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”

Everything is Interrelated: a conversation with Roxana Marcoci

The following is an abridged transcript of a conversation between IFA alumna Roxana Marcoci, Curator of Photography at The Museum of Modern Art, and the author, which took place at MoMA on 7 August 2012.

Roxana Marcoci, Curator of Photography at MoMA
I was born in Romania, in Bucharest, and I left when I was 18 as a political dissident. I became a political refugee in Paris while I studied for a year and a half at the Sorbonne, and then I immigrated to the United States. For my undergraduate studies I went to Hunter College, which is part of the City University of New York—it was an excellent program. I did a triple major: art history, theater and film criticism, and a colloquium in interdisciplinary studies, which was taught by two professors from two different humanities’ fields. So this sort of cross-disciplinary approach was from the very start the core of what I did. It was always an underlying current in my studies. Continue reading “Everything is Interrelated: a conversation with Roxana Marcoci”

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]”

Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974 at MOCA

Last summer I travelled around the American Southwest in search of Smithson, Heizer, and Holt. This summer MOCA’s “Ends of the Earth” exhibition made me rethink everything I thought I knew about Land art. Here’s why…

It was a tumultuous summer for the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), which became embroiled in controversy following the forced-resignation of highly respected chief curator, Paul Schimmel. Dissent on the board reached a feverous pitch and culminated in the resignation of all four of MOCA’s artist board members: Barbara Kruger, John Baldassari, Ed Ruscha, and Catherine Opie. Director Jeffrey Deitch and billionaire donor and Life Trustee Eli Broad received the brunt of the blame and accompanying criticism, with many decrying the dismissal as an indicator of a new, less intellectually rigorous direction for the museum. Frequently lauded as providing some of the most ambitious and intelligent exhibitions in the country, MOCA now faces charges of descending into a pit of sensationalism and fluff.

In the midst of this drama, MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary featured a show that characterizes the type of exhibitions that have earned MOCA a reputation as a forward-thinking, ambitious institution. Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974 presented a groundbreaking, in-depth look at the myths and realities of the Land art movement. Simply presenting a museum exhibition of works typically associated with the outdoors was a provocative move on the part of curators, Philipp Kaiser and Miwon Kwon. The nearly 200 works by 100 artists ran the gamut from photos, videos, performance, and drawings, to sculptural installations involving materials such as rocks, dirt, and growing grass. In taking a revisionist stance, the curators re-evaluated four central misconceptions surrounding this specific moment in 20th century art-making, thereby presenting a more nuanced perspective of this fascinating period.

Micha Ullman, Messer-Metzer, 1972. Courtesy the artist. Image courtesy MOCA.org.

To begin, Ends of the Earth challenged the notion that Earth art was a distinctly and quintessentially American movement. Continue reading “Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974 at MOCA”

Owen Hatherley’s Militant Modernism


The Modernist[1] design aesthetic is so tightly woven into our Ikea-furnished everyday lives that it is rather easy to forget its origins as an attempted movement toward a Utopian fantasy of the built environment. In visual contrast to many proto-Modern design practices, the Corbusian aesthetics that emerged in the early twentieth century exhibited an at times brutally rigid geometric quality. A stylistically modern organization of space seemed to respond to the contemporaneous disarray of the wartime human condition by making a silent demand for a more controlled way of life. Indeed, as modern architect Berthold Lubetkin stated, “The philosophical aim and orderly character of [Modernist] designs are diametrically opposed to the intellectual climate in which we live . . . my personal interpretation is that these buildings cry out for a world that has never come into being.”[2] In other words, modern architecture seems to have been the defense mechanism of a zeitgeist. It tried—as some would argue, in vain–to represent an environmental solution to a problem that was actually unsolvable. Continue reading “Owen Hatherley’s Militant Modernism”

Comment: Learning from Las Vegas

The following is adapted from a longer presentation by Brett Lazer at the IFA In-House Symposium on January 22, 2010.

Learning from Las Vegas and the Antinomy of the Postmodern Manifesto

Along with Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966), Learning from Las Vegas (1972) forms Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s classic articulation of a new path for architecture in the face of late Modernism. The basic assertion of the book is a turn towards the vernacular – not a vernacular of gables and dormers, nor Modernism’s industrial vernacular, but rather the commercial vernacular, with its apotheosis in the neon lights of the Las Vegas strip. Venturi and Scott Brown see the Modernist rejection of history, ornament, and denotative symbolism as irresponsible, empty, boring, and inappropriate. The expressionistic use of space and light that Modernism requires is incommensurate with the scale of American society, reformatted in recent years to the automobile and the highway. As Venturi puts it, “articulated architecture today is like a minuet in a discotheque.”[1] However, taking on Modernism is no easy task, requiring rhetorical contortions that call into question the very foundations of Venturi and Scott Brown’s project.

Continue reading “Comment: Learning from Las Vegas”