“de Kooning: A Retrospective” at MoMA

no title, 1984, oil on canvas, 77 x 88 inches. Image via The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY.

In terms of sheer size and scope, not to mention the veritable blitz of media attention, MoMA’s Willem de Kooning retrospective is the blockbuster exhibition of the season. Reviews of the show, which is on view through January 9, 2012, have been overwhelmingly positive—celebratory, if not laudatory. Among these exultations the voice of discontent has been rare. Some brave individuals, however, have vocalized varying degrees of dissent. And by this I am not referring to praise under the guise of criticism, such as the lament that the exhibition’s only fault is that it is yet too small—at over 200 works spread across 17,000 square feet—to do full justice to de Kooning’s genius.

The few disparaging voices have either gone largely unnoticed or been heavily criticized. The lodging of criticism against the de Kooning retrospective seems nearly akin to sacrilege. In his New York recap of the inaugural second-season episode of Bravo’s “Work of Art,” critic Jerry Saltz even took a moment to mock collector Adam Lindeman’s negative de Kooning review. Lindeman’s Gallerist NY article, “Did I Need to See a $4 Billion Willem de Kooning Show?” inveighed against MoMA’s display for lacking energy and epiphany. In a less overtly critical article for Hyperallergic, Howard Hurst expressed similar disappointment with the retrospective’s innate predictability. Most recently, Paddy Johnson cautiously lambasted the exhibition on The L Magazine for perpetuating aspects of Abstract Expressionist myth-making rather than challenging them.

I would like to believe that it is possible to learn much about art from such negative reactions to otherwise critically acclaimed works. The gut reaction of those who praise the show has been to reject condemnatory perspectives as lacking taste, sound judgment, or well-developed knowledge of art history. But I believe that critics like Saltz are missing the point. No one is disagreeing that de Kooning was a talented artist and hugely influential throughout the twentieth century. Yet some view the exhibition as a missed opportunity: it had the potential to be so much more than it was.

The exhibition takes a largely formalist perspective. If we are meant to come away with one message, it is this: de Kooning experimented with abstraction and figuration simultaneously, often blurring any distinction between the two. This is undoubtedly an important message. But it is a message that is largely centered on de Kooning, his art, and his world. It is a rather insular thesis.

I think the critical voices are ultimately reacting to the seeming lack of relevance to our current times. Why does de Kooning matter right now? How does his life’s work resonate within our contemporary world? Moreover, given the vast resources of a museum like MoMA, why did the show’s curator, John Elderfield, choose not to take many risks? Wouldn’t it be exciting for a museum of MoMA’s stature and a curator of Elderfield’s talent and well repute to stick out their collective neck and make observations beyond the formal?

The two most hotly debated and divisive aspects of de Kooning’s oeuvre, and equally of the MoMA retrospective, are the potentially misogynistic undertones of the Woman paintings and the merit of the late works created in the 1980s. Rather than entering into the debate by taking a position or introducing an alternative view, MoMA largely skirts the two topics. Both wall labels and exhibition catalogue identify these issues, but even these educational materials do not actively seek to explore or answer such questions.

When the Woman paintings first debuted at Sidney Janis Gallery in 1953 they caused an art-world uproar and were largely interpreted as chauvinist works. Over half a century later there is still no definitive stance regarding their potentially offensive content. In my opinion, the outright aggressiveness of these figures negates any passive objectification of women. De Kooning wanted to compete with Old Masters like Titian, Rembrandt, and Rubens, and to do so he had to tackle the female portrait. The closest Elderfield comes to expressing an opinion on de Kooning’s intent toward his subjects is to cite his oft-quoted comment, “Flesh was the reason oil paint was invented.” Most of the show’s energy is fixated on illuminating heretofore-underappreciated formal qualities of the series, such as the spatial innovations and pictorial inventiveness of de Kooning’s depictions of women.

The late works have also been a topic of debate since their first public display. Toward the end of his life, de Kooning descended into a state of dementia, which is attributed in retrospect to Alzheimer’s, a history of alcoholism, or a combination of the two. Given his declining mental and physical capabilities, critics have questioned the level of artistic control exerted by de Kooning over his studio assistants during this period. Indeed, these works come as a visual shock after the six galleries prior. The paintings are Spartan in comparison to the densely layered and chaotic canvases of the preceding decades. Again current opinion has been mixed, with some critics viewing these galleries as the most interesting in the show and others finding artistic merit here to be lacking in comparison with earlier work. Based on their extreme deviation from the oeuvre, I believe these late paintings might have been more compelling in a smaller show devoted solely to the artist’s final period. Such an exhibition would have allowed the work to be judged on its own terms, without the weight of the Woman paintings and earlier abstracted works like Excavation (1950) still lingering on the mind. Once again MoMA tackles the issue with characteristic detachment, missing an opportunity to delve deeper into the later period of the artist’s life and work.

