauman. Peter Plagens’s accompanying text takes smart measure of that current relevance, while also providing a detailed account of Nauman’s aesthetic evolution in California during the 1960s. A longtime art critic for Newsweek who kept a studio in the same Los Angeles neighborhood as Nauman, Plagens bolsters his strong art-history chops with a memoirist’s site-specific insights. He recalls his early ambivalence — “Nauman’s art bothered me. It was both psychologically and culturally threatening, and the very fact that it bothered me bothered me” — and notes that his first reviews of the artist were negative. This first-person, journalistic tack is a welcome approach to an artist who often attracts jargon-fond academics.

That’s not to say Nauman doesn’t warrant high-energy contemplation; his vigorous connections to, say, Wittgenstein and Samuel Beckett animate his representations of language’s doubleness and the intrinsically comic nature of repetition. The philosopher’s influence marks a 1967 sculpture titled “From Hand to Mouth” that literalizes the locution by presenting a disembodied, snakelike hand, arm, shoulder, neck, chin and mouth. The macabre object undermines the commonplace quality of the expression by charging its conventional meaning with corporeal fact: To live hand-to-mouth is to be hungry, perhaps feeble. Plagens notes how “like Beckett, Nauman was compelled to exteriorize these troubling thoughts” and finds that the incessant permutations of the famous “sucking stone” passage from “Molloy” “in cadence and content parallel Nauman’s way of artistic thinking.”

The kinship is borne out as if scripted by the Irish author in “Clown Torture,” a 1987 video installation featuring four monitors and two video projections set in a darkened space on which audiences watch perpetual loops of a clown screaming “No,” opening a booby-trapped door, balancing a fishbowl on the end of a broom and retelling the same joke. Loud, abrasive and disturbing, the “torture” the clown endures isn’t funny. But it is. Or at least we are, as we stand there in the dark subjecting ourselves to what Plagens calls the “pointless seriousness — or serious pointlessness” that makes Nauman’s art a test of our own tolerance for his grim vision.

BRUCE NAUMAN

The True Artist

By Peter Plagens

Illustrated. 287 pp. Phaidon Press. $125.

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NEW YORKER MAGAZINE

Onward and Upward with the Arts June 1, 2009 Issue
Western Disturbances
Bruce Nauman’s singular influence.

 

2009_06_01
Probing relentlessly into the darker aspects of American life, Nauman helped to break the grip of Minimal art. Photograph by Steve Pyke.

Bruce Nauman and Susan Rothenberg have lived for the past twenty years on seven hundred acres of open, windswept land near Galisteo, New Mexico, south of Santa Fe. Rothenberg, a painter whose imagery hovers between abstraction and figuration, is sixty-four, high-spirited, talkative, small, easy to like. Nauman, who is four years older, and well over six feet in his made-to-order cowboy boots, has the watchful reticence and the physical bearing of an old-time Western movie star. His primary medium is sculpture, but he has used such a wide range of materials and media—including film, video, drawings, prints, performance, sound, and neon light—that his work has no signature style. Art lovers looking for beauty or visual pleasure are advised to look elsewhere; they find much of Nauman’s work boring or irritating, and sometimes highly offensive. “PAY ATTENTION MOTHERFUCKERS,” he suggests, in a 1973 lithograph that spells out this message in large mirror-image capitals. To see it is to comply.

Nauman’s and Rothenberg’s studios are in separate buildings behind the functional one-story house they designed for themselves. A hand-lettered sign just inside the door to Rothenberg’s reads “HI HONEY YOU’RE HOME!” In Nauman’s, which is about sixty feet long by thirty feet wide, mounds of leftover detritus from completed art works take up most of the floor space, along with heavyduty tools, empty cartons, extension cords, and a small enclave harboring two battered armchairs and a table piled with assorted books: two Ross Thomas paperbacks, Gabriel García Márquez’s “Memories of My Melancholy Whores,” Ezra Pound’s “Cantos,” Xenophon’s “The Art of Horsemanship.”

The couple live alone in Galisteo. Nauman has no studio assistant. His studio manager and archivist, Juliet Myers, whose hot-pink-and-orange hair style is a Santa Fe landmark, drives out every Wednesday. “I have the job mainly because I can say ‘No, thank you’ in about a thousand different ways,” she jokes. “Bruce appreciates that I can keep the world at bay.” The Naumans go into Santa Fe now and then, but they steer clear of the thriving art colony there. Non-art activities occupy a lot of their time. They both like to cook. Rothenberg feeds the chickens (they have six), and takes their three mixed-breed dogs on long hikes. She combs the dry hills behind the house for potsherds, arrowheads, and other artifacts of the ruined Galisteo pueblo, where a Tewa-speaking people flourished from the late twelve-hundreds to about 1690, on what is now the Naumans’ land. Her finds fill many drawers and shelves in the house, and she has assembled a dozen or more complete pots. Nauman gets up at seven each morning to feed his fourteen horses, which he breeds, raises, trains, and sells. They are quarter horses, “working horses,” he explains. “Some turn out to be pleasure horses, but they’re bred to work cattle.” His partner, Bill Riggins, runs a horse-and-cattle ranch that they own jointly in Santa Rosa, sixty miles to the southwest. It provides income, as well as steaks.

When I visited Nauman’s studio in March, two rows of square white ultra-thin loudspeakers, clipped to floor-to-ceiling cables, ran the length of the room. This was his “Days/Giorni” project, a new sound work that will début on June 7th at the Venice Biennale. He fiddled with an audio keyboard on a table, and played a bit of the Italian version. Four male and three female voices intoned the days of the week—domenica, lunedì, martedì—skipping or adding days in varying sequences. (An English-language version will be installed at another location in Venice.) Walking slowly between two rows of speakers, arranged so that each voice comes from a pair on opposite sides of the room, was like moving through discrete ribbons of sound. The effect was hypnotic. What might have been merely monotonous seemed rich and full of nuance—the human voice making unintentional music as it evokes the passage of time. More than thirty other works by Nauman, from all phases of his career, will be on view in Venice. “Vices and Virtues” (1983-88), seven of each, intertwined in flashing neon letters seven feet high, will encircle the cornice of the United States pavilion on the Biennale grounds. Inside, and in two venerable buildings on the other side of the Grand Canal, Nauman’s videos and animated neon sculptures will share space with flayed animal sculptures, hanging male and female heads, and other works, including, in a window, his mockingly cryptic 1967 sign: “The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths.” The survey, which was organized by Carlos Basualdo and Michael Taylor, of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is a long-delayed public affirmation of Nauman’s status as the most influential living artist.

To many people, Nauman’s influence is hard to fathom. Ever since his first show, in 1966, at the Nicholas Wilder Gallery in Los Angeles, his prickly, uningratiating work has disturbed viewers, infuriated more than a few critics, and fascinated artists. His early films, which were influenced by the single-image films of Andy Warhol, carried an emotional charge that seemed mysteriously unearned, and so did his blobby, awkward-looking sculptures in latex and fibreglass. As he went on in later years to explore new materials and stranger means, the impact deepened. “Matthew Barney, Kiki Smith, Jenny Holzer, Mike Kelley, Robert Gober, Tony Oursler: none of these catch-names in contemporary art could have arrived without Nauman,” Andrew Solomon wrote in the Times Magazine, in 1995. He could also have named Damien Hirst, Rachel Whiteread, and most of the other Young British Artists. By bringing social and political content back into art (without cynicism), and by probing relentlessly into the darker aspects of American life, Nauman helped to break the grip of Minimal art. He forces you to experience his art viscerally, not just look at it. “Is there anybody like him?” Maurizio Cattelan, a conceptual master of startling images (such as his sculptural installation of the Pope struck down by a meteorite), asked me recently. When I said no, he muttered, “Damn.”

After an hour in the studio, we walked over to the main house, through a raffish garden whose main feature is a Nauman fountain made out of three bronze foxes stacked in a pyramid. It was late afternoon. Nauman poured himself a small glass of bourbon, neat, and sat down at a zinc-topped dining table. He wore work clothes—jeans, boots, and a frayed gray shirt. His large head reminded me of a Gilbert Stuart portrait of Washington, with its prominent nose and high, tapering forehead. Talking about his work or his life doesn’t come easily to him, but the bourbon helps. Nauman speaks slowly, with frequent pauses to work out what he’s going to say. We talked about the two years he’d spent in art school at the University of California’s newly established graduate program at its Davis branch, near Sacramento. He had arrived in 1964, when the barriers between painting, sculpture, photography, film, dance, theatre, and music were eroding so fast that more and more artists felt free to use any and all of them, in any combination, for whatever purposes they had in mind. Coming from his undergraduate art studies at the University of Wisconsin, where the faculty had no patience with Abstract Expressionism or any later trends, was “like stepping out of the Middle Ages,” Nauman said.

In Wisconsin he concentrated on painting, working his way (against faculty disapproval) to abstract landscapes in the style of Willem de Kooning. He quit painting soon after he got to Davis, and never went back to it. “I had to find some other way,” he said. He tried performing—using his body as an impersonal object—but he wasn’t comfortable with that, so he started filming his performances instead. “I’d buy out-of-date film stock, which was cheap. I’ve always liked to use what’s cheap and possible. I even tried writing poetry. Much later, some of that gets into the work.” The abstract sculptures he was doing at Davis had a raw, unfinished look—like fragments of something else. Robert Morris, Richard Serra, Eva Hesse, and a few other New York artists were using non-art materials and processes similar to Nauman’s; he saw reproductions of their sculptures in art magazines, along with works he admired by Jasper Johns and Richard Tuttle. None of his classmates were moving in this direction, though, and some of them thought Nauman was aesthetically challenged. Others were in awe of him. His most important teachers, the painters William Wiley and Wayne Thiebaud and the ceramic artist Robert Arneson, encouraged his experiments. “I was impressed with his openness,” Wiley told me. “We shared an interest in what art could do, where it could go.”

Unlike most art students, Nauman was married. His wife, Judy Govan, was a girl he had known slightly in the sixth grade in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, a suburb of Milwaukee. They went to the same high school—Judy was pretty and popular, Bruce was shy and serious—and started dating at the University of Wisconsin. Immediately after graduation they got married, mainly because, as Nauman explained, their parents would have been “very, very upset if we had gone to California together” without doing so.

Nauman’s parents, Calvin and Genevieve, were solid, middle-class Midwesterners—Bruce was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana—with strong moral and ethical codes of behavior, which they imparted to Bruce and his two younger brothers, Craig and Larry. Their dependable but somewhat remote father was an engineer and a salesman for General Electric. His company kept moving him to different cities when the boys were growing up, so they went to several different schools. Bruce did well in all of them. Something of a loner, he was mainly interested in math and music—he took piano lessons as a child, switched to classical guitar, then to string bass. At the University of Wisconsin, he planned to major in physics, but, realizing that he lacked the passion for math that the best students seemed to have, he decided (“and it’s something I never quite understood—what made me think I could do that?”) that he was going to be an artist.

Reports of the strange-looking sculptures and films he was making at Davis got around. Nicholas Wilder, a young Los Angeles art dealer with an eye for new talent, saw one of Nauman’s fibreglass pieces and couldn’t get it out of his head. Wilder visited Nauman’s studio at Davis soon afterward, and eventually offered him a one-man show in the spring of 1966—something that now happens to young artists regularly but was almost unheard of then. Nothing sold, but a couple of the pieces appeared later that year in a group show called “Eccentric Abstraction,” at the Fischbach Gallery in New York. When he cleared out his Davis studio that spring, some fellow-students went through the Dumpster he’d used and pulled out the relatively intact pieces, which they held on to until he became famous.

Bruce and Judy moved to San Francisco, where they rented a former grocery store in the Mission District. Their living quarters were in back; the storefront became Nauman’s studio. He taught two days a week at the Art Institute of San Francisco, which provided health insurance. That helped, because their first child, Erik, had been born in August. His studio process, then and now, was to read and think until an idea took hold of him. He reread Wittgenstein’s “Philosophical Investigations” and John Cage’s writings on chance and contingency, both of which he had discovered in college, and he devoured Samuel Beckett’s novels and plays. “I was trying to understand what art is and what artists do,” he told me, “and a lot of that, for me, seemed to involve watching and waiting to see what would happen. When I’m desperate enough just to do anything, even if it seems completely stupid, it’s such a relief.” In those days, he hoped that sooner or later he’d figure out how to make art without such a struggle, but it never happened. “My dad once said, ‘You don’t have to reinvent the wheel every day,’ but I think you do,” he told me. “Maybe not every day, but pretty often.”

The process, in any event, produced a torrent of work, some of it pretty silly. Nauman constructed and photographed a series of three-dimensional puns or wordplays: “Drill Team” consisted of five drill bits in graduated sizes, embedded in a block of wood; “Eating My Words” was Nauman poised over a plate containing pieces of bread shaped into letters of the alphabet. Others were more enigmatic, such as his wax cast of Judy’s hand, arm, shoulder, neck, jaw, and mouth, which he called “From Hand to Mouth.” He made a convex lead plaque with the inscription “A Rose Has No Teeth” (the phrase comes from Wittgenstein); it was to be affixed to the trunk of a tree, so that “after a few years the tree would grow over it, and it would be gone.” Judy, who knew better than to ask him about his work, assumed that a lot of it was Bruce being playful. “There was a lighthearted side to his personality,” she said recently. “I thought he didn’t take himself all that seriously, but I found out later that he did—very seriously.”

Nauman devised two window signs with messages that stretched irony to a higher level. One read “The True Artist Is an Amazing Luminous Fountain”; the other was “The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths.” Both were inspired by a neon sign for beer that had been left in the big plate-glass window of his studio when the New California Grocery moved out. The first, inscribed in large capitals on a sheet of transparent Mylar, echoed Nauman’s slightly earlier “Self-Portrait as a Fountain,” a photograph of himself, bare-chested, directing an arched spout of water through pursed lips. The photograph was a clear enough spoof of classical themes and garden ornaments. But “amazing” and “luminous”? He was kidding—wasn’t he? A similar uncertainty surrounds “Mystic Truths,” which Nauman did soon after visiting a Man Ray show at the Pasadena Museum. It is a five-foot-high “wall or window” piece that he designed and had executed in pink and blue neon tubing, in the spiral form of the beer sign in his window. Nauman said he was interested then in making art that didn’t look like art, something that looked, in fact, like a commercial display. As he told Brenda Richardson, the curator at the Baltimore Museum, “In that case, you wouldn’t really notice it until you paid attention. Then, when you read it, you would have to think about it.” The piece, he told me, “was like a little test, to see if I believed it or not.” And did he believe it? I asked. “Probably not,” he said, smiling. “But then why not?” He got up and poured another two fingers of bourbon.

Leo Castelli, the New York dealer who represented Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, and several stars of the Pop generation, heard about Nauman from Richard Bellamy and other art-world insiders. In January, 1968, he gave him a solo show. There were almost no reviews—Robert Pincus-Witten, in Artforum, described the work as “adolescent and contemptible”—and few sales at the time (though everything sold eventually), but none of that mattered. Joining Castelli’s star-studded roster put Nauman, at the age of twenty-six, into the front ranks of contemporary art.

Nauman and his wife and son were spending that winter on the East Coast. The painter Paul Waldman, whom Nauman had met in San Francisco, had offered to let them use a house in Southampton that he owned jointly with Roy Lichtenstein, with strict instructions not to make any marks on the wall of the studio they had built in the back. “That’s when I got a video camera,” Nauman said. “Leo bought one of the first handheld video cameras for the gallery, and let me use it, and then Richard Serra had it.” He used the camera to record himself performing banal and repetitive activities in the studio, such as walking a square pattern “in an exaggerated manner.” Conceptual artists who made “installation” works on site, or gave instructions for others to make them, were opening an era of “post-studio art,” but for Nauman the studio was the place where he got his ideas and carried them out. One of his first audio works, done in 1968, consists of a small empty room with concealed speakers, through which his voice can be heard repeating, in tones that range from a plea to a snarl, “Get out of my mind, get out of this room.”

A crucial shift was taking place in Nauman’s work, from a focus on himself and his own body to a more direct engagement with the viewer. In a 1969 group exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York, soon after his return from his first trip to Europe, he showed “Performance Corridor,” a narrow wood-and-wallboard construction that played perceptual tricks on people who ventured into it. He had made the corridor for a video piece in the Southampton studio, which showed him squeezing into it, and then realized that others could have the experience for themselves—but on his terms, not theirs. “I wanted them to do it my way,” he explained. Nauman admired the revolutionary dance theatre of John Cage and Merce Cunningham, who used chance operations in composing sounds and movement, but he wasn’t ready to do that in his own work. When asked by Johns to design a set for Cunningham’s “Tread,” though, he came up with an eminently Cagean solution: a row of industrial-size electric fans at stage front, blowing out toward the audience.

The New York sojourn had been highly rewarding, but Nauman had no inclination to stay there, or to become enmeshed in the intensely competitive New York art world. “I really needed to get away from that,” he said. The city had whetted his ambition, however, and he didn’t want to go back to San Francisco. “The San Francisco artists tended to be anti-intellectual and uptight,” he said. “A lot of energy went into hating New York and Los Angeles.”

The Naumans went to Los Angeles, where they settled in Pasadena, in a large, rambling, shingle-style house that belonged to Walter Hopps, a curator who had a habit of getting fired from one museum after another. Hopps didn’t live in the house, and he liked to let artists stay there. (The Naumans paid seventy-five dollars a month.) An artist named Richard Jackson and his girlfriend, Christine Langras, were living in another part of it when the Naumans arrived, and the four of them became friends. Although Nauman kept his distance from the L.A. art scene, he took on some protective coloration during the nine years he lived there. He wore cowboy shirts and Stetsons from Nudie’s Rodeo Tailor. Ileana Sonnabend, his Paris dealer and Castelli’s ex-wife, owed him a substantial sum for European sales, so he got her to buy him a classic Ferrari. His work was selling for up to ten thousand dollars, and he supplemented his income with teaching jobs. “I paid attention to how the art market worked,” he said. “I wasn’t blindly bumping along. If you were a New York artist, you got more attention. Being in L.A., I needed to be a little tougher, a little meaner.” During this period, Judy Nauman began to question her role in the marriage. With feminism gaining ground, she was less content to settle for being a housewife and mother, or to accept the emotional distance that her husband seemed to require. “My feelings are in my work,” he told her. The birth of their second child, Zoë, in 1970, brought additional strains. Bruce was a supportive husband and an attentive father, she said, but “he was an artist first.”

Nauman continued to produce a lot of new work—more corridor pieces, videos, flashing neon signs that conflated punning wordplays: “Raw War,” “Eat/Death,” “Run from Fear, Fun from Rear.” His work found fewer buyers in the U.S. than in Europe, where Nauman’s anti-formal objects had precedents in the work of Joseph Beuys and the Italian Arte Povera movement; at home, their rude intensity made people uncomfortable. Artists, though, took note of everything he did, and so did several museum curators.

In 1972, at the age of thirty-one, he had a major retrospective. It opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, travelled to the Whitney, and went on to tour four European museums. The show was almost certainly premature. Hilton Kramer dismissed it in the Times as “pretty cold stuff, and pretty boring” in its slavish adherence to “Duchampian territory.” In fact, Nauman had never thought much about Duchamp. While he agrees that Duchamp’s influence was impossible to ignore, he says it got to him secondhand, filtered through the Duchamp-influenced work of Man Ray, John Cage, and Jasper Johns.

The 1972 retrospective lasted into 1974 and stopped Nauman in his tracks—a fairly common experience for artists, who often find it hard to move forward after such an effort of looking back. He couldn’t work for several months. “It had never happened to me before,” he said, “so I was trying to figure out if I had to find a different career. I was having such terrible stomach pains that I went to the emergency room. The doctor said, ‘Well, try Tums.’ ” Nauman, whose reticence masks acute sensitivity, was more vulnerable than people realized. The first important pieces he made after the dry period were “Double Steel Cage Piece,” a steel-mesh room set inside a slightly larger steel-mesh enclosure—viewers could enter the outer cage but not the inner one—and “Consummate Mask of Rock,” a sculptural installation of sixteen limestone cubes in two sizes, plus a typewritten text, taped to the wall, that was based on the child’s game Rock, Paper, Scissors. Really a long poem, the text includes these lines: “This is my mask of fidelity to truth and life. / This is to cover the mask of pain and desire. / This is to mask the cover of need for human companionship,” and then, farther along, “PEOPLE DIE OF EXPOSURE.”

The Naumans’ marriage came apart in the mid-seventies. “I needed something that he just couldn’t provide,” Judy said recently. “I left the marriage emotionally, and then he left. It took him a long time, but when he decided, the door was shut.” She eventually remarried and had another child. By then, Bruce was living with Harriet Lindenberg, Zoë’s kindergarten teacher at a Quaker school south of Pasadena. “I asked him to dinner,” Lindenberg remembers. “It would never have happened if I hadn’t. He was painfully shy.”

Lindenberg was a vivid, independent, sometimes irresistible force. Born in San Antonio, she had been a Peace Corps volunteer in Latin America, and was passionate about social and political issues. Nauman, who told me he had been “barely aware of the Vietnam War, because I was too focussed on wanting to be an artist,” was impressed. Lindenberg had no idea what Nauman did at the time she asked him to dinner, and no interest in getting married. They lived together for more than ten years. It was Harriet who persuaded him to leave California and move to New Mexico, in 1979. Her brother lived in Santa Fe, and she knew about Pecos, a village about thirty miles to the east, from an old friend in the Peace Corps. “Bruce was very resistant at first,” she recalls. “He said he was an urban artist, that he’d shrivel up and die in the country, but then he adjusted quicker than I did.” They bought a “funky little cabin that Bruce added on to himself,” Lindenberg said, and got someone to build a studio for Nauman just up the road. She took a teaching job in Santa Fe. Zoë came to live with them soon after, when she was ten. Her mother’s second marriage had failed, and she was having a difficult time raising three children alone. Two years later, Erik moved there, too. Harriet became a highly involved stepmother. “I was a little afraid of her at first,” Erik remembers. “She was quite emotional, the opposite of Dad. But it was good to have someone who tried to get us to talk about things, which my dad certainly didn’t.”

Nauman’s reputation had been in decline ever since the retrospective. Producing relatively few works and being so far removed from the New York art world had a lot to do with it, and his distaste for self-promotion didn’t help. For several years, he subsisted mainly on his two-hundred-dollar-a-month stipend from Castelli (paid against future sales). At one point, he felt so discouraged that he thought seriously about turning his avocation—forging handmade knives—into a real business. (“I never sold enough to pay for the material.”) Nauman, whose art does without fine craftsmanship, has a very high regard for it in his personal effects—knives, hats, boots, saddles, cars.

In the early eighties, he began a series of large sculptures with political overtones. “South America Triangle” (1981), his first overtly political work, had a cast-iron chair hanging upside down inside a suspended steel triangle. This grim image referred to methods of political torture he had read about in the work of V. S. Naipaul, and also in a book by the Argentine journalist Jacobo Timerman, which Harriet had told him about. Increasingly, his frustration and anger over what was happening in South Africa and Latin America, and over the way people treated one another in general, became an inspiration for new work.

The anger came out more directly in the neon-tube sculptures he did in those years. “American Violence” (1981-82), shaped like a swastika, has short, rude phrases, like “STICK IT IN YOUR EAR,” that flash on and off in vivid colors. “One Hundred Live and Die” is a ten-foot-tall tower of alternating multicolored three-word commands, such as “LOVE AND LIVE,” “HATE AND DIE,” “FUCK AND DIE.” These vivid, startlingly gorgeous constructions progressed to animated neon displays, some quite large, whose moving images featured group sex, masturbation, aggressive insults, and death by hanging. He also produced several new videos, his first since 1973. Made with the help of a video editor in New York named Dennis Diamond, these were longer and more complex than his earlier ones, and their content was considerably more disturbing: a domestic spat that escalated into a double homicide (“Violent Incident”) and, in his “Clown Torture” series, the agonies and humiliations of circus clowns. For some Nauman admirers, myself among them, to watch a fully costumed clown saying “No, no, no” in every conceivable inflection and intonation, and ending up writhing on the floor, screaming the word in terror, is more punishment than we probably need. When they were shown at the 1989 Whitney Biennial, a shocked visitor stood outside the room for quite a while, warning people not to go in.

The scatological nastiness in some of Nauman’s work in the eighties put a lot of viewers off, but the new work, which coincided with a booming art market, revived his reputation. Museums here and abroad showed the videos and neons, reviewers praised them, and American as well as European collectors bought them. None of this disturbed the even tenor of Nauman’s personal life, where emotions of any sort rarely surfaced. Harriet Lindenberg saw him get really angry once, soon after they moved to Pecos; a telephone argument with the man who was building his studio made him so furious that he drove his right fist through a wall, breaking a finger. Nothing like that ever happened again. His feelings went into his work, but soon after the wall-punching incident he got interested in horses, and his life changed in deep and subtle ways.

Before dinner at the Naumans’ house one evening, we watched a videotape of Ray Hunt working with horses. Hunt was a professional trainer who travelled around the West, giving clinics. By the mid-nineteen-eighties, Nauman had acquired two saddle horses of his own. “I’d heard about Ray Hunt,” he said. “I took my horses up to Farmington, Colorado, where he was doing a clinic. Watching Ray was kind of like a Zen experience. Western horsemanship can be pretty rough, but his idea is that if the horse isn’t afraid there’s no problem. To get along with your horse, you have to give up trying to be in charge. You have to get to be where the horse is.” People have known this for millennia; Xenophon talks about it in “The Art of Horsemanship.” Watching the tape of Hunt, on foot, working with a horse that had never been ridden, using just a loose rope to persuade him, very gently, to turn in one direction or another, was mesmerizing—a lesson in converting fear into trust. “Ray didn’t give you an inch,” Nauman said. “You had to pay attention every minute. His teaching really had to do with how you lead your life.”

Nauman now spends nearly as much time working with his horses as he does in his studio, and in his mind the two activities are related. When he was making the “Clown Torture” videos, in 1987, he would hand a simple scenario to the performer and let him (or her) improvise. This was a long way from the tight control he’d maintained over his corridor pieces. “I don’t know if there’s a connection, but I started to give up control when I was learning about horses,” he said. “I think the work got richer.”

He went to several more clinics with Hunt over the years, and the two men, in their nonverbal way, became friends. A week after I’d been to Galisteo, Nauman e-mailed me, saying, “Ray Hunt died yesterday.” In another e-mail, an hour later, remembering his first visit to Hunt’s clinic, he wrote, “Going home to Pecos I was a few miles out of Farmington and had to stop—was teared up and had to get out and touch my horses—tell them I’m sorry, I didn’t know.”

Susan Rothenberg, who was born in Buffalo, moved to New York City in 1969, two years after she graduated from the Fine Arts School at Cornell. Gregarious and a bit wild, she hung out at Max’s Kansas City, met dozens of artists, musicians, and dancers, explored other media, took dance classes, married the sculptor George Trakas, and had a child with him in 1972. Two years later, doodling on a small canvas, she drew the outline of a horse divided down the middle by a vertical line. The image, which came out of nowhere, led to the paintings that made her famous: spectral horses embedded in abstract, densely worked backgrounds, mysterious images that carried a strong emotional charge. They were key works in what would come to be known, in a 1978 group show at the Whitney, as “New Image Painting.”

Like most of her artist friends, Rothenberg had followed Nauman’s work for years. They’d met a few times, at art events, and they met again at a New York dinner party for Nauman in October, 1988. Rothenberg was no longer married and had just ended a relationship with a Hungarian banker. Harriet Lindenberg had recently broken up with Nauman. The hostess, Angela Westwater, whose New York gallery, Sperone Westwater, had started to represent both Nauman and Rothenberg, seated them together. A day or so later, Nauman called Rothenberg and invited her to lunch. He went to a party at her apartment the next week, and stayed on afterward—stayed for several days. He had to go back to Pecos, but returned to New York in a hurry, and three months after that they were married.

Nauman offered to move to New York, but “I didn’t want him to give up New Mexico and the horses, and New York wasn’t really calling to me,” Rothenberg said. A lot of her artist friends had moved away, and, besides, she was deeply in love. (“It was a shock, at forty-four, to feel that kind of emotional intensity, and know it was mutual.”) They commuted for the next year and a half, until Rothenberg’s daughter, Maggie, finished high school, and then Rothenberg packed up and moved to their unfinished house near Galisteo. The marriage was something the art world rarely sees: two major talents working at a very high level, without competition or interference.

Her painting changed in the high-desert country. “Colors,” she said. “Animals. Brighter palette. Different points of view, looking down at things and up at things.” She painted a strange portrait of Bruce, called “Blue U-Turn,” a deep-blue, male-ish ellipse. As a wedding present, she had given him the first horse painting she ever did, in 1974; it hangs in their living room. Nauman gave her a horse, a Spanish barb called Cece, and the horse image, gone from her work for several years, returned in a new form. She tried to enjoy riding, for his sake, but, she said, “I was never really comfortable up there,” and eventually she stopped. “I’m a walker, not a rider.”

Nauman’s work also changed. He had found he could buy, on the Internet, ready-made polyurethane forms that taxidermists use to stretch animal skins over. These ghostly, featureless animal shapes became the basis of a series of new sculptures: animal pyramids; dismembered and reassembled hybrids; carrousels with dangling animal forms whose feet or hindquarters scraped the floor as they revolved. He made bronze casts of human hands, paired in expressive positions and gestures, and casts of the heads of people he knew—the heads were often suspended on wires, some of them upside down, or in embarrassingly close proximity to each other. Because he didn’t remove the marks and imperfections of the casting process, the heads have a rough look that makes them seem vaguely threatening. A similar unease pervades the videos he made with Rinde Eckert, a singer and performance artist, who also posed for many of the heads, and it reaches a near-unbearable pitch in “Shit in Your Hat—Head on a Chair,” a video installation in which a female mime attempts, with increasing distress, to act out inane, rapid-fire commands she’s being given by an off-screen voice.

The full range of Nauman’s power to disturb was laid out in a 1994 retrospective, his second, organized by the Walker Art Center, in Minneapolis, and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, in Washington, D.C. The exhibition, which also appeared at the Reina Sofía, in Madrid, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, predictably polarized critical opinion. “I think he is the best—the essential—American artist of the last quarter-century,” Peter Schjeldahl, an early supporter, wrote in Art in America. Time’s Robert Hughes called the work “so dumb that you can’t guess whether its dumbness is genuine or feigned,” although he glumly conceded that “Nauman, beyond much dispute, is the most influential American artist of his generation.” More radically than anyone else, Nauman had led the way out of Minimal art’s austerity and into the new world of scorched-earth freedom, with its endless pitfalls and opportunities, and he had done so in near-total isolation from art-world politics and promotions. He had even conquered the art market. The French collector François Pinault paid $9.9 million in 2001 for “Henry Moore Bound to Fail,” his 1967 wax-over-plaster sculpture of his own back with his arms bound. Nauman had outdistanced criticism.

He retreated to his studio after the retrospective, to read and think. The dry spell this time was a long one—Rothenberg says it lasted two or three years. He took care of his horses, and rode one or more of them every day, unless the weather was too bad. Now and then, Rothenberg tried to get him to talk about his block. “The answer was always ‘Don’t know,’ ” she said. “I used to get so mad at his inability to communicate, but that stopped around three years ago. I went to a shrink for a while, and then we both went, and the shrink lost interest in me. The shrink still calls Bruce about every three months, and leaves a message asking if there’s anything he’d like to talk about, but Bruce doesn’t call back. I’ve finally realized I don’t need to know the stuff Bruce is unable to tell me. I think we love each other very much. There have only been three women in his life, and he’s never been alone for more than a few months. I’m very satisfied with him, and very happy living about ninety-two per cent of my life by myself. I don’t think I’ll ever know Bruce, but he’s mine, and he’s a beauty.”

One day in 2000, sitting in his studio, Nauman began to wonder what happened there at night, when he wasn’t present. He had a video camera with infrared capacity, which he set up in one corner and turned on before he went to bed that night. When he looked at the footage the next morning, he saw that quite a lot had happened. Moths flitted by, leaving momentary white streaks. Mice scurried in and out, their tiny eyes flashing red as they caught the light. Coyotes howled, far off. The studio cat appeared, sat down, wandered off again; once or twice the cat and a mouse were in the picture at the same time, but they ignored each other—there had been an infestation of mice in the studio that year, Nauman explained, and the cat had caught so many that he’d lost interest. For many nights over the next couple of months, Nauman deployed his camera in seven different studio locations, and put the footage together to make a film lasting nearly six hours. “Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage),” as he called it—the reference was to Cage’s use of chance methods—was shown at the Dia Center for the Arts, in New York, for six months in 2002. Plenty of people found it excruciatingly boring, but plenty more stayed for hours, gliding around in the wheeled office chairs that Nauman had asked the gallery to provide. “If you tried to watch it, you missed out,” Nauman said. “You just had to wander through and let it work.” He also made, at Rothenberg’s suggestion, an “all-action edit,” showing only the footage with moths, mice, or cat, and lasting about half an hour.

Two years later, in 2004, invited to do a temporary installation in Turbine Hall, the colossal entrance plaza of the Tate Modern in London, Nauman created a sound environment. He used twenty-two soundtracks from his videos and sound pieces over the past forty years, an aural retrospective that enthralled and shook up large numbers of visitors, and provided both the model and the audio technology for his “Days/Giorni” installations in Venice.

On one of the afternoons I spent with Nauman, he told me about Lennie Tristano, a blind jazz pianist he used to listen to in Los Angeles in the nineteen-seventies. Tristano had played with Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and other jazz legends. Nauman handed me a pair of earphones and cued a Tristano recording on his laptop. The man’s style was fast and driving. “He doesn’t lead you into it, he just starts and goes,” Nauman said admiringly. “At one point, I wanted my work to have that kind of immediate impact, just being there, all at once.” When I asked if he still wanted that, he thought a bit, and said, “No. Maybe sometimes. It’s as though, earlier, there was an intention, and as the work’s gotten more spread out there’s more waiting to see what will happen.” Nauman’s recent work did seem less harsh and more meditative than it used to be, I suggested; did this mean that the level of anger and frustration had subsided? He considered the question. “I don’t think I operate out of that anymore,” he said, “and I don’t think I did when I was younger. That was more during the eighties, and it was about the larger world—although there was also some frustration with the art world.” I asked him whether, after forty years of thinking about what art was and could be, he’d come any closer to an answer. “I have enough trouble working that I don’t think about that as much,” he said quietly.

The Naumans come to New York fairly frequently. They keep a small penthouse apartment in the East Eighties, and a year ago they bought an 1830 house on the Lower East Side, which they are currently renovating. It will have studio space for both of them, and they will be able to spend more time with Rothenberg’s daughter, Maggie, an artist who lives in New York, and with Nauman’s son, Erik, who lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children and teaches at the Hewitt School in Manhattan. (Zoë Nauman, a photographer, is in Oakland, California, where she helps her husband run a combined bar and motorcycle-repair shop.) Because of the horses and the dogs, Bruce and Susan probably won’t spend much time in New York for the next few years. Susan, breezing in from her afternoon outing with the three dogs, said their plan was “to wait until the dogs die, and Bruce makes up his mind about the horses. In five years we’ll know what we’re doing.”

Two small drawings of a strange-looking head were pinned to the wall of Nauman’s studio. “I’ve been thinking for a couple of years about self-portrait drawings,” he explained, when I asked about them. The idea came to him after seeing a number of Rembrandt self-portraits in a show at the Metropolitan Museum, but, of course, being Nauman, he couldn’t just start drawing his face in the mirror. Instead, he rescued, from a pile of stuff on the studio floor, a mold he’d used years earlier for a wax male head (not his own) and hung it up to use as a model. It was the reverse image of a face—if you poured plaster into it, the correct image would emerge. “I haven’t really drawn at all for two years,” he explained. “It’s a drawing exercise, to get myself back in shape. This is a tough thing to try and draw, because it’s a reverse image. So I’ve set myself a difficult problem.” ♦

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GUARDIAN LONDON

Bruce Nauman review – an electrifying carousel of ideas

The artist’s new Paris show combines works that play on adult fears with childlike instructions and repetitive movement – a compelling lesson for young and old alike

Portrait of Bruce Nauman, 2009 © Jason Schmidt
Finding out what a creative act is … Bruce Nauman, 2009. Photograph: Jason Schmidt

The carousel goes round and the voices go round and the dancers go round and I return to Bruce Nauman once again. The Cartier Foundation’s Nauman exhibition in Paris is a mix of older works and new, Nauman at both his most electrifying and enigmatic and his most obtuse and apparently slight.

Nauman is a compelling artist, not least because he constantly asks the question of what a creative act is, at its most irreducible. An idea might begin in nervous fiddling and footling, a distraction or a simple gesture. You get inspiration where you can.

Anger, frustration, anxiety, boredom, distraction, the stray words in his head, repeated thoughts, creative blocks and a sense of emptiness and depletion are all important to his creative process, if it can be called that. Sometimes they become the work’s subject.

In one work, Nauman is playing with pencils in his studio. He holds a sharpened pencil in each hand, and uses them to pick up a shorter, stubbier pencil – sharpened at both ends. This requires steady hands, concentration and a bit of luck. Occasionally you get a glimpse of thumbs and forefingers, and hear Nauman talking with his assistant, Bruce Hamilton, who is filming this delicate game. The work is projected on a grand scale, on two giant LED screens. The pencil-lift on the left screen is performed against a blank white background. On the right, we see Nauman’s scarred old work-table, with piles of papers shoved aside to make space, the studio clutter beyond.

Bruce Nauman: Pencil Lift /Mr Rogers, 2013 HD video installation

Pencil Lift/Mr Rogers, 2013. Photograph: © Bruce Nauman/ADAGP, Paris 2015

But the act is the same in both instances, the same knife-whittled pencils with their yellow shafts, the same work-bitten fingers. Sometimes the pencils are all aligned across both screens, making a precarious bridge. They sway and rise and fall, point to point, as Nauman keeps them aloft. He checks with Hamilton that the pencils aren’t drifting out of shot. I imagine him holding his breath and furrowing his brow to keep the whole thing going. On the screen on the right Mr Rogers, Nauman’s cat (he gets a name-check in the title – Pencil Lift/Mr Rogers) pads lightly over the table. There’s something about the cat’s poise that chimes with the game.

That’s it. That’s all that happens, over and over again. This exercise in dexterity is the sort of thing you might do to amuse the kids, and teach them something about keeping a cool head and a steady hand. A voice leaks in from the next gallery. “For children, for children, for children”, repeats Nauman, over and over again, filling an otherwise empty space with his deadpan voice. His voice fades, replaced by another, repeating the same words in French. “Pour les enfants, pour les enfants”, it says. What is for children? Fading and flowing between languages, the words become a kind of empty music. Is Nauman telling us that his work is for children, is dedicated to children?

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Untitled 1970/2009. Photograph: Thomas Salva/PR

Some years ago, Nauman came across a series of piano compositions, written to accommodate the size of children’s hands, by Béla Bartók: it was called For Children. Nauman has also adapted this idea for his For Beginners (Instructed Piano), a solo played by artist and musician Terry Allen, using, I think, the same instructions as a video Nauman had made of his own hand gestures, which he filmed to the accompaniment of a series of commands. The music proceeds and falters. It is always beginning again, the notes finding their way around the keyboard’s middle C. Tinkling away in a little sunken seating area in the Cartier Foundation’s garden, For Beginners is a series of false starts. Writing and making art can be like that too, groping towards something that won’t or can’t be said or done. Keep going and something might be discovered. There is almost something pedagogic in these works.

Down in the basement of the Cartier, things take a darker turn. A carousel drags taxidermy moulds of deer, lynxes and coyotes round the floor. Beyond, the head of performer and classically trained singer Rinde Eckert is projected three times on the darkened walls, seen both right way up and inverted, and again on six video monitors stacked on the floor between the giant projections.

Bruce Nauman: Carousel (Stainless steel version), 1988

Carousel, 1988. Photograph: © Bruce Nauman/ADAGP, Paris 2015

Nauman’s 1991 Anthro/Socio (Rinde Facing Camera) is one of his most powerful works. Rinde is seen in closeup, repeating three phrases: “Feed me/Eat Me/Anthropology”, “Help me/Hurt me/Sociology” and lastly “Feed me/Help me/Eat me/Hurt me”. I last saw this in Nauman’s major show at the Hayward Gallery in 1997 and it has stayed with me ever since. In a surprising essay in 1999, British painter Bridget Riley talks of the intelligence and humour in Rinde’s face, and that it “ensures that the work is not experienced as either menacing or threatening”, and she describes the polyphony created by Rinde’s classically trained voice, overlayed and competing with itself as it chants the one-man roundelays: “rather like a madrigal resounding in the space of a cathedral.”

Bruce Nauman: Anthro/Socio (Rinde Facing Camera), 1991

Anthro/Socio (Rinde Facing Camera), 1991. Photograph: © Bruce Nauman/ADAGP, Paris 2015

Unlike Riley, I find the work immensely threatening, and painful. For anyone who has never experienced Anthro/Socio, it is worth making the trip to Paris for that alone. “All those messages have to do with making contact”, Nauman has said. Developed out of some prints he made in the 1970s, this video installation is an endless appeal and plea for human contact. In the next room, two dancers turn on a mat, which is divided into 16 radiating quadrants. Positioned like the hands of a clock, the dancers lie outstretched, their hands making contact in a play of fingers and palms as they roll over and over, moving their legs as though they were walking on a treadmill.

The camera views them from above. Sometimes the camera itself turns, making the floor and the room the dancers occupy seem to revolve like a dizzying panoptic machine. The scene is projected a second time onto a wrestling mat on the gallery floor. Untitled 1970/2009 is both measured in its slow and regular movement and exhausting to watch. It seems interminable. The quadrants spin like the spokes of a wheel as the dancers move over the face of their contained world, touching and parting, reaching out and coming together, going nowhere and being somewhere. It is a lesson for adults and for children alike.

Interviews with Iranian Filmmaker and Artist Shirin Neshat

 

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FINANCIAL TIMES LONDON

April 24, 2015 4:07 pm

Shirin Neshat in Washington and Baku

The Iranian film-maker and artist mounts powerful new multimedia shows in the US and Azerbaijan

No sooner am I through the door of Shirin Neshat’s New York studio than we are talking politics. The artist, whose work over two decades, which she describes as “subversively candid”, has precluded her from returning to her native Iran, is excited about the fragile diplomatic agreement reached in Geneva at the beginning of this month. “It may be my naive reading but I think it’s a very positive thing,” she says. “President Rouhani is a smart but cautious person — and the chief negotiator, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has become a hero embraced by the people.”

Next month, a retrospective of Neshat’s work will open at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, in Washington DC: it is the inaugural exhibition for the organisation’s new director, Melissa Chiu. And rather than present the artist’s oeuvre, a remarkable mix of hard-hitting politics and lyrical aesthetics, in chronological order, the show will tell a story of Iran’s relationship with the west. The timing seems perfect.

“Who would have thought that the Iran talks would be progressing in the way that they are?” laughs Chiu. “This idea of narrating history came to me because I think that Shirin’s work has often been conflated under the idea of talking about Islam and talking about women. For me, it has always been about Iran. If you look at her historical trajectory, the way she created it, there are specific moments in Iranian history that informed the creation of her work.

“As an Iranian in exile, she has always been very articulate about the idea of a condition of diaspora and, with that, the complexity of feeling connected to a culture, but living outside it,” adds Chiu. “It’s a very personal approach to history, through Shirin’s own eyes.”

The show will focus on three moments: the British- and CIA-backed coup that brought about the downfall of the democratically elected Mosaddek government in 1953; the immediate aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution; and, finally, the protests of 2009 that have become known as the Green Movement.

“Munis” (2008), the video that paved the way for the feature film Women Without Men (2009), which won Neshat a Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival the same year, opens the show. Dipping in and out of magic realism, the work centres on one woman’s experience just before the 1953 coup which, as Neshat sees it, paved the way for the 1979 revolution. “You can see the rage that developed,” she says. “The embassy where the conspiracy was hatched in 1953 became what they called the House of Spies. But I think the American public are largely unaware of the US intervention in Iranian modern history.”

Like many of her compatriots Neshat, now 58, was sent abroad for her education in the 1970s. She studied art at Berkeley in California but did not practise as an artist until more than 10 years after graduating. Her first trip back to Iran, in the late 1980s, inspired “Women of Allah” (1993-96), a powerful set of images of veiled women with guns, their bodies inscribed by hand with Farsi poetry, through which she explored the experience of the women who had lived through the revolution and fought in the Iran-Iraq war.

The images brought her recognition as an international artist, and some notoriety. “Some people thought I was endorsing the Iranian government, the government thought I was criticising them and the critics thought I was just being provocative,” she says. “At that stage, I didn’t even have a career or a point of view. It was only later my work came to have a sharper knife.”

Neshat is happy to define herself as a Middle Eastern artist but she is not alone in distancing herself from the label “feminist”. “Many female artists in the region deal in their work with the experience of being a woman but I don’t think they are dealing with those issues as explicitly as they were in the 1990s,” says Omar Kholeif, a curator at London’s Whitechapel Gallery. “It has shifted into a more implicit critique.”

Reem Fadda, associate curator for Middle Eastern art at Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, agrees: “The artists I see do not define themselves in any one box. In the Arab world and Iran there are multiple causes that people are struggling with: women’s issues are just one of many.”

If Neshat broke new ground in the 1990s in terms of drawing the world’s attention to her art, her strong focus on politics is part of a tradition. “Politics has always run through the work of artists from the Middle East, and its representation has changed with the great uprisings and conflicts,” says Kholeif. “The six-day war of 1967, for example, created a whole different language in visual culture.”

In the aftermath of the six-year effort involved in making Women Without Men, Neshat returned to monochrome portraiture: The Book of Kings (2012) about Iran’s Green Movement; Our House Is on Fire (2013), about the Arab Spring; and, last year, she accepted a commission to create Home of My Eyes, a series of 55 portraits of Azerbaijanis for the opening exhibition of the Yarat Contemporary Art Centre in Baku. Neshat asked her subjects what the word “home” meant to them and inscribed their answers on their bodies. Azerbaijan evoked the Iran of her childhood. “Baku felt old-fashioned, in a good way,” she says. “There was a poignancy to the project; I was half an hour’s flight from Iran.”

Some thought I was endorsing the government. The government thought I was criticising them

Three years ago, Neshat told an audience at Oxford university: “I am a restless, anxious, nervous person: I thrive on struggle. I need to feel I am growing.” So portraiture will take a back seat while she embarks on a second feature film, due for release next year, this time about the famous Egyptian singer Oum Kulthum. “She’s the most significant artist of the 20th century in the Middle East, loved by Egyptians, Israelis, Palestinians, Syrians, says Neshat.” It will tell the story of an Iranian film-maker trying to find a way to make a film about a famous Egyptian singer. Neshat is not just directing — she has just completed her first script.

Another project, slated to take place in 2017, will take Neshat farther into uncharted waters. This time, she will be directing and designing the sets for an opera. The details are still secret but preparations involve backstage visits to the Metropolitan Opera and weekly coaching from a dramaturge. “It’s thrilling,” she says. “I’m a complete student.”

Neshat is not the only Iranian artist enjoying the limelight this year in the US. Pioneering Iranian artist Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, working in glass and now 91, has a show at the Guggenheim, while Parviz Tanavoli, “father of modern Iranian sculpture”, has his first full US retrospective at the Davis Museum in Massachusetts.

“It’s definitely the spring of Iranian art in the US,” says Kholeif, who commissioned this year’s Middle East-focused symposium at the Armory show in March. “We have a lot of work to do now to make sure the conversation continues.”

‘Shirin Neshat: Facing History’, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, May 18-September 20; hirshhorn.org

‘The Home of My Eyes’, YaratContemporary Art Space, Baku, until June 23; yarat.az

Slideshow photographs: Shirin Neshat/Courtesy Gladstone Gallery; Tim Knox

This article has been amended since original publication

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Interviews

INTERVIEW: Shirin Neshat – A Conversation (2014)

AMERICAN SUBURB X

February 15, 2014

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Soliloquy Series, 1999

Shirin Neshat. A conversation.

By Raphael Shammaa for ASX

January 27, 2014

Raphael: Shirin, your upbringing in pre-revolutionary Iran straddled both the religious and the secular. You attended Catholic schools, your grandmother was a practicing Muslim but your father’s thinking was progressive. Did you study the Koran at home or in school in any formal manner?

Shirin: Well just to clarify, it’s not just my grandmother; my whole family were Muslims. I grew up in a strictly Muslim family and even my mother and father were Muslim. It’s just they were not as strict about practicing it, and in Iran in my time, and I’m sure today, yes we studied the Koran at school. We don’t speak Arabic, and the Koran is in Arabic language, but we prayed and we went to the mosque and we studied the Koran in school.

Raphael: Was that part of the curriculum in Catholic school?

Shirin: No, I went to Catholic school for only two years. I was mainly in public school in my city. Of course in Catholic school they wouldn’t be teaching the Koran. That was a boarding school. I went for a short time in the city of Tehran, but the rest of my education was in the city where I was born, which was a very religious city. I think it’s the third most religious city in Iran.

Raphael: Is it really?

Shirin: Yes, it is very very religious, and there we studied Arabic and also the Koran, from what I remember, yes. We were all practicing Muslims, so it wasn’t just my grandma or anything.

Raphael: Well thank you for this clarification. And knowing what was going on in your own country while you were in The States, how was it for you to witness Tianamen Square, the Velvet Revolution, the overthrow of Ceausescu in Romania and the fall of the Berlin Wall – each of them the outcome of people rising against oppression and all of them taking place within the same twelve months in 1989, barely ten years after 1979, which was the year of the Iranian revolution?

Shirin: Well I grew up during the Shah period, and we lived under a heavy sense of censorship and there was a lot of social control and we had the Savak, which was the secret police of the Shah. It was as liberal as it may sound compared to this government, current government. It was really a hush-hush situation. There were a lot of student activists that were imprisoned. It was sort of forbidden to talk about Khomeini – because there were so many of them killed. Even at a young age I knew something was boiling up, meaning the frustration of the people who were religious and the frustration of students against the Shah’s tyranny, and then eventually what came out was the Islamic Revolution.

For me now, it is my understanding that nothing happens overnight. Everything sort of builds up over the years and it was no surprise that we had the Islamic Revolution. The groundwork took place a long time before that and I am one person who knew that. So my response to Tianamen Square and the razing of the wall in East and West Berlin was very much the same thing. It was the frustration of the people that eventually crystallized in a very strong reaction, and it made perfect sense, and for others who haven’t lived in countries such as that, or who have democracy, etcetera, I tend to think they believe it comes out of the blue, but in fact it takes 20 – 30 years, or more sometimes, to build up that kind of rage and determination to bring about a revolution.

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Rapture Series, 1999

Raphael: Yes, it’s a confluence of factors.

Shirin: Exactly.

Raphael: In 1990, after a 12-year absence, you finally go back to Iran. The militancy of Irani women and their changed outer appearance, you say, were a shock to you. Your work, The Unveiling and Women of Allah, are products of this shock. What was the process that unleashed your energy and activated your art?

Shirin: It was the very simple reaction of a person who had been away since the start of the Islamic Revolution and was inundated with a sense of nostalgia and a longing to reconnect; and when, of course just like any other Iranian, I went back, I really did find that the place had changed like day and night in terms of what I had remembered was there before, even the way people looked, the way that people dressed, the way the streets were bombarded with propaganda against the US. It was totally unbelievable that this was the same country.

Raphael: The prevailing tone had changed.

Shirin: Exactly, and for me it became an obsession to understand, from a strictly artistic perspective, some of the issues that were really relevant to the understanding of this transformation. I decided to really focus on a very key conceptual ideological issue of the Islamic Revolution, which was the concept of martyrdom. Martyrdom – meaning that people who were very committed to and had a strong conviction to their religion would be willing to die and kill in the name of devotion and faith in God; and to me that was really a kind of loaded concept that was almost institutionalized by the government. But even more interesting, I saw that even women in the Islamic Revolution were seen in that new way, I mean there were a number of publications and images that showed religious Iranian woman wearing the veil and yet holding weapons, and I found that amazing – a kind of paradox.

So I just kind of took that and ran with it in terms of not only framing the question of martyrdom, which is this obsession with death, and life after death, and the idea that young people should die and that their families should be congratulated for their deaths because they’re now in heaven but, more so, that women were placed within that context even though women are generally about giving life and birth and not about dispensing violence and death. So I just found that as an artistic and philosophical point of view a kind of fascinating phenomenon, and decided to develop Women of Allah, which pretty much explores these conflicting ideas.

Raphael: Is it a matter of concern to you that it’s easy to a casual audience outside of the Middle East to confuse Persian script with Arab calligraphy and to erroneously assume that the text overlaying your art in The Unveiling and Women of Allah is excerpted from the Koran instead of what it really is: contemporary, even feminist Irani poetry, a far cry from Koran texts?

Shirin: It’s a good point. There are two issues that frustrate me often. People in the West often cannot understand the difference between people who are Arab and Iranian. Iranians are not Arabs and we do not speak Arabic and we don’t write in Arabic, but we have the same alphabet, and you know also that Western audiences often rush to think that everything that we write is excerpted from the Koran, which I would never do. It would be so sacrilegious, and my texts are all Iranian text, Farsi text, and they’re all poetry. And another frustrating thing is that when I speak about my work, about my subject, people don’t understand that I’m really talking about Iran. I’m not talking about the entire Muslim world, because that relationship to Islam is specific to each country’s political history and about their specific relationship to Islam, in terms of whether it is an authentic religion, whether it was brought in by force, whether it was a secular religion or a non secular religion, so unfortunately there is in the West that rush to generalizing when representing me as someone who makes work about Muslim women. I don’t do that. I’m very specifically talking about Iran.

Raphael: You’re really focused on the product and the outcome of the Iranian Revolution and the effect it has had on women in the population there. So I wanted to talk a little bit about your short piece Turbulent. It’s a haunting video installation, and it features a man singing a Persian poem by Rumi and simultaneously, on a separate screen in another part of the same room, a veiled woman intones a primeval, wordless lament. The man sings to an audience, confident in his own talent and their appreciation of his art, and the woman to an empty room. But then the man seems to gradually become aware of the female voice reaching him across the chasm and he becomes transfixed by it. At this point the episode seems to transform itself into a call-and-response duet across space. Is this about hope? Is it an ode to receptive men willing to listen past prejudice and ignorance, or is it about women’s innate power to communicate something deeper and more powerful even than culture itself?

Shirin: Yes, I think it’s more about the second explanation. That piece along with two other videos is based about the issue of gender in Iranian society, referring to the fact that women often find themselves against the wall. This particular piece, Turbulent, is about women being forbidden to sing publicly or produce recordings. I was fascinated by how in general, women in Iran, the more against the wall they feel, the more defiant and innovative they become. I believe that if you look at Iranian society today you’ll find women to be remarkably rebellious. So that piece is more about looking at it through the rules governing music. The man sings a stylized, predictable, conceptual piece and is applauded by his all-male audience. And what about the woman? She’s forbidden to sing and therefore becomes creative and makes music outside sanctioned music or language and their rules. While she is rebellious, the man continues along conformist lines, a metaphor of Iranian society.

Raphael: Does the metaphor also stand for art in such societies?

Shirin: Yes, in fact the kind of expression you expect from women is very, very different from that of men’s. Therefore, whatever is created or is expressed by women is radically different from whatever is created or is expressed by males. And being a woman I’m very fascinated by Irani women.

Raphael: Of course. And in Rapture, women in traditional black Chadors busy themselves on a beach putting a small boat to sea, some, but not all, departing onto the open waters toward unspecified shores. Men in western clothes on the other hand, survey the scene from elevated rampart walls – hemmed in, moving about their enclosure with nowhere to go but the short distance to the next fortified wall. This work seems to present an inverse perspective on gender realities in Irani society from what we know. Is this a misreading of your work or is it a psychological portrait?

Shirin: Rapture is an allegorical piece just like Turbulent. It addresses important sociocultural issues in an allegorical way. If Turbulent is about gender in relation to music, Rapture is about gender in relation to nature and culture. And for me it is truly curious that religious women in Iran are never pictured as having any connection to nature – mostly represented as they are in urban environments; and I found it interesting to represent a hundred of them in Nature while representing men in a traditionally masculine space. I feel there is a common thread between Rapture and Turbulent where, in the end, women show enough courage to migrate from the desert towards the sea and, eventually, just leaving. As in Turbulent, they contradict standard expectations by resorting to courage and rebelliousness.

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Passage Series, 2001

Raphael: Yes, in your pieces, men seem to be hemmed in by tradition, and women to be responding to their own nature.

Shirin: Yes, exactly. Your reading is correct. Both pieces are similar in their conceptual approach.

Raphael: You say that if we really want to know a society we ought to look at how its culture deals with women and how women are faring within that society, and you seem to position women’s status as the proverbial “canary in the coal mine”, a strong indicator of how balanced a particular society is.

Shirin: In a lot of Islamic societies women embody the rules of government, of society or religion, so their private lives are much more impacted by them than men’s, but I think this is changing and if you look at Iran today and even at my own recent work you’ll find women no longer abiding by government rules quite as much. They’re very educated and independent, they’re very vocal, and powerful participants in protests. In the streets of Tehran some women even dress in outrageous ways. They just refuse to mirror government dictates. At the very least they’re subversive.

Raphael: The brand new Tunisian Constitution enshrines women as equal rather than complementary to men. Do you think that will spread through the Muslim world any time soon, or at least have some impact?

Shirin: I’m very optimistic about President Rouhani and I have the feeling we’ll see some very good things happen to women as well.

Raphael: Incidentally, I want to ask you how different your career would be today without the advent of the Iranian Revolution and the dramatic rise of the ayatollahs?

Shirin: That’s a good question. Maybe I wouldn’t be an artist. I think it’s true that much of my work has been defined by the Islamic Revolution, by my reaction to it, and that my life has been defined by it. I’ve been separated from my family and live in exile, so emotionally and, I suppose intellectually, my work is my response to the Revolution and how it has defined a whole generation of people in and from Iran.

It’s fascinating how this revolution defines so many peoples’ lives, whether they choose to leave or stay and what kind of political decision they opt for. I haven’t seen my family in so long and it’s had a direct influence on my thinking, and yes, if all of this wasn’t an issue I certainly don’t think I would have been an artist, just talking about the weather or…

Raphael: Or not the same artist, perhaps.

Shirin: Yes. You know I stopped making art for ten years.

Raphael: Yes.

Shirin: Yeah, not the same artist. Maybe it’s a good thing [the Revolution] – or I would have quit altogether.

Raphael: And yet, although there is no fatwa against you, you hesitate to go back to Iran for reasons of personal security. Is Iran the only country you feel that way about?

Shirin: I think so. I think it is the only country.

Raphael: You directed a short for the 2013 Viennale with Natalie Portman and cinematographer Darius Khondji – both world class artists and you are proceeding with research on a film about Umm Kulthum, the legendary Egyptian female singer (in yet another Islamic country) with more or less the same issues. Does working on these projects, because they are not related to Iran, feel different than working on say, Turbulent, or Women Without Men – your award-winning feature?

Shirin: I think it’s very similar because in Women Without Men the main idea is the relationship between art and politics, the lives of certain women as Iran was battling a coup… I’m not sure if you’ve seen the movie…

Raphael: Yes, I have…

Shirin: With Umm Kulthum I feel that by making this film we’ll be navigating and taking the audience on that same journey. Once we’re with Umm Kulthum and her music, with art and mysticism, brought to the level of primal responses, we find ourselves elevated beyond time, politics or even history. We’ll use the music, the camera and everything else we have to take the audience to that state of ecstasy. Because she happened to live in Egypt at such a pivotal time in politics, we’ll take the audience through the age of colonialism, of social revolution, of the war with Israel and through defeat and economic disaster. We’ll show her at the center of all that as well as an artist. For me, this is potentially a similar concept – it’s about the underlying connections between individuals, the community, art and politics.

Raphael: Does serendipity play any role in your work despite all the planning?

Shirin: You know something, I believe in magic. For example, we have this opening at the Rauschenberg Foundation this week and it never occurred to me that the theme of the exhibit is about loss in the aftermath of the Egyptian Revolution, and that this month is the anniversary and that there’s violence there again.

Also, I’m just back from Davos, from the World Economic Forum, where I was given a prize and had to give a little speech. This year is also the first in ten years that the Iranian president agreed to participate. That was serendipity – an Iranian artist and the Iranian president.

And after working on it for years, Women Without Men came out exactly in the same summer of 2009 when we had the uprising in Iran. People thought we planned it like that, because there were all these shots of protest in the streets of Tehran in 1953, so yeah, I believe in magic.

Raphael: How would you like that particular body of work to be seen over time other than playing against its specific backdrop and time in history?

Shirin: Which body of work?

Raphael: The one that has to do with women within the Irani revolution.

Shirin: Well I’ve come to the conclusion that, in terms of my photographs, I’ve done two big bodies of photographs. Both of them have been human portraits. One of them has been Women of Allah, which basically captured a pivotal moment in Iranian history, which was the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The next body of work in photography, again a human portrait, captured during the Spring and Iranian Green movements another pivotal moment in Iranian contemporary history. For me, my photographs, the big two, are the only two groups of photographic work that I’ve done, each one of them representing a particular moment in Iranian history but neither reflecting what’s going on today. The Book of Kings, finished in 2011, represents a lot more of Iran today, but Woman of Allah should be looked at as something of the past and no longer of the present.

Raphael: As an engaged artist do you feel that contemporary art sometimes suffers from lack of content?

Shirin: Yes absolutely, I have two thoughts on that. I don’t insist on contemporary artists being politically active but they ought to be politically conscious. And if I could be that blunt, I think the art market has been the biggest factor in determining art movements for the past decade or so; and the money involved has seduced galleries, collectors and artists to becoming super rich and very, very distanced from sociopolitical issues; art has basically become a commodity and about entertainment.

Being Iranian came as a mixed blessing of course, because Iranian artists paid a great price, having to live in exile and being censored. You really have to suffer for what you do, but I have to say that I have not become just pure commodity and my work has been effective and has been heard by non-art people from my community and that gives me a lot of pride. So I do criticize the art world and the artist today and think that this was not the case before.

That’s why I’m so proud to be apart of the Family of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation because as a Western artist he definitely has a legacy in being politically conscious and an advocate for helping with different causes from education, to AIDS, to government, to asking for democracy. And it doesn’t mean that you don’t make highly aesthetic works but it still means that you should be engaged. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t be painting landscapes and things that aren’t completely outside of political reality but I think it’s important to be engaged.

Raphael: You were not born into the US culture, obviously and the country in which you grew up is no longer there. How does that reality play out for you?

Shirin: Yeah. This is the story of the new generation of artists that we are truly nomads. In my case I don’t even remember living in a place in which I look like everyone else and speak the same language. I’ve always been an outcast. It’s just a way of life. I am a storyteller and I find my way. I go to Mexico, Egypt, Morocco and Turkey and I make work that makes one believe that I’m in Iran, and this reality of never being in a place that’s your place of origin, has been a way of life.

