CAA Interlude 1: MoMA Abstraction

There are SO MANY amazing shows in New York right now; it was stressful trying to fit in the conference, my family and friends, and just the tip of the iceberg of the amazing art on view, but I managed to squeeze in my top priorities. Since it was a block from the conference hotel, I started at MoMA, with the show Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925.

Going into a much-discussed, much-reviewed show, one generally has an impression going in, a consensus that has been established: the one I’d heard about this show was quite simply that there are many beautiful things to see. That was true, but of course there was more to it than that.

It began with a giant chart, a reworking of the famous flow chart made by the first MoMA director Alfred H. Barr, Jr., for the cover of a book on Cubism and Abstract Art, diagramming the relationships and influences between various avant-grade movements. The revised chart did away with the ossification of clearly defined movements, focusing instead on the myriad connections woven throughout an international network of artists, as well as writers and composers.

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The exhibition then uses these regionalisms as an organizing principle (though the transnational dialogue is never lost), divvying the artwork into niches by country, showing the distinctive styles in each and demonstrating that abstraction emerged simultaneously in multiple locations, like synchronous scientific discoveries. This international approach gives weight to players who have been previously marginalized by the canon, particularly those in Eastern Europe and Britain.

In addition to these intellectual revelations were a great many visual ones. Perhaps the most dramatic moment was when I glanced behind me, only to see in the next gallery a model of Vladimir Tatlin’s famous Monument to the Third International (complete with moving parts!), heretofore only known to me (and most others) through historic photographs.

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I’m a huge fan of the work of Piet Mondrian; the series of works used to represent his progression into abstraction and his mature style were not so inspiring, but a model of a stage set that he created for a friend’s never-produced play actually got my heart racing.

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One of the most visually stunning paintings was by Giacometti, known mostly for his sculpture. It was made up of clusters of thick flowery globs of paint and gold, the colors of a spring dress.

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There were a great many other visual surprises I noted, but I won’t go on listing them here. Included were other arts similarly engaged in an increasing interest in “abstraction,” whatever that meant for their discipline: dance, music (though I wish this had been more audible), film.

The only thing that confused me was where/when the exhibition ended, and why. When is abstraction “done” being “invented”? This show may only be about abstraction’s advent, but the story goes on, through Jackson Pollock’s drips right up to minimalism’s cubes and beyond into conceptualism. Of course the show most focus in, but at a certain point the visitor is just deposited out of the exhibition, without a sense of a conclusion. What’s special about the year 1925? We don’t find out.

Next up, the post-war Japanese movement Gutai, at the Guggenheim…

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“Have you ever seen a bad Picasso?”

…I pondered out loud to my mother, in Picasso Black and White at the Guggenheim.

Pablo Picasso, Reclining Woman Reading (Femme couchée lisant), 1960

Pablo Picasso, Reclining Woman Reading (Femme couchée lisant), 1960

Well, have you? Yes, there may be ones you don’t personally care for, and perhaps some that are not as GREAT as others, but have you ever seen one that was truly BAD? I’ve seen many bad Matisses, bad Pollocks, but bad Picassos? I don’t think so.

To be fair, I said this towards the top of the ramp as we worked our way down, thus going backwards through the exhibition chronologically and so starting with his late work, when his experienced hand, no matter how lazy it got (works were mostly completed in one day, though I’m not necessarily claiming that as a barometer of laziness), could do no wrong. Every stroke was a masterpiece, not one element of a picture out of place. My mother quoted a label from the Museum of Bad Art that jokingly cites a mediocre painter’s “triumph of self-confidence.” Each late Picasso is such a triumph, except in his case it’s justifiable, rather than deluded.

And, to slightly amend my earlier bold assertion, as we progressed (regressed?) to earlier work, one could definitely see the more uncertain efforts of the younger Picasso – more trial and error, compositions with barely or badly masked earlier outlines.

