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”

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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Found: Textile and Tradition

Photo: Matthew Septimus

For Sergej Jensen’s “first American museum survey,” MoMA PS1 has put on an exhibition of over twenty recent works that Jensen constructed with many types of fabric and colorants, from burlap to cashmere and chlorine bleach to acrylic paint. Most of Jensen’s textiles are found, and his use of them is analogous to his use of found conventions, as he interprets inherited modernist traditions through scavenged fabrics. This acknowledgment of disorder and process renders Jensen’s works moving in their honest exploration of fraying edges and uneven seams.

The 2008 piece Blessed presents this function most directly. Two pieces of cashmere are sewn together and pulled taut, unevenly stretching the warp and weft. At the single horizontal seam, which is neatly stitched, the irregular end of each piece is clearly visible through the thin textile. Fabric edges are usually hidden and tucked away—similar to folding the end of wrapping paper, hemming is a way to disguise the imperfect sides of cut or torn material. But here Jensen displays both realities simultaneously: the polished product and its unrefined components.

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