Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Tyranny of Art History in Contemporary Art

Installation view of A Sixty-Two-Year Photo-Biography of Ye Jinglu, discovered by Tong Bingxue, 1907–68. Photo: Maris Hutchinson / EPW Studio
The art world likes to ask big art-centric questions like "Can art change the world?" We usually answer "Yes." I usually disagree. Art can't stop famine in sub-Saharan Africa or cure Zika. But art does change the world incrementally and by osmosis. Typically by first changing how we see, and thereby how we remember. Raymond Chandler invented early-20th-century L.A.; Francis Ford Coppola forged our vision of the Vietnam War; Andy Warhol combined clashing colors that were never together before and that palette is now ubiquitous; God creating Adam looks the way Michelangelo painted it; Oscar Wilde said "the beauty and wonder" of fog didn't exist before painters. That's big. But art as we now know it has narrowed. These days our definition of it is mainly art informed by other art and art history. Especially in the last two centuries — and tenaciously of late — art has examined its own essences, ordinances, techniques, tools, materials, presentational modes, and forms. To be thought of as an artist someone must self-identify as one and make what they think of as art. This center cannot hold. Why? It is far too tight to let real art breathe.
Right now at the New Museum is a show that casts a much wider net, that gives weirder and more idiosyncratic work much more air to breathe — and which makes everything we’re used to seeing in museums (and even galleries) seem hemmed-in by comparison. Organized by a superb team overseen by Massimiliano Gioni, "The Keeper" is a museum full of museums, possible encyclopedias, indexes of other orders, and miniature models of pain. Most of the work takes the form of collection: virtual coral-reef phantasmagorias collected and collated from things as strange as dead languages, detritus, cats' cradles, agate, and snowflakes aren't included in the current category of art. Often, we call the people who make collections like these outsider artists — when we call them artists at all. Many of the 30 makers in "The Keeper" didn't self-identify as artists or call what they made art; their work isn't grounded in art history; probably they didn't care about this history and plumbed other axioms. A few of them are found in art museums. But most are relegated to specialty collections, foundations, barred, or forgotten.
This is because our art history is not chronological; not neutral or about simultaneous cross-styles, outliers, and other things going on at any given moment. Our art history is organized teleologically — it's an arrow. Things are always said to be going forward, and progress is measured mainly in formal ways by changes in ideas of space, color, composition, subject matter, and the like. Artists and isms follow one another in a Biblical begatting based on progress toward a goal or a higher stage. Cubism was "a race to flatness"; Suprematism was "the zero point of painting"; Rodchenko said he made "the last painting"; Ad Reinhardt one-upped him saying he was "making the last painting which anyone can make." In this system synthetic shifts and tics combine into things we call movements like Cubism, Constructivism, Futurism, Art Nouveau, Color Field, etc. The problem is anyone who doesn't fall into this timeline is out of luck. This paradigm has been in place for 200 years.
I love the art in our museums and galleries. I don't want museums to stop staging exhibitions of it. I don't want them to look like science fairs, flea-markets, Exploratoriums, laboratories, wunderkabinetts, or thrift stores. But our idea of art history is dead already; it just doesn't know it. Its terms are so specialized and vague they're only useful to those in the know. Post-Minimalism only tells you it came after something called Minimalism.  Only aficionados know why Barnett Newman's monochrome paintings and Willem de Kooning's wild style are both Abstract Expressionist; why the Über-controlled David Salle is a Neo-Expressionist. Unfortunately, so many academics, curators, collectors, and artists are so invested in this system that we see nonstop formalist twists, micro moves in monochrome painting, photography about photography, readymades galore, formulaic institutional critique, and ironies you can only understand if you read long jargon-filled labels. This is Zombie Art History.
