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”

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”

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”

Locality and Multiplicity at Documenta 13

View of Kassel’s Orangerie and Karlsaue Park through Rahmenbau by Haus-Rucker-Co (1977)

Nowhere does art feel more global than at the biennials and exhibitions that happen at such regular intervals that their devotees can confidently book their hotel tickets up to five years in advance. Certainly this is true at Documenta 13 in Kassel, Germany—a place with no particular history of strong artistic production in its own right, albeit a site with a very significant role in history itself. Yet in this global arena (this year’s Documenta includes physical or conceptual sites in Kassel, Kabul, Alexandria/Cairo, and Banff in Canada), a theme amongst the disparate works is a sense of place, a groundedness within the local—within the issues of the artist’s particular time and place—and one that is often framed within the larger historical scope of war. Though one theme among many (the exhibition included nearly 200 artists), this investigation of specific, localized moments in cultural and political history strikes a particular chord in Kassel, a tiny city smack in the center of Germany that was badly damaged by Allied bombs during World War II. The exceptional quality of the art on view and the panoply of locations from which they came make the associations, possible through the works’ juxtaposition, all the more striking and layered. Continue reading “Locality and Multiplicity at Documenta 13”

Robert Morris in the Guggenheim’s Panza Collection

The large-scale Robert Morris sculptures grouped in a bright room at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the members of the Panza Collection Initiative (PCI) told us, were there for one reason. Derelict, fragile, or compromised in some way, they were gathered as part of the PCI’s ambitious project to preserve and conserve the Guggenheim’s large holdings of Minimalist, Post-Minimalist, and Conceptual works, many acquired by the Guggenheim in 1991 and 1992 from Italian collector Giuseppe Panza di Biumo. What are the questions we face in considering the collection, preservation, and display of works borne out of the innovative artistic practices of the 1960s?

When we think of Morris’s large-form sculptures, it is easy enough to conjure them in the mind’s eye: L-beams, boxes, frames, and hovering platforms, especially as pictured in the well-known photographs of the Green Gallery and Dwan Gallery shows from the mid-1960s. But to say specifically what these works are made of is more difficult. Plywood, fiberglass, aluminum? Yet in looking at two iterations of Morris’s Untitled (Warped Bench), the difference in material is palpable: the later one (2004), made of painted plywood, has a crispness of edge lacking in its earlier (1965) fiberglass counterpart, a difference resulting from the exactness of facture possible with each material.

Exhibition at the Dwan Gallery, Los Angeles, April 1966.
Image courtesy Catherine Grenier, Robert Morris, exhibition catalog (Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, 1995): 227.

In front of Warped Bench, and only minutes into the discussion led by Jeffrey Weiss, Ted Mann, and Anne Wheeler, it was already becoming clear just how complicated the PCI’s task is, given the tangled web of historical and technical considerations relevant to Morris’s work. Continue reading “Robert Morris in the Guggenheim’s Panza Collection”

Architecture In Uniform talk by Jean-Louis Cohen at NYPL

Architecture in Uniform, published by the Canadian Centre for Architecture and Hazan Editions, 2011.

On February 29, 2012, Professor Jean-Louis Cohen gave a public talk on his new book, Architecture in Uniform: Designing and Building for WWII, at the Mid-Manhattan branch of the New York Public Library.

Cohen began research for Architecture in Uniform—a project that would be some fifteen years in the making—as a way to pay some long overdue attention to architectural production during World War II. In the existing scholarship, most of the focus is placed on the avant-garde 1920s, groundbreaking interwar building, and post-WWII reconstruction. The years 1937 to 1945–during which time the preparation, mobilization, destruction, and reconstruction associated with WWII took place–are noticeably absent from many survey texts of modern architectural history. Cohen’s aim was to investigate and ultimately to close this curious gap in the scholarship, which the author indubitably does. Continue reading “Architecture In Uniform talk by Jean-Louis Cohen at NYPL”

Carroll Dunham: Artist as Medium

When Carroll Dunham loaded his PowerPoint presentation for his Artists at the Institute lecture, “Carroll Dunham Speaks About His Recent Work,” at the IFA on March 22, he requested that the projectionist leave the screen blank before he began his talk. My guess is that he didn’t want to scare away the audience with his first image–either Hers/Dirt/One (2009) or a similar painting–-which is part of his most recent series and features a naked female figure bending over. Sometimes bathing, sometimes just bending over, usually with face obscured and arms spread in a landscape setting, his characters’ genitalia (often depicted in “shockingly pink” colors) are typically the central focus in these paintings.[1] Clearly self-conscious and a little embarrassed about the direction his art has taken, Dunham began his lecture by saying that he “knows very little about it.” His lecture, followed by a provocative Q&A session, was the personal account of an artist who has seemingly let go of artistic agency and has become something of a medium, passively channeling his expression.

Hers/Dirt/One (2009). 51 x 66 inches. Mixed media on canvas.
Courtesy Carroll Dunham website.

This female series is not the first time that Dunham has steadily riffed on a theme for many years during his career. For roughly a decade, from the mid-1990s through the mid-2000s, Dunham’s work mostly centered around a cartoony male figure with a top hat and phallic/pistol-like nose. In describing that series, Dunham curiously verged on speaking in the third person. He said that at a certain point this male character–“a simple, dumb figure”-–entered his work and after a while he couldn’t imagine a painting without it. Following the compulsion to depict this subject matter, he began to “close in” on the character, cropping it in different ways, adding new elements, and even eliminating color, in hopes of eventually ridding his canvases of the invasive figure. Continue reading “Carroll Dunham: Artist as Medium”