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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Images of Struggle and Resilience: Ernest Cole at the Grey

All photographs date from the early 1960s through 1966.

In 1990, the South African court justice Albie Sachs famously penned an essay called “Preparing Ourselves For Freedom” in which he argued for a return to beauty in the arts, and an expansion of creativity beyond the decades of revolutionary cultural work aimed at supporting the anti-apartheid struggle. While the lifelong activist knew firsthand that political engagement had long been a matter of survival, he asserted that the repeated imagery of “fists, spears, and guns” might limit the creative imagination of the new South Africa, that “the range of themes is narrowed down so much that all that is funny or curious or genuinely tragic in the world is extruded. Ambiguity and contradiction are completely shut out.”[1]   Be that as it may, there will always be those rare, inspired cases in which the political and the beautiful need not be mutually exclusive, where complexity and ambivalence are found in the most seemingly black-and-white circumstances. The work of South African photojournalist Ernest Cole (1940-1990) offers one such example. His work betrays a deep commitment to both social and aesthetic engagement, which come together in a stunning portfolio of photographs that documents life under apartheid and pays homage to the persistence of humanity through struggle.

Ernest Cole: Photographer, organized by the Hasselblad Foundation and currently on view at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery through December 6th, is the first museum retrospective of Ernest Cole’s work, and one that is long overdue. The artist risked his life and ultimately sacrificed his citizenship in order to produce his seminal photobook House of Bondage, which remains one of the most visually powerful and politically incisive documents of the apartheid era.

Cole considered it his life’s work to chronicle the black experience from every angle: public and private, at work and at home, and inclusive of the perspectives of men, women, children, and families. He envisioned his target audiences to be foreigners – Europeans and Americans – both in the hopes of revealing the horrors of apartheid to the outside world, and in full knowing that he would never be able to distribute his work domestically (even today, the book is less known in South Africa than it is in the West, having only been published in New York and London in 1967). Across this presentation of over one hundred images, shot throughout the 1960s, we bear witness to not only the gross indignities inflicted on black South Africans by the apartheid system, but also a collection of more intimate, everyday moments that humanize and honor Cole’s subjects.

Ernest Cole, "Township mother fights losing battle to keep son, age nine, from running off to live life of the streets. She tries to assert authority with threats: 'What's your future going to be like without an education?' But it is too late; the boy - called Papa - is out of control." - House of Bondage, 1967. Silver gelatin print, 7 7/8 x 11 3/8 in. © The Ernest Cole Family Trust. Image courtesy the Hasselblad Foundation.
Ernest Cole, “Township mother fights losing battle to keep son, age nine, from running off to live life of the streets. She tries to assert authority with threats: ‘What’s your future going to be like without an education?’ But it is too late; the boy – called Papa – is out of control.” Caption from House of Bondage, 1967. Silver gelatin print, 7 7/8 x 11 3/8 in. © The Ernest Cole Family Trust. Image courtesy the Hasselblad Foundation.

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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”

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]”

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”