But there are different paradigms, different methodologies — countless numbers of them, many of them on display in "The Keeper." The artists here short-circuit art history. Not only do most of them not identify as artists, they don't see the world in any linear way. For these artists every object contains the whole world and is part of a family of forms. They look at the world in a meta way; inspiration is a compelling force from within. Not art history. In this holistic way the whole shapes the parts, taxonomical units cohere into clouds, microcosms mushroom into macrocosms, webs of interrelationship form. These artists are in search of what might be called ur-forms, conceptual templates, archetypal systems, secret chords, flows, things here for millions of centuries that are embedded in materials and in the fabric of time.
What's in "The Keeper"? Lolita author Vladimir Nabokov dissected butterfly penises — in his words, "sculpted sex" — and arranged them in cabinets to identify individual species. At the New Museum his beautifully notated Frankensteinian collages of butterfly-wing patterns show an aesthetic intelligence equal to Kurt Schwitters, Wallace Berman, and Rauschenberg. At the New Museum is Korbinian Aigner, a priest, painter, and pomologist (the study of fruit), who, starting in 1912 and proceeding while he was in Dachau to his death, in 1966, painted dusky still-lifes of apples on glowing monochrome backgrounds. His obsessional focus, power of observation, fleshy texture, and subtleness of color are as mesmerizing as Giorgio Morandi, as strange as Cézanne, as formally distinct as El Lissitzky. André Malraux, author of Museum Without Walls, said "We can only feel by comparison." Neither Aigner nor Nabokov are in our art museums to let these feelings flow. Neither is Hilma af Klint, whose 16 glorious paintings from 1914–15 cover two walls here. Her highly hued work, filled with spirals, squares, circles, and corkscrewing seashell shapes, shows that she's not just a great painter; she's one of the inventors of abstraction itself. Her plain blocky fields of color are revolutionary and don't appear in painting again until the backgrounds of Francis Bacon. Klint has received retrospectives but still isn't allotted her deserved place in art history. Maybe because she called her work "Paintings for the Temple," said she was inspired by "high masters," and designated her work not be seen until 20 years after her death. Somehow this cast her as some sort of zodiacal spiritualist.
Suffering a similar fate is Olga Fröbe-Kapteyn — who called her geometric paintings "meditation drawings" and founded a school of spiritual worship in 1930. Her 12 paintings from 1920s and 1930s at the New Museum have such snappy graphic-ness that you might mistake them for Pop or psychedelic posters of the 1960s. Nearby are 90 wild black-and-white abstract-geometric photographs by Wilson Bentley (1865–1931) who invented his own camera to made "photomicrograms" of individual snow crystals. Bentley is in a few museums. But even though this is abstract photography decades before it became an ism in art, his work is seen as scientific. At the New Museum the 500,000 pencil drawing of contemporary Vanda Vieira-Schmidt radiate an original Paul Klee–Louise Bourgeoisie synthesis. She says they are "countering the forces of evil in this world" — exactly like Byzantine and early Renaissance artists claimed. Her work can only be seen a Dresden military museum.
The funny thing is, however unusual the collections look within the context of a museum — however powerfully "The Keeper" shows us that there is more in the category of art than our present system has dreamt of — in truth I think that all great artists know this cosmic complexity already. Every maker has an individual idea of what needs to exist; great imagination is always a force from within. Whether one knows art history or not, art begins pre-intellectually, beyond language. Art is a search for new paths of encounter and poetic structures, images and things that go beyond themselves. Hilma af Klint and Fröbe-Kapteyn might have said their work was inspired by cosmic forces. Kandinsky said his art was a "penetration of collected forces." Franz Marc called it a "pantheistic penetration." Marsden Hartley called himself a "cosmic Cubist." Marcel Duchamp suspended 1,200 coal bags from a ceiling. This would fit into "The Keeper" with the string-figure cats'-cradle configurations collected by filmmaker/ethnomusicologist Harry Smith.
It's beyond time for a new generation of art historians not only to open up the system and let art be the garden that it is, home to exotic blooms of known and unknown phenomena. It's time to work against this system. We can't say painting is dead just as women and artist of color started to show up in art history. Our art history has stiffened into an ideology that clear-cuts a medium, pronounces it dead (like undertakers) and moves on like conquistadors to the next stage. The idea that art has an overall goal of advancing or perfecting its terms and techniques is made up. Imagined. Idiotic. Except to those benefiting from this intellectual fundamentalism. Someday, people will look back at this phase of art history the way we look back at manifest destiny and colonialism.

