Now Dig This! and the Ken Johnson Controversy: A Case For Pluralism in 20th Century Art History

Installation view of Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980 at MoMA PS1, © MoMA PS1. Photo by Matthew Septimus.
Installation view of Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980 at MoMA PS1. Photo by Matthew Septimus.

Ken Johnson’s controversial review of Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980, currently on view at MoMA PS1 through March 11, has become nothing less than an art world scandal, sparking a deluge of denouncements from readers, an open-letter and petition against the New York Times backed by prominent artists, critics and art historians, and even an attempted rebuttal on the art critic’s Facebook page, with continued debate in the comments section. Some of Johnson’s most problematic assertions focus on questions of originality and “quality,” each clearly sited in the historical standards of high Modernism. “Black artists did not invent assemblage,” he protests. “In its modern form it was developed by white artists like Picasso, Kurt Schwitters, Marcel Duchamp, David Smith and Robert Rauschenberg.” Later, the critic attacks the use of socially-engaged themes during a period in which art was supposed to be purged of realism and representation: “The art of black solidarity gets less traction because the postmodern art world is, at least ostensibly, allergic to overt assertions of any kind of solidarity.”[1]

These accusations would be relevant if Johnson’s concerns were shared by the exhibition’s curator, Columbia Professor Kellie Jones, but Now Dig This! is not intended to de-throne Duchamp and Rauschenberg. Jones presents Now Dig This! as an art historical survey of the African-American cultural scene in 1960s-1980s Los Angeles; she frames the exhibition as an arrangement of episodes rather than a singular narrative. Each gallery focuses on a different theme, style, or institutional network, thus allowing the viewer multiple points of entry into a wide body of artistic and historical material. Johnson’s attachment to the master narrative of Modernism is the first (and perhaps most innocuous) interpretive error of his review, revealing the degree to which this evolutionary historical model remains deeply ingrained in our thinking. Continue reading “Now Dig This! and the Ken Johnson Controversy: A Case For Pluralism in 20th Century Art History”

Locality and Multiplicity at Documenta 13

View of Kassel’s Orangerie and Karlsaue Park through Rahmenbau by Haus-Rucker-Co (1977)

Nowhere does art feel more global than at the biennials and exhibitions that happen at such regular intervals that their devotees can confidently book their hotel tickets up to five years in advance. Certainly this is true at Documenta 13 in Kassel, Germany—a place with no particular history of strong artistic production in its own right, albeit a site with a very significant role in history itself. Yet in this global arena (this year’s Documenta includes physical or conceptual sites in Kassel, Kabul, Alexandria/Cairo, and Banff in Canada), a theme amongst the disparate works is a sense of place, a groundedness within the local—within the issues of the artist’s particular time and place—and one that is often framed within the larger historical scope of war. Though one theme among many (the exhibition included nearly 200 artists), this investigation of specific, localized moments in cultural and political history strikes a particular chord in Kassel, a tiny city smack in the center of Germany that was badly damaged by Allied bombs during World War II. The exceptional quality of the art on view and the panoply of locations from which they came make the associations, possible through the works’ juxtaposition, all the more striking and layered. Continue reading “Locality and Multiplicity at Documenta 13”

Robert Morris in the Guggenheim’s Panza Collection

The large-scale Robert Morris sculptures grouped in a bright room at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the members of the Panza Collection Initiative (PCI) told us, were there for one reason. Derelict, fragile, or compromised in some way, they were gathered as part of the PCI’s ambitious project to preserve and conserve the Guggenheim’s large holdings of Minimalist, Post-Minimalist, and Conceptual works, many acquired by the Guggenheim in 1991 and 1992 from Italian collector Giuseppe Panza di Biumo. What are the questions we face in considering the collection, preservation, and display of works borne out of the innovative artistic practices of the 1960s?

When we think of Morris’s large-form sculptures, it is easy enough to conjure them in the mind’s eye: L-beams, boxes, frames, and hovering platforms, especially as pictured in the well-known photographs of the Green Gallery and Dwan Gallery shows from the mid-1960s. But to say specifically what these works are made of is more difficult. Plywood, fiberglass, aluminum? Yet in looking at two iterations of Morris’s Untitled (Warped Bench), the difference in material is palpable: the later one (2004), made of painted plywood, has a crispness of edge lacking in its earlier (1965) fiberglass counterpart, a difference resulting from the exactness of facture possible with each material.

