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

Continue reading “The Usable Past”

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.

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

Watch this space!

Gordon Matta-Clark's Conical Intersect in construction, 1975.
Gordon Matta-Clark’s Conical Intersect in construction, 1975.

Right now the CAC blog is undergoing some exciting transitions, which we hope to share with you in 1-2 months. Keep us on your radar, and thanks for all the engaging conversations you’ve given us so far!

Kristen Gaylord and Rachel Nackman, editors

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”

Wade Guyton: X is to Y as

Left: Wade Guyton, Untitled, 2006. Epson UltraChrome inkjet on linen, 90 × 53 in. (228.6 × 134.6 cm). Collection of Mark Grotjahn and Jennifer Guidi. © Wade Guyton. Photograph by Lamay Photo. Image courtesy whitney.org. Right: Wade Guyton, Untitled, 2006. Epson UltraChrome inkjet on linen, 89 × 54 in. (226.1 × 137.2 cm). Private collection. © Wade Guyton. Photograph by Lamay Photo. Image courtesy whitney.org.
Left: Wade Guyton, Untitled, 2006. Epson UltraChrome inkjet on linen, 90 × 53 in. (228.6 × 134.6 cm). Collection of Mark Grotjahn and Jennifer Guidi. © Wade Guyton. Photograph by Lamay Photo. Image courtesy whitney.org.
Right: Wade Guyton, Untitled, 2006. Epson UltraChrome inkjet on linen, 89 × 54 in. (226.1 × 137.2 cm). Private collection. © Wade Guyton. Photograph by Lamay Photo. Image courtesy whitney.org.

Wade Guyton is, in many ways, an art historian’s artist. He engages with the questions that get us going: questions of aesthetics, medium specificity, and the iconography of modernism itself, not to mention the very directness with which he prompts his viewers to wonder what’s “relevant” in art today. Lots of ink has been spilled attempting to define Guyton’s artistic practice, and many have asserted his status as a painter. A painter who, despite his use (primarily) of Epson inkjet printers and tabletop scanners, tips his hand both by very consciously employing that ur-signifier of painting—canvas plus stretcher bar—and by articulating the limits of his medium. Guyton’s current retrospective at the Whitney (on view October 4, 2012 to January 13, 2013) gives us an opportunity to re-examine these interpretative strictures and consider the work through the varied art-historical lenses that it demands. Continue reading “Wade Guyton: X is to Y as”

Melissa Chiu on ‘Generational Ruptures’ in Chinese Contemporary Art

Dr. Melissa Chiu gave a lecture titled “Art + Politics in Chinese Contemporary Art” as a part of the Daniel H. Silberberg Lecture Series on November 27th, traveling the few blocks between the IFA and her role as Museum Director and Senior Vice President of Global Arts and Cultural Programs at Asia Society. Chiu has published many books and articles within the field of Chinese contemporary art as well as the broader topic of Asian Contemporary Art. Her full lecture can be accessed via the IFA’s Vimeo page.

[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/54538281 w=500&h=281]

This year the Silberberg Lecture Series is focusing on “Violence as a matter of disciplinary concern.” Violence is a recurring theme within the history of art and its various manifestations help set the tone for the understanding of a period or a particular artist precisely because it is a thread of humanity that can be represented with such variety. Chiu’s lecture thus was an inquiry into the theme of violence in contemporary Chinese art. Continue reading “Melissa Chiu on ‘Generational Ruptures’ in Chinese Contemporary Art”

Caribbean: Art at the Crossroads of the World at El Museo del Barrio, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and Queens Museum of Art

One would be hard-pressed to think of a more ambitious exhibition than Caribbean: Art at the Crossroads of the World, which opened this summer at El Museo del Barrio, The Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Queens Museum of Art. A sprawling, dizzying mess of a show that spans three institutions, over five hundred objects, and more than two centuries of history, it aims for nothing less than a redefinition of the Caribbean itself, not as a geographic area or even a shared cultural experience, but rather as a conceptual matrix. This is a noble undertaking, as it foregrounds a history and an art history that have been woefully neglected until now. It is also a necessarily impossible one, and the final result is alternately enlightening and confounding. Above all else the exhibition demonstrates, strangely to its credit, a striking inability to sum up the Caribbean, and perhaps the folly of attempting to do so at all.

