The Usable Past

Black Mass, 1991, Annette Lemieux (1957-). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Promised gift of Emily Fisher Landau © Annette Lemieux

The Usable Past: “The concept that a self-conscious examination of historical figures, moments, and symbols can shape current and future political formation.”[1]

This is how the Whitney defines the title of one of five galleries in their ongoing permanent collection exhibition An Incomplete History of Protest. The works in the gallery present memory and nostalgia as both powerful and yet often insufficient vehicles to re-experience the past. Sharing tropes of obfuscation and anonymity, the works materialize the incomplete nature of memory and documentation.

Glenn Ligon (b. 1960), Untitled (Speech/Crowd) #2, 2000. Screenprint ink, coal dust, oil stick, ink, graphite, and glue on paper, 40 x 54 in. (101.6 x 137.2 cm)

Annette Lemieux’s painting Black Mass (1991), in which she replaces the protest signs in a civil rights march with black, empty squares, hangs across the room from Glenn Ligon’s Untitled (Speech/Crowd) #2, a photograph of the Million Man March which Ligon has blurred and layered with coal dust. These works recall acts of censorship and evoke the fading hope of social change in a world where battles for civil rights must be repeatedly fought. However, the works in the exhibition that truly express the concept of “the usable past” are those which feature the museum as their main subject.

Lining the walls of the museum’s new Meatpacking building, a multiplicity of letters of protest written to the Whitney by artists and organizations related to the institution emerge from the Whitney’s archives. In a letter from 1971 addressed to former director John I.H. Baur, the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition announced their opposition to the 1971 exhibition Black Artists in America and declared their plans to demonstrate on the museum’s premises. Their initial discontent stemmed from the Whitney’s seemingly empty promise to hire and consult with black art leaders for the curating of the show. The BECC’s correspondence with the Whitney attests to the fact that the institution has dealt with issues surrounding the cultural agency of marginalized groups in an art context. Alongside this letter, dozens of other requests from artists implore the museum to remove their work as acts of protest or solidarity during moments of political unrest, and urge the museum to take a stance on current socio-political debates.

The Black Emergency Cultural Coalition and Black Artist’s Correspondence, 1969-1971. Eight sheets. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Frances Mulhall Achilles Library and Archives

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A Collection Out of Context?: Archer M. Huntington’s Hispanic Society of America in Spain

After drawing immense summer crowds, the most recent traveling exhibition at the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, Tesoros from the Hispanic Society of America, Visions of the Hispanic World, closed its doors. The show truly was a museum within a museum – a mise en abîme of the New York City-based Hispanic Society of America within the galleries of the Spanish Royal Collection. The Hispanic Society normally finds its home on the Audubon Terrace at the northwest corner of 155th Street and Broadway, but after the museum closed in January to undergo significant renovations, its jewels were packed and shipped for the journey to Spain, and from there around the world. For some of these objects this was a return visit, a long-awaited homecoming after nearly a century of American residence. For many others, the Tesoros show constituted their maiden voyage to the Iberian Peninsula. During my visit in August, the vibrant and nuanced nature of this exhibition presented many topics worthy of reflection.

The Hispanic Society is the pipe dream of Archer Milton Huntington – a man who loved art, who adored museums, and whose heart, much like mine, rested somewhere between Spain and New York. Furthermore, it was crafted by Mr. Huntington: he did not merely open his wallet to finance the collection, he also played an active role in the construction of his museum and the selection of the art that would fill it. The evolution of his collection has been dependent on his legacy and the explicit wishes that he expressed through his interpersonal communication and diary entries during his lifetime.

Rather than treasuring only a few masterpieces, Huntington spent his fortune assembling a diverse variety of objects ranging across periods and media – paintings, sculptures, ceramics, glassware, prints, drawings, and more. His aims are best expressed by Mr. Huntington himself, in a claim made in his diaries that was rewritten on the wall of the third floor gallery of the Jeronimos building of the Prado show:

The museum… it must condense the soul of Spain into meanings, through works of the hand and spirit… I am collecting with a purpose and you know that purpose quite well… I wish to know Spain as Spain and so express her – in a museum. It is about all I can do. If I can make a poem of a museum it will be easy to read.

