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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Housewife: Jennifer Rubell’s Conceptual History of the Modern Woman

Jennifer Rubell’s Housewife, an installation at the Sargent’s Daughters gallery on the Lower East Side, attempts a conceptual history of modern femininity. In the simplest terms, the show is a meditation on the seeming universality of white, middle-class femininity. However, to critique Rubell’s stark visual vocabulary in this way fails to acknowledge that her work nevertheless touches a certain comprehensive psychological experience, which is both explicit and all-inclusive. From the 1950s housewife to contemporary dating and the difficulties of being a modern woman in the workforce, Rubell’s four pieces ­­– Pedestal, Vessel, Partition Paintings, and Threshold ­– visualize the precarious nature of a femininity defined and circumscribed by others.

Jennifer Rubell, Pedestal, 2017. Photo courtesy of Sargent’s Daughters.
Jennifer Rubell, Pedestal, 2017. Photo courtesy of Sargent’s Daughters.

Three steps into the gallery space and the viewer is confronted by Pedestal, an industrial-quality vacuum cleaner placed next to a polished pair of red patent-leather heels fitted atop a heavy square platform. The glaring absence of the female form (the immediate assumption being that the empty space is, in fact, female), registers instantaneously. The effect is an invitation for the viewer to come closer, to slip on the heels, to grip the vacuum and fill that empty space. Although no apron or string of pearls is provided, the associations Rubell creates resonate with clarity. The piece references the commodified feminine ideal of the 1950s housewife who vacuums in her heels, has a hot meal on the table by six pm, and is ready for romance every night. However, because Rubell empties out that visual space, the viewer subconsciously fills it with her own form, which in return highlights the falsity and psychological dangers inherent in such mediating feminine perfection.

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Cecily Brown at The Drawing Center

Tucked away in SoHo, New York, The Drawing Center is a small museum founded by Martha Beck in 1977, explicitly dedicated to the medium of drawing. For the last few years, the creative minds behind The Drawing Center’s events and exhibitions have been working towards pushing beyond the traditional understanding of the term drawing, and opening it up to various applications and interpretations. Cecily Brown: Rehearsal, organized by the chief curator of the museum, Claire Gilman, is one such exhibition. It calls the viewer to contemplate the medium of drawing; from its materiality to its role in the artistic process of an acclaimed artist, Cecily Brown, which as a result creates a sense of intimacy throughout.

Cecily Brown, Untitled (after Bosch and Boldini), 2015. All photographs by the author.
Cecily Brown, Untitled (after Bosch and Boldini), 2015. All photographs by the author.

Brown is a British artist known for her tactual paintings, for which she draws influence ranging from old masters to the expressionism of the 50s. Drawing is a lesser known part of Brown’s practice and has not been seen before in the scale and context of a solo museum exhibition. The works on display inform on Brown’s practice by giving the viewer the opportunity to observe how the artist visits existing drawings again and again, each time unpacking something new until, as she notes, she understands it completely. In a talk that took place in the museum, Brown discussed how her drawings are fairly independent of her painting practice, serving a purpose of their own. The works in Cecily Brown: Rehearsal were selected, among other reasons, so as to accentuate this special role in her overall practice.

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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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Alma Thomas: In Space, In Time

In lock step with a series of cross-country exhibitions showcasing the marginalized work of African American abstract painters (Sam Gilliam at David Kordansky and Norman Lewis at The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, to name two) The Studio Museum in Harlem has mounted a much needed, if small, monographic show titled, simply, Alma Thomas (on view July 14 – October 30, 2016). Alongside urgent contemporary debates spotlit by Black Lives Matter, such a recasting of (art) history challenges the hermeticism of academic discourse, art magazine glosses, and white-walled galleries; indeed, a New York Times feature story brought the trend to the attention of a broader public late last year. Timely, even-keeled, and sensitive without descending into hagiography, Alma Thomas presents the paintings of an artist who has emerged as a latter-day star, with her tangerine and carmine Mars Dust featured alongside Elizabeth Murray and Cy Twombly in the Whitney Museum’s inaugural downtown exhibition, and with a sunny mid-1960s circle painting on view in the White House dining room. As such, she exemplifies the latent power of repressed or silenced narratives.

Installation view of Alma Thomas at The Studio Museum in Harlem. Photograph by the author.
Installation view of Alma Thomas at The Studio Museum in Harlem. All photographs by the author.
Installation View 2
Installation view of Alma Thomas at The Studio Museum in Harlem.

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Opulence in 2013? Welcome to TEFAF

Three hours after boarding a train near Amsterdam, I stepped into the medieval town of Maastricht, which perks up around this time every year since The European Fine Art Foundation, or TEFAF, began in 1988. I joined the throngs of collectors, dealers, students, and art lovers in the wings. And then the doors opened to the world’s most lavish art fair, featuring exquisite fine art, antiques, jewelry and other treasures from more than 260 dealers.

TEFAF is as well known for putting on a spectacle as it is for its rigorous vetting process. To ensure that collectors can buy with highest confidence, a committee of 175 experts in various categories painstakingly examines each work for authenticity, condition, and quality. They employ XRF technology, and TEFAF was the first fair to incorporate The Art Loss Register. Furthermore, the fair is by invitation only: a gallery must have a fine pedigree in order to participate. Official categories include paintings, antiques, modern works, manuscripts, classical antiquities, haute joaillerie, design, and paper-based works. I was surprised at the diversity I encountered within these areas: modern sculpture, Uruguayan equestrian gear, Renaissance leather wall panels, Chinese porcelain, Iznik tiles, seventeenth-century metalwork, Japanese prints, Australian aboriginal art, and contemporary ceramics.

Though the fair’s calling card is Old Master paintings, the exhibition design boasted a modern flair, with sharp edges, sweeping high walls, a color palette of black, white, and gray, and a large-scale contemporary work adorning the entrance (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Entrance hall of TEFAF 2013 featuring Joanna Vasconcelos’ piece, Mary Poppins. Photograph by Harry Heuts.
Figure 1. Entrance hall of TEFAF 2013 featuring Joanna Vasconcelos’ piece, Mary Poppins. Photograph by Harry Heuts.

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(Nearly) Invisible Art: the Leiden University Medical Center Art Collection

The Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC) is a world-renowned university and teaching hospital. What few people may realize is that it boasts an art collection and free public gallery, which hosts five shows per year. The LUMC holds an exhibition of nominees and winners of the Hermine van Bers visual arts prize—a yearly award that stimulates the development of young artists—and invites contemporary artists to create site-specific pieces in a large open hall with an abundance of natural light. The collection, primarily photographs, prints, and drawings, which began 25 years ago, continues today through the efforts of one curator, Sandrine van Noort. Interestingly, the purpose of the collection is markedly different from that of institutions devoted to art. Instead, the works provide the background for photos of newborn babies, offer a temporary escape from nail-biting stress, and splash color onto otherwise depressingly industrial cement walls. The art distracts from the hospital environment and brings a labyrinthine institution down to a more human scale.

David Lindberg, 45T Chinese Purple, mixed media, 2012.
David Lindberg, 45T Chinese Purple, mixed media, 2012.
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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”