Caribbean: Art at the Crossroads of the World at El Museo. Image courtesy Art in America.

Nearly a decade in the making, the show most notably puts forth an expanded consideration of the Caribbean beyond its traditional geographic limits. Basin countries such as Venezuela and Colombia, as well as portions of Central America and the Gulf states, are represented, and their inclusion broaches topics that begin to reveal the fluidity and porosity of the region. The consideration of European traveler artists as well as references to the contested political and economic influence of the United States begins to undo many stereotypes about the Caribbean, contextualizing it as a site of prolonged contact, exchange, and hybridity. Continue reading “Caribbean: Art at the Crossroads of the World at El Museo del Barrio, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and Queens Museum of Art”

Moved by the Grandeur of Ancient Ruins,[1] the Artist Takes Notes – thoughts on three current, un-visitable London exhibitions [2]

Robert Rauschenberg, Cy + Relics, Rome, 1952. Gelatin silver print. Photo copyright the Rauschenberg Foundation.

“[…] he mistook the curtains of the window of his room for a canvas, and he kept describing what he was painting: the colors, shapes, and shades.”[3]

On broad empty surfaces, marks begin to show—indicative of fragility, a sense of loss? Or expectation? Thought-full? Thought-less? Mannerisms coincide. A type of gestural painting that emerges out of contradictions. Too much, I felt, too much pathos. Yet architectonic enough to let that pathos live, consume, burn out. “The Fire that Consumes All before It” he wrote in a 1978 painting. The type of art that requires more of the viewer, becoming manifest only after the first impatient encounter is past.

In museums I often grow impatient. It happened with Twombly every single time, while secretly I was flirting with those scratches and scribbles and grays, seduced by the casual violence of raw color stacked atop the fibers, the mad mess that verged on spilling onto the clean white gallery walls. That whole magnificent period in the ‘50s during which his life and career intersected with those of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns intrigued me. Likewise, his subsequent move to Italy: rare expat, never to return from a strange form of self-imposed exile. Continue reading “Moved by the Grandeur of Ancient Ruins,[1] the Artist Takes Notes – thoughts on three current, un-visitable London exhibitions [2]”

A Pacific Standard Time Travelogue, Part 3

Editor’s Note: This review was written in March 2012. It has been reprinted here in its original form.

For someone interested in Los Angeles art, Pacific Standard Time (PST), the Getty Initiative that connects over 60 Southern California cultural institutions and museums in an 11-month exploration and celebration of postwar Los Angeles culture, feels like a limited-time offer for an all-you-can-eat buffet. I have been visiting my parents’ home less and less over the past few years, feigning adulthood, but the advent of PST has rekindled my interest in visiting the old ancestral stomping grounds. This school year (2011-2012), I am capitalizing on my family connections and making three trips to Southern California—over Thanksgiving break, winter break, and in February for the CAA conference—to take in as much of PST as possible. Here, I’ll report on my pilgrimage in a series of three posts.

Santa Barbara on 26 February 2012

Itinerary: 2 exhibitions, 4 CAA panels
Money spent on parking: $8
Money spent on public transit: $33
Money spent on tickets: $5
Tanks of gas: 1.5
Freeways traveled: the 134, the 101, the 210, the 57, the 5, the 60, the 10
Exhibition catalogs purchased: 1
Tchotchkes purchased: 0 Continue reading “A Pacific Standard Time Travelogue, Part 3”

Situation Aesthetics: the Chance Encounter of Two Sound and Light Eliminators on the Art Historian’s Table

Robert Smithson, The Eliminator, 1964

To my eye, the one often reproduced photograph of Robert Smithson’s The Eliminator (1964) makes it a rather awkward and curious object, its title unnecessarily macabre. If only Smithson had been a contemporary of André Breton’s, I could have easily imagined the piece in one of the impromptu Surrealist shows. Much of that mystique is gone, now that I’ve finally seen it in person (it’s up at the New Museum in Ghosts in the Machine until September 30th), and I can certainly blame the black-and-white illustration for its unflattering shortcomings. Continue reading “Situation Aesthetics: the Chance Encounter of Two Sound and Light Eliminators on the Art Historian’s Table”