Some Artsy Explorations

I have previously lamented how intractably difficult it is to feel that I am keeping up with contemporary art, particularly without the means to travel to such international art events as the Venice Biennale. I’ve never even been to the Armory Show, despite it being in my hometown; I just haven’t been there at the right time. A colleague suggested signing up for and reading all the e-flux announcements, but the flood is just impossible to keep up with. And anyway, it’s a big commitment of time to read all those emails, on the off-chance that I might discover some new artist whose work I connect with.

All this considered, I was glad to see that Artsy, the new website billed to be like Pandora for art, was offering a full preview (ending soon, so act fast!) of the works at the Armory Show, which was this past weekend. I’d been meaning to but hadn’t yet explored Artsy in great depth, and this was a great opportunity. The nicest thing about it was how quickly I could peruse for new artists I liked–and I didn’t have to jot names down, just hit the favorite button and have that work saved for me for later, should I choose to go back and explore these artists and others like them in more depth.

Some of the new favorites I found, among many others: Kata Legrady, who evocatively combines everyday girlish and childish objects with weaponry; Jacob Hashimoto and Rashaad Newsome, who create three-dimensional wall works referencing Japanese and European/African-American material cultures, respectively; and Anoka Faruqee, whose optical paintings, much like the three-dimensional works, one can’t help but feel don’t fully translate into digital images. I was pleased to find so much new work I liked, when generally I’m not very attracted to the most contemporary art.

As I was discussing with a colleague the other day, Artsy is a fascinating hybrid. Like sites such as Artnet, it does provide a link to galleries, highlighting in particular art that is on sale. Nonetheless, this commercial function does not interfere with its more exploratory function. Given that the commercial art world is such an huge part of the art world as a whole, it is nice to see that barrier somewhat broken down; just because galleries are for-profit enterprises does not mean they can’t also cooperate in a somewhat educational venture.

A Long Overdue Repatriation Special

Many great museum collections–the British Museum, the Louvre–were essentially founded on empire-building, war, and looting. The countries these objects came from–Greece, Italy, Egypt, and most recently Nigeria and Turkey, among many others–constantly demand these things back, and the more valuable and famous the object, the more vocally they do so. Particularly well known cases include the Rosetta Stone, the head of Nefertiti, and especially the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon.

A not-so-recent (I originally planned to post this in November) article in the Art Newspaper highlighted a collection of objects from the Benin Empire in what is now Nigeria, which are now being transferred to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, from the private collection of Robert Lehman. The objects were looted from the palace in Benin City in 1897, when the Brits launched a “punitive expedition” in response to the killing of a few British ambassadors, thereby dismantling the Benin Empire, and its rich artistic tradition.

British troops with their booty following the Benin Punitive Expedition of 1897

British troops with their booty following the Benin Punitive Expedition of 1897


The Nigerian government is demanding these objects be returned. Should they? There is no easy answer to that question, and it is extremely difficult to divorce one’s answer to this question from one’s self-interest; anyone with curiosity about these historically valuable objects will want them in whichever location they are more likely to visit.

First-world countries like Britain and the U.S. will claim firstly that the objects will be better cared for in their hands (museum standards and budgets for conservation and security presumably less in other parts of the world). They will also say that, as shared cultural heritage, it is important that the greatest number of people have access to them, and that will be more true in London or New York than Nigeria.

The object’s home countries will argue that the objects will be better contextualized close to their place of origin; even if the Elgin marbles cannot go back onto the Parthenon, they can be near the Parthenon (in a museum Greece already built, in bold anticipation of the return that may never take place). They will also argue that it is important for national identity and pride (not to mention tourism revenue).

It’s easy to see how intractable the problem is. Both sides have their points, and I honestly couldn’t tell you which side I fall on. I will leave you with a comparison to a similar issue.

In the case of objects looted by Nazis during World War II, there is a clear moral imperative to return works that were stolen from their owners, or left behind when they were forcibly moved, et cetera. Museums have put in an enormous effort to uncover those histories, including using a public online database, and if it discovers that a work in their collection was obtained in such a way, it unquestionably returns the work to the owner or his/her heirs (there was a case in the paper the other day). It becomes a bit more vague if the previous owner actually sold the work legitimately, even if they would not have sold it if not for the circumstances–requiring the money to get away, for example. Heirs may still demand the work, but the museum might not surrender it so easily.