Raphael: Is there are a part of you that wishes for a place that you actually belong and feel totally at home in?

Shirin: No, to be very honest. I’ve lived longer in this country now than I have anywhere else. My independence and way of life is non-Iranian in many ways. Inasmuch as I’m emotionally Iranian and I’m surrounded by a community that’s Iranian I don’t think any of us have the ability to go back to that idea of purity of just remaining in one place. I go to Egypt now and I feel so at home. I go to Europe and I don’t feel quite as home but I can adjust to it. I can’t go someplace where they tell me how to be and how to live, that there’s just one way of being. I just don’t know. I’d love to visit Iran but I just don’t know if I could ever go there to live permanently.

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Shirin Neshat: Our House is on Fire, January 31 – March 1 2014, The Rauschenberg Foundation Project Space, 455 West 19th Street, New York

Shirin Neshat

Iranian-born artist and filmmaker Shirin Neshat has had numerous solo exhibitions at galleries and museums worldwide, including the Detroit Institute of Arts; Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin; Musée d’Art Contemporain de Montréal; the Serpentine Gallery, London; the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; and the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. She is the recipient of various awards, such as the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale (1999), the Hiroshima Freedom Prize (2005), the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize (2006), and the Crystal Award at the World Economic Forum, Davos (2014). In 2009, Neshat directed her first feature-length film, Women Without Men, which received the Silver Lion for Best Direction at the Venice International Film Festival. Declared Artist of the Decade in 2010 by The Huffington Post, Neshat is represented by Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.

(All rights reserved. Text @ Raphael Shammaa, Images @ Shirin Neshat and courtesy The Rauschenberg Foundation)

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BOMB MAGAZINE

Shirin Neshat

by Arthur C. Danto


Shirin Neshat, Rapture , 1999, video still. Images courtesy of the artist and Barbara Gladstone Gallery.

In 1999, in consequence of the wide success of her video installation Rapture, Shirin Neshat achieved immediate celebrity as a major contemporary artist. This standing was reinforced by Fervor, one of the highlights of the Whitney Biennial 2000. These two works, together with the slightly earlier Turbulent, compose a trilogy on human identity, inflected by differences in gender and culture, which situates the work at the heart of art world preoccupations today. A fourth film, Soliloquy , portrays a woman torn between two forms of life, modern and traditional, Western and Middle Eastern, to neither of which she can fully surrender. All four films enact these conflicts and tensions in the symbolic terms of very high art, and in ways that, beyond their contemporary topicality, touch our essential humanity.

The urgency with which these issues are presented in her films implies that they are felt with a commensurate urgency by the artist herself, so that her success is an opportunity to pursue a mission which involves her art together with her life, and entails real decisions as to how and where to live and work. This interview was conducted in Neshat’s loft deep in New York’s Chinatown, above the shouts of shopkeepers and customers. We spoke in her studio, where the films are worked out. There is a pair of monitors on a table beneath some bookshelves. It is a very orderly atmosphere, though the answering machine was kept busy throughout our conversation. The artist was dressed in a black outfit, an affinity with the garments the women in her films wear, and she speaks fluidly, with a soft accent. Shirin Neshat is an unassuming person, entirely without airs, but she shares a certain fierce determination with the women she portrays.

Arthur C. Danto The last three years have been extremely productive for you, you’ve done four films. What were you doing before the films?

Shirin Neshat I graduated from UC-Berkeley in 1983 and moved soon after to New York City where I quickly came to the conclusion that art making wasn’t going to be my profession. I felt what I was making was not substantial enough—and I was intimidated by the New York art scene. So I worked to earn money and took courses in various subjects. Soon after I met my future husband, who ran the Storefront for Art and Architecture, an alternative space in Manhattan. I dedicated the next ten years intensely to working with him at the Storefront, and that became my true education. Storefront functioned like a cultural laboratory, the program was quite cross-disciplinary; I was constantly working with artists, architects, cultural critics, writers and philosophers. This exposure eventually led me to think about myself as an artist and I wanted to make artwork again. During those ten years I made practically no art and what I did make I was quite dissatisfied with and eventually destroyed. So it was only in 1993 that I began to seriously make artwork again.

AD And those were photographs?

SN Yes, I thought photography was the most appropriate medium for my subject as it had the realism that I needed. In the 1990s I finally began going back to Iran. I had been away for over ten years—since the Islamic Revolution. As I traveled back and forth a lot of things started to go through my mind, which eventually led me to develop the work that I have. My focus from the beginning was the subject of women in relation to the Iranian society and the revolution, so I produced a series of photographic images that explored that topic.

AD I was talking just last week with Susan Sontag, who said that, in her view, the Iranian film movement is the most remarkable in contemporary cinema. That’s quite an extraordinary claim. How do you account for that?

SN I agree with her. I am very inspired by the new trend in Iranian cinema. In my opinion, it has been one positive aspect of the revolution, as it has in a way purified Iranian culture artistically by eliminating Western influences that had deeply infiltrated our culture. Before the revolution, Iranian film followed similar standards as in any commercial Western film, much of it was filled with superficiality, violence and sex. After the revolution, the government imposed severe codes; filmmakers had to reformulate their ideas, and as a result a new form of cinema was born that thrived in the midst of all the governmental censorship. These films have been successful for their humanistic, simple and universal approach. They reveal so much about Iranian culture without being overly critical. The pioneer of this generation of filmmaking, Abbas Kiarostami, is showing his most recent film, The Wind Will Carry Us, in New York starting in July.

AD Let me ask about your first films. When you began to show them here were they more or less conventional, linear films with a single screen . . . or did you begin with the double-screen format right away?

SNTurbulent was my first cinematic film. Prior to that, I had made a few videos which I consider very different; they were video installations, very sculptural, with no specific narrative, beginning or end.

AD That was video as it was understood at that time: something projected on a wall, a nonnarrative, free play of images. Did you have sound?

SN Yes, sound was always an important part of my work.

AD And was it always music?

SN Well, I had made some very simple rhythmic sounds with my own voice. For example, one of the pieces I made in Istanbul was of a woman—me, actually—running in four distinct types of spaces and projected on four screens, simultaneously. And in a piece called The Shadow Under the Web, I made a sound with my own voice, something between breathing and singing, repeated in different time signatures. I improvised it as we were recording. In Anchorage, which was a single projection, there was a combination of chanting and a very simple song, and again, I improvised.

AD You composed those songs spontaneously?

SN Yes, on the spot at the recording studio.

AD There must have been a moment when the ideas that began to be expressed in Turbulent came to consciousness. You took a shift, a change in direction; did you feel yourself on the threshold of something quite different? I remember seeing some photographs of you with what seemed an antique sort of rifle. Where do these fit in?

SN The first group of photographic work I produced in 1993 certainly reflected the point of view of an Iranian living abroad, looking back in time and trying to analyze and comprehend the changes that had taken place in Iran since the revolution. It was the approach of an artist who had been away for a long time, and it was an important turning point for me artistically and personally, as it became more than art making but a type of journey back to my native country. I was deeply invested in understanding the ideological and philosophical ideas behind contemporary Islam, most of all the origin of the revolution and how it had transformed my country. I knew the subject was very complex and broad so I minimized my focus to something tangible and specific. I chose to concentrate on the meanings behind “martyrdom,” a concept which became the heart of the Islamic government’s mission at the time, particularly during the Iran/Iraq War. It promoted faith, self-sacrifice, rejection of the material world, and ultimately, life after death. Mostly, I was interested in how their ideas of spirituality, politics and violence were and still are so interconnected and inseparable from one another. But after a few years, I felt that I had exhausted the subject and needed to move on. I no longer wanted to make work that dealt so directly with issues of politics. I wanted to make work that was more lyrical, philosophical and poetic.

AD It did come across as didactic, and, in a way, rhetorical.

SN There were a lot of problems there with the issue of translation, literally in terms of the writing I was inscribing onto the photos and in cultural misreading. I must admit, when I made this group of work, I did not have an audience in mind. I had never exhibited before and had no plans for it. Eventually, when I did have an audience, I felt conflicted as to how I might go about translating ideas that were so entirely based on non-Western rationality without compromising their authenticity and meaning. Looking back at this work, I do see the problems but it was an honest attempt to reconnect and raise important issues in regard to my culture. I reduced my references in order to get a handle on the subject of martyrdom, but perhaps a lot got lost in between. I felt strongly about moving on, making work that, while ethnically specific, could allow wider interpretation.

AD Something that touches on what one might call universal human nature.

SN Exactly.

AD That’s the feeling I have with those works.

SN By this time, you have to understand, my relationship to the subject, my understanding and feelings about the revolution had all changed. When I first arrived in Iran, I was really taken by everything and desperately wanted to belong to the Iranian community again. It was almost a romantic return to Iran. Turbulent was the first work that no longer had the perspective of an artist distanced from her culture; it dealt with an issue that belonged to the present and revealed a new sense of intimacy and familiarity between myself and the subject. By this time, I had a pretty good understanding of the way in which Iranian society functioned. I had been traveling to Iran frequently and was working with an almost entirely Iranian crew.


Shirin Neshat, Rapture, 1999, video still.

AD When you began to work on Turbulent, were you thinking of it as part of a trilogy—which is what, evidently, the three films constitute—or were you thinking of it as a single statement, which, as it turned out, led to two other films?

SN I didn’t think of it as a trilogy at first. It is just that one subject—one project led to the other. The topic of masculine and feminine in relation to the social structure of Iran started with Turbulent. As I finished it, I immediately moved on to making Rapture, which although very different, raised similar issues. Finally Fervor was made, which in my opinion closed the chapter on this series. What inspired me to make Turbulent was a strange experience I had on the streets of Istanbul, seeing a young, blind woman singing to make a little money; her music was extraordinary and the public gathered uncontrollably around her. I fell in love with her music, bought a cassette. Later I had her songs translated and became obsessed with how much her blindness—not having a visible audience—affected her music.

AD This is one of the things that struck me about Turbulent. The male singer is on one screen, and he’s singing with a great deal of passion, but with his back to the audience. The camera is backstage, so we see him singing, and we see his audience behind him. The female singer is on another screen and she’s facing an empty auditorium. You only see her from the back; she’s quite mysterious. As a matter of fact, she looks like a death figure from the Inquisition. All through the man’s singing, you just see her from the back. And you don’t know what this is all about. The man’s audience is extremely responsive; they applaud. As I remember it, he turns around, bows to the audience and then faces back, and the woman who is on the other screen begins to sing. Her singing is very different from his; it seems electronic. It’s modified, it’s not ordinary singing. And then bit by bit her face begins to emerge and you see her sing. The camera pans back and forth over the empty auditorium. And on the other screen, the man is staring at her. So he at least is in some way a member of her audience, although you’re not quite clear how that happened. So that was the juxtaposition.

SNTurbulent is similar to Rapture in that both films are based on the idea of opposites, visually and conceptually. The male singer represents the society’s ideal man in that he sticks to the rules in his way of dressing and in his performance of a passionate love song written by the 13th-century Sufi poet Rumi. Opposite to him, the female singer is quite rebellious. She is not supposed to be in the theater, and the music she performs breaks all the rules of traditional Islamic music. Her music is free-form, improvised, not tied to language, and unpredictable, almost primal.

AD When you say she’s not supposed to . . .

SN An important aspect of Turbulent is that women in Iran are prohibited from singing in public, and there are no recordings by female musicians. The piece took off in various directions and brought about other important questions about the male and female contrast in relation to the social structure. The ultimate question was how each would go about reaching a level of mystical expression inherent in the Sufi music.

AD But her song is not a traditional song.

SN No. It is Sussan Deihim’s music; she’s a gifted, contemporary Iranian singer living in New York. Although her music is based on traditional Islamic melodies, it is quite radical, too, in that it does not quite resemble any particular music.

AD It was her voice in Turbulence, and her person you were photographing?

SN Yes. We spent a lot of time together discussing the choice of music and her presence in the film and how absolutely critical they were to the meanings of the work.

AD Very percussive.

SN By the end, we wanted the male singer to be stunned, in a state of disbelief, and the female singer to be released—freed. She, of course, had no trouble doing that.

AD Well, she had no trouble with the music. But that effect, of being free, and the man being stunned—do you think that registers visually in the film?

SN I think it did. We discussed at great length with Shoja, the male singer, how important his expressions were, his compassionate but almost envious gaze.

AD Who wishes in a way that he could be freer, as she is.

SN Exactly. And that sexual hierarchy is inevitably outside of his control. Perhaps he himself is a type of prisoner.

AD Very much like the men in Rapture.

SNRapture followed the same framework. Once again, the women are the unpredictable force, they are the ones who break free. The men, from the beginning to the end, stay within the confinement of the fortress. This all ties back to what I believe is a type of feminism that comes from such a culture; on a daily basis the resistance you sense from the women is far higher than that of the men. Why? Because the women are the ones who are under extreme pressure; they are repressed and therefore they are more likely to resist and ultimately to break free.

AD Formally speaking, it doesn’t sound entirely different from feminist discourse in the West. The difference as you represent it in the films is that the men seem condemned to a life of futility, and are unable to break free. Whereas here, the male life is conceived of as the significant life, overcoming obstacles, having careers, etcetera. And in a certain way, an American woman’s freedom is modeled on the idea of what it is to be a free male. Whereas what you convey is women moving into a very unstructured space, for which males are no longer the models. If anything, if the male is to genuinely be free, he’d almost have to model himself on the female. And of course you can’t be terribly explicit about that because nobody knows how that’s going to work out. One of the things I love about Rapture is the uncertainty of it. With these women setting off on that boat, you found, I thought, a marvelous, mythic image.

SN Thank you. But I disagree with you that our idea of feminism is similar to that of the West. From my understanding, Western feminism is about reaching a certain level of equality between men and women . . .

AD Yes, that’s just what I do mean.

SN But I don’t believe we strive for the same thing. Iranian women, for example, feel that men and women have their own distinct roles and places, they are not competitive.

AD And that will continue to be true?

SN I think so. I believe their struggle is to reach an equilibrium necessary in a just and healthy society. They want the domestic responsibility—which actually gives them a lot of power. Where they suffer is in their inability to maintain their rights as women, for example in the areas of divorce, child custody, voting, etcetera.

AD I don’t want to get too deeply involved in the differences and similarities. I quite agree with you that equality and liberty are 18th-century ideas very central to American consciousness—but feminist theorists have said that the liberation of women also means the liberation of men. It’s in that sense that I meant there’s a similarity, there’s a mutual liberation in that the future and destiny of male and female is quite open.

SN It would be a generalization to speak about Islam as a whole, but I know in Iran women are quite powerful, unlike their clichéd image. What I try to convey through my work is that power, which is quite candid. In Rapture, the heart of the story is the women’s journey from the desert to the sea; eventually a few leave on a small boat. This journey, the attempt to break free, for me symbolizes bravery, whether this leaving is for the purpose of committing suicide or reaching freedom, it does not matter. Those women remaining behind symbolize for me the idea of sacrifice. The film questions women’s nature as opposed to men’s, and shows how often women surprise us with their strength of purpose, particularly in moments of crisis.

AD I’ll tell you, that’s been my experience with women. (laughter) I wanted to ask one thing about the titles. You’ve employed an extremely romantic vocabulary: turbulent, rapture, fervor—all psychological terms referring to states of extreme excitement. I thought fervor was a bit ironic. It was the behavior of the audience—that was the fervor, that he, the speaker, had aroused. But rapture, I wasn’t certain of; rapture is usually somewhat erotic in connotation.

SN Oh really?

AD At least in English. “What rapture, divine . . . .” And turbulent is a state of perturbation, disturb and so forth, agitation of a certain sort.

SN The titles are the most difficult part. A mistaken title could lead the project the wrong way, trivialize or reduce the meaning. What I look for in a title is suggestiveness, references that allow the viewers to draw their own interpretations. I thought Turbulent, for example, was about the woman’s state of mind, she was clearly the one not at rest. In Rapture, I saw the meaning as a state of ecstasy.

AD That’s right, it’s ecstasy. It’s just that American culture is not a particularly mystical one; ecstasy here means something like erotic rapture. There are analogies between mystical and erotic transport, and certainly the Persian poets were aware of that connotation. They tend, characteristically, in my recollection, to speak of religious ecstasy in terms of erotic metaphors.

SN It’s the same with Fervor, because it has its religious connotations but at the same time it could be sexual. Again, I was pointing toward the clash between sexual and carnal desire versus social control.


Shirin Neshat, Rapture, 1999, video still.

ADFervor is the one film in which you’re relying on speech rather than music. Music really does overcome linguistic barriers. But in Fervor the man talks at great length, and one tries to infer what he is saying. And he points to a painting that is prominently displayed behind him.

SN From the beginning, I thought about having subtitles. In fact, I had an excerpt of the speech translated, and created subtitles. However, many English-speaking friends came to see me while I was editing and almost all of them felt that subtitles made the work too literal, too obvious, and distracted from the clarity of the image. I regret that I did not have a translation on the exhibition wall so those people interested could have referred to it.

AD Hmm . . . I’m of two minds on that. I really don’t know what the truth is there.

SN The speech becomes very musical here.

AD Yes, it does.

SN It almost functions like an opera, you don’t really listen to the words, you imagine what has been said through the musical qualities. But I did get some criticism for the lack of subtitles; some people were not satisfied with guessing at what was being said. Let me tell you the meaning of the speech and a little about the speaker, whose character is quite dubious. He comes across as something between a politician, a mullah, and an actor. The event was also designed to resemble a political event, a religious ceremony or a theatrical story. I was inspired by public Friday prayers in Iran, where masses of men and women come together, but sit separately. Usually, a distinguished mullah leads the prayers and delivers a moral speech, each time focusing on a particular topic. So in Fervor this man comes on the stage and offers his moral speech which happens to be the problem of sin, particularly sin that arises from sexual behavior—carnal desire. He uses the story of Joseph (Youssef) and Zuleika from the Koran to exemplify the destiny of those who cannot control their sexuality. In the Koran, Zuleika, the female character, seduces Joseph. The painting in the film’s background illustrates the story. This type of theater is actually a traditional form in Iran, where a speaker stands in front of a painting to tell the story. It usually takes place in coffee houses.

AD So the speaker uses the painting as the basis of a narrative.

SN Exactly.

AD How fascinating.

SN I think Fervor, unlike Rapture and Turbulent, was not as easily understood by Westerners.

AD Enough of that narrative came across. For one thing, you feel that whatever the message was, the man and the woman felt themselves beyond or above it, that they were really interested in their more fundamental view, namely each other.

SN Exactly.

AD I loved that they don’t see one another, but the moment the man begins to look toward her, the woman begins to look toward him. Whoever begins that, maybe it’s simultaneous—that’s what is extremely romantic about it. And then they leave simultaneously, and they see one another. And still, there’s a long road ahead of them—literally.

SN The type of forbidden seduction that one experiences in that part of the world is of course very different from what one experiences here in the West. You’re not supposed to make eye contact with the opposite sex. Every Iranian man and woman understands the dilemma, the problematics, and yet there is the joy of a simple exchange in a gaze. This type of social and religious control tends to heighten desire and the sexual atmosphere. Therefore, when there is a modest exchange it is the most magical, sexual experience.

AD I was reading an article about Afghanistan and the enormous closed garment, the burka, women are obliged to wear. The assumption is that women’s eyes are extremely dangerous. They shouldn’t be seen.

SN And the veil is an incredibly powerful icon in the way it empowers a woman sexually. It’s supposed to be doing the opposite, but as you can tell, through a mere gaze the woman can excite men. These are the issues this project explored. I’m not sure it was understood in the West.

AD I thought it was quite universal. It’s a story that is told over and over again. How do men and women overcome the distances that are imposed between the genders?

SN I approached Fervor as a way to close the chapter on this kind of gender curiosity that I’ve had. Finally, in Fervor, the issues are not about opposites, but about the commonality between the man and woman. The taboo surrounding sexuality concerns both men and women, but of course it is the woman who takes most of the heat.

AD So Zuleika is the seducer?

SN Yes, she is the princess and Joseph is a slave.

AD It’s the biblical story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. It’s the same story!

SN Exactly.

AD She’s quite treacherous as it turns out. If he doesn’t do what she wants then she’s going to say that he raped her. Well, the Bible is full of a great deal of human wisdom. In this other film, Soliloquy, which I was able to see . . .

SN So you have seen that one!

AD Yes, Barbara Gladstone let me see it at the gallery. And it did seem like a departure. Are you the actress in that?

SN Yes.

AD I thought so. It’s in color. There is a mythic quality to the black and white, but it was important for what you were trying to do that you did use color. Aesthetically it’s very successful. I felt that this was a conversation of a woman with herself. The two screens work a bit the way they do in Turbulent; she sees herself and whether it’s an image, a dream, or a memory—you can’t quite discover. Although there is what I think of as the more traditional setting: there is a child and some tragedy is implied. Whereas the worst thing that seems to be happening to the woman in the other, Western setting is loneliness. That is to say she’s there and the crowds sweep by, and she goes up the staircase. It reminded me of one of Maya Deren’s earlier surrealist films. I thought it was wonderful by the way, but I felt at the same time that it was tentative.

SN Many people, including critics and curators, have been comparing the last few works I have made, telling me which one they think succeeds or does not work as well. I think what is more important is the developmental process, and looking at how each work visually and conceptually takes the ideas forward. Soliloquy has almost no relation to the trilogy that we’ve been speaking about, but it’s a topic that I had wanted to make a film about for a long time; and perhaps the most personal work I’ve ever made. It’s about imagining the emotional state of a woman standing at the threshold of two opposite worlds. She is constantly negotiating between two cultures that are not just different from one another but in complete conflict. So once again the idea of opposites applies but in a different way. The location in the East [Turkey], where it was shot, is the place of her origin. It is ancient, traditional and communal but also a controlling society, at times suffocating, as there is no personal—individual—space. The location in the West [The United States] is in a modern, free, extremely individualistic society where we sense a great personal isolation and loneliness. By the end we find that the woman never quite feels at peace in either space.

AD Do you feel at the end that both states of the woman, or stages, are rushing to meet one another? How could you show that they do get together? Of course, it would be impossible, but . . .

SN That is the ambiguity that I wanted to maintain; it’s not really clear where she was running to or from. Once you leave your place of birth, there’s never a complete sense of center: you’re always in the state of in between and nowhere completely feels like home.

AD I understand you shot Soliloquy in Turkey, but do you have any plans to work in Iran?

SN It has been a dream for me to finally work in my own country. Slowly, I am advancing in that direction although the country is still in a state of flux so one never really knows if it is completely safe to work there or not. But recently I did have a major breakthrough. I was contacted by the minister of culture, the director of the visual arts who also happens to be the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran! He officially invited me to come to Iran to work, exhibit, and meet with local artists. According to this gentleman, there should not be any problems but I have been told to be cautious. However, if things don’t quite work in Iran, I will go back to other Islamic countries, Morocco and Turkey, as I have been. In all my work, I am dealing with issues that address historical, cultural, sociopolitical ideas; but in the end, I want my work to transcend that and function on the most primal and emotional level. I think the music intensifies the emotional quality. Music becomes the soul, the personal, the intuitive and neutralizes the sociopolitical aspects of the work. This combination of image and music is meant to create an experience that moves the audience. It is an expectation that I have as an artist and I want that intensity from any work of art; I want to be deeply affected, almost like asking to have a religious experience. Beauty is important in relation to my work. It is a concept that is most universal, it goes beyond our cultural differences.

AD I believe that. There’s been a kind of cynicism in regard to beauty, that it’s entirely relative. At any rate, I’m thinking myself about it a great deal, philosophically. I’m trying to write a book on that.

SN It is particularly important in relation to my subject since in Islam, beauty is critical, as it directly ties to ideas of spirituality and love of God.

ART IN AMERICA

Jun. 16, 2009

Shirin Neshat: An Interview

All images this article, unless otherwise noted, stills from Shirin Neshat’s film Women Without Men. Courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York.

Over the last 12 years, Iranian-born Shirin Neshat (b. 1957) has produced a series of lyrical video installations that touch on such issues as gender politics, cultural self-definition and the authority of religion. Drawing on the artist’s experiences as a Middle Eastern émigré as well as more universal themes of identity, desire and social isolation, these works have garnered many honors, including, in 1999, a Venice Biennale International Golden Lion prize. Since 2003, Neshat has been engaged in an ambitious two-part video/film project based on (and titled after) the 1989 novel Women Without Men by the Iranian writer Shahrnush Parsipur.

The project’s five individual videos—Mahdokht (2004), Zarin (2005), Munis (2008),Faezeh (2008) and Farokh Legha (2008)—each of which centers on one of the female characters in the novel, have recently been brought together into a single multiroom installation. First shown in 2008 at the ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum in Denmark, the composite work traveled to Faurschou Beijing Gallery in China and the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens. It will go on view at the Kulturhuset in Stockholm this fall, with other venues pending. In addition, four of the videos (all except Farokh Legha) were screened at last year’s “Prospect.1 New Orleans” biennial.

While making the videos (largely sponsored by Gladstone Gallery, New York, and Galerie Jérôme de Noirmont, Paris), Neshat also worked on a soon-to-be-released feature film. The movie, which spins off from both the novel and the videos, features a dreamlike narrative that interweaves the women’s personal stories with the political upheavals of 1953 Tehran, the setting for Parsipur’s book. (Alarmed by the nationalization of Iran’s oil fields, British and American operatives that year abetted a coup against Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, reinstating the Shah.) To create the videos and the film, Neshat worked closely with her longtime collaborator, Shoja Azari, who coauthored the final script. The film version, shot in Casablanca in the Farsi language, primarily uses Iranian actors who live in Europe. It also includes a voiceover written by poet and art critic Steven Henry Madoff.

Over a series of weeks, I spoke with Neshat about the genesis of the “Women Without Men” project. We discussed its meaning to her, the challenge of translating Parsipur’s novel into moving images, the tricky task of balancing its poetic and political elements, and the differing demands of video and film.

 

ELEANOR HEARTNEY: How did this project come about?

SHIRIN NESHAT: At the time I was in Documenta in 2002, having made several video installations, I was beginning to feel very consumed by being in one big international show after another, making one work after another. I felt I needed time off to plan a project that would take a long time to realize. Then I got a call from the Sundance Institute, asking if I would consider developing a feature film project for their writers’ lab. At first, I thought I couldn’t, so I said no. Then, after Documenta, I thought why not?

EH:  What did you discover about the difference between the art and film worlds?

SN:  In the art world you are very free, but you end up making something that few people see. In the film world anybody can view your film for the small price of a ticket, but you are not as free. There is also a big difference between film producers and art dealers. Producers are extremely involved. Everything has to go through them, while an art dealer basically leaves you alone and remains uninvolved in the production.

What I wanted from the beginning was to create a feature film for theaters, in parallel with a group of related video installations for gallery and museum settings. I found out that in order to get funding for a feature film you have to have a quality script — and this was a new experience for me, since I had just storyboarded my past videos. My producers insisted that I work with the German script consultant Franz Rodenkirchen, so I started to travel back and forth to Berlin, eventually becoming a resident in 2003. Franz would read the script and offer his criticisms; I would revise and return for more discussions. This took a few years, and in the process I think we did over a hundred and fifty different versions, ending with a script that was co-written by myself and Shoja Azari.

EH: The film and the installations tell the story in radically different ways.

SN: Yes, they are very different kinds of constructions. The logic behind the editing of the video installations was to create a group of five nonlinear narratives, giving a glimpse into the nature of each of the five characters, as opposed to telling their entire stories. The idea was that the viewer would walk from room to room and, at the end, be able to put the story together. So in reality the viewer becomes the editor.

The logic for the movie version was to make a straight narrative, a more or less conventional film, while relying on my visual esthetics. The main challenge was how to fuse my artistic vocabulary with cinematic language. I realized that I had underestimated the difficulties of pacing, story development, dialogue and many other related issues. In a film, you must never lose the thread of the story, and at times beautiful imagery has to be discarded as too distracting. The issues of comprehension and clarity are very important, whereas in art practice, enigma and abstraction are encouraged.

In the end, I learned that the fundamental difference between cinema and art is the question of character development. In all my past work, such as the videos Rapture [1999] and Passage [2001], I had treated people sculpturally, devoid of any character or identity. They were simply iconic figures. But with this film, I had to learn how to build characters, how to enter their inner worlds, their mindsets. This was an entirely new experience for me. I began to appreciate directors like Bergman, who could keep you pinned in your seat, sometimes spending two hours merely with two characters in one room.

EH: Let’s talk about the story you chose to tell. Both the videos and the film are based on Shahrnush Parsipur’s novel Women Without Men. What drew you to this book?

SN: This is a very well-known novel that has been banned for many years in Iran. Parsipur herself spent five years in prison. I have always had an obsession with certain Iranian women writers, not just for their fantastic talent but also for how their lives and artistic work mirror each another.

Women Without Men is a quite beautiful but strange novel. I couldn’t have picked a more difficult book. It is written in a magic-realist style, which I was told later is perhaps the most challenging type of literature to convert into cinema. Even before I started, my advisors told me to be careful.

My attraction to the book probably stems from the fact that my own work comes out of a similar conjunction of influences. It is deeply personal and highly emotional yet equally political. Like Parsipur’s novel, everything that I have ever made concerns the intersection of contrary elements: personal/social, global/local, spiritual/ violent, masculine/feminine. My work is all about opposites and parallels. Parsipur’s tale follows the coup d’état that took place in Tehran in the summer of 1953, when Iranians struggled for political freedom against imperialism, while also tracing five women as they go on their own quests for personal freedom.

EH: How would you sum up the theme of this book?

SN: The story is a deeply philosophical one. It tells of five women who all run away from their troubled pasts and find that their lives mysteriously converge in an orchard in the countryside. This orchard becomes a refuge, a place of exile, where they can disconnect themselves from the external world. These women have something in common—the courage to take their destinies into their own hands. Some of the characters are quite realistically portrayed, such as Farokh Legha, a women in her fifties who still wants to start life over again, and Faezeh, who wants to have a normal family—a plan interrupted when she is raped. Other characters are more surrealistically drawn, like Munis, who commits suicide and finds freedom through death, and Zarin, a prostitute who begins to see her customers as literally faceless.

The film follows in parallel manner each woman’s journey out of Tehran and into the orchard. Once in the orchard, the women feel fulfilled and safe. Together they create a utopian community, until one of them gets bored and chooses to open the orchard to others. Parsipur is obviously alluding to the Garden of Eden.

EH: In the film, Munis is the pivotal character. She dies at the beginning but is resurrected, and it is her voiceover that guides us through the story.

SN: In the novel, Munis enters the orchard like the other women, and Parispur treats her as a woman who is simply curious about the world but not particularly political. In my film, I changed her story. She becomes a political activist, and she enters the orchard as a ghost, not as a human. In fact, it is through her experiences that we witness the political development in the country. Meanwhile, as the narrator of the film, she also serves as a spiritual guide.

EH: The book and videos have a fifth female character, Mahdokht, who plants herself as a tree in the garden. Why did you leave her out of the film?

SN: The extremely magical nature of her character was difficult to balance in the film. Originally, in the first few drafts of the script, she was included, but she eventually got eliminated. Mahdokht is a woman who plants herself as a tree since she is terrified of sexual intercourse but obsessed with fertility. She dreams of producing fruits and seeds that can be disseminated around the globe. So you can imagine how far out her story was.

EH: Meanwhile, you give a bigger role to the gardener, who appears both in the brothel scene as one of Zarin’s customers and as a nurturing figure in the garden.

SN: The gardener is treated as a very mysterious, rather angelic figure throughout the film. His identity is never quite revealed. He recruits the women for the orchard. And as you mentioned, he appears as a faceless monster in the brothel, which causes Zarin to escape the place; then, in the orchard, he seems very compassionate.

EH: The ending of the film also differs radically from the book’s.

SN: I must say that there are numerous things that I love about the novel, such as its philosophical and political nature, plus its broad range of female characters, from Westernized to devoutly religious and traditional to extremely poor. But I don’t really like how the story plays out once the women arrive at the orchard, nor how it ends. I feel that the women become victims, and I never wanted to portray my characters as victims. I wanted to make a film that shows women who obviously are oppressed and against the wall—due to sexual, religious or social pressure—but who all undergo a positive transformation.

EH: Which of these characters do you find yourself identifying with?

SN: Just as Parsipur constructed the characters according to her own personality, I’ve done the same. Munis and I share a passion for political activism, a belief in social justice. With Faezeh, I share the desire for a normal, traditional life. With Farokh Legha, the idea of aging but still wanting to start over again. With Zarin, the character that I perhaps feel closest to, it is the problem of the female body and feelings of shame. As a Muslim woman, I have grown up with a complex about my body, always feeling inadequate.

EH: Your film also has much more emphasis on the political aspects of the story. You highlight the 1953 coup.

SN: In the novel, the political material is only in the background, but I expanded it and brought it forward. Selfishly, I found it very timely to revisit history and remind Westerners that the American and British governments were directly responsible for overthrowing a democratic system in Iran. The CIA organized the coup in 1953, which in turn paved the road for the Islamic Revolution in 1979. As far as I know, this is the only film made so far that tries to depict this monumental political moment.

EH: The film deals with the period before you were born. How did you reach back to that?

SN: The Iran I grew up in was not so different from the one described in the novel. We were quite Westernized. The society was perhaps not as democratic as in 1953, because the Shah had created SAVAK, the secret police, but the country was far freer than it is today. In my film, you’ll see how, before the coup, the Communists and the Muslims, like the pro-Shah, the pro-Mossadegh and the pro-West groups, all coexisted. To this day, most Iranians believe that Mossadegh’s overthrow robbed them of the possibility of democracy for decades, and caused the relationship between Iran and the United States to break down. In the course of my research, I discovered how little I knew about this period and how wonderfully sophisticated and fascinating Iranian culture was at the time.

EH: On the other hand, although the film is more political than the book, you maintain a strong degree of magic realism. It can be argued that Parsipur, living in Iran, had to deal rather obliquely with her concerns about women’s roles and the place of religion. You, however, could have made a more overtly political film. Why did you retain so many fantastical elements?

SN: In cultures where citizens struggle with heavy social control, magic realism is a natural tendency. For Iranians, who have endured one dictatorship after another, poetic-metaphoric language is a way to express all that is not allowed in reality. Of course, these days, the government has a good grasp of subversive art and literature. So even though it takes place in 1953, Parsipur’s novel is considered highly problematic by the current Islamic government, which is sensitive to the book’s religious and sexual overtones. Personally, magic realism seems to suit me well, because I feel most comfortable with surrealism—not only as a strategy to avoid the obvious but as a means to make art that transcends the specificities of time and place.

EH: Do you anticipate any trouble with Women Without Men?

SN: I already know that the film won’t be screened in most of the Islamic world, primarily because of a few scenes. For example, at one moment we see Faezeh praying, then soon after, in another shot, she becomes partially nude as she unbuttons her shirt. But this was the only way I could represent a woman coming to terms with her body after a rape. Equally problematic might be showing Zarin nude in the bathhouse. Without a doubt, there will be some angry responses from Muslims troubled by the mixing of sexual and religious themes. I also expect some controversy over the political nature of the story. There are many disputes among Iranians and Westerners regarding the coup. The course of events has been interpreted differently by different camps, so the historical truth still remains a subject of debate.

EH: How has the film evolved from your earliest conception?

SN: Originally, the film opened in a very realistic manner with a fight between Munis and her brother. For the first twenty minutes, the audience would have thought they were watching a conventional narrative. Then, half an hour into the film, we introduced the surrealistic nature of the story. But later I decided that we must establish the surrealism from the beginning, so the audience won’t build an expectation for a standard film. In its current version, the film begins with Munis’s flight from the roof, which could be interpreted as a suicide but also as a leap toward freedom, since the shot is exaggerated. She is also now the narrator, who is telling us a story while flying and observing the world below.

In making the film more artistic and surrealistic, I had to be sure that it does not go in the direction of an extended video installation. Within this somewhat abstract framework, we had to develop a clear logic that hopefully will give the audience strong clues to both the story and the style of the film. By nature, this film is like a puzzle, as we must simultaneously follow four main characters, each on a journey, as well as a country in turmoil. For me, filming Women Without Men has been all about finding the right balance.

Shirin Neshat’s film Women Without Men will be screened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art [June 15], the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego [June 18], and the Museo Nazionale del Cinema, Turin  [Sept. 25]. Her video exhibition of the same title appears at the Kulturhuset, Stockholm, [Oct. 24, 2009-Jan. 10, 2010]. The artist will also have shows at Galerie Jérôme de Noirmont, Paris [Sept. 16-Nov. 21], Gladstone Gallery, Brussels [September dates pending], and Marco Noire Contemporary Art, Turin [Sept 24-Nov. 30].

ELEANOR HEARTNEY recently published Art & Today (Phaidon, 2008).

Est. 1892

Women of Allah: An Interview With Exiled Artist Shirin Neshat

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The figures in Women of Allah, Shirin Neshat’s collection of early photographs, are at once modest, seductive and actively aggressive. Veiled Iranian women have their exposed flesh overlaid with the elaborate script of Farsi feminist poetry, their eyes aligned inches from the barrel of a gun, or their hands stained red with the blood of martyrdom. Like the decades’ worth of controversial and challenging visual art that followed them, these four monochrome portraits unpick the paradoxes of female Islamic identity and the flaws in Western perceptions of it.

Neshat’s photography and films navigate the intersection between art and politics, East and West, masculine and feminine. Named “Artist of the Decade” by G. Roger Denson for The Huffington Post in 2010, she has received international acclaim, but she is very clear about the politics of her artistic motivation. Recently she explained that, as an Iranian, “an artist like myself finds herself in the position of being the voice, the speaker of my people…art is our weapon, culture is a form of resistance.”

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Born in 1957, Neshat grew up in Iran before leaving to study in Los Angeles prior to the 1979 Islamic revolution. She has described her subsequent return, nearly twelve years later, to her homeland under the theocratic regime as “one of the most shocking experiences that I have ever had.”

“I think that a lot of us take for granted the importance of democracy [in the West.] I remember when I was detained in the airport in Iran and I was just terrified because I was aware that I had no way of defending myself.” It is the daily reality of living without democracy that explains why “every Iranian artist, in one form or another is political. Politics have defined our lives.”

In her 1998 video installation Turbulent, two parallel screens are set up in dynamic opposition: on one we see a tensely static audience of men, symbolically partitioned off from the other screen where a lone woman sings in an empty auditorium. Her haunting voice builds our frustration to almost unbearable heights, made more unbearable if the watcher remembers that in Iran today it is illegal for women to sing in public. The figures on the screen pulse before us and we sense their ache to break free from sexual repression. Yet her passionate political criticism is profoundly defined by her Iranian identity. She doesn’t visualise the smashing of the partition in Turbulent; she doesn’t shed the modest veils of her sitters for Women of Allah.

“In Iran,” she tells me, “you don’t even know a way of expressing yourself without self-censoring and working within the parameter of the absence of freedom of expression. We have learnt to be very poetic, and symbolic, and metaphoric in terms of forming an expression. My aesthetic is automatically very safe, in a way, as it gets diluted in poetic language so that the government may not be able to detect the sharp knife.”

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Yet Neshat argues that this “has actually empowered artists because they have to be so inventive and savvy to find ways to threaten the government.” She cites the example of a recent Iranian production of Hamlet which veiled its implied criticism of the government so subtly that “whilst every Iranian in the audience understood the politically subversive message, the Head of Censorship for the government didn’t even understand why he’d been sent to look at it.”

If her art is a weapon, however, it is targeted as much at the prejudice she encounters in exile as at the oppression she confronts at home. “I am blown away by the West’s misunderstanding of Islamic values and culture. The Western notion of the superiority of their societies and their need to import their ideas into Eastern societies that they consider more or less barbaric is very arrogant and misperceived.”

In particular, her work addresses the failing of western feminism to appreciate the nuances of women’s lives under Sharia law in Iran. The group of women who progress through expanses of dust-blown desert to the ocean in her video instillation Rapture are not merely oppressed and isolated: they are vigorously resilient. Together, they launch a boat into the crashing waves, their faces emphatically individualised beneath their dark, ubiquitous veils. Neshat’s art invokes the reality that today “there are more Iranian women educated in university than men. Women have become the biggest threat to the government.”

Her first feature film, Women Without Men, won her a Silver Lion at the Venice Biennale in 2009. It was a magical realist exploration of the 1953 CIA-backed coup d’état in Iran which imagined four women’s search for meaning beyond male governance. The women evoke a diverse range of female experience in Iran, from the restless housewife to the prostitute, but together they escape the violent streets and gather in an orchard of mesmerising lushness and mystery. She poignantly describes their solace in each other’s companionship, in their own female, Islamic “homosociety”, as theorist Eve Kosofky Sedswick has termed it. As stereotypes of submissive Islamic women are subverted, she demonstrates how, as she once explained to the journalist Collier Schorr, these women’s “protests are manifested in subtle yet powerful ways” – ways akin, perhaps, to her own artistic statements.

Yet her art aims, through its subtlety, to incite more vigorous, explicit protest. In the year that Women Without Men was released, Iran’s Green Movement flooded the streets of Tehran with the same cry for democracy that the film highlights in the protests of 1953. Her strong female protagonists were being mirrored by modern-day women rising to the forefront of the demonstrations.

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It was the role of women in the Green Movement, and later in the Arab Spring, which Neshat found most inspirational. The female protesters were “women who were educated, forward thinking, non-traditional, sexually open, fearless and seriously feminist. Iranian women have found a new voice and their voice is giving me my voice.”

“One thing that I have learnt from the Arab Spring and the Green Movement – and I actually took part in one of the big demonstrations in Egypt – was that the people’s power is quite amazing. For the first time I became a strong believer that change could only come if everyone, absolutely everyone gets out on the streets. Nothing is more frightening to the authorities than sheer numbers of people. They cannot kill enough, they cannot arrest enough, they cannot censor enough, there’s just nothing they can do. The sense of hope becomes very contagious – it doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, or educated or not, or young or old…In the Green Movement there were people who never in their lifetime thought that they would get out on the street, and they were talking about it.”

Neshat remains devoted to her political mission as an artist; she has exhibited ten times so far this year, to audiences worldwide, from Seoul to Budapest.  Despite the thousands of miles which have separated her from Iran for decades; despite the fierce censorship of the Islamic regime who brand her work “Anti-revolutionary”; despite the frustrating disconnect between East and West . Or perhaps it is because of all these things; and because she still has hope in the global fight for democracy.

“People think that the Arab Spring and the Green Movement have finished because of the lack of protest, but opposition doesn’t happen only in the form of physical demonstrations, a lot can be done off the streets… And now when we ask people if there’s anything going on underground, they say, “Of course there is, it’s all really hidden but the genie is out of the box.”

In exile, she continues to keep the genie alive.

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Interview to Shirin Neshat

The Iranian artist, winner of the Silver Lion at the last Venice Festival, talks about herself to Gabi Scardi: from her nomadic approach to media, to the unresolved relationship with her home.

Art

The artist and filmmaker Shirin Neshat has explored identity through her art for more than 30 years. Although based in New York since the age of 17, her main focus has always been her native Iran, especially the plight of Iranian women. She is one of those artists who are driven by the need to see and portray not only the environment from which they come but also that in which they now find themselves. They use the language of art to create a dialogue between the present and the myths of their country of origin, on the one hand, and the culture of the country they have moved to, on the other. Their ubiquitous cultural position instils a need to oppose the automatism of accepted ideas that have never truly been thought through, indeed not thought about at all, and dispense with all kinds of a priori definitions to allow the co-existence of different Weltanschauungen. Long drawn to the film world, Shirin Neshat’s first feature film Women without Men won the Silver Lion at the last Venice Film Festival. With an enigmatic language and the punctilious and perfect style that distinguishes all her work, the artist narrates a number of individual stories that share the reference of a magnificent orchid garden: an inner sanctum, a secluded place in which to escape a routine or brutal routine. The video has just been presented on a tour around the major Italian cities of Milan, Rome, Bologna and Florence. The tour also offered the opportunity to demand that Italy exert pressure on the Iranian government to release the film director Panahi, recently arrested with his family. “Our role as Iranian artists abroad is to focus people’s attention on what is happening in our country” says Neshat.

When and why did you decide to shift from video to full-length films? Do you think you will continue with films? What does this change mean for someone like you, used to working in the visual art field?
As an artist, I have always had a rather nomadic approach to mediums, as you know I started with photography, then video and now I’m making films. I have always loved the idea of starting all over again, learning a new medium is a way of challenging myself. So this development from still images to moving pictures came naturally to me, and in a way it reflects my personality, which tends to have a strong distaste for repetition and is quite fearless about crossing boundaries. But I also think the more I made videos, the more I grew to like the cinema and the notion of storytelling. I see filmmaking as the most complete form of art – it can incorporate photography, painting, choreography, music, performance, narrative and much more. In terms of the practice of art versus filmmaking, making art is a very solitary experience but films are a more communal process that requires artists to come out of their studios and into the world, to work with a team and to discover new cultures and people they would not otherwise have met. There is also a part of me that is greatly attracted to the film audience, in the sense that I find the cinema generally more democratic and closer to the general public. I have grown somewhat frustrated by the notion of artists making precious commodities that are only to be seen in gallery and museum settings, to be collected by a few individuals and museums and, most importantly, that can mostly be appreciated by a well educated and exclusive art-world audience with a good grasp of the history of art. In that respect, the film culture seems far more grass rooted in that it is accessible to everyone without the need for any previous education on the history of films. I have every intention of continuing in both fields and I do not find it necessary to abandon one form for the other. So at the moment I am working on a series of photographs as well as an idea for my next feature film.

What will your next film be?
It is The Palace of Dreams from the novel by Ismail Kadare.

Videos usually imply active spatial practice for the audience. Your videos, in particular, with their juxtaposed screens and multiple projections were very physical experiences. Does the manner of fruition change in the passage from video to cinema? If yes, how?
You are absolutely right, video installations, particularly as I conceived them in the past, became very spatial and sculptural so the audience had a physical experience with the videos as it became immersed in the image. With the feature film, although it remains very visual, I experiment with a narrative style and, most importantly, I learn to work with “characters” in a way I never explored in my past videos. Generally speaking, if I may distinguish between the languages of art and film, I would say art is more about creating “concepts” and films are about “telling stories”. As artists, we cannot presume to simply import our video concepts into films without understanding and respecting the rules of the cinematic language. To make a film that lasts for 90 minutes you need a clear narrative development to captivate the audience in their seats; in galleries and museums, visitors can enter and exit the rooms as they wish.

You seem closely linked to your Iranian origins. Your artworks are always closely connected to the concrete situation in Iran but you have lived in USA for a long time now and you seem to be a citizen of the world. You live in a sort of ubiquitous cultural position. I imagine that this diasporic cultural identity influences your vision…
Indeed, as I feel emotionally, psychologically, culturally and politically divided between East and West, my art also reflects that dichotomy. My obsession with my country, Iran, is due to the personal fact that I have an unresolved relationship with my home. I have lived far from my family and my country without choice and I have felt abandoned in the West without any access to my family ever since I was seventeen years old. Therefore, I harbour some resentment and anger towards the political systems and governments that have determined the course of my life. In a way, my art has become a tool, a way to face up to my personal dilemma yet, as a result of this, I have found myself in a broader dialogue on the social, political and cultural realities of my country and the world at large.

With the current situation in Iran, do you think your artwork could be shown to the public nowadays? Why?
I think absolutely not as long as this government is in place; there is no possibility of the work of an artist such as myself being exhibited.

What kind of engagement should we expect from an artist, in your opinion?
As far as Iranian artists go, oppressive as the current cultural climate in Iran is, they play a great role in their country. Artists, filmmakers, writers, musicians and all people with imagination tend to be the voice of the Iranian people, painstakingly reporting life under the current regime to both Iranians (inside and outside) and to Westerners. Subversive art and artists have therefore become a great threat to the Islamic regime, as the government recognizes their ability to provoke the public and it systematically imposes censorship, harassment and very often arrests.

You have been in Italy for a few weeks and you may have heard about strange things going on here in relation to women such as paparazzi, blackmail in the political milieu and vallettopoli; I sometimes sadly ask myself whether this is a result of regression or of progress (at least women are speaking clearly!). What do you think about that? Do you have any impressions or ideas on the Italian situation?
I must confess I am not very familiar with the plight of Italian women but I have heard how some women have themselves subscribed to the idea of women remaining sexual objects, almost eradicating everything that the Feminist movement achieved for us and this is, indeed, a very troubling regression.

Gabi Scardi’s interview with Shirin Neshat took place on 12 March 2010 at the presentation and preview of the film at the Odeon cinema in Florence. The event, coordinated by Silvia Lucchesi, was organised by Lo schermo dell’arte and FST – Mediateca Toscana Film Commission.

Shirin Neshat, Women without men

Shirin Neshat, Women without men

Shirin Neshat, Women without men

Shirin Neshat, Women without men

Shirin Neshat, Women without men

Shirin Neshat, Women without men

Shirin Neshat, Women without men

Kunstkompass 2015: World’s Top 100 Artists – Top 30 rising art stars and Top 10 historical modern and contemporary artists

Critical Essays on Abstract Painting Today

In contemporary art, Abstraction rules the order of the day like at no time before, except when New York’s Abstract expressionist artists exploded onto the international scene and elevated the NYC artworld above that of Paris. One key difference today is that there are artists making money similar to that of professional athletes and entertainers because of the entry of art into the financial art market  as a major new financial instrument. In January 2016 a historical survey exhibition of abstract paintings by 35 artists opens at what will be the world’s largest contemporary art gallery space totaling 100,000 square feet. Former MoCA chief curator Paul Schimmel, now a partner in the Hauser Wirth and Schimmel art exhibition compound being built in downtown Los Angeles and designed by leading museum architect Anabelle Seldorf (who is also designing the expansion of MCA San Diego). Because HW&S plans for a third of its exhibitions to be historical, non-commercial exhibitions, it will defacto become the third museum of modern and contemporary art in downtown Los Angeles, the other being the new Broad Museum, which opens on September 20, 2015, and of course LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art, which has two spaces, the MoCA on Grand ave., and the 55,000 sq. ft exhibition space, the MoCA Geffen, in Little Toyko. The latter is to be renovated by Frank Gehry.

Paul Schimmel’s debut exhibition curatorial exhibition at HS&W Los Angeles (which he describes as the first “museum-like gallery) will be “A Revolution Within,”will feature “35 artists from the late 1940s to the present working in abstraction–kind of biomorphic and figurative abstraction.” The gallery promises to have a beautiful restaurant, major art bookstore, artist and curatorial talks, and more.

Vincent Johnson

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ART NEWSPAPER LONDON

Exhibitions

Cliché and a lack of feeling: Richard Shiff explains why critics have failed painting

Painting lives on, but the critical terms stagnate and slacken, the art historian says

by Richard Shiff  |  5 June 2015
Cliché and a lack of feeling: Richard Shiff explains why critics have failed painting

Eddie Martinez, Time Was (2007). Copyright Eddie Martinez. Courtesy the artist and a private collection
Painting is back in style. At the Kunstmuseum Bonn, the exhibition New York Painting (until 30 August) looks at the work of 11 contemporary artists based in the city, including Eddie Martinez and Antek Walczak, who are part of the medium’s “recent return to cultural acclaim,” in the words of the art historian Richard Shiff. Yet critics, who often insist on comprehensiveness, have failed to take into account the raw power of individual pictures, Shiff argues. In the below essay, which is an adapted version of his catalogue entry for the exhibition, Shiff surveys the terrain of criticism and explains why critics have been remiss.

Jack Whitten, Prime Mover (1974). Courtesy the artist.

Repetition and cliché infect art criticism. The art historian Thierry de Duve noted an irony in 2003: “About once every five years, the death of painting is announced, invariably followed by the news of its resurrection.”

Like history, criticism is subject to optics—that is, perspective. Critics once opposed photography to painting, as if the two media were representative of antithetical psychologies and social orders. This perspective lies within the penumbra of Walter Benjamin, who associated painting with focused concentration and photography and film with disruptive distraction. But photography, film and video are productive technological aids for painters, as are copiers and computers. Few of us today balk at the juxtaposition of hand-drawing and digital printing. Each can be manipulated to resemble the other—or not. It remains an artist’s choice, refined or sometimes reversed in response to immediate sensation. Critics, with their comprehensive concepts, shield themselves from such experiential disorder.

The problem is optical: two parties, critics and artists, look past each other with incompatible expectations. Art critics often typecast painters as committed “modernists” and, what is worse, “formalists.” But even Clement Greenberg, who has been maligned for his rigid evaluative standards, warned of applying conceptual order to aesthetic judgment. Few listened when he said it: “There’s no theory. No morality.” Feeling comes first. When critics argue that any emotional or intellectual position must always derive from an existing cultural construct, they beg the question, and dismiss the feeling of their own experiences.

Elizabeth Cooper. Untitled (2008). Courtesy Galerie Anke Schmidt, Köln/Cologne

Elizabeth Cooper. Untitled (2008). Courtesy Galerie Anke Schmidt, Köln/Cologne

Consider this common, usually unchallenged, notion: photography constitutes “a phenomenon from which painting has been in retreat since the mid-19th century”. This is Douglas Crimp’s phrasing from 1981, put at the service of the argument that painting had died. Yes, photography depersonalizes imagery. But so does much modern painting. To avoid “that hand touch,” as he phrased it, Robert Mangold used sprayers and rollers. Mary Heilmann developed a slapdash technique, “a freeform, unstretched kind of painting work,” as she has said, so that her hand might be anyone’s. David Reed arranged paintings in the manner of film strips, to be animated by an anonymous viewer’s mobility. Jack Whitten combed, raked, or swept his way across paint layers: “The idea was to construct a non-relational painting by extending a single gesture to encompass the entire picture plane,” he once said. “The analogy, symbolically, was to photography.” Thoughts of impersonal, mechanistic photography have motivated many innovative painters. The two media are not at odds unless willfully put there.

A social critique like Crimp’s operates within limited optics. An artist’s need to engage in hand-work raises issues apart from the totemic value of handmade objects as markers of cultural prestige and economic status. The notion that humans have always had the desire to make paintings should not be dismissed as an arbitrary element of modernist mythology, as Crimp’s account insists. Academicised critical formulations—whether they are dialectical, historicist or determinist—have no bearing on the human need for immersion in physical acts of creation.

Ruth Root, Untitled (2014). Photo: Galerie Nikolaus Ruzicska, Salzburg

Clichéd metaphors

Corpse, zombie, vampire, ghost, mourning and cannibalization: these are among the clichéd metaphors attached to painting. In his 1984 article Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, the cultural critic Fredric Jameson assessed the society that had nurtured walking-dead media. His analysis derived from the prevailing theoretical discourse—the writings of Benjamin along with other Europeans, such as Henri Lefebvre and Guy Debord—only to re-enter the critical conversation as an authoritative template for North Americans. Those who argued the case for postmodernism in the 1980s, with its strategies of pastiche and appropriation, seemed to act their theory out; they cited Jameson frequently, repeating his array of examples and mimicking his phrasing.

Postmodernism signaled the collapse of the modernist ideology and the dissolution of modernism’s foundations in authenticity, individual subjectivity and emotional expressiveness. Jameson noted “the waning of affect … the imitation of dead styles … the random cannibalization of all the styles of the past.” Such strategies and effects served a consumer’s “appetite for a world transformed into sheer images of itself”—life removed from living, feeding on the corpse of life. Gone was the integral subject, the authentic experience, the expressive self. Gone was easel painting.

Joe Bradley, Maag Areal (2015). Courtesy of the artist and Gavin Brown’s enterprise. Photo: Thomas Müller

The emerging consensus already troubled Max Kozloff in 1975: “A whole mode, painting, has been dropped gradually from avant-garde writing.” Arthur Danto added a wrinkle in 1993: “It was … ‘handmade’ art that was dead … the easel picture.” Despite painting’s recent return to critical acclaim—or marketplace enthusiasm—metaphors of its demise persist, as if this art, when revived, were still half-dead, an aura lacking a body. As David Geers wrote in 2012: “[We] re-live a myth of a ‘wild,’ unmediated subjectivity welded inextricably to the primal medium of paint … nostalgic and mystified.”

Today, painting lives on while the critical terms pale. In 2014, Laura Hoptman organised an exhibition of recent painting, The Forever Now, for the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Her ingenious title generated unwanted echoes of Thomas Lawson’s vilification of Barbara Rose’s analogous exhibition at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery, American Painting: The Eighties, staged in 1979: “a corpse made up to look forever young.” At the time, Rose’s artists—among them, Elizabeth Murray, Mark Lancaster and Mark Schlesinger—were condemned wholesale, despite the variety of their methods. They shared only the misadventure of painting. To greet an exhibition like Rose’s or Hoptman’s with bias for or against the medium is to miss all the informative nuances. When critics harp on rising commercial values or restrict their analysis to social critique, they deny life to the medium, so that painting appears vampiric. But such a response derives from critical concepts that are projected onto the art. It ignores the work’s manifest energy.

Ross Iannatti, Hysteresis/Large no. 2 (2014). Courtesy of the artist and Kate Werble Gallery, New York. Photo: Elisabeth Bernstein

Generating generalities

The politics of art keeps generating generalities. Within American universities, the case against painting has hinged on the belief that Western culture is morally bankrupt; that it is inherently sexist, racist, colonialist, imperialist and authoritarian. Because Western nations sponsor museums packed with paintings—many of which are commissioned or owned by oligarchs and dictatorial leaders—the medium can appear complicit with corruption and oppression. Yet such induction is faulty: an artist may be complicit, but painting itself exercises no agency.

In 1974, Rose warned against “the skepticism of any criticism based on distinctions of quality.” As she wrote: “weakening public trust in art may as easily pave the way to fascist counterrevolution, for a mass culture in the service of totalitarian ideals.”  When Crimp quoted from Rose’s essay in 1981, he actively excised that sentence. Her overt fear of “fascist counterrevolution” would have muddled his argument, which required opposing his “cultural” and “historical” interest to her “natural” and “mythical” aestheticism.

Antek Walczak, Envy (2013). Courtesy of the artist and Real Fine Arts, New York. Photo: Joerg Lohse

Antek Walczak, Envy (2013). Courtesy of the artist and Real Fine Arts, New York. Photo: Joerg Lohse

According to Crimp, Rose failed as a critic because she never challenged “the myths of high art” or “the artist as unique creator.” If these “myths” continued to inform Rose’s optics, we merely witness a conflict of systems of belief. Neither Crimp nor Rose is more ideologically progressive (although Crimp  attacked Rose’s values as regressive, implying that history had a trajectory and had left both her and the medium of painting behind).

To call Rose’s belief a myth, as Crimp did, is either trivial or inherently extreme—extreme if it implies that one’s own belief is not also a myth. All beliefs, which instigate aesthetic strategies, amount to myths; if not, they would be facts or laws of nature. But even laws of nature are subject to irregularity and exceptions to their presumed invariability; they are also therefore mythical. The “death of painting,” as a widely held theory that its adherents fail to question, is another myth. We cannot escape our myths simply by accepting alternative beliefs. To suppress general beliefs and principles altogether would be more effective—a state worth seeking, even if impossible to attain.

Artists devoted to painting believe in it, but they also doubt their belief. Their doubt opens painting, as well as its artists, to living.

Richard Shiff is professor and the Effie Marie Cain Regents Chair in Art at the University of Texas at Austin.

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ART NEWS Features Reviews

Structure Rising: David Salle on ‘The Forever Now’ at MoMA

What the flawed survey tells us about painting today

Installation view of “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (December 14, 2014-April 5, 2015). JOHN WRONN/©2014 THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART

The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World” is MoMA’s first survey of recent painting in over 30 years. In the museum’s crowded sixth-floor galleries, curator Laura Hoptman has corralled 17 artists who have come to notice in the last decade or so, and collectively they give off a synaptic charge. There are a fair number of clunkers, but the majority of the painters here display an honestly arrived-at complexity, expressed through a rigorous series of choices made at what feels like a granularly visual level. Their work rewards hard looking.

The good artists in the show are very good indeed. Charline von Heyl, Josh Smith, Richard Aldrich, Amy Sillman, Mark Grotjahn, Nicole Eisenman, Rashid Johnson, Joe Bradley, and Mary Weatherford have all developed tenacious and highly individual styles. Each makes work that engages the viewer on the paintings’ own terms and that shakes free whatever journalistic shorthand might, in passing, get stuck on them. What drives these artists is resolved in works that are self-reliant and unassailable while remaining open and undogmatic—it’s the ebullience of secular art freed of any ideological task.Two words one should probably avoid using in exhibition titles are “forever” and “now,” and Hoptman uses both. “Atemporal” comes from a William Gibson story, and Hoptman worked it into a youthful-sounding phrase, but it’s just distracting, like someone talking too loudly while you’re trying to think. She wants to make a point about painting in the Internet age, but the conceit is a red herring—the Web’s frenetic sprawl is opposite to the type of focus required to make a painting, or, for that matter, to look at one.What does “atemporal” mean, in the context of painting? Judging from Hoptman’s catalogue essay, it’s the confidence, or panache, to take what one likes from the vast storehouse of style, without being overly concerned with the idea of progress or with what something means as a sign. Today, “all eras co-exist at once,” Hoptman writes. She goes on to say that this atemporality is a “wholly unique phenomenon in Western culture.” Big news. The free-agent status accorded the artists in her show is something I take as a good thing—maybe “minding one’s own business” would be a better way of putting it—but her claim for its uniqueness is harder to swallow; it’s more or less what I’ve been advocating for the last 35 years. Not that I take any credit for the idea; within a certain milieu it’s just common knowledge.Josh Smith, Untitled, 2013. JONATHAN MUZIKAR/©2013 JOSH SMITH/THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, NEW YORK/GIFT OF DONALD B. MARRON

In her desire to connect everything to a narrative of the digital future, Hoptman misses the salient difference between the best work here and its immediate antecedents: a sense of structure. By structure I don’t mean only relational composition—though that plays a part—but more generally the sense of a painting’s internal rationale, its “inside energy,” as Alex Katz would say, that alignment of intention, talent, and form. Hoptman wants to make a clean break for her crew from the mores of “appropriation,” but again, the emphasis seems misplaced. Appropriation—as a style—had a tendency to stop short, visually speaking. The primary concern was with “presentation” itself, and the work that resulted was often an analog for the screen, or field, something upon which images composed themselves into some public/private drama. Appropriation pointed to something—some psychological or cultural condition outside of the work itself—that was the basis of its claim to criticality and, at its best, excavated something deep in the psyche. But there are other things in life. At present, painting is focused on structure, discovering and molding pictorial form for its own sake.