Without question, MoMA’s de Kooning retrospective marks a seminal moment in the history of the artist and of twentieth-century art. But its purely formalist perspective is limited. Voices of discontent criticize not de Kooning, nor his art, nor even the chronological layout of the exhibition. Instead, they express a sense of disappointment that MoMA could not pay more than lip service to controversial topics and sticky subjects. The anticipation index is high when it comes to major shows at a museum as reputable as MoMA. We have come to expect from the Museum exhibitions that resonate beyond the objects and give us ideas to hold onto long after we exit the sixth floor. New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl remarked that he came out of the de Kooning exhibition feeling on fire. Yet for some this fiery feeling was replaced by something much emptier–and these are the people for whom pure formalism isn’t always enough to shake things up.

Sarah Zabrodski is an alumna of the Institute of Fine Arts at NYU. She blogs at emergingartcritic.com. de Kooning: A Retrospective is on view through January 9, 2012, at The Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, New York.

Stay Tuned for the Green Beijing Series

The CAC blog is excited to introduce a new series of posts revolving around Professor Jonathan Hay’s current Green Beijing colloquium at the Institute. A collaborative effort led by current MA candidate Elizabeth Lee, this series will be posted regularly for the duration of the Fall 2011 semester, beginning on November 14.

Zhang Dali Demolition: Forbidden City, Beijing, 1998, chromogenic color print, 35 9/16 x 23 11/16" (90.3 x 60.1 cm). Image via The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
The site of current day Beijing has seen its fair share of change. From Mongol pleasure palace to bustling Han metropolis, the city and the people who populated it have existed in a state of flux for centuries. In Professor Jonathan Hay’s Fall 2011 Green Beijing colloquium, we are focusing on the 15th century in an attempt to recreate the Ming dynasty capital in all its urban (and surprisingly verdant) glory. Through the surviving pieces of the imperial palace (aka the Forbidden City), the temples, and the surrounding parks and lakes, we are inching slowly toward an understanding of the various levels of symbolism encoded within the urban landscape of Ming Beijing. The ideological and experiential dimensions of Ming Beijing are further colored by student-led cross-cultural comparisons with cities like Angkor, Delhi, and Kyoto. While the colloquium attempts to build a vision of Beijing rooted in the past, this blog is an effort to pull the discussion closer to our own time.

By listing and discussing some contemporary artworks that deal with the historical sites we investigate—for example, the Temple of Heaven, Beihai, Beijing’s “seas,” and the city’s hutongs—we hope to create a dialogue between Ming Beijing and the Chinese capital of the 21st century.

Iftikhar Dadi at the IFA

Editor’s Note: This review was written directly following Iftikhar Dadi’s lecture at the Institute of Fine Arts on April 12, 2011. It has been reprinted here in its original form.

Iftikhar Dadi

On April 12, 2011, Professor Iftikhar Dadi delivered the inaugural lecture of the Colloquium on Modern and Contemporary Art from the Middle East and South Asia (MESA) at the Institute of Fine Arts. Dadi is a practicing artist and an associate professor in the Department of the History of Art at Cornell University, as well as the author of the recent Modernism and the Art of Muslim South Asia (University of North Carolina Press, 2010). His lecture at the IFA, entitled “Between Global Media and the Urban Subaltern,” contained three parts: first, Dadi’s take on the rhetoric surrounding modern art in South Asia and the Middle East; second, an analysis of major artists involved in the development of modernism in this region; and third, a presentation of Dadi’s own artistic collaborations with his wife, Elizabeth Dadi.