Yves Klein

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Yves Klein

Born: 1928
Died: 1962
Hometown: Nice, France
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Art 101 | Why Does Art History Have the Blues?

Art 101

Why Does Art History Have the Blues?

Why Does Art History Have the Blues?
Detail from Pablo Picasso's "La Celestina"
Why do artists always seem to have the blues? Since time immemorial, blue has held a special place in art history, evoking the loftiest sentiments, the most aristocratic pedigrees, and the profoundest spirituality. As a material, blue pigment has itself been a fetishized commodity, serving as everything from a prized color for Medieval monks to the point of obsession for the painter Yves Klein. Many artists have tried to explain the hue's allure—Fauvist painter Raoul Dufy once said, “the only color which maintains its own character in all its tones,” for instance—but, in fact, blue has had a wide spectrum of meanings over time. Here are five ways the color has been used throughout art history.

The Ishtar GateThe Ishtar Gate

In the ancient world, ultramarine was the most desired color because of the inaccessibility of the pigment used to make it. Made from lapis lazuli—an expensive stone of rich color—ultramarine was only affordable for the wealthiest, highest-status patrons, and as a result came to symbolize royalty. In the Middle East, it decorated Tutankhamen's funeral mask and colored the Ishtar Gate’s famous glazed bricks. In medieval Europe, it was employed in illuminated manuscripts to symbolize the exalted station of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, with blue ink used both to color their garments and to underline passages about them. The tradition of blue as a regal color then continued from the Renaissance through the Age of Absolutism in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, eventually evolving into a more generalized mark of the aristocracy in the portraits of artists like Thomas Gainsborough, famed for his Blue Boy.

Barnett Newman Onement VIBarnett Newman's Onement VI (1953)

While the afterlife is often depicted as a magnificent, gleaming-white realm, Wassily Kandinsky, a founding member of Germany's Der Blaue Reiter (aka “The Blue Rider”) art movement in the years prior to World War I, believed heaven to be blue. The painter is hardly alone in associating blue with transcendence. The Abstract Expressionist artist Barnett Newman, for instance, painted massive blue canvases meant to be viewed at close range so as to engulf their viewers, creating an almost religious experience. More recently, Tomás Saraceno’s Cloud City used mirrors to reflect the clouds and blue of the sky so as to create a disorienting, heavenly feel, and James Turrell filled the Guggenheim's rotunda with light that memorably phased into a beautiful blue.

Joan Miro Bleu TriptychJoan Miró's Bleu Triptych (1961)

Talking about his Bleu paintings, the Surrealist painter Joan Miró once said, "The spectacle of the sky overwhelms me." He was determined to reproduce this overwhelming transcendence in his Bleu triptych, a set of three paintings that evokes a dreamlike state using blue as a symbol of the night sky. Miró was by far the first artist to be awed by the blue of the sky, and he was certainly not the last. James Turrell's Skyscapes, rectangular cuts into the ceilings of spaces that frame a patch of the sky moving above, encourage viewers to meditate on the beauty of the heavens and use light from to provide insight into changing natural forces, while Ólafur Elíasson uses blue to probe the phenomenological effects of the sky, for instance enveloping entire gallery spaces in blue.

Andy Warhol Forty Blue Marilyns (Reversal Series)Andy Warhol's Forty Blue Marilyns (Reversal Series) (1979-80)

Michael Riedel
’s Untitled (color) blue dramatically confronts its viewer by announcing blue’s status as a mere color. Riedel’s conceptual work is part of a larger trend within blue art lately: the idea that blue really is just blue, and nothing more. Riedel’s approach isn’t one that is new. Yves Klein engineered his own shade of blue—International Klein Blue (abbreviated IKB)—that he then repeatedly used to make monochromes. Klein’s work finds a lack of meaning in the color blue, seeing it more as a void or an absence rather than something that has content. Josef Albers performed something similar with his paintings of squares that used blue as nothing more than a formal property, and Andy Warhol continued this in his Marilyn paintings and other serially reproduced works, which use blue as just another color with which to mutate the actress’s image, interchangeable with yellow, red, or any other hue of the spectrum.