Atemporality, then, is nothing new. Most if not all art reaches backward to earlier models in some way; every rupture is also a continuity. The “reaching back” might be to unexpected sources, but imprints of earlier achievements are what give art its gristle and grit. What’s different is the mode of seeing. As an example, Weatherford places tubes of colored neon in front of fields of paint-stained canvas. In the old, appropriationist mind-set, one might get hung up on a list of signifiers along the lines of, say, Mario Merz or Gilberto Zorio meets Helen Frankenthaler; this reductiveness was, from the beginning, an unsatisfying way to see. Pleasantly, reassuringly, more like an old friend showing up after a long absence, arte povera echoes through Weatherford’s work, but it doesn’t feel like a self-conscious reference. Her works clear a space where they can be taken on their own terms. They do, as Ben Jonson said in a somewhat different context, “win themselves a kind of grace-like newness.”In a related, refreshing development, Warhol’s gloomy, vampiric fatalism is no longer dragging down the party. Duchamp, too, is absent. What a relief. Nothing against the two masters as far as their own work is concerned, but they have exerted such an outsize gravitational pull on generations of artists that finally being out from under them feels like waking from a lurid dream. There is camp in “The Forever Now,” to be sure, and imagery, and irony, and “presentation,” but they are not the main event.Painting also seems to have shed its preoccupation with photography; here you will find only the faintest nod to “the age of mechanical reproduction.” Even for Laura Owens, who blithely tries on the visual conundrums of the digital world, photography isn’t really part of her DNA. It turns out that much of the art-historical hand-wringing of the last 40 years over Walter Benjamin’s famous prophecy was either misplaced or just plain wrong. Painting is not competing with the Internet, even when making use of its proliferative effects.Charline von Heyl, Carlotta, 2013. JASON MANDELLA/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND PETZEL, NEW YORK/OVITZ FAMILY COLLECTION, LOS ANGELES

Imagery is present to varying degrees in many of these artists’ works. It’s front and center in Eisenman’s paintings, exuberantly evident in Smith’s, lambent in Bradley’s. Drawn forms, some with a goofy, cartoony quality, are often the basis of Sillman’s muscular lyricism. Sillman is a great picture builder; her evocative and gemütlich paintings give the show some real gravitas. Representation even shows up in the trenchant cerebral complexities of von Heyl, but none of these artists is involved with the tradition of realism. They are not translating what can be seen into what can be painted. While everything, even abstraction, is an image in the ontological sense, and there are snatches of imagery in most of these paintings, these artists are simply not imagists; their images are more like the folk melodies in Bartók—present as understructure, there but not there.

The overall tone of “The Forever Now” has a West Coast casual feel about it. Five of the artists in the exhibition—Grotjahn, Weatherford, Owens, Dianna Molzan, and Matt Connors—are based in Southern California, and their work has some of Los Angeles’s take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward materiality. It’s a feeling I remember from living in L.A. in the ’70s: a slightly secondhand relationship to the New York School pieties. The alternative to sober, grown-up painting was an emphasis on materials, often industrial or non-art materials, and on the idea of process itself. The work embodies a youthful vigor without visible strain—in a word, cool. When combined with an internal structural core, the result has a kind of multiplier effect; it wins you over.(The situation in literature today is not so different; while still avoiding straight realism, the parodists, inventors, miniaturists, and tinkerers are now coming into prominence, taking over from the arid metafictionists. Writers like George Saunders, Ben Marcus, Sam Lipsyte, Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner, and Chris Kraus have clear parallels with painters von Heyl, Weatherford, Bradley, Aldrich, Chris Martin, et al. Painting and advanced writing are now closer in spirit than at any time in living memory.)But I want to return to that quality that sets apart certain painters in this show—that sense of structure. Like diamonds, Grotjahn’s paintings are the result of great pressure brought to bear on a malleable material over a protracted period of time. His work is a good example of the way in which many artists today are using imagery and history—which is to say, the way that artists mainly always have. Grotjahn manages to simultaneously invoke Cubism, Futurism, Surrealism, and Abstract Expressionism—everyone from Malevich to Victor Brauner—and translate those impulses into an intensely focused, schematic composition that leaves just enough room for his hand to do its stuff.Much has been made of Grotjahn’s Picassoid heads, but the overall looping structure of his paintings produces an effect closer to Joseph Stella’s 1920s paintings of the Brooklyn Bridge. Grotjahn reimagines Stella’s swooping catenaries into arched ribbons of impasto paint. Because the chunks of color are small and contiguous, they tend to blend together in the viewer’s eye, giving the paintings an alternating current of macro and micro focus. His colors are dark red and burgundy, forest green, warm white, cobalt blue—the colors of silk neckties. They are preppy in a nice way, with a whiff of the 1940s. More importantly, Grotjahn’s color intervals are exacting. They put the painting in a major key. Their simple, clear visual forms—arcs, circles, lozenge and ovoid shapes, like segments of an orange—sometimes overlap and cut into one another, creating a space of increasing, sobering complexity. Grotjahn’s paintings do a funny thing: they achieve great scale through the linear arrangement of small areas of paint, and their structural and imagistic concatenations are in good alignment with the color and paint application. The what and the how are in productive sync. These paintings are tight, shipshape, and very satisfying to look at. At 46, Grotjahn is close on to a modernist master.Aldrich has been making interesting and surprising paintings for a while, and one of his works here shows great panache. Two Dancers with Haze in Their Heart Waves Atop a Remake of “One Page, Two Pages, Two Paintings,” from 2010, is Aldrich at his least gimmicky and most in tune with the spirit of abstract painting as deconstruction. The painting’s success lies in its loose-limbed sense of structure: a grid- or ladder-like armature along which an array of painted shapes and brush-drawn lines alternate with the interstitial white spaces to form a syncopated rhythm. Its painterly touch calls to mind Joan Mitchell and Philip Guston, and also Robert Rauschenberg’s Winter Pool from 1959—two canvases joined in the middle by a ladder—as well as Rauschenberg’s later Combines. Aldrich’s palette here is sophisticated, just shy of decorator-ish; he takes eight or nine hues and nudges them into perfectly tuned intervals of cream, white, Pompeii red, burnt umber, and a grayed cobalt green—colors that feel at once Mediterranean and Nordic. This particular painting touches on a number of visual cues without leaning too heavily on any of them; the four irregular black rectangles framed by cream-colored bands suggest darkened windows in a cracked plaster wall.Richard Aldrich, Two Dancers with Haze in Their Heart Waves Atop a Remake of “One Page, Two Pages, Two Paintings,” 2010. FARZAD OWRANG/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND BORTOLAMI GALLERY, NEW YORK/PRIVATE COLLECTION, NEW YORK

That Aldrich’s painting is reminiscent of earlier paintings while maintaining a clear sense of contemporaneity is perhaps what Hoptman means by “atemporal.” But this is what painting is always about, in one way or another. Rauschenberg’s work of the late ’50s and early ’60s was itself a deconstruction and reconstruction of Abstract Expressionism, freed from its self-importance. Aldrich has taken a lot from that period in Rauschenberg’s work, but his tone is lighter; it has Rauschenberg’s insouciance, without the urgent nervousness. The stakes are different. This is now. Though informal, at times almost flippant, Aldrich’s work is sturdier and more tough-minded than it first appears. His painting says, “Lean on me.”

Susan Sontag observed nearly 50 years ago, in her essay “On Style,” that no self-respecting critic would want to be seen separating form from content, and yet most seem drawn to do just that, after first offering a disclaimer to the contrary. Make that double for curators. The real problem with “The Forever Now” is that it’s two shows: there are the painters who make stand-alone paintings—we don’t need no backstory—and those who use a rectangular-ish surface to do something else. The artists in the former group are the raison d’être for the show; their work has formal inventiveness and pictorial intelligence; it lives in the moment. As for the latter, they are artists who make tip-of-the-iceberg art. What’s on the canvas is the evidence, or residue, of what happens offstage. There’s nothing at all wrong with this in principle, of course, but it can result in an arid busyness that masks a core indecisiveness or, worse, emptiness.Here is another way to see this: there are pictures that repay our attention with interest and others that simply use it up. The qualities we admire in people—resourcefulness, intelligence, decisiveness, wit, the ability to bring others into the emotional, substantive self—are often the same ones that we feel in art that holds our attention. Less-than-admirable qualities—waffling, self-aggrandizement, stridency, self-absorption—color our experience of work that, for one reason or another, remains unconvincing. By “unconvincing” I mean the feeling you get when the gap between what a work purports to be and what it actually looks like is too big to be papered over.Such is the case with several of the most celebrated artists included in “The Forever Now.” The problem of grade inflation has been with us since at least the 1920s, when H. L. Mencken, in his American Mercury magazine, coined the term “American boob” to mean our national variant of philistinism. The flip side of “boob-ism,” in Mencken’s formulation, was the wholesale enthusiasm for everything cultural, lest one be thought a philistine. It’s created a hell of confusion ever since.George Balanchine once complained that the praise had been laid on a little thick. “Everyone’s overrated,” said the greatest choreographer in history. “Picasso’s overrated. I’m overrated. Even Jack Benny’s overrated.” He meant that once it’s decided that someone is great, a misty halo of reverence surrounds everything he or she does. The reality is more prosaic: some things, or some parts of things, will be great and others not. It’s annoying to be overpraised; it’s like showing your work to your parents. The lack of criticality is one of the things that give our current art milieu the feeling of the political sphere (I don’t mean political art). Politics, as a job, is the place where the truth can never be told; it would bring the merry-go-round to a halt.I decided a long time ago not to write about things I don’t care for. So much work is deeply and movingly realized, and so many artists of real talent are working today that it’s just not worth the time to take an individual clunker to task. There’s an audience for everything—who cares? Besides, one can always be wrong. However, I’m compelled to make an exception in the case of 27-year-old Oscar Murillo. While it’s not his fault for being shot out of the canon too early, I feel one has to say something lest perception be allowed to irretrievably swamp reality. There have always been artists who were taken up by collectors, curators, or journalists; artists who fit a certain narrative but are of little interest to other artists. So why get worked up over it now? Of course it’s not just him. The problem is really one of what constitutes interpretation; it’s the fault line of a deepening divide between how artists and curators see the world. Though it may seem unfair to single out Murillo, the best way to explain why the distinction matters is to describe his work.Murillo seems to want to say something with his work about palimpsest and memory and being an outsider, but he lacks, to my eye, most of what is needed to make a convincing picture of that type. His grasp of the elements that engage people who paint—like scale, color, surface, image, and line—is journeyman-like at best. His sense of composition is strictly rectilinear; he doesn’t seem to have discovered the diagonal or the arabesque. Worse, he can’t seem to generate any sense of internal pictorial rhythm.Murillo’s paintings lack personality. He uses plenty of dark colors, scraping, rubbing, dripping, graffiti marks, and dirty tarpaulins—run-of-the-mill stuff, signifiers all. The work looks like something made by an art director; it’s meant to look gritty and “real” but comes across as fainthearted. This is painting for people who don’t have much interest in looking, who prefer the backstory to what is in front of their eyes. Murillo is in so far over his head that even a cabal of powerful dealers won’t be able to save him. He must on some level know this, and so he tries to make up for what’s missing by adding on other effects. One piece in “The Forever Now” is a pile of canvases crumpled up on the floor that viewers can move about as they choose. It’s interactive—get it? MoMA visitors with a long memory will recognize this as a variation on early work by Allan Kaprow, the inventor of Happenings, who wished to mimic the “expressionist” impulses in ’50s paintings and channel them into little games that invited viewer participation with the result that what had once been pictorially alive became pure tedium. To quote Fairfield Porter, writing at the time, “[Kaprow] uses art and he makes clichés….If he wants to prove that certain things can’t be done again because they already have been done, he couldn’t be more convincing.” You can kick Murillo’s canvases around from here to Tuesday—there is no way to bring them to life, because they never lived in the first place.The real news from “The Forever Now,” the good news, is that painting didn’t die. The argument that tried to make painting obsolete was always a category mistake; that historically determinist line has itself expired, and painting is doing just fine. Painting may no longer be dominant, but that has had, if anything, a salutary effect: not everyone can paint, or needs to. While art audiences have gone their distracted way, painting, like a truffle growing under cover of leaves, has developed flavors both rich and deep, though perhaps not for everyone. Not having to spend so much energy defending one’s decision to paint has given painters the freedom to think about what painting can be. For those who make paintings, or who find in them a compass point, this is a time of enormous vitality.David Salle is an artist living in Brooklyn and East Hampton.A version of this story originally appeared in the March 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 44 under the title “Structure Rising.”

Copyright 2015, ARTnews Ltd, 40 W 25th Street, 6th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10010. All rights reserved.

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Trends

The Golden Age of Abstraction: Right Now

 ART NEWS

Riffing on the past as it comments on our own time, contemporary abstraction evokes landscapes, bodies, signs, buildings, and much more

It’s tempting to see the years 1912–25 and 1947–70 as the two golden ages of abstract art, and to feel that the present revival of abstraction is no more than a silver age. But the present is always deceptive: it was not evident to their contemporaries that Malevich, Mondrian, and Pollock were the towering giants they seem to us in retrospect. The fact is, there is a vast amount of good abstract art being made today, and the best of it is every bit as good as the best abstract art of the past. The golden age of abstraction is right now.

Museums and art centers have lately been taking a remarkable interest in abstract art, past and present. Last year, MoMA opened “Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925”; the Guggenheim offered “Art of Another Kind,” comparing American and European abstraction of the 1950s; “Destroy the Picture,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, explored the fascination with dirty, distressed materials among artists of the same era; the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal traced the impressive history of Canadian abstraction since 1939; the Hunter College/Times Square Gallery presented “Conceptual Abstraction,” a survey (which I curated with Joachim Pissarro) of 20 abstract painters who came to prominence in New York in the 1980s; and MUDAM (the Musée d’Art Moderne) in Luxembourg gathered 23 contemporary European artists in “Les Détours de l’abstraction.” Already in 2013, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis has opened “Painter Painter,” a survey of emerging abstract painters from both the U.S. and Europe, and next month, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago opens “MCA DNA Chicago Conceptual Abstraction,1986–1995,” with works in various mediums.How do we make sense of all this activity in a type of art that was declared dead 40 years ago? I believe the most useful way to understand abstraction is not in terms of its formal evolution (which does not, in any case, fit the linear models beloved of theoreticians) but in terms of thematic content. The formal qualities of an abstract painting or sculpture are significant not in themselves but as part of the work’s expressive message. Artists work by reviving and transforming archetypes from the unconscious of modern culture. Therefore, the most useful questions to ask about contemporary abstract painting or sculpture are: What themes and forms does it retrieve from the tradition of modern art? How have they been changed? And how has the artist used them to express the social, political, and spiritual experience of our own time?We might view abstract art as falling into six basic categories. Three respond to nature: cosmologies, landscapes, and anatomies. And three respond to culture: fabrics, architecture, and signs. These categories are not mutually exclusive. It often happens, for instance, that cosmological images include anatomical imagery or that images inspired by fabric patterns include drawn or written signs.1. Cosmologies

Cosmological imagery in modern art assumes three main forms: orbs, orbits, and constellations. The orbs and orbits in the work of pioneering abstract artists like Alexander Rodchenko and Liubov’ Popova reflected the Russian avant-garde’s obsession with space travel as an allegory of revolution: the cosmonaut left behind the corrupt old world to build a rational utopia in outer space.

Another kind of cosmological imagery emerged in the 1920s: the constellation or star chart, consisting of an array of dots connected by lines. In the late 1940s, Pollock took the fixed constellations and set them into motion, in paintings like Reflection of the Big Dipper (1947). Both static and mobile versions of the motif play important roles in contemporary abstraction.For the Parisian Surrealists, the dot-and-line motif of the star chart was significant as an example of the way that intelligible meaning (the figurative image of Orion or the Great Bear) can emerge from chance events (the random distribution of stars in the night sky). For a contemporary audience, however, the same formal motif is likely to read not as a literal constellation but as the more abstract image of a network.Chris Martin’s cagelike “constellations” evoke the Internet Age, with its promise of total connectedness and its threat of incessant surveillance. The funky, handmade facture of his painting, with papier-mâché spheres emerging at each node, reasserts the value of flawed humanity over the seamless web of technology. Julie Mehretu’s paintings similarly transform the meaning of her sources. Where Pollock’s swirling constellations appeared to their original audience as images of the Jungian unconscious, Mehretu’s grids and streaks, punctuated by shifting crowds and billowing smoke, express the dynamism and turmoil of the global economy.Among contemporary painters, David Row combines orbital imagery with crystalline forms, shifting its meaning from social and utopian to spiritual and transcendent. Other abstract artists using cosmological imagery include Olafur Eliasson, Iole de Freitas, Bill Komoski, Albert Oehlen, Matthew Ritchie, Peter Schuyff, and Christopher Wool.2. Landscapes

A half-century ago, in the February 1961 issue of ARTnews, the iconoclastic art historian Robert Rosenblum coined the term “abstract sublime” to describe the way that the paintings of Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman call to mind a sense of the immensity and power of nature comparable to that found in the landscapes of such Romantic painters as J.M.W. Turner and Caspar David Friedrich. While the sublime may be out of fashion, references to the natural landscape persist in contemporary abstraction.

The huge popularity of Anish Kapoor’s monumental Cloud Gate may be due to the hallucinatory impression it gives of having brought the heavens down to Earth. At the same time, the sculpture’s mirrorlike skin, recalling Brancusi’s polished bronzes, places it in the avant-garde tradition of art that actively interacts with its viewers and its environment. In the setting of downtown Chicago, Kapoor’s silvered sculpture seems to absorb, concentrate, and reemit the essence of a great American metropolis.Of course, abstract art does not need to be monumental to evoke the natural environment. David Reed shades his gestural brushwork with such precision that it suggests roiling clouds over a western landscape. Gerhard Richter’s abstract pictures glow with the same damp, shimmering light as his paintings of the German countryside. His translucent colors and modulated shading look like photographs even in his nonfigurative compositions.At the opposite extreme, Mary Heilmann uses opaque colors and rough brushwork to avoid any hint of illusionism. Nonetheless, the baroque swerves and switchbacks of her stacked bands in a painting like Surfing on Acid (2005) suggest the parallel lines of waves approaching a beach, swelling and breaking as they near the shore. Using the new technology of digital animation, Jennifer Steinkamp transforms trees, vines, and branches into writhing, abstract arabesques. Landscape-related imagery also appears in the abstract work of Tara Donovan, Stephen Ellis, Anoka Faruqee, Jacqueline Humphries, Shirley Kaneda, Wolfgang Laib, Fabian Marcaccio, Joseph Marioni, Odili Donald Odita, Cornelia Parker, Joanna Pousette-Dart, Pat Steir, William Wood, Sanford Wurmfeld, and John Zinsser.3. Anatomies

In Jonathan Lasker’s canvases, thinly painted stage sets and imaginary landscapes are occupied by brooding presences laid in with thick strokes of impasto. These “presences” have typically come to take the form of P-shaped configurations suggesting massive heads that confront one another, like the haunted eyeballs and truncated feet of late Philip Guston.

However, the abstract anatomies of contemporary artists rarely correspond to the image of the human body as a whole. Instead, their work tends to hint at individual body parts, internal organs, or the “abject” substances excreted by the body. The masterwork of sculptor Tim Hawkinson is an enormous installation of floating bladders linked by long intestinal tubes, appropriately titled Uberorgan. Among painters, Sue Williams has created throbbing allover compositions of sexual organs, while Carrie Moyer uses biomorphic curves and blushing colors to intimate arousal in compositions that initially look like abstract landscapes.Leaving the recognizable body further behind, Ingrid Calame depicts a universe of drips, stains, and smears, their pathetic associations offset by bright, incongruous colors. It seems at first glance that Calame’s skeins and pools of color must have been dripped freely onto canvas, Pollock-style. However, the apparent fluidity of her work is the result of a meticulous process of tracing markings found on sidewalks, floors, and streets. These drawings on translucent paper are archived and then arranged in layers to create new compositions.We can also find more or less bodily images in the abstract paintings and sculptures of Ghada Amer, Ross Bleckner, Chakaia Booker, Cecily Brown, Lydia Dona, Christian Eckart, Margaret Evangeline, Ellen Gallagher, Charline von Heyl, Rosy Keyser, Giles Lyon, Thomas Nozkowski, Roxy Paine, Monique Prieto, Martin Puryear, Ursula von Rydingsvard, James Siena, and Mark Dean Veca.4. Fabrics

Turning from natural to man-made models for abstraction, fabric has figured prominently as a source of inspiration. Throughout much of the 20th century, male abstract artists rejected comparisons between their paintings and decorative fabrics. In the 1970s, however, women artists, such as Miriam Schapiro and Joyce Kozloff, set out to revindicate decoration and to use it as the point of departure for a new, feminist mode of abstraction. The artists (both male and female) of the Pattern and Decoration movement often incorporated representational and architectural elements into their brilliantly colored compositions.

Of the artists emerging from this movement, Valerie Jaudon has remained one of the most severely abstract. In her recent work, she almost eliminates color, using only black and white, or white paint on bare brown linen. But she combines this austere palette with a sensual profusion of pattern, numbing and teasing the mind like a carved wooden panel from the Alhambra. Her designs suggest the repeat patterns of fabric or wallpaper, without ever quite resolving into regularity.In the 1970s, some American artists, like Kim MacConnel, looked to African fabrics as models of laid-back geometry. Today, it is African artists themselves who are winning recognition as brilliant innovators. Take, for example, the abstract tapestries of El Anatsui, on view in a retrospective that runs through August 4 at the Brooklyn Museum. Anatsui’s tapestries are put together from hundreds or thousands of pieces of metallic scrap—the caps, bands, wrappers, and labels that adorn the bottles and other items you would find in a market or trash heap in western Africa. The shimmering gold and silver of Anatsui’s work offer an image of celebratory splendor. Draped and folded, rather than hung flush against the wall, these tapestries challenge our assumptions about the obligatory flatness of abstraction. Other contemporary abstractionists working with the imagery of fabric and decorative patterning include Linda Besemer, Bernard Frize, Richard Kalina, Ryan McGinness, Beatriz Milhazes, Sean Scully, Frank Stella, Philip Taaffe, and Adriana Varejão.5. Architectures

Peter Halley’s paintings, which launched the Neo-Geo movement of the 1980s, focus obsessively on the motif of a rectangular cell, reminiscent of a house, a prison, a computer chip, or a piece of machinery. Resting on a narrow band of earth or flooring, the structure is plugged into its environment by conduits that run through the ground or take to the sky, connecting it into an invisible urban grid. Instead of a place of refuge, the cell becomes a symbol of the postmodern self: isolated, immobilized, and under surveillance. The pure optical quality of 1960s modernism gives way in Halley’s work to a purgatory of Day-Glo colors and motel-room textures: garish, menacing, and weirdly seductive. Another painter, Sarah Morris, uses tilted grids and pulsing colors to suggest the dazed confusion found in the mirrored facades of corporate modernism.

Whereas Halley and Morris propose large allegorical statements about contemporary society, Rachel Harrison speaks to a realm of personal experience. Her sculptures often incorporate beams, lintels, and moldings embedded in cement or pieces of sheetrock fastened into a loose grid, accompanied by toys, framed photographs, and other household furnishings. The works seem like fragments of houses that have been smashed apart by natural disasters or worn down by everyday life. And yet there’s something oddly cheerful about Harrison’s eroded architectures, even when they’re not painted in the primary-school colors she often favors. They have a kind of pluck, as if they’re determined to carry on, no matter what. (In Harrison’s most recent work, architecture has mutated into anatomy, as her stacked forms begin to resemble living creatures.)Architectural structures also play an important role in the abstract work of John Armleder, Frank Badur, Helmut Federle, Liam Gillick, Guillermo Kuitca, Sherrie Levine, David Novros, Doris Salcedo, Andrew Spence, Jessica Stockholder, Sarah Sze, Phoebe Washburn, and Rachel Whiteread.6. Signs

Signs have been an important element of modern art ever since 1911 and 1912, when Picasso and Braque put stenciled letters and scraps of newspaper into their Cubist pictures. But Jasper Johns’s flag, map, and number pictures of the 1950s and early 1960s initiated a revolutionary transformation in the character of sign painting. His stenciled letters and regular grids came to convey meaninglessness instead of meaning. They didn’t express emotion; they repressed it. In one way or another, his work lies behind much of the most important art of 1960s, from the monochromes of Frank Stella and Brice Marden to the Minimal boxes of Robert Morris and Donald Judd.

Fifty years later, Johns continues to exercise a decisive influence on abstraction. Wade Guyton, shown last year at the Whitney, updates Johns’s number paintings, eliminating the artist’s hand by using digital printers instead of stencils. Guyton’s insistent X’s seem less like marks than like cancellations, refusing to signify and then fading into blankness.Mark Bradford’s paintings resemble the giant computer screens that sophisticated police departments use for real-time surveillance of traffic, crime, and accidents, with data overlaid on urban grids. But in contrast to the flickering pixels of the computer screen, Bradford’s images have actual substance. Like Calame, he works with papers and materials gathered from the streets of Los Angeles, shredding and aging them, then layering them into his compositions. Bradford’s powerful combination of imagery and materials captures the experience of living simultaneously in the parallel universes of information and sensation.Other artists using written language or formats recalling maps and diagrams include Ai Weiwei, Mel Bochner, David Diao, Caio Fonseca, Carmela Gross, Gu Wenda, Jenny Holzer, Wosene Worke Kosrof, Glenn Ligon, Tatsuo Miyajima, RETNA, Joan Snyder, Xu Bing, Stephen Westfall, Terry Winters, and Hossein Zendoroudi. Written language, in particular, seems to have an international potency.Ultimately, the evolution of abstract art—like the evolution of modern art more broadly—has been a series of responses to the experience of life in the 20th and 21st centuries. As Halley argues in a brilliant 1991 essay, abstraction before World War II was largely inspired by the utopian belief that rational technocracy (i.e., socialism) would create a better world. The technocratic ideal found its most powerful symbol not in the rosy-cheeked workers of Socialist Realism but in geometric abstraction. After the devastation of World War II and the revelation of the horrors of Stalinist Russia, geometry could no longer function as an image of utopia. Changing polarity, it became instead a symbol of alienation.Much contemporary art—not to mention fiction, film, and television—reflects a Blade Runner vision of a world, in which the individual is rendered powerless by anonymous government agencies, giant corporations, and deafening mass culture. It’s useful to remember that this nightmare vision is itself a romantic stereotype, ignoring the positive aspects of postmodern society. Since 1980, the number of people living in extreme poverty has declined dramatically, both as a percentage of world population and in absolute numbers. The principal reason is the globalization of the economy, which has created millions of factory jobs in the former Third World, lifting workers from starvation in the countryside to subsistence in the cities. Some of the most exciting abstract artists today are those, like Anatsui and Mehretu, whose work responds to this transformation, either by reinventing traditional arts for a global art world or by creating visual allegories of social change that carry us beyond the old capitalism-socialism divide. In 2013, as in 1913, abstraction is how we think about the future.Pepe Karmel is associate professor of art history at New York University.

Copyright 2015, ARTnews Ltd, 40 W 25th Street, 6th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10010. All rights reserved.

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Abstraction’s Ambiguity is Its Own Reward

Joan Mitchell, Untitled, 1957, 461/4 × 44˝, oil on canvas. Copyright the Estate of Joan Mitchell and Courtesy Lennon, Weinberg, New York.

What is it about the expressive power of abstract art—especially abstract painting, whose ambiguity of meaning is one of its most definitive characteristics—that remains so alluring? The Museum of Modern Art’s recent Abstract Expressionist New York exhibition offered many vivid reminders of how compellingly mysterious, psychologically intense, emotionally moving, and spiritually transcendent many of the seminal works of American Ab Ex painting still feel, more than a half-century after they were made and first seen.

On a smaller scale, Lennon, Weinberg, Inc.’s recent gallery showing of a group of Joan Mitchell paintings from the 1950s, including some small-format canvases that have only lately come to market for the first time, also served as a reminder of the powerful punch the best abstract painting still packs, as did numerous works in Michael Rosenfeld Gallery’s recent exhibition, Abstract Expressionism: Reloading the Canon. Together, many of the works in these exhibitions seemed to beg the questions: Despite abstract painting’s inherent ambiguity, can its most capable practitioners manipulate its techniques or language consciously enough to at least control its emotional temperature or, at most, to convey certain subject-specific messages? Do they even want to?

Such questions may simmer in the background of Mitchell’s development as one of Abstract Expressionism’s most original artists. As recounted in Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter, a new biography by Patricia Albers (to be published by Alfred A. Knopf on May 5), Mitchell (1925-1992) was born and brought up in Chicago, where her father was a prominent doctor, and her mother a poet and editor of Poetry magazine. She studied at Smith College and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and came to New York in 1947, where she became familiar with the paintings of Arshile Gorky and Jackson Pollock. A fellowship then allowed her to live in France for a year; afterward, she returned to New York, got involved in the abstract art scene and took part in the historic “Ninth Street Show” (1951), which was organized by Leo Castelli and sponsored by The Club, the artists’ association to which many members of what would later be dubbed “The New York School” belonged.

Mitchell has been labeled a “second-generation” member of that community of artists. To some ears, “second-generation” might connote “second-best,” which would be wrong. Her work, with its broad, muscular brushstrokes, perfectly balanced compositions, even at their most off-kilter, and thickets of dense strokes alternating between darting, grass-like lines and luscious patches of drippy color, contributed in definitive ways to just how expansive and expressive abstract painting could be.

Louise Fishman, “Zero At The Bone,” 2010. Oil on linen. 70 × 60˝. Photo credit: Courtesy Cheim & Read, New York.

Albers describes Mitchell as an insecure alcoholic who drank to fight off feelings of abandonment by her lovers, parents, or even friends saying goodbye after a party. Thus, it was through a booze-fueled haze that she produced some of abstract painting’s most indelible images. Her “Ladybug” (1957), which is now in MoMA’s collection and was trotted out for its recent exhibition, is one of her signature works, with its tumble of thick or wiry, drippy strokes of orange, blue, turquoise, purple, and other colors surging in a pack emphatically toward the left side of the canvas.

What did Mitchell want to say with her art? Albers suggests an answer, noting that the artist once said that art had “lost some of its ‘spirituality,’” and that she had recognized that, although “spirituality” had come to be “considered a ‘hokey’ word…it was what painting had once been about.” Mitchell made it clear that she did not paint from nature, even though, unlike those soul-scraping Ab Exers who coughed up existential anguish in the form of explosive paint-on-canvas confrontations, in her paintings, she did refer to nature. They were, she said, “about landscape, not about me.”

Mitchell rejected the “action painter” label, with its suggestion of throw-paint-anywhere improvisation. “I don’t close my eyes and hope for the best,” she harrumphed. (Or as Mitchell’s friend and peer, Grace Hartigan, put it plainly: “My God[,] how hard it is to paint.” See The Journals of Grace Hartigan, 1951-1955, Syracuse University Press, 2009.) Mitchell also said the “freedom” in her art was “quite controlled.” Alluding to the deep understanding she possessed of her materials and techniques, the famously feisty painter seemed to hint that something about the visual language she had created could be finely tuned and played like the instruments that produced the jazz and classical music she loved.

Similarly, the contemporary American artist Karl Klingbiel brings a combination of experimentation and cool control to making his abstract paintings, which constitute his response to the visual barrage of an image-overloaded, media-saturated culture. At his studio in Queens, Klingbiel, 50, makes paintings on top of woodcuts depicting seemingly random lines and shapes. He mounts them on canvases and then mounts each canvas on a birch-veneer panel. He calls his woodcuts “skeletal structures” for his scraped and color-packed oil paintings, but they are not strict compositional guides. Once painted over, they become invisible.

Karl Klingbiel, “Book of Days,” 2010. 41 × 41˝. Oil on paper (woodcut print) mounted on canvas, mounted on board. Photo credit: Karl Klingbiel Studio and Elizabeth Moore Fine Art, New York.

“I distill things,” he says. “My paintings become vessels for what interests me, including literature, poetry and the history of painting, but they also have an outward trajectory, because with them I’m trying to replicate the experiences I’ve had looking at paintings that have had an effect on me.” They might do so by alluding to a classic Renaissance palette or, in scurrying ribbons of electric color that seem to surge up through multiple top layers of luminous oil, by referring to Pop Art.

Klingbiel says: “The visual aspects of the world have a huge impact on me—patterns, relationships, stunning moments.” In his art, he says, he “processes” all of that visual information to offer “something that is raw, unfiltered and unspecified, because I don’t want to give you a thing but rather everything.” His art does that, he believes, in a way that cannot be expressed in words.

The New York-based painter Louise Fishman, 72, who has been called a “third-generation Abstract Expressionist,” also brings a lifetime of looking at and assimilating other art forms to her painting, but her reference points are often almost invisibly subtle. Known for solidly structured compositions marked by bold colors and hardy brushstrokes, Fishman met Mitchell at the older artist’s home in France during the latter part of her life. Fishman counts Mitchell’s work—including its unbridled exploration and command of color—among the major influences on her own. Other artists who have interested her include Gorky, Franz Kline, and Pierre Soulages and Bram van Velde (both were associated with Europe’s post-World War II abstract-art tendency known as “art informel”).

A former high school basketball player who savors the physicality of both sports and of making paintings, Fishman explains that, if she “can get past the rectangle”—a typical painting’s format, which to her suggests the landscape genre—and deftly handle the “weight,” or the perceived visual heft or presence of a work-in-progress, she can better enjoy the creative process that then unfolds. She does not consciously try to control what her paintings might communicate, she says.

“What is it about this kind of art that speaks to so many people?” she asks. “Maybe it’s that there is no language in it.” If one of her paintings suggests a meaning, she adds, perhaps “it’s something that comes and goes, even though it may [seem to] have a formal, concrete presence.” If anything, she muses, her kind of painting “is about a journey [through] the act of making it, which you get to go on if you’re looking” at it, too, “an activity of full gesture, freedom and physicality—the things modern life tends not to have much of.”

A sense of joy about the creative freedom that making abstract art allows and about the uncertainties that come with the territory—how is any artist supposed to make a good abstract work, anyway?—is something the artists Gene Mann and Madeleine Spierer share. Both are based in Geneva, Switzerland. There, a few weeks ago, the French-born Mann, 58, took me to visit the elderly Spierer, who was born in Trieste in 1926. From 1959 through 1977, Spierer was the companion of the Dutch painter Bram van Velde (1895-1981). Mann makes mixed-media abstract paintings and collages on paper, cardboard, and canvas into whose whirlwind compositions she sometimes blends simple, abstracted human figures.

Mann and Spierer have long enjoyed a friendship and an artistic dialogue. Earlier this year, at an alternative-space gallery in Geneva, Spierer presented a sculptural installation whose plant-stem-like parts formed a chest-high line running along all four walls of the room. Made of newspaper, rolled up and glued, then painted black to give the dried, tube-shaped material some rigidity, these straight or curly pieces were also scattered around a column in the gallery, or placed upright, leaning against a window. From a distance, it appeared that they could have been made of metal.

In her modest apartment-studio, Spierer works with crushed egg cartons, newspaper, inks and paints, from which she makes collages, paintings, and objects. Van Velde, who was a close friend of Samuel Beckett, was well known for uttering terse aphorisms about art-making and human foibles. (“I paint the impossibility of painting,” he stated.) Spierer, as well, is usually reticent about describing her art. She did say, though, that in her abstract works, “it’s all there, all the rhythms of life and all of reality, too—trees, water, light, love.” Together, Mann and I examined photos of some of Spierer’s large collages from a few years ago, in which clumps of wadded newspaper formed islands of radiant energy in vast seas of blue, recalling both American color-field painting and the texture-rich tachiste variety of art informel. The older artist sensed that we wanted to see more.

Madeleine Spierer, “Parcours d’un espace (Course of a Space),” 2010. Variable dimensions. Rolled-up newspaper, glue, paint. Photo credit: Andata Ritorno Laboratoire d’Art Contemporain, Geneva, Switzerland

“Come,” she instructed, “I want to show you something.” We followed her as she led us outside, up a hill and over to the nearby studio of a younger painter friend, who had let her use his workspace to create a new composition made up of overlapping, differently colored pieces of paper. Each had been painted with pigments-and-oil mixtures Spierer had prepared herself, then cut and shaped by hand. Titled “Nocturne,” it was an ambitious, mural-size work in a palette of dark blues, reds, and greens whose “weight,” as Fishman would put it, defied the modesty and delicacy of its materials.

In the late afternoon’s fading light, it hummed and hugged the wall, inviting us to dive with our eyes into its dark, all-engulfing sea. It was a perfectly composed abstract work. In an artist’s statement, Spierer once noted that she experiments “again and again with the relationship between line and surface, rhythm and color.” Looking at “Nocturne,” which evoked a sense of longing in the dead of night, I was reminded of how, as they explore and formulate the peculiar language of their art, the most capable abstract artists seem to make their work ever more expressive over time. Instinctively, they seem to understand that the ambiguity that is its essence is also its great poetic strength, a kind of intangible raw material that can be tweaked or prodded, but never fully deciphered or constrained.

Contributor

Edward M. Gómez EDWARD M. GOMEZ is a New York-based journalist, author, and critic. Publications available at www.edwardmgomez.com.

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Why Are Conceptual Artists Painting Again? Because They Think It’s a Good Idea

Jan Verwoert

Tags: Benjamin Buchloh, Brian O’Doherty, Conceptual art, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois

1. Conceptuality versus medium specificity

What continues to give an edge to any discussion about the current status of painting as a medium is that this particular debate raises the following fundamental question: which forms of artistic production can count as contemporary and which should be rejected as irrelevant? Precisely because the theory of High Modernism pronounced painting to be the ‘Royal Road’ of artistic practice, it seems that ever since that doctrine was challenged it has been the fate of painting as a medium to provide the forum for all arguments about the road that art should follow in the future. Even if some of the original heat has gone out of these arguments in the course of their cyclical resurrection and abandonment since the late 1960s, it still remains a burning issue. An increasing interest in painting has begun to emerge, particularly in recent years. There are today, quite simply, a multitude of interesting positions in painting, each in its own way doubtlessly relevant to our times. Nevertheless, painting still has to fend off the latent reproach of being reactionary, not least because populist apologists for the medium often use reactionary arguments in its support, for example when they celebrate the ‘return of painting’ as a renaissance of authentic artistic skills. Faced with this situation, it seems useful to reconstruct the fundamental questions inherent in the arguments about the validity of painting in particular, and about the definition of contemporary artistic practice in general, in the hope of finding a way out of this notoriously intractable discussion.

One question that inevitably arises when painting is being discussed is why painting should be considered in isolation from other media? Does it make sense to make a single medium the subject of a text or an exhibition? Is this still relevant? Or is it not? A possible first answer is, ‘No it is not. Any consideration of painting in isolation tends to be reactionary, because the dismissal of Modernism’s dogmatic restriction of artistic practice to a particular medium must be understood as the most significant progress in art in recent decades. Today every medium represents only one possibility among many. The only thing that counts is the artist’s conceptual project. The choice of a particular medium only has meaning inasmuch as it relates to a strategic gain within the overall project. If a conceptual statement can be adequately formulated in terms of painting, then artists paint, but if a different medium proves to be more useful, they turn to video or build installations. In this context anybody who looks at the medium alone is missing the most important thing.’

A second possible answer is, ‘Yes it is. It is even necessary to discuss painting qua painting, because that is the only way to investigate its true significance. The enormous potential of what art can do as art only emerges when art deals with the laws, limits and history of a specific medium. The semantic depth of a painterly formulation can only be adequately appreciated if it is understood as the result of a process of dialogue with the medium. Any kind of art or art criticism that excludes all of that must necessarily be superficial. Anyone who reduces art to transferable concepts and readily comprehensible ideas has lost sight of what art is, and what it can achieve by virtue of its nature as a non-verbal language. Any art that defines itself solely in terms of content, and not in terms of its medium-specific form, becomes the kind of issue-related speciality art that critics and curators love, because it always comes with ready-made categories to file it under, such as “identity politics”, “institutional critique”, “critical urbanism” and so on. No valid art or criticism can avoid dialogue with the medium qua medium.’

Both positions seem well founded in principle. So perhaps it is unnecessary to opt for either one or the other, as one may adopt a different perspective from one case to the next. A painter’s paintings may be regarded fruitfully as engaging with the medium of painting in terms specific to that medium, while painting by conceptual artists working with a range of media, for instance, may be more readily understood with reference to the conceptual themes it proposes. From a pragmatic point of view this may be a useful approach. A convincing solution to the fundamental problem it is not. The conflict between a conceptual and a medium-specific understanding of artistic practice only becomes comprehensible in all its intensity and depth of meaning when it is viewed not pragmatically but historically. By proving that art can only exist as a concept and must be evaluated in terms of its conceptual performance alone, Conceptual Art in fact could be understood to have irrevocably severed the connection between art and its medium. Seen in this light the arguments produced by Conceptual Art at the end of the 1960s refute once and for all the ‘High Modernist’ theory (adduced by a critic such as Clement Greenberg) that true art must be conceived and executed in medium-specific terms. If one follows this argument through to its conclusion, then the refutation of the primacy of medium-specificity by Conceptual Art marks a historical caesura with normative effect and consequences that must inevitably be faced. It represents a threshold that no one can step back over.

2. The change to conceptuality as the historical norm

The assertion of the normative validity of the turn towards conceptuality became canonical largely because the school of American art criticism around the journal October made this claim one of the central tenets of its art-historical theories. In her essay ‘A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the age of the post-medium condition’, for instance, Rosalind Krauss characterises the effects of the conceptual turn at the end of the 60s as normative and irrevocable.1 To begin with, Krauss reiterates the argument Joseph Kosuth proposed in 1969 in Art after Philosophy that Conceptual Art dismisses the relevance of medium-specific art practice in favour of a general and fundamental inquiry into the nature of art – in whatever medium. Acknowledging this thesis, she describes Conceptual Art’s strategic coup as a successful refutation of the doctrine proposed by Clement Greenberg, according to which art, by necessity, concentrates on a thorough exploration of the laws of the given medium, in particular painting. According to Krauss, this global privileging of the concept over the medium in effect created entirely new, historically irreversible conditions for the production of art. After Conceptual Art, the practical basis and the historical horizon for the production of all art is set by the ‘post-medium-condition’.

For Krauss, this historical caesura manifests itself in the ‘mixed-media’ installations of Marcel Broodthaers – for example his Musée d’Art Moderne, Départment des Aigles, Section des Figures (1972), a fictitious museum exhibition consisting of an obscure collection of artefacts (stuffed animals, books, prints, etc.), all of which show or represent eagles in one way or another. Broodthaers restricts himself in this work to the conceptual gesture of a spatial mise-en-scène. This gesture not only makes every included object into a readymade, but it also declares each one to be interchangeable. One eagle is worth as much as any other. What medium is used to represent the eagle is likewise a matter of complete indifference. Picture, object and text are all accorded the same status. Krauss interprets their equivalence as a radical withdrawal of all meaning from specific artistic media. Apart from being an attack on the traditional concept of art, the assertion that artwork is interchangeable also counts as a cynical embrace of the fact that artwork can be exchanged like any other commodity. By releasing art from the specificity of the medium, Krauss argues, Broodthaers effectively equated it to its pure exchange value.
In this way, she claims, the art object has been ‘reduced to a system of pure equivalency by the homogenising principle of commodification, the operation of pure exchange value from which nothing can escape’.2 For Krauss the liberation of art from the fetters of medium-specificity therefore leads directly to a new form of dependency, its dependency on the market.

In his essay ‘Conceptual Art 1962-1969: From the aesthetic of administration to the critique of institutions’, Benjamin Buchloh offers a variation on this argument.3 He too concedes that Kosuth, through his bold demands for an examination of the general conditions of art, successfully abolished the dogma of the primacy of reflection on the medium in post-war American painting. At the same time, however, Buchloh warns that the freedom Conceptual Art gained through its emancipation from the material art object and its manual production is a deceptive freedom. The suspension of all traditional criteria for judging art, he argues, in the end only strengthens the power of the art institutions. For if an object, or the practice of producing it, no longer qualifies as art on the basis of recognisable material properties, then in the end it is the museums or the market that determine whether it is art or not. Buchloh describes this dubious triumph of Conceptual Art as follows:

In the absence of any specifically visual qualities and due to the manifest
lack of any (artistic) manual competence as a criterion of distinction, all the
traditional criteria of aesthetic judgement – of taste and of connoirsseurship
– have been programmatically voided. The result of this is that the definition
of the aesthetic becomes
on the one hand a matter of linguistic convention and on the other the function
of both a legal contract and an institutional discourse (a discourse of power
rather than taste).
4

Here Buchloh relativises the emancipatory status of conceptual art by pointing out that it can also be understood as a reflex of the latest metamorphosis in the capitalist conditions of production. Thus whereas pop art and minimal art still celebrate industrial production and mass consumption in their materials and subjects, conceptual art, through its fixation on the immaterial qualities of language and the written word, involuntarily replicates the way in which real work has become immaterial in the service society, and thus erects a monument to the aesthetics of bureaucracy.

These arguments lead up to two substantive conclusions about possible modes of artistic practice after conceptual art. If one follows Krauss, Marcel Broodthaers’s intervention shifts the practice of art onto a new level: while he demonstrates that all media are interchangeable and thus proves that media-immanent work is meaningless, he simultaneously establishes the conceptual gesture as the ultimate possible artistic act which can still create meaning. According to this view, the only art that has any significance at all in the historical framework of the ‘post-medium-condition’ is one that declares its subject to be the system of art, its conditions and its history as a whole. Media-immanent practice is dismissed as irrelevant as the meta-historical conceptual gesture alone can lay claim to artistic relevance. If one considers the contribution of conceptual art to constitute a normative caesura in the history of art, then the conceptual gesture is the only available sphere of activity left open to artists who seek to make work in the full awareness of the current historical condition of art production.

This conclusion is then reinforced by a second: as Krauss, and more particularly Buchloh, argue that the arrival of the ‘post-medium-condition’ in artistic practice coincides with art’s subjugation to the dictate of institutions and laws of the market, it then is not only a historical but a political necessity to adopt a detached, meta-critical position in relation to the system of art. From this point of view, those who continue to work in media-immanent terms, for example in painting, not only condemn their practice to historical insignificance, but also risk direct appropriation by the institutions and the market. The conclusion is then that only a form of art that through conceptual gestures articulates a critical position with regard to the institution of art is capable of resisting the historical devaluation of artistic media and the subjugation of production to the laws of the art-system. In this way, both Krauss and Buchloh posit the significance of institutional critique from a historical point of view as the last form of art still capable of making a difference.

3. From strategic logic to the practical aesthetics of conceptual gestures

The question now is how, in practice, are we to imagine an art of conceptual gestures? Taking the arguments of Krauss and Buchloh literally, the only conclusion that can really be drawn is that with the entry of art into the ‘post-medium condition’ the notion of practice – if one understands it as continuous work on particular subject matter using particular formal media – has lost its meaning as such. The art of the conceptual gesture stages the artistic act as a direct entry in the book of art history. A successful gesture rewrites history. Such a gesture is therefore, by definition, legible and unique. Its meaning must be as transparent as an argument in textual form, so that the general understanding of art and its history is altered by its clarity and persuasiveness. If this gesture has a revolutionary effect, that is, if it constitutes a profound intervention in the history of art, then it acquires the status of a singular event. This definition of the conceptual gesture as a unique historical event with a convincing meaning has serious consequences for the understanding of artistic production: in conceptual terms it limits the significance of an artistic work to the contribution it makes to a new understanding of art. And this contribution tends to be unique. After all, how often can anyone achieve a conceptual gesture of historic dimension?

Modernism still permitted artists to produce revolutions through continuous work in their own medium (that is to say in practice). A radical understanding of historical critical conceptualism, however, requires every producer of art to change history by coming up with a unique idea starting from absolute zero – he/she must do this in a manner that is both clear and lucid. The pressure to succeed, which modernism’s dedication to relentless avant-gardeism had already introduced, is now experienced even more acutely. As a result, we now have the tragic figure of the melancholy conceptualist, alone in an empty room waiting desperately for a revolutionary idea to come to him or her, or worse still, waiting for the next idea to come, trying to reinvent their work after their first success.

The irony here is that the type of art that in recent years has actually succeeded in turning the ideal of a historically influential and universally comprehensible gesture into reality, is in fact the so-called ‘one-liner’ art of the 1990s. The dead shark in a tank of formaldehyde fulfils all the necessary criteria, as does the artist’s self-portrait as a wax figure with the features of Sid Vicious in the pose of Andy Warhol’s Elvis: these represent unique statements demonstrating the new possibilities for interpreting both the concept of sculpture and the art-historical conventions for the representation of vanitas or self-portraiture, respectively. These works were universally understood and widely reported in all the media. So, strictly speaking, the successful conceptual gesture turns out to be nothing more than a well-told wisecrack. By taking the criteria of historical-critical conceptualism at its very word, ‘one-liner’ art demonstrates that the principle of the conceptual gesture scarcely differs from the commercial logic that lies behind the skilful launch of a publicity stunt or the effective placement of a hit single.

One might assume that the effective realisation of the conceptual gesture in the ‘one-liner’ idiom must seal the bankruptcy of the logic of strategic conceptualism. In some respects this conclusion might well be justified, if perhaps just a little premature. For only if one reduces the conceptual gesture to its strategic value alone does it cease to be possible to distinguish its significance from the media logic of the publicity stunt and the hit single. But how else is one to understand the gesture if not strategically? Brian O’Doherty suggests a more flexible definition in Inside the White Cube. He describes the conceptual gesture not only in terms of the logic of strategic intervention in history, but also in terms of an aesthetics of its own:

I suppose the formal content of a gesture lies in its aptness, economy and
grace. It dispatches the bull of history with a single thrust. Yet it needs
that bull, for it shifts perspective suddenly on a body of assumptions and
ideas. It is to that degree didactic, as Barbara Rose says, though the word may
overplay the intent to teach. If it teaches, it is by irony and epigram, by
cunning and shock. A gesture wises you up. It depends for its effect on the
context of ideas it changes and joins. It is not art, perhaps, but artlike and
thus has a meta-life around and about art. Insofar as it is unsuccessful it
remains a frozen curio, if remembered at all. If it is successful it becomes
history and tends to eliminate itself. It resurrects itself when the context
mimics the one that stimulated it, making it ‘relevant’ again. So a gesture has
an odd historical appearance, always fainting and reviving.
5

O’Doherty here replaces the hard normative criteria of transparency and singularity with the more dynamic parameters of elegance, didacticism, irony and perspectivity. By stressing the particular aesthetic and pedagogic effect of the gesture on its public, he emphasises that the staging of the conceptual gesture constitutes a practice in material terms, which possesses a formal language of its own and achieves particular effects by use of particular means. Such an understanding of the material and medial aspects of the conceptual gesture as a form of artistic practice questions the ideal transparency of the gesture as an inscription in history, just as the concepts of irony and perspectivity relativise the idea of the gesture as a unique event. O’Doherty’s concept of history is not linear and normative but multi-perspectival and relational. The meaning of a gesture cannot therefore be taken directly from the gesture itself, but is dependent upon the historical context that it both actively construes and is retroactively perceived in. The meaning of the gesture (just like that of an ironic remark) is therefore not transparent but latent. The historical context is furthermore not given by history per se, nor has it one single meaning. O’Doherty understands the construction and reconstruction of historical connections as a form of artistic and critical practice in its own right. In this way, O’Doherty avoids the Modernist reduction of the gesture to one single throw of the dice by describing the staging of the conceptual gesture as material practice that opens up history as a dynamic field for action.

4. Painting as situative strategic practice which does not take its own legitimacy for granted

In principle you might say that a postmodern theorisation of the conceptual gesture differs from the modernist definition in that it understands the gesture not as a singular event with normative validity but as a strategic intervention into the history of art with a situational meaning. From the postmodern point of view conceptual gestures reflect the history and conditions of art by producing situations that show art in a light that is constantly new and changing. In practice it is probably easier to meet the challenge of producing surprising reflective situations than to cope with the pressure of producing singular grand events. This is probably why, in the context of the postmodern debate in art in the late 1970s, it again seemed possible to integrate painting situatively and strategically into conceptual practice. A common form of situative integration was the inclusion of painting as one object among many in comprehensive spatial setups (see, for example, Ilya Kabakov and the ‘Sots-Art’ artists). Another way to remodel painting according to a logic of situative strategic choices was to forcibly disseminate the meaning of the individual picture in a luxuriant web of references (for example, in Kippenberger’s paintings, where meaning can only be accessed through a multiplicity of cryptic references to other artworks and social events).

Yve-Alain Bois develops the idea of painting as conceptual practice along similar lines in his book Painting as Model.6 Referring to the theses Hubert Damisch proposes in his book Fenêtre jaune cadmium, ou les dessous de la peinture, Bois describes the ‘strategic model’ in painting as the well-considered location of a work within a network of references: ‘Like chess pieces, like phonemes in language, a work has significance, as Lévi-Strauss shows, first by what it is not and what it opposes, that is, in each case according to its position, its value, within a field…’7 Bois then underlines the situative significance of such a strategic intervention in the field of art by distinguishing it sharply from the normative understanding of the historical validity of the work of art.

The strategic reading is strictly anti-historicist: it does not believe in the
exhaustion of things, in the linear genealogy offered to us by art criticism,
always ready, unconsciously or not, to follow the demands
of the market in search of new products, but neither does it believe in the
order of a homogeneous time without breaks, such as art history likes to
imagine.
8

Bois, however, goes a decisive step further in his defence of painting as conceptual practice. Referring to Damisch he argues that the medium of painting is by nature conceptual, and its conceptuality is produced not only by way of positioning a work within a particular set of external references. For Bois painting is essentially conceptual when it self-referentially and self-critically addresses its material qualities as well as the symbolic grammar of its own formal language. In relation to this immanent criticality, the strategic instalment of painting in a network of external references has the status of a meta-critical gesture. This means that this gesture essentially derives its critical force from the structural self-inquiry of a medium-specific art practice it simply takes it to another level. This conceptuality, however, only exists as a potential. Consequently, Bois differentiates between a progressive type of painting, one that recognises and develops this conceptual potential, and a more conventional painting that relies uncritically on a traditional understanding of the medium. In Bois’s view, in order for the conceptual potential to be activated, a painting must produce its own justification by means of continuous formal self-scrutiny and the creation of contextual relations.
In support of this he quotes the following from Damisch:

It is not enough, in order for there to be painting, that the painter take up
his brushes again,’ Damish tells us: it is still necessary that it be worth the
effort, it is still necessary that [the painter] succeed in demonstrating to us
that painting is something we positively cannot do without, that it is
indispensable to us, and that it would be madness – worse still, a historical
error – to let it lie fallow today.
9

In that he pleads for the possibility of justifying the medium of painting by developing its immanent conceptual potential, Bois mediates between a conceptual and a medium-specific perspective. He tries to break down the conflict between the normative account of the conceptual turn and a medium-specific perspective on art practice. Various general conclusions relating to a resolution of this conflict could be derived from Bois’s line of argument.

The medium-specific approach to painting is still possible in artistic practice and in critique. All it has lost is its status as self-evident. Since painting is realised today within the horizon of conceptual practice, it must be grounded in a context that is no longer its own. That means, on the one hand, that an appeal to the specifics of the medium as its sole justification is no longer possible. Painting can no longer just be painting. Today it is also necessarily a form of conceptual art, and as such it must be judged in relation to conceptual practices in other media, and in turn it must hold its own in this comparison. (Every group exhibition where different media are presented demonstrates this at a quite banal level.) But this also means that painting as practice can take strength precisely from the fact that by way of an immanent dialogue with its own history and conditions as a medium it arrives at a (situative strategic) self-justification within a more widely-spread conceptual horizon. In principle these conclusions correspond exactly to the thesis formulated by Thomas Lawson in his essay ‘Last Exit Painting’, in which the crisis in painting is understood as a positive opportunity, and the loss of its self-evident justification as a productive possibility that could provide painting with a conceptual basis again.10

5. Open Questions

The definition of situative strategic painting as an immanent conceptual practice has proven to be a practiceable one. It supplies the arguments for the necessary critique of retrograde approaches that repudiate the challenge of conceptual self-justification. It also allows for painting to be discussed as a relevant medium again, and thereby liberates it from the curse of a premature rejection at the hands of a normative understanding of history. Nevertheless, the ‘strategic model’ remains limited. To begin with, it can only describe the meaning of a painting in metaphors that are drawn from the conceptual field of argumentation; the main concepts that Bois finds for the meaning of painting are position’, ‘verification’ and ‘demonstration’. From this perspective, the agency of the artist would be limited to the declaration of his or her own position over and over again. ‘Here I stand, where do you stand?’ would be the invariable formula for any exchange that painting could provoke. This model is depressingly static. The description of positions in a field of opposites says nothing about the possibility of transforming that field, or any potential process of change that a work sets in motion.

Furthermore, a model that concentrates on interpreting a work only in terms of the strategic position it claims, effectively reduces the discussion of art in a no-less dismal fashion to the matter of its legitimation.11 No doubt, the question of whether a position is legitimate and how it legitimises itself is necessary if a critique is to investigate a work’s conceptual core and symbolic political standpoint. For the critique to have a conceptual edge it needs to discuss the legitimation of a work as a position. Yet, at the same time, every discussion of legitimacy is always based on the more than questionable assumption that something like legitimate art might actually exist. The experience of criticism, on the contrary, is precisely that all art can be adjudged legitimate from some viewpoints, and equally illegitimate when viewed from others. So in this sense the strategic model might be said to confuse the judgement of the completed work with the initial motivation of its production. For it does not follow from the fact that art will be scrutinised for its legitimacy that it was actually made with the intention of being legitimate, or that it can even be legitimate per se. Against this objection one of course could hold that a crucial point in the conceptualisation of art was precisely that the criticism of art was no longer considered to be a process that happened after the event, but an inner dynamic inherent in its production. Conceptual art is by definition art-critical art and the cogency of its critical position must therefore also be amenable to interrogation. Nevertheless, whether the critical potential of a work can be equated with the legitimacy of its strategic position is another question again, and one that still has to be discussed.

A further obvious limitation of the ‘strategic model’ is that, given the conceptual apparatus at its disposal, it does not provide any useful steps toward grasping the immanent qualities of a painting, even if it happens to actually recognise their existence in principle. All it can do is state that, for particular conceptual reasons, a painting is what it is. Any statement about what experience a painting communicates qua painting can scarcely be formulated with concepts like position, verification and demonstration. In fact it is questionable whether this quality of experience can be comprehended in conceptual categories at all, or whether the moment when the ‘strategic model’ reaches its limits really is the time when the art of describing aesthetic experiences comes into its own once again.

The final question that remains open is how painting, understood in terms of immanent conceptual practice, relates to the market and art institutions. A cynical position would be that as long as there are enough canvases to sell, and as long as the buyers perceive the conceptualisation of painting as just another refinement added to the commodity (one that does not trouble their bucolic conception of art), the market cares not a bit about the way painting has been subtly complicated by means of conceptual self-criticism. The counter-objection would be that, as Buchloh and Krauss point out, the abandonment of painting in favour of a purely conceptual process is no guarantee that such a practice will not also be appropriated – there are plenty of institutions specialising in the administration of conceptual types of work, and because of the absence of any material resistance, conceptual practices are even more likely to become trapped in institutional dependency. The choice of medium per se therefore says little about the critical potential that a work might develop in cases of doubt. With this contentious point we now arrive at a stalemate. It can only be resolved by a double appeal to criticism: painting’s present commercial boom certainly requires an acute conceptual critique of contemporary positions. At the same time the boom in interdisciplinary and project-based approaches at international biennales raises the question of how resistant ephemeral forms of practice are to the administrative logic of the global exhibition industry, and whether a renewed examination of the intractable materiality of certain media-specific approaches might not actually be what is needed at this precise moment.

Translated by Hugh Rorrison

— Jan Verwoert

Footnotes
  1. Rosalind Krauss, A Voyage on the North Sea. Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition, London: Thames Hudson, 1999
  2. Thomas Lawson, ‘Last Exit Painting’, Artforum, October 1981, pp.40-47
  3. The transfer of the strategic model from the American school into German art criticism in this sense has produced a neurotic fixation on the examination of the legitimacy of art in discussions in the journal Texte zur Kunst, and a corresponding paranoid fear of illegitimacy among German artists.
  4. Ibid., p.15
  5. Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, ‘Conceptual Art 1962-1969: From the aesthetic of administration to the critique of institutions’, in Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson (eds.), Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999
  6. Ibid., p.519
  7. Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube, San Francisco: Lapis Press, 1986, p.70
  8. Yve-Alain Bois, Painting as Model, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990
  9. Ibid., p.254. See also Hubert Damisch, Fenêtre jaunecadmium, ou les dessous de la peinture, Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1984
  10. Y.-A. Bois, op. cit., p.256
  11. Ibid., p.255

===

R.H. Quaytman: Archive to Ark, the Subjects of Painting

Sarah Ganz Blythe

 

R.H. Quaytman, O Tópico, Chapter 27, 2014, encaustic, oil, gouache, silkscreen ink and gesso on panel, 62.9 x 101.6cm. All images courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels

Onward! enough speculation

keep on copying

the page must be filled.

Everything is equal, the good and the evil,

the fruitful and the typical,

they all become an exaltation of the

statistical.

There is nothing but facts — and phenomena

Final Bliss

— Gustave Flaubert via Hanne Darboven via Douglas Crimp (via R.H. Quaytman)1

‘Did early abstraction inadvertently indoctrinate us into modes of thinking and perceiving that now prevent the revolutionary experience they first provided?’, R.H. Quaytman asks.2 To address this question, she devises an ‘artist’s art history’ that follows a learning-by-doing model through which she inserts herself into the material presence of this history.

Her work in response to Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus (1920) is a case in point. Klee first exhibited the transfer drawing with watercolour — a wide-eyed angel hovering with wings outstretched, gaping mouth, locks of hair and feathers fluttering — in 1920 at Galerie Goltz in Munich. It inspired Gershom Scholem to pen a poem, ‘Greetings from Angelus’ (1921), to Walter Benjamin, who had purchased the drawing from the show.3 In Benjamin’s hands, Klee’s angel became the ‘angel of history’ whose ‘face is turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees only single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet. […] What we call progress is this storm.’4 Shortly after writing this in 1940 as part of his ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, Benjamin is believed to have left the drawing in the care of Georges Bataille, who then passed it on to Theodor W. Adorno, who gave it to Scholem, who donated it to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Quaytman knew this life history when she visited the drawing there in 2014. She was struck by the figure’s ambiguity — angel or animal, male or female, self-portrait or alter ego? For one work in the series O Tópico, Chapter 27 (2014), she meticulously copied the image onto a wood panel, replicating Klee’s transfer technique, hoping to learn more through the making of the thing.5 In Quaytman’s rendering, a molten polyurethane splatter now comes between the angel and the past he suspiciously contemplates from a modest hole. A wide border of a geometric pattern derived from a Brazilian basket weave cleanly frames the black cloud; it is at once evocative of medieval icons and Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematist compositions. Besides the afterglow of fluorescent paint applied to the top edge of the panel, there is no heavenly benevolence or ethereal escape here. It it is not the past that Quaytman’s angel surveys, but us, the viewers.