Exhibition at the Dwan Gallery, Los Angeles, April 1966.
Image courtesy Catherine Grenier, Robert Morris, exhibition catalog (Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, 1995): 227.

In front of Warped Bench, and only minutes into the discussion led by Jeffrey Weiss, Ted Mann, and Anne Wheeler, it was already becoming clear just how complicated the PCI’s task is, given the tangled web of historical and technical considerations relevant to Morris’s work. Continue reading “Robert Morris in the Guggenheim’s Panza Collection”

March 20 CAC Event: Robert Morris in the Guggenheim’s Panza Collection

A Seminar for IFA Students and Faculty
Tuesday, March 20, 2012, 2:00-4:00 PM

The Contemporary Art Consortium at the Institute of Fine Arts, in collaboration with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s Panza Collection Initiative, invites students and faculty to visit and discuss a private installation of works by artist Robert Morris selected from the Guggenheim’s Panza Collection.

The group will meet on Tuesday, March 20, at 2:00 PM at an installation space located in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, in which the PCI has installed one dozen important works by the artist for the consideration of a committee of art historians and conservators who will gather in the space for a two-day meeting the week prior to the student visit.

Panza Collection Initiative members — Jeffrey Weiss, Francesca Esmay, Ted Mann, and Anne Wheeler — will lead a discussion of issues raised by the works. Participants are also encouraged to raise topics of related interest with regard to the work. Because discussion will be based on immediate reference to the works of art themselves, participation is limited to 20.

Ticket/entry details:

Registration open to the IFA community only. Reservation required. To register, please send an e-mail to awheeler[at]guggenheim[dot]org with your name and affiliation.

The event will be held at SurroundArt in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Please allow adequate time for transportation (approximately 25 minutes by car or 45-60 minutes by subway from the IFA). Location details will be provided to confirmed participants.

IFA at CAA: Stay Tuned

A number of IFA students and professors will be presenting at the upcoming 2012 CAA conference in Los Angeles, February 22 to 25 at the LA Convention Center.

If you’re planning to attend the conference, you can support your colleagues and classmates at the following panels!

Happenings: Transnational, Transdisciplinary
Wednesday, February 22, 9:30 AM–12:00 PM
Concourse Meeting Room 403B, Level 2, Los Angeles Convention Center
Guerrilla Tactics and International Happenings: An Expanded View of Brazilian Art of the Late 1960s and Early 1970s
Anna Katherine Brodbeck, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University

The Interconnected Tenth Century
Wednesday, February 22, 9:30 AM–12:00 PM
Concourse Meeting Room 404A, Level 2, Los Angeles Convention Center
China among Equals: Recontextualizing the China-Abbasid Trade Connection in the Long Tenth Century
Hsueh-man Shen, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University

Internationalizing the Field: A Discussion of Global Networks for Art Historians
Wednesday, February 22, 12:30 PM–2:00 PM
West Hall Meeting Room 501ABC, Level 2, Los Angeles Convention Center
Townhouse Gallery “Archive Map” Project
Clare Davies, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University

From Camp to Visual Culture: Accounting for “Bad” Art since the 1960s
Wednesday, February 22, 2:30 PM–5:00 PM
Concourse Meeting Room 404A, Level 2, Los Angeles Convention Center
Good Ideas Done Bad: Neil Jenney’s Bad Paintings
Matthew Levy, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University

Theorizing the Body
Thursday, February 23, 9:30 AM–12:00 PM
Concourse Meeting Room 403B, Level 2, Los Angeles Convention Center
Body of Work: Stylization and Ambiguity in the Benin Plaque Corpus
Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch, New York University

Towards a Rock and Roll History of Contemporary Art
Thursday, February 23, 2:30 PM–5:00 PM
Concourse Meeting Room 409AB, Level 2, Los Angeles Convention Center
Chairs: Matthew Jesse Jackson, University of Chicago; Robert Slifkin, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University
The Sense of an Ending: Spiral Jetty and the Stones at Altamont
William Smith, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University