Employing Andreas Huyssen’s conception of “modernism at large,” Dadi situated artists working in South Asia during the twentieth century within a transnational Muslim modernism rather than within nationally specific modernities. He further argued that this modernism was liberating despite its Eurocentrism, positively influencing artists working in South Asia and the Middle East because it allowed them to decolonialize Islamic art. Thus they could use the visual language of Islamic art to develop a new subjectivity that was intrinsically South Asian Muslim. Dadi first discussed well-known Pakistani artist Sadequain Naqqash (1930-1987), whose paintings draw upon the Islamic tradition of calligraphy. Naqqash simultaneously aligns his work with modernist movements such as Cubism, using abstracted letterforms that obstruct a strictly narrative reading of the text. Referencing the Mughal Empire, which ruled the Indian subcontinent from the mid-sixteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries, Dadi described another Pakistani artist, Abdur Rahman Chughtai (1899-1975), as “a Mughal artist working in a time of print culture.” Chugtai’s paintings make use of imagery similar to that of traditional Mughal miniatures, creating a subjectivity based on historical precursors as well as on the contemporary intellectual scene.
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Watermill Quintet: Uncovering Disciplinary Boundaries

Editor’s Note: This review was written directly following the “Watermill Quintet” performance at the Guggenheim Museum in March 2011. It has been reprinted here in its original form.

Learned contextual expectations are everything, which is why I was so intrigued this spring when I received an email about the Guggenheim’s “Works & Process” program through a dance performance listserv. Billed as “a performing-arts series that informs artistic creation through stimulating conversation and performance,” the series purports to integrate the performing and visual arts on an institutional level. Modern and contemporary museums have expanded their jurisdictions, yet in general the performing arts and visual arts worlds still stand as two distinct monoliths. Despite the collapsing of partitions within each realm—between dance, theater, opera, music, etc. in one, and sculpture, painting, installation, performance, etc. in the other—and our confidence in our own open-minded interdisciplinary thinking, the boundaries of each remain fairly impermeable.
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Marina Abramović at the IFA

Editor’s Note: This review was written directly following Marina Abramović’s lecture at the Institute of Fine Arts on March 1, 2011. It has been reprinted here in its original form.

Marina Abramović at the Institute of Fine Arts, March 1, 2011. Video still.
Courtesy the Institute of Fine Arts at NYU.

A long duration is sublime. — Immanuel Kant

Although it is safe to assume that almost everyone who attended Marina Abramović’s recent lecture at the IFA, had seen her in person fairly recently, few, if any, had ever seen her speak: like all of her best-known performances, The Artist is Present (2010) at MoMA was completely wordless. In the very least, Abramović’s IFA lecture proved that the absence of speech in her performances is not due to any lack of ability on the part of the performer. She was lucid, frank, and insightful, managing not only to set her work into intelligent dialogue with a wide range of her contemporaries (Chris Burden, Gilbert and George, etc.), but also to be quite funny and entertaining along the way. By the end of the talk, one really felt to have gotten a good sense of Abramović’s personality. This of course shed a good deal of light on her work, though perhaps not in the direct sort of way that one would expect. Rather, the ease by which her personality came through in speech only threw into relief how little of that personality comes across in her performances. The type of encounter that occurs in the latter is entirely different in nature.

Abramovic’s lecture touched on many issues: the importance of long temporal durations in her work, a conception of the parts of the body as instruments of performance, her own path to becoming a performance artist, and many others. She began by reading a manifesto and went on to show a series of video excerpts of performances, choosing each from a DVD menu screen and discussing them freely, without a transcript or predetermined order. The present essay will not even attempt to map out the territory that she covered; for this, one would be better off simply watching the video recording of the lecture that is available on the IFA’s website. Instead, I would like to reflect on just a few aspects of the lecture that I found particularly helpful in interpreting her work.

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Rachel Harrison at the IFA

Rachel Harrison spoke at the Institute of Fine Arts on February 24, 2011, as part of the IFA’s Artists at the Institute lecture series.

Rachel Harrison, Contact Sheet (should home windows...), 1996, chromogenic print on fiberboard, 20 x 16 inches. © Rachel Harrison

Asking an artist to give a lecture about her own work already seems kind of unfair. It’s not enough that they have to make these wonderful things, but they have to explain to us what they mean? To wrangle with those digital projections that we all hate? To tie up a whole lifetime of experiences and subjectivity into one neat little hour-long bundle (hour and ten minutes, if you include the Q & A)? But asking a sculptor to talk about her work—to add the inadequacy of photography in capturing anything, really, about these objects—well, that just seems downright mean.

Rachel Harrison seemed game enough to try, though, and despite all the obvious limitations of the slideshow format—or maybe even because those limitations echo some of her artistic concerns—she provided some pithy insights into her notoriously unwranglable works. There were no moments of total understanding or easy summaries of her body of work, but there were some interesting intersections of ideas and illuminations of corners here and there. Plus she got some of us stuffy art historians to laugh once in a while—pretty good for an hour and ten minutes.