R.H. Quaytman, O Tópico, Chapter 27, 2014, encaustic, oil, gouache, urethane foam, silkscreen ink and gesso on two panels, 31.4 x 31.4cm and 82.6 x 82.6cm, detail

Such conscious positioning of viewership lies at the core of Quaytman’s work: ‘My pictures often reflect the space in front of the picture and the space the viewer is in, historically, optically or architecturally.’6 She achieves this through a working method that takes the conceptual form of an inconclusive book, in which each new exhibition of predominantly photography-based silkscreened images equates to a chapter that is developed in response to the location where they will be shown. ‘The ambition of this ongoing serialised system’, Quaytman writes, ‘is to develop a living, usable painting model, that corresponds with how — not only what — we see.’7 For example, the use of Klee’s Angelus Novus points towards her forthcoming body of work, Chapter 28, which will be presented in June of this year at the Israel Museum, while the border of the Atantowoto basket-weave pattern refers to Brazil, the eventual site of O Tópico, Chapter 27. The latter will be Quaytman’s first permanent installation, housed in a garden pavilion at the Centro de Arte Contemporânea Inhotim, near Belo Horizonte. The building will take the form of the golden spiral, with interior walls positioned according to the Fibonacci sequence. The spiral’s curve is also registered in the gesso of several panels of the series, which themselves are proportioned according to the eight component parts of the golden ratio, a format the artist has adhered to since her first chapter, in 2001, and which she intends to pursue for the remainder of her career. While this conceptual framework connects the logic of the panels to that of the framing exhibition space, the panels’ surfaces register their surroundings via images of historical artworks, artists or events associated with the gallery, institution or location of display. The result of archival and field research, Quaytman’s ‘subjects’, as the Portuguese title O Tópico (‘The Topic’) suggests, are specific and wide-ranging, among them: a seed the artist found on the ground while visiting Brazil; a teenager posing in front of an old VW Bug, referring to an artwork by the Brazilian artist Jarbas Lopes; and the artist Dawn Kasper, shown working on a drawing that says ‘chaos is a …’. The panels bring external referents into the gallery ‘in the hope that’, as Quaytman says, ‘…attention, whether from a gaze or a glance, can be contained, reflected and distracted’.8

In this sense, painting is made to work against some of its most traditional formulations. Rather than offering a window-like view onto other worlds, the panels press into the gallery space and are formulated so that each is to be read in relation to its neighbour or another piece in the chapter. Occasional plinths protruding from the panels of Quaytman’s paintings, or, elsewhere, shelves accommodating a selection of them, disrupt the suspension of disbelief that representational images can produce while affirming the paintings’ status as objects that will be stored away. Rather than invoking a hermetic processional encounter, in which visitors would stop reverentially in front of each work, Quaytman’s paintings are positioned ‘as objects that you passed by — as things that you saw not just head-on and isolated, but from the side, with your peripheral vision, and in the context of other paintings’.9 Working against what she has called the ‘aloneness and self-sufficiency’ of paintings that ‘behave like film in dark rooms’, the flatness achieved through silkscreen on gesso allows the panels to ‘reverberate with other paintings around’.10 A large vocabulary of artistic languages and references shapes this effect: abstraction and figuration, silkscreened photographs on gesso and polyurethane splats, absorbing Op art patterns and glimmering diamond-dust lines, hand-ground pigments and encaustic paint, printed text and striped lines that reference the panels’ plywood edges while evoking Barnett Newman’s zips.11 Quaytman speaks of creating sustained attention through a visual syntax that inculcates first, second, even third readings in which the paintings open up many possible meanings, much like words in a poem.12 For example, a sequence of silkscreened allusions to the paintings’ place of exhibition may be interrupted by an Op art pattern that also indexes the site, while a ‘caption’ in the form of an arrow suggests punctuation. This variety is held together by a grammar in the form of rules that govern Quaytman’s practice. Not unlike Richard Serra’s text piece Verb List (1967—68), which offers a series of focused ‘actions’ that generate new forms, Quaytman’s strict adherence to format (chapters), size (golden ratio) and support (gessoed plywood with bevelled edges) provides the structure through which materials and subjects may vary while remaining interconnected. Rather than closing down meaning and invention through an imposing single vision, the open structure of associative relations invoked by the panels allows distinct media, materials and subjects to remain themselves while also animating one another. Much like Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the polyphonic novel, in which many voices, styles and references coexist within the author’s construction, Quaytman’s system permits a plurality of independent voices that are each allowed their own space within the gallery context.13 In one work from O Tópico, Chapter 27, for example, a gestural blue-brown pool in waxy encaustic lies against the geometrical rigour of the golden spiral in egg-yolk yellow. Mondrian lozenges hung within viewing distance quietly reiterate a segment of the spiral’s arc while perpendicular trompe l’oeil stripes evoke the plywood stripes that hover above the basket-weave pattern. Distinct pieces, like words, exist in and of themselves while also animating one another in contribution to their group as a whole.

But, what might this whole or subject be? Perhaps it is painting itself, summoned and pointed to without solely using the medium of painting. Quaytman writes: ‘Despite my frequent use of photography, the digital and printmaking techniques, I use the name “painting” to describe what I do.’14 She seems to ask: can a painting be a painting while being something else? And, as if to test out her logic, she plays a game of substituting ‘painting’ as a noun for other words in a sentence. This grammar exercise plays out amid her notes that accompany each of the 61 plates in the artist’s book , Chapter 24 (2012): ‘Declension: the variants of the form of the noun, pronoun or adjective by which grammatical case, number and gender are identified.’15 Painting, like a part of speech, can be placed in different contexts and made to act as the subject, predicate, verb or noun and then asked if it still retains its status as painting. ‘Paintings, like words, lose their origin and become, over time, emblems.’16 Quaytman formally accomplishes this exercise by employing non-painting methods (photography, silkscreen, sculpture), but also through the use of historical paintings themselves. They make their appearance in almost every sequence, called up for their association with the exhibition’s context or to signal the next stop in Quaytman’s itinerary. Her litany of iconic paintings by largely male modernist masters includes, in addition to the aforementioned examples: El Lissitzky’s Prouns, Edward Hopper’s A Woman in the Sun (1961), Lucio Fontana’s Concetto Spaziale (Spatial Concepts), Piero Manzoni’s Achromes and Sigmar Polke’s artificial resin paintings. She also draws on the photographs of such artists as Marcel Broodthaers, Daniel Buren and Andrea Fraser. This ‘artist’s art history’ manifests itself through a range of replicative methods including the traditional academic mode of hand copying (such as the Klee) and the relatively recent technique of silkscreening (typically to reproduce paintings or photographs of other artists). Consistently, historical references are deliberately disrupted through shifts in colour, stark overlayed lines, shallow plinths, additional panels or the application of bulbous polyurethane splotches. This at once calls up the figures of painting’s past and interrupts, distorts and critically works against its utopic impulses and celebrated heroes.

Quaytman’s tactical approach is both inventive and resourceful. It balances the sheer desire to participate in painting while soberly mitigating the pitfalls of involvement.17 This is accomplished, in part, by fashioning painting’s narrative as the artist so chooses — calling up certain masters, alluding to particular radical moments. Quaytman takes what has come before as an opportunity to absorb and construct: ‘My rules were also made as a protest in a sense, but as a protest in favour of a medium — specifically painting. Maybe it was more of an accommodation than a protest. The rules come out of accommodating contextual facts that seem so unavoidable or endemic that they are not even seen anymore.’18 So, like the angel of history, Quaytman persistently assesses history and finds herself at once fascinated and unmoored by it. But rather than gingerly backing away from the accumulation of ruins, she acts as an anthropologist, collecting and marking pieces of that history. As she describes, this approach started in 2001: ‘The start of the new millennium, combined with the historical circumstances of 9/11 … induced a sharp sense of flowing time and the instinct to mark it.’19 Such marking literally manifests itself in O Tópico, Chapter 27 when her fingerprint overlays a pictogram of the Roman Empire taken from Emma Willard’s Universal History: In Perspective (1845). A source used in previous chapters, Willard’s textbook relates to other pedagogical references, including knitting patterns and instructions for making knots. Throughout, Quaytman’s acts of transformation are in the spirit of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s bricoleur, who intervenes and relocates signs and sources into new positions or contexts, disrupting their original context or narrative to constitute a new discourse.20 The once-removed (silkscreened photographs of paintings) or even twice-removed (silkscreened X-rays of paintings) presence of historical materials testifies to her ambivalence about the meaning of the past, while also offering an actionable, often critical way to insert herself into a number of structures that surround it: the patriarchal nature of painting’s past, the history of place, the systems of the art world.

Lest her purposes be misinterpreted, or not interpreted at all, this process of bricolage is always undertaken with logic and explanation. Perhaps as a function of her years spent occupying many positions — curator, writer, editor, gallery owner, artist’s assistant — or in resistance to notions of the impulsive, expressive creator, Quaytman consistently explains her purpose using the art world’s most viable formats: books akin to catalogues raisonnés (Allegorical Decoys, 2008; Spine, 2011; , 2012); statements issued with each chapter; and display instructions concerning how purchased works should be hung. Knowledge gained from lived experience has allowed her to smartly play with but also work against the pitfalls of the art world to assure that hers is not the forgotten, unstorable or unwritten-about work. She manages the ‘circulation of the painting as it either folds into the archive of the book/studio or embarks into the world — archive to ark’.21 Indeed, Quaytman adopts the gallery as ark, all-containing and protective, as an inevitable construct. Unlike the negotiations between self and history apparent in her version of an ‘artist’s art history’, the gallery remains unscathed, an aesthetic container of silent dominance much like what Brian O’Doherty described in the 1970s.22 However, Quaytman’s system is devised to accommodate the reality that this well-ordered ark is but a temporary haven — its contents will soon be archive bound.

This focus on the past is tempered by Quaytman’s interrogation of the manufactured narrative of art history: again, ‘Did early abstraction inadvertently indoctrinate us into modes of thinking and perceiving that now prevent the revolutionary experience they first provided?’23 Without answering this in the affirmative or negative, the question itself opens up a line of enquiry about painting’s efficacy then and now. Did early-twentieth-century avant-garde practices actually have the revolutionary impact we now pine for? Did its novel formulations incite revolutionary experiences we can no longer access? If so, can rehearsing its forms and stories ever provide such revolutionary experiences again?24 For Quaytman, the subject of painting is the devoted commitment to continuously working through these questions, at once to ‘maintain and simultaneously disrupt painting’s absolute presence’.25 As such, it is necessary to remain at a proper distance from which to observe, analyse and speculate, as the logic, material form and compositions of her paintings gesture back to history and location, left and right to elsewhere in the chapter or the next, and directly in front to us. Her work suggests, like the Angelus Novus, that our present is an ambiguous state of affairs, caught between the storm ‘called progress’ blowing from Paradise and a fascination with ‘the wreckage of the past’.26 In this suspended limbo, these pictures want something of us, as W.J.T. Mitchell would suggest.27 They compel us to ask: Should we perpetuate the angel’s fixation on the past, or turn around? How might the past be our constant companion along the way to Paradise? What might the subjects of painting be tomorrow?

Footnotes
  1. R.H. Quaytman,,Chapter 24, Mönchengladbach: Museum Abteiberg, 2012.
  2. R.H. Quaytman, ‘R.H. Quaytman’, October, vol.143, Winter 2013, p.49.
  3. See Gershom Gerhard Scholem, ‘Greetings from Angelus’, The Fullness of Time (ed. and intro. by Steven M. Wasserstrom, trans. Richard Sieburth), Jerusalem: Ibis Editions, 2003.
  4. Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, in Illuminations (ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn), New York: Schocken Books, 1968, p.249.
  5. I saw portions of O Tópico, Chapter 27 laid out in Quaytman’s studio in September 2014, and in November visited its full installation at Gladstone Gallery in New York, which was organised as a prelude for its ultimate destination in Inhotim, Brazil in a pavilion designed by Solveig Fernlund.
  6. R.H. Quaytman, Spine, Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2011, p.247.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid., text printed on the cover.
  9. Steel Stillman, ‘In the Studio: R.H. Quaytman,’ Art in America, June/July 2010, p.88.
  10. R.H. Quaytman in conversation with David Joselit, ‘I Modi’, Mousse, issue 29, June—August 2011, p.136.
  11. ‘The diamond-dust paintings attract focus, as opposed to repelling it the way the Op patterns tend to do. They pull you in while the others push you out.’ R.H. Quaytman, Spine, op. cit., p.157.
  12. Conversation with the artist, 21 September 2014.
  13. See Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (ed. and trans. Caryl Emerson), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
  14. R.H. Quaytman, Spine, op. cit., text printed on the cover.
  15. R.H. Quaytman,, Chapter 24, op. cit.
  16. R.H. Quaytman, ‘R.H. Quaytman’, op. cit., p.49.
  17. Quaytman has said she lives by the Constructivist sculptor Katarzyna Kobro’s statement: ‘I like to have fun by correcting what was not finished in any former artistic movement.’ Quoted in R.H. Quaytman, ‘R.H. Quaytman’, op. cit., p.50.
  18. R.H. Quaytman in conversation with D. Joselit, ‘I Modi’, op. cit., p.131.
  19. R.H. Quaytman, Spine, op. cit., text printed on the cover.
  20. See Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (trans. George Weidenfeld and Nicolson), Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.
  21. R.H. Quaytman, Spine, op. cit., text printed on the cover.
  22. See Brian O’Doherty, ‘The Gallery as Gesture’, in Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976, pp.87—107.
  23. R.H. Quaytman, ‘R.H. Quaytman’, op. cit., p.49.
  24. See Saint-Simon’s definition of the avant-garde in Claude Henri de Saint-Simon and Léon Halévy’s L’Artiste, le Savant, et l’Industriel: Dialogue (1825), reprinted in translation in Art in Theory, 1815—1900 (ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood with Jason Gaiger), Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998, pp.40—41.
  25. R.H. Quaytman, Allegorical Decoys, Ghent: MER. Paper Kunsthalle, 2008.
  26. W. Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, op. cit.
  27. W.J.T. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want?: The Lives and Loves of Images, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

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DEMYSTIFYING GERHARD RICHTER’S GESTURAL ABSTRACTION

Painting in the Gap between Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art

In the mid-1970s, Gerhard Richter began making large, colorful, tactile abstract paintings whose sketchy, rough, and blurry effects make us aware of the tools and techniques used and the complicated pictorial thinking involved.1 Sometimes paint is applied with brushes, but more often it is smeared, dabbed, rubbed, blotted, streaked, and dripped with house painting brushes, palette knives, squeegees, and pieces of wood or glass. The emphatic paint textures created may be sensuous or plain, coarse or smooth, even or inconsistent. The shapes created are irregular, vague, incomplete, overlapped, and compressed. These paintings have been described as “gestural” or “painterly,” although Richter refers to them as his “Abstracts,” and they now constitute the largest and most consistent portion of his enormous, erratic oeuvre. They have made him one of the leading abstract painters of the last 40 years and have been the subject of much discussion, yet a cogent, plausible understanding of them is still needed. How should we interpret, respond to, and contextualize them art historically?

These works have been associated with Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Conceptualism, and Neo-Expressionism, but are not easily situated in any of these. They are most frequently interpreted as examples of the problems and complexities of postmodern painting. Scholars have concluded that Richter’s work demonstrates that painting since the 1960s has become meaningless and irrelevant and that expression and content are no longer possible, intended, or desired. They claim that he is causing this deconstruction of painting, that his work is as much a part of the process as it is indicative of it. The problem with these interpretations is that they are counter intuitive to the creative impulse and replace it with postmodern theoretical discourse. How is it possible for an artist to devote his life to such a nihilistic project as destroying the importance, appeal, and efficacy of his own creations? These interpretations linger even though Richter has refuted them in numerous statements and interviews over the years. Scholars often mistakenly take Richter’s comments about his technical process and visual thinking as explanations of meaning and purpose.

These interpretations relate Richter’s abstract paintings to Conceptual Art since they claim his works explore ideas about contemporary painting and are not important as individual images. The supposed historical self-awareness and reflexive ontology of Richter’s paintings are basic to postmodernism and related to Conceptual Art. Although they do not seem as expressive, emotive, spiritual, or philosophical as the mid-century abstract painting to which they are visually most similar, they are not as detached, aloof, and impenetrable as usually thought. Realizing this requires looking at them without imposing theoretical agendas on intuitive responses or substituting them for artistic purpose. We must remember that artworks that are connected stylistically sometimes convey or elicit very different ideas, responses, and feelings. The connection of Richter’s abstractions to Neo-Expressionism seems logical at first because this movement originated in Germany around the time Richter began making these works. However, if Richter is questioning and undermining expression and meaning, how is he part of a movement that supposedly revitalized painting and its expressive capabilities?  Moreover, Neo-Expressionism is such a broad and varied movement that it seems almost a moot point to debate Richter’s place in it.

Richter’s abstract paintings have definite stylistic affinities to Abstract Expressionism in their painterliness, residual evidence of technical processes, bold and powerful effects of color and light, and large scale. Yet they are obviously different in their aesthetic, emotive, and expressive effects. What explains their ambivalent similarity to Abstract Expressionism? They are better understood if their relationship to Pop Art is reconsidered. Pop Art is the mitigating bridge to earlier abstraction that helps explain this complex relationship. This is not surprising since Richter’s career blossomed in the early 1960s, shortly after he moved to West Germany and immersed himself in modernist painting and abandoned the Socialist Realism he studied in his youth. This was just when Pop Art was rapidly gaining attention and acclaim and Abstract Expressionism was falling into historical context. In the 1960s Richter was very interested in Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, and Roy Lichtenstein. His abstract paintings evolved as he absorbed, reinterpreted, and synthesized various aspects of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. The connection between Richter and Pop Art is rooted in his blurry paintings based on photographs of his youth, family, Germany during and after World War II, current events, and political issues, such as “Uncle Rudi” (1965), “Eight Student Nurses” (1966), and “October 18, 1977” (1988). Since these emulate but distort mass media imagery, they have been associated with Pop Art, and Richter became a major proponent of the style in Europe. Over the years, critics have related everything Richter has done to Pop Art in one way or another. Richter’s drastic shifting among different painting styles has further complicated how his work has been interpreted. He demonstrates how stylistic development has become so complex, unpredictable, and erratic since the 1960s. In spite of widely accepted postmodernist theories which suggest otherwise, we still expect an artist to develop in a rather linear, orderly, logical way and are surprised when he does not.

Lichtenstein’s paintings of brushstrokes, such as “Little Big Painting” and “Big Painting No. 6” (both 1965),2 make us acutely aware that a painting consists of brushstrokes and marks of paint deliberately created. Done in the wake of Abstract Expressionism, they seem to be satirical criticisms or expressions of doubt about the philosophical and spiritual capabilities of painting, especially abstraction, and attempt to demystify its aesthetic and expressive possibilities. Lichtenstein’s diagrammatic isolation of a few brushstrokes in the manner of comic book illustration parallels Richter’s fascination with paint marks and brushstrokes, which often led him to a curious arbitrariness and ambivalence in his disconnected, barely modeled paint application. Whereas “Red-Blue-Yellow[Catalogue Raisonné 330] (1972) is a jumble of squiggly brushstrokes, “Abstract Painting” [CR 398–1] (1976) and “Abstract Painting” [CR 432–8] (1978) feature distinct brushstrokes described emphatically while evading emotion. In the earlier painting the scattered gray and white paint lines are most noticeable, while in the later painting the most conspicuous brushstrokes are the intersecting broad areas of blue and yellow. Many of Richter’s early abstract paintings were based on photographic close-ups of paint surfaces.In “July” [CR 526] (1983), narrow strokes of green, broad patches of lightly shaded gray, red, yellow, and scribbles of orange create a composition with sharply discordant colors and textures and unevenly dispersed shapes. Richter has discussed his pursuit of “rightness” in pictorial composition, color, and technique, but this idea about painting seems anachronistic today.  “July” offers an elusive resolution of purely abstract elements rooted in Pop Art’s vivid, gaudy colors.

In “Abstract Painting” [CR 551–6] (1984), swirling streaks of gray and green and broad, thick, slightly modulated brushstrokes of dark green and brown allude to the evocative possibilities of painterly abstraction, but never achieve the potent feeling or genuine sensitivity of Abstract Expressionism because Richter’s technique is not as fluid and elegant. This composition is rather similar to Gottlieb’s Bursts (1957 – 74), except the irregular, brushy forms across the bottom of Gottlieb’s paintings are more nuanced and indicative of the artist’s presence and feeling. Richter is receptive to Lichtenstein’s skepticism about the mystique of painting but does not completely agree with it. The complex relationship between Richter and Abstract Expressionism is apparent if Richter’s “Abstract Painting” [CR 587–5] (1985) is compared to de Kooning’s large abstractions of the late 1950s, such as “Palisade” (1957). In de Kooning’s painting, violently brushed areas of blue, brown, and tan streak, twist, and crash into one another, while Richter’s painting features a large red blotch, spiky black lines, and broadly scraped marks of green. Both have lots of blue and brown, but Richter’s are so smoothly rendered as to suggest a landscape background, while de Kooning fluidly integrates these colors spatially with more spontaneous, liberated rendering and traditional blending of different colors and tones. De Kooning achieves a cohesion of forms, textures, and colors that Richter fails to achieve and probably never attempted. In the de Kooning we sense genuine self-revelation and feeling. This is much less apparent in the Richter, and Pop Art’s filtration of earlier abstraction is the reason.

From 1969 to 1972, Lichtenstein did numerous paintings about mirrors and their reflections that used the Ben-Day dot system and various illustration techniques to explore these complex visual phenomena. These paintings may be mildly satirical comments on Greenbergian modernism’s ideas on the absence of space when total flatness is achieved. This series led to the merging of the mirror surface with the painting surface in works like “Mirror # 3 (Six Panels)” (1971),3 which are purely abstract in their own right. Richter has often explored the picture surface in similar ways. “Abstract Painting” [CR 554–2] (1984) has broad areas of blue, gray, and yellow-green that are smoothly rendered in most areas, except their intersecting, overlapping contours make it seem as if they squirm against one another as they confront or cling to the picture plane. The long, bent marks of green and orange on the left are similar in pictorial effect to the short parallel lines commonly used in illustrations to indicate reflections in mirrors and other shiny surfaces. “Abstract Painting” [CR 630–4] (1987) has rectangular areas of evenly-textured blue and yellow-green applied with a paint roller that engage the picture plane and attempt to merge with it. In the late 1980s and after, with the enormous “January” [CR 699] (1989) and “Abstract Painting” [CR 840–5] (1997), Richter’s fusion of painting and picture plane is virtually complete. Both Lichtenstein and Richter flaunt the mass printing methods that they have employed or imitated. Richter uses squeegees, sponges, wood, and plastic strips to scrape, flatten, abrade, and congeal paint in an even, consistent way over the entire canvas. The use of various implements creates systematic, mechanical effects of textures and colors that mitigate the expressive connection usually expected between a painter and his media.

Warhol demonstrated for Richter some of the most salient aspects of Pop Art, like serial repetition, even dispersal of compositional elements, the blunt presentation of the subject, and the quasi-expressive distortion possible with vivid, garish colors and other visual effects derived from advertising, packaging, and mass printing. Richter absorbed these innovations into a more expressive, abstract mode. He has said he was particularly fascinated with Warhol’s ability to obscure and dissolve images and that he was moved emotionally by his Death and Disasters series. This series consisted of paintings in which Warhol silkscreeened photographs of electric chairs, automobile accidents, suicides, murders, and similarly disturbing subjects onto canvases and probed their meanings by repeating the same photographs, adding vivid colors, blurring, fading, and shifting the photographs while printing them, and altering their scale. Serial repetition and the strict emulation of commercial imagery are first apparent in Richter’s abstractions in his color chart paintings of the late-1960s, in which many small rectangles of single hues are evenly dispersed on the canvas. These were based on color charts produced by paint manufacturers. Although their subject is typical of Pop Art, their flatness, composition uniformity, and large size are just as characteristic of Color Field painting. They are a virtually perfect merger of these separate but concurrent movements.

Warhol’s influence on Richter’s abstract paintings is most apparent in his work of the past 25 years. “Abstract Painting” [CR 758–2] and “Abstract Painting” [CR 759–1] (both 1992) are two examples of how serial repetition across the composition is the primary visual effect. In the first, silvery gray vertical streaks cling to the picture plane as paler tones between them suggest depth. In the second, a sketchy grid of purple-gray blotches and streaks has the look and feel of an early Warhol silkscreen painting. “Abstract Painting” [CR 795] (1993) is a good example of Richter’s success in combining serial repetition with deliberate fading and blurring. Vertical strips of green, red, blue, and orange rendered as fuzzy, hazy forms create horizontal vibrations on the canvas. This suggests that the painting presents a frame from a film of totally abstract images or a ruined and stained film, forever changing yet never really doing so. Warhol used repetition, fading, and blurring for emotional resonance very effectively in “Marilyn Diptych” (1962),4 creating an elegiac mood appropriate for the untimely death of the actress. Richter often uses blurring and fading in his paintings based on photographs, where their emotional impact is similar. In the past 25 years, he has often used the same pictorial devices in his abstractions to evoke similar emotions.

“Abstract Painting” [CR 778–2] (1992) is particularly interesting because it is an expressive abstract image based heavily on what Richter learned from Warhol. It features a grid-like array of white square areas tainted with blue and yellow. Oil paint has been textured methodically but creatively with large brushes and squeegees on the smooth metallic surface to create long, thin lines that make the shapes appear to shimmer and vibrate horizontally. Small areas of bright red are dispersed across the composition; some are rectangular blotches of thick, smooth paint and others are drips and streaks of fluid paint. This manipulation of red conveys a sense of shock, danger, and violence similar to Warhol’s Death and Disasters. A good comparison with Richter’s painting may be made with Warhol’s “Red Disaster,”5 in which a photograph of an electric chair is drenched in red ink and repeatedly printed as blurry in a grid-like arrangement on the canvas. Richter has admitted to his concerns about social malaise, psychological alienation, death, loss, and self-doubt, which he observed during his childhood in post-World War II Germany as the damage done by the war to many Germans became apparent. Warhol’s “Statue of Liberty” (1962),6 is intriguingly similar to Richter’s painting in its emotively suggestive impact. This painting repeats a photograph of the American monument as blurred, hazy, and tilted with empty space on the left while large areas of blue and gray and smaller areas of bright red stain the printed and altered photographs. Warhol has shocked the viewer with the unsettled, endangered, and violated presentation of this American icon. However, his blunt repetition and lack of personal touch ultimately render his meaning uncertain, and our initial emotional response is quickly halted. Warhol said that emotional responses to these provocative and disturbing photographs were neutralized by their abundant reproduction in the news media, that this desensitized viewers to the horrors shown. Richter’s abstract paintings often do very much the same thing.

The vivid, garish, and clashing colors in many of Richter’s abstract paintings were probably inspired by those Pop artists who exaggerated the simplified, bold, and eye-catching qualities of magazine illustrations, posters, signs, and billboards. Rosenquist’s billboard paintings demonstrate how the intense, vibrant, and sensuous qualities of his subjects are made acutely obvious, gaudy, overwhelming, and chaotic through abrupt and improbable juxtapositions of forms, the extreme distortion and intensification of shapes, colors, and textures, and compositions where crowding, overlapping, and bizarre scale play with our recognition and interpretation of the familiar. Richter has known Rosenquist since at least 1970, when they met in Cologne, and he saw his work there and in New York City that year. Some of Rosenquist’s billboard paintings of the 1970s and 1980s are quite similar to Richter’s abstractions from the mid-1970s to the late-1980s. Since the 1970s, Rosenquist has explored an increasingly wider range of subjects, including the cosmic, supernatural, and imaginary, and his style has often become more abstract, with lurid, dazzling, and startling colors as well as extreme, surprising textures that often clash visually.

Richter’s “Clouds” [CR 514–1] (1982) is a large horizontal canvas with broad brushstrokes of dark green across the top, smoother, wider areas of blue across the bottom, and dabs and streaks of orange textured with squeegees and trowels on the right. The most jarring aspect of this painting is that the blue which we would assume is the sky is illogically located in the bottom of the composition, as if the world is upside-down. Such bizarre transformations and dislocations are common in Rosenquist’s paintings and have become more extreme over the years. They are apparent in “Star Thief” (1980), in which a sliced view of a woman’s face, bacon, and various metallic forms float in outer space, and “The Bird of Paradise Approaches the Hot Water Planet” (1989), in which a colorful bird-insect creature passes through layers of thick clouds with the radiant yellow light of a sun filling the space behind it. Richter’s “Pavillion” [CR 489–1] (1982) consists of firmly isolated areas of disparate colors and textures with irregular, barely described contours, including smooth areas of blue and green, mottled lava-like orange, and wavy strokes of gray. This painting seems to contain abstract equivalents to the atomic blasts, clouds, astronauts, and canned spaghetti in Rosenquist’s “F-111” (1964 – 65). Richter’s “Abstract Painting” [CR 591–2] (1986) is a tour de force of vivid, explosive colors and extremely rich, sensuous textures, which vary from flowing, lava-like orange on the right to darker tan on the left, plus dry streaks of green and indigo scattered across the composition but mostly gathered in the left and center. A precisely rendered, dark triangular form that resembles a designer’s ruled square juts into the foreground through an opening in these clumps and masses of paint. It is similar to many of Rosenquist’s later paintings in its vivid, lush, and unrealistic textures and colors.

Although Richter’s abstract paintings were affected greatly by the aesthetics of Pop Art, they have no connection to most of the subjects that Pop Art usually explored. Despite being visually related to Abstract Expressionism, they are not particularly spiritual, philosophical, introspective, cathartic, or existential. The best explanation of what they mean actually comes from Richter, but it has long been buried under verbose theory. He has said that these abstract paintings are visualizations of imaginary places and experiences, of what has been conceived and invented by the artistic imagination. This is similar to the changing themes in Rosenquist’s works in the 1970s and 1980s, to his bizarre, fantastic, and dreamlike subjects, although Rosenquist’s paintings have always remained representational. Richter’s pursuit of pictorial “rightness” in his abstract paintings, of organizing and balancing the components of a composition for visual, emotive, and expressive impact, is also essential to their meaning. This is as traditional as it is timeless, but some of his works are clearly more effective than others in this respect. “Abstract Painting” [CR 591–2] and “Abstract Painting” [CR 778–2] seem to have this elusive pictorial “rightness,” when colors, textures, shapes, and forms come together in an image that is whole, appealing, and captivating.


NOTES

  1. To see the Richter paintings discussed in this essay, consult gerhard-richter.com.
  2. See, respectively, whitney.org/Collection/RoyLichtenstein/662, lichtensteinfoundation.org/0391.htm.
  3. See tate.org.uk/art/artworks/warhol-marilyn-diptych-t03093.
  4. See mfa.org/collections/object/red-disaster-34765.
  5. See www.warhol.org/ArtCollections.aspx?id=1541.
  6. For the works by James Rosenquist, see www.jimrosenquist-artist.com.

Contributor

Herbert R. Hartel, Jr.HERBERT R. HARTEL, JR. received his doctorate in modern, contemporary and American art from the CUNY Graduate Center and his B.A. in studio art and art history from Queens College. He has taught at Hofstra University, Baruch College, John Jay College, and Parsons School of Design. He has published articles in Source: Notes in the History of Art, Journal of the American Studies Association of Texas, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, and New York History, and numerous reviews in The Art Book and Cassone: The Online Magazine of Art. He is particularly interested in 20th century American art, abstraction, and symbolism

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The Triumph of Painting

ESSAYS

AN ART THAT EATS ITS OWN HEADBarry Schwabsky


Painting in the Age of the Image


We live in the age of the image. But don’t ask me to define the word: its very elusiveness is of the essence. We talk about image when we want to indicate an appearance that seems somehow detachable from its material support. This is most obvious when we speak of a photographic image: it’s the same image whether it’s presented as a small snapshot or blown up as a big cibachrome, glowing on the monitor of my computer or mechanically reproduced in the pages of a magazine.


It has often been said that the invention of photography in the mid-nineteenth century changed the nature of painting by withdrawing from it the task of representation that had so long been at its core, thereby enabling the emergence, in the early twentieth century, of a fully abstract art. The initial plausibility of this story, however, should not disguise its falseness. Any mediocre painter of the nineteenth century could depict a person, object or landscape with greater accuracy and vividness than a photograph. (If nothing else, the painter could show the colour of things, hardly a negligible dimension of visual experience.) The real attraction of the photograph – beyond simple economics since a photographic portrait cost a lot less than one in oils – lay not in its capacity for iconic representation but rather in what has been called its indexical quality, that is, the apparent causal connection between an object and its image. The image comes from what it shows, a sort of relic.


Far from irrational, there may be an important truth lurking in this notion of the image as a detachable constituent of the reality it pictures. In any case, it finds an echo not only in the transformation of art since the advent of photography but even in philosophy. In the late eighteenth century, Immanuel Kant taught that we can know, not things in themselves, but rather phenomena, appearances. The ‘thing in itself’ is something whose existence can only be intellectually deduced. The perceiving mind, in this view, is something like an idea of a portrait painter. The subject of the portrait, the sitter, is over there; the painter with his brushes, palette and easel is over here. There is no direct contact between the two of them. Instead, the painter constructs a set of appearances on the canvas that somehow corresponds to the features of the sitter. At the end of the nineteenth century, after the invention of the camera, a different idea of perception became plausible. Henri Bergson declared that we are acquainted with the world not through mere appearances that are somehow different in kind from things in themselves, but through what he called, precisely, ‘images’, which are part and parcel of the real. The mind, for Bergson, is less like a painter than it is like a camera, its sampled images not fundamentally other but simply quantitatively more limited than the ‘aggregate of “images”’ that is reality. Our perceptual apparatus is, one might say, touched by the thing it perceives as the photographic plate or film is touched by the light that comes from the object.


Abstract painting developed under the spell of a philosophy not unlike Kant’s: that the ultimate reality was not the one indicated by the senses, but something intellectually deducible. This was the era of Malevich and Mondrian, and for a long time it seemed misguided to think of modern or contemporary painting primarily in terms of the images it might bear. The most famous and most concise formulation of this view was, of course, Clement Greenberg’s: ‘Whereas one tends to see what is in an Old Master before one sees the picture itself, one sees a Modernist picture as a picture first.’ (Subsequently, one began to signal adherence to this dictum simply by adjuring the word ‘picture’, preferring ‘painting’, a usage still in force today.) To look at a painting for its image could only be to lose sight of the painting’s material, physical existence, leading to the absurdities eloquently denounced by Yve-Alain Bois in his well-known essay ‘Painting as Model’, where he lashes into critics who ‘would make Malevich’s Black Square a solar eclipse, Rothko’s late work stylized versions of the Pietà and Deposition, or Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie an interpretation of the New York subway map’. In this view, to think of painting in relation to image was to see it as a form of representation, however veiled, whereas the great abstractionists had shown that painting could have quite other functions.


Of course, images never left painting, not even in the work of sometime abstractionists like Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning. In the early eighties, image-based painting took the art world by storm. Yet the renown of the Neo-Expressionists (as that generation of painters was called whether the term suited them or not) was much resented and short-lived. Their work has never had the disinterested critical assessment that, perhaps, may now be possible. It was really a decade later that a new generation of painters began to emerge, more slowly and steadily than the Neo-Expressionists, and gathering real force only late in the nineties – painters like Peter Doig, Cecily Brown, Thomas Scheibitz, or many others whose fascination with images was clearly central to their work. They were clearly up to something other than a simple reversion to the dogmas of the pre-modernist academies. In fact, many of them may have been as much influenced by the work of non-painters like Cindy Sherman, Mike Kelley or Jeff Koons as by anything in the history of painting, both Old Master and modern, which they explore freely. Their sometimes earnest, sometimes slackerish technique – at times academic, at others approaching the simplicity of the Sunday painter or the extreme stylisation of the decorator – often seems to recklessly evoke everything that had been off-limits to serious painting. In some of this work one can see parallels in the once despised late work of artists like de Chirico and Picabia.


A criticism too enamoured of the tradition of abstraction, by now threatening to become academic in turn, is ill-equipped to deal with these new manifestations of the image in painting. But so would be a criticism based on the criteria of the Old Masters. The image as we encounter it in contemporary painting is something quite distinct from depiction or representation in European painting before Modernism. Think of all the training in perspective, the investigations of anatomy – the painter was working, in a systematic, indeed almost scientific way to reconstruct pictorially the real world before his eyes, and therefore had to understand not simply its surface but its structure. Contemporary painters, needless to say, do nothing of the sort. Bergsonians without knowing it, they work from a reality that is always already image. The Impressionists were already pointing in this direction when they changed the focus from the self-subsistent object to the shimmering play of its appearances. A more urgent precedent for contemporary painting, however, is the Pop Art of the sixties: Roy Lichtenstein taking comic strips as his models, James Rosenquist mimicking billboards, or Andy Warhol with his grainy news photos. Painters who cultivated the look of the snapshot, like Gerhard Richter or Malcolm Morley, were pursuing similar ends. But notice the difference between the image-consciousness of the painters who have emerged in recent years and that of these elders: taking photographs, comics or billboards as one’s material – simply because they are clearly limited categories of image material – still seems to imply that there could be a realm beyond the image that the artist might otherwise have elected to access: it implies a quasi-polemical choice of the image-realm over some other reality. That’s a polemic today’s painters no longer seem to feel called upon to make. Instead, they find everything to be a matter of images.


Painters like Doig, Marlene Dumas or Luc Tuymans – to name three of the most influential artists at work today – make work that is entirely permeated by a photographic reality, that is, a reality composed of detachable appearances; yet in contrast to Richter or Morley, they feel no need to represent the ‘look’ of the photograph. The painting remains painterly. To say that contemporary painters treat reality as an aggregate of images, in Bergson’s phrase, is not to say that they paint it with neutrality, or with pure aesthetic distance, or without commitment. On the contrary, their engagement with the image is precisely that, a form of engagement, and inevitably conveys an emotional stance, whether it be the piss-taking disdain typical of Tuymans’ saturnine gloom, the airy bemusement that emanates from Sophie von Hellerman’s paintings, Ian Monroe’s sense of claustrophobia, or Cecily Brown’s frenetic urgency. The effects are often uncomfortable. wangechi mutu’s images are images of the body, but always awkward and resistant, while Dexter Dalwood’s are spaces, plausible enough to draw one in but too disjointed to actually inhabit. Much of this work has a syncretic quality that could not have existed without the example of modernist collage, but by folding its disjunctive effect back into paint — an actual heterogeneity of materials is exceptional here, and when it occurs, as in the work of Michael Raedecker or David Thorpe, it represents not the shock of an irruption of the real into art, as it did in different ways for Cubism, Dada and Constructivism, but something more like an incursion of the homely distraction of crafts and hobbies into the artistic field.


This fascination with craft has the same source as the more widespread attraction to painterliness, among today’s younger painters, as opposed to the seamless surface of photorealism: not an overturning of hierarchies between high and low cultures, but a more fundamental concern with a physical involvement in the image. For although it was photography that taught us the modern idea of the image, it is painting that allows us to internalise it. It’s a question of touching and being touched. The photograph may have been touched by the light of its object, but the sense of contact is entirely subsumed in the seamlessness of the photograph’s surface. Painters like Dumas and Tuymans, and so many others who freely interpret photographic imagery, are attempting neither to disguise its photographic basis in order to retain an aesthetic effect, nor to reproduce the appearance of the photograph in order to neutralise it. Their strategy is not essentially different from that of colleagues who may not directly use photographs in the work process but who nevertheless treat the world they paint as wholly image. The surface of painting, then, is for current painting something that partakes neither of the homogeneity of the photographic emulsion nor the heterogeneity of collage. It is a place where both differences and similarities are consumed. In a way, Schutz’s painting Face Eater (2004), can be taken as a paradigmatic painting of the moment. With its evident allusions to Picasso and Bacon, it clearly signals its art-historical allegiances, but the painting wears its citations lightly – the paintings of the two modern masters, and notably those of Bacon which are themselves based on photographic vision, are simply part of Schutz’s image-world. It is hilarious and terrifying at once. A head tries to swallow itself and in the process it does not disappear, but the senses become confused: the mouth sees by consuming the organs of vision, the eyes feast on their own imminent consumption. Is this an emblem of the artist’s solipsism? Not necessarily. The painting declares itself to be – borrowing a resonant phrase from the literary theorist Stanley Fish – a self-consuming artefact, but does consumption really take place? Not really. Instead, we are shown a commotion of the senses that seems as pleasurably seductive as it may be neurotic. To look at it is practically to feel one’s own teeth start reaching up to bite the upper lip. It’s an image about interiorising as image even oneself. And in that image, touching reality.

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The Triumph of Painting


The Mnemonic Function of the Painted Image

Alison M. Gingeras


‘Not being remembered at all: this has, in the end, been the fate of the subjects of most photographs.’ Geoffrey Batchen


The desire to ensnare and preserve memory is a fundamental human pursuit. Photography, with its capacity to indexically depict the world, long seemed to surpass painting as the optimal tool for capturing the fleeting instant. Yet amid the overabundance of photographically generated images in the world today, photography has slowly revealed its limits. The advent of photography has taught us that memory is not precise; it is nebulous, malleable, ever-changing. The sharpness and precision of camera-made images conflicts with the way the human brain remembers. As photo historian Geoffrey Batchen provocatively argues the ‘straight’ photograph has always been an insufficient vehicle for memory. Over the course of the medium’s popularization, people have found ways to transform photographs into objects by adorning them with paint, elaborately framing them, incorporating them into jewellery or devotional objects. The aim of making these hybrid photo-objects is to ‘enhance their memory capacities’ through sensorial manipulation. These embellishments ‘counteract the fact of death’, and aid the photograph in its struggle against being forgotten by the living.


Certain contemporary painters have long since understood the mnemonic insufficiency of the photograph and have capitalized on their own medium’s strength in this domain. The painted image, with its material sensuality, tactility, and atmospheric possibilities, corresponds more closely to the imprecision of the human brain’s mnemonic functions. Memory is often triggered by the banal, by otherwise vacant or impressionistic details that prompt the senses through association. Painted images – precisely because they lack the pictorial authority and truth-telling capacity of photography – can more easily trigger a free play of association or become a catalyst for a web of connections that relate to the viewer’s own memory bank. Inverting the photograph’s claim to instantaneity, the painstaking, artisanal nature of a painting’s own making metaphorically relates to the mental intensity and time required by the act of reminiscence. As curator Russell Ferguson has surmised, ‘with photography in command of specificity, advanced painting seeks ambiguity.’


Artists such as Wilhelm Sasnal and Kai Althoff have seized upon the mnemonic potential of painting to weave together hybrid tableaux, conflating personal stories and collective events. Living and working in Poland, Sasnal culls his subjects from several recurrent categories: architectural structures, organic/plant forms, portraiture (most frequently he paints his wife Anka), film stills (often appropriated from Polish cinema), album and book covers. Rarely painting from life, the camera’s lens is what consistently mediates Sasnal’s source imagery. Sasnal’s stylistic range is as varied as are his sources for inspiration; in any single exhibition, his work can run the gamut of pop, photorealism, informal minimalism and gestural abstraction, among others. He uses these different painterly techniques and styles to transform and elevate his photographic source images into cryptic signs, powerful emblems and poetic pictures. Mixing the historical and personal with the random and trivial, Sasnal creates a pictorial rebus that is simultaneously accessible to the viewer and yet remains deeply subjective. Each picture is like a jump cut, taking the viewer back and forth in time and space, from near present to distant past, bird’s eye view to microscopic close-ups that dissipate into abstraction. This telescoping in-and-out resembles the way the human mind retains and transforms memories, converting them into a string of ever-mutating images.


Like Sasnal, the Cologne-based artist Kai Althoff’s work is driven by an inextricable mélange of intimate fictions and allusions to Germany’s highly charged history. Althoff channels his obsession with adolescence, homoeroticism and utopian communities into an astounding formally and materially varied oeuvre. His best-known series entitled Impulse (2001) is drenched in narratives and imagery taken from Germany’s collective memory. German folklore, Prussian military regalia, as well as Catholic mysticism have directly inspired his iconography. His compositions are mostly populated by a series of androgynous characters in period settings and dress – often illustrating the artist’s own alter egos. The figures and scenes that are depicted in Impulse are rendered with great dexterity; not only do their costumes and uniforms evoke the First World War, but they strategically recall the style and draftsmanship of such early twentieth century German artists as George Grosz and Kathe Kollwitz. These stylistic borrowings are as much a self-conscious acknowledgement of art historical antecedents as they are part of Althoff’s mnemonic alchemy.


Three young German artists – Franz Ackermann, Thomas Scheibitz and Dirk Skreber – combine the languages of figuration and abstraction in their painting to explore a different aspect of public memory. Less narrative and personal than Althoff or Sasnal, these three artists have each developed a unique conceptual procedure (as well as signature style) that allows them to investigate universal experience and collective consciousness. An inveterate voyager, Ackermann records his journeys around the globe in the form of dense, pop-flavoured canvases that often incorporate sculptural elements or photographic collage. Entitling these works ‘Mental Maps’ or ‘Evasions’, Ackermann translates his physical and mental experiences into a painted atlas of a world that is both real and imagined. While his renderings contain numerous recognizable fragments – such as architectural motifs, sprawling urban plans, silhouetted skyscrapers and dynamic transportation networks – his picture planes equally contain passages of exuberant abstraction. Ackermann’s shrilly-fluorescent palette and undulating forms echo the fleeting impressions of the tourist/traveller who is incapable of verbalizing their experiences when they return home. Ackermann treats the canvas as a privileged site to exorcise his memories, though his cartographic recollections are open-ended enough to allow the viewer to project their own urban reminiscences. In essence, on each viewing one recomposes Ackermann cartographies according to his or her own experience.


By merely travelling around the corner to the newsagent’s shop, Thomas Scheibitz has amassed a vast archive of human experience. His countless clippings of found images appropriated from the deluge of mass media publications serve as the basis of his canvases. Scheibitz takes the most banal of singular objects – a suburban house, a flower, a man’s face – and formally manipulates them into semi-abstract compositions. Using a sickly, glacial palette of purples, pinks, blues, yellows and greens, Scheibitz subjects remain somewhat recognizable, though the abstraction process produces an alienating effect. Instead of romanticizing the mnemonic potential of ordinary consumer products, Scheibitz uses painting to distil them into cold, cerebral objects of contemplation. Scheibitz has often compared his practice with scientific research in the area of ‘public memory’. Having read about a series of experiments in which brain specialists recorded the patterns in neural activity of human subjects when hearing certain commonplace words, Scheibitz sees his choice of prosaic imagery as a similar exercise in stimulating our universal consciousness.


Dirk Skreber similarly fuels his painterly practice with collective experience, though his interest veers towards a more visceral terrain. With the saturation of twenty-four hour news channels and the endless stream of infotainment available on the Internet, the spectacle of disaster – whether natural or man-made – has become one of the most banal forms of experience in contemporary life. Painting on a monumental scale and using aerial compositional techniques that mimic the P.O.V. of surveillance cameras, Skreber portrays gruesome car crashes, floods of biblical proportion and impending train wrecks with a cold-blooded fascination. Yet unlike Warhol, Skreber’s preoccupation with death and disaster does not seem to be lifted from a mass media source. Instead, Skreber’s lushly painted images of catastrophe seem to be distilled from our collective nightmares. These disembodied images are like phantom memories, not based in actual events but part of the universal experience of contemporary life.


Albert Oehlen, who occupies the dual role of ‘senior’ artist and agent provocateur in this loose agglomeration, uses his vast knowledge of painting’s history to debase his own medium. As one of the 80’s proponents of ‘bad painting’ (alongside Martin Kippenberger), Oehlen deliberately pillages from a repertoire of established genres, techniques and idioms to demonstrate the failures of both abstraction and figuration. As Diedrich Diederichsen has written of Oehlen, ‘If [he] was to rise above the contemporary criticism of painting’s viability as a practice, he would have to work in the embattled medium: to create the object criticized. He wanted to do three things: to demystify the painting process, presenting it as a series of tricks and ruses; not only to present this critique but almost to ‘say’ it, since he believes that painting functions like, and indeed is, a language; and to create objects that were clearly paintings yet that could speak without illusion, and without constant mystification.’ In order to achieve these ambitious goals, Oehlen uses the memory of his own medium against itself, to deflate painting’s own mythology in order to rebuild it anew.


Once threatened by the advent of photomechanical devices, painting has struggled against slipping into irrelevancy, in the same way that human beings grapple with the possibility of being forgotten. Yet since the contemporary viewer has become so saturated with camera-made images, hyperrealistic forms such as photography and film have become banal and ineffective. Painting has regained a privileged status. The medium’s tactility, uniqueness, mythology and inherent ambiguities has allowed painting to become an open-ended vehicle for both artist and viewer to evoke personal recollections, to embody collective experience and reflect upon its own history in the age of mechanical reproduction.

Geoffrey Batchen, Forget Me Not: Photography and Remembrance, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam and Princeton Architectural Press, New York 2004, pp. 96 – 97.


Russell Ferguson, The Undiscovered Country, Los Angeles, The Armand Hammer Museum of Art, 2004, p. 18.


Diederich Diederichsen, ‘The Rules of the Game: An interview with Albert Oehlen’, Artforum, November 1994.

Peggy Guggenheim Dossier

 

 

 

1942-New-York-Surrealist-Ga==

 

 

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Women in the arts: Peggy Guggenheim

Art-collecting trailblazer

Women in the arts: Peggy Guggenheim

American art collector and socialite Peggy Guggenheim played a major role in promoting influential modernist art in the first half of the twentieth century

Born in 1898, Jewish American Marguerite ‘Peggy’ Guggenheim hailed from a wealthy New York mining family of Swiss origin on her father’s side, while her mother came from a prominent banking family. Tragically, her father, Benjamin, was one of the ill-fated passengers who died on the Titanic in 1912.

In her early twenties, Guggenheim began working at a book shop, the Sunwise Turn, where she was swiftly embraced by a wide circle of intellectual and artistic types. It was in these circles that she met her first husband, Laurence Vail, a writer and Dada sculpter whom she married in 1922 and had two children with. From 1921, Guggenheim lived in Paris, mixing with bohemians, avant-garde artists and American expats. Among these acquaintances were artists Constantin Brancusi and Marcel Duchamp and poet and journalist Djuna Barnes, who would become her lifelong friends.

Women in the arts: Peggy Guggenheim

Said to have a voracious sexual appetite (particularly for artists), Guggenheim left her husband Vail in 1928 for an English intellectual John Holms, who died tragically young in 1934 and is said to have been the love of her life. In January 1938, she opened an art gallery in London – Guggenheim Jeune – and began a career that would nurture some of the most prominent post-WWII artists of the time. Case in point: her first art show featured prolific French playwright, artist and director Jean Cocteau, while her second featured Russian painter Vasily Kandinsky.

In 1939, tiring of her gallery, she began purchasing contemporary masterpieces by artists like Francis Picabia, Georges Braque, Salvador Dalí and Piet Mondrian. Seemingly oblivious to the war around her, Guggenheim continued acquiring works until she was forced to flee Nazi-occupied France in 1941. After returning to New York with soon-to-be second husband Max Ernst (a German artist), Guggenheim began scouting for a site for her modern art museum, while continuing to collect Cubist, abstract and Surrealist art. By the time Art of This Century opened in 1942, Guggenheim’s collection and exhibition rooms were viewed as the most extraordinary and forward-thinking in New York.

Women in the arts: Peggy Guggenheim

Women in the arts: Peggy Guggenheim

Guggenheim went on to champion American Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. In 1947, Peggy returned to Europe and in 1948 her by-now impressive modern art collection was exhibited at the Venice Biennale. She soon bought and moved into Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, on the Grand Canal in Venice, the space that now houses the famous Peggy Guggenheim Collection. Opening her house during summer to the public from 1951, Guggenheim continued to exhibit her works in Europe and New York until her death, aged 81, in 1979. The Peggy Guggenheim Collection is considered one of the most important museums in Italy for its collection of European and American art from the first half of the twentieth century.

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The New York Times
March 1, 1987

PAYING TRIBUTE TO THE DARING OF PEGGY GUGGENHEIM

When Peggy Guggenheim started her gallery, ”Art of This Century,” in the wartime year of 1942, no one was standing on line to buy avant-garde art. But that didn’t faze this flamboyant apostle of the new, who at the gallery’s opening wore one earring by Calder and one by Tanguy to demonstrate her equal regard for abstraction and Surrealism.

In the dramatically innovative arena on West 57th Street, created by the architect Frederic Kiesler, she counterpointed the work of such European stars as Arp, di Chirico, Giacometti and Picasso with that of then unknown American talents: Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still. She was the first and prime patron of the burgeoning Abstract Expressionist movement, and her gallery thus played a key role in New York’s displacement of Paris as the capital of modern art. During its five-year run on 57th Street, ”Art of This Century” mounted more than 50 exhibitions. Among them was a show devoted to collage, for which Peggy invited Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock and William Baziotes to submit work. Neither Pollock nor Motherwell had made collages before; Motherwell today credits the ”identity” he found in the collage medium to her initiative. Two exhibitions were devoted entirely to women artists (among them the ecdysiast Gypsy Rose Lee, who contributed a self-portrait); one show explored the relationship between insane and Surrealist art, and no less than four solo shows were devoted to the gallery’s rising star, Jackson Pollock. He had been working at the Guggenheim Museum as a carpenter, and came to Peggy’s attention through Howard Putzel, one of her close advisers, and the Chilean Surrealist Roberto Matta. In her autobiography, ”Out of This Century,” she wrote that Pollock ”immediately became the central point” of her gallery. And until she returned to Europe in 1947, settling in Venice, she devoted herself to promoting the work of the artist who, in her eyes, was ”to become, strangely enough, the greatest painter since Picasso.”

Now, 40 years after the closing of ”Art of This Century” in 1947, the Guggenheim Museum – founded by Peggy’s uncle Solomon – is paying tribute to her ”profound influence on the art world of her time.” On Friday it will open ”Peggy Guggenheim’s Other Legacy,” (through May 3) a show of some 60 works of painting and sculpture originally exhibited at ”Art of This Century,” or given by her to institutions across the country in an effort to spread the gospel of modernism. (The ”other legacy” in the show’s title refers to these works, as distinct from Peggy’s own collection of modern paintings ensconced in her Venetian palazzo and given to the Guggenheim Museum. at her death in 1979.) It’s not easy to realize today the impact of the gallery – and Peggy’s donations – on the public acceptance of modern art in this country. At a time when – despite the inroads made by the Museum of Modern Art – the avant garde was still considered suspect by most right-thinking people, even in Manhattan, ”Art of This Century” was a vigorous outpost for the new and controversial. Harboring a rich mix of refugee artists from Europe and ambitious local vanguardsmen, its ”erratic setting” – recalls Fred Licht, adjunct curator of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice and co-organizer of the exhibition with Melvin P. Lader – provided ”a recklessly liberal point of encounter and discussion. One never knew which artist would be arguing loudly with what other artist or critic.” The idea was conveyed, he adds, ”that contemporary and indeed all art was not simply to be enjoyed, respected, admired and studied. It could and should give rise to further adventures, to polemics, to the expression of still more, still newer ideas.”

Not content with showing new work in New York, Peggy tried to extend the gallery’s sphere of influence from 57th Street to the rest of the country. Among other works, she gave away some 20 Pollocks, which she later regretted. One of her more difficult bestowals was that of a 1943 Pollock mural 23 feet long and 6 feet wide, painted for the entrance hall of her apartment. ”It consisted of a continuous band of abstract figures in a rhythmic dance painted in blue and white and yellow,” she writes, ”and over this black paint was splashed in drip fashion.” When she decided to donate it as a ”seed gift” to the University of Iowa in 1948, university officials jibbed at the shipping and insurance costs of $100, and wondered whether they could find a suitable place for it. Finally they concluded it would be ”useful for teaching purposes.” Yet a decade later, in 1961, they politely refused Peggy’s bid to exchange the mural for a Braque still life.

Other gifts went to such places as the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Phoenix Art Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the North Carolina Museum of Art, the Museum of Art of the Rhode Island School of Design, and the Seattle Art Museum. When the Seattle museum’s curator, Edward B. Thomas, visited Peggy at her palazzo in 1954, she took to him immediately. Turning away from a pompous visitor who was considering a work for purchase, Peggy said to Thomas in a stage whisper, ”Stick around, honey, and I’ll give you one.” When the visitor left, she offered the curator his pick of five Jackson Pollocks. Later Thomas noted that this gift and others from Peggy helped ”underline the need to expand the museum’s modern holdings,” and that their quality and the prestige of the giver provided ”an excellent inducement to other collectors to become involved in the museum.”

When she unveiled ”Art of This Century” here in 1942, Peggy was in effect a wartime refugee from Europe, where she had cavorted wildly for more than 20 years. As the daughter of Benjamin Guggenheim, the copper-mining heir – he died in the Titanic disaster of 1912 – she had grown up in considerable luxury on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. But, rebelling against the longueurs of life amid New York’s Jewish upper crust she fled to Europe in 1921, a well-heeled Bohemian ripe for love and adventure. She fell in with such glamorous expatriates as Djuna Barnes and Man Ray – who took a famous photograph of her – and married a tempestuous young painter, Laurence Vail, by whom she had two children.

Several liaisons later, in the late 1930’s, Peggy was in London, free for the moment of husbands and lovers, and rather bored. Neither ”creative” nor terribly intellectual herself, but surrounded by people who were, she took up a friend’s suggestion that she open a gallery of modern art. She was undaunted by her minimal knowledge of the subject, since she had as a mentor no less than the artist Marcel Duchamp, whom she had met in Paris. Though the London gallery – called Guggenheim Jeune – only lasted for a brief time, it mounted some vivid shows, among them the first presentations in England of Kandinsky and the Surrealist Yves Tanguy. It put on sculpture and collage exhibitions that included the work of Pevsner, Moore, Picasso, Schwitters and Miro. And it also paid attention to young, unknown English artists such as the abstractionist John Tunnard.

Duchamp, as Peggy noted, not only taught her the difference between Surrealism, Cubism and abstract art, but introduced her to artists and more or less took charge of the show’s arrangements and installations. And willy-nilly, Guggenheim Jeune spurred her into collecting. ”Gradually I bought one work of art from every show I gave, so as not to disappoint the artists if I were unsuccessful in selling anything,” she wrote. ”In those days, as I had no idea how to sell and had never bought pictures, this seemed to be the best solution and the least I could do to please the artists.”

Concerned over the gallery’s money losses, Peggy opted out, after a year and a half, to involve herself in a far more ambitious project – a museum of modern art. She asked Herbert Read (later Sir Herbert), then editor of what Peggy saw as the ”stuffy” but highly respected Burlington Magazine and the leading authority in England on modern art, to become its director. ”He treated me the way Disraeli treated Queen Victoria,” Peggy reported. Together, the two drew up an ideal list of artists whose works they would try to borrow for an opening show. The project came to a halt with England’s entry into World War II. But Peggy kept Sir Herbert’s list (later revised by herself, Duchamp and Nellie van Doesburg, widow of the Dutch abstractionist Theo). With the money she’d set aside to establish the museum, she embarked on an art-shopping spree in Paris. ”My motto was, ‘Buy a picture a day,’ and I lived up to it,” she wrote.

The splendid collection that Peggy thus acquired, despite the onset of the war (”The day Hitler walked into Norway, I walked into Leger’s studio and bought a wonderful 1919 painting from him for $1,000,” she has noted) is today on view, under the auspices of the Guggenheim Museum, at Peggy’s Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, in Venice. But back in 1940, as the Nazis marched toward France, Peggy realized that her acquisitions would be regarded as ”degenerate” art. She shipped them off to a friend’s barn near Vichy; then three days before the occupation of Paris, she left with her children and some friends for a house near Annecy. The pictures were forwarded to her, and stored for a year in the museum at Grenoble by its reluctant director. Finally, in the spring of 1941, packed as ”household goods,” they were shipped to New York. Their owner arrived shortly after, on a Pan American clipper with an entourage of 10 fellow refugees, including the painter Max Ernst, with whom she was shortly to share a brief and tumultuous marriage.

With Ernst, his son Jimmy, and her daughter Pegeen, she traveled all over the country trying to find a proper place for the Peggy Guggenheim museum. Disappointed, the party came back to New York, where in 1942 she commissioned Kiesler to design ”Art of This Century,” a combination ”museum” and commercial gallery which would display her collection as well as temporary shows of European and American art. The results were suitably spectacular. A gallery for Surrealism had flashy lighting and concave walls with wooden arms projecting from them on which to hang pictures. In the Cubist gallery, there was cooler illumination and a system of ropes and wedges to support the pictures and sculptures. Displayed in this manner, the works from Peggy’s own collection served as a background for the new American art she sought out and promoted. ”The only trouble,” Peggy complained, ”was that the decor rivaled the pictures. Kiesler told me I would not be known for my collection in the future, but for his installation.”

She saw the gallery, she wrote in its first press release, as ”a center where artists will be welcome and where they can feel that they are cooperating in establishing a research laboratory for new ideas.” And as New York became the temporary home for such creative refugees as Breton, Tanguy, Mondrian, Duchamp, Lipchitz, Ernst, Chagall, Matta, Archipenko, Masson and others, ”Art of This Century” became a magnet for the avant garde. The presence of the European elders, Peggy noted, greatly stimulated the young American talents who came to the gallery. Some of the first works by ”unknowns” were represented at the collage show in 1943, and Motherwell and William Baziotes had their first sales, to the Baltimore collector Sadie May.

At the first of three annual spring salons, judged by among others, Duchamp, Mondrian and Peggy, Pollock scored with the jury, and became the first and only artist to whom Peggy offered a contract. The penniless young artist got $150 a month, plus a settlement at the year’s end determined by the sale of his paintings. His monthly stipend was later raised to $300, and soon Peggy had so many Pollocks she didn’t know what to do with them. Not forseeing the enormous sums his work would eventually bring, she gave many of them away. ”Now it all makes me laugh,” she wrote in her autobiography. ”I had no idea what Pollock paintings would be worth. I never sold one for more than $1,000. When I left America in 1947, not one gallery would take over my contract. And so now Lee (Pollock’s widow) is a millionaire, and I think what a fool I was.” In the 1960’s, she sued Mrs. Pollock for $122,000, on the grounds that the artist had defaulted on his promise to give her all works produced during the contract period. But the suit was finally dropped.

Preferring life in Europe, where she had lived for two decades before the war, Peggy closed the gallery in 1947 and settled in Venice. To house herself and her collection, she bought the unfinished Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, built by the Veniers, a patrician Venetian family whose lineage included two doges and who, legend had it, kept lions in the garden. Eventually, she soured on the art scene, its frequenters and its products, writing shortly before her death in 1979, ”I do not like art today. I think it has gone to hell, as a result of the financial attitude. People blame me for what is painted today because I had encouraged and helped the new movement to be born. I am not responsible. In the early 1940’s there was a pure pioneering spirit in America. A new art had to be born – Abstract Expressionism. I fostered it. I do not regret it. It produced Pollock, or rather, Pollock produced it. This alone justifies my efforts.”