Tracey Emin I Listen to the Ocean and All I Hear Is YouTracey Emin's I Listen to the Ocean and All I Hear Is You (2011)

The title of Vincent van Gogh's painting Old Man in Sorrow (On the Threshold of Eternity) (1890) depicts an elderly man bent over in grief—evidently contemplating death—while clad entirely in blue clothing, with the color echoing his anguished sadness. It's not for nothing that the lamenting American musical form is called "the blues," and van Gogh and many other artists have likewise used blue as a evocation of pain and suffering—no one more notably than Pablo Picasso, whose three-year Blue Period, inspired by the suicide of his friend Casemagas, bathed every canvas in dark shades of blue. Picasso's subjects—prostitutes and beggars, mostly—were bathed in various intensities of the color, conveying both their desolate lives and the depression that had engulfed the artist. Since Picasso, no artist has seized upon the sorrowful aspects of blue as extensively, but many continue to use blue to symbolize sadness. Felix Gonzalez-Torres, for instance, uses piles of blue candy and installations of blue lights to mourn those fallen to AIDS, while YBA Tracey Emin often employs a rich blue to create her tragic, erotic drawings and light sculptures that speak confessionally about romantic failures.

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Can foreign collectors and museums sustain Brazil’s art market?

Art market features

Can foreign collectors and museums sustain Brazil’s art market?

The country is in the doldrums, but its artists have never before enjoyed such critical acclaim abroad
by Jane Morris  |  13 September 2016
Can foreign collectors and museums sustain Brazil’s art market?
Rio 2016’s aquatics centre was completely covered by a work of art, a flexible tarpaulin mimicking tiles, by Adriana Varejão (Rio/Andre Motta)
Rio’s Olympics gave Brazil a temporary lift last month, but attention is now turning back to the country’s grim reality. In the seven years since winning the Olympic bid, Brazil has gone from commodities-fuelled boom to corruption-ridden burn-out.

Predictably, Brazil’s art market has stalled, and some galleries have reported their business down by a third. But the international reception of Brazil’s artists, most recently their prominence in the Tate Modern extension, “is a cause for celebration”, says Márcia Fortes, the director of Galeria Fortes Vilaça, in São Paulo. The gallery, like others, is relying on international sales until domestic confidence returns. This year, it is showing at eight art fairs abroad, instead of its usual five.

No one is underestimating the scale of the challenge. Latitude, the platform for Brazilian art abroad, issued a report on 40 Brazilian galleries in 2015, which found that they earned 85% of revenues in Brazil in 2014, and private Brazilian collectors accounted for 73% of overall sales volume. But it also noted increasing sales abroad, especially to the Tate in London, and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Guggenheim in New York.

A number of galleries abroad have had confidence in Brazil’s artists for years: Alison Jacques Gallery has represented the estate of Lygia Clark since 2010, while Lehmann Maupin’s relationship with Adriana Varejão dates back to the 1990s. Now some of the art world’s biggest players are entering the market. Varejão is scheduled to show her work at Gagosian Gallery in Rome, and Hauser & Wirth, which already represents the Mira Schendel estate, will mount its first exhibition of Lygia Pape in London this month (23 September–19 November). The gallery’s senior director, Graham Steele, is confident that the Brazilian market will return, but the gallery’s focus is “all about” institutions and collections abroad. “It’s very interesting to be representing such influential artists, who, outside the curatorial world, are substantially less well known than the ‘American’ story of New York, Los Angeles, Paris, Rome and Berlin,” he says. “There’s no time like the present to rewrite art history.”

Engagement with Modernism

Maria Quiroga, the director of São Paulo’s Galeria Luisa Strina, says: “There has been a growing interest in artists from the so-called ‘peripheries’ over the past ten years.”