Pablo Picasso, The Charnel House (Le charnier), Grands-Augustins, Paris, 1944–45

Pablo Picasso, The Charnel House (Le charnier), Grands-Augustins, Paris, 1944–45

This was the rare show in which my primary mental activity was contemplating the compositional merits and demerits (though not much of the latter) of each work, rather than the concepts underlying each work or the exhibition as a whole. I’m not sure that the curators really demonstrated their argument–“Claiming that color weakens, Pablo Picasso purged it from his work in order to highlight the formal structure and autonomy of form inherent in his art” (if so, why did he also do so many works with so much color?)–but who really cares? It’s a bunch of Picassos at the Guggenheim – is anyone going to deny the broad appeal of such a show (as evidenced by the surging crowds, bolstered by the holidays and bad weather)?

And so, with an exhibition premise that didn’t mean much except as an excuse to show a bunch of Picassos, we were free to just look at the art, except when we were distracted by the odd gamut of frames–from Spanish colonial to Dutch baroque to American folk to modernist blond wood–nearly all of which distracted and detracted from the work in some way.

It was fun to debate Picasso’s intentions, particularly in regard to those old marks that he made little effort to hide: did he not care? did he not consider the work finished? did he think these palimpsests added something to the composition? There was another perhaps unintended but now unavoidable compositional element on canvases that may have once been white and are now yellow, adding color where he may have wanted none (though many works did incorporate color highlights), and making white brushstrokes stand out where they were meant to blend in.

Pablo Picasso, Marie-Thérèse, Face and Profile (Marie-Thérèse, face et profil), Paris, 1931

Pablo Picasso, Marie-Thérèse, Face and Profile (Marie-Thérèse, face et profil), Paris, 1931

It’s always worthwhile to go see some Picassos you haven’t seen before. But maybe wait til after New Year’s, when the tourists retreat. Coming soon, a Chelsea misadventure

Reading List: On Curating

There’s been a long list of books about art, curating, and museum theory that I have been meaning to and know I should read (the should often being emphasized by my boss, my professors, or my own sense of inadequacy/laziness). Thanks to the generosity of family members and the wonders of the Amazon wishlist, I have gradually been acquiring them, but that certainly does not mean I’ve been reading them.

That is until I graduated, when I decided that I now would have the time and energy, and need the intellectual stimulation. (This was after my first post-grad freedom reading, Hunger Games, was out of the way.) It says something about my reading habits and ambitions that the first book I chose to read, On Curating, was the shortest, capping out at just over 100 pages.

It says something else about my reading skills, motivation, and habits that it took me several weeks to finish this modest volume, partially because of distraction by other fluffy reading (Game of Thrones, and, I’m woman enough to admit, Fifty Shades of Grey, which is just so badly written I can’t stand it sometimes). However, it is evident that the purpose of this blog is succeeding, in that it motivated me to finish the book (which once I sat down to do took almost no time at all) so that I could write about it.

A few points I’d like to share:

1) A lovely quote by Carolee Thea, the author/editor/interlocutor, that really sums up for me what it is that curators do (emphasis mine):

We could say they are translators, movers or creators whose material is the work of others–but in any case, the role of mediator is inescapable. While the art critic embodies the generalized gaze of the public [not sure I agree with that, but that’s a discussion for another day], the curator inversely translates the artist’s work by providing a context to enable the public’s understanding.

2) The interview with RoseLee Goldberg, the founder of PERFORMA, a performance biennial in New York, in which she discusses the ever interesting (to me, at least) and sometimes controversial topic of performance artists recreating their own performances, despite the fact that the original work may have been purposely ephemeral in order to evade the art market and art institutions. Marina Abramovic is of course the cited and most prominent example.