Although she was a pioneer, her efforts did not go unheralded at the time. Reviewing Peggy’s closing show in 1947, the burgeoning critic Clement Greenberg wrote: ”In the three or four years of her career as a New York gallery director, she gave first showings to more serious new artists than anyone else in the country. I am convinced that Peggy Guggenheim’s place in the history of American art will grow larger as time passes and as the artists she encouraged mature.” He was not wrong.

Drawings

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 THE INDEPENDENT LONDON

The priceless Peggy Guggenheim

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

In just eight years, Peggy Guggenheim changed the face of 20th-century art – and her life, both public and intimate, was as radical as her collection. John Walsh salutes a true original

It was said that she had a thousand lovers in her life, and that she received her most thorough grounding in modern art when she spent a night and a day in bed with Samuel Beckett, interrupted only by her demands that he go out and find some champagne. People murmured that Peggy Guggenheim went to bed with so many men (and occasionally women) because it boosted her self-esteem and made her less conscious of her huge, potato-shaped nose. She loved art and sex in about equal measure, but she was also turned on by fame. Asked why she loved Max Ernst, the great Surrealist painter whom she married in 1941, she replied: “Because he’s so beautiful and because he’s so famous.”

In the high-rolling, modern-Medici world of 20th-century art patronage and art collecting, Peggy Guggenheim was unique. She collected art like nobody else, picking up items that didn’t sell, and works for which there was, as yet, no market, just because she loved them. She bought art, not as an investment, but because she saw something that her own eyes told her was great. She discovered Jackson Pollock when he was a humble carpenter in Solomon Guggenheim’s museum, and gave him his first exhibition in 1950 at the Museo Correr in Venice. But her years spent in actual acquisition were, in fact, few: about 1938 to 1940 in England and France; and 1941-46 in America.

“Eight years collecting in a lifetime of 80 years,” wrote her biographer, Anton Gill, “is not much, especially when one looks at the career of Edward James, or Walter Arensberg or the Cone sisters or Katherine Dreier … Had her private life been less colourful, would what she did for art seem less interesting?” Seldom has a figure in the art world appeared so schizoid about her commitment to the actual work. When her autobiography Memoirs of an Art Lover was published, critics noted with disapproval that, in its 200 pages, art doesn’t get a mention until page 110.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the opening of Solomon R Guggenheim’s fabled New York art gallery, and this autumn marks the 80th anniversary of the very first museum to bear the Guggenheim name. Solomon, Peggy’s philanthropist uncle, rented a large automobile showroom on New York’s Park Avenue and called it the Museum of Non-Objective Painting. Within a few years, he was looking for a more permanent venue for his collection of modern art, and signed up Frank Lloyd Wright to design a “temple of spirit”. The result, a fantastic, spiral-curved building now called the Samuel R Guggenheim Museum, New York, opened to gawping tourists on 21 October 1959, the first permanent museum to be built (rather than converted from a private house) in the United States. Since then, sister museums have been built in Bilbao, Berlin and Las Vegas. But it’s the smallest of them, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, that continues to capture the imagination of art lovers. And 40 years after the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni was opened to the public, on the death of its owner, as the Venice Guggenheim, she remains both an enigmatic and a melancholy figure.

Peggy Guggenheim was the original poor little rich girl, born in 1898 to fabulous wealth in New York City. Her father Benjamin was one of seven brothers of Swiss-German provenance who, along with their father Meyer Guggenheim, made a fortune from smelting metals, especially silver, copper and lead. Peggy’s mother Florette Seligman, came from wealthy banking stock.

Peggy’s education in modern art began in New York in 1920. She was 22, and had inherited from her dead father (who went down with the Titanic in 1912) enough money to supply her, via a trust fund, with an income of $22,500 a year. Anxious to find a job that took her outside her immediate circle of rich friends, she found a job at an avant-garde bookshop, The Sunwise Turn on 44th Street. She swung the job via a family connection, a cousin called Harold Loeb, a fair-to-good painter, writer, man of action and womaniser who was in Paris with the “lost generation” of American émigrés about whom Hemingway wrote in The Sun Also Rises. Through Loeb, Peggy met several members of the generation, including Scott Fitzgerald – and was introduced to Alfred Steiglitz, the photographic pioneer and impresario of the avant-garde.

His gallery on Fifth Avenue was where she encountered the work of Cezanne, Picasso and Matisse: it was their first exposure to the American public. There Peggy also had her first sighting of the work of Steiglitz’s future wife, Georgia O’Keeffe – and met Laurence Vail, a writer who was part of the new boho swing of Greenwich Village.

In the 1920s, Peggy went travelling in Europe, discovered Paris and stayed there, on and off, for 22 years. From the start, her predominant interests were art and sex. “I soon knew where every painting in Europe could be found,” she wrote in her autobiography, “and I managed to get there, even if I had to spend hours going to a little country town to see only one.” She also took to acquiring lovers at a ferocious rate. In her autobiography she explains that, when she was young, her many boyfriends were too respectable to have sex with her; but she had discovered (at 23) photographs of frescoes from Pompeii: “They depicted people making love in various positions, and of course I was very curious and wanted to try them all out myself.” Laurence Vail was startled by her forwardness. He visited her at home in Paris, when her mother was out, made a sexual pass and was taken aback by how readily she said “Yes”. He backtracked, saying that, since her mother might come home at any moment, it might be better if Peggy came to his hotel sometime. She fetched her hat and said: “How about right now?” They married two years later and had two children, Sindbad and Pegeen.

In Paris they immersed themselves in arty circles, befriending Djuna Barnes, the lesbian author of Nightwood, published by TS Eliot at Faber & Faber, Constantin Brancusi, the sculptor whose work she collected, and Marcel Duchamp, the great Surrealist. But the marriage broke up in 1928 when she met an English intellectual called John Holms, a one-time war hero turned writer, who suffered from severe creative blockage and published only one story in his career. Theirs was a tempestuous and short-lived marriage: their home in Bloomsbury was often riven with furious rows, drunken harangues and accusation of infidelity, during which, Peggy writes in her autobiography, “he made me stand for ages naked in front of the open window (in December) and threw whiskey into my eyes”. (She was remarkably unlucky with her lovers. Laurence Vail was similarly theatrical. “When our fights worked up to a grand finale,” she reported, “he would rub jam into my hair.”)

Peggy Guggenheim’s annus mirabilis was 1938. Inspired by the groundbreaking, indeed earthshaking, surrealism exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries in 1936 – derided by the British press but unexpectedly popular with the general public – and the encouragement of her friend Peggy Waldheim (“I wish you would do some serious work – the art gallery, book agency – anything that would be engrossing yet impersonal – if you were doing something for good painters or writers … I think you’d be so much better off … ”) she hit upon the idea of starting a gallery dealing in modern artists. She’d met many artists through her first husband. Her uncle Solomon had put together a priceless collection of Old Masters, but she could collect new work for a much more modest outlay. And she genuinely loved the company of artists and writers. She began to look for a suitable space, helped by Humphrey Jennings, the documentary-maker who filmed Auden’s “Night Mail” for the GPO Film Unit, and Marcel Duchamp. As they fixed on No 30 Cork Street, Duchamp gave her some basic lessons in modern art. “Peggy had to be shown the difference between what was Abstract and what was Surrealist,” writes her biographer Anton Gill, “and between the ‘dream’ Surrealism of, for example, Dali or Di Chirico and the ‘abstract’ Surrealism of, say, André Masson. She was an eager and quick learner, showing a natural affinity and sympathy for what she saw.”

Also helpful was Samuel Beckett, who was then living in Paris as secretary/amanuensis to James Joyce. He and Peggy met on Boxing Day 1939 at Bosquet’s restaurant, at a dinner thrown by Joyce. Beckett escorted Peggy home to her apartment in St Germain-des-Pres, came in, lay on the sofa and asked her to join him. It’s one of the few recorded instances of the Beckett seduction technique. They were thrown together for 12 days, in which he persuaded her to stop worrying about Old Masters and concentrate on collecting modern artists.

So the marriage of money and art came together. Duchamp’s friendship supplied a heady throng of top-class artists for Peggy to meet: he introduced her to Jean Cocteau, who wrote the introduction to his exhibition. Beckett translated it and introduced her to Geer Van Velde, the Dutch artist. Meanwhile, Beckett revealed an unexpected |love for driving fast in her whizzy sports cars. And the society heiress was gradually |transformed into the boho queen of the European art world.

The gallery, christened Guggenheim Jeune, opened on 24 January 1938, with 30 drawings by Jean Cocteau. Two large linen sheets, sent over from Paris, displayed a group of figures with their genitals and pubic hair on display: they were confiscated and detained, of all unlikely places, in Croydon airport until Peggy and Duchamp could hurry to south London to have them released.

As the year rolled by, Peggy’s gallery grew in stature. She gave Wassily Kandinsky his first-ever London show, then an exhibition of contemporary sculpture featuring works of Henry Moore, Hans Arp, Brancusi, Alexander Calder and Anton Pevsner.

Despite the speed of her gallery’s success, Peggy grew tired of temporarily showcasing the work of certain artists. Inside a year, she became excited by “the idea of opening a modern museum in London”, and organising it on historic |principles. She would decide in advance which artists and schools would feature in it, and then go out and acquire them. As her guiding influence, she turned to Herbert Read, the art critic, and asked him to draw up a wish-list of all the artists he thought should be represented. As the whole of Europe trembled on the brink of war, Peggy Guggenheim set out on her tremendous cultural crusade. She boldly resolved to “buy a picture a day”. She bought Surrealist works by Dali, Cubist works by Braque and Picasso, geometric designs by Mondrian and Fernand Léger (whose Men in the City she bought on the day Hitler invaded Norway. The painter said he was “astonished by her sang froid”.) In the winter of 1939 and spring of 1940 she bought work by Miro, Picasso and Max Ernst in dizzying succession. She patrolled the ateliers of Paris, snapping up minor masterpieces for a song. She bought Brancusi’s soaring sculpture Bird in Space in Paris, even as the German army advanced on the capital.

The invasion effectively closed down her operations. With the über-Surrealist Max Ernst (whom she later married and divorced in two years), she finally fled occupied France in July 1941 and headed for her beloved New York. She lost no time in finding a new home for her purchases.

In October 1942, her museum-gallery, Art of This Century, opened in Manhattan, exhibiting all her Cubist, Abstract and Surrealist acquisitions. For the opening night, she wore, according to Anton Gill, “one earring made for her by Calder and |another by Yves Tanguy, to express her equal commitment to the schools of art she supported”. The work of leading European artists flowed through her gallery, along with unknown young Americans: Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, Janet Sobel, Clyfford Still – and the gallery’s star attraction Jackson Pollock. In Ed Harris’s 2000 film Pollock, in which Guggenheim was played by Amy Madigan, it was suggested that artist and patron had an affair; in fact he’s a rare sighting of an artist who slipped through Peggy’s fishnets; she didn’t fancy him because he drank too much. But she supported him with monthly handouts and sold his work: she commissioned his largest painting, Mural, and gave it away to the University of Iowa. Without Peggy’s generous patronage, it’s doubtful whether the American abstract Expressionist movement would have survived as it did.

Then, after the war, she discovered Venice. In 1948 her collection was exhibited at the Venice Biennale – the first time that Pollock, Rothko and Arshile Gorky had been seen in Europe. The fact that she’d brought them together with all the European masterpieces bought in the early years of the war made her complete collection a paradigm of Western modern art.

A year later, she bought the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal, and held an exhibition of her sculptures in the gardens. The |reputation of her collection grew as it was toured across Europe, and shown in Florence, Milan, Amsterdam, Brussels and Zurich, before setting up its permanent home in the Palazzo. |From 1951, she opened her house and collection to the general public every summer, though |she kept adding to it over the next 30 years. She donated the palace and her collection to the Solomon Guggenheim Foundation, but the |collection remains where it is, a cynosure for |art-loving tourists.

She died on 23 December 1979. Her ashes are buried in a corner of the Palazzo garden, near where her 14 beloved Lhasa Apso dogs are buried. The dogs were a vestigial emblem of the flamboyant, rich-bitch socialite she could so easily have remained, with her family inheritance and ritzy Manhattan haut-monde. But Peggy Guggenheim was something more than that: an art collector who believed that some works are worth keeping safe in the collective cultural memory, protecting them against obscurity, as if it were a noble cause.

Art world: The Guggenheim empire

Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao

Best known for its building, Bilbao’s Guggenheim is an astonishing architectural feat designed by Frank Gehry. Its series of curved, interconnected shapes are clad in shimmering titanium, while the interior is designed around a large, light-filled atrium with views of Bilbao’s estuary and the surrounding hills of the Basque country. Opened in 1997, the museum has provided a home for large-scale, site- specific works and installations by contemporary artists, such as Richard Serra’s 340ft-long “Snake. Guggenheim Bilbao makes a point of supporting the work of Basque artists, as well as housing a selection of works from the Foundation’s extended collection.

Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin

Opened in 1997, the Deutsche Guggenheim is a joint venture based in the ground floor of the Deutsche Bank building in Unter der Linden, a grand boulevard in the historical centre of Berlin. The 510sq m gallery inside this Twenties sandstone building was designed by Richard Gluckman to provide a clean, clear space for artworks that belong to both the Guggenheim Foundation and the bank itself, which holds the largest corporate art collection in the world. The gallery presents major thematic exhibitions, as well as site-specific commissions by new and established contemporary artists, including John Baldessari, Anish Kapoor, Jeff Koons, and Rachel Whiteread.

Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York

Opened on 21 October 1959, the New York Guggenheim building is an artwork in its own right: a white spiral structure designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Inside, the museum brings together several private collections, including the “non-objective paintings” belonging to Solomon R Guggenheim, who established the Guggenheim Foundation that still owns the museums that carry its name. Up to 1,150,000 visitors flock each year to the Fifth Avenue museum, which is also home to his niece Peggy Guggenheim’s collection of Abstract and Surrealist works; art dealer Justin K Thannhauser’s masterpieces; and Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo’s large selection of Minimalist, Post-Minimalist and Conceptual art.

Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Museum, Saadiyat Island, United Arab Emirates

Currently under construction, the latest Guggenheim will also be the biggest. Another innovative design from the California-based architect Frank Gehry, with clusters of block and cone-shaped connected galleries seemingly piled on top of each other, the 450,000sq ft museum is situated on a peninsula at the north-western tip of Saadiyat Island, adjacent to Abu Dhabi. It will house its own modern and contemporary collections, with a special focus on Middle-Eastern contemporary art, as well a presenting special exhibitions from the Guggenheim Foundation’s main collection.

Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice

Solomon R Guggenheim’s niece, Peggy, bequeathed her collection, and the 18th-century palazzo house in which she had lived since the late 1940s, to the Foundation in 1976. Much smaller in scale than its New York counterpart, the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni nonetheless houses an impressive selection of modern art. Its picturesque setting and well-respected collection attract some 400,000 visitors per year. The museum reflects Peggy Guggenheim’s personal interest in a variety of modern styles and schools, from Cubism to Expressionism to Surrealism, and is home to major works by the likes of Marcel Duchamp, René Magritte, Piet Mondrian, and Jackson Pollock.

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April 1986

Peggy Guggenheim as history

by Hilton Kramer

 

There is no figure in the history of twentieth-century art more difficult to keep in proper focus than the avid collector—the kind of collector, that is, who specializes in the acquisition of contemporary art. To this strange, hardy breed—more often ridiculed and maligned than admired or understood— we obviously owe much. Without collectors who take an interest in new art and who are willing to lavish significant sums of money on it, the entire life of art in our society would be a very different thing. It would be a much poorer thing, in my opinion, and not only in the strictly financial sense. It is upon such collectors, after all, that artists and their dealers largely depend for their living; and it is to dealers’ exhibitions, let us remember, and to the donations and bequests which collectors make to the museums, that the rest of us owe a large portion of what is important to us in our aesthetic experience. We are all, in a way, the beneficiaries of the collecting enterprise—a fact of cultural life which, except on ceremonial occasions, is seldom accorded the acknowledgement it deserves.

Why, then, is it more or less to be expected that these same collectors will be regarded with considerable suspicion and resentment in their lifetime? There are many good reasons, alas. For one thing, in a buyers’ market—which, despite all the changes that have overtaken the art world, is still the kind of market which the majority of living artists are obliged to deal with—it is not uncommon for collectors to drive very hard bargains. What is worse, collectors often boast about them, too, even while claiming the role of generous and disinterested patron. For another, there are the collectors who clearly invest in contemporary art largely in the hope of making a financial killing at some later date. (The activities of the auction houses in recent years have provided abundant evidence of this practice, and the auction houses represent only the tip of the iceberg in this matter.) Then, too, there are the collectors who are guided less by their aesthetic interests than by their social ambitions, their sexual proclivities, their political affinities, or their fixation on some other extra-artistic obsession. Collectors—even the most enlightened and adventurous among them—tend to be arbitrary in their decisions, fickle in their tastes, and impure in their motives. Their interests are subject to sudden shifts which are seldom purely aesthetic in origin. And it doesn’t add to their appeal that, once their collecting activities are accorded a certain degree of public attention, their egotism is often found to rival and even surpass that of the artists themselves. The grounds for suspicion are indeed not wanting.

Collectors with sufficient money and drive constitute a power, moreover, and power of the particular kind which they are in a position to wield inevitably induces feelings of powerlessness—and thus of resentment, envy, and even outright hatred—among those who are excluded from its immediate benefactions. Around almost every significant collection of contemporary art there sooner or later accumulates a sizable accretion of bruised feelings, failed hopes, and broken promises waiting to be avenged. Like every manifestation of power, that of the collector is therefore a natural object of paranoia, and there is never any shortage of people, both inside the art world and out side it, who are given to nursing their grievances (real or imagined) and plotting their revenge.

On the other hand, it is not unusual for the collectors who are the targets of all this free-floating paranoia and revenge to come to believe that it is they who have been ruthlessly exploited. They aren’t always wrong, either. Human nature being what it is, gratitude tends to be of short-term duration in a rising art market. For all of these reasons, we shall harbor fewer misconceptions about collectors and the role they play in the history of their time if we recognize straightaway that they are not in any sense to be construed as angels.

Some collectors, of course, are in less danger of being misunderstood in this respect than others. Consider the late Peggy Guggenheim, who is now the subject of two very different books. One is a biography by Jacqueline Bograd Weld which leaves no sensational anecdote, no matter how distasteful or repugnant, unrecounted.[1] The other is a vast, scholarly catalogue by Angelica Zander Rudenstine which, while rigorously ignoring the personal affairs of the collector, concentrates with an almost superhuman objectivity on documenting the collection of works of art which Peggy Guggenheim acquired during a particularly crucial period of our history.[2] Peggy Guggenheim was, of course, a notorious character in her day. (She died in 1979 at the age of eighty-one.) Her collection is now preserved as a museum in Venice, Italy, where she lived during the last three decades of her life. Taken together, these two books neatly encompass the twin aspects of her career—the scandalous and the serious—neither of which can be ignored in any attempt to understand the place she once occupied in American cultural life.

In her own lifetime Peggy Guggenheim was praised for her sagacity and courage in recognizing important new talent—most especially, of course, Jackson Pollock’s— while at the same time she was reviled for her stinginess, her pettiness, and her utter lack of anything that could be described as personal morals. That as a collector and a dealer she played a significant role in the formation of the New York School is now universally acknowledged, and her distinction in this regard is in no way diminished by the fact that she availed herself of some excellent advice—what important collector hasn’t?—or that she drove some very hard bargains with the artists she benefited. That she was also, for much of her life, a selfish wretch who left a trail of broken lives wherever her power over others was complete is not to be denied, either. In many respects she was the very archetype of the heiress as a mad egomaniac, using what money she had —in Peggy Guggenheim’s case, it turns out never to have been a huge fortune—to gratify her wayward appetites and impose them on others. In Jacqueline Bograd Weld’s biography we are spared very little in the way of sordid detail about these matters. Yet whatever our judgments may be on Peggy Guggenheim as a woman—and they are bound to be pretty harsh, I think—she was nonetheless one of those people who made a difference in the life of art. What that difference was and how she came to play the role in the life of art that she did is, from our present historical perspective, quite the most interesting thing about her. After all, the world has never lacked for nymphomaniac heiresses or monster egomaniacs of either sex wreaking havoc on those around them; but the art collector represented in Mrs. Rudenstine’s 842-page catalogue remains a rarity even today when, it sometimes seems, every collector of contemporary art seeks to emulate one or another aspect of the Peggy Guggenheim role.

Interestingly, her career as a collector, dealer, and patron was of far shorter duration than the size and fame of her collection might lead one to suppose. Its major phase lasted about ten years, from 1938 to 1948. After that she continued to add works to the collection—Bacon, Boccioni, and Gonzalez in the Fifties, for example, and Dubuffet and Kupka in the Sixties, and slews of Italians during the entire term of her residence in Venice—but, with some notable exceptions, these were not the kind of acquisitions which added real luster to her holdings. Sequestered in Venice in these later years, she was no longer in touch with the most vital artistic currents, and she had begun in any case to think of herself as an historical personage—which in itself is probably fatal as far as taking a continuing interest in new art is concerned. For all practical purposes, then, Peggy Guggenheim’s role as a power in the art world was pretty much limited to a single decade. But what a decade it was!

What also has to be borne in mind is that as an American she belonged to the generation which expatriated itself to Europe in the period between the two world wars. She had gone to Paris in the Twenties, and had quickly become part of the American expatriate community of artists and writers there. If not for the Second World War, it is unlikely that she would have ever returned to the United States to live. The bohemian milieux she frequented in Paris and London clearly suited her, and so did the distance they provided from the oppressive family atmosphere in New York which she had fled as soon as she was able to do so. When she did return to New York in the summer of 1941, she was in some respects as much a foreigner—at least in regard to its art scene —as any of the artist-emigres whose arrival so decisively altered that scene.

In Paris in the Twenties she had met, among others, Marcel Duchamp, Brancusi, Kay Boyle, Jean Cocteau, Malcolm Cowley, Nancy Cunard, Janet Flanner, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Man Ray, Tristan Tzara, and Virgil Thomson.[3] This was her entrée into the world of the international avant-garde, and it stood her in good stead when, years later, she set up as a serious dealer and collector. She opened her first gallery, called Guggenheim Jeune, in January, 1938—not in New York, however, but in London—with Duchamp as her principal advisor. Its inaugural exhibition was devoted to the work of Jean Cocteau— which was not, perhaps, a happy augury. But the gallery’s second exhibition was, for it brought to London the first show ever to be devoted to the paintings of Kandinsky in the British capital. Because nothing in the show was sold, Peggy Guggenheim felt obliged to buy one of the pictures herself, and it was this purchase which marked the beginning of her career as a collector.

Guggenheim Jeune proved to be a shortlived enterprise—it opened on January 24, 1938, and closed on June 22, 1939—but not because of any diminution of interest on the founder’s part. On the contrary, she had quickly decided that a gallery was not sufficient for her ambitions. What she now wanted to establish in London was nothing less than a Museum of Modern Art. Inspired by the existence of the Museum of Modern Art in New York—which had been founded ten years earlier and was just then moving into its first permanent quarters at 11 West Fifty-third Street—she set about this daunting task with that combination of demonic energy, shrewd calculation, and madcap insouciance which was to carry her through some very odd adventures in the years ahead. She persuaded Herbert Read to quit his job as editor of The Burlington Magazine so that he could serve as the director of the new museum, signing him to a five-year contract, and she arranged to rent the London residence of Kenneth Clark for both her own and the museum’s use. The inaugural event was to be a loan exhibition of modern masterworks starting with Cubism and abstraction and ending with Surrealism and other contemporary works. Read was asked to draw up an appropriate list of artists to be represented in this show, and when, owing to the imminence of the war, the project had to be abandoned, she paid Read half the money due him on his five-year contract and set off for the Continent to acquire the proposed list for her own collection.[4] She assumed that sooner or later she would have a museum somewhere.

Was she slightly mad or was she merely an innocent as far as the true political and military situation in Europe that summer was concerned? Probably both, I suspect. About politics Peggy Guggenheim appeared to know nothing and care nothing. What is certain is that, in this matter as in others dear to her heart, she was determined to have her own way—and amazingly, despite Hitler and the expected invasion, she did. Her whirlwind adventures in France, which she did not leave until the summer of 1941, certainly add up to one of the most extraordinary stories of the time. Her goal, or so she claimed, was to buy a work of art every day, and she pretty much did—going to galleries and to the artists’ studios, and seeking out collectors who were eager to sell. And as soon as the word got around, there were plenty of people seeking her out. All in all, she spent about forty thousand dollars, and came away with a staggering hoard of superior works by Brancusi, Giacometti, Léger, Miró, Ernst, Dali, and sundry other members of the School of Paris. Not everyone was charmed by the spectacle, of course. As Jacqueline Weld writes:

One painter . .. from whom Peggy got nothing “but rude remarks” was Pablo Picasso. When Peggy arrived at his studio with her shopping list, hoping to buy one of his most recent pictures, the painter arrogantly ignored her, pointedly talking instead to some other guests. Then, ambling over to Peggy, he said contemptuously, “Lingerie is on the next floor.”

All the same, she managed sooner or later to acquire some very fine Picassos, too, though not from him, and for the most part she did very well indeed.

Was she taking advantage of the artists in a difficult situation? Sensitive to the charge, she afterwards claimed that “I didn’t know anything about the prices of things. I just paid what people told me.” But this was not the whole story, of course. She had, after all, been a dealer—even if she hadn’t sold much. She certainly pressed her advantage where Max Ernst was concerned, acquiring an important cache of pictures for relatively little money. On the other hand, the sale undoubtedly saved his life, enabling him to escape arrest by the Nazis. If the prices she paid for things now strike us as absurdly low, they were not all that different from the prices which such works of art fetched in the peacetime market in the Thirties. It was inevitable that Peggy Guggenheim’s wholesale assault on the French avant-garde art market at that dire historical moment would be resented, yet the whole story is rather wonderful, all the same, and I see no evidence that she caused anyone any injury in the process. She even outsmarted the French authorities by getting her whole collection shipped to America as “household goods” only months before the United States entered the war. The entire episode is like something out of a Henry James novel reinvented by Evelyn Waugh. Unfortunately, Jacqueline Weld isn’t really equal to either the high drama or the real comedy of this bizarre episode, but the essentials of the story are nonetheless recounted in a straightforward manner, and it remains a riveting one in any telling.

Within six months after her return to New York, Peggy Guggenheim was planning the new gallery which proved to be her most celebrated accomplishment. Called Art of This Century and designed by Frederick Kiesler in a highly eccentric style, it quickly established itself as the principal center for the international avant-garde in New York. It was also the place where the New York School made its debut.

Again, she had excellent advice. As Mrs. Weld writes, “Peggy credited men like Alfred Barr and James Johnson Sweeney as her primary influences during those whirlwind days of the 1940s.” Duchamp was also on hand, of course. And by all accounts a now forgotten figure named Howard Putzel, who had already been of help to her in Paris and now came to work at Art of This Century as secretary, advisor, and general factotum, played a major role. He was a real connoisseur of the new art. It was Putzel who recommended Frederick Kiesler to Peggy Guggenheim, and it was he who persuaded her to show Mark Rothko and Hans Hofmann—two painters whose work she really didn’t much care for. Not that she always followed his advice—she refused to give Adolph Gottlieb a one-man show, for example. Opinion appears to be unanimous about her treatment of Putzel: it was wretched. She picked his brain, relied on his judgment, paid him a pittance, made impossible demands on his time and attention, and in general drove him crazy. In the end he left her, of course. He got someone to back a gallery of his own, and it too was distinguished—but it survived for only a season, and he died soon after, probably a suicide. By and large, those who were completely dependent on Peggy Guggenheim did not come to a happy end.

In any event, within three years of opening Art of This Century, the gallery was solidly launched as the flagship of the new American avant-garde.

Many of Howard Putzel’s protégés [Mrs. Weld writes] exhibited in the autumn salon at Art of This Century, opening the 1945 season on October 6: William Baziotes, Julian Beck (who went on to fame as founder of the Living Theater), Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb, Jim Davis, John Ferren, David Hare, Lee Hersch, Peter Busa, Robert de Niro (the father of the actor), Jerome Kamrowski, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, Richard Pousette-Dart, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still….

Writing to Herbert Read at the time, she singled out Pollock as “the best of all these new young people,” and added that he “may sometime be as well known as Miró.” She had then been acquainted with Pollock’s work for little more than two years.

Mrs. Weld tells an interesting story about Peggy Guggenheim’s first encounter with a Pollock painting, and—who knows?—it may even be true. If it is, it would give us a clue— though not, I think, the clue—to whatever perspicacity she brought to her artistic judgments. In the spring of 1943, Art of This Century organized a “Spring Salon for Young Artists,” and one of the jurors was Piet Mondrian.

As Peggy and Mondrian waited for the other jury members to arrive, Peggy began to set out the works around the gallery. She noticed Mondrian looking at a picture in the corner—one submitted by Pollock. “Pretty awful, isn’t it?” she asked. “That’s not painting, is it?” Mondrian made no reply, but stood staring. Peggy continued, “There is absolutely no discipline at ali. This young man has serious problems .. . and painting is one of them. I don’t think he’s going to be included. . . and that is embarrassing because Putzel and Matta think very highly of him.”

When he finally spoke, Mondrian told Peggy that it was the most exciting painting he had seen—in Europe or New York—in a very long time. “You must watch this man.” Peggy was stunned. But, she said, “You can’t be serious. You can’t compare this and the way you paint.” “So, don’t compare this,” he replied.

Jimmy Ernst, who claimed to have witnessed this scene, said of Peggy Guggenheim: “She was willing to listen, she was willing to be told, she was willing to see …. You know, there was nothing phony about it. And it was shocking to see those paintings.” Duchamp also served on the jury for that “Spring Salon,” and he disapproved of Pollock. Clearly some instinct told her that Mondrian was right and Duchamp was wrong. So Peggy Guggenheim came around, and soon put Pollock under contract—a rare thing for an American artist at the time, and virtually unheard of for an artist of Pollock’s generation. To be sure, she was characteristically stingy about it, and paid him too a pittance in return for quite a few pictures. But she launched him, all the same.

How are we to account for it? It simply won’t do to claim that she was merely following good advice. The advice, after all, was conflicting, and there was no shortage of artists under recommendation from one or another advisor. Also, it is clear that Peggy Guggenheim didn’t particularly like Pollock as a man, and she liked his wife, Lee Krasner, even less. (The feeling was mutual, to say the least.) So there was no question of a sentimental attachment. Unlikely as it seems from everything else we know about Peggy Guggenheim, I think we must conclude that her decision to back Pollock was based on a disinterested artistic judgment. But even to say this does not quite explain it, either. The only persuasive observation I have ever heard on this subject is one which Mrs. Weld quotes from Clement Greenberg. “Her taste. . . was often erratic and unsure,” Mr. Greenberg remarked. “But she had a flair for life, a sort of smell for life that made her recognize vitality and conviction in a picture. It was surer ground in selecting the new than taste.” It is, I think, the principal flaw of Mrs. Weld’s biography that in a book running to almost five hundred pages she really adds little or nothing to this observation. On the entire question of Peggy Guggenheim’s real relation to the art of her time—the art she exhibited, promoted, and sometimes acquired for herself—Mrs. Weld provides no answers. The subject remains as much an enigma on the last page of Peggy as it is on the first.

Compounding the enigma is the fact that when we turn to Mrs. Rudenstine’s catalogue we find that with the exception of the Pollocks there is really very little of the art of the New York School represented in the Peggy Guggenheim collection. The collection, which contains a great many first-rate works of the European avant-garde, is pretty skimpy on American art. Besides Pollock, only Alexander Calder and Joseph Cornell are represented in any serious way—and Calder and Cornell are closer to the Europeans in spirit than any of the painters of the New York School. For Peggy Guggenheim, clearly, her brief adventure on the New York scene was an enforced furlough, and she quit that scene to return to Europe as soon as it was possible for her to do so. I doubt whether she was then fully aware of what she had accomplished in New York. Later, of course, as the fame of Pollock and other members of the New York School prospered and the prices of their paintings began to skyrocket, she began to feel a little bitter— she felt she had been cheated by the Pollocks and even brought a legal action. Yet in the end her fundamental judgment on the New York School is to be found in the collection. Except for Pollock, she obviously regarded most of it as inferior to her beloved European masters. As a dealer, she is rightly considered a champion of the American avant-garde. When she closed Art of This Century in 1947, Mr. Greenberg wrote in The Nation:

[Peggy Guggenheim’s] departure is in my opinion a serious loss to living American art. The erratic gaiety with which Miss Guggenheim promoted “non-realistic” art may have misled some people, as perhaps her autobiography did too, but the fact remains that in the three or four years of her career as a New York gallery director she gave first showings to more serious new artists than anyone else in the country …. I am convinced that Peggy Guggenheim’s place in the history of American art will grow larger as time passes and as the artists she encouraged mature.

And he was absolutely right, of course. But as a collector Peggy Guggenheim was actually much closer to the other well-healed American collectors of her generation in preferring the work of the Europeans. About this curious paradox, too, Mrs. Weld has little or nothing to tell us. Indeed, one wonders whether she is fully aware that there is a paradox to be pondered in this matter.

In Mrs. Rudenstine’s mammoth catalogue, on the other hand, no issue or fact or document pertaining to the collection is allowed to go unexamined. Not only is every work of art meticuously scrutinized, but Peggy Guggenheim’s entire career as a dealer and a collector is painstakingly documented. Every exhibition and its catalogue is described; many of the most important reviews are excerpted; and in general we are given a vivid and detailed archive of a sort rarely attempted in the field of twentieth-century art. The Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice is a work of exemplary scholarship and intelligence. With its attention so firmly focused on works of art and their history, moreover, this fine catalogue recalls us to what is finally the real basis of our interest in Peggy Guggenheim—not the scandals and sexual escapades and broken lives, but the art in which she seemed to find an identity that eluded her in every other realm of experience. Is it this, perhaps, that offers us a clue to the mystery of the avid collector?

 

  1. Peggy: The Wayward Guggenheim by Jacqueline Bograd Weld. Dutton; 493 pages, $24.95. Go back to the text.
  2. Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice by Angelica Zander Rudenstine. Harry N. Abrams, Inc., & The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation; 843 pages, $85 (after June I, $95). Go back to the text.
  3. It was in the Twenties, long before she thought of buying paintings, that Peggy Guggenheim began her career as a patron. It was then that she gave Berenice Abbott, who was working as Man Ray’s assistant, the money which enabled her to set up as a photographer on her own. Money was also given to Jane Heap for the Little Review. And it was in the Twenties that Peggy Guggenheim began providing the writer Djuna Barnes with a regular monthly check—a practice which was continued for the remainder of both their lives. Go back to the text.
  4. About this list Mrs. Rudenstine writes: “The list itself has not, thus far, been located—either among the papers of Herbert Read or among those of Peggy Guggenheim, who believed that the list was lost during World War II. By the 1970s she was unable to recall a single specific work that had been on the list, and it has not been possible to reconstruct it. Indeed, it is not even clear whether the list enumerated individual works or merely artists’ names, although the latter seems more likely.” Go back to the text.

Hilton Kramer (1928-2012) was the founding editor of The New Criterion, which he started with the late Samuel Lipman in 1982.

more from this author

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Addicted to Art: The Peggy Guggenheim Collection

  • Joanna McFarlane

    Uploaded by
    Joanna McFarlane
ARTH2057 Joanna McFarlane Essay 2: Peggy Guggenheim U5333531 dedicated herself in the 1940s.
15
 Her influence in Italy functioned in several ways. She presented a full repertoire of pre-war avant-gardes at the Biennale, and introduced the Italians to artists such as Pollock and Kandinsky. The Peggy Guggenheim Museum is modest in size, and in its intimacy is unlike any other. The walls are packed with large canvases surveying Cubism, Surrealism, Expressionism and many other movements that Peggy came to love and patronise. Arguably her most successful patronage would be that of Jackson Pollock, the American Abstract Expressionist that Peggy helped in many ways, both financially and also by bringing his works centre stage in both New York and Venice.
16
 There is a special, rather tiny room, in the Venetian museum that features six priceless Pollocks, which entirely envelop the viewer in his frenzied and swirling world of paint. It has been said that it would be hard to find a more sexist bunch than the male artists who flourished between 1900 and 1960, yet Peggy managed to collect and preserve a boldly avant-garde and collection that is still of great cultural significance. She has been recorded as retaining a sense of calm naïveté and openness to all art that she was shown, and selected an incredible range of contemporary art. In 2010 the Art Gallery of Western Australia housed an exhibition of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, as part of their series on museums and galleries.
 17
 The exhibition served to celebrate her achievements in the collection and patronage of arts, and formed a retrospective of Peggy Guggenheim and her collection. Seemingly, in this exhibition the works acted as bi-products of her success.
Peggy’s gallery and collection
form the manifestation of her life. As seen in this quote from an interview in 1970;
15
 Rylands & Subelyt
ė
, Peggy Guggenheim: A Collection in Venice, p.28
16
 Gill,
Peggy Guggenheim: Life of an Art Addict 
, p.290
17
 
Rylands & Subelytė,
 Peggy Guggenheim: A Collection in Venice
, p.7
ARTH2057 Joanna McFarlane Essay 2: Peggy Guggenheim U5333531
“I worry what will happen to
my paintings after I am gone. I dedicated myself to my collection. A collection means hard work. It was what I wanted to do and I made it
my life’s work. I am not an art collector. I am a museum.”
18
 
Peggy claims that the collection is her life’s work, and
that she herself is a museum. Her
grave lies in the garden, alongside a plaque remembering the Peggy’s ‘beloved babies’ –
 fourteen little dogs.
19
 The museum pays homage to her and her lucky streak of timing, fortune and open-personality that made this collection possible. The location is her old home, a grand unfinished palace in the heart of Venice, and does in fact act as a self-portrait, defining the lifetime and work of one very special lady. Her passion for collecting and patronising the arts that she loved, which has even been described as an
‘addiction’, has led to the preservation and display of an incredible range of art
examples from the early to mid twentieth century, overshadowing her colourful personal life.
18
 Dortch (ed.),
Peggy Guggenheim and her Friends
, p.15
19
 The dogs were pure-bred
Lhasa Apsos, which in a series of generations shared Peggy’s life in the palace, they could be interpreted as yet another aspect of her ‘collecting’.
 
Detail of Peggy Guggenheim on her bed with Alexander Calder’s
Silver Bedhead,
c.1960, photo by Roloff Beny
ARTH2057 Joanna McFarlane Essay 2: Peggy Guggenheim U5333531
Bibliography
 Dearborn, Mary V..
Mistress of Modernism
: The Life of Peggy Guggenheim. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 2004. Dennison, Lisa.
‘From Museum to Museums: The Evolution of the Guggenheim.’
 Museum International. Vol.55. Issue 1. 2003. pp.48-55 
Edlin, Nick.‘The Other Guggenheim’.
Fields, Jill. ‘Was Peggy Guggenheim Jewish?: Art Collecting and Representations of
Jewish Identity In and Out of Post-
War Venice’.
Indiana University Press: Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies & Gender Issues. No.25. 2013. pp.51-74. Gill, Anton.
Peggy Guggenheim: Life of an Art Addict 
. London: Harper Collins Publishers. 2001. Guggenheim, Peggy (ed).
 Art of This Century 
: Objects, Drawings, Photographs, Paintings, Sculpture, Collages 1910
 1912. New York: Art Aid Corporation. 1942. Guggenheim, Peggy.
Out of This Century 
: Confessions of an Art Addict. New York: Universe Books. 1979.
Higonnet, Anne. ‘Self 
portrait as a Museum’.
 RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics. No.52: Museums: Crossing Boundaries. 2007. pp.189-211
Mastandrea, Stefano. Bartoli, Gabriella. Bove, Giuseppe. ‘Preferences for
 Ancient and Modern Art Museums: Visitor Experiences and Personality Characteristics
’.
 American Psychological Association: Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. Vol.3. No.3. 2009. pp.164
173.
 
Rylands, Philip. Subelytė, Gražina.
 Peggy Guggenheim: A Collection in Venice
. Perth: Art Gallery of Western Australia. (Organised with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York). 2010.
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ANOTHER MAGAZINE

Fashion & Beauty / Vintage Style

Peggy Guggenheim

— March 26, 2012 —

“We’ve dressed in our best, and are prepared to go down like gentleman,” were the parting words of Peggy Guggenheim’s father on deck of the Titanic. Peggy, aged 14 at the time, would go on, for better or for worse, to be one of the most notorious

Peggy Guggenheim in Venice, late 1950s

Peggy Guggenheim in Venice, late 1950s

“We’ve dressed in our best, and are prepared to go down like gentleman,” were the parting words of Peggy Guggenheim’s father on deck of the Titanic. Peggy, aged 14 at the time, would go on, for better or for worse, to be one of the most notorious figures of the twentieth century: a devotee to Surrealism and a crusader for the beau monde, she amassed one of the world’s most notable collections of modern day art. She knew Jackson Pollock as a carpenter, Samuel Beckett as a secretary and bought Berenice Abbott his first camera.

Guggenheim was haunted by a lonely and suppressive childhood and suffered great insecurities, often using her wealth and wardrobe as a shield. An extravagant flapper, she was famously photographed by Man Ray in a oriental Poiret dress, worn with a hairband given to her by Stravinsky’s girlfriend. Other favourites included an Elsa Schaparelli cellophane zipper, a black and gold Ken Scott dress and a collection of tricorn hats and ethnic jewellery.

Her clothing reflected her state of mind. On wearing two mismatched earrings, she declared: “I wore one of my (Yves) Tanguy earrings and one made by [Alexander] Calder in order to show my impartiality between Surrealist and Abstract Art.” When first husband Laurence discovered her infidelity on a skiing trip in Switzerland, he found her drunk with a lipstick red-cross marked on each cheek. “She was remarkably ugly,” the painter Jean Helion would comment, “in such a pleasant way.”

“Like her choice in art, her style was avant-garde and daring – she wore flamboyant earrings and illustrative eye make-up, most often covered by her iconic butterfly glasses”

Like her choice in art, her style was avant-garde and daring – she wore flamboyant earrings and illustrative eye make-up, most often covered by her iconic butterfly glasses, designed for her by Edward Malcarth in 1966. As a teenager she assisted in a bookshop, where she would sweep floors wearing pearl necklaces and a fur coat.

Guggenheim was an exhibitionist. Sexually, it is claimed she had close to one thousand liaisons, controversially including most artists that she supported. She married twice: Dada sculpturist Laurence Vali, an abusive alcoholic known to hold her head under water and rub jam into her hair; “he particularly enjoyed throwing my shoes out of the window and attacking chandeliers,” Peggy recalled. Violence was a common thread within her relationships: long-term lover John Holms, a Scottish writer and alcoholic, would make her stand naked in front of an open window while he threw whiskey in her eyes. Her second husband was Max Ernst. She rescued Max and his paintings from the Nazis but their marriage was short-lived, and he left her after five years of turbulent marriage and infidelity.

A botched nose job at 21 left her with what would be referred to as the “Guggenheim potato”. Painter Theodore Stamos would call it “an eggplant,” while John Holms would tell her, “I would like to beat your face so that no man will ever look at it again.” Jackson Pollock famously said that “To f*ck her, you’d have to put a towel over her head. And she did want f*cking.”

Like so many of her kind, Peggy was as extravagant as she was tragic. Tortured and exploited, she eventually settled in Venice in 1949, where she spent the remainder of her life exhibiting her treasures. She died aged 81, her Venetian palace by then a ruin, muddy and overgrown with leaking holes.

She too, dressed in her best, echoed an end somewhat similar to her father’s.

Suggested reading: Art Lover: A Biography of Peggy Guggenheim by Anton Gil.

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PEGGY GUGGENHEIM


Ukr_iconeEnglish_icone

Life history of the character from the painting.)

Peggy Guggenheim’s career belongs in the history of 20th century art. Peggy used to say that it was her duty to protect the art of her own time, and she dedicated half of her life to this mission, as well as to the creation of the museum that still carries her name.

Peggy Guggenheim was born in New York on 26 August 1898, the daughter of Benjamin Guggenheim and Florette Seligman. Benjamin Guggenheim was one of seven brothers who, with their father, Meyer (of Swiss origin), created a family fortune in the late 19th century from the mining and smelting of metals, especially silver, copper and lead. The Seligmans were a leading banking family. Peggy grew up in New York. In April 1912 her father died heroically on the SS Titanic.

In her early 20s, Peggy volunteered for work at a bookshop, the Sunwise Turn, in New York and thanks to this began making friends in intellectual and artistic circles, including the man who was to become her first husband in Paris in 1922, Laurence Vail. Vail was a writer and Dada collagist of great talent. He chronicled his tempestuous life with Peggy in a novel, Murder! Murder! of which Peggy wrote: «It was a sort of satire of our life together and, although it was extremely funny, I took offense at several things he said about me.»

In 1921 Peggy Guggenheim traveled to Europe. Thanks to Laurence Vail (the father of her two children Sindbad and Pegeen, the painter), Peggy soon found herself at the heart of Parisian boheme and American ex-patriate society. Many of her acquaintances of the time, such as Constantin Brancusi, Djuna Barnes and Marcel Duchamp, were to become lifelong friends. Though she remained on good terms with Vail for the rest of his life, she left him in 1928 for an English intellectual, John Holms, who was the greatest love of her life. There is a lengthy description of John Holms, a war hero with writer’s block, in chapter five of Edwin Muir’s An Autobiography. Muir wrote: «Holms was the most remarkable man I ever met.» Unfortunately, Holms died tragically young in 1934.

In 1937, encouraged by her friend Peggy Waldman, Peggy decided to open an art gallery in London. When she opened her Guggenheim Jeune gallery in January 1938, she was beginning, at 39 years old, a career which would significantly affect the course of post-war art. Her friend Samuel Beckett urged her to dedicate herself to contemporary art as it was “a living thing,” and Marcel Duchamp introduced her to the artists and taught her, as she put it, “the difference between abstract and Surrealist art.” The first show presented works by Jean Cocteau, while the second was the first one-man show of Vasily Kandinsky in England.

In 1939, tired of her gallery, Peggy conceived “the idea of opening a modern museum in London,” with her friend Herbert Read as its director. . From the start the museum was to be formed on historical principles, and a list of all the artists that should be represented, drawn up by Read and later revised by Marcel Duchamp and Nellie van Doesburg, was to become the basis of her collection.

In 1939-40, apparently oblivious of the war, Peggy busily acquired works for the future museum, keeping to her resolve to “buy a picture a day.” Some of the masterpieces of her collection, such as works by Francis Picabia, Georges Braque, Salvador Dali and Piet Mondrian, were bought at that time. She astonished Fernand Leger by buying his Men in the City on the day that Hitler invaded Norway. She acquired Brancusi’s Bird in Space as the Germans approached Paris, and only then decided to flee the city.

In July 1941, Peggy fled Nazi-occupied France and returned to her native New York, together with Max Ernst, who was to become her second husband a few months later (they separated in 1943).

Peggy immediately began looking for a location for her modern art museum, while she continued to acquire works for her collection. In October 1942 she opened her museum/gallery Art of This Century. Designed by the Rumanian-Austrian architect Frederick Kiesler, the gallery was composed of extraordinarily innovative exhibition rooms and soon became the most stimulating venue for contemporary art in New York City.

Of the opening night, she wrote: “I wore one of my Tanguy earrings and one made by Calder in order to show my impartiality between Surrealist and Abstract Art». There Peggy exhibited her collection of Cubist, abstract and Surrealist art, which was already substantially that which we see today in Venice. Peggy produced a remarkable catalogue, edited by Andre Breton, with a cover design by Max Ernst. She held temporary exhibitions of leading European artists, and of several then unknown young Americans such as Robert Motherwell, William Baziotes, Mark Rothko, David Hare, Janet Sobel, Robert de Niro Sr, Clyfford Still, and Jackson Pollock, the ‘star’ of the gallery, who was given his first show by Peggy late in 1943. From July 1943 Peggy supported Pollock with a monthly stipend and actively promoted and sold his paintings. She commissioned his largest painting, a Mural, which she later gave to the University of Iowa.

Pollock and the others pioneered American Abstract Expressionism. One of the principal sources of this was Surrealism, which the artists encountered at Art of This Century. More important, however, was the encouragement and support that Peggy, together with her friend and assistant Howard Putzel, gave to the members of this nascent New York avant-garde. Peggy and her collection thus played a vital intermediary role in the development of America’s first art movement of international importance.

In 1947 Peggy decided to return in Europe, where her collection was shown for the first time at the 1948 Venice Biennale, in the Greek pavilion. In this way the works of artists such as Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko were exhibited for the first time in Europe. The presence of Cubist, abstract, and Surrealist art made the pavilion the most coherent survey of Modernism yet to have been presented in Italy.

Soon after Peggy bought Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, on the Grand Canal in Venice, where she came to live. In 1949 she held an exhibition of sculptures in the garden curated by Giuseppe Marchiori, and from 1951 she opened her collection to the public.

In 1950 Peggy organized the first exhibition of Jackson Pollock in Italy, in the Ala Napoleonica of the Museo Correr in Venice. Her collection was in the meantime exhibited in Florence and Milan, and later in Amsterdam, Brussels, and Zurich. From 1951 Peggy opened her house and her collection to the public annually in the summer months. During her 30-year Venetian life, Peggy Guggenheim continued to collect works of art and to support artists, such as Edmondo Bacci and Tancredi Parmeggiani, whom she met in 1951. In 1962 Peggy Guggenheim was nominated Honorary Citizen of Venice.

In 1969 the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York invited Peggy Guggenheim to show her collection there, and it was on that occasion that she resolved to donate her palace and works of art to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. The Foundation had been created in 1937 by Peggy Guggenheim’s uncle Solomon, in order to operate his collection and museum which, since 1959, has been housed in Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous spiral structure on 5th Avenue.

Peggy died aged 81 on 23 December 1979. Her ashes are placed in a corner of the garden of Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, next to the place where she customarily buried her beloved dogs. Since this time, the Guggenheim Foundation has converted and expanded Peggy Guggenheim’s private house into one of the finest small museums of modern art in the world.

New Contemporary Art Centers in Miami Make it a Global Art Destination

 

new-ica

The new ICA Miami, backed by the Braman family of Miami, who themselves own a collection of modern and contemporary art worth well over a billion dollars, will literally be next door to the de la Cruz Collection in Miami’s white-hot Design District when it debuts in 2016. The ICA Miami joins upcoming Faena Art Center from Buenos Aires in Miami Beach and the nearby Rubell Family Collection and the Margulies Warehouse, the Perez Art Museum and the Cisneros Fontanals (CIFO) (all in Miami) making the city into an instant international leader in the exhibition of modern and contemporary art. The Bass Museum in Miami Beach is expanding its exhibition space by several thousand square feet. No other city in North America outside of New York and Los Angeles has expanded its cultural infrastructure in the arena of modern and contemporary art exhibition making in the U.S. Already the existing powerhouse players have made Miami a world-class destination, especially during the annual new edition of Art Basel Miami Beach. Its been my experience that the volume and tremendous quality of 20th and 21st century contemporary art shown in Miami is a special not-to-miss treat every December, as several world-class exhibitions are held simultaneously and are open during the crush of the Art Basel Miami Beach tidal cultural tidal wave.

We can’t wait for all the construction dust to settle to see the fireworks begin  as these new venues bring even greater depth of exhibition capabilities than ever to Miami.

Vincent Johnson is an artist and writer in Los Angeles.

http://www.vincentjohnsonart.com

faena-arts-center

faena forum by OMA to open in miami beach in december 2015

image courtesy of faena/OMA

Dec 11, 2014

faena forum by OMA to open in miami beach in december 2015

original content
dec 05, 2014

it has been announced that ‘faena forum‘, a groundbreaking new center for arts and culture designed by rem koolhaas of OMA, is to open in miami beach in december 2015. the 50,000 square foot institution will be dedicated to the development of cross-disciplinary cultural programing, intended to encourage collaborations across artistic, intellectual, and geographic divides.

Rendering of the Latin American Art Museum

Latin American Art Museum, Miami | Scheduled opening: 2016

Wynwood art gallery owner Gary Nader revealed his plans for the $50 million museum, designed by Fernando Romero Enterprise. The 90,000-square-foot museum will feature permanent and rotating exhibits, space for emerging artists and a top floor restaurant.

ICA Miami Sculpture Garden

ICA Miami’s New Building in the Design District!

The Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami will build its new, permanent home in Miami’s Design District, on land generously donated by Miami Design District Associates. Located on NE 41 Street, the new 37,500-square-foot building is being designed by the Spanish firm Aranguren & Gallegos Arquitectos, marking their first US project to date.

Featuring more than 20,000 square feet of exhibition galleries, and a 15,000 sq ft public sculpture garden, the new building enables ICA Miami to expand its reach and programs, dedicated to promoting the exchange of art and ideas throughout the Miami region and internationally.

Global Conceptualism articles – Part 2 (2015)

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POST – MOMA – THOUGHT ON MODERN & CONTEMPORARY ART AROUND THE GLOBE – 3 ESSAYS

Luis Camnitzer looks back: thoughts on Global Conceptualism

post asked the artist and critic Luis Camnitzer, one of the project directors of Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s–1980s, to respond to some basic questions about the exhibition. In this interview he talks about how the show evolved. He also addresses how the organizers dealt with critical issues such as the differences between “Conceptual Art” and “Conceptualism” and the always-blurry frontier between art and politics.

Show More

Luis Camnitzer looks back: thoughts on Global Conceptualism

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La Familia Obrera (The Working Class Family), Oscar Bony, 1968, Gelatin silver print, Gift from the Latin American and Caribbean Fund, MoMA Collection.

1. How did you get involved in the exhibition? I was writing something about the blurry borderline between art and politics, particularly in regard to the Argentinean “Tucumán Arde” group, which in 1968 shifted from art to politics, and the Tupamaro guerrilla movement in Uruguay, which from the early sixties on staged creative and spectacular events that had an aesthetic surplus way beyond military efficiency. Both examples show that the traditional restrictive categories had stopped being operative. The text was prompted by the exhibition The Bride of the Sun, which Catherine de Zegher co-curated at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp in 1991. The writing eventually ended up in a book, but in discussing it with Jane Farver and Rachel Weiss, it also inspired the show. Jane, Rachel, and I were close friends and had worked together on other projects. Jane, at the time, was the chief curator at the Queens Museum, and Rachel had been involved in the organization of several shows (among them the landmark Ante America, also at the Queens Museum). In that context, I was the least professional—not to mention kind of a slacker. Since we wouldn’t receive funding for a Latin American exhibition, we decided to make the exhibition global; and since we wouldn’t receive funding for an exhibition focused on politics, particularly one in which the politics of the U.S. might be questioned, we decided to focus more on art practice. One important guiding point for the project was Jane’s suggestion to use 1968 as a flexible time paradigm. In writing for the catalogue of a Korean exhibition at the Queens Museum, she had compared the 1980 Kwangju Rebellion to the Paris riots in May 1968. This is what made us think of writing history based on local timelines instead of a hegemonic one. We conceived of the exhibition as a decentered federation of localities, each addressing its own crisis within its own corresponding timeline. Although there was information leakage among these localities, the noxious imperial concept of derivativeness lost its usual importance. The traditional hegemonic 1965–75 time frame for Conceptual Art was revealed as being self-interested and exclusionary, and designed to promote a local Euro–North American formalist style (any earlier manifestation was called “proto-conceptual” and anything after, “post-conceptual”). By bringing in Gutai and Situationism of the late fifties, together with Chinese art from the late eighties, we broke with narrow classifications. All this led us to assemble a team of eleven curators to cover a maximum of regions. The title Global Conceptualism came about later, after the show was more or less organized. It did not try to promote the idea of one “global art,” but rather the global scope of localities in geographic terms, with the intention of getting rid of any centric arrogance.

2. How did you approach the label “Conceptualism”? Peter Wollen, who was in charge of the North American section, made a big point about the difference between Sol LeWitt’s and Joseph Kosuth’s visions of Conceptual Art. This led us to differentiate between “Conceptual Art” and “Conceptualism.” “Conceptual Art” became the term that covered the stylistic period in the U.S. and to some extent Europe between 1965 and 1975; “Conceptualism” referred to a set of strategies that emerged in periods of crisis and rupture, and it favored the transmission of ideas over any formal speculation about or search for a mystical essence of art after dematerialization. This difference was important. It put Conceptual Art into a broader and more meaningful context in which seeing was one of many manifestations. It revealed that radical expressions were better seen in communication than in formal changes. And it showed that Conceptualism, in being a strategy, was not bound to the time cycles proposed by traditional art history. While Conceptual Art continues the tradition of contemplative art, Conceptualism more directly addresses the issues of erosion of information during transmission, the efficiency of communication, and the flexibility needed when time isn’t owned by either the artist or the viewer, when instead it has to be recovered from the repressive structures that usurp its ownership.

3. Would you have done anything differently? If I were to redo the exhibition (and to get funding without strings attached), I would probably go back to one of our initial ideas, which was to present works of art mingled formally and indistinguishably with documentary material in such a way that art and politics are not seen as the results of different disciplines, but rather as cultural consequences affected by political conditions. I would emphasize the ownership and control of time to study the effects it has on all of our activities—both subversive ones and those that aim to maintain a status quo. These changes would inevitably make for a different exhibition today, and so, fortunately, I’m not a curator. Looking back, it was fantastic that the exhibition took place at the Queens Museum, which is an institution on the periphery, yet as close to the center as any “periphery” could be. How threatening that can be was reflected in the bad reviews the exhibition received from the local press, confirming our point that the center is just another province. What we did lack, however, was space. We were unable to show everybody we would have wanted to show or should have shown. The real show would have needed to be twice as big and in a larger space—someplace like the Pompidou. As it was, we were limited to certain examples that had to stand as such and to serve as much as references to other works as works in and of themselves. So, it was a microscopic version of what we wanted. And yet, although I did much less than Jane and Rachel, I ended up exhausted and would not want to go through the process again.

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Thinking Back on Global Conceptualism

Rachel Weiss, curator, writer and professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, was invited to MoMA to speak about the exhibition Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s–1980s, which she co-organized in 1999 with Jane Farver (who also came to talk on the subject), Luis Camnitzer, and an international team of curators: Okwei Enwezor, Reiko Tomii & Chiba Shigeo, Claude Gintz, László Beke, Mari Carmen Ramírez, Peter Wollen, Terry Smith, Margarita Tupitsyn, Sun Wan-Kyung, Gao Minglu and Apinan Poshyananda. Weiss and Farver (whose talk can be accessed here) were asked to reflect on the exhibition—its challenges, failures and successes—fifteen years after it was seen at the Queens Museum in New York.

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Installation view of the Global Conceptualism exhibition with works by Sung Jeung-keung, Gu Wenda, Wu Shan Zhuan and Geng Jianyi, Queens Museum, 1999. Image courtesy of Queens Museum

I think the most basic issue that we dealt with in organizing Global Conceptualism is one that hasn’t changed much in the years since—how to reconcile the process of exhibition-making with the messy assembly that any project with global reach necessarily entails. Curating usually has a premise of connectedness—series, progressions, resonances, echoes—meaning that an exhibition narrates something and adds up to something. It’s about asserting why things should be seen together. But curating globally—at least the way we experienced it—meant accepting a very different kind of aggregate. This was exacerbated, more then than today, probably, by the fact that there’s a natural tendency to read something unfamiliar in terms of its likeness to something known: so our primary task was to present a lot of unfamiliar work as much as possible on its own terms, rather than as a corollary to the conceptualist history that was already well established.

Our basic starting point was the sense that Conceptualism had been an extremely supple cultural tool, able to contend with the volatile social and political circumstances that existed in many parts of the world in the postwar period. Therefore what we wanted to do with the exhibition was look at a broad array of places and moments in order to see how art had answered those circumstances. The show argued that there were many different modernities in all those different places, and that Conceptualism arose variously across those locales and from those modernities.

Underlying all of this was an intuition about the particular suited-ness of Conceptualist practice to undertake such ambitious tasks. We suspected that this came from Conceptualism’s interest not only in ideas, as is often claimed, but in their transmission. Ideas in themselves could be just another version of the object of art, even if a dematerialized one: but ideas in motion immediately pushed to the fore questions about who receives them, and what happens as a result.

The Term “Conceptualism”

However, those ideas—especially their transmission and the people to whom they were conveyed—were very different from one place to another, dependent on obvious factors like cultural and political histories but equally on the facts of infrastructure (communications technologies, for instance, or means of travel and transport—something as basic as air routes—or information sources and channels) and so even the one connective tissue in the project—namely, the idea of Conceptualism—had to be an extremely accommodating container. There was no unanimity on how the word was used, if it was even used at all: it sat differently in relation to artistic and aesthetic precedent and in relation to the “mainstream” (in some cases artists were eager for affiliation, in some cases they were adamantly opposed to it, and in others they were indifferent to the whole question). This was no less complicated a landscape than the one in which we ask questions about art overall; in a global context are we on any kind of solid ground if we assume that the term carries enough intrinsic meaning to make “art” comprehensible as art, no matter the context? We had an intuition about Conceptualism, and we had another one about what it might look or feel like if so many different and often-unconnected strands of artistic activity were brought together, but I think that was about all that we had any solid sense of when we decided to do the show.

We started out with a pretty basic premise—we could call it anti-colonialism 101, rejecting the geographical limitations of how Conceptual art was usually mapped. As we got further into it we shifted into a more postcolonial position, no longer centrally focused on simple dynamics of exclusion and more interested in difference. This happened basically because the works that the curatorial team were bringing to us didn’t fit any unitary definition. For instance, we had begun with an assumption that Conceptualism, as a protagonistic force, did its most important work in public space, retaking control there against the repression of military rules, etcetera. But it became clear very quickly that our understandings of public and private space—derived almost entirely from experiences in the US and Latin America—didn’t hold for lots of other places. We knew about apartment art in Moscow, but we also knew about the bulldozer show,1 and so when I was doing preliminary research in Prague and Budapest, one question I asked a lot was about works in public space. I quickly realized that the question was irrelevant for most of the artists I was talking to since they had viewed public space as totally coopted and corrupted, and for them the space of dissent had been private and hermetic.2 So gradually our position as the conceptualizers of the project became less about the map and more attuned to particularities.

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Installation view of the Global Conceptualism exhibition with works by Antonio Dias, Hélio Oiticica, and Oscar Bony, Queens Museum, 1999.

