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…


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:


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.