The exhibition at the Prado beautifully translates that very poem Mr. Huntington aspired to create. A walk through the galleries encourages visitors to see, to look, to wonder alongside Huntington.

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Sondra Perry: Resident Evil

Resident Evil, Sondra Perry’s first solo institutional exhibition, fills the second-floor gallery of The Kitchen with a handful of video works made in the past year. Each is “immersive” in one way or another, deploying tactics of spatial activation and coercive, embodied viewing to force visitors into visceral engagement with the screens and their troubling content. These strategies of discord and discomfort mirror the works themselves, which center themes of police brutality and other racialized violence, examining how images and narratives of these issues circulate, distort, and abstract in the digital realm.

Installation view of Resident Evil at the Kitchen, New York, 2016. All works courtesy the artist. Photos by Jason Mandella.
Installation view of Resident Evil at the Kitchen, New York, 2016. All works courtesy of the artist. Photos by Jason Mandella.

The first work one encounters in the exhibition is netherrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr 1.0.3 (2016), set into its own tiny black box. In the video, Perry draws a provocative parallel between the “blue screen of death”—the infamous error screen in Windows operating systems—and the “blue wall of silence,” an unwritten oath among police officers not to incriminate one another in cases of excessive force, brutality, or even murder. At one point in the video, footage of Bill Gates and other Microsoft executives dancing on a convention stage is dubbed over with a deadpan, computerized description of the unwritten officer’s code of conduct (perhaps a double entendre with the computer code that later scrolls by). Another passage features images of women killed by police set to the same voice describing the blue error screens in banal terms. Though intentionally ambiguous, the video uses montage to suggest that capitalist systems and their technological agents are intimately connected with, if not responsible for, the violence wrought against black bodies in neoliberal America.

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The James Gallery: The House of Dust

CUNY’s James Gallery at The Center for the Humanities ushers in the fall semester with an exhibition based on Alison Knowles’s 1967 conceptual work The House of Dust. The show seeks to encompass the many limbed and generative nature of Knowles’s artwork by showing how it continues to stimulate other artists to explore its themes of translation, permutation, intentionality and inclusivity, bringing to light the work’s enduring relevance.

The House of Dust is a computer generated poem written in the programming language FORTRAN, which generates verses by randomly combining elements from four lists pre-determined by Knowles: each verse consists of four components including, and always beginning with, “a house of,” followed by a location, then a material, and finally a category of inhabitants. The poem repeats after 400 verses. In 1969, based on one of the verses, “A HOUSE OF PLASTIC/ IN A METROPOLIS/ USING NATURAL LIGHT/ INHABITED BY PEOPLE FROM ALL WALKS OF LIFE” Knowles constructed an actual “house” in Chelsea. The house was moved to Burbank, California when she took a teaching position at CalArts in 1970. Knowles also orchestrated several other projects using computer programs, involving students and community members with her house as the nexus.

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The Limits of “No Limits”

Hommage à Chu Yun—05.05.55 (Homage to Chu Yun—05.05.55) 1955 Oil on canvas 76 3⁄4 × 51 1⁄8 in. (195 × 130 cm) Private collection, Switzerland ©Zao Wou-Ki ProLitteris, Zurich. Photography by Dennis Bouchard
Hommage à Chu Yun—05.05.55 (Homage to Chu Yun—05.05.55)
1955
Oil on canvas
76 3⁄4 × 51 1⁄8 in. (195 × 130 cm)
Private collection, Switzerland
©Zao Wou-Ki ProLitteris, Zurich. Photography by Dennis Bouchard

At the entrance of the exhibition floats Zao Wou-ki’s painting Hommage à Chu Yun—05.05.55 (1955), a large canvas cloaked in fluid patches of startlingly limpid aquamarine, rust, and warm cream. The abstract work appears to conceal something underwater. Perhaps it is the ancient Chinese poet of the title, who, after being exiled, drowned himself in the Miluo River. The concentration of reddish color in the center hints at an object, yet the iridescent ripples make it difficult to identify.