It is a testament to Brazil’s long engagement with Modernism that its artists feature in the new Tate Modern hang and, increasingly, in the collections of MoMA, the Guggenheim, the Pompidou and the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1922, radical artists put on the Semana de Arte Moderna in São Paulo; shortly after, the Grupo dos Cinco (group of five) was founded, which centred around Tarsila do Amaral and the poet Oswald de Andrade, whose 1928 essay Manifesta Antropófago (cannibal manifesto) called for a fusion of Brazilian traditions with international art. The idea of cultural “cannibalism” has played an important role in Brazil since: Andrade credited Amaral’s work with its inspiration, and MoMA and the Art Institute of Chicago will devote a show to her in 2017-18.

The Tate, meanwhile, focuses on the next phase of artistic development: the 1950s and 1960s, the foundation of the São Paulo Biennial and the architectural transformations of Oscar Niemeyer and Lina Bo Bardi. The museum’s View from São Paulo display includes work by Schendel, Clark, Pape and Hélio Oiticica; the latter also has a solo gallery. In 2017, the Met Breuer in New York will mount an exhibition devoted to Pape.

The new generation

Even the dark days of Brazil’s military dictatorship produced important artists such as Cildo Meireles and Tunga; Meireles has a solo room in the Tate, while Tunga, a veteran of numerous biennials, was shown in a huge installation at Art Basel just after his death this year.

Now a new generation has emerged: Ernesto Neto, Vik Muniz, Beatriz Milhazes, Adriana Varejão and Rivane Neuenschwander, whose work is regularly shown abroad. The sculptor Jac Leirner, also part of this group, is in the Tate’s Between Object and Architecture display. “We used to be treated as a parallel history of art, a bit like the auction houses having separate Latin American and contemporary art sales,” says Fortes. “When you see [works by] Jac Leirner hanging next to Bruce Nauman at the Tate, it’s really something to celebrate.”

 Adriana Varejão (Photo: Vicente de Mello)
Adriana Varejão (Photo: Vicente de Mello)
Rio 2016’s aquatics centre was completely covered by a work of art—a flexible tarpaulin mimicking tiles—by Adriana Varejão. David Maupin, the director of the gallery Lehmann Maupin, which represents Varejão (along with Galeria Fortes Vilaça and Victoria Miro), says that the Games’ cultural commissioner, Carla Camurati, saw her ceramic installation at Bernado Paz’s famous Instituto Inhotim and asked her to create a version for the pool. Superfically, Varejão is an obvious choice: her work often uses swimming pools and Portugese “azulejos” tiles as source material. But in many ways, it was risky. Much of her work addresses racism, identity and colonialism: in one series, broken tiles ooze bloodily. Varejão herself has said that her work traces its roots back to the poet Oswald de Andrade’s Cannibal Manifesto (see main text). 

Three generations of Brazilian women

Brazil has produced generation after generation of women who have achieved higher prices at auction than their male counterparts. Of the top seven Brazilians at auction, five are women: 1. Lygia Clark 2. Sergio Camargo 3. Beatriz Milhazes 4. Adriana Varejão 5. Cândido Portinari 6. Tarsila do Amaral 7. Mira Schendel

Radical departures

Tarsila do Amaral’s Abaporu (1928) (Private collection of Eduardo Costantini)
Tarsila do Amaral’s Abaporu (1928) (Private collection of Eduardo Costantini)
Anita Malfatti and Tarsila do Amaral are among the founding members of the Grupo dos Cinco. Malfatti studied art in Germany with Lovis Corinth, Amaral in Paris with Fernand Léger. In 1995, Amaral’s Abaporu (1928), the emblematic image of the Cannibal Manifesto, sold at Christie’s in New York for $1.4m (with fees).

Mid-century Modernists
The Neo-concrete artists, including Lygia Clark and Lygia Pape, gave international Constructivism a new social dimension. In 2013 Clark’s Contra Relevo (Objecto N. 7) (1959) sold at Phillips New York for $2.3m (with fees).

1990s onwards
The international generation
In auction terms, Beatriz Milhazes is the most successful living Brazilian artist. Her painting Meu Limão (2000) sold for $2.1m (with fees) at Sotheby’s New York in 2012. Adriana Varejão’s Wall with Incisions à la Fontana II (2001) sold for £1.1m (with fees) at Christie’s London in 2011.

Beatriz Milhazes, Meu Limão (2000)

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