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Luis Camnitzer at El Museo del Barrio

Luis Camnitzer, Fragment of a Cloud, 1967. Daros Latinamerica Foundation.

Upon entering the galleries of El Museo del Barrio’s current show, Luis Camnitzer, visitors come face to face with the following lines, handwritten on the wall in loose script:

If I draw a dot on one sheet of paper
I am a doodler.
If a draw a dot on one hundred sheets of paper
I am a philosopher.
If a draw a dot on one thousand sheets of paper
I am a mystic.
If I draw a dot on ten thousand sheets of paper
I am a modern conceptual artist and may become
rich and famous.
Social values are a matter of accumulation.

Part statement and part poetry, these words provide an apt introduction to both the artist and exhibition on view. Witty, wry, and with a hint of self-deprecation (Camnitzer IS a modern conceptual artist, after all), the piece introduces the viewer to the type of insightful reflection that is characteristic of the artist, whose work often confronts issues related to politics, the art world, and society at large, through oblique, yet cutting critique. Further, written in pencil and only faintly hovering against the gallery’s white wall, the work requires close inspection, thus presaging the type of intimate looking (and thinking) required of visitors throughout the show.
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On the Horizon: Asian Contemporary Art Week

ASIAN CONTEMPORARY ART WEEK is coming up in New York!  The title of the program is a bit of a misnomer, as the event spans from March 21 through March 31, 2011.  Engaging both galleries and museums in the New York area, the ACAW features a broad range of public programs, including artist talks, gallery openings and receptions, lectures, performances and, of course, plenty of art exhibitions.  Check out the full program schedule at their superbly organized and user-friendly website.

The ACAW is particularly well-timed to coincide with a course taught this spring by Wu Hung on Contemporary Chinese Art. Professor Wu is the IFA’s Kirk Varnedoe Visiting Professor and one of the foremost scholars on traditional and contemporary Chinese art.  I will be attending the following event at the Guggenheim on 3/29/2011 (note the “free for students”) and anyone interested is welcome to meet up at the IFA around 6 PM on Tuesday to walk over together:

Tuesday, March 29, 2011 at 6:30 pm at the Guggenheim Museum

Liu Xiaodong in Conversation

A screening of the new Liu Xiaodong documentary film by famed Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien, followed by a conversation with the artist and Alexandra Munroe, Samsung Senior Curator of Asian Art at the Guggenheim Museum. Co-sponsored by Mary Boone Gallery.

$10; $7 for Guggenheim members; free for students

1071 Fifth Avenue (at 89th Street)
Tel: 212-423-3500


Hello everyone! Welcome to the brand new website for the IFA’s Contemporary Art Consortium. We are so excited about this new publication, and we invite you to peruse, comment on, and contribute to the site.

We’d like to send a huge thank you to the student writers who’ve contributed to the inaugural edition of the IFA-CAC blog. Please check out Kristen Gaylord on Sergej Jensen at PS1, Brett Lazer on Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s Learning from Las Vegas, Bobby Brennan on Christian Marclay’s The Clock at Paula Cooper, and Rae Kaplan on Esteban Vicente at the Grey Art Gallery and Daniel Haxall’s recent lecture at the IFA.

We’ve got more exciting student contributions lined up, so stay tuned! Please get in touch at ifacac[dot]editor[at]gmail[dot]com if you’d like to contribute or share your ideas for new pieces.

You can subscribe to our RSS feed below, or follow us on Twitter @IFACAC to receive updates about new posts.

Esteban Vicente’s Collages: On Display and In Discussion

Concrete Improvisations, Grey Art Gallery

The collage works of Esteban Vicente, the only Spanish-born member of New York’s Abstract Expressionists, take center stage at a current exhibition at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery and were the focus of an accompanying talk by Daniel Haxall held last week at the Institute of Fine Arts. Teaching at NYU and the New York Studio School, among other colleges and universities, and renting a studio on East Tenth Street, Vicente was a major player in the downtown art scene. On view at the Grey through March 26, Concrete Improvisations: Collages and Sculpture by Esteban Vicente literally and physically reinserts Vicente’s works into this scene. Curated by Lynn Gumpert, Edward J. Sullivan, and Ana Martínez de Aguilar, the exhibition and its programming are bringing deserved recognition to an influential artist. The curatorial team reintroduces Vicente to New York audiences through his collages and small-scale sculptures, and takes great care to communicate Vicente’s involvement in the development of Abstract Expressionism.

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