Something similar occurs with repatriation issues. The argument has been made that, even if the circumstances were exploitative, the Elgin Marbles were, however shadily, bought. Such an argument cannot be made about the Benin bronzes. They were looted, in an aggressive “punitive expedition” that, in vengeance for the death of a few British citizens, destroyed an entire empire, dismantled a magnificent palace, and distributed the booty among the looters and their allies in the Western world.

The argument is also made that the statute of limitations has passed on such “historic” actions. No matter the shady dealings of the past, it seems intuitive that the British Museum is the de facto owner of the Elgin Marbles now, since the museum has been their steward for 200 years. Certainly the Benin bronzes fall into this category as well?

Well, the punitive exhibition that destroyed Benin took place in 1897, less than 40 years before the rise of the Nazi party and the beginning of the erosion of the rights of German Jews. Not so historically distant when put in those terms.

So, what are the differences between the two cases? The property of an individual versus the property of a country? Well, technically the palace riches of Benin were the property of the oba (king), so also belonged to an individual. By now you probably know what I’m getting at: the Benin riches were stolen from Africa, from people with black skin, from the “third world,” even though Benin was a highly sophisticated society.

The ’80s at last

Long ago, I announced my desire to see This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s, an exhibition that began at the MCA Chicago and was coming to the ICA Boston, put together by a curator whose work I greatly admire, Helen Molesworth. I mentioned it in the context of my interest in a Canadian trio known as General Idea, whose Robert Indiana-inspried AIDS wallpaper was included in the show, as well as in a theoretical exhibition I’d designed in graduate school. As I explained, the banner image used in exhibition publicity was not dissimilar from my own installation.


Installation by General Idea in "This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s" at the MCA Chicago

Installation by General Idea in “This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s” at the MCA Chicago


My theoretical exhibition, as designed in Google SketchUp, , which you can view in more detail and navigate in 3D here

My theoretical exhibition, as designed in Google SketchUp, , which you can view in more detail and navigate in 3D here

I believe the publicity image above must have been of the exhibition in its Chicago iteration; in Boston, where I finally saw the show on its last day, General Idea was given less prominence. One side of a freestanding wall had the wallpaper on it, but it was covered with works by other artists, not by General Idea.

Despite this slight misleading, I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition, as art of the 1980s has been one of my primary interests. The exhibition was a great combination of very famous and expected artists and artworks, and since forgotten (at least by most) names, treating similar themes.

One work that made both literal and figurative great impact in person as opposed to in an anthology of ’80s art was David Hammons’ How Ya Like Me Now?, a wall-sized, whitened and blondified portrait of Jesse Jackson with those words graffitied across his shoulder. Something I hadn’t known about the work was that when it was first exhibited outdoors, black teenagers attacked it with sledgehammers, reading it as racist, rather than as opposed to racism–a telling dynamic in and of itself. Brilliant artist that he is, Hammons has highlighted this ever since, exhibiting the piece surrounded by a fence-like arrangement of sledgehammers, the evidence of their damage on the piece still visible.

David Hammons, How Ya Like Me Now?, 1988

David Hammons, How Ya Like Me Now?, 1988

Beyond that particular highlight, I’m not sure I have much else to say about the show, as it was enjoyable but not surprising to someone well-versed in the era. Walking through it was like going down a checklist–“there’s one of those, there’s one of those…” It was well-organized by theme, well-selected, and I’m glad I saw it. One of the interesting issues about such art is how didactic and contextual it is. Without foreknowledge of the work, reading the label is usually necessary–the texts were at times overly long, and occasionally the interpretations a bit overblown.

Such is the legacy of the art of that era, at the height of postmodern theory. It’s extremely fascinating to me, but I often have trouble explaining why that is to even those within my field, much less those without.