No Limits: Zao Wou-ki, currently on view at the Asia Society Museum, is the artist’s first-ever retrospective in the U.S. Zao (1921-2013) is perhaps best known as the Chinese painter who moved to Paris after World War II, where he worked alongside the French Informel painters, while also maintaining a dialogue with the Abstract Expressionists in New York. Zao was not singular in his global career: many post-war painters enthusiastically communicated with an international network of artists and traveled around the world. The exhibition curators Dr. Melissa Walt, Dr. Ankeney Weitz, and Michelle Yun characterize modern abstract painting as defined by this “dynamic cross-cultural circulation of ideas and images.”

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Some Thoughts After Attending the Art on Paper Fair

What is known as “Armory Week” took place early March in New York. The roughly seven-day-long art extravaganza takes its name from the 1913 Armory Show—America’s first large-scale exhibition of modern art, which took place in the Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue. Every year, Armory Week encompasses numerous art fairs and events across the city, providing excellent opportunities to not only look at art and meet artists and art world professionals, but also to practice observing the art market and predicting forms it could take in the foreseeable future. On March 6, I attended the Art on Paper Fair. As many will likely admit, time at art shows goes by quickly and is never quite enough. Thus, I focused my visit on new, alternative uses of the paper medium, observing the gamut displayed, speaking with artists and dealers, and gauging the visitors’ reactions.

Hideho Tanaka, Vanishing and Emerging Wall, 2009, paper, 87 x 102 x 11 in, browngrotta gallery, photo by author.
Hideho Tanaka, Vanishing and Emerging Wall, 2009, paper, 87 x 102 x 11 in, browngrotta gallery, photo by author.

One thing that became noticeable early on, while walking around the space, was the number of conversations concerning the apparent two-dimensionality of most works exhibited at the fair. Such observations were offered with a tone of disappointment, as though the future of paper, as presented here, had circled back on itself and was, once again, non-sculptural and flat. Despite the public’s generalizations about the prevalence of age-old applications of pencil, ink and paint, this year’s fair was actually marked with works that pushed far beyond tradition.

There were numerous instances of artworks that toyed with both two and three-dimensionality. A fascinating example was found in the offerings of Canadian artist and author Cybèle Young, represented by Forum Gallery, whose works are sculptures trapped in a frame. Elsewhere, Browngrotta gallery exhibited only non-flat works. Of particular note was “Vanishing and Emerging Wall,” 2009, a round textile by Japanese artist Hideho Tanaka woven out of squares of paper, painted with stripes and hung in such a way as to create vertical folds. Similarly, Owen James Gallery exhibited small paper pulp sculptures by Adam Frezza and Terri Chiao. The sculptures’ whimsical colors, glitter, and coral-like structure created a playful atmosphere that made them alluring to fair-visitors of all ages. Overall, encountering works that experimented with unique applications of the paper medium made the whole visit far more lively than one could typically expect of these fairs—like a treasure hunt of art on paper.

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Saltz Does the Armory

Taking a deep breath as I stepped through the entrance doors to the Armory Show, I braced myself for the inevitable feeling of art overload I was about to experience; for me, each booth merges with the next, resulting in a shopping mall vibe that seems anathema to a productive viewing experience. But, let’s face it, this is exactly what an art fair should be, right?

According to Jerry Saltz, a self-proclaimed lover of all things art-related, art fairs aren’t about the art at all. They’re about the people. So he claimed in a talk entitled “LIKE, SWIPE AND DOUBLE TAP: Visual Criticism in the Digital Age,” moderated by Benjamin Genocchio, Executive Director of the Armory Show. Leave it to Saltz, known for never pulling his punches, to alleviate some of the commercial art world ridiculousness … or so I thought. The following is a response to one of the most ludicrous ‘talks’ I’ve attended in a long while. (Disclaimer: Devoted Saltz fans should stop reading now, if only to save themselves the indignation for more important battles, like social media censorship.)

When asked to describe my feelings about art fairs I usually reply with general disdain, laced with stronger feelings of actual disgust. I know many art historians, perched on our intellectual high horses, feel the same way about the overt commodification of art. Such fairs seem to suggest that artworks are best marketed as swank luxury goods or smart financial investments but not cultural treasures. Is this a just assessment? Probably not, given that we are all, even those members of the hallowed academy, proponents of the art market, whether we intend it or not. My morality may also be somewhat compromised for even attending the fair (though I did so on a free day pass; heaven forbid actually paying to go!).