New Research in the Early Modern Hispanic World
Saturday, February 25, 9:30 AM–12:00 PM
West Hall Meeting Room 511BC, Level 2, Los Angeles Convention Center
Old Meets New: Classicizing Visions in Diego de Valadés’s “Rhetorica Christiana”
Laura Leaper, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University
Soldier Ecclesiasticus: Images of the Archangel Michael in New Spain
Niria Leyva-Gutiérrez, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University

New Scholars Session
Saturday, February 25, 12:30 PM–2:00 PM
West Hall Meeting Room 501ABC, Level 2, Los Angeles Convention Center
The Garden Landscape and the French Interior
Lauren Cannady, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University

(Re)Writing the Local in Latin American Art
Saturday, February 25, 2:30 PM–5:00 PM
West Hall Meeting Room 501ABC, Level 2, Los Angeles Convention Center
“Un Espacio Abierto”: Metaphors of Space and Community in
Mexico City’s “Temístocles 44”

Emily Sessions, New York University

Manuscripts without Moorings, Objects and Their Origins: Stylistic Analysis or Stylistic Attribution?
Saturday, February 25, 2:30 PM–5:00 PM
West Hall Meeting Room 501ABC, Level 2, Los Angeles Convention Center
Medieval Spanish Painting at the Crossroads: Stylistic Pluralism in the “Liber Feudorum Maior” of Barcelona
Shannon Wearing, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University

Situating Expanded Cinema in Postwar Art Practice
Saturday, February 25, 2:30 PM–5:00 PM
Concourse Meeting Room 409AB, Level 2, Los Angeles Convention Center
“We Must Build Our Theaters in the Air”: Jaime Davidovich
and Public-Access Cable Television

Sarah Johnson Montross, New York University

Paris, Politics, and Soto: A Conversation with Estrellita B. Brodsky

Estrellita B. Brodsky is experiencing what for many art historians is a dream come true: less than three years after receiving her PhD from the Institute of Fine Arts, she has succeeded in curating an exhibition based on her dissertation research on Latin American artists working in post-war Paris. Now on view at the Grey Art Gallery on NYU’s downtown campus through March 31, 2012, her exhibition, Soto: Paris and Beyond 1950-1970, focuses on the early Paris years of the Venezuelan maestro, Jesús Rafael Soto, a key member of the post-war international avant-garde who is today best recognized for his optically-challenging, immersive, and kinetic art. Just a week after the show’s opening, Brodsky kindly agreed to meet with me at the Grey to discuss her research, curatorial experience, and of course, Soto.

Our conversation began in the center of the Grey’s main gallery, surrounded by examples of each of the various phases explored by Soto between 1950, the year of his initial departure to Paris, and 1970, a culminating moment in his career following his first Paris retrospective at the Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris and the realization of his famous Penetrables.[1] With a Cézannesque-Cubist rendering of a Venezuelan landscape behind us and an optically challenging Plexiglas piece to our right, I asked Brodsky to start at the beginning: why did she choose to study the work of Latin American artists in post-war Paris?

Jesús Soto. Sin título (Paisaje) {Untitled (Landscape)}, 1949. Oil on canvas. 21 5⁄8 x 18 7⁄8 in. (55 x 48 cm). Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.
Jesús Soto. Sans titre (Structure cinétique à éléments géométriques) {Untitled (Kinetic Structure with Geometric Elements)}, c. 1955–56. Paint on wood and Plexiglas. 24 x 24 x 9 3/4 in. (61 x 61 x 25 cm). Private collection © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

Explaining that her interest in Venezuelan art is rooted in her personal history (her father arrived in the country in the 1920s, and Brodsky was a first-hand witness to the country’s booming arts scene in the 1960s), she also admitted to a certain selfishness in picking her topic. Continue reading “Paris, Politics, and Soto: A Conversation with Estrellita B. Brodsky”

Experience Performa 11: Live Performances and Classes

by Tina Orlandini

Thanks to Performa 11, the only biennial dedicated to exhibiting contemporary works of performance art, November in New York City is filled with brilliant performances that combine the aesthetic value of visual art and the brilliance of experimental music, dance, and theater with subtle yet poignant social and political nuances. Although all of the performances deserve to be experienced, there are a few upcoming shows that have been highlighted as “must-see” performances by biennial director RoseLee Goldberg.