CAA Interlude 3: Morgan Surrealism

I may have alluded to, and I will now specifically say, that I am working on a show of surrealist photography for the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, likely to take place next spring. This will be the first exhibition in a museum that I’ll have been the lead curator on. Neither photography nor surrealism are topics I am already expert in, and so I have been reading up in my spare time (which hasn’t been much). It is timely, then, that an exhibition on surrealist drawing that originated at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art came to New York, to the Morgan Library and Museum, a fact I discovered when I was given the catalogue for Christmas.

Drawing Surrealism catalogue cover, with Francis Picabia's Olga, 1930

Drawing Surrealism catalogue cover, with Francis Picabia’s Olga, 1930

I must say that drawing is the medium that least interests me, at least since college when I studied studio art. After having to redo the same drawing exercises in multiple classes, I was desperate to graduate to painting; I so much prefer color to line, and the potential effects of a few easy brushstrokes to the conscientiousness that must be put into pencil and charcoal. My recent work at Bowdoin has increased my exposure and therefore interest in both prints and photographs, but drawing still eludes me somewhat.

And so at first my reaction walking into the exhibition was somewhat detached, but the more I saw the more invested and fascinated I became. The exhibition takes a broad view of drawing, and surrealists of course transcended traditional boundaries between media. Included are photographs, photograms and photocollage, all of which will be important aspects of my show.

Despite the fact that aesthetics was not a primary concern of the surrealists–they were more interested, at times, in provoking the perverse attraction that accompanies disgust, rather than using the seductive power of beauty, though the female nude was a constant subject–many pieces were visually arresting. Some artists used rubbing as an automatic process that thereby gave reign to the unconscious; one of the most stunning was a blue painted rubbing of wood grain by, I believe, Max Ernst (it’s not illustrated in the catalogue or online, and I didn’t jot it down, so I can’t be sure).

The great dada and surrealist master Man Ray–known for his photographs though he considered himself more of a painter, at least initially–is represented not only with an aerograph (a painting made by airgun) and rayographs (also known as photograms, these cameraless photographs are made by laying objects on photographic paper and exposing it), but with actual drawings, a medium I do not associate with him. They are precisely and skillfully drawn (more so than his paintings) and have an at first straightforward appearance that seduces the viewer into the image’s strangeness, achieved using just juxtaposition: a giant safety pin hanging in air above a quaint countryside. These drawings inspired the surrealist writer Paul Eluard’s text, Les Mains Libres [The Free Hands].

This is to point out what were to me the two most memorable works out of a show rich with intriguing and unfamiliar works.

A note on revisionism: in this show, in the Abstraction show at MoMA, and the Gutai show at the Guggenheim, there is clearly an effort to familiarize viewers with an international roster of artists who in the past have been overlooked by a Eurocentric, even just France-centric, view of modernism. I wrote about how the MoMA show was organized geographically but emphasized an international network of artists, writers, composers and dancers; and that unlike many I had already learned a good deal about Gutai, a major modern movement that took place in Japan. Likewise, the Morgan show intersperses among the major Western European and American players, Eastern European, Japanese, South American and Mexican surrealists. Given the still-relevant critiques of the Western-centric bias of art history, it is heartening to see that such commentary is actively being taken to heart–canons are being revised, in the best possible way (at least in these cases).

A note on the didactics: the wall texts highlighted notable artists, vocabulary words and concepts by bumping up their size and setting them in a variety of modern and playful fonts. I thought this was a great way to make the texts accessible to those not versed in the material, and who may want to skim but still learn and enjoy, rather than take a reading test.

A note about the building: this was the first time I had been to the Morgan since it was renovated. I know this renovation was critiqued for remaking the Morgan in the guise of any other museum: you now enter through a modernist atrium, rather than stepping into what was a turn-of-the-century mansion designed by Charles McKim, who also designed the Bowdoin Art Museum. The Isabella Stuart Gardner recently underwent a similar transformation, though I haven’t visited it since then. I certainly bemoan the loss of enchantment, the sense of stepping immediately into a different time. It’s hard, however, not to feel comfortably at ease in the spacious, skylit entryway–we’re so used to such anesthetized spaces (though the Morgan atrium is not without character).

Coming up: what I’ve been reading, some fantasy exhibitions, and a long overdue post about repatriation issues…