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The Eighth Floor, Please

Living in the vertical landscape that is New York City, riding in elevators is a familiar, even mundane activity. Ascending and descending, we arrive to our apartments, offices, the library, and even grocery stores. Still, after a quick trip to the eighth floor of a nondescript, corporate office space, it is a rare and even surprising treat to encounter the engaging and eclectic art exhibition, Between History and the Body, now on view in the aptly named gallery The 8th Floor.

Though unknown to many of the passersby along 17th Street, The 8th Floor celebrates its fifth anniversary this year, having been founded in 2010 by the collector/philanthropist couple Shelley and Donald Rubin. Previously, contemporary Cuban art dominated The 8th Floor’s exhibition schedule, reflecting one aspect of the Rubins’ collecting interests.[1] However earlier this year the gallery broadened its geographical focus, ambitiously revising its mission, “to explore the potential of art as an instrument for social change in the 21st century.”[2]

Ana Mendieta (b. 1948, Havana – d. 1985, New York). Untitled (Glass on Body Imprints), 1972‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬ Suite of six estate color photographs 16 x 20 inches each Edition 7 of 10 Courtesy of the Estate of Ana Mendieta and Galerie Lelong
Ana Mendieta (b. 1948, Havana – d. 1985, New York). Untitled (Glass on Body Imprints), 1972‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬
Suite of six estate color photographs
16 x 20 inches each
Edition 7 of 10
Courtesy of the Estate of Ana Mendieta and Galerie Lelong

Such lofty goals are reflected in the current show Between History and the Body. Curated by Sara Reisman, artistic director of The Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation and the former director of New York City’s Percent for Art Program, the exhibition positions itself as, “a discursive territory in which ideas surrounding the construction of identity converge.”[3] Although the works on view are perhaps less praxis-oriented than is suggested by either this claim or the gallery’s mission, the show nonetheless raises and contests historical and societal paradigms regarding race, culture, gender, and sexual orientation. Focusing on representations of the body as a site of identity, an agent of protest, and a symbol of projected myths, Between History and the Body features an intriguing range of photographs, drawings, collages, sculptures, and videos by a diverse group of twelve artists, many of whom work locally in New York.

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Mark Your Calendars! Upcoming Events at the IFA

January 29 – March 14, 2015
New York University Curatorial Collaboration (IFA-Steinhardt)
Absence / Presence, curated by Anna Blum, Riad Kherdeen, Eloise Maxwell, Tola Porter, and Patryk Tomaszewski, on view January 29 – February 14, The Commons & Rosenberg Gallery
Days with Frog and Toad, curated by Katherine J. Wright, on view February 18 – 21, 80WSE Gallery
still, curated by Ksenia M. Soboleva, on view February 18 – 21, 80WSE Gallery
Hi, Boys!, curated by Halston Bruce, on view February 25 – 28, 80WSE Gallery
Unwanted Sexual Conduct Shouldn’t Be Part of Anyone’s Commute, curated by Ashley McNelis, on view March 4 – 7, 80WSE Gallery
I Would’ve Ripped It Out and Kept It Forever, curated by J. English Cook, on view March 11 – 14, 80WSE Gallery

Thursday, February 5, 2015, 5:00PM at the Steinhardt Barney Building (34 Stuyvesant Street)
Keeping it Real: A Panel Discussion for Absence/Presence, part of the NYU Curatorial Collaboration. The NYUCC will host a conversation about the thematic genesis for the exhibition. A core sampling of the artists and curators will participate, moderated by Ian Cooper, Faculty. A reception will follow celebrating the release of the publications for both Absence/Presence as well as the forthcoming Senior Honors Studio exhibitions at 80WSE.