It was certainly argued at the time that what we wound up with was a compendium rather than an exhibition—meaning, I guess, that the show was too baggy to make any clearly focused point. And that’s probably the basic disagreement about it on a meta-level anyhow, because we were pretty clear from the get-go that a sharply thematized exhibition just wasn’t a viable approach and that attempting to make everything fit into any kind of neat schema would fail, by definition, to capture the diverse range of practices, aesthetics, meanings and ambitions that Conceptualism had been the site of. Some recent comments by Victor Burgin are useful here to understand the idea we had about the exhibition as narrative: “A historical event,” he says, “is a complex of fragmentary and often contradictory representations—archival, fictional, psychical, and so on. Hollywood depictions of historical events tend to coat such representational complexes in a sticky layer of unifying ideology, a mix of consensual categories, stereotypical crises and predictable narrative conclusions. To show the event ‘as it really was’ is not an alternative. It never ‘really was’ any one thing—past and present alike are sites of contestation where radically different perspectives collide.”3

Structure of the Curatorial Team

This brings me to the question about the structure of the curatorial team. The horizontality of the team—an approach that was then taken up in some other big international shows in the next years—was a completely obvious choice for us. We did it that way for a couple of reasons. First, the three of us felt that it was basic to the ethic of the show and the whole idea of the project that there should not be a strong centralized narrative. If our goal was to look at how Conceptualism worked in all those places, then we had to allow each narrative to take its own shape. We saw our role as, first of all, convening, then looking for the threads that developed between the various sections—looking after the emerging shape of the whole. But it was always clear that the show would be a loose confederation rather than a unified body. The other reason for the collaborative curatorial structure was simply that the three of us had no expertise in a lot of the ground we wanted to cover, and it was obvious that others were much better suited to the job. So the structure of the team was our way of building an exhibition that did not, in its form, betray its political commitments.

The decision we made to install the show by geographic section rather than thematically was a related structural/philosophical issue. It boiled down to the same question: was our point to assert that conceptualism grew into a shared language, or that it was the specificities in how it arose and played out that mattered most to us? Because so many of those “local” histories were still basically unknown—both in NY and even in their home sites—it would have been premature to install the show according to thematic or topical affinities, which inevitably would have reinforced the dominance of the work that was already known, with all the new material being consigned to some kind of offshoot status.

The Global

It’s worth talking a little about the word “global” here. We debated a lot about using it because, if I remember correctly, at the time globalization was being talked about as a process that produced ubiquitous sameness when, in fact—and especially in the cultural sphere—that sameness was real only on the most superficial levels. The alternative would have been “international,” but that word was still too weighted down with colonial and imperialist connotations—for example, as in “international style.” Both terms seemed to indicate a kind of geographical flattening that was the opposite of what Global Conceptualism was meant to be about. We wanted to signal a different kind of relation, which was neither made up of vectors all pointing from the same few places out to all the other places, nor fatally relativist—and although we were uncomfortable with its implications of comprehensive coverage, “global” seemed the better compromise.

Global Exhibitions after Global Conceptualism

It might be useful at this point to reflect on some of the projects that have taken up from where we left off, to see how they’ve pushed further and begun to work out some of the cans of worms that we left open. Those challenges are—to list the most important ones—how to go beyond simply expanding the map, to work through what it actually means to have all those different models on the table and accept that they don’t fit together neatly but that they still do belong together; to look at the interconnections—both interpersonal and temporal—among the various artists and works and moments; and finally, how to deal with the inevitable canonization effect when fresh bodies of work enter the international, not global, exhibition system.

The first issue, namely, of curating all that difference, turns out to be a challenge to the idea of an exhibition, at least of an exhibition as an essay or a thesis. It also suggests a more fragmented kind of expertise and authority on the part of the curator. The second, about linkages, begins to create a more dynamic mandate for the exhibition, as opposed to the more static portrait that we were able to construct. And the third one suggests a need for a further iteration of institutional critique, in which the trajectories or life cycles of works and histories themselves become more transparent. I’ll try to address these three questions by looking at a few shows that I’m aware of, which start from a premise related to our own.

These go in two different directions— exhibitions interested in sketching a ‘global’ picture, and ones committed to re-reading recent art histories—and, especially, conceptualist ones— in the name of rescuing neglected but crucial legacies. Of the former, the general approach seems to be—as it was for us—to define “a globalism which acknowledges global links, but insists on the differences among movements ‘spurred by local conditions and histories.’”4 And with regard to the latter, these are projects that arise from an urgent sense of loss, and of the need to recover, reclaim, or reactivate histories that have been systematically lost or hidden. Not surprisingly, those projects have cropped up in places still very much impacted by the societal traumas of the second half of the 20th century—dictatorships, malignant state socialisms, totalitarian regimes, the forced amnesias of neoliberalism in Latin America, and so on.

Century City, at the Tate [Modern] in 2001, argued for the centrality of cities in the emergence of modernity, and therefore selected nine cities in Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Europe that have “acted as crucibles for cultural innovation.”5 Each of the sections of the exhibition focused on “flashpoints generated by artists and other cultural practitioners.”6 Century City’s curatorial structure was like what we used in Global Conceptualism, framing each city as the site of “one of many modernisms” and assigning each to a curator who could work from firsthand knowledge of it. Because they were looking at cities rather than art movements, I think they had a more aerated platform, which in turn made it possible to move more easily among a lot of different kinds of cultural production—artworks, sure, but also posters, books, photojournalism and documentary, and so on. It seemed to me at the time that that kind of flexibility gave a less preconditioned kind of space for looking at global complexity and particularity.

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Catalogue of the exhibition Century City: Art and Culture in the Modern Metropolis, edited by Iwona Blazwick (London: Tate Publishing) 2001

There also seems to be a connection to the Walker Art Center’s 2003 How Latitudes Become Forms, which was a kind of remix bringing together Szeemann’s “Attitudes” with Global Conceptualism’s approach to latitudes. The central trope in that show was what Philippe Vergne called “the reinvention of difference,” taking up Saskia Sassen’s idea that the world of so-called global cities is one in which the shape of the world economy and the influence of new communications technologies have “not only reconfigured centrality and its spatial correlates, but have also created new spaces for centrality.”7 So what we shared in this case was a core interest in developing a different kind of map—not just a more expansive one, but one in which the parts related to the whole in a different way— in order to understand artistic production.

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Catalogue of the exhibition How Latitudes Become Forms: Art in a Global Age, edited by Philippe Vergne with Douglas Fogle and Olukemi Ilesanmi for the Walker Art Center (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center) 2003

That show, like Global Conceptualism, also presupposed a broadly political investment as its baseline. Vergne asserts that “The key idea of Szeemann’s exhibition was without a doubt liberation. . . . echoing the liberation movements that emerged across the world at the end of the 1960s.” Vergne situated the works within “an aesthetic of thirdness [a term associated with film and cultural theory] that explores how cultural practices driven by political and cultural emancipation can equally commit to aesthetic strategies.”

I didn’t actually see Latitudes, so I’m working off the catalogue here, but there were a few things that seem worth noting. First, the language around global differences and political baselines felt a lot more confident—like these were no longer nearly such contentious things to claim as they had been a few years before. And like Century City, Latitudes looked much more broadly across genres than we ever did, incorporating film, performance and online works to, again, sketch difference across multiple dimensions and expressive orbits.

In both cases, it seems that curating happened in a kind of constellation—something that has become much more common since then—in which there were relatively distinct areas of expertise that were applied to relatively distinct areas of the exhibitions—even to the point that there weren’t extensive primary essays in either catalogue.

The other direction I mentioned is that of shows that have set out to build counter-narratives that recapture lost art histories. Okwui Enwezor’s 2001 project The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa 1945–1994 is key here, bringing a little-known “local” history to light—that of Africa—and situating it very pointedly in relation to dominant accounts. Eric Hobsbawm’s book The Age of Extremes was a key text for us. Hobsbawm reads the global history of what he called the “short century” with an eye to the cultural dimensions of the massive political and economic upheavals that it saw. Okwui’s show adopted a similar methodology, using the format of an exhibition to narrate a broadly cultural history of African liberation movements in the second half of the 20th century. In The Short Century, he developed the arguments he had sketched in Global Conceptualism, exploring different forms of African modernity, contesting the claim that it was simply a variant of Western (and colonial) modernity. He also tied those modernities intimately to the independence and liberation struggles, and the revolts of that period, identifying them as the “twin projects from which the text of African modernity after WWII was fashioned” and which contributed to “an African critical subjectivity that is both a political ethic and a cultural ideology.” The heterogeneity of material that he included in the exhibition mirrored his larger point about the complexity of African modernity and also asserted linkages between aesthetic, ideological, political, and other sectors.

From 2006 to 2008, Florian Zeyfang and Lukasz Ronduda’s 1, 2, 3…Avant gardes project was shown in different iterations in Warsaw, Stuttgart and Bilbao. It looked at experimental Polish films and their influence on different generations since the 1920s and was spurred by the curators’ belief that those works, which had been the subject of bannings and prohibitions and were mostly unknown because of that, could form an important historical platform for a lot of the work that they saw being produced in Poland more recently. This, incidentally, seems to me one of the richest parts of their curatorial project, since it was so committed to putting historical works into dialogue with the present while preventing the inadvertent canonization of those historical works—by “canonization,” I mean their de-activation by prematurely settling on a definitive interpretation. I’ll say a little more about this issue of canonization in a moment.

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Catalogue of the exhibition 1,2,3 …Avant-Gardes: Film / Art between Experiment and Archive, edited by Łukasz Ronduda and Florian Zeyfang (Warsaw: Centre for Contemporary) 2007

So that was one way they pushed the question further. Another was by looking closely at interactions and networks among artists—which they structured in such a way as to illuminate “local references in an international network of ongoing cooperation.”8 This was something we had struggled with: how to present the various links among artists as a way to contextualize their work beyond the simple fact of national or regional origin. We were interested in the many anomalies that we came across—for instance, the fact that Petr Stembera and others working in Prague were in close communication with Chris Burden in California but were hardly connected at all to their counterparts working underground in Budapest or Warsaw. That was an aspect of “globalism” that proved really difficult to translate into an exhibition format, since it was much more of a hypertext than a text.

A related project, with some of the same team members, Subversive Practices: Art under Conditions of Political Repression: 60s–80s. South America/Europe, was organized in 2009 by the Würtembergisher Kunstverein. Iris Dressler and Hans D. Christ led a curatorial team that worked prismatically on the various sites included in the show in order to create a multiperspectival whole. This, again, was a project inspired by the disappearance of a past, focusing on Conceptual art practices from the 1960s to the ’80s that were generated under conditions of military dictatorship and of Communist and Socialist regimes in South America and Europe. It explored artistic practices that not only called into question the traditional conception of art, the institution, or the relationship between art and the public, but that were simultaneously posited against the existing political systems of power, emphasizing the “heterogeneity and divergence of resistive artistic practices.”9 This show was an outgrowth of the “Vivid Radical Memory” project based in in Barcelona (2006–7), which was an attempt to catalogue and digitize information on “politicized” Conceptualism in the same two regions.10

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Catalogue of the exhibition Subversive Practices: Art under Conditions of Political Repression: 60s-80s / South America / Europe, edited by Hans D. Christ and Iris Dressler (Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz) 2010

One aspect of “Vivid Radical Memory” that seems really important to me was the fact that curators, researchers and artists from different generations participated—some who had been active in the ’60s and then a lot of young scholars. It was pretty evident in the dynamic at the VRM meeting that the histories being reclaimed functioned differently for different parts of the delegations. For the “historical participants,” there was a heavy dose of vindication attached to the occasion, while for the younger contingent the project felt much more forward-directed, allowing for more open-ended thinking about what those pasts might have to offer to the present.

“Vivid Radical Memory” and Subversive Practices traced their genealogies through a line of efforts to broaden the historiography of Conceptual art. Those efforts mattered to them because they saw in them a strand of dissent that was little known and which provided an important alternative to the classic profile of “the dissident” that had been constructed in the West and internalized in the East. In that sense, their most important contribution is probably the archiving function that both put at the center of their projects. Much of the documentation of the works they studied had been lost, or was in precarious condition, or was forgotten in individual artists’ archives. And meanwhile, after 1989 the growing interest among institutions from the West in procuring some of those works had begun a process of transfer of whatever archival materials there were into the hands of those institutions and therefore out of reach for researchers in those regions. So, both projects expended a lot of effort to “exhume” archival holdings, conserve and stabilize and digitize them—even reconstructing some works that had been lost.

The repercussions of Global Conceptualism that I’ve been most aware of are in Latin America, where there has been a succession of projects which have built on each other.

This line began with _La era de la discrepancia: arte y cultura visual en México 1968–1997 The Age of Discrepancies: Art and Visual Culture in Mexico 1968–1997, organized by Cuauhtémoc Medina and Olivier Debroise in 2007. The period covered in the show began with the massacre of student protestors at Tlatelolco, just before the Mexico City Olympics. The curators chose that as their starting point because, as they saw it, 1968 inaugurated a period of greatly increased cultural repression and much more intense resistance to it on the part of artists.

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Catalogue of the exhibition The Age of Discrepancies: Art and Visual Culture in Mexico 1968 – 1997, edited by Olivier Debroise (México: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México: Turner) 2006

The show ended with the Zapatista uprising, which, as the curators put it, “proposed a creative form of ethnic resistance to global capitalism.”11 But unlike 1968, 1994 didn’t have immediate ripple effects on cultural production. That took a couple of years, so the show’s purview extended to 1997, when the “cultural outcome of the crisis of 1994”12 had become visible. So the bookends were periods of heightened creative dissent, moments with historic implications for Mexico.

Like the other shows I’ve mentioned, The Age of Discrepancies was a project of recovery, insisting on the importance of a lost national history of art—a project made even more necessary in that moment, the curators argued, because of the insertion of Mexican artists into globalized circuits. In their words, it was “a renegotiation of peripheral genealogies,”13 by which they meant both internal and external “peripheralization,” since the works they were interested in had been sidelined first of all by the heavy-handed nationalist writ of Mexican state cultural policy. Their goal was to effectively counter what they called the “reigning ignorance of local cultural histories,”14 reflected in the absence of important local artists from even local museums and collections.

As I mentioned, the curatorial team of The Age of Discrepancies did extensive archival work, locating and rescuing artists’ archives. After extensive debate, they also decided to reconstruct key works that had been destroyed. The overall idea of the project was that it should serve as a broad platform, assembling and making accessible an archive of documents, images, and videotaped interviews, for use by future artists/scholars. It’s worth noting that this project, alone among the ones I’ll mention, was organized under the aegis of a university, so it was able to take on a much more expansive educational role than any of the others.

As with Global Conceptualism, the curators of The Age of Discrepancies looked at “political, aesthetic and ideological dissent” as a unified field, thereby closely tying Mexican Conceptualism to leftist politics, especially in the aftermath of 1968. The history of independent groups was a central axis of the show, featuring the mechanisms of production and distribution that had been invented by the artists themselves. This meant that they paid a lot more attention to networks among artists—including both national and international collaborations—adding to the complexity of the argument they were making about that period of “Mexican” production.

It’s also worth noting that Mexico barely figured in Global Conceptualism, and that The Age of Discrepancies was partly a retort to that exclusion from our own supposedly inclusive project.

The other large-scale project about Latin American Conceptualism I should mention is Perder la forma humana: una imágen sísmica de los años ochenta en América Latina, organized by the Network of Southern Conceptualisms for the Museo Reina Sofia in October 2013. The network is a self-organized collective of around 25 researchers spread across South America and Mexico. They’ve been in existence for several years, having grown out of the Vivid Radical Memory project in Barcelona, but this was their first major exhibition.

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Catalogue of the exhibition Perder la forma humana : una imagen sísmica de los años ochenta en América Latina, (Madrid: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía) 2012

Perder la forma humana was not about Conceptualism per se, but rather about responses—mostly artistic, but not entirely—to the military dictatorships, states of siege and internal wars throughout South America during the 1980s. The title references the fact that the recourse to the body was a primary artistic and political support. They started with the 1973 coup against Allende in Chile, which inaugurated an era of genocidal politics that reached across the continent and brought to a brutal close an era of revolutionary hopes and expectations. The end point was—as with The Age of Discrepancies—the 1994 Zapatista uprising, which marked the opening of a new era of mobilizations and activisms on a global level. Again, these were histories that had been suppressed or badly distorted over time: it was significant that many of the researchers on the team were actually the children of people who had lived firsthand the realities of that brutal period that they were recovering.

The show made a couple of main arguments—first of all, about the centrality of the new kinds of self-organized congregations, assemblies, affinity groups, collaborations, and so on that emerged at the time in response to the closure and militarization of public space. They also contended that, in the face of rampant, state-sponsored violence, those artists devised new ways of doing politics, with much of the project of devising new subjectivities taking shape around some form of an unruly self, What interested them were the ways that work in the 1980s, unlike earlier periods of artistic resistance, had rejected the traditional structures and discipline—both ideological and aesthetic—of left-wing politics in order to develop a more expansive, affective, and polyglot aesthetic register.

I think that Perder la forma humana solved a couple of important problems that had plagued Global Conceptualism. First of all, and like some of the other shows I’ve talked about so far, they were not so exclusively attached to the idea of art, such that everything in the exhibition had to be defensible in those terms. They were more interested in the experiences that those societies had had, and how people had responded. Art was important to them as a way in which people fought back, but it was not the only way they were interested in—and hence their inclusion of Paraguayan arete guasu ritual masks, which have been continually updated for centuries by Guaraní Indians to reenact the various depredations, since the conquest, that the tribe has endured, resisted and survived. The show also included the work of a Chilean photojournalism collective, which provided an important, alternate source of information about the realities of the Pinochet regime. So the universe they sketched in the show was one in which the artists were not separated out from the very broad coalitions that were actively strategizing ways to resist. In fact, one of the most interesting points in the show was the disagreement between artists and the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo over the visual strategy of the siluetas—which set out pretty clearly the sharp political difference between visualizing presence versus absence.15 In the case of iconic images like the siluetas, which persisted in several iterations over the course of many years, the exhibition organizers also undertook to show the shifting forms that those images took over time, which in turn indicated the ways that the political discourse was evolving.

The curatorial strategy was also sensitive to the different statuses of the objects presented across the spectrum: from art to politics, from planned to improvised, from art to information, from authored to collective, from public to private spaces, and so on. In view of this, the organizers decided that the display should make continual shifts in scale, density and medium, offering a viewing experience that created a real sense of restlessness. It was a kind of visual corollary to the overall geography of the exhibition content—at once episodic and atomized, comprised of small disturbances that happened sometimes with very little concrete presence, and at the same time there was a kind of buzzing, ongoing continuity that formed a tentative but politically significant sense of common purpose. This is something that might have relevance also in thinking about what might be different in exhibitions wanting to be global in nature—recognizing that art exists differently in different places, has different relations to non-art objects, that sometimes there may be much less distinct or determinate boundaries around it.

Perder la forma humana’s organizers were also very tuned in to the affective registers of the works, probably in part because these histories were so personal and vivid for them—and this affected their approach to materializing them in the form of an exhibition. So they thought about the progression of the exhibition’s narrative in almost theatrical ways, attentive to the rhythms they set up between the traumatic works, for instance, and the defiant ones—slowing down the pace of viewing at some moments and speeding up in others, working with contrasts in lighting and sound and, I think maybe most importantly, avoiding any shallow triumphalism about what any of those interventions had actually accomplished. The show’s subject was societies that had been profoundly traumatized, and while the artistic interventions that had been conceived and staged at the time—and then recuperated in the exhibition—provided spaces of possibility, or protagonism, or refusal, the show was being organized some decades on from that time, and acknowledged that its job of reflection also had some mourning work to do.

Canonization And finally, I want to go back to what I called the “canonization” issue. Some years ago, art historians in the southern cone were becoming increasingly unhappy with the fact that Tucumán Arde, which was included in Global Conceptualism, had become the obligatory (and often, sole) reference for artistic activism during the 1960s in Latin America.16 Subsequent to Global Conceptualism, it was also included in numerous other exhibitions, including Documenta XII. The historians’ concern was basically that a project that had been a complicated and highly contextual political action had been compressed and truncated into the status of an artwork in order to be translated into an exhibition context. As Miguel López, one of the curators of Perder la forma humana, put it, this created a gradual erosion of its real meanings, part of a “standardization of radical experiences in order that they may establish an appropriate exchange with centralized discourses.”17 In light of this phenomenon, López, Ana Longoni, and some others organized Inventario 1965–1975: Archivo Graciela Carnevale, a show that “introduced itself as a questioning of the process of legitimization and institutionalization of ‘political art.’”18 Maybe the most important thing to signal here with respect to all this is that, as these local histories are gradually incorporated into the ones that are not considered to be minor—minor, that is, in the sense of minor literatures—it’s crucial to keep the historicization of those works in continual dialogue with practitioners on both sides of that divide, because their legitimization and institutionalization keeps raising new sets of questions in both settings.

It’s interesting to me that Global Conceptualism has resonated in these two pretty distinct directions—on the one hand global shows, and on the other the recapturing of histories— and that those track to particular preoccupations in different sectors of contemporary arts discourse. In places where there has been extreme insecurity of legacy, loss or evacuation of pertinent histories, and so on, it opened a door for reconsidering certain radical legacies in the context of a present that is mightily interested in those as living heritage. On the other hand, in places that have confidently narrated the histories of their own choosing, it seems that Global Conceptualism might have been useful for its experiment in who gets the rights of authorship. For me, personally, I think the most powerful lesson has been about how intensely it can matter to people, even so many years later, that we took a chance and made an exhibition with so little certainty and so much elasticity—for better and for worse. Maybe that’s the real takeaway: that these accounts of the past are received in such various and unforeseen ways might be, in itself, reason enough to continue devising new ways to tell them, to see what can be sparked in the process.

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Global Conceptualism Reconsidered

In the fifteen years since the exhibition Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s–1980s was on view at the Queens Museum, the term global has become ever more thoroughly entrenched in the lexicon of contemporary art. Although one might therefore draw a direct line between the 1999 exhibition and the ever-present “global contemporary” of the art world, texts by two of the exhibition’s curators—Jane Farver and Rachel Weiss—which are published here, underscore an understanding of the global that has little in common with the market-driven associations the term has today.

In presenting a pre-1990s regionally defined globalism, Global Conceptualism did not attempt to blur the geographical boundaries despite the fact that a nascent transnationalism was evident in networked art, even in the 1950s. In the last fifteen years, much has changed in the ways that globality is thought about in museums, not least because of rapid changes in communication. As contemporary art traces similar paths to those of transnational financial flows, the emphasis on the global is rendered suspicious because of its deep entanglement with capital. Although neoliberal forces are certainly at play, the impetus for researching art from outside the traditional purview of US institutions must be understood as much more complex, in that it is also an attempt to understand the history of art scenes and movements that are growing ever more connected. Not only an impetus then, but also an imperative.

The term conceptualism has also been contested in recent years. If using the label makes available widely disparate works that respond to very different contexts, it is also guilty of flattening out the unique nature of propositions made by artists around the world. What can be learned today from an exhibition such as Global Conceptualism? How can the incommensurability of artworks created in different places be considered productively? Is the “global” exhibition defunct or do new curatorial practices that cast aside curatorial values such as coherence or chronological linearity (as Weiss suggests in her text) need to be developed? What alternatives might be sought to this model of exhibition?

This Theme, Global Conceptualism Reconsidered, offers an opportunity to think about these questions. It also offers the chance to reposition some of the materials published by post over the last few years. In addition to the two texts by Jane Farver and Rachel Weiss and an interview with Luis Camnitzer, the project directors, we asked the curators of different sections to reflect on their involvement in the exhibition, and republished here some of the reviews and installation shots of the exhibition.

Zanna Gilbert

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Global Conceptualism: Reflections

Jane Farver, curator and former Director of Exhibitions at the Queens Museum, was invited to MoMA to speak about the exhibition Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s–1980s, which she co-organized in 1999 with Rachel Weiss (who also came to present on the subject), Luis Camnitzer, and an international team of curators: Okwei Enwezor, Reiko Tomii & Chiba Shigeo, Claude Gintz, László Beke, Mari Carmen Ramírez, Peter Wollen, Terry Smith, Margarita Tupitsyn, Sun Wan-Kyung, Gao Minglu and Apinan Poshyananda. Farver and Weiss (whose talk can be accessed here) were invited to reflect on the exhibition—its challenges, failures and successes—fifteen years after it was seen at the Queens Museum in New York.

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Installation view of the exhibition

Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin 1950s-1980s was an exhibition that originated at the Queens Museum of Art, New York in 1999, when I was the Director of Exhibitions there. It was on view there from April 28–August 29 and then traveled to the Walker Art Center (December 19, 1999–March 5, 2000), the Miami Art Museum (June 23–August 27, 2000), and the List Visual Arts Center at MIT (October 24–December 31, 2000). As project leaders for the exhibition, Luis Camnitzer, Rachel Weiss, and I worked with a team of 12 international curators representing 11 geographic areas.

Global Conceptualism happened 14 years ago, but it continues to elicit strong opinions. However, I hope we are not here to retry this exhibition, but to think about how curators and museums might go about creating exhibitions on a so-called global scale today. For this reason, perhaps some background information about the show might be helpful.

As I remember it, the project began sometime in 1994, when Rachel Weiss and Luis Camnitzer invited me to lunch to ask about the possibility of the Queens Museum organizing an exhibition of Latin American conceptualist art. As discussions ensued, it became clear that each of us knew of conceptualist practices that had emerged and flourished in other parts of the world and that were generally unknown or unacknowledged by the New York art world. These movements of course were connected by a complex system of global linkages, but the important fact was that they clearly had been spurred by urgent local conditions and histories.

Although an exhibition of Latin American conceptualism was badly needed in New York, we decided instead to organize a broader show that would include conceptualist art from around the world, including North America and Europe. From the beginning we understood the territory of “globalism” as having multiple centers in which local events were crucial determinants.

Each of us had our own reasons for wanting to do such an exhibition. When I recently asked Luis to tell me his reasons, he wrote to me that he wanted “to decenter art history into local histories and put the center in its right place as one more provincial province” so that other areas, and particularly Latin America, could, as he says, “do local analysis to help assume local identities that were unmolested by the hegemonic watchtower.” Rachel had a strong desire to demonstrate conceptualism’s political capabilities.

Luis wanted “to decenter art history into local histories and put the center in its right place as one more provincial province”

I had been frustrated by the repeated presumptions by New York art critics and curators that conceptually based, or experimental, if you will, works by international contemporary artists were simply derivative of Western art. There seemed to be a lack of interest or a disregard for the fact that these artists could well have inherited and were responding to their own important local histories.

While New York in the 1990s had seen an influx of contemporary artists from around the world, many of whom were engaged with conceptualist practices, exhibitions of modernism or earlier conceptualism from other parts of the world were still uncommon. Alexandra Monroe’s remarkable 1994 exhibition Scream Against the Sky: Japanese Art after 1945 had sketched out Japanese modern and contemporary art history for audiences in Yokohama, New York, and San Francisco, and there had been a number of exhibitions about Soviet art, including Between Spring and Summer: Soviet Conceptual Art in the Era of Late Communism at Boston’s ICA and The Green Show at Exit Art in 1990, and, in 1991, Perspectives of Conceptualism at the Clock Tower. However, New York had yet to see a museum survey exhibition of conceptualist art from Latin America, Eastern Europe, and many other parts of the world. Information about such work was difficult to obtain, particularly in English, and this void made it easy for New York critics and curators to assume that little that was innovative in conceptualist art was being produced outside of the so-called center.

Until then, the most international museum exhibition of Conceptual art ever staged in New York had been Kynaston McShine’s Information, held at MoMA in 1970. The show included works by more than 150 artists from 15 countries, including Argentina, Brazil, and Yugoslavia. I hoped to expand the dialogue around conceptualism, including North American and Western European conceptualism, and to build on what had been presented elsewhere in several earlier exhibitions.

When we began to work on Global Conceptualism, the movement already possessed an almost 30-year history. One large survey exhibition of Conceptual art: L’art conceptuel, une perspective had taken place at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris in 1989; and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles would mount Reconsidering the Object 1965-1975 in 1996. However, neither of these shows included many works by non-Western artists. There was a third important exhibition, Paul Schimmel’s Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949-1979, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 1998. I will return to this exhibition later.

Rachel, Luis, and I well understood that organizing an exhibition about how conceptualism had developed world-wide would be fraught with problems, not the least of which were the prevailing views. In addition, the physical size and awkward shapes of the Queens Museum’s galleries, the likelihood and eventual reality of a tight budget—although it was larger than those for most Queens Museum exhibitions—and the museum’s small staff were other problems.1

The thought of how to begin to organize all of the material we potentially wanted to include was a daunting one. One strong influence that soon emerged was the work of historian Eric Hobsbawm. His book about the 20th century, Age of Extremes, offered us a way to think about and sort out how conceptualism had developed in different areas according to what Luis called “local clocks.” The last two chapters of Age of Extremes describes two periods of what Hobsbawm called the “Short Century.” He stated that the “Golden Age” of 1947 to 1973 was a period of both political standoff in the Cold War and unprecedented economic growth; whereas he called the years 1973 to 1991 the “Landslide” period, a time when “the world had lost its bearings and slid into instability and crisis.”2 These time periods and events seemed to correspond to when and why artists turned to conceptualist strategies in various places, and we decided to use these demarcations as a loose framework for the exhibition.

One strong influence that soon emerged was the work of historian Eric Hobsbawm. His book about the 20th century, Age of Extremes, offered us a way to think about and sort out how conceptualism had developed in different areas.

As we began to think about doing such a show, another reason became increasingly compelling for me. The events that Hobsbawm outlined in his “Golden Age” and “Landslide” periods were echoed in the history of the Queens Museum’s building, which had served as a pavilion in two world’s fairs and from 1946 to 1950 had been the home of the General Assembly of the United Nations, where the independence of a number of emerging nations had been recognized.

The Queens Museum and other New York City borough museums were created in the early 1970s, when activists advocated for the creation of cultural institutions outside Manhattan. This happened while staggering changes were taking place in many parts of the world. The rise of urbanization, the abandonment of an agricultural way of life, and the proliferation of repressive governments, and radical changes in US immigration laws, attracted millions, to the US and to the Borough of Queens. The histories that were outlined in Global Conceptualism were not abstract to our Queens constituents; they were their histories, and it seemed important to present at least a portion of these histories through art, to the best of our ability.

Because we did not want one grand narrative for the show, we wanted to invite a team of international curators to work with us. Since information about artistic production in many parts of the world was hard to access—the Internet and JStor were in their infancies, and Google would not even be incorporated for another three years—we relied on exhibitions we had seen, what we had read, and recommendations from colleagues to put together our team. The geographical demarcations now may seem haphazard, but at the time we were interested in putting forth information about the conceptualist activities of which we were aware, and in inviting curators we knew were working with this subject.

The curatorial team would choose 240 works by more than 130 artists to trace three decades of the history of conceptualist art through two relatively distinct waves of activity. The first, from the late 1950s to about 1973, included works from Japan, which were selected by Reiko Tomii and Chiba Shigeo; from Western Europe, selected by Claude Gintz; from Eastern Europe, selected by Lásló Beke; from Latin America, chosen by Mari Carmen Ramírez; from North America, selected by Peter Wollen; and from Australia and New Zealand, chosen by Terry Smith. The second part examined the emergence of conceptualism from the mid-1970s to the end of the ’80s. Margarita Tupitsyn chose artists from the Soviet Union; Okwui Enwezor made the selections from Africa; Wan Kyung Sung from South Korea, and Gao Minglu from China. Stephen Bann wrote the introduction to the catalogue and Apinan Poshyananda contributed an essay on conceptualist activity in Southeast Asia, much of which fell outside the show’s timeline and was not included in the exhibition.

Most of our invited curators were obvious choices because of their previous work on the subject. Finding a curator for the Eastern European section proved to be the most difficult. The very term “Eastern Europe” was highly contested, and while a number of curators we talked with were familiar with conceptualist activities not only in their own areas but also in the US and Europe, most could not speak about what had taken place in regions neighboring theirs. Fortunately, the Hungarian curator Lásló Beke agreed to take on this task. Probably the most controversial invitation was the one extended to the organizer of the North American section. It was offered to Peter Wollen because of a mutual interest in exploring North American Conceptual art in relation to Situationism and activism. I will always be grateful to this remarkable group of curators, and I continue to be amazed by how prescient their work was for the time.

The budget for the project was, as we had imagined, very modest, but the Andy Warhol Foundation gave its first-ever planning grant to the Queens Museum to get the project started, and the Rockefeller Foundation provided funds for a meeting of the curators, which took place midway through the project at the Bard Center. It is unfortunate that there were no funds for multiple meetings, or that something like Skype did not exist then, as additional contact would have helped to tease out links and networks among artists in various areas. As it was, the meeting at Bard was fairly successful. It has often been my experience that when curators are exposed to new artists and works, they begin to incorporate them into their own practices, and so we went into the meetings with eleven wildly different shows, and emerged with eleven mildly different shows, but we never really expected all of this to gel into one harmonious vision.

…we went into the meetings with eleven wildly different shows, and emerged with eleven mildly different shows

Other funds for the exhibition came from numerous smaller grants: AT&T provided one, as did Shisheido, but contrary to what has been written, there were no huge multinational corporate donations.3

The project was plagued by a customs strike that delayed the arrival of works from Latin America until the very day of the opening. Our book editor left us mid-project. Exhibition designer Michael Langley generously helped us determine where to build walls, but we did not have the budget for a full exhibition design, so each curator decided on the placement of works within the spaces they were allotted. I was taken aback recently when I was contacted by a young art historian intending to write a thesis on the exhibition’s layout and design.

The show opened to mixed reviews, mostly negative if they were by US critics and better if the critics resided elsewhere. James Meyer criticized us in Artforum for “jumping on the global bandwagon” and for “funding the show through the support of multinational corporations,”4 although, as I mentioned earlier, this was hardly the case. I wish he had simply asked about the budget; I probably would have told him, as there was nothing to hide.

Many critics longed for a thematic rather than geographical and chronological organization of the show. Art in America critic Marcia Vetroq thought that concentrating on grouping similar themes and strategies would have animated the show, and she also called the North American section “intellectually dishonest.”5 In his New York Times review, critic Ken Johnson also wanted to group similar types of work together, enabling the viewer to more easily compare works from widely separated places.6 Joan Kee, writing in Parachute, thought it might have made more sense to group works according to formal similarities and wanted to see Algerian Rachid Koraichi’s work next to text-based works from Europe and Japan, in order to, as she put it, “suss out the issues of using text in art.”7 However, Ana Tiscornia, writing in Art Nexus, seemed to understand the value of providing histories, “regardless of the degree of thoroughness,” and applauded the show for making works known “beyond the sphere in which they were created.”8

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Installation view of Global Conceptualism exhibition, Queens Museum, 1999 showing the hanging of Gerhard Richter and Konrad Lueg’s Life with Pop: A Demonstration for Capitalist Realism (1963). Courtesy Queens Museum
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Oscar Bony. La familia obrera (The Working Class Family). 1968. Installation views in Experiencias 68, Instituto Torcuato Di Tella. Courtesy Carola Bony

A number of critics quibbled with the geographic delineations, which would not have been so apparent in a thematic hanging. And there were many instances in the exhibition where works could have been grouped thematically. Gerhard Richter and Konrad Lueg’s Life with Pop: A Demonstration for Capitalist Realism (1963) might have hung next to Oscar Bony’s 1968 work, La familia obrera (Proletarian Family),9 and been joined by Alberto Greco’s Vivo dito (1962) and Happsoc’s declaration that the inhabitants and buildings of Bratislava were an artwork (1965). Perhaps Akasegawa Genpei’s elaborate 1963-66 Model 1,000-Yen Note Incident and Cildo Meireles’s 1975 rubber-stamped Brazilian currency Who Killed Herzog? might have been placed near Yves Klein’s Sale of a Zone of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility: Sale to M. Blankfort and Miklos Erdély’s Unguarded Money. These could have been seen as works dealing with money, currency, and value, or artists’ insertions into existing methods of distribution, in which case they could have been joined by works by Eduardo Costa, Antonio Manuel, and Yoko Ono and John Lennon. Tamás Szentjóby and Kendall Geers both employed bricks in their works to very different ends. One could have brought together written paintings by Ono, Leon Ferrari, Willem Boshoff, and Rachid Karaichi. However, it would have been doubly important to provide context for these works, since, for instance, artists working under so many different systems, both socialist and capitalist, may have created works with formal resemblances but with unrelated sources of inspiration, or which considered the public and the private in vastly dissimilar ways. Dematerialization can be inspired by many disparate sources: Buddhism influenced the works of Matsuzawa Yutaka (Independent ’64 Exhibition in the Wilderness, 1964) and Song Dong (Water Diary, 1995, evaporated calligraphy made with brush and water), while North American Conceptual art drew upon the ideas of Duchamp and various Western philosophers.

Ah01a_01_300dpi

Miklós Erdély, Unguarded Money on the street, between the end of October and beginning of November 1956 Photograph from the Collection of Miklós Erdély Foundation, Budapest. Courtesy of the Heirs of Miklós Erdély, and the Miklós Erdély Foundation (Ed. note: There are many photos about the action of 1956, most of them are to be found in museums and archives. This action was not meant an artistic action. Miklós Erdély came up with the idea, but the gathering of money happened under the aegis of the Hungarian Writers’ Association. On the photo you can read the sentence (in English): “The clearness of our revolution allows us to collect money to the families of our martyrs in this way. Hungarian Writers’ Association”. Erdély later declared it an artistic action and named it „Unguarded Money on the street”.)
Sc115_1993_vw2_cccr

Cildo Meireles, Insertions into Ideological Circuits, 1970. Rubber stamp, printed on both sides of a Brazilian cruzados novos bill 21/2 x 51/2″ (6.4 x 14cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Paulo Herkenhoff

Originally, I had wanted to organize the show thematically and had asked each curator to choose 10 representative objects, hoping for a show that was manageable in size and budget. However, the curators rebelled, feeling it was important to try to present short histories of each region, however imperfectly. Some felt that taking a thematic approach and comparing a few lesser-known, so-called peripheral artists and works with much better-known examples would again privilege the mainstream and fail to provide necessary context. In the end I agreed, and we organized the show geographically and chronologically.

Even so, Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight complained that American and European Conceptual art had been born in reaction to very specific artistic traditions unique to Western culture, and that bringing together under the umbrella of global conceptualism Xu Bing’s nonsensical Chinese calligraphy (the pseudo-calligraphy he referred to was in fact the work of Gu Wenda, pseudo characters of “still” written by three men and three women, 1986), Antonio Caro’s Colombia Coca-Cola, and Joseph Kosuth’s dictionary definition of Meaning tended to homogenize them.10

Many critics complained about the disparate texts and labels in each section, which was a consequence of the many voices participating in this conversation. Writing them in one soothing museum voice would probably have made it much easier for the viewer but may have taken away the voice of the individual curators. In hindsight, I think it would have been better to have more comprehensive and uniform labels. This is one of my regrets about the show.

A problem that was pointed out by a number of critics is one that is inherent in presenting historical Conceptual art. Unavoidably, one makes sacred icons out of art and ephemera that were made for the street. Joan Kee regretted our inability to reproduce the freshness of the immediate gesture through photography, and others thought the show seemed gray, but many of these works had been made under difficult circumstances by artists who had very limited means. We were working with what our curators could find.

Katherine Hixson, writing in the New Art Examiner, took the show to task for not making more apparent the fact that conceptualism was, in her opinion, but another futile avant-garde utopian effort.11 However, I think that claim is contradicted even by our choice of images for the catalogue covers. The front cover featured Japanese artist Hikosaka Naoyoshi’s Floor Event of 1970, an optimistic invitation to the Revolution, while depicted on the back was an image from Wei Guangqing’s Suicide Series, which was shown in the China Avant-Garde exhibition in Beijing in February 1989, an event that many now see as anticipating the tragic events that occurred in Tiananmen Square in June of that year.

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The front cover of the Global Conceptualism catalogue featuring Hikosaka Naoyoshi’s Floor Event of 1970
Back_cover

The back cover of the Global Conceptualism catalogue featuring Wei Guangqing’s Suicide Series, 1988

In spite of the scathing reviews the show received when it was on view, it soon began to appear on “best show” lists, beginning with the best shows of 1999 and moving on to the best of the previous five and even 10 years. Such citations appeared in Flash Art _(Michael Cohen); _Bijutsu Techo; Artforum (Dan Cameron); Time Out New York (Tim Griffin); the New York Observer (Marjorie Welish), and others. The exhibition will be included in Jens Hoffman’s soon-to-be-published book Show Time: The 50 Most Influential Exhibitions of Contemporary Art.12 Global Conceptualism has taken on a life of its own. Frankly, I am pleased but puzzled by the attention the show itself continues to receive. My fear is that attention that should be focused on the many remarkable artists and works in the exhibition is being directed to the show itself. However, it is exciting to see that this research has begun to happen at MoMA and beyond.

We were asked to address how we would go about creating a show like Global Conceptualism today. If we can assume that there already will have been historical surveys—even abbreviated ones like those in Global Conceptualism—then I would imagine a thematic rather than a geographic hanging. I would still opt out of a grand overall narrative and choose to work with a team to attempt to explicate differences. It would be important to pay keen attention to the artists’ biographies, to where they lived or studied and who they knew, and trace links and networks in a way that we were not able to do in Global Conceptualism.

I said that I would return to Out of Actions, the 1998 exhibition organized by Paul Schimmel for LA MOCA in consultation with an international advisory team that included Guy Brett, Hubert Klocker, Shinichiro Osaki, and Kristine Stiles. It included nearly 150 artists and collaboratives from approximately 20 countries in Eastern and Western Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Japan, and North and South America. I regret that I did not actually see this exhibition, because it, like the others mentioned earlier, did not come to New York, and I had no real travel budget at the Queens Museum. Out of Actions was organized primarily in chronological order, placing artists associated with different movements and countries in proximity to one another and thus allowing connections to be drawn among works that in many cases have not previously been viewed as related. I think this might work, although, as I mentioned above, care must be taken not to iron out the differences too smoothly. Educational programs and information would also be of great importance. It is unfortunate that we did not have the means to conduct video interviews with the artists in Global Conceptualism or to do extensive public programs beyond a symposium that we held in conjunction with the New School.

In her introduction to Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966-1972, Lucy Lippard wrote:

There has been a lot of bickering about what Conceptual Art is/was: who began it; who did what when with it; what its goals, philosophy, and politics were and might have been. I was there, but I don’t trust my memory. I don’t trust anyone else’s either. And I trust even less the authoritarian overviews of those who were not there.13

Although I am of nearly the same generation as Lucy, I was not there either, but these words seem an apt description of the discourse around this exhibition. In the end, I think it was accomplished by sheer good will on the part of hundreds of artists and a team of 15 curators, project directors, catalogue essayists, and one adventurous museum director, all of whom were not only willing but eager to take part in this important conversation.

 

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Last updated: December 13, 2008 1:38 am
Indian art defies global conceptualism

Jackie Wullschlager By Jackie Wullschlager

 

Two London exhibitions, the Serpentine Gallery’s Indian Highway and Aicon’s Signs Taken for Wonders, are the UK’s most ambitious attempts yet to distil coherence into the chaotic rush of art emerging from the Indian subcontinent.

The marriage between the conceptually minded Serpentine and Indian art – whose overriding characteristics are narrative drive, flamboyant figuration and sensuous colour – is interesting because it is so unlikely. Recent memorable Indian installations have been sprawling, direct and often rooted in the animal motifs of folklore: Bharti Kher’s “The Skin Speaks a Language Not Its Own”, a collapsed fibreglass elephant adorned with bindis (female forehead decorations) at Frank Cohen’s Passage to India, or Sudarshan Shetty’s bell-tolling aluminium cast of a pair of cows, now at the Royal Academy’s GSK Contemporary. Nothing like that is in Indian Highway; with conceptual aplomb, the Serpentine turns the accessibility and energy of Indian art into a taut cerebral game.

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The highway of the title refers both to the literal road of migration and movement, and to the information superhighway, which together are propelling India to modernity. Dayanita Singh’s wallpaper-photographs of Mumbai’s central arteries illuminated at night introduce the theme in the first gallery, and a crowd of sober documentary films worthily continue it – but a pair of installations catch the symbolism best. One is Bose Krishnamachari’s celebrated “Ghost/Transmemoir”, a collection of a hundred tiffin boxes – widely used to convey home-cooked lunches to workers across cities – each inset with LCD monitors, DVD players and headphones, through which everyday Mumbaikars regale audiences with their stories, accompanied by soundtracks evoking the high-pitched jangle and screech of Mumbai street life.

The other, towering upwards to the North Gallery’s dome like a beating black heart at the core of the show, is Sheela Gowda’s “Darkroom”, consisting of metal tar-drums stacked or flattened into wrap-around sheets, evoking at once the grandeur of classical colonnades and the ad hoc shacks built by India’s road workers. Inside, the darkness is broken by tiny dots of light through holes punctured in the ceiling like a constellation of stars; yellow-gold paint enhances the lyric undertow in this harsh readymade.

Opposite is N S Harsha’s “Reversed Gaze”, a mural depicting a crowd behind a makeshift barricade who tilt out towards us – making us the spectacles at the exhibition. All Indian life is here in this comic whimsy: farmer, businessman, fundamentalist Hindu, anarchist with firebomb, pamphleteer, aristocrat in Nehruvian dress, south Indian in baggy trousers and vest, tourist clutching a miniature Taj Mahal, and an art collector holding a painting signed R Mutt – linking the entire parade to the urinal, signed R Mutt, with which Marcel Duchamp invented conceptual art in 1917.

Essential to the meaning of “Reversed Gaze” is that it will be erased when the exhibition closes – a slap in the face for the predatory art market. So will the pink and purple bindi wall painting “The Nemesis of Nations” by Bharti Kher, who recently joined expensive international gallery Hauser and Wirth. And a canvas of drawings greeting visitors as they enter is all that is left of Nikhil Chopra’s performance piece “Yog Raj Chitrakar”, in which the artist this week spent three days assuming the persona of his grandfather, an immaculately dressed gentleman of the Raj, and lived and slept in a tent in Kensington Gardens, entering the gallery only to daub the canvas that stands as an art of aftermath – a memory drawing.

Painting here is a vanishing act. Maqbool Fida Husain (aged 93) has made 13 bright poster-style works – red elephants, a tea ceremony after a tiger shooting, a satirical Last Supper with dapper businessman, umbrella, briefcase, body parts – to surround the exterior of the Serpentine. MF Husain is India’s most respected artist; with these billboards, executed in his standard style of forceful black contours, angular lines and bright palette, he returns to his career origins as a painter of cinema advertisements.

In the catalogue, curator Ranjit Hoskote argues that “transcultural experience is the only certain basis of contemporary practice” and that “the chimera of auto-Orientalism, with its valorisation of a spurious authenticity to be secured as the guarantee of an embattled local against an overwhelming global, has been swept away”.

But Husain, godfather to generations of Indian artists, and indeed every piece in Indian Highway – from feminist painter Nalini Malani’s looping fantasy figures intricately inked on bamboo paper in “Tales of Good and Evil” to Jitish Kallat’s photographic series “Cenotaph (A Deed of Transfer)”, chronicling the demolition of slum dwellings – proves the opposite: however hard a western gallery tries to make Indian art talk a global conceptual language, its local strengths speak louder. Indian art, on this showing, is visually arresting and thoughtful, but nothing here is formally or conceptually innovative, or aesthetically provocative. We thus respond to its distinctive idiom and themes as cultural tourists.

This is the context in which Aicon, London’s leading commercial gallery of Indian art, opened last year. Signs Taken as Wonders is a Christmas selling show but is also intelligently structured around the perennial subject of India’s shifting identities, with misrecognition the trope: out-of-focus photographs of buildings and anonymous steel workers in RAQS Collective’s “Misregistration”; deconstruction of stereotypes in Vivek Vilasini’s “Vernacular Chants” prints; the contrast between questioning pose and expression and monumentality in Riyas Komu’s cropped, close-up “Borivali Boy II”.

This show complements the Serpentine’s by emphasising the painterly, such as the fragmented textures and touches of surrealism in Husain’s veiled “Women of Yemen”. In particular, the swirling abstract patterns and slabs of twisting colour in Krishnamachari’s “Stretched Bodies” – portraits of disintegration and change that deny the possibility of single truths, and the delicate ink-on-silk drawings of his “Mumbiya” depiction of a typical citizen, which seems to fade into elusiveness as you draw near – add layers to the vision of chaotic, vibrant Mumbai in the artist’s “Ghost” installation at the Serpentine. Krishnamachari describes the average Mumbaikar as “an ocean of anxieties that have arisen from the everyday question of acceptance”. Flitting between these shows, you feel most of all that uneasiness, both in the creation of Indian art and in our uncertain response to it.

‘Indian Highway’, Serpentine Gallery, London to February 22 . ‘Signs Taken for Wonders’, Aicon Gallery, London, to January 24

===

AFTERALL

How Do We Know What Latin American Conceptualism Looks Like?

Miguel A. López

Tags: Gerardo Mosquera, Luis Camnitzer

 

‘Tucumán Arde', 1968, third phase of the campaign: poster calling for the 1st Bienal de Arte de Vanguardia. Image courtesy Archivo Graciela Carnevale

‘Tucumán Arde’, 1968, third phase of the campaign: poster calling for the 1st Bienal de Arte de Vanguardia. Image courtesy Archivo Graciela Carnevale

A piece that is essentially the same as a piece made by any of the first Conceptual artists, dated two years earlier than the original and signed by somebody else. – Eduardo Costa1

I

On 28 April 1999 the exhibition ‘Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s-1980s’ opened at New York’s Queens Museum of Art. Organised by Luis Camnitzer, Jane Farver and Rachel Weiss, consisting of eleven geographically defined sections and curated by a large, international group of art historians and researchers, the exhibition formulated one of the riskiest and most controversial interpretations of so-called Conceptual art at an international level. The show was ambitious. Its structure created a geographical spill-over that called into question the lesser or secondary place to which certain critical productions had been consigned. The framework of analysis was the global set of social and political transformations that have taken place since 1950, and the emergence of new forms of political action that formed the backdrop to a renewed repertoire of visual language. Such a scope allowed the curators to gather aesthetic proposals not defined in the exhibition by a Conceptualist ‘aesthetics of immateriality’, but instead by their capacity for intervention.2 This approach, without doubt, shifted the very rules according to which the history of Conceptual art had been written. Those radical changes of the modes of producing and giving value to art exposed by ‘Global Conceptualism’ reveal complex processes in which political subjectivities oppose the consensual organisation of power and its distribution of places and roles, mobilising singular and collective resistances and dissenting energies.

Ten years on, the shockwaves can still be felt, perhaps even more intensely than at the time. In different ways, ‘Global Conceptualism’ updated some of the debates that had been attempting to raise the issue of subjectivity in social practices from a post-colonial perspective, disputing the geographical and temporal orders of a modern or colonial Occidentalism.3 Hence, it was no surprise that the show became one of the most quoted (and most questioned) referents of the revival of 1960s and 70s critical production that has taken place over the past decade in exhibitions, seminars and publications around the world.

While much has been said about the decentralising virtues of ‘Global Conceptualism’, in retrospect its most significant legacy appears not only to be the broadening of the Conceptual art map (a move that had a bearing on several subsequent curatorial projects), but the way in which the exhibition questioned the identity of a Conceptual art with universal aspirations. The curatorial operation of ‘Global Conceptualism’ started from a categorical distinction between ‘Conceptual art’ – understood as a North American and Western European aesthetic development associated with a formalist reduction inherited from abstraction and Minimalism – and ‘Conceptualism’, a term denoting a critical return to an ‘ordering of priorities’ that made visible certain aesthetic processes on a transnational level, allowing for diverse historical, cultural and political narratives to be set in place.4 Conceptualism was presented as a phenomenon that took place in a ‘federation of provinces’, with the ‘traditional hegemonic centre [being] one among many’, drawing a multiplicity of points of origin and questioning the privileged position claimed by Western modernity and its politics of representation.5 The exhibition seemed to work as a performative apparatus determined to re-politicise, reconfigure and rewrite the memory of those decades. As a result Conceptual art, which from the perspective of the United States and Western Europe had until then been an unavoidable prism for reading other critical productions, appeared fractured.

The shrewdness of the ‘Global Conceptualism’ gesture no doubt managed to effectively dominate the critical framework from which one would contemplate and validate those antagonistic practices. But more importantly, and perhaps without intending to, it allowed for the reconsideration of Conceptualism as the effect of a discourse (or multiplicity of discourses) that had itself caused breaks and a major questioning of the fabric of certain local memories – albeit in some cases at the expense of reinforcing lineages and typologies. These are complex manoeuvres, and their political implications must be addressed. What do we achieve today by reflecting on Conceptual art’s radical dimension from the perspective of the ways in which it has been historicised? How should we assess the political impact of such histories, and their effect on possible forms of recognition? Furthermore, how might we assess this effect on the production of certain forms of subjectivisation and sociability?6

II

The struggle of Latin American historiography to place local episodes within global narratives, in an attempt to counter the dominant geographies of art, has been successful. For some time now, artists such as Hélio Oiticica, León Ferrari, Lygia Clark, Alberto Greco, Luis Camnitzer, Cildo Meireles, Oscar Bony and Artur Barrio, or collective experiences such as ‘Tucumán Arde’ (‘Tucumán Burns’, 1968) and ‘Arte de los medios’ (‘Art of Media’, 1966), have become unavoidable references in virtually all recent accounts that trace the so-called inaugural landmarks of Conceptualism on a transcontinental scale. Today, however, this apparent expansion of discourse seems to demand renewed reflection, as it is no longer a matter of tirelessly continuing to accommodate events in the endless container we believe history to be, but of questioning the ways in which they reappear and the roles they play within it. Such reflection will enable us to examine the anachronisms and discontinuities of historical discourse – its fragments, snippets, shreds – and activate their ability to disrupt once again the logic of the ‘verified facts’.

In the recent essay ‘Cartografías Queer’ (2008),7 the theorist Beatriz Preciado discusses the formation of historiographic models of the so-called sexual difference from the perspective of a queer epistemological critique that could be very useful for us in this task. Considering the political scope of the historical exercise, Preciado avoids the taxonomy of places, situations or individuals and instead proposes, in direct dialogue with Félix Guattari’s ‘schizoanalytic cartographies’, a map that gives an account of the technologies of representation and modes of production of subjectivities.8 This map makes explicit how certain dominant diagrams of representation of sexual minorities come dangerously close to becoming mechanisms of social control and discipline. Can we envision a way of reading and representing that does not result in an illustrative exercise of description, but that instead allows for the perception of variations and displacements that appear as forms of subjectivisation, or even as machines of political transformation that disrupt previously established arrangements?

Preciado brings into play two antagonistic historiographic figures: the conventional model of ‘identity cartography’ (or ‘cartography of the lion’, as she terms it), concerned with seeking, defining and classifying the identities of bodies; and a ‘critical cartography’ (‘queer cartography’ or ‘cartography of the bitch’), which sidesteps writing as a topography of established representations in order instead to ‘sketch out a map of the modes of production of subjectivity’, observing the ‘technologies of representation, information and communication’ as genuine performative machines.9 These two models are divergent not only in their modes of producing visibility, but also in their ways of battling the technologies that mediate the political construction of knowledge. These issues are pervaded by the relationship between power and knowledge, and even to a greater extent by biopolitical modes of production linked to the codes of representation and the allocation of places in social space.10 Such crucial issues must be considered at a time when ‘dematerialised’ logic has begun to strike up an effective dialogue with the dynamics of global capitalism on immaterial goods.11

Following (or perhaps perverting) Preciado’s reflections, it may not be difficult to acknowledge that until recently most historiographies of modern and contemporary art have been ‘cartographies of identities’. Among these, ‘Conceptual art’ surfaced as a sanctionable identity, and the historiographic task resembled that of a detective tracking down the still unfound remains of Conceptualism in order to introduce them into the topography of the visible. It strives to offer a genealogy and geography of that which is totally representable – bringing those experiences into historical account, dispelling the mists that surrounded them, and clarifying a place apparently recovered.12

But let’s try the opposite exercise too. Let’s imagine a cartography not interested in seeking out the fragments of Conceptual art, one that even doubts the existence of such pieces. Let’s imagine a map that instead aims to explore the label itself, observing its uses and noting how it produces identities in different contexts; a map that, before attempting to function as a technique of representation, tries to expose power relations, ‘the architecture, displacement and spatialisation of power as a technology for the production of subjectivity’.13 Here it would no longer be a question of establishing formal resemblances between works, or of dating those that can effectively guide us in recognising the ‘Conceptual’ or ‘Conceptualist’ category (and its regional derivatives such as ‘Argentinean’, ‘Brazilian’ or ‘Latin American’) but, rather, of finding out how those narratives have determined the materiality and forms of visibility of what they hoped to describe, how they have negotiated their place within and without the institution and distributed it after having transformed these critical art forms into received knowledge.

Taking that tension between the cartographic models in their identitarian and queer versions as a starting point, I would like to pose a series of questions concerning some of the recent cartographical representations of Conceptual art: first, by revisiting one of the most influential accounts of so-called Latin American Conceptualism and the re-inscription of the ‘ideological’ as a category from which to consider aesthetic trends in the region; and second, by analysing a recent, almost unnoticed Argentinean exhibition that proposed a strategy for reflecting politically on how it is possible to reassess the ruptures triggered by 1960s avant-garde movements and the ‘Tucumán Arde’ episode. The show, notably, put forward an approach to the archive that refuses to treat this event as a chapter in the history of art and instead reactivates the anachronistic heterogeneity of meanings borne by the documentary remnants.

III

It was not until the early 1990s that one of the first programmatic essays of Latin American Conceptualism was published, and its ideological reverberations have accompanied many of the considerations on the subject since. Art historian Mari Carmen Ramírez wrote the essay ‘Blueprint Circuits: Conceptual Art and Politics in Latin America’ (1993) for the catalogue of the exhibition ‘Latin American Artists of the Twentieth Century’, curated by Waldo Rasmussen and organised by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in 1992.14The exhibition, which was first opened to the public in Seville and produced in the context of the celebrations commemorating the fifth centenary of the ‘discovery of America’ – a controversial exhibition on account of its perceived condescending and stereotyping discourse15 – was one of the culminating stages of the boom of Latin American art that began in the mid-1980s and fostered a depoliticised representation of Latin American culture and history, which was strongly associated with private promotional and funding interests both in the US and Latin America. The political landscape at that time included the re-establishment of democratic governments throughout the subcontinent, the internal crisis of the Left and the introduction of neo-liberal policies following the Washington Consensus.16 For several of the intellectuals who were symbolically mediating the cultural production between North and South America at the time, such as the Cuban art historian and curator Gerardo Mosquera, the Chilean feminist cultural critic Nelly Richard or Ramírez herself, it was clear that what was at stake were the mechanisms of representation of the American continent at the end of the Cold War, and therefore a totally renewed political economy of signs catalysed by a sequence of exhibitions of Latin American art outside of Latin America – exhibitions that effectively were beginning to draw a new exotic, formalist and neo-colonial framework of interpretation.17

The very title of the text – ‘Conceptual Art and Politics in Latin America’ – announced Ramírez’s focus on disruptive aesthetic forms and their socio-cultural conditions, something that was not in Rasmussen’s exhibition. The essay attempted to provide a unitary legibility to radical experiences that had until then been in large part unrelated (some of which not only had remained indifferent to the nomenclature but even rejected it),18 and by doing so it gave the label ‘Latin American Conceptualism’ one of its first major concrete manifestations. Ramírez’s intention was to challenge the then common assumption that Latin American Conceptual art was a poor, late imitation of Conceptual art ‘from the centre’, and hoped to politicise its readings by means of an argument that assigned positive value to an apparent Latin American difference. In opposition to the limited North American and British ‘analytical’ or ‘tautological’ model, the Latin American model was presented as ‘ideological Conceptualism’. Ramírez traced this binary distinction back to 1974, when it was discussed by the Spanish critic Simón Marchán Fiz, but did not go as far as to question it.19

Ramírez believed the dichotomy revealed the prominence of the ideas of a sadly self-referential Kosuth, heir apparent to the positivist legacy of Modernism. ‘In Kosuth’s model the artwork as conceptual proposition is reduced to a tautological or self-reflexive statement. He insisted that art consists of nothing other than the artist’s idea of it, and that art can claim no meaning outside itself,’20Ramírez says, echoing – voluntarily or not – some of the criticism that art historian Benjamin Buchloh had put forward fiercely just four years before, 21 and indirectly playing down the political dimension implicit in the linguistic turn and its break with late-modern formalism. She thereby created an interpretative formula repeated almost to the letter in several of her subsequent essays, opposing, in general terms, a ‘depoliticised’ North American canon with a ‘political’ Latin American Conceptualism that subverts the structure of the former and actively intervenes in social space. The assertion, though somewhat provocative, traces a particularly narrow and dichotomous path of analysis, indebted to essentialist nuances that fail to establish a genuine antagonism.22

However, our intention here is not to denounce an ‘incorrect’ reading of Conceptualism, to dispute labels or to reduce Ramírez’s discourse to the use of such categories (conversely, her work puts forward noteworthy observations on the political use of communication and the ‘recovery’ of the mass-produced object in these processes). Rather, it instead is to note how that ‘difference’ shaped a specific visibility and morphology, making the distinction part of many of the debates surrounding the interpretations of the situation and, surprisingly or not, part of the ‘central’, dominant narratives, where it functions as a mystifying cliché in a process of categorisation and normalisation. Returning to some of Ramírez’s ideas, the philosopher and art theorist Peter Osborne observes:

‘Ideological content’ is the key term of Latin American Conceptual art. In distinction from the more formal ideational concerns of most US and European Conceptual art (the act/event, mathematical series, linguistic propositions or the structures of cultural forms), this was an art for which ‘ideology itself became the fundamental “material identity” of the conceptual proposition.’23

Along similar lines, though without circumscribing the ‘analytical-linguistic’ to North American Conceptualism, Alexander Alberro repeats the argument:

[T]he most extreme alternatives to models of analytic Conceptualism in the late 1960s and early 70s are those that developed in the deteriorating political and economic climate of a number of Latin American countries including Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Chile.24

And in a more recent book, formulated as a Conceptualist ‘census’ of Spain with categories such as ‘poetic’, ‘political’ and ‘peripheral’, the historian Pilar Parcerisas revisits Ramírez’s thesis,25 scorning ‘the premises of the analytical orthodoxy of Conceptual art in English-speaking countries’ by attempting to elaborate on the political character of the ‘periphery’. From a range of perspectives in Latin America, that difference has been repeatedly recovered, with variations, in several recent accounts of the 1960s and 70s.26

Rather than objecting to the use of the term or any of its related epithets, what I am attempting to do is underline the need to deploy it as a diagram of power, to assess which meanings and distinctions, and which processes of normalisation and resistance are concealed in such consensual representations. This reconsideration demands a different articulation to the other concepts used by critics and artists when considering their own positions: minor expressions (to paraphrase Deleuze and Guattari),27 the gradual erosion of which has contributed to the standardisation of radical experiences in order that they may establish an ‘appropriate’ exchange with centralist discourses.