Shirin Neshat, an Iranian artist whose work originally inspired Goldberg to develop Performa, collaborates with Iranian musicians, vocalists, and actors to create the production OverRuled. The story touches on issues of contemporary Iranian politics and is set in a court of law in which the audience, imagination, and life are on trial for heresy. As is true for all of Neshat’s artwork, this performance promises to excite your visual and auditory senses, while also speaking to issues of global politics.

iona rozeal brown makes her live performance debut at this year’s biennial, bringing to life her cross-cultural paintings in battle of yestermore. The performance incorporates Japanese theater, which has influenced much of her work, with the dance style known as “vogueing,” performed by its pioneers Benny and Javier Ninja, as well as other hip hop dancers. The performance will also include one of brown’s original scores.

Liz Magic Laser’s Performa 11 multi-media piece, I Feel Your Pain transforms American political commentary into an all-encompassing romantic comedy. The performance includes press conferences with political figures like Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck. Laser herself performs among the eight actors who appear on stage and within the audience.

Mika Rottenberg and Jon Kessler collaborate to create the performance-installation SEVEN at Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery. Rottenberg’s surreal videos, juxtaposed with Kessler’s kinetic sculptures, allow visitors to travel across time and space, from the streets of New York City to the African savannahs. Much of Rottenberg’s work speaks to the politics of the female body, while Kessler’s mechanically exposed kinetic sculptures have shifted toward questions of surveillance following 9/11. Together, the efforts of these artists culminate in one visually loaded and content-laden performance, designed to last exactly 37 minutes.

Robert Ashley is known as the pioneer of music-television and has had a tremendous influence on contemporary opera since the 1960s. For Performa, Ashley will exhibit a fresh rendition of his 1968 three-act opera That Morning Thing, which will include seventeen performers and incorporate male and female voices. Followers and critics of Ashley’s work have expressed their eagerness to experience the performance again in a new way.

In addition to the many performances, Performa 11 also offers myriad artist-taught classes, exhibitions, film screenings, and more at the Performa Institute, affectionately referred to as the Hub, at 233 Mott Street. Some of the programs you won’t want to miss include:

Garage Center for Contemporary Culture, 33 Fragments of Russian Performance (on-going exhibition, 3rd floor of Performa Institute)
November 2 – 21, 1:00 – 5:00pm

Mark Beasley (Performa curator) and Nathaniel Mellors (Performa artist), Cockadoodledon’t!!!: On Humor and Language
Monday, November 14, 3:00 – 4:00pm

Dennis Oppenheim, Compression Fern (1970) Screening and Action
Wednesday, November 16, 5:00 – 6:00pm

Guy Maddin (filmmaker and Performa artist), The Power of a Community-Free Cinema
Saturday, November 19, 3:00 – 4:00pm

The Performa team is always looking for enthusiastic students to volunteer and to become a part of this exciting experience. All those interested in getting involved with Performa should contact Marc Arthur (marc[at]performa-arts[dot]org).

Tina Orlandini is a graduate student in Arts Politics at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.

“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 de Kooning: A Retrospective is on view through January 9, 2012, at The Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, New York.

Info Session – Wednesday, October 12, 12:30 PM

After a summer-long hiatus, the blog is preparing to relaunch with new material and a fantastic new addition to the editorial team, IFA doctoral candidate Kristen Gaylord.

We hope you’ll stay tuned for upcoming content…and we’ll need your feedback and submissions!

Please join us in the IFA Seminar Room at 12:30 PM on Wednesday, October 12, for an informational meeting. We will discuss the types of pieces we’d like to post, our revised submissions guidelines and schedules, and open opportunities to write regularly as a columnist.

If you cannot make the meeting but would like to learn more, please visit our website or email us at ifacac[dot]editor[at]gmail[dot]com with your questions. We encourage all students and alumni to get involved!

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.
Continue reading “Luis Camnitzer at El Museo del Barrio”