Goldberg’s words:

The kind of things you were describing, ephemerality and the lack of objects, were the ethos of the 70s. Everyone thought that way, and there was no art market. These things change… Artists like Baldessari or Acconci, for example, who didn’t make objects and weren’t making the money their students were, went back and made drawings of their previous works for which there was no documentation, and could now be sold. Marina is in a conversation regarding re-enactment, conservation and the nature of documentation that is focusing on performance history… It’s a history, and we must think of ways of showing this in a museum context. For Marina, becoming a museum artist was an insistence on the immaterial [emphasis in original] being as pertinent as an Yves Klein painting. Furthermore, rather than denying a piece’s original intent, a restaging positions people to rethink a work done at another time.

My notes:

difficulty of disentangling documentation/recreation as promoting historic significance, vs. nostalgic pastiche, vs. commercialism/institutionalization. acknowledgement that there’s no escaping the market. accepting its evils in order to be part of history.

In rereading Goldberg, I would amend my note regarding the evils of the art market. As she indicates, this was the attitude of the conceptual, performance and Earth artists of the 60s and 70s. We think differently today. Whatever distortions that money exerts on art (and it most certainly does, and often), artists need to make money. And I definitely think that documentation and recreation are legitimate expressions of performance art.* As someone who didn’t live through the 60s and 70s but sometimes wishes she did, I’m certainly glad that’s the case.

(I’m particularly interested in photographs of performances or of the making of artworks that become canonical in and of themselves, such as:

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3) As the subtitle indicates, the theme of the book, and of the (contemporary) art world in general these days, is “international.”  Most of the curators interviewed are or have curated big international art events, such as biennials (Venice, Istanbul, etc.) and Documenta. There’s one interesting trio of interviews, starting with Okwui Enwezor, whose Documenta XI was focused on the documentary and therefore was largely political. Charles Esche, activist and curator of the 2005 Istanbul Biennial, follows, accusing Enwezor of being too finger-waggingly political, and insisting that the political moment in art has more to do with the personal, the sensuous, the ambiguous and the unstable. Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, then curator of the Torino Triennial and now of Documenta (13), in turn accuses Esche of being too political, too theory-driven  and not as focused on the quality of the work. She says she does not believe in acts of resistance, nor in curatorial experimentation, which is no longer radical.

Anyway, this is all to say that the conversation taking place in the contemporary art world regarding both avant-garde art and avant-garde curatorial practice is taking place at and about these huge, international art events–which causes me to despair, as I lack the means to travel to those locations on a regular basis, if at all. I am not sure this is the part of the art world I really want to be involved in, but I lack the ability to even experience it myself and form an educated opinion. I can read about it until the jet-set art collectors come home, but that is not the same.

It is an interesting phenomenon, though, in that whatever problems these events pose in terms of economic or Western privilege (some see them as a way for the Western art world to colonize the developing world), they also start to level the playing field of a contemporary art world that has previously been Western-centric. In this volume, curators from Central America, Russia, Southeast Asia and China all point out that these events are key for maintaining/promoting a local contemporary art identity while engaging in a global dialogue, a necessity in order to be considered sufficiently cosmopolitan, relevant, and salable to an international audience.

This tactic seems to be working, in that interest in artists from the developing world is skyrocketing, particularly when their art comments on their countries’ violent or untenable political situations. I think this interest is fed by: 1) a feeling that important contemporary art must address, not ignore, the crises our world is facing, and 2) the sense that artists from other parts of the world do have something new to add (in terms of content, form and style), to a Western art world that has grown stale and repetitive. This may our best hope for a new avant-garde.

Which again leaves me despairing of my ability to become involved in that world, for as with international art events (which is where such artists tend to show and start to hit it big), I can’t do much more than read about international artists until they start getting U.S. shows.

4) A fun little tidbit to lighten the mood of this very intellectual post: Thea asks a Russian curator: “Why hold the Biennial in Moscow in the winter? Even Napoleon and Hitler couldn’t make it into Moscow in the winter.” That reminded me of this hilarious nugget of comedy gold (0:55-01:15 in particular):

*Amelia Jones sort of argues this in Body Art/Performing the Subjectthough this is somewhat an oversimplification of her argument; see especially pages 36-37.