For example, it would be provocative to consider the term ‘dematerialisation’ in the context of Argentina’s experimental art scene in the 1960s as the Argentinean theoretician Oscar Masotta proposed in 1967 – independently from Lucy Lippard – as deriving from El Lissitsky and his plan to integrate artists into the publishing industry of revolutionary Russia of the 1920s.28It also would be challenging to rethink a term such as ‘no-objetualismo‘ (non-object-based art), coined in Mexico by Peruvian critic Juan Acha around 1973, as part of a Marxist approach to counter-cultural protest and collective artistic experiences of the Mexican ‘grupos’ (Proceso Pentagono, Grupo Suma and No-Grupo, among others), but most significantly to indigenous aesthetic processes, such as popular art and design, that question Western art history.29 Or to re-examine concepts that artists employ to reflect on their own practice: Argentinean Ricardo Carreira uses the term ‘deshabituación‘ (‘dishabituation’) to refer to an aesthetic theory based on the political transformation of the environment through estrangement.30 In the early 1960s Alejandro Jodorowsky spoke of ‘efímeros‘ (‘ephemerals’) in reference to his series of improvised and provocative actions confronting conventional theatre, halfway between psychotropic mysticism and fantastic esotericism,31 while Edgardo Antonio Vigo’s ‘revulsive’ aesthetic agenda pledged to destabilise the roles of the artist – on other occasions Vigo defined himself as an ‘un-maker of objects’.32 These are but a few of the entries in the critical repertoire still in the shadow of the hegemonic rhetoric. Such subterranean theoretical constructs pose a latent conflict, a multitude of not-yetarticulated and potential genealogies. Beyond mere naming, these words appear as proof of the fact that there is something irreducible – a discordant crossing of stories that point to divergent ways of living and constructing the contemporary – its capacity to unfold other times.

IV

Forty years after ‘Tucumán Arde’, the exhibition ‘Inventario 1965-1975. Archivo Graciela Carnevale’, organised in 2008 in the Argentinean city of Rosario, offered one of the sharpest readings among the host of curatorial approaches that have explored the episodes of radicalism and rupture in Argentina in 1968.33 That year, several groups of artists, film-makers, journalists and intellectuals organised a series of experiences that connected cultural and artistic production with dissenting forms of political intervention – often with revolutionary claims – in collaboration with militant sectors of the workers’ movement. These collaborations dramatically modified artistic and cultural practices, resulting in progressively radicalised experiences in several contexts. In this context, a group of artists – invited to the exhibition ‘Experiencias ’68’ that was organised by the pre-eminent Instituto Di Tella – broke with the institution, exhibiting in ‘Experiencias’ politically critical artworks. When the police banned one of these – an installation of a public toilet, in which the public wrote slogans critical of the military dictatorship – the artists protested, destroying their works in the streets and distributing a text denouncing the increasing repression in the country. This incident became the trigger for a major rethinking of their commitment to the artistic avant-garde, formulating a new programme of action that comprises the ‘Tucumán Arde’ episode. Once outside of the institution, the artists began a process of documentation and social intervention aimed at generating counter-information about the causes and consequences of the crisis that was affecting the Tucumán province after the closure of several sugar mills, and then mounting two public displays in the labour unions in Rosario and in Buenos Aires, which was closed by the police. The project connected artists with sociologists, journalists, theorists, unions, the workers’ movement and others in a process of dispute and intervention in which aesthetic and political strategies were interchanged.34

The ‘Inventario’ exhibition tried to re-assess the celebrated entry of ‘Tucumán Arde’ into the canonical historiography of international art,35 as well as its recognition as a foundational episode of Latin American, even global, ‘ideological Conceptualism’ (or ‘the mother of all political works’, as artist and sociologist Roberto Jacoby has ironically called it).36 The project introduced itself as a questioning of the process of legitimisation and institutionalisation of ‘political art’ that in recent years had focused on the 1968 events, in particular on ‘Tucumán Arde’, and resulted in a global tour that took it, among other places, to documenta 12 in Kassel in 2007.37 What is won and what is lost in the process of ‘Tucumán Arde’ becoming a legend? How should we approach the complex and heterogeneous weft of political subjectivities inscribed in the rupture of the Argentinean avant-garde of the 1960s? Is ‘Tucumán Arde’, as a landmark, a watershed moment, capable of giving an account of the most intense and radical moments of that process?

The exhibition took the transformation of ‘Tucumán Arde’ into an artwork as its starting point, approached through a selection of photographs and documents from the Carnevale archive in an attempt to visually compose a chronological micro-narrative that would describe the events of 1968. The adoption of this origin not only implied returning to the several narratives in which the Argentinean event had been inscribed over the past decade, but also exploring the documentary framework, the material background from which those reconstructions seemed to appear and disappear. The archive was put forward as capable of disrupting all narrative certainty. The exhibition had four sections, and its focus was on the display of the Carnevale archive, the most comprehensive archive of Argentinean art in the 1960s. The installation made the archive freely available (providing desks and the possibility of consulting and copying documents), enabling the circulation of conflicting accounts coming from other people involved at the time. If the fetishising logic had managed to fix the image of ‘Tucumán Arde’, reducing its complexities to mere forms with seemingly immediate meaning, this exhibition attempted to suggest a totally different cartography based on the analysis of the processes of institutional legibility, their discursive production, exhibition formats, economic transformations and publishing products, uncovering their interrelations and tensions.

‘Inventario’ opened with a long, empty corridor in which beams of light were aimed at the walls and floor. At the end of the tunnel a large number of archival images (many of them photographs taken by the group of artists from Buenos Aires and Rosario in 1968) were projected, accompanied by audio fragments of interviews held in the 1990s with trade unionists, artists and student leaders, protagonists and witnesses of several of the actions.38 The entrance thereby presented an empty architecture that both revealed its own modes of display and suggested the impossibility of establishing a single story, disrupting, implicitly, the idea of the singular official version.

A second corridor presented a substantial part of Carnevale’s archive on walls and tables: photographs, posters, catalogues, writings and manifestos of the various Argentinean avant-garde events, alongside graphic work, pictures and other documents of experiences that connected art and politics in other contexts (from silkscreen prints by Taller 4 Rojo in Colombia to posters of the Brigadas Ramona Parra made before or during Salvador Allende’s socialist government in Chile, and others of the Encuentros de Plástica Latinoamericana in Havana). A panel in a third corridor traced the numerous events and exhibitions in which ‘Tucumán Arde’ had been recovered, quoted, exhibited or referenced, including information about the political and economic protocols in place in each institution, and photographs of how it was installed on each occasion. Materials related to the exhibition venue of ‘Inventario’ and the catalogue of the project (a detailed inventory of all the material in Carnevale’s archive) were displayed on several of the tables, where each publication, catalogue and edition referenced in the gallery was made available. Finally, a space presented the contributions of two recent archives generated by Argentinean activist-artists more recently involved in local experiences, posing questions about the different ways of granting visibility to those practices in an exhibition space.

The show was constructed as a series of interludes that paradoxically reformulated the collisions that had initially configured the history of the archive. The passage between one space and another acted as a distancing effect that rejected any possible teleology of facts. While the first gallery had seemed to point out the impossibility of a narrative through the random polyphony of voices and images, the third gave an account of an ‘excess of narratives’ on ‘Tucumán Arde’ and on its own construction (historiographic, curatorial, institutional, economic and social) through its recognisable trajectories and the multiple ways in which it was activated.39 Conversely, in the second gallery, the archive appeared as a potential story, an exhibited archive in use that offered its own migratory movements, its excesses and absences, its revolutions to come.

Put to use, the archive not only attempted to misplace ‘Tucumán Arde’, but to question its simple narration, re-enacting its original misidentification (its initial refusal to describe its practice as art but also its dissolution as an event driven by urgency), opening and exposing the layers of sedimentation it had accumulated. Unlike some recent interpretations that have tried to make it legible as a work of art either by taking a small number of documents and images accompanied by comments, a system of marks and footnotes for illustration purposes, or else by a total lack of comments or stories (dangerously verging on aestheticisation, as in documenta 12), this mise en scène brought fragments together according to their differences, including everything that was usually excluded from the consensual art-historical configurations that repeated its name. The installation of this exhibition rejected from the start all ‘reasonable’ understanding, showing, as Georges Didi-Huberman would say, not only the direction of its movement but the locus of its agitations.40

By presenting the actual archive, ‘Inventario’ also fell into contradictions: in spite of an attempt to present a multiplicity of times and events, as reflected by the heterogeneous archival material presented in the second tunnel, the inclusion of images of some of the most recognisable actions within ‘Tucumán Arde’ contributed to a repetition of the excessive prominence that ‘Tucumán Arde’ had already been given in written accounts of the late 1960s experiences. The photographs displayed throughout the gallery space, which had been enlarged for previous exhibitions in which they had been shown, provided an imposing presence themselves, at times even offering an unwitting chronology, especially if compared to the assemblage of documents that pointed to the complexity and impossibility of offering full descriptions. And yet, is it possible to escape from this already constructed significance?

V

In his most recent book, Luis Camnitzer establishes two key events for the reading of Latin American Conceptualism: the Tupamaro guerrilla group of the late 1960s in Uruguay, and the experience of rupture that led to ‘Tucumán Arde’ in 1968.41 What is important for me here is the invocation of the Argentinean experience in relation to politics from the point of view of militants, or even armed conflict. Despite the possible good intentions behind its attempt to politicise historiographic accounts, we should ask ourselves whether the twosome Tupamaros/’Tucumán Arde’ and the idealised image of ‘resistance’ in which it places the Latin American Conceptual art history implies a pre-established consensus that reaffirms a certain stereotype of subversive art. If that is the case, does this point to a dead end for the politicisation of Conceptualism, and for its criticism? To what extent has an experience such as ‘Inventario’ managed to suggest an alternative representation of the usual story, to fracture narrative certainties or to dispute its stereotyped places? Is it possible to establish a topography of that which cannot yet be named, an index that refuses nomenclatures and stands alone, only to become disorder and pure unpredictability?

I have followed two clues in what I consider the cartographic or diagrammatic forms of critical reading that operate in tension with recent processes of historicisation of ‘Latin American Conceptualism’. The first is an open question that speculates on the interpretative categories stabilised and legitimised in a specific order of discourse, and other secondary notions subsumed in that particular configuration of the ‘Latin American’ which presents itself as a uniform fabric – decentred concepts that would otherwise distort the usual flows of meaning and expose us to dissenting testimonies. The second is the gap between the conventional exhibition formats of ‘Tucumán Arde’, between the individuation of a set of documents that present the chronology of what is considered the artistic ‘episode’, and the presentation of the archive that disrupts and dismantles the order of this appearance. Besides its obvious limitations, the return to the archive is also a misidentification of an event countless times named – classified, arranged, defined – and whose name and materiality are repeatedly questioned in an attempt to bring difference to the surface. On display are merely temporary installations that enable us to return to those operations as a potential space from which to redefine relations between spaces, words and bodies.42

Forty years ago the Argentinean artist Eduardo Costa made a piece in which he proposed a counter-history of Latin American Conceptualism, one based on mixing up the dates: A piece that is essentially the same as a piece made by any of the first conceptual artists, dated two years earlier than the original and signed by somebody else. In this short text, written for the exhibition ‘Art in the Mind’, Costa suggested stealing history as a political activation of Conceptual practice, challenging ‘reasonable’ consolidations by historical narrative – a historiographic practice deliberately formulated around error.43 His work seemed to insist on the possibility of thinking that rationalist history has been permanently mistaken – that there is no possible story, but merely a circumstantial sum of paradoxes, trades and sleights of hand, and that an erratic alteration in its diagram of successions simply adds to its most joyous (in)coherence, celebrating its impossibility.

Costa’s work reminds us that history is never neutral, and if there should be any pending task it is precisely to be unfaithful to it, to betray it. This does not mean giving up on historical reflection, but rather corrupting whatever degree of Christian fidelity and Calvinist obedience history still inspires, unravelling its destiny and ultimate causes. Looking back at those events consigned to oblivion should allow us to recover their salutary force, their emancipatory thrill and at the same time to activate a nostalgia for the future. We do not recover the past in order to make it exist as a bundle of skeletons, but to disturb the orders and assurances of the present. The task of reintegrating the subversive component of whatever we happen to be historicising can’t be resolved by communicating as truth what we apparently know. It is neither a question of producing exhibitions or books on a certain theme, nor of drawing up lists, directories or summaries. It is a question of making the event spill over and break down established modes of thinking about the past and the future, and generating ways of allowing for whatever is excluded to eventually challenge the consensus and bring back the parts of an unresolved conflict.

Footnotes
  1. Eduardo Costa, quoted in Athena T. Spear (ed.), Art in the Mind (exh. cat.), Oberlin, OH: Allen Memorial Art Museum, 1970, n.p.
  2. The term ‘dematerialisation’, introduced by Lucy Lippard and John Chandler in 1968, for a long time was used as the key term to identify Conceptual art in North America and Western Europe. See Lucy R. Lippard and John Chandler, ‘The Dematerialization of Art’, Art International, vol.12, no.2, February 1968, pp.31-36 and Lucy R. Lippard (ed.), Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972, New York: Praeger, 1973.
  3. In Latin America those discussions happened around the Bienal de La Habana, which, since its creation in 1984, has become an important forum of discussion disengaged from the international art market. Another significant moment at an international scale is the coinciding in 1997 of documenta X, curated by Catherine David, and the second Johannesburg Biennial, curated by Okwui Enwezor.
  4. Luis Camnitzer points out that ‘while “conceptual art” is an anecdotal little label in the history of universal art, “conceptualism” as a strategy created a rupture in the appreciation of all art and in the behaviour of artists, regardless of their location’. Fernando Davis, ‘Entrevista a Luis Camnitzer: “Global Conceptualism fue algo intestinal e incontrolable, al mismo tiempo que presuntuoso y utópico”‘, Ramona, no.86, November 2008, p.29. See also Rachel Weiss, ‘Re-writing Conceptual Art’, Papers d’Art, no.93, 2007, pp.198-202. Translation the author’s.
  5. F. Davis, ‘Entrevista a Luis Camnitzer’, op. cit., p.26.
  6. This last question was put forward by theoretician José Luis Brea in his considerations of the political effects of visuality. See J.L. Brea, ‘Los estudios visuales: por una epistemología política de la visualidad’, in J.L. Brea (ed.), Los estudios visuales: La epistemología de la visualidad en la era de la globalización, Madrid: Akal, 2005, pp.5-14.
  7. Beatriz Preciado, ‘Cartografías Queer: El flâneur perverso, la lesbiana topofóbica y la puta multicartográfica, o cómo hacer una cartografía “zorra” con Annie Sprinkle’, in José Miguel Cortés (ed.), Cartografías disidentes, Madrid: SEACEX, 2008, n.p.
  8. See Félix Guattari, Cartographies schizoanalytiques, Paris: Éditions Galilée, 1989.
  9. B. Preciado, ‘Cartografías Queer‘, op. cit.
  10. As Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt remind us, these biopolitical modes of production do not only involve the production of tangible goods in a purely economic sense, but ‘affect all spheres of social, economic, cultural and political life, at the same time as they produce them’. A. Negri and M. Hardt, ‘Preface’, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2001, p.xi.
  11. Boris Groys has clearly expressed some of the effects of this paradox in art: ‘If life is no longer understood as a natural event, as fate, as Fortuna, but rather as time artificially produced and fashioned, then life is automatically politicised, since the technical and artistic decisions with respect to the shaping of the lifespan are always political decisions as well. The art that is made under these new conditions of biopolitics – under the conditions of an artificially fashioned lifespan – cannot help but take this artificiality as its explicit theme. Now, however, time, duration and thus life too cannot be shown directly but only documented. The dominant medium of modern biopolitics is thus bureaucratic and technological documentation, which includes planning, decrees, fact-finding reports, statistical inquiries and project plans. It is no coincidence that art also uses the same medium of documentation when it wants to refer to itself as life.’ Boris Groys, ‘Art in the Age of Biopolitics: From Artwork to Art Documentation’, Documenta 11_ Platform 5: Exhibition (exh. cat.), 2002, p.109.
  12. The issue also involves the critical modes of working around the concepts that sustain these historiographic exercises. It is possible to say, for instance, that to a certain extent ‘Global Conceptualism’ adopted the task of the ethnologist, raking up experiences in different geographies and marking its affinities and Conceptualist identities, and yet, paradoxically, its strategy facilitated the mise-en-critique of identity itself. An acritical example of the identity discourse is provided by Álvaro Barrios’s book Orígenes del arte conceptual en Colombia (1999), which offers a narrative made up of interviews in which several leading figures of the 1960s and 70s guide the story’s main character (Barrios himself), who appears increasingly convinced of his ability to truly recover the unrecognised Conceptualist element. Álvaro Barrios, Orígenes del arte conceptual en Colombia (1968-1978), Bogotá: Alcaldía Mayor de Bogotá, 1999.
  13. B. Preciado, ‘Cartografías Queer‘, op. cit.
  14. Mari Carmen Ramírez, ‘Blueprint Circuits: Conceptual Art and Politics in Latin America’, in Waldo Rasmussen, Fatima Bercht and Elizabeth Ferrer (ed.), Latin American Artists of the Twentieth Century (exh. cat.), New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1993, pp.156-67.
  15. The exhibition presented Latin American art production as a tame continuation of modern Western aesthetic movements, avoiding any type of political reflection on the colonial history of the subcontinent. Most critics agreed in characterising it as a blatant attempt to ‘maintain a total control of the ideological and aesthetic premises […] and of their interpretation’ from categories projected from the outside. Shifra M. Goldman, ‘Artistas latinoamericanos del siglo XX, MoMA’ (trans. Magdalena Holguín), ArtNexus, no.10, September-December 1993, pp.84-89.
  16. Drawn up in 1989 and promoted by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the US Treasury Department, the Washington Consensus is a list of measures for economic reform that presented itself as the ‘best’ programme to face the crisis and ‘underdevelopment’ of Latin America, among which were liberalisation of trade and investment, deregulation and a general withdrawal of the state from economic matters.
  17. Some of these debates, from a Latin American cultural perspective opposed to European and North American dominance, can be found in Gerardo Mosquera (ed.), Beyond the Fantastic: Contemporary Art Criticism from Latin America, London: The Institute of International Visual Arts, 1995.
  18. Juan Pablo Renzi, a driving force in ‘Tucumán Arde’, was emphatic about this. In a work titled Panfleto no.3. La nueva moda (Pamphlet no.3. The New Fashion, 1971), which he contributed to the ‘Arte de Sistemas’ exhibition organised by the Museo de Arte Moderno/Centro de Arte y Comunicación in Buenos Aires in 1971, he stated: ‘What is in fashion now is Conceptual art […] and it turns out that (at least for some critics like Lucy Lippard and Jorge Glusberg) I am one of those responsible for the onset of this phenomenon (together with my colleagues from the ex-groups of revolutionary artists in Rosario and Buenos Aires from ’67 to ’68). This assertion is mistaken. Just as any intention of linking us to that aesthetic speculation is mistaken.’ And he concludes: ‘REGARDING OUR MESSAGES: 1. We are not interested in them being considered aesthetic. 2. We structure them according to their contents. 3. They are always political and are not always transmitted by official channels like this one. 4. We are not interested in them as works but as a means of denouncing exploitation.’
  19. The same reference to Marchán Fiz’s ‘ideological Conceptualism’ had already been made one year earlier by the North American critic Jacqueline Barnitz in the catalogue of the exhibition ‘Encounters/ Displacements. Luis Camnitzer, Alfredo Jaar, Cildo Meireles’, curated by Ramírez and Beverly Adams. However, Ramírez’s voice was the one that consolidated and furthered the argument most effectively, making it an indispensable reference for many subsequent interpretations. A decisive factor in this consolidation was the repetition of the line of argument in the catalogue of ‘Global Conceptualism’ and later on in two large-scale international surveys of Latin American art she was also in charge of: ‘Heterotopías. Medio siglo sin lugar 1918-1968’ at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid in 2000; and ‘Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America’ at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in 2004. Marchán Fiz doesn’t quite completely confine the ‘ideologisation’ to Conceptual art from Latin American nor self-referentiality to European/North American work. See J. Barnitz, ‘Conceptual Art in Latin America: A Natural Alliance’, in M.C. Ramírez and B. Adams (ed.), Encounters/Displacements: Luis Camnitzer, Alfredo Jaar, Cildo Meireles (exh. cat.), Austin: Archer M. Huntington Art Gallery, University of Texas, 1992, pp.35-47; M.C. Ramírez, ‘Tactics for Thriving on Adversity: Conceptualism in Latin America, 1960-1980’, in L. Camnitzer, J. Farver and R. Weiss (ed.), Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s-1980s (exh. cat.), op. cit., pp.53-71; Simón Marchán Fiz, Del arte objetual al arte de concepto, Madrid: Alberto Corazón Editor, 1974 [1972].
  20. M.C. Ramírez, ‘Blueprint Circuits’, op. cit., p.156.
  21. Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, ‘From the Aesthetic of Administration to Institutional Critique (Some Aspects of Conceptual Art, 1962-1969)’, in l’art conceptuel, une perspective (exh. cat.), Paris: Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 1989, pp.41-53.
  22. Historian Jaime Vindel has also noted the contradictions in responding to the centre/periphery relationship through an equally binary opposition: ‘By basing their position on an antagonist with no real voice, these discourses run the risk of making their publicity dependent on the centre/periphery logic against which they declare they stand and to which they are still yielding.’ J. Vindel, ‘A propósito [de la memoria] del arte político: Consideraciones en torno a “Tucumán Arde” como emblema del conceptualismo latinoamericano’, lecture given at the 5th International Conference of Theory and History of the Arts – 13th CAIA Symposium, Buenos Aires, October 2009.
  23. Peter Osborne, Conceptual Art, London and New York: Phaidon Press, 2002, p.37.
  24. Alexander Alberro, ‘Reconsidering Conceptual Art, 1966-1977, in A. Alberro and Blake Stimson (ed.), Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, 1999, pp.xxv-xxvi.
  25. Pilar Parcerisas, Conceptualismo(s) Poéticos, Políticos, Periféricos: En torno al arte conceptual en España. 1964-1980, Madrid: Akal, 2007, p.27.
  26. In a 1997 text Camnitzer celebrated Ramírez’s argument, which he found enlightening for its understanding of the regional differences of Conceptualism, which emphasised the relationship between Duchamp and the modern tradition of Mexican muralism, starting from its foray into the social sphere with communicative goals. Broadly speaking, however, Camnitzer shares Ramírez’s view of North American Conceptual art, which he brands ‘a quasi-mystical search for the imponderable’. L. Camnitzer, ‘Una genealogía del arte conceptual latino-americano’, Continente Sul Sur, no.6, November 1997, p.187. Other historians who have used the expression ‘ideological Conceptualism’ more or less critically over the past few years include Andrea Giunta, Ana Longoni, María José Herrera, Ivonne Pini, Miguel González, Cristina Freire and Alberto Giudici. Due to problems of space, this text will not compare the conflicting meanings and the implications inscribed in their uses.
  27. ‘A minor literature doesn’t come from a minor language; it is rather that which a minority constructs within a major language. […] The second characteristic of minor literatures is that everything in them is political. Minor literature is completely different; its cramped space forces each individual intrigue to connect immediately to politics. […] We might as well say that minor no longer designates specific literatures but the revolutionary conditions for every literature within the heart of what is called great (or established) literature.’ Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature (trans. Dana B. Polan), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986, pp.16-18.
  28. See Oscar Masotta, ‘Después del pop, nosotros desmaterializamos’ (1967), in O. Masotta, Revolución en el arte: Pop-art, happenings y arte de los medios en la década del sesenta, Buenos Aires: Edhasa, 2004, pp.335-76. For Lucy Lippard’s use of the term, see L.R. Lippard, Six Years, op. cit.
  29. As yet, there is no study dealing with Juan Acha’s critical thinking of the 1960s and 70s, and the political process that led to the emergence of ‘no-objetualismo‘. For a first, partial attempt, see Miguel A. López and Emilio Tarazona, ‘Juan Acha y la Revolución Cultural. La transformación de la vanguardia artística en el Perú a fines de los Sesenta’, in Juan Acha, Nuevas referencias sociológicas de las artes visuales: Mass-media, lenguajes, represiones y grupos [1969], Lima: IIMA – Universidad Ricardo Palma, 2008, pp.1-17.
  30. Ana Longoni, ‘El Deshabituador: Ricardo Carreira in the Beginnings of Conceptualism’, in Viviana Usubiaga and A. Longoni, Arte y literatura en la Argentina del siglo XX, Buenos Aires: Fundación Telefónica, Fundación Espigas and FIAAR, 2006, pp.159-203.
  31. See Cuauhtémoc Medina, ‘Recovering Panic’, in Olivier Debroise (ed.), The Age of Discrepancies: Art and Visual Culture in Mexico, 1968-1997, Mexico DF: UNAM, 2007, pp.97-103.
  32. In October 1968, in a newspaper and on local radio Vigo made the surprising call for his first ‘señalamiento‘ (‘appointment’) titled Manojo de Semáforos (A Handful of Traffic Lights). The proposal called for people to look at an ordinary object for its aesthetic potential to cause ‘revulsion’. See F. Davis, ‘Prácticas “revulsivas”: Edgardo Antonio Vigo en los márgenes del conceptualismo’, in C. Freire and A. Longoni (ed.), Conceitualismos do Sul/Sur, São Paulo: Annablume, USP-MAC and AECID, 2009, pp.283-98.
  33. ‘Inventario 1965-1975. Archivo Graciela Carnevale’, Centro Cultural Parque de España, Rosario (3 October-9 November 2008). The team working on the show was made up of the artist Graciela Carnevale, historians Ana Longoni and Fernando Davis, and Ana Wandzik, an artist from Rosario. This project constituted the first curatorial experiment in political activation by the Red Conceptualismos del Sur group.
  34. For further discussion of the experiences of 1968 in Argentina, see G. Carnevale et al. (ed.), Tucumán Arde. Eine Erfahrung: Aus dem Archiv von Graciela Carnevale, Berlin: b_books, 2004.
  35. While its earliest mentions date back to the late 1960s, its incorporation within the canon since the late 1990s, through a series of essays, exhibitions and publications, quickly multiplied its visibility. International exhibitions include I Bienal de Artes Visuais do Mercosul in Porto Alegre, Brasil in 1997; ‘Global Conceptualism’ in 1999 and ‘Heterotopías’ in 2000; ‘Ambulantes. Cultura Portátil’ curated by Rosa Pera at CAAC, Seville; ‘Inverted Utopias’ at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in 2004; and ‘Be what you want but stay where you are’, curated by Ruth Noack and Roger M. Buergel at Witte de With, Rotterdam, 2005.
  36. Roberto Jacoby, ‘Tucucu mama nana arara dede dada’, Ramona, no.55, October 2005, pp.86-91.
  37. Even though the most prevalent reading of ‘Tucumán Arde’ places it within the ‘Conceptual’ genealogy, others have tried to relate it to a history of political intervention, collective production or militant research. Examples of this are the dossier ‘Les fils de Marx et Mondrian: Dossier argentine’, published in Robho magazine (nos.5-6, 1971, pp.16-22) or anthropologist Néstor García Canclini’s discussion of ‘Tucumán Arde’ in the context of the process of integration of artistic avant-gardes with popular organisations. See N. García Canclini, ‘Vanguardias artísticas y cultura popular’, Transformaciones, no.90, 1973, pp.273-75. More recently, Brian Holmes has noted the impact this experience had on several activist groups operating in Europe in the late 1990s. See A. Longoni, Daniela Lucena et al., ‘”Un sentido como el de Tucumán Arde lo encontramos hoy en el zapatismo”: Entrevista colectiva a Brian Holmes’, Ramona, no.55, October 2005, pp.7-22. Similar readings are proposed by exhibitions such as ‘Antagonismes. Casos d’estudi’, curated by Manuel Borja-Villel and José Lebrero at MACBA, Barcelona, 2001; ‘Collective Creativity: Common Ideas for Life and Politics’, curated by What, How and for Whom at Kunsthalle Fridericianum, Kassel in 2005 and the project ExArgentina, organised by Alice Creischer and Andreas Siekmman.
  38. The interviews were conducted by Mariano Mestman and A. Longoni; some of them were eventually published in their book Del Di Tella a ‘Tucumán Arde’. Vanguardia artística y política en el ’68 argentino, Buenos Aires: El cielo por asalto, 2000.
  39. See F. Davis and A. Longoni, ‘Apuntes para un balance difícil: Historia mínima de “Inventario 1965-1975. Archivo Graciela Carnevale”‘, unpublished text presented at the 2nd Red Conceptualismos del Sur Reunion, Rosario, October 2008.
  40. ‘Politics are only displayed by exposing the conflicts, the paradoxes, the reciprocal clashes that weave history,’ says Didi-Huberman in his considerations of the Brechtian notion of montage. ‘[M]ontage appears as the procedure par excellence in this exposition: its objects are not revealed when taking position but once they have been taken apart, as is said in French to describe the violence of a “unbridled” storm, wave against wave, or as is said of a watch “dismantled”, i.e. analysed, explored and therefore spread by the passion of knowing applied by a philosopher or a Baudelairian child.’ G. Didi-Huberman, Cuando las imágenes toman posición, Madrid: A. Machado Libros, 2008, p.153. Editors’ translation.
  41. See L. Camnitzer, Conceptualism in Latin American Art: Didactics of Liberation, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007, pp.44-72. Camnitzer, however, points at alternative coordinates, such as the writings of nineteenth-century Venezuelan writer and educator Simón Rodríguez, who taught Simón Bolívar. For Camnitzer, the Tupamaros’s use of ‘aestheticised military operations’ and Rodríguez’s ‘ideological aphorisms’ contribute to what he calls a ‘didactics of liberation’: communication process aimed at generating actual changes in society.
  42. ‘Politics is a specific rupture in the logic of arche. It does not simply presuppose the rupture of the “normal” distribution of positions between the one who exercises power and the one subject to it. It also requires a rupture in the idea that there are dispositions “proper” to such classifications.’ Jacques Rancière, ‘Dix thèses sur la politique’, Aux Bords du Politique, Paris: Gallimard, p.229.
  43. A.T. Spear, Art in the Mind, op. cit. Translated by Josephine Watson.——-
    Global Conceptualism and the Conditions of Chinese Contemporary Art Thoughts on the Documenta XI Curators¡¯ China Visit
    By Xu Jiang and Gao Shiming
    Translation by Wang Yiyou
    April 2000Globalization has stimulated many critical responses in the West. In order to establish ¡°Global Conceptualism¡± in its true sense and to critique Western modernity, especially all forms of universalism, people begin to re-examine concepts including the particular, the local, and difference.

    In the framework of multiculturalism and global conceptualism, people tend to use post-colonial cultural theory to examine contemporary art and culture in China. This misinterpretation is strategically placed.

    Chinese art is in a place where unprecedented opportunities and challenges, complexities and paradoxes co-exist.  In the world¡¯s rich and diverse cultural landscape, Chinese artists need to be imaginative creators rather than producers of stereotyped and iconic images of the cultural Other.

    In late April 2000, at the invitation of the China Art Academy, the artistic director of the Documenta XI Okwui Enwezor visited Hangzhou with six renowned curators and critics. Sponsored by the Liang Jiehua Art Foundation, this visit was their first stop in China. This ¡°star¡± curatorial team¡¯s China visit was highly significant. Since 1955, the Documenta has launched ten exhibitions (once every five years) in succession. The Documenta X was under the curatorship of the French Catherine David, whose explicitly Western-centric approach provoked a great deal of criticism in the international art world. As a strategic response to the previous Documenta, Okwui, a curator with Nigerian descent was selected as the artistic director of the Documenta XI. He became the first curator with African descent in the history of the Documenta, probably even in the history of art exhibitions in the West. His appointment signaled the multicultualistic tendency in the international art world. Okwui expounded his art research theme, ¡°Global Conceptualism¡± in the Queens Museum in 1999, which inspired many non-Western artists.

    In their brief visit to Hangzhou, Okwui and other curators had lively discussions and exchanges with artists and students at the China Art Academy. The three-day discussions highlighted several important issues.

    The Concept of the ¡°West¡± and ¡°Global Conceptualism¡±
    What is the West? What do we mean when we use it so often and so casually? It is exactly the question that Okwui raised when he first arrived in Hangzhou. It is also the question being discussed repeatedly throughout the three-day discussions. In fact, this difficult question is deeply rooted in China¡¯s history in the past century. The beginning of China¡¯s modern history is marked by the unforgettable ¡°contacts¡± between China and the West in 1840. The arrival of the Western powers forced China to awaken and to modernize itself. From then on, every issue in China was considered and dealt with in terms of the China-West relations. The notion of the West is laden with complex meanings and feelings. Over the past century, China¡¯s embracing of things Western always went hand in hand with its resistance to the West. China fought against the West while expecting the recognition from the West. This dual relationship between China and the West found its expressions in art; from the beginning, Western art was a constructed notion, as well as a complex and paradoxical ideal and discourse in China.

    Beginning with the 1979 Star Exhibition, the New Wave Art Movement in China quickly experimented with almost every school/ movement in Western art history. Modern art from the West was received as a mix of certain styles, an established artistic model, or a rebellious way of life. Its reception in China had little to do with China¡¯s rich cultural tradition. Western modern art as a complex whole became a symbol of modernity, and the Chinese artists¡¯ use of Western modern art became an important statement of the intellectual liberation movement in China. In the 1980s, the concept of modernity in China differed significantly from its Western counterpart. It is perceived as a slogan for the revitalization of the Chinese nation.

    The early 1990s saw paradigm changes in Chinese contemporary art scene, as some critics described, the transitions ¡°from idealism to eclecticism, from ideology to humanistic concerns about individuals and current conditions¡±. This statement might be applied to the field of painting.  But in general, this view overlooks an important element in these shifts, that is, the introduction of new media to China. In the 1990s Chinese artists began to discover possibilities of new art forms, such as installation, video, film, and multimedia. On the one hand, contemporary art in China seemed to devote more attention to the current life in China, which often had no direct references to the West. On the other hand, it is important to note that after the 1989 China/Avant-garde Exhibition, Western art institutions and market discovered Chinese contemporary art; Chinese contemporary art was exhibited, collected and studied with growing enthusiasm. This tendency helped the audience to gain more knowledge about Chinese contemporary art, which has emerged as a significant force in the international art community.

    It is against this background that Okwui and other curators visited China and on their first day in China the question was raised: what does the West mean?

    What does the West actually mean? Does it mean the hateful Western powers that left painful wounds in our national memories in China¡¯s modern history? Does it mean the scientific and rationalistic spirit that inspired the Chinese when the nation was decaying? Does it mean the dominant powers that looked down upon the Chinese, or the evolutionary ideas and values that have infiltrated into our societal life and ways of thinking in this global village. Indeed, We can find in China¡¯s past and present many complicated and heavy answers to this question. This simple question from the curator with African descent from the most important Western contemporary art exhibition reveals something about the West: Western intellectuals are seriously concerned with the issue of globalization.

    The notion of globalization has a long history. From the mid-1950s onwards, it became a widely recognized reality, as indicated by the inclusion of the word ¡°globalization¡± by the Webster Dictionary in 1961 and the Oxford dictionary a year later. In the past two to three decades, the advancement of science and technology has resulted in the entry of certain developed nations into the Information and Post-industrial Era. Globalization was further materialized. After the end of the Cold War, transnational have been promoting the idea of establishing a new world order/system. ¡°Globalization¡± became their propagandist catchword. In 1992 the Club of Rome published The First Global Revolution, stating that we are at the initial stage of a new global society.

    The initial stage of globalization or post-national globalism impacts us in two ways. First, globalization can be seen as a tendency toward economic integration. In view of the world economic imbalance, globalization often means developed nations¡¯ infiltration into developing nations, or Westernization. According to the evolution theory (or the anti-evolution theory at certain points in history), Westernization has become a process in which differences are to be eradicated. George Soros states in the book The Crisis of Global Capitalism that market fundamentalism today is a threat much greater than any forms of authoritarian ideology. Second, in the process of globalization, the Western discourse has received reactions from a variety of forces, primarily forms of cultural resistance from non-Western nations, including indigenization, nationalism, even fundamentalism. Under the influence of those counterforces, the anti-Western-centric discourse such as  post-colonialism, Orientalism, multiculturalism came into being within the West. Since the late 1960s, the anti-Western-centric voices have been growing in the West, as the Others intensified their intervention, for example, the African-American Civil Rights Movement and Feminist movements. The West in fact is becoming a cultural sphere with increasing diversity and complexity (In other words, cultural pluralism has undoubtedly become a reality). There has been a de-centralizing tendency in the West where more and more cultural Others are playing an active role. Okwui is one of them. As a curator with African background, he devotes himself to researching and exhibiting African contemporary art. His idea of ¡°global conceptualism¡±, to a large extent, can be viewed as resistance to the kind of ¡°globalism¡± that privileges integration. Except the female American curators Susanne Ghezt and Lynne Cooke, other members in Okwui¡¯s curatorial team came from places outside of what we usually called developed countries or the first world.  For example, Sarat Maharai was born and educated in South Africa. Sebastian Lopez is a native of Argentina, currently a Dutch citizen. Chris Dercon is Belgian and Jessica Bradley, British-born Canadian. It seems that the structure of this curatorial team suggests a different West, a pluralistic, non-Western West.

    Roots and the Cultural Concept of Post-Colonialism
    Okwui¡¯s notion of ¡°global conceptualism¡± counters the Western-centric discourse of globalization. Global conceptualism has another dimension: non-Western cultures need to be engaged in the dialogues in the global context, as Okwui remarked, ¡°The goal of this Documenta is to build a platform on the foundation of global conceptualism. It is a place where all kinds of cultures can have dialogues, and where we can display a pluralistic scene.¡± For this reason, Okwui placed great emphasis on artists¡¯ identification with their own national cultures as well as the articulation of such identification in their works of art. In his view, this is the way to build a pluralistic scene on this platform. Okwui and his team members were concerned about the Westernizing tendencies in the Chinese art community. After many rounds of discussions on the meaning of the West, Okwui delivered a lecture at the China Art Academy on April 15. He quoted a passage from Alex Harley¡¯s novel Roots, a touching story about the protagonist who traced back his family history back to his ancestor¡¯s African village, where he was treated as an alien.

    ¡°¡­the seventy-odd other villagers gather closely around me, in a kind of horseshoe pattern, three or four deep all around; had I stuck out my arms, my fingers would have touched the nearest ones on either side. They were all staring at me. The eye just raked me. Their foreheads were furrowed with their very intensity of staring. A kind of visceral surging or a churning sensation started up deep inside me, bewildered, I was wondering what on earth was this¡­then in a little while it was rather as if some fullgale force of realization rolled in on me: Many times in my life I had been among crowds of people, but never where every one was jet black!

    Rocked emotionally, my eyes dropped downward as we tend to do when we¡¯re uncertain, insecure, and my glance fell upon my own hands¡¯ brown complexion. This time more quickly than before, and even harder, another gale-force emotion hit me: I felt myself some variety of a hybrid¡­I felt somehow impure among the pure; it was a terribly shaming feeling.¡±

    Roots can be viewed as a modern version of Odyssey against the background of the Western-centric discourse and colonial history. After over three hundred years of drifting in modern culture, the main character Alex H. came back to his land of origin, only finding himself in a worse situation than that of Odysseus, who came back in the disguise of a beggar to avoid being recognized. But Alex H. had no such a choice; he had been altered by the modern culture. When the African villagers surrounded him and watched this ¡°American with black skin¡±, Alex has nothing to say but few words in his ancestor¡¯s language¡­This scene must have created deep resonance in the African-American Okwui. Can we use this touching story as a metaphor for the conditions of Chinese contemporary art?

    Okwui¡¯s use of the story in Roots reflects the cultural identity of the Other in contemporary Western society. When looking at Chinese contemporary art, Okwui, like other Western scholars, easily fell into a common trap, that is, to use post-colonial theories to analyze and interpret the complex contemporary art and culture scene in China.

    Chinese contemporary art, especially experimental art, such as new media art, was largely generated in the process of Westernization. But Westernization in China encompasses multilayered, multi-dimensional artistic practices. Whiling adopting new art forms and media in the international art scene, Chinese artists are creating a process of non-Western Westernization, which differs considerably from anti-Western Westernization that one often sees in Africa and Latin America. Anti-Western Westernization is closely related to the tumultuous colonial history in those regions. The central issues in ¡°roots¡± are human rights and racial tension, which have resulted in post-colonialism and indigenization movements. Although China had a difficult semi-colonial history, the inner vitality of the Chinese culture persisted. This vitality is manifested not only in all kinds of anti-modern currents past and present, but also in the fact that from the very beginning, Chinese intellectuals and artists embraced the West with the goal of critiquing and revitalizing Chinese culture. Even the foremost advocators of Westernization like Hu Shi believed that the introduction of Western knowledge to the East will contribute to ¡°China¡¯s Renaissance¡±.  Although there have been anti-modern currents such as nationalism and essentialism, China has taken modernization as its major path. Due to the lack of the colonialism-imposed modernization process, China does not embrace resistant-modernity, or fundamentalist ideologies, which are prevalent in many colonized countries.

    Modernity in China can be defined as ¡°critical modernity¡± rather than ¡°defensive modernity¡±. The essence of this critical modernity is to critique and re-examine China¡¯s indigenous culture, which gives this modernity an intellectual dimension in China. This is also the essence of China¡¯s contemporary culture. Accordingly, the root of tradition plays two roles in our culture; it is no longer a legendary in the past, and Chinese artists are not the people who are fated to return to their native land after drifting in foreign places.

    A Common Epistemological Foundation and a Silent Voice
    In the text above, one can detect certain tension at the initial stage of globalization. On the one hand, it creates a tendency towards integration. On the other, it results in pluralism to certain extent. But only when globalization entered into certain stages, would appear the voice of the Other. These conditions reveal the paradoxical and relative nature of globalization. In the West, globalization has stimulated wide interest in creating a real ¡°global conceptualism¡± by rediscovering the particular, the local, and difference, and by critiquing Western modernity, especially various forms of universalism. Western culture is at a special point of transition from Achille Bonito Oliva¡¯s ¡°cultural nomadism¡± in the 1980s, to the much discussed ¡°identity and the Other¡±, and to various kinds of multiculturalism today. Difference, identity and identity politics have been buzzwords in the international art community. Under the spell of these trendy Western ideas, Chinese theorists  (or intellectuals in general) use terms such as post-colonialism, indigenization, Orientalism, etc. with growing enthusiasm. Aware that these terms were created in the West with reference to the third world¡¯s painful colonial history, we need to ask: Is it appropriate to use these terms to analyze Chinese culture?

    During his stay in Hangzhou, the Indian-British critic, professor of Art History and Theory at Goldsmith College Sarat Maharaj repeatedly raised the critical issue in the international art community: ¡°In the context of globalization, how can we find and establish a common epistemological foundation for the world¡¯s new art in the twenty-first century?¡±  This seemingly theoretical question has practical implications. Like the question ¡°What does the West mean?¡± it derives from the notion of ¡°global conceptualism¡±. The answer to Maharaj¡¯s question lies in the story of Roots, as well as in another issue that Maharaj raised, that is, from the perspective of global multiculturalism, the growing exchanges have made it possible to share cultural resources (Small doubt that the shared cultural resources here are exactly what Maharaj described as the epistemological foundation). It is noteworthy that during such exchanges, something must have been repressed. An example is Chinese art in the 1980s, when artists embraced and explored modern art from the West. What is the hidden, silent voice? It is rather clear that the silent voice that Maharaj referred to that of the Chinese indigenous culture, which is often viewed as the Other from the Western perspective.

    In fact, this kind of voice can often be heard among critics and artists in China. Classic examples are works by those overseas Chinese artists who ingeniously use Chinese signs and political iconographies. In the essentialist and nationalistic criticism of Westerners¡¯ taste for exoticism, we can detect traces of post-colonialism. The issue of identity is critically important in the extremely complex art arena. At the moment when people in the West start to critique their own culture, and when the post Anglo-Saxonism is gaining currency, the identity of the Other (or the identification oneself with the Other) becomes an important issue.

    The questions that Okwui and Sarat raised are well intended. As the Other in the Western cultural system, they hope that Chinese art (as the Other too) can act as an active participant in the scheme of ¡°global conceptualism¡± that they constructed.  Their proposals, however, have two pitfalls.

    First, if we overemphasize the Other¡¯s differences and its one-sided images, it is possible that global conceptualism and multiculturalism will result in ¡°global cultural imaginaries¡±. The danger is that under such circumstance, pluralism and globalism will not be much different from cultural separatism. This separatism and fundamentalism are two sides of the same coin.

    Second, with the notion of the Other in mind, a group of non-Western curators have been interpreting Chinese art from certain cultural perspectives for a long time. Before the mid-twentieth century, many Chinese art objects were viewed from anthropological point of view. In today¡¯s world as picture (It is interesting to note that Martin Heidegger¡¯s philosophical expression is translated literally in China as ¡°The whole world as a show¡±.), the world itself becomes a colossal showroom filled with images and meanings.  Cultural reading, or reading based on anthropology and epistemology, is inevitable. Due to the lack of adequate knowledge about Chinese history and culture, and more importantly, the lack of Chinese experience, this kind of cultural reading can easily become a symptomatic one, in which one searches only cultural icons or other marks of identification on the surface level. Sometimes, this kind of reading places Chinese art into a preconceived ideological schema. It is unfortunate that this is the way in which many international scholars, critics and curators look at Chinese contemporary art. What they identify is ¡°China¡±. To put it more precisely, what they see is not Chinese art, but various kinds of imaginaries about China (Of course, their imaginaries about China are part of the global cultural imaginaries.)

    It is rather unfortunate that the market¡¯s demand-supply rule plays a prominent role in the artistic production in China. The power of the Western discourse derives from art institutions¡¯ deep pockets, which have attracted or forced many Chinese artists to participate in this massive-scale cultural production in a country with a unique political system. Thanks to China¡¯s economic development and its special status in the international community after the Cold War, this artistic production has become an indispensable resource for the operation of the transnational capital. As part of the global system after the Cold War, China¡¯s politics, folklore, and related artistic and cultural products gain immense popularity on the market as manifestations of China¡¯s Otherness.

    We must ask: in the system of the global conceptualism, what is the concealed, silent voice in the conception of China?

    Apparently, Chineseness is a set role on the stage of the global conceptualism. It wears a distorted mask of the Other. This mask is Westernized, and even anti-West. We may even use the term anti-West Western to define it. Chineseness, however, does not lie in its non-Westernness. The time-honored artistic tradition in China was built by innumerable creative geniuses throughout the ages. This tradition is rich and unique. It is true that its uniqueness cannot be seen unless we compare China with other countries. Over the past hundred years, we have established a notion of Chinese art by using the West as our frame of reference. This fixed concept of Chinese art is concealing; China has been referred to as the East as opposite of the West in modern history. Compared to the progressive, dynamic Western civilizations, Chinese civilization was considered static. In contrast to the representational, rational, analytical, and realistic Western art, Chinese art was often seen as abstract, metaphysical, sensory, intuitive, and idealized. In the Post-Cold War and globalization era when Western culture is transforming itself, China¡¯s non-Westernness conceals its true Chineseness.

    Chineseness and Chinese Contemporary Art
    In our attempt to discover the hidden voice, we need to be aware that a nation¡¯s culture is not monophonic whether it says yes or no. It has deeper and richer meanings. As a driving force behind the growth of a nation, it fosters communities. More importantly, it shapes the character and intellect of the community member. The past century witnessed China¡¯s struggle to redefine its culture in turbulent times. Although China attracts growing international attention today, there are potential crises. On the one hand, how can we claim that we are an Eastern power in the international cultural arena if we do not have any towering figures who contribute to the world culture, or if we do not have any epoch-making events or creative cultural forces.  On the other hand, Western discourse including globalism takes a keen interest in China¡¯s contemporary art; Chinese art was seen as a mirror in which the West can find its own image, or as an exotic appetizer in the dinner table of the global culture. Even for those artists who are brave enough to look critically at the current craze for Chinese art, they might not be able to resist the temptation of fame and profit.

    The twentieth century was extremely eventful. China went through upheavals, including the tumultuous Cultural Revolution, numerous struggles against feudal rule and foreign powers. Today China faces issues such as economic integration and globalization. One tendency deserves our attention in this long process: the gradual disintegration of power discourse and the presence of pluralistic discourse. In fact, the characteristics and essence of Chinese art are formed in its struggles against those non-art factors and ideologies imposed on it. An open environment is necessary to encourage exploration, reflection and creativity in China¡¯s cultural circle. This relies on our critique of China¡¯s cultural heritage, as well as our understanding of current cultural conditions and the world¡¯s diverse cultural resources. Under these circumstances, people began to borrow or appropriate artistic vocabulary from other cultures. In my view, a more important question is: how to use those borrowings to deal with Chinese issues and to gain a deeper understanding of Chinese life. This approach requires the above-mentioned epistemological foundation as well as the experience of current cultural life in China. This experience has more to do with the source of artistic production. Culturally speaking, it is the concealed ¡°silent voice¡±.

    The interaction between Chinese art and the international community has reached its peak in history. As the recent ¡°China boom¡± in the international art world indicates, the amount of world¡¯s attention to China is unprecedented. Chinese art faces both great opportunities and challenges in an extremely complex and paradoxical cultural environment. We are confronted with a critically important question: how to create a healthy, interactive relationship between Chinese art and the international art world? Before we can deal with this question, we must give serious consideration to another question: in the world¡¯s diverse cultural arena how to make a more imaginative and creative Chinese art instead of a specimen of the stereotyped cultural Other?

    For Chinese artists, the issue of identity is of primary importance. One¡¯s identity is self-explanatory. We never really lose our deeply-rooted Chineseness, which can be viewed not only as history¡¯s long shadow, but also as the our life here and now. Chineseness may also be viewed as a future, an aspiration that nourishes our heart and stimulates our creative mind.

    1.It refers to the 1840 Opium War, after which China began to have frequent contacts with Western countries.
    2.Some of the quotations in this essay are translated literally based on the Chinese text.
    3.Alex Haley. Roots; The Saga of an American Family. (New York: Vanguard Press) 2007, pp.873-874.

On Walter Hopps: Interviews and Reviews

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BOMB MAGAZINE

Bruce Conner

by Walter Hopps


Bruce Conner, Frankie Fix, 1997, photocopy on Bristol paper and mixed media, 48 × 40″. Courtesy of Curt Marcus Gallery.

I’d never seen Bruce Conner’s work and had no idea what to expect, when all of a sudden a small San Francisco gallery advertised a show of his. I went up to see it (this was in the late 1950s, when I was running the old Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles with Ed Kienholz). I could see the work through the gallery’s windows, but on the glass there was a notice that said “Presenting the work of the late Bruce Conner”—as though, sadly, he had died, and the work was being put up regardless. On exhibit were a few of the early Ratbastard-type assemblages. Everybody figured, Well, whoever the hell Bruce Conner was, he’s already dead. It was all fake, of course—he hadn’t died. But Bruce was living in the Midwest at that point, and although we’d heard about him through the poet Michael McClure, who was a friend of his, nobody on the West Coast really knew what he looked like. So Bruce got to see how people reacted to his work assuming that he was deceased. Later, after we became friends, he attended an opening at the Museum of Modern Art in New York as me. After that, I sort of took the cue from him and went to social events as someone else on occasion, and once sent someone else out to California as me.

We started showing Bruce at Ferus in 1959. In 1961, he moved with his wife down to Mexico, and shortly afterward I joined him there. I wanted to go down to where my relatives were in Mexico City. (My grandfather, Walter Hopps Sr., went to Tampico to seek his fortune in 1880. He was a character much like the old man in Treasure of the Sierra Madre—except tall instead of short.) While Bruce and I were there, ruins were discovered on my relatives’ property outside of Puebla, south of Mexico City, on the side of a mountain. We wanted to go down and excavate with some workmen and see what we could find. We dug up some old pots and artifacts—nothing spectacular, no gold or anything. It was dusty and difficult work, but quite an adventure. Bruce had been on an expedition once when he was in college, in North Dakota or someplace, trying to excavate Native American relics, so he was really interested in doing this. You could say he generally wanted to be in touch with the old. We found a human skeleton, which we ended up giving to my relatives who owned the property. There was an old stone building and we slept in there in sleeping bags. It wasn’t always easy to get a normal night’s sleep with Bruce around. Stoned, he had visions and thought strange things were going on in the night sky, winged beings coming after him and so on.


Bruce Conner, still from Cosmic Ray, 1961. Courtesy of the Walker Art Center.

I stayed with him at his place in Mexico City for a while, and during that time I helped him edit Cosmic Ray, the movie he made about Ray Charles. He had me cutting up pieces of film. He was quite fun to work with, but he could be crazed as well. One Sunday, we went to my aunt and uncle’s house for an afternoon soiree. We had a late lunch, and then people played croquet in the garden. Bruce refused to play croquet like a normal person, and he was driving everybody nuts by going around and hitting the wrong balls and goofing off.

While he was in Mexico, Bruce was finding things—really raggedy stuff—on the streets. The work he made there took a different turn; it was certainly influenced by the scene in Mexico City and what he was finding. It looked more handmade than the earlier assemblages, a little more crude. Wherever he is, Bruce somehow gets connected with what’s going on. I get the feeling that in certain periods of his work, even when it’s changing, he has a strange instinct for what it is he’s looking for. In terms of the work he made in Mexico, there is a kind of fragile quality to a lot of the materials he used; an almost fugitive quality—fugitive in the sense of being impermanent. Fabrics, cardboard, melted wax—these are vulnerable materials. And in his very best work he tends to use a lot of that, giving things a mellow, often rather dreamy surface—in the assemblages, the inkblots and also the Angels series of photograms, which are life-size versions of what Man Ray had done on a much smaller scale; silhouettes of objects on light-sensitive paper.


Bruce Conner, Guadalupe, 1962, assemblage, 27 × 20 x 5″. Courtesy of Curt Marcus Gallery.

Some of Bruce’s drawings from early on are also very faint—strong, but not bold. The more bold graphic works are these strange Rorschachs and repeating patterns, which are mysterious and unclear but nonetheless beautiful abstractions; inchoate symbols or emblems that, if they can be compared to anything else, they would remind me of the French Symbolist Odilon Redon.

Bruce Conner is an original. His art has a quality and a look all its own—even in its several different ways. Bruce has always had a certain mystique, and he’s a terrific contradiction. He’s from Kansas, and when you meet him he can seem like the most normal Midwestern man—like a classically constructed Kansan house. But then there are all these odd corners and nooks; he’s got quite an attic stuck on him, and there are strange things going on in it.


Bruce Conner, stills from A Movie, 1958. Courtesy of the Walker Art Center.


Bruce Conner, The Mutants, 1978, black-and-white photograph #1 of 3, 9 × 13″. Courtesy of Curt Marcus Gallery.


Bruce Conner, stills from Cosmic Ray, 1961. Courtesy of the Walker Art Center.

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Feature

Reflections on Walter Hopps in Los Angeles

Ken Allen

Ed Kienholtz, Walter Hopps Hopps Hopps, 1959.

With Walter Hopps’ passing in late March of 2005, the art world lost one of its keenest curatorial minds.1 Hopps was an iconoclastic figure who embodied the free-wheeling climate of the “culture-boom” years of the early 1960s in which American artists and American museums seemed to carry the mantle of modernism as well as renew the avant-garde experiments begun in Europe earlier in the twentieth century. Hopps ended his career as curator of 20th century art and the founding director of the Menil Collection in Houston and as adjunct senior curator for the Guggenheim Museum in New York, but in approach and attitude he was the product of the sparse cultural landscape of postwar Los Angeles. Born in Glendale in 1932, Hopps grew up in a period in which artistic modernism was a kind of secret history in Los Angeles, a city that saw a series of conservative backlashes against progressive ideas of many stripes during the early Cold War from abstract painting to public housing. It was this atmosphere that contributed to Hopps’ lifelong commitment to cultivating a public for new and ambitious art in a way that both increased and intensified its audience. Responsible in large part for drawing attention to the burgeoning Los Angeles art world beginning in the late 1950s, Hopps’ special talents might be best defined by looking back at his early career as it shifted from promoting a number of artist friends to participating in a “scene” which exemplified the particular combination of creativity and commodification that characterized the 1960s.

According to Hopps himself, he attempted to carve out a unique position within the tradition of curators and “museum men” from the beginning of his career at the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon) in the early 1960s. As he told an interviewer in 1987, “even in the Pasadena days, as I got to know Michael Fried, he would curse me, saying, ‘You just aren’t part of the profession at all. You’re a damned anthropologist.’ And I would say, ‘You’re damned right I am.’”2 Hopps explained that he cultivated relationships with artists of different backgrounds and temperaments, and while he was always conscious of their distinct visual languages he attempted to remain above the fray of the kinds of value judgements often made by critics, dealers and the artists themselves. He combined a closeness and loyalty to artists with a kind of participant-observer role remarked upon by Fried, a forceful critic at the start of his career at the time.

But Fried’s comment also gets at a part of Hopps’ character, which grew out of his education in the sciences. Born into a family of physicians, he was home-tutored before attending the Polytechnic School in Pasadena and Eagle Rock High School, where he excelled at math and science. In 1950, he enrolled at Stanford, but left shortly thereafter to study microbiology at UCLA. His aptitude in the sciences did not limit his curiosity about the arts, however, and it was during a high school trip to see the best collection of modern art in the area, at the home of Walter and Louise Arensberg in Hollywood, that his interest was seriously piqued. Hopps made several return visits to see the tremendous examples of surrealism, cubism, the sculpture of Brancusi and especially the work of Marcel Duchamp, which particularly intrigued the young student and could be conceived as a series of experiments about the nature of art and aesthetics. As Hopps would later demonstrate when he mounted the show he was most noted for, the first career retrospective of Marcel Duchamp at the Pasadena Art Museum in 1963, the sense of an exhibit as a finely-tuned experiment, as an occasion in which bring together sensitive visual material and then to observe the interaction between art objects, ideas, artists and the public, was central to Hopps’ approach. But the results of this show–a galvanized Los Angeles art world and international media attention–were preceded by a number of earlier activities in which Hopps honed his skills as an arts organizer.

Hopps’ transition from college science major to arts impresario in the mid-1950s is marked by his interest in jazz and his earliest attempts to bring a wider audience to contemporary art in Los Angeles.3 As young students, Hopps, Jim Newman (later director of the Dilexi Gallery in San Francisco) and the artist Craig Kauffman organized jazz concerts in the early 1950s under the name Concert Hall Workshop. In the summer of 1954, Hopps and Newman spent time together in San Francisco exploring the work of a group of artists, most of whom came out of the abstract expressionist milieu that had developed at the California School of Fine Arts (which became the San Francisco Institute of Art).4 These artists, such as Hassel Smith, James Kelly, Julius Wasserstein, Roy De Forest, Sonia Gechtoff, Wally Hedrick, and Jay DeFeo, exhibited at a few dynamic galleries in San Francisco committed to new, local work, such as the King Ubu Gallery (which later became the “6” Gallery) and the East & West Gallery. Inspired by the creative energy and dadaist spirit of these galleries and fascinated by the work of the artists they represented, Hopps wanted to bring what he found in San Francisco to Southern California. While attending UCLA around this time, he had founded a gallery in Los Angeles called Syndell Studio, which he operated with his first wife Shirley and the poet Ben Bartosh. In a bizarre building in Brentwood constructed of old telephone poles painted white, Syndell presented a mix of San Francisco and Los Angeles artists. As Hopps has remarked, Syndell functioned for him “like a discreet laboratory. I didn’t care if four or five people came, as long as there were two or three that were really engaged.”5

But along with this rather private endeavor, Hopps was inclined to try to bring this work to a larger public and conceived of a large survey of West Coast abstract painting called Action. Held in May of 1955 under the auspices of the Concert Hall Workshop group, the detailed exhibition announcement reveals Hopps’ interest and struggle to secure a public place for the exhibit. Originally conceived for a super market space on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, then slated for the Frank Lloyd Wright Pavilion (the Hollyhock House) at Barnsdall Park, the announcement states that “because of pressures of certain groups in Los Angeles who have always been in opposition to contemporary art we found the usage of the Wright Pavilion unfeasible.”6 After proposing to use outdoor theater spaces also controlled by the city, the Action show was finally mounted on the Santa Monica Pier, in the merry-go-round building rented by Hopps for $80 for the week and therefore “subject to no pressures.”7 Because the Concert Hall Workshop was the main sponsor of the “merry-go-round show,” as it is often called, it is not surprising that recorded jazz music was playing throughout the show, adding to the unusual mix of abstract art within the amusement park atmosphere of the pier. The flyer text states that this combination of music and visual art “implies only aesthetic compatibility, not a reciprocal relationship.”8 Because this was the first large-scale exhibit of California “action painting” in a public venue, the show is described in the text as “an attempt to begin to provide the concepts and facilities for the exhibiting of indigenous contemporary works.”9 The fact that this show was followed by Action 2 (“Action squared”) the following year, which included many of the same artists but in a more refined venue, is proof that these “concepts and facilities” were beginning to take root in Los Angeles.10

Action 2 was the result of the collaboration between the “6” and the East & West Gallery in San Francisco and the two galleries in Los Angeles that had established themselves as places for local, avant-garde art in the year since the first Action show, Syndell Studio and Edward Kienholz’s Now Gallery in the Turnabout Theater on La Cienega, where the exhibition was actually held. The two main organizers of Action 2, Hopps and artist and poet Robert Alexander met through Alexander’s friend Wallace Berman, a central figure among a number of artists working in collage and assemblage outside of the network of art schools and annual city shows that constituted the most visible aspect of the Los Angeles art world at the time. The change in the size and location of the second Action show, and the lack of any accompanying music, marks a further refinement of the presentation of the avant-garde in Los Angeles and an interest in the attracting a different public. From the work of twenty-three artists installed in the spectacular display context of an amusement park building on a public pier to the presentation of the work of twelve artists hung in a gallery space located on La Cienega in West Hollywood — a street that was to become known as “gallery row” in the mid-1960s — Action 2 marks a renewed ambition to carve out a new space for vanguard art within the cultural landscape of Los Angeles.11

Charles Brittin, Ferus Alley (Bob Alexander, John Reed, Wallace Berman, Juanita, Walter Hopps), Los Angeles, California, ca. 1957.