Monday, February 9, 2015, 6:00 PM
Judith Praska Distinguished Visiting Professor in Conservation and Technical Studies Lecture
Salvador Muñoz Viñas, Professor and Head of Paper Conservation, Universitat Politècnica de València
Pride and Prejudice and Patina

Tuesday, February 10, 2015, 6:00 PM
The Daniel H. Silberberg Lectures
James ElkinsE.C. Chadbourne Professor of Art History, Theory, and Criticism, School of the Art Institute of Chicago
The End of the Theory of the Gaze

Wednesday, February 11, 2015 – Thursday, February 12, 2015
CAA 2015: Field/Work: Object and Site: 
The Art of Archaeology; an Art Historical Perspective
A panel discussion in conjunction with the CAA annual meeting.
These events takes place at the IFA Lecture hall.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015, 6:30 PM
Colloquium on Art in Spain and Latin America
Denise Birkhofer, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College
The Body and the Void in the Art of Mira Schendel and Eva Hesse

Tuesday, February 24, 2015, 6:30 PM
Artists at the Institute
Sharon Hayes 

Tuesday, March 3, 2015, 6:30 PM
Artists at the Institute
Tehching Hsieh

Thursday, March 5, 2015, 6:00 PM
Colloquium on Art in Spain and Latin America
Rachel Weiss, Professor of Arts Administration and Policy, School of the Art Institute of Chicago
Uses and Re-Uses of the Radical Pasts

Tuesday, March 10, 2015, 6:00 PM
Latin American Forum
A Round Table on Curating Modern and Contemporary Arts of the Americas
Speakers: Richard Aste, Curator of European Art, Brooklyn Museum; Gabriela Rangel, Director of Visual Arts, The Americas Society; Pablo León de la Barra, UBS MAP Curator of Latin American Art, Guggenheim Museum; Iria Candela, Estrellita Brodsky Curator of Modern Latin American Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Please check back for RSVP information.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015, 6:00 PM
The Daniel H. Silberberg Lectures
Carol Armstrong, Professor, History of Art, Director of Undergraduate Studies, Yale University
Lecture Title Forthcoming

Thursday, April 16, 2015, 6:00 PM
Latin American Forum
Artist Liliana Porter in Conversation with Edward J. Sullivan

Friday, April 17, 2015, 2:00 – 5:30 PM
(at the IFA)
Saturday, April 18th (at The Frick Collection)
IFA-Frick Symposium

Tuesday, April 21, 2015, 6:00 PM
The Daniel H. Silberberg Lectures
Barry Bergdoll, Meyer Schapiro Professor of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University
Exhibiting Failure(s): Architecture’s paradoxical life on display at MoMA since 1932

Tuesday, May 5, 2015, 6:00 PM
Latin American Forum
Digital Torres-García 
A special panel discussion on the Uruguayan modernist artist, Joaquín Torres-García, moderated by Edward J. SullivanHelen Gould Sheppard Professor in the History of Art, Institute of Fine Arts and College of Arts and Sciences, NYU
Speakers: Luis Pérez-OramasEstrellita Brodsky Curator of Latin American Art for the Department of Drawings and Prints, Museum of Modern Art; Mari Carmen RamírezWortham Curator of Latin American ArtDirector, International Center for the Arts of the Americas, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Cecilia de Torres, Scholar and head of the catalogue raisonné project on artist; Susanna Temkin, IFA Ph.D. Candidate and Research and Archive Specialist, Cecilia de Torres, Ltd.         

Finding Balance at Paris Photo 2014

This past weekend, photography fans and connoisseurs descended upon the Grand Palais for the 18th annual Paris Photo Fair. Held November 13-16, 2014, it boasted 143 galleries and twenty-six art booksellers representing thirty-five countries. Grandiose and historically rich, the venue provided ideal conditions for viewing photographs: the sprawling dome of the Grand Palais offered abundant natural light, while the tightly-packed booths were simple, cut-to-the-chase affairs, with off-white walls.

The upper level of the Grand Palais functioned as a non-commercial gallery space for recent acquisitions from the Museum of Modern Art as well as for the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts’ collection of early Indian and South Asian photography. Smaller wings displayed works sponsored by Giorgio Armani, JP Morgan Chase, and BMW. These spaces, located at the top of a grand staircase and away from the bustling ground floor, subtly linked the works on sale at Paris Photo with private, museum-quality collections, and underscored the potential for these photographs to act as investment pieces.

The beating heart of the fair was a social space at the base of the grand staircase, which was continually abuzz with visitors flipping through art tomes and awaiting artists’ signatures. Ample opportunity to encounter the artists themselves contributed to the sense that Paris Photo not only stimulates monetary transactions, but also the transaction of knowledge between enthusiasts and a shared passion for the medium.

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