The exhibition brochure for Action 2 was designed and printed by Robert Alexander in collaboration with Hopps and includes tipped-in, black and white photographs of paintings by Craig Kauffman, Jay DeFeo, Sonia Gechtoff and a collage by Alexander himself. These images are accompanied by a series of short, poetic statements that tellingly illuminate the spirit in which Hopps conceived of his activity in this period. As he remarked on the conception of these texts, Hopps recalled that he and Alexander “just talked it through,” echoing the improvisational style of many of the works on display.12 The introductory text, following the title page, encapsulates the mix of serious intent and bohemian attitude that surrounded the Action shows:

WE CAN MAKE, HANG, WRECK, SHOW, sell or enjoy them, but it’s “….almost impossible for us to measure the efficacity [sic] of a work of art which we have written or painted, since true admiration…..is almost always accompanied by an insurmountable uneasiness”[ellipses and capitals original].13

Hopps has admitted that he invented the portion of the passage within the quotation marks, but it is printed in such a way to suggest an authoritative text has been excerpted, although the uneven ellipses and use of the incorrect “efficacity” lean toward parody. 14 Another cryptic message declares:

paintings (the other works too) demand being seen (under a variety of circumstances); sometimes they’re good to trade for other things.
observe, & involve even yourself.15

Hopps and Alexander may be referring to Kienholz’s penchant of bartering art work for services here, but the last line emphasizes the kind of democratic, open-ended aesthetic experience which the show was designed to offer. The most radical aspect of the show was a gesture of pure dadaist aggression performed by Alexander when he knocked a hole in the gallery wall clean through to the alley behind the building and pulled in the tall weeds and vines that were growing there, leaving them sticking into the exhibit space.16 This piece, a precursor to later alterations of museum and gallery spaces of the 1960s, was surely meant to represent the anarchical spirit of the “outlaws,” as he liked to identify Wallace Berman and himself, and one with which Hopps still identified years later.17

But these two shows preceded the endeavor for which Hopps is most remembered in the LA art world, the founding of the Ferus Gallery with Edward Kienholz in 1957. Kienholz’s 1959 piece, Walter Hopps, Hopps, Hopps, is a cunning assemblage portrait of his business partner, but one which literally embodies the contradictions that Ferus quickly came to represent as the contemporary art market developed in Los Angeles. In this piece, Kienholz altered a popular gas station advertisement of the time, the Bardahl Man, to make a unique contribution to the modernist tradition of dealer portraits. Hopps is represented as a street hustler hawking paintings from under his jacket as if they were hot merchandise. He shows off mini-paintings by Willem deKooning, Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock, in order from top to bottom. The reverse of the figure reveals a series of compartments containing various notes and items pertaining to Hopps’ work as a dealer. In the box behind his head, for instance, can be found a long list entitled, “Major Artists I Want to Show,” which doesn’t include a single local artist, but consists of puns on the names of major New York artists such as, “Willem de Conning,” “Franz Climb,” “Jasper Cans,” “Adolph Gothis,” “Robert Nothingwell” and “Jackson Potluck.” Other compartments are labeled “Important People w/influence or money” and “Competitors and Other Un-informed Types.” According to Hopps, Kienholz was criticizing his preference for New York School painters over any of the Los Angeles artists he represented, including Kienholz himself.18

The piece is striking in its indictment of the local and national art worlds within which Los Angeles artists such as Kienholz had a stake. As Hopps’s founding partner in the Ferus Gallery, only Kienholz could make such a biting caricature and perhaps only he was willing to challenge the shift in the gallery’s direction, from a cooperative arrangement devoted to the California avant-garde to a commercial endeavor positioning itself to represent New York artists in Los Angeles. As a new partner and director of Ferus, Irving Blum imposed a vision of the gallery that was resisted by many of its artists. He urged Hopps to streamline their operation by reducing the roster of California artists and to widen the scope of the enterprise by utilizing his East Coast connections in order to arrange joint representation for New York artists in Los Angeles. In this, Ferus would be competing with other local galleries that showed New York painting, but the cache and notoriety the gallery had developed through its support of local avant-garde artists gave it an edge that would be fully exploited as the 1960s unfolded. Ultimately, Blum’s blueprint made the gallery into the centerpiece of the rapid rise of a new Los Angeles art market in the 1960s. So the figure in Kienholz’s dealer portrait, although unmistakably Hopps in his horn rimmed glasses and black coat and thin tie, can also be seen as a representation of Irving Blum’s influence on the gallery. Shortly after this piece was made in 1959, in fact, Ferus opened the 1960 season with a show entitled 14 New York Artists that included works by deKooning, Kline, Pollock, Newman, Rothko, Hoffman, Motherwell and others. This was the first time Ferus had shown work other than that by Los Angeles and San Francisco artists. By this time, the gallery had moved across the street in a new, more professional space designed by Blum. As Hopps remarked at a recent museum talk, the new Ferus space “was slicker than deer guts on a door knob.”19

Kienholz’s portrait ultimately represents Hopps’ greater ambitions as a new Los Angeles art scene got off the ground in the early 1960s. It shows him as the tireless promoter of contemporary art which he was, carefully cultivating a collecting public through art history courses he gave at UCLA Extension, that helped introduce the avant-garde to collectors such as Betty Asher, Monte Factor, Fred and Marcia Weisman, and Ed Janss. After leaving Ferus and consulting at the Pasadena Art Museum where he officially became a curator in 1962 and then director in 1964, Hopps went on to mount many groundbreaking shows, including an early survey of pop art, New Paintings of Common Objects and the Duchamp retrospective in 1963. Picked to curate the U.S. section of the Sao Paolo Biennial in 1965, one of the first extensions of the international art fair beyond Europe, Hopps’ earlier efforts were beginning to pay off. He would continually face resistance from more conservative members of museum boards, however, and never alter his idiosyncratic working hours and sometimes autocratic management style which lead him to leave jobs in Los Angeles and later Washington D.C.. In a 1965 column in Frontier magazine, Philip Leider (then editor of L.A.-based Artforum) provided a sense of just exactly how valuable Hopps was to the Los Angeles art community in this period:

The Duchamp exhibition climaxed almost a decade of the most intense activity on behalf of the contemporary art scene by Hopps. Practically living in studios in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, Hopps acted as a kind of one-man liaison between avant-garde artists in the three cities. His friendship with countless artists, including Rauschenberg, Johns, Conner, Diebenkorn, Kienholz, et. al., extends to the earliest days of their careers, and as curator at the Pasadena museum, he exhibited young artists such as Ruscha and Goode before they had ever been seen in commercial galleries. He was instrumental in the development of many private collections of contemporary art in Los Angeles, and to this moment he can be credited, by coaxing, cajoling, teaching and demanding, with bringing more important contemporary art into Southern California than any other single figure.20

Having returned to the area for his first local project in decades, Hopps passed away shortly after celebrating the opening of a tremendous survey of the assemblage work of George Herms he curated at the Santa Monica Museum of Art in March. As Doug Harvey noted in his LA Weekly review of the show, “It isn’t very often you get to orchestrate your own requiem, but Walter Hopps–who once compared curating to conducting a symphony–has managed it neatly.”21 Herms was one of Hopps’ oldest friends and a member of the original group of “outlaws,” who pushed the boundaries of the Los Angeles art world in the 50s and 60s with gritty and poetic, found-object sculpture that embraced the lived experience of the jazz, drugs, sex and love which defined the era. As a tribute to the spirit in which Hopps began his career in Los Angeles, nothing could have been more fitting.

Ken Allan received his Ph.D. in Art History at the University of Chicago in June 2005 with a dissertation on the relationship between artistic practice and social space in postwar L.A. entitled, “Making the Scene: Assemblage, Pop Art and Locality in 1960s Los Angeles.”

Footnotes

  1. Support for the preparation of this article was provided by an ACLS Dissertation Fellowship in American Art, with funding from the Henry Luce Foundation.
  2. “Pasadena Art Museum: Walter Hopps,” Joanne L. Ratner, interviewer, October 11, 1987, Department of Special Collections, Oral History Program, University Research Library, University of California Los Angeles, 1990, p. 36.
  3. For a more detailed reading of Hopps’ activities and his collaboration with Robert Alexander and Wallace Berman in this period, see my “Creating An Avant-Garde in 1950s Los Angeles: Robert Alexander’s Hand-Printed Gallery Brochure in the Archives of American Art,” Archives of American Art Journal, Vol. 42, Nos. 3-4, 2002.
  4. Much of this account of the history of the period leading up to the Action show is drawn from the “James Newman Oral History Interview,” Paul Karlstrom, interviewer, May 13, 1974, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.
  5. Hans-Ulrich Obrist, “Walter Hopps hopps hoppsoart curator,” Artforum, February 1996.
  6. Action exhibition flyer, Craig Kauffman papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution,
    Washington D.C.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. The artists included in Action were James Kelly, Sonia Gechtoff, Adelie Landis, Paul Wonner, Bill Brown, Robert Craig Kauffman, Hassel Smith, James Bud Nixon, Relf Case, Madeleine Diamond, Gilbert Henderson, Larry Compton, J. DeFeo, Wally Hedrick, David Stiles, Richard Diebenkorn, Roy De Forest, Richard Brodney, Julius Wasserstein, Jack Lowe, Paul Sarkisian, Phil Rober, and James Corbett.
  11. The artists included in Action 2 were Fred Wellington, Paul Sarkisian, James Kelly, Gilbert Henderson, Sonia Gechtoff, Elwood Decker, Julius Wasserstein, Gerd Koch, Robert Craig Kauffman, Wally Hedrick, J. DeFeo, and i.e. alexander. Robert Alexander often signed his poetry and artwork with the name “i. e. alexander.”
  12. Walter Hopps, telephone interview with the author, March 25, 2002.
  13. Action 2 exhibition brochure, Sonia Gechtoff papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.
  14. Walter Hopps, telephone interview with the author, March 25, 2002.
  15. Action 2 exhibition brochure, Sonia Gechtoff papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.
  16. Walter Hopps, telephone interview with the author, March 25, 2002.
  17. Robert Alexander quoted in Sandra Leonard Starr, Lost and Found in California: Four Decades of Assemblage Art (Santa Monica: James Corcoran Gallery, 1988), p. 82.
  18. Walter Hopps, Kienholz: A Retrospective (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1996), p. 32.
  19. Walter Hopps, “Walter Hopps and George Herms in Conversation,” March 8, 2005, Santa Monica Museum of Art.
  20. Philip Leider, “Culture and Culture-Boom,” Frontier, April 1965, p. 25.
  21. Doug Harvery, “Herms the Messenger, Hopps Down the Rabbit Hole,” LA Weekly, April 15-21, 2005, p. 38

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Correction to This Article
The March 22 obituary of art curator Walter Hopps gave an incorrect name for the Smithsonian Institution museum where he worked in the 1970s. The correct name is the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Walter Hopps; Curator Of 20th-Century Art

By Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 22, 2005; Page B06

Walter Hopps, 72, the self-taught curator who specialized in 20th-century art and gained an international reputation for his innovative exhibitions, died March 20 at a hospital in Los Angeles after falling and breaking three ribs earlier in the month.

In a career that spanned from Los Angeles to Washington to Houston, where he most recently was 20th-century art curator at the Menil Collection, Mr. Hopps was known for a renegade spirit that attracted much attention in the art world.


Walter Hopps, known for a renegade spirit, was director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art from 1967 to 1972. (Gary Cameron — The Washington Post)

 


 

He showcased the work of leading abstract expressionists as well as emerging pop artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. Among his landmark exhibits was the first retrospective of Marcel Duchamp, the first museum exhibition of Frank Stella and “The New Painting of Common Objects,” a 1962 exhibition that signaled the rise of American pop art.

He also was art director of Grand Street, a New York-based literary magazine.

Jean Stein, the publication’s editor, said Mr. Hopps surpassed his job description. She said his vision guided the magazine, which combined art, literature, science and political thought and published works by internationally known artists and writers.

“He influenced so many people in the art world to care for artists the way he did,” Stein said. “He cared for them and nourished them.”

Mr. Hopps relished doing “small exhibitions” — photo layouts in the magazine — particularly when it became more difficult for him to get around, Stein said.

His last full-scale exhibition was for Beat generation artist and poet George Herms, one of the figures from Mr. Hopps’s early days in Los Angeles. “George Herms: Hot Set” opened March 4 at the Santa Monica Museum of Art in California, and Mr. Hopps and Herms held a talk March 8.

In a 1991 New Yorker magazine interview, Mr. Hopps was described as “a tall, imposing man with flowing hair and with Mephisto eyebrows that form bushy circumflex accents over blue eyes.”

In the article, Mr. Hopps compared his work to one of his other passions: music. “I think that the closest analogy to installing a museum exhibition is conducting a symphony orchestra,” he said.

This was a fair analogy, wrote Calvin Tompkins in the New Yorker story: “Like some artists, he has the visual equivalent of a musician’s perfect pitch.”

Mr. Hopps was born in Eagle Rock, Calif., on May 3, 1932. In high school, he started a photographic society and organized exhibits. During this time, he also met the influential art collectors Walter and Louise Arensberg, which further spurred his direction. He attended Stanford, Harvard and Yale universities but never earned a degree.

In 1957, he and artist Edward Kienholz opened the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, a legendary spot where Warhol exhibited his paintings of Campbell’s soup cans.

In the 1960s, he became director of the Pasadena Art Museum in California. He left Pasadena in 1967 and later became director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington until 1972. He reportedly was fired from the Corcoran because of his habit of disappearing for hours, among other eccentric behavior.

He then was curator of 20th-century American art at what is now the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American Art and served in 1972 as U.S. commissioner of the Venice Biennale exhibition in Italy, where he featured artists such as photographer Diane Arbus and painters Richard Estes and Sam Gilliam.

In 1979, he settled in Houston and soon became founding director of the Menil Collection.

In 2002, he was named adjunct senior curator of 20th-century art at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. There, he organized a traveling retrospective of the American pop artist James Rosenquist, one of his many path-breaking exhibits.

Guggenheim director Thomas Krens once called Mr. Hopps “one of the preeminent curators of his generation” and said that he “redefined how we look at art of the modern era.”

The Menil Foundation established the Walter Hopps Award for Curatorial Achievement in 2001 to recognize and encourage a continuation of Mr. Hopps’s “spirited tradition of innovation and excellence.”

A colleague once said Mr. Hopps merely “wanted the world to see what he saw.”

Survivors include his wife, Caroline Huber of Houston.

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 Current Issue Cover

The Bias of the World: Curating After Szeemann & Hopps

What Is a Curator?Under the Roman Empire the title of curator (“caretaker”) was given to officials in charge of various departments of public works: sanitation, transportation, policing. The curatores annonae were in charge of the public supplies of oil and corn. The curatores regionum were responsible for maintaining order in the 14 regions of Rome. And the curatores aquarum took care of the aqueducts. In the Middle Ages, the role of the curator shifted to the ecclesiastical, as clergy having a spiritual cure or charge. So one could say that the split within curating—between the management and control of public works (law) and the cure of souls (faith)—was there from the beginning. Curators have always been a curious mixture of bureaucrat and priest.

That smooth-faced gentleman, tickling Commodity, Commodity, the bias of the world—
—Shakespeare, King John1

Portrait of Harald Szeemann. Pencil and Paper by Phong Bui.

For better or worse, curators of contemporary art have become, especially in the last 10 years, the principal representatives of some of our most persistent questions and confusions about the social role of art. Is art a force for change and renewal, or is it a commodity for advantage or convenience? Is art a radical activity, undermining social conventions, or is it a diverting entertainment for the wealthy? Are artists the antennae of the human race, or are they spoiled children with delusions of grandeur (in Roman law, a curator could also be the appointed caretaker or guardian of a minor or lunatic)? Are art exhibitions “spiritual undertakings with the power to conjure alternative ways of organizing society,” or vehicles for cultural tourism and nationalistic propaganda?

These splits, which reflect larger tears in the social fabric, certainly in the United States, complicate the changing role of curators of contemporary art, because curators mediate between art and its publics and are often forced to take “a curving and indirect course” between them. Teaching for the past five years at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, I observed young curators confronting the practical demands and limitations of their profession armed with a vision of possibility and an image of the curator as a free agent, capable of almost anything. Where did this image come from?

When Harald Szeemann and Walter Hopps died in February and March 2005, at age 72 and 71, respectively, it was impossible not to see this as the end of an era. They were two of the principal architects of the present approach to curating contemporary art, working over 50 years to transform the practice. When young curators imagine what’s possible, they are imagining (whether they know it or not) some version of Szeemann and Hopps. The trouble with taking these two as models of curatorial possibility is that both of them were sui generis: renegades who managed, through sheer force of will, extraordinary ability, brilliance, luck, and hard work, to make themselves indispensable, and thereby intermittently palatable, to the conservative institutions of the art world.

Each came to these institutions early. When Szeemann was named head of the Kunsthalle Bern in 1961, at age 28, he was the youngest ever to have been appointed to such a position in Europe, and when Hopps was made director of the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum) in 1964, at age 31, he was then the youngest art museum director in the United States. By that time, Hopps (who never earned a college degree) had already mounted a show of paintings by Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, Richard Diebenkorn, Jay DeFeo, and many others on a merry-go-round in an amusement park on the Santa Monica Pier (with his first wife, Shirley Hopps, when he was 22); started and run two galleries (Syndell Studios and the seminal Ferus Gallery, with Ed Kienholz); and curated the first museum shows of Frank Stella’s paintings and Joseph Cornell’s boxes, the first U.S. retrospective of Kurt Schwitters, the first museum exhibition of Pop Art, and the first solo museum exhibition of Marcel Duchamp, in Pasadena in 1963. And that was just the beginning. Near the end of his life, Hopps estimated that he’d organized 250 exhibitions in his 50-year career.

Szeemann’s early curatorial activities were no less prodigious. He made his first exhibition, Painters Poets/ Poets Painters, a tribute to Hugo Ball, in 1957, at age 24. When he became the director of the Kunsthalle in Bern four years later, he completely transformed that institution, mounting nearly 12 exhibitions a year, culminating in the landmark show Live In Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form, in 1969, exhibiting works by 70 artists, including Joseph Beuys, Richard Serra, Eva Hesse, Lawrence Weiner, Richard Long, and Bruce Nauman, among many others.

While producing critically acclaimed and historically important exhibitions, both Hopps and Szeemann quickly came into conflict with their respective institutions. After four years at the Pasadena Art Museum, Hopps was asked to resign. He was named director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in 1970, then fired two years later. For his part, stunned by the negative reaction to When Attitudes Become Form from the Kunsthalle Bern, Harald Szeemann quit his job, becoming the first “independent curator.” He set up the Agency for Spiritual Guestwork and co-founded the International Association of Curators of Contemporary Art (IKT) in 1969, curated Happenings & Fluxus at the Kunstverein in Cologne in 1970, and became the first artistic director of Documenta in 1972, reconceiving it as a 100-day event. Szeemann and Hopps hadn’t yet turned 40, and their best shows were all ahead of them. For Szeemann, these included Junggesellenmaschinen—Les Machines célibataires (“Bachelor Machines”) in 1975-77, Monte Veritá (1978, 1983, 1987), the first Aperto at the Venice Biennale (with Achille Bonito Oliva, 1980), Der Hang Zum Gesamtkunstwerk, Europaïsche Utopien seit 1800 (“The Quest for the Total Work of Art”) in 1983-84, Visionary Switzerland in 1991, the Joseph Beuys retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in 1993, Austria in a Lacework of Roses in 1996, and the Venice Biennale in 1999 and 2001. For Hopps, yet to come were exhibitions of Diane Arbus in the American pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1972, the Robert Rauschenberg mid-career survey in 1976, retrospectives at the Menil Collection of Yves Klein, John Chamberlain, Andy Warhol, and Max Ernst, and exhibitions of Jay DeFeo (1990), Ed Kienholz (1996 at the Whitney), Rauschenberg again (1998), and James Rosenquist (2003 at the Guggenheim). Both Szeemann and Hopps had exhibitions open when they died—Szeemann’s Visionary Belgium, for the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, and Hopps’s George Herms retrospective at the Santa Monica Museum—and both had plans for many more exhibitions in the future.

What Do Curators Do?

Szeemann and Hopps were the Cosmas and Damian (or the Beuys and Duchamp) of contemporary curatorial practice. Rather than accepting things as they found them, they changed the way things were done. But finally, they will be remembered for only one thing: the quality of the exhibitions they made; for that is what curators do, after all. Szeemann often said he preferred the simple title of Ausstellungsmacher (exhibition-maker), but he acknowledged at the same time how many different functions this one job comprised: “administrator, amateur, author of introductions, librarian, manager and accountant, animator, conservator, financier, and diplomat.” I have heard curators characterized at different times as:
Administrators Advocates
Auteurs
Bricoleurs (Hopps’ last show, the Herms retrospective, was titled “The Bricoleur of Broken Dreams. . . One More Once”)
Brokers
Bureaucrats
Cartographers (Ivo Mesquita)
Catalysts (Hans Ulrich Obrist)
Collaborators
Cultural impresarios
Cultural nomads
Diplomats (When Bill Lieberman, who held top curatorial posts at both the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, died in May 2005, Artnews described him as “the consummate art diplomat”)
And that’s just the beginning of the alphabet. When Hans Ulrich Obrist asked Walter Hopps to name important predecessors, the first one he came up with was Willem Mengelberg, the conductor of the New York Philharmonic, “for his unrelenting rigor.” He continued, “Fine curating of an artist’s work—that is, presenting it in an exhibition—requires as broad and sensitive an understanding of an artist’s work that a curator can possibly muster. This knowledge needs to go well beyond what is actually put in the exhibition. . . . To me, a body of work by a given artist has an inherent kind of score that you try to relate to or understand. It puts you in a certain psychological state. I always tried to get as peaceful and calm as possible.”3

But around this calm and peaceful center raged the “controlled chaos” of exhibition making. Hopps’ real skills included an encyclopedic visual memory, the ability to place artworks on the wall and in a room in a way that made them sing,4 the personal charm to get people to do things for him, and an extraordinary ability to look at a work of art and then account for his experience of it, and articulate this account to others in a compelling and convincing way.

It is significant, I think, that neither Szeemann nor Hopps considered himself a writer, but both recognized and valued good writing, and solicited and “curated” writers and critics as well as artists into their exhibitions and publications. Even so, many have observed that the rise of the independent curator has occurred at the expense of the independent critic. In a recent article titled “Do Art Critics Still Matter?” Mark Spiegler opined that “on the day in 1969 when Harald Szeemann went freelance by leaving the Kunsthalle Bern, the wind turned against criticism.”5 There are curators who can also write criticism, but these precious few are exceptions that prove the rule. Curators are not specialists, but for some reason they feel the need to use a specialized language, appropriated from philosophy or psychoanalysis, which too often obscures rather than reveals their sources and ideas. The result is not criticism, but curatorial rhetoric. Criticism involves making finer and finer distinctions among like things, while the inflationary writing of curatorial rhetoric is used to obscure fine distinctions with vague generalities. The latter’s displacement of the former has a political dimension as we move into an increasingly managed, post-critical environment.

Although Szeemann and Hopps were very different in many ways, they shared certain fundamental values: an understanding of the importance of remaining independent of institutional prejudices and arbitrary power arrangements; a keen sense of history; the willingness to continually take risks intellectually, aesthetically, and conceptually; and an inexhaustible curiosity about and respect for the way artists work.

Portrait of Walter Hopps. Pencil and Paper by Phong Bui.

Szeemann’s break away from the institution of the Kunsthalle was, simply put, “a rebellion aimed at having more freedom.”6 This rebellious act put him closer to the ethos of artists and writers, where authority cannot be bestowed or taken, but must be earned through the quality of one’s work. In his collaborations with artists, power relations were negotiated in practice rather than asserted as fiat. Every mature artist I know has a favorite horror story about a young, inexperienced curator trying to claim an authority they haven’t earned by manipulating a seasoned artist’s work or by designing exhibitions in which individual artists’ works are seen as secondary and subservient to the curator’s grand plan or theme. The cure for this kind of insecure hubris is experience, but also the recognition of the ultimate contingency of the curatorial process. As Dave Hickey said of both critics and curators, “Somebody has to do something before we can do anything.”7 In June of 2000, after being at the pinnacle of curatorial power repeatedly for over 40 years, Harald Szeemann said, “Frankly, if you insist on power, then you keep going on in this way. But you must throw the power away after each experience, otherwise it’s not renewing. I’ve done a lot of shows, but if the next one is not an adventure, it’s not important for me and I refuse to do it.”8

When contemporary curators, following in the steps of Szeemann, break free from institutions, they sometimes lose their sense of history in the process. Whatever their shortcomings, institutions do have a sense (sometimes a surfeit) of history. And without history, “the new” becomes a trap, a sequential recapitulation of past approaches with no forward movement. It is a terrible thing to be perpetually stuck in the present, and this is a major occupational hazard for curators.

Speaking about his curating of the Seville Biennale in 2004, Szeemann said, “It’s not about presenting the best there is, but about discovering where the unpredictable path of art will go in the immanent future.” But moving the ball up the field requires a tremendous amount of legwork. “The unpredictable path of art” becomes much less so when curators rely on the Claude Rains method, rounding up the usual suspects from the same well-worn list of artists that everyone else in the world is using.

It is difficult, in retrospect, to fully appreciate the risks that both Szeemann and Hopps took to change the way curators worked. One should never underestimate the value of a monthly paycheck. By giving up a secure position as director of a stable art institution and striking out on his own as an “independent curator,” Szeemann was assuring himself years of penury. There was certainly no assurance that anyone would hire him as a freelance. Anyone who’s chosen this path knows that freelance means never having to say you’re solvent. Being freelance as a writer and critic is one thing: The tools of the trade are relatively inexpensive, and one need only make a living. But making exhibitions is costly and finding “independent” money, money without onerous strings attached to it, is especially difficult when one cannot, in good conscience, present it as an “investment opportunity.” Daniel Birnbaum points out that “all the dilemmas of corporate sponsorship and branding in contemporary art today are fully articulated in [‘When Attitudes Become Form’]. Remarkably, according to Szeemann, the exhibition came about only because ‘people from Philip Morris and the PR firm Ruder Finn came to Bern and asked me if I would do a show of my own. They offered me money and total freedom.’ Indeed, the exhibition’s catalogue seems uncanny in its prescience: ‘As businessmen in tune with our times, we at Philip Morris are committed to support the experimental,’ writes John A. Murphy, the company’s European president, asserting that his company experimented with ‘new methods and materials’ in a way fully comparable to the Conceptual artists in the exhibition. (And yet, showing the other side of this corporate-funding equation, it was a while before the company supported the arts in Europe again, perhaps needing time to recover from all the negative press surrounding the event.)”9 So the founding act of “independent curating” was brought to you by . . . Philip Morris! 33 years later, for the Swiss national exhibition Expo.02, Szeemann designed a pavilion covered with sheets of gold, containing a system of pneumatic tubes and a machine that destroyed money—two 100 franc notes every minute during the 159 days of the exhibition. The sponsor? The Swiss National Bank, of course.
When Walter Hopps brought the avant-garde to Southern California, he didn’t have to compete with others to secure the works of Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, or Jay DeFeo (for the merry-go-round show in 1953), because no one else wanted them. In his Hopps obituary, Los Angeles Times critic Christopher Knight pointed out that “just a few years after Hopps’s first visit to the [Arensbergs’] collection, the [Los Angeles] City Council decreed that Modern art was Communist propaganda and banned its public display.”10 In 50 years, we’ve progressed from banning art as Communist propaganda to prosecuting artists as terrorists.11

The Few and Far Between

It’s not that fast horses are rare, but men who know enough to spot them
are few and far between.
—Han Yü12

The trait that Szeemann and Hopps had most in common was their respect for and understanding of artists. They never lost sight of the fact that their principal job was to take what they found in artists’ works and do whatever it took to present it in the strongest possible way to an interested public. Sometimes this meant combining it with other work that enhanced or extended it. This was done not to show the artists anything they didn’t already know, but to show the public. As Lawrence Weiner pointed out in an interview in 1994, “Everybody that was in the Attitudes show knew all about the work of everybody else in the Attitudes show. They wouldn’t have known them personally, but they knew all the work. . . . Most artists on both sides of the Atlantic knew what was being done. European artists had been coming to New York and U.S. artists went over there.”13 But Attitudes brought it all together in a way that made a difference.

Both Szeemann and Hopps felt most at home with artists, sometimes literally. Carolee Schneemann recently described for me the scene in the Kunstverein in Cologne in 1970, when she and her collaborator in “Happenings and Fluxus” (having arrived and discovered there was no money for lodging) moved into their installations, and Szeemann thought it such a good idea to sleep on site that he brought in a cot and slept in the museum himself, to the outrage of the guards and staff. Both Szeemann and Hopps reserved their harshest criticism for the various bureaucracies that got between them and the artists. Hopps once described working for bureaucrats when he was a senior curator at the National Collection of Fine Arts as “like moving through an atmosphere of Seconal.”14 And Szeemann said in 2001 that “the annoying thing about such bureaucratic organizations as the [Venice] Biennale is that there are a lot of people running around who hate artists because they keep running around wanting to change everything.”15 Changing everything, for Szeemann, was just the point. “Artists, like curators, work on their own,” he said in 2000, “grappling with their attempt to make a world in which to survive. . . . We are lonely people, faced with superficial politicians, with donors, sponsors, and one must deal with all of this. I think it is here where the artist finds a way to form his own world and live his obsessions. For me, this is the real society.”16 The society of the obsessed.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Although Walter Hopps was an early commissioner for the São Paolo Biennal (1965: Barnett Newman, Frank Stella, Richard Irwin and Larry Poons) and of the Venice Biennale (1972: Diane Arbus), Harald Szeemann practically invented the role of nomadic independent curator of huge international shows, putting his indelible stamp on Documenta and Venice and organizing the Lyon Biennale and the Kwangju Biennial in Korea in 1997, and the first Seville Biennale in 2004, as well as numerous other international surveys around the world.

So what Szeemann said about globalization and art should perhaps be taken seriously. He saw globalization as a euphemism for imperialism, and proclaimed that “globalization is the great enemy of art.” And in the Carolee Thea interview in 2000, he said, “Globalization is perfect if it brings more justice and equality to the world . . . but it doesn’t. Artists dream of using computers or digital means to have contact and to bring continents closer. But once you have the information, it’s up to you what to do with it. Globalization without roots is meaningless in art.”17 And globalization of the curatorial class can be a way to avoid or “transcend” the political.

Rene Dubos’s old directive to “think globally, but act locally” (first given at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in 1972) has been upended in some recent international shows (like the 14th Sydney Biennale in 2004, and the 1st Moscow Biennial in 2005). When one thinks locally (within a primarily Euro-American cultural framework, or within a New York-London-Kassel-Venice-Basel-Los Angeles-Miami framework) but acts globally, the results are bound to be problematic, and can be disastrous. In 1979, Dubos argued for an ecologically sustainable world in which “natural and social units maintain or recapture their identity, yet interplay with each other through a rich system of communications.” At their best, the big international exhibitions do contribute to this. Okwui Enwezor’s18 Documenta XI certainly did, and Szeemann knew it. At their worst, they perpetuate the center-to-periphery hegemony and preclude real cross-cultural communication and change. Although having artists and writers move around in the world is an obvious good, real cultural exchange is something that must be nurtured. Walter Hopps said in 1996: “I really believe in—and, obviously, hope for—radical, or arbitrary, presentations, where cross-cultural and cross-temporal considerations are extreme, out of all the artifacts we have. . . . So just in terms of people’s priorities, conventional hierarchies begin to shift some.”19

The Silence of Szeemann & Hopps Is Overrated

‘Art’ is any human activity that aims at producing improbable situations, and it is the more artful (artistic) the less probable the situation that it produces. —Vilém Flusser20

Harald Szeemann recognized early and long appreciated the utopian aspects of art. “The often-evoked ‘autonomy’ is just as much a fruit of subjective evaluation as the ideal society: it remains a utopia while it informs the desire to experientially visualize the unio mystica of opposites in space. Which is to say that without seeing, there is nothing visionary, but that the visionary should always determine the seeing.” And he recognized that the bureaucrat could overtake the curer of souls at any point. “Otherwise, we might just as well return to ‘hanging and placing,’ and divide the entire process ‘from the vision to the nail’ into detailed little tasks again.”21 He organized exhibitions in which the improbable could occur, and was willing to risk the impossible. In reply to a charge that the social utopianism of Joseph Beuys was never realized, Szeemann said, “The nice thing about utopias is precisely that they fail. For me, failure is a poetic dimension of art.”22 Curating a show in which nothing could fail was, to Szeemann, a waste of time.

If he and Hopps could still encourage young curators in anything, I suspect it would be to take greater risks in their work. At a time when all parts of the social and political spheres (including art institutions) are increasingly managed, breaking out of this frame, asking significant questions, and setting the terms of resistance is more and more vitally important. It is important to work against the bias of the world (commodity, political expediency). For curators of contemporary art, that means finding and supporting those artists who, as Flusser writes, “have attempted, at the risk of their lives, to utter that which is unutterable, to render audible that which is ineffable, to render visible that which is hidden.”23

This essay will be included in the forthcoming Cautionary Tales: Critical Curating
Edited by Steven Rand and Heather Kouris, published by Apex Art. It will be available by January 2007.

Endnotes

1 Shakespeare, The Life and Death of King John, Act II, Scene 1, 573-74. Cowper: “What Shakespeare calls commodity, and we call political expediency.” Appendix 13 of my old edition of Shakespeare’s Complete Works, edited by G. B. Harrison (NY: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968), pp. 1639-40, reads: “Shakespeare frequently used poetic imagery taken from the game of bowls [bowling]. . . . The bowl [bowling ball] was not a perfect sphere, but so made that one side somewhat protruded. This protrusion was called the bias; it caused the bowl to take a curving and indirect course.”

2 “When Attitude Becomes Form: Daniel Birnbaum on Harald Szeemann,” Artforum, Summer 2005, p. 55.

3 Hans Ulrich Obrist, Interviews, Volume I, edited by Thomas Boutoux (Milan: Edizioni Charta, 2003), pp. 416-17. Hopps also named as predecessors exhibition-makers Katherine Dreier, Alfred Barr, James Johnson Sweeney, René d’Harnoncourt, and Jermayne MacAgy.

4 In 1976, at the Museum of Temporary Art in Washington, D.C., Hopps announced that, for thirty-six hours, he would hang anything anyone brought in, as long as it would fit through the door. Later, he proposed to put 100,000 images up on the walls of P.S. 1 in New York, but that project was, sadly, never realized.

5 Mark Spiegler, “Do Art Critics Still Matter?” The Art Newspaper, no. 157, April 2005, p. 32.

6 Carolee Thea, Foci: Interviews with Ten International Curators (New York: Apex Art Curatorial Program, 2001), p. 19.

7 Curating Now: Imaginative Practice/Public Responsibility: Proceedings from a symposium addressing the state of current curatorial practice organized by the Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative, October 14-15, 2000, edited by Paula Marincola (Philadelphia, PA: Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative, 2001), p. 128. Both Szeemann and Hopps passed Hickey’s test: “The curator’s job, in my view,” he said, “is to tell the truth, to show her or his hand, and get out of the way” (p. 126).

8 Carolee Thea, p. 19 (emphasis added).

9 Daniel Birnbaum, p. 58.

10 Christopher Knight, “Walter Hopps, 1932-2005. Curator Brought Fame to Postwar L.A. Artists,” Los Angeles Times, March 22, 2005.

11At this writing, the U.S. government continues in its effort to prosecute artist Steven Kurtz for obtaining bacterial agents through the mail, even though the agents were harmless and intended for use in art pieces by the collaborative Critical Art Ensemble. Kurtz has said he believes the charges filed against him in 2004 (after agents from the FBI, the Joint Terrorism Task Force, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Depeartment of Defence swarmed over his house) are part of a Bush administration campaign to prevent artists from protesting government policies. “I think we’re in a very unfortunate moment now in U.S. history,” Kurtz has said. “A form of neo-McCarthyism has made a comeback. . . . We’re going to see a whole host of politically motivated trials which have nothing to do with crime but everything to do with artistic expression.” For the latest developments in the case, go to caedefensefund.org.

12 Epigraph to Nathan Sivin’s Chinese Alchemy: Preliminary Studies(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968).

13 Having Been Said: Writings & Interviews of Lawrence Weiner 1968-2003, edited by Gerti Fietzek and Gregor Stemmrich (Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2004), p. 315.

14 Hans Ulrich Obrist, “Walter Hopps Hopps Hopps—Art Curator,” Artforum, February 1996.

15 Jan Winkelman, “Failure as a Poetic Dimension: A Conversation with Harald Szeemann,” Metropolis M. Tijdschrift over Hedendaagse Kunst, No. 3, June 2001.

16 Carolee Thea, p. 17 (emphasis added).

17 Carolee Thea, p. 18.

18 With his co-curators Carlos Basualdo, Uta Meta Bauer, Susanne Ghez, Sarat Maharaj, Mark Nash, and Octavio Zaya.

19 Hans Ulrich Obrist, p. 430.

20 Vilém Flusser, “Habit: The True Aesthetic Criterion,” in Writings, edited by Andreas Ströhl, translated by Erik Eisel (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), p. 52.

21 Harald Szeemann, “Does Art Need Directors?” in Words of Wisdom: A Curator’s Vade Mecum on Contemporary Art, edited by Carin Kuoni (New York: Independent Curators International, 2001), p. 169.

22 Jan Winkelman.

23 Flusser, p. 54.

Copyright

Contributor

David Levi Strauss DAVID LEVI STRAUSS is a scholar and writer living in New York. He is the chair of the graduate program in Art and Criticism & Writing at the School of Visual Arts. The author of several books on photography and politics, his recent collection Words Not Spent Today Buy Smaller Images Tomorrow was published last year by Aperture.

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A final farewell to Menil Collection’s Walter Hopps

A final farewell to Walter Hopps
PATRICIA C. JOHNSON, Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle | May 1, 2005

Walter Hopps, founding director of the Menil Collection, was buried in a private ceremony on April 23 in Lone Pine, Calif., a breathtaking site at the foot of Mount Whitney. His coffin was a marvelous Duchampian assemblage crafted by California artist Richard Jackson: A pine box with a lid made from a five-panel mahogany door from Hopps’ Pasadena, Calif., house, complete with round brass knob and metal plaque with Hopps’ signature.

Hopps, who died March 20 at age 72, began his long career as a brilliant if unorthodox curator in 1957 when he and artist Edward Kienholz founded the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles to spotlight progressive art by then unknown artists such as Robert Irwin, Frank Stella and Andy Warhol.

His 50-year career as museum director started at the Pasadena (Calif.) Art Museum, where he introduced the work of Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Cornell to the American public. He moved on to direct the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and then to the Smithsonian Institution as curator of 20th-century art. He came to Houston in 1981 at the invitation of Dominique de Menil to direct the museum she was building. In recent years he was also adjunct curator for the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Hopps not only championed art, but also the artists.

He died in California, where he curated a retrospective for the Santa Monica Museum of Art of West Coast assemblagist and art-world comrade George Herms. The artist gave the eulogy, a loving remembrance that also captured Hopps’ brilliant connoisseurship and his penchant for “stealing” art to make a point.

(Hopps “stole” an early assemblage from Ed Kienholz’s studio to prevent the artist from destroying it. Years later, to make a point about security, he stole a painting by Julian Schnabel from an exhibit at the University of Houston‘s Blaffer Gallery.)

Herms told the mourners that when artists enter heaven’s gates, instead of signing St. Peter’s book, they make drawings. After Hopps went through, Herms joked, St. Peter noticed that all the drawings were gone.

He added that the curator in Hopps is now looking around at cumulus clouds, saying, “We only need three clouds, and I know which three are the best!”

Another celebration of Hopps’ life will be held 6-8 p.m. May 17 at the Menil Collection. The Santa Monica Museum of Art honors him, as well, with a gathering this Wednesday.

Caroline Huber Hopps, Hopps’ wife, requests that in lieu of flowers, anyone wishing to make a gift in Walter’s memory make a donation to the Walter Hopps Award for Curatorial Achievement, established in 2001 by the Menil Foundation (1515 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400).

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 DICTIONARY OF ART HISTORIANS

Hopps, Walter C

Date born:  1933

Place Born:  Eagle Rock, CA

Date died: 2005

Place died: Los Angeles, CA

Seminal curator of 20th-century art and founding director of the Menil Collection in Houston. Hopps hailed from a family of California physicians. A chance visit to the modern art collection of Walter Arensberg (1878-1954) and his wife Louise Arensberg (1879-1953) in Los Angeles piqued his interest in modern art.  He became close friends with the Arensbergs. He attended Stanford, Harvard and Yale universities without ever securing a degree.  As a student at the University of California, Los Angeles, Hopps and two friends opened a gallery space called Syndell Studio. In 1955 Hopps married a University of Chicago graduate student in art history, Shirley Neilsen [see Shirley Neilsen Blum], in a ceremony at the Watts Towers in Los Angeles. The Studio’s one-person shows included Craig Kauffman and Ed Kienholz. In 1957, he and Kienholz opened another gallery, Ferus Gallery showing the work of a new generation of artists Ed Ruscha, Ken Price, Robert Irwin and Billy Al Bengston. Hopps, however, lacked the presentation skills to market art to wealthy collectors. He encountered Irving Blum (b. 1930), who became a gallery partner, and the two made Ferus a seminal space for modernist art in California.  Hopps organized exhibitions at the Pasadena Art Museum (today the Norton Simon Museum) in 1959,  joining the staff in 1962.  He rose from curator to director. At the Pasadena Art Museum, he was responsible for the first American retrospectives of Kurt Schwitters, Marcel Duchamp (1963) and Joseph Cornell as well as featuring the art collection of the California art historian Kate Steinitz. He was selected to be United States commissioner for the Sao Paolo Biennale in 1965.  Hopps’ wife began an affair with Blum, divorcing Hopps and marrying Blum in 1967. He joined the Washington Gallery of Modern Art in 1967. Again he identified and showed cutting-edge modern art, such as Gene Davis, street art from Los Angeles, and Chicago’s Hairy Who group.  Hopps was named director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art where he featured Paolo Soleri’s architecture and an installation of David Smith’s extending outside the building.  Hopps was fired from the Corcoran in 1972, reportedly because of his habit of leaving for extended periods of time without notifying staff, in part due to his mental illness.  He worked at the Smithsonian American Art Museum under Joshua C. Taylor, acting as the U.S. commissioner for the Venice Biennale in 1972.  Dominique de Menil (1908-1997), the visionary Houston collector, hired Hopps in 1980 to assist in building a museum for the collection of art that she and her late husband assembled. Hopps urged the selection of Renzo Piano, assigning the architect to design flexibly lit galleries, resulting in the innovative system of roof shutters which the Menil is today. He married a third time, to Caroline Huber in 1983. Hopps was director of the Menil from its opening in 1987 until 1989 when he became curator of solely 20th-century art. He mounted retrospectives of Yves Klein, John Chamberlain, Andy Warhol and Max Ernst. His closeness with Kienholz resulted in a retrospective of that artist at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1996.  The following year he organized a Rauschenberg retrospective with Susan Davidson at the Guggenheim Museum which traveled to the Menil.  In 2001, the Menil established the Walter Hopps Award for Curatorial Achievement. In 2002, he was named adjunct senior curator of 20th-century art at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. There he and Sarah Bancroft mounted a James Rosenquist retrospective at the Guggenheim in 2003.  He died of pneumonia after having sustained a fall in 2005.

An eccentric personality, nearly every person who worked with him remarked he would disappear for hours or days at a time, sometmes later being found in contemplation, other times simply unexplained.  Hopps, according to many, had an inate sense of what modern was. Los Angeles was practically without modern art representation, overwealmed by New York. Hopps tapped into indigenous southern-Californian modernist art movements, exploiting them to the fullest and developing a serious contemporary art presence in Los Angeles. LS

Home Country:  United States

Sources:  McKenna, Kristine. The Ferus Gallery: A Place to Begin. Steidl, 2009; Cool School [documentary video]; [obituaries:] Richard, Paul. “Walter Hopps, Museum Man With a Talent For Talent.” Washington Post March 22, 2005 [see correction], p. C01;  Lamb, Yvonne Shinhoster.  “Walter Hopps; Curator of 20th-Century Art.” Washington Post March 22, 2005,p. B06;  Smith, Roberta. “Walter Hopps, 72, Curator With a Flair for the Modern.” New York Times March 23, 2005 , p. C15.

Bibliography: Marcel Duchamp: a Retrospective Exhibition. Pasadena, CA: Padadena Museum of Art, 1963; The Art Show [of Ed Kienholz].  Washington, DC: Washington Gallery of Modern Art, 1968;

Sujbect’s name: Walter Hopps; Walter C. Hopps

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WALTER HOPPS | 1932-2005

Curator Brought Fame to Postwar L.A. Artists

March 22, 2005|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

Walter Hopps, an art dealer and museum curator who was instrumental in bringing the first generation of postwar Los Angeles artists to international prominence and whose 1963 retrospective of Dada artist Marcel Duchamp ranks as a seminal event in modern museum history, died Sunday in Los Angeles after a brief hospitalization. He was 72 and lived in Houston.

Frail and in ill health for some time, Hopps had pneumonia, according to artist Ed Moses, a longtime friend. Hopps was in Southern California for a 45-year survey of assemblage art by sculptor George Herms, which he organized for the Santa Monica Museum of Art.

Artist Larry Bell said that he had unexpectedly encountered Hopps in the coffee shop of a Venice hotel last Tuesday and that he insisted on taking him to see his doctor.

Bell said Hopps had fallen earlier and broken several ribs, which contributed to a buildup of fluids in his lungs. On Saturday, Bell and Moses had hoped to visit Hopps at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, but Hopps had been moved to intensive care and was in a coma. He died there Sunday morning.

At the time of his death, Hopps was curator of 20th century art at the Menil Collection in Houston, where he had been founding director, and an adjunct senior curator at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. When the surprise dual appointment was made, Ned Rifkin, then director of the Menil, described Hopps as “a giant among his peers in the arena of modern and contemporary curators.” He organized a large retrospective of paintings by American Pop artist James Rosenquist for the Guggenheim in 2002.

Hopps’ most celebrated exhibition was the 1963 Duchamp retrospective, held at the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum) in its original home on Los Robles Avenue. Hopps was in his first year as curator. He had been introduced to the French expatriate’s iconoclastic work in the late 1940s, during a high school visit to the Hollywood home of art collectors Louise and Walter Arensberg. Their formidable collection of Cubist, Surrealist, Dadaist and other modern art, now a centerpiece of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, included such classic Duchamp works as “Nude Descending a Staircase” (1912).

During the Pasadena show, Hopps arranged two chess matches with the impish artist — one for himself and one for the young writer Eve Babitz, who famously played her match nude.

The Duchamp exhibition was typical of Hopps’ modus operandi as a curator. He had come upon the artist by accident as an impressionable and inquisitive youth, and he was determined to follow his instincts; he knew from his conversations with young artists that their interest in Duchamp’s art was far ahead of the museum establishment’s. A Duchamp retrospective was not mounted in New York, where the artist lived, until 1973, five years after his death. The Pasadena show entered the realm of legend as a symbol of a more freewheeling, less tradition-bound artistic climate in Southern California.

Hopps’ first exhibition, organized with his first wife, Shirley, in 1954, was itself unorthodox. Dubbed “The Merry-Go-Round Show,” it arose from his concern that a new generation of Abstract Expressionist painters was not being seen in L.A. Hopps rented the merry-go-round at the Santa Monica Pier for $80, stretched tarp around the poles and hung nearly 100 paintings by 40 artists, including Richard Diebenkorn, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still and Jay De Feo. All were for sale, none for more than $300. Nothing sold.

Hopps and his wife regularly held informal exhibitions in their Brentwood apartment, where occasional sales helped keep them afloat. He briefly operated a gallery housed in a small structure built from used telephone poles. Called Syndell Studios, it was named in memory of a farmer who was killed in a freak accident while Hopps was driving cross-country. At Syndell Studios, Hopps showed the seminal Beat generation artist Wallace Berman, and he met Herms.

In 1957 he and artist Ed Kienholz, who would become an important figure in the development of assemblage art on the West Coast, opened Ferus Gallery. Ferus, the first professional space in L.A. to be principally devoted to the Southern California avant-garde, rapidly became the most adventurous and influential contemporary art gallery west of Manhattan.

In addition to showing the work of established Abstract Expressionist painters, Ferus introduced young L.A. artists to the growing scene, including Bell, Billy Al Bengston, Craig Kauffman and Robert Irwin. Moses had his first exhibition at Ferus while still a student at UCLA. Hopps once told The Times that the name Ferus — Latin for “uncivilized” or “wild” — was “borrowed from an anthropological description of an aboriginal tribe with subhuman, irascible, possibly dangerous tendencies.”

The implied link between science and art came naturally. Hopps was a native of Glendale, born in 1932 into a family of prominent surgeons. He was home-tutored until junior high school, when he entered the private Polytechnic School in Pasadena. From there he went to Eagle Rock High School. After so many cloistered years, he described high school as “the most exciting time of my life; all of a sudden kids, boys, girls — friends.” It was with a class of Eagle Rock students that he first visited the Arensberg collection, to which he later returned on his own. The work of Duchamp, Picasso, Brancusi, Dali, Miro and many others made a profound impression on him.

“That was the clash,” Hopps later told a Times reporter. “I thought of myself as a rational positivist. And I couldn’t figure out why this seemingly nice, intelligent man [Arensberg was a prosperous businessman] had devoted his life to this collection. I started reading.”

The Arensbergs had been the unofficial center of the European emigre Dada movement when they lived in New York; in Hollywood, where they moved in 1927, their role changed to that of keepers of its history.

Duchamp had been the primary advisor in the development of their collection, and for them he was the center of that legacy. It was a legacy that encountered much hostility in Los Angeles, where, just a few years after Hopps’ first visit to the collection, the City Council decreed that Modern art was Communist propaganda and banned its public display.

In 1950, Hopps enrolled at Stanford; a year later he switched to UCLA to study microbiology. He also studied art history. Shortly after opening Ferus, he began to teach at UCLA Extension; over the next four years he helped to cultivate a group of art collectors informed about the avant-garde, including Betty Freeman, Monte Factor, Ed Janss and Fred and Marcia Weisman.

Kienholz made a witty 1959 assemblage-sculpture portrait of his early partner at Ferus, the title of which, “Walter Hopps Hopps Hopps,” suggested his peripatetic energy. Its allusion to Beat era slang for illegal drugs also described a problem that followed Hopps for many years.

Part homage, part satire, the sculpture was made from a gas station advertising sign that featured a cutout of the Bardahl motor oil man. Kienholz turned the clean-cut image into a picture of a slippery salesman of Modern art. Hopps, with his trademark horn-rimmed glasses, black suit and skinny necktie, is shown pulling open his jacket as if he were a sidewalk slicker hawking hot merchandise to unsuspecting passersby. Instead of jewelry or watches, however, he reveals vest-pocket pictures of paintings by Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline.

Turn around the sculpture — at 6 feet, 6 inches tall, appropriately just larger than life — and the back features a spine made from animal vertebrae, a rotary dial telephone and annotated lists of important people in the L.A. art world.

Kienholz left the gallery to pursue his own work, and Irving Blum, a Knoll furniture salesman, became Hopps’ partner in Ferus. Conflicts between them — which later resulted in Shirley Hopps’ becoming Shirley Blum — led to Hopps’ departure. In 1962 he was hired by Thomas Leavitt to become curator of the Pasadena Art Museum. In addition to the Duchamp retrospective, Hopps organized the first museum show of Frank Stella’s paintings, a landmark survey of box assemblages by Joseph Cornell and “The New Painting of Common Objects,” a groundbreaking 1962 survey that heralded the emergence of Pop art. When Leavitt departed the museum in 1964, Hopps was elevated to director; at 31, he was the youngest art museum director in America.

He was asked to resign four years later, the first of many times that jobs ended badly or in a cloud of complications. He was celebrated for his curatorial abilities and his working relationships with artists, but was a notoriously poor administrator.

Perhaps the most famous art-world story about Hopps concerned his chronic lateness. During his tenure at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., the staff made lapel buttons that said, “Walter Hopps will be here in 20 minutes.”

“He didn’t like museum bureaucracies,” Moses said. “All his files at the Pasadena Art Museum were kept under the carpet. When he left there, he didn’t let anybody know about the files. Later, when they rolled up this giant carpet, they found very careful files and letters.”

Hopps was named director of the Corcoran in 1970 and fired in 1972. His seven years at the National Collection of Fine Arts (now the National Museum of American Art) were marked by chronic absenteeism, which prompted Director Joshua Taylor to pay his curator only for the time he spent inside the building. Hopps joined Houston’s Menil Foundation in 1980 — artistically an excellent fit, given the collection’s strength in Surrealism — and became founding director of its celebrated museum in 1987; but patron Dominique de Menil despaired of her director’s administrative failings. He was made chief curator and a new director was hired. In 2001 the Menil Foundation inaugurated the Walter Hopps Award for Curatorial Achievement, a $25,000 prize bestowed biennially by an international jury.

Hopps once estimated that he organized more than 250 museum shows during his career. Most were well received. Among his great successes was a pair of Robert Rauschenberg surveys — one for the National Museum on the occasion of the 1976 American Bicentennial, the other, in 1991, for the Menil. Among his rare failures was 1984’s “The Automobile and Culture,” a show for L.A.’s then new Museum of Contemporary Art that ironically ended up demonstrating what little influence automotive imagery had on Modern art.

“With him goes a certain breed of unorthodox curator,” said painter and Newsweek art critic Peter Plagens, who lived in Los Angeles during Hopps’ heyday at Ferus and the Pasadena Museum. “Museums now are much more business-based and focused on the bottom line. There are fewer margins for error, so you don’t have guys like Hopps who are not organization people — much to their credit. He might have been the last of the breed.”

Hopps is survived by his second wife, Caroline Huber. A memorial service is being planned.

Times staff writer Suzanne Muchnic contributed to this report.

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Walter Hopps Obituary
by gary c. (2005)

Billy Name: “Walter Hopps was a surprisingly brilliant and very well-liked and admired curator as a young man. He had a magic-like inspiring air like enlightened, creative people have. He was very engaging and easily knowable. I liked him a lot, as did everyone in the art scene.”

line graphic

Walter Hopps
(Photo: Gary Cameron)

Walter Hopps died on March 20, 2005 at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He was 72 years old and had been suffering from pneumonia. The last exhibition that he organized for a museum was George Herms: Hot Set at the Santa Monica Museum of Art from March 5 – May 14, 2005.

Hopps made several important contributions to Pop. He was one of the original owners of the Ferus Gallery which was the first gallery to show Warhol’s Soup Cans in 1962 and during the same year he organized what is generally regarded as the first Pop exhibition in a museum, New Painting of Common Objects, at the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum). The following year he organized the first U.S. retrospective of Marcel Duchamp at the same museum.

Walter Hopps:

“Here’s how it all began. By 1959 I had bought out my partner, Edward Kienholz, and taken over Ferus Gallery. I shopped around for another partner because I was supposed to still be going to U.C.L.A. When Irving Blum came into Ferus Gallery, I gave him a third of the stock to act as its director… In 1960 in New York, I met a man named David Herbert who worked for Betty Parsons, then Sidney Janis… Herbert knew Andy Warhol, whom we had never heard of in California. Herbert said ‘You’ve got to meet this artist, Andy Warhol,’ and this finally happened in the fall of 1961. Herbert’s friends hung out in this trendy Manhattan store called Serendipity. Herbert arranged the meeting there and finally Warhol showed up. Irving Blum and I went to Warhol’s studio on Lexington Avenue in the Upper East Side.” (PK43)

Among the works that Warhol showed him were the Pop paintings of comic strip characters and newspaper advertisements that Warhol had displayed in the window of Bonwit Teller in April 1961. Hopps also recalled being shown an unstretched canvas of a work “that has since disappeared” of Superman flying through the air with Lois Lane in his arms. Although Hopps was “blown away” by Warhol’s work it wasn’t until the Soup Cans that an exhibition was arranged. (PK44)

Walter Hopps:

“At some point, we may have also seen, in Warhol’s studio, work in progress that included one of his first Campbell’s Soup cans. Blum was running Ferus Gallery, but I still had ownership stock and had stayed involved. I said to Warhol, ‘Absolutely, I want to take some of this work for a show in Los Angeles.’ Warhol, who had never been to California, answered with some excitement, ‘Oh, that’s where Hollywood is!’ In the sea of magazines and fanzines scattered on the floor, so deep it was hard to walk around, were all those Photoplay and old-fashioned glamour magazines out of the Hollywood publicity mill. So a show in L.A. sounded great to Warhol. He agreed, and thus the multiple-image soup can show came to Ferus in 1962. Warhol missed that first exhibition of his Pop images, but he finally made it to California in September 1963 for the opening of the Marcel Duchamp retrospective at the Pasadena Art Museum and his own second Ferus show.” (PK44)

The now historic exhibition of Warhol’s 32 canvases of individual soup cans took place at the Ferus Gallery from July 9 – August 1, 1962. New Painting of Common Objects opened the following month at the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum). Hopps organized the New Painting show as curator for the museum .

Walter Hopps:

“By the time the Warhol show hit, I was working full time as curator and then director at the Pasadena Art Museum. I had started doing some shows there in 1960, never having thought of my future as being a gallery dealer. Somebody asked once why I did the gallery work and it was like when Max Ernst was asked why he painted. He replied, ‘So, I have something I like to look at.’ In a way, I did the gallery work because the art that the California artists and I wanted to look at, we couldn’t see in Los Angeles in the late 1950s, early 1960s.” (PK48/9)

The New Painting exhibition featured 8 artists each of whom were represented by three works. Warhol’s contribution was Campbell’s Cream of Chicken, Campbell’s Pepper Pot and Green Stamps. The exhibition catalogue consisted of mimeographed pages contributed by the artists. The show’s poster was designed by Ed Ruscha – by telephone.

Walter Hopps:

“… we couldn’t afford a full catalogue, so instead we created a special portfolio – copies are rare now. What I was able to do – we didn’t have photocopiers or fax machines in those days – was crank out a checklist and my gallery notes by hand from a mimeograph stencil. Then I got every artist in the show to do a page as a stencil, and we ran off these line drawings. We put the whole package in a white envelope with a gummed label, red on white. I had a rubber stamp made that I stamped on the label in blue ink: New Painting of Common Objects. Edward Rusha designed the poster by calling up a commercial printer who made posters for concerts and boxing matches. Ruscha dictated all the copy over the phone, and his only directions on the type and style were to ‘make it loud!’ The poster came back with bold red and black type on a bright yellow background. Our limited budget dictated the portfolio and poster, though the off-the-shelf look fit right in with the show’s aesthetics.” (PK45)

In an art world still suffering withdrawal pains from Abstract Expressionism, the critical reaction to the show was mixed. It wasn’t until Pop was embraced in the general press that it was accepted by many old school art-tellectuals.

Jules Langsner [Art International, September 1962]:

“This critic finds himself in the unfamiliar (and vaguely uneasy) position of being cantankerously at odds with a serious effort to fashion a new mode of vision in the pictorial arts. That effort is the attempt to invest commonplace objects with a hitherto unsuspected significance, usually in painting with a straightforward presentation, on a magnified scale of things characteristic of our machine way of life. To be sure, this tendency, variously described as New Social Realism, Common Object Painting, and Commonism, currently is receiving the endorsement of the more zealous enthusiasts of “Pop” Culture as well as the shrill acclaim of the more chic circles of the art world… The Pasadena Art Museum’s current exhibition – New Painting of Common Objects – has brought this emerging tendency into sharp focus… A can of Campbell Soup by Andy Warhol, or a Travel Check by Dowd, initially rivets the viewer’s attention by the simple expedient of removing the mundane object from its ordinary surroundings and enormously increasing its scale. The initial shock, however, wears off in a matter of seconds, leaving one as bored with the painting as with the object it presents.” (PC33)

Walter Hopps:

“Langsner championed abstract art. He literally coined the term ‘hard-edge painting’ to describe the refined geometric renderings of John McLaughlin, for example – I will give him credit for that. He also wrote the first positive reviews of the young Abstract Expressionists in California such as Craig Kauffman.” (PK46)

The following year, Hopps organized the Duchamp retrospective at the Pasadena Art Museum. Warhol, who was in Los Angeles to see his second show at the Ferus (the Elvis paintings), also attended the opening party of the Duchamp exhibition. It was during that trip that Warhol filmed Elvis at Ferus and shot footage for Tarzan and Jane Regained…. Sort of.

Andy Warhol:

“Marcel Duchamp was having a retrospective at the Pasadena Museum and we were invited to that opening… I talked a lot to Duchamp and his wife, Teeny, who were great, and Taylor [Mead] danced all night with Patty Oldenburg – she and Claes had been living in California for a year ‘to get the feel of a new environment,’ she said, so they could send back a ‘bedroom’ for a group exhibit at the Sidney Janis Gallery in early ’64… They served pink champagne at the party, which tasted so good that I made the mistake of drinking a lot of it, and on the way home we had to pull over to the side of the road so I could throw up on the flora and fauna. In California, in the cool night air, you even felt healthy when you puked – it was so different from New York.” (POP43)

Two years after joining the Pasadena Art Museum as a curator, Hopps was promoted to director of the Museum at the age of 31 – making him the youngest director of a museum in the U.S. at the time. (AI) Other exhibitions that he presented there included the first Joseph Cornell retrospective and the first American retrospective of Kurt Schwitters. (MP) He left the museum in 1967 to become the director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. where he remained until 1972. From 1972 – 1979 he was the curator of 20th Century American Art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum where he organized the mid-career retrospective of Robert Rauschenberg during the American bicentennial in 1976. (PG)

Hopps’ success as a curator was exceptional for someone without a college degree. Although he attended various universities he never earned a degree. His unorthodox approach to his curatorial duties generally endeared him to artists and his staff although he was reportedly fired from the Corcoran because of the hours he kept – or didn’t keep. According to one account of his days there, he was fired “because of his habit of disappearing for hours, among other eccentric behaviour.” (WPL) James T. Demetrion, who worked as a curator for Hopps at the Pasadena Art Museum, recalled Hopps hanging a Jasper Johns exhibit the night before it opened: “He said he’d show up at 9 pm, though, of course he didn’t. He strolled in after midnight, and we were there all night. Still, the show looked great.” (WPR) Hopps’ boss at the Smithsonian, Joshua C. Taylor, sometimes remarked, “If I could find him, I’d fire him.” The staff at the Smithsonian produced a badge which ironically read, “Walter Hopps will be here in 20 minutes.” He never was. (WPR)

In 1980 Hopps joined the Menil Foundation in Houston and became the Founding Director of The Menil Collection in 1987. He organized the Robert Rauschenberg: The Early 1950s exhibition for The Menil Collection and in 1996 was responsible for the Edward Kienholz retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The following year he organized a survey of Rauschenberg’s work at the Guggenheim which traveled to several museums in the U.S. and Europe. In 2001 the Menil Foundation created a biannual award in his name – the Walter Hopps Award for Curatorial Achievement – and he also became Adjunct Senior Curator of Twentieth Century Art at the Guggenheim. In 2003 he organized the James Rosenquist retrospective at the Guggenheim with co-curator Sarah Bancroft.

In addition to his curatorial work, Hopps also served as the art director for Grand Street, a New York literary and arts magazine edited by Jean Stein, the author of Edie: American Girl. Warhol stars Gerard Malanga and Brigid Berlin were both contributors to the magazine. Issue no. 55 included reproductions from Brigid’s Cock Book and an article about Brigid by Anne Doran; issue no. 68 featured a piece written by Brigid on sweets; and issue no. 63 included Gerard Malanga’s poem, Leaving New York.

Hopps’ life was celebrated at two memorial events – one at the Santa Monica Museum of Art on May 3, 2005 and another at The Menil Collection in Houston on May 17th. He is survived by his wife, Caroline Huber, of Houston.

gary c.
Warholstars 2005

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Walter Hopps, 72, Curator With a Flair for the Modern, Is Dead

By ROBERTA SMITH Published: March 23, 2005

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Bill Cunningham/The New York Times

Walter Hopps, left, with the sculptor John Chamberlain in 2003.

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