Travel Notes While Rome is Burning – Part II


Vietnam protest
Anti Vietnam War art at the Whitney’s An Incomplete History of Protest

Part I of this blog post can be found here. Below now follows part II.

But let me return to my reflections on my New York City trip. My first full day was spent in the world of Outsider Art, a world which has always both attracted and troubled me—attracted, because it provides exposure and validation for extraordinary art that would otherwise remain invisible and marginalized; troubled, because of the lack of self-reflexivity in the usually well-meaning patronage that surrounds it, which is often overly missionary, purist, and “from the top down,” and thus re-inscribes and even fetishizes the very same marginalization it claims to challenge (and I am using the term Outsider Art as a catch-all for what has been variously called Folk, Self-Taught, Intuitive and Outsider Art or Art Brut—examining the issues arising from these concepts and terms is something for another blog post).

My day started at the Anne Hill Blanchard Uncommon Artists lectures at the American Folk Art Museum, which three presentations on self-taught art from the Caribbean: with Barbara Paca speaking on the Antiguan painter Frank Walter; Nancy Josephson on the Haitian “drapo” or Vodou flag tradition; and Jamaica’s own Jacqueline Bishop on the Jamaican painter Kemel Rankine. The three lectures were supposed to have been followed by a demonstration by Sane Mae Dunkley, an outstanding exponent of the rag-mat tradition in Jamaica, but she had passed away unexpectedly just before New Year. At the request of Jacqueline Bishop (who, I should disclose, is a friend), I presented a short tribute to Sane Mae Dunkley and placed her work in the contexts of popular fibre art and recyclage traditions in the Caribbean.

Tapestry Smaller 53 x 50 Joseph Coat of May Colors
Sane Mae Dunkley – Tapestry “Joseph Coat of Many Colours” (c2017), photo: Jacqueline Bishop

It was my first visit since the American Folk Art Museum returned to its earlier Lincoln Square facility, in a building it shares with other organizations. I had the opportunity to look around for a bit before the lectures started and I must say that the rather dreary, institutional look of the present galleries does no justice to that museum’s amazing collections and exhibitions. I sure miss the days when this museum was in its own, purpose-designed building on 53rd Street, adjoining MoMA, which was a pleasure to visit, although this location proved to be financially unsustainable (and the building, which was of architectural interest, has now been demolished to make way for MoMA’s latest expansion—a fable of the art world in its own right, but well).

Frank Walter (1926-2009), whose work was featured at the inaugural Antigua Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale, is certainly a very interesting artist, who should be better known in the Caribbean, and Barbara Paca, a NYC based art historian and landscape architect (yes, she combines both professions), must be credited for her relentless work in bringing his work and life to international attention. I would however have liked to see more critical reflection on how which Walter, who was black, positioned himself as a descendant of the plantocracy who privileged his European, German roots over his African ones, and how he is now in turn similarly positioned in the emerging narratives about his life and work. I was also concerned about the manner in which his work is now mobilized to raise awareness about mental illness, since this seems rather reductive and may skew the interpretation of his work as symptomatic of certain pathologies.

Nancy Josephson, an American artist who is herself a Vodou devotee, provided insights into the individual styles and techniques used by various drapo makers, which usefully challenged the notion that there is no innovation or originality in such art forms. Her discussion was however essentially descriptive and, again, lacked the contextualization, criticality and self-reflexivity that would have made the analysis truly useful. Jacqueline Bishop, finally, placed the work of Kemel Rankine, a St-Elizabeth-based sign painter who also produces figurative work, in the context of Jamaican visual culture and folklore.

The manner in which Outsider and Folk Art continues to be couched in narratives of discovery, privileged understanding and necessary, protectionist patronage certainly needs further unpacking. It is of note that Jacqueline Bishop was the only Caribbean and black person among the presenters, while the audience, too, was predominantly white and affluent—an all too typical pattern in this field (and one in which I have to acknowledge my own position as a white, Belgian-born person who lives and works in Jamaica). This means that the voice of the artist, if it is present at all, is usually mediated by intermediaries who are external to the worlds of the art and artists they seek to represent. This does not mean that such perspectives have no value or legitimacy, but a more diverse, inclusive, self-reflexive and, for the artists, empowered approach to representation would help to open up and address the imbalances in the closed, self-perpetuating Outsider Art scene. Sane Mae Dunkley’s presentation would have been particularly welcome for this reason but, alas, it was not to be.

Kemel Rankine – Nanny (n.d.)

Next, I visited the annual Outsider Art Fair, which was on its last day, and where Jacqueline Bishop’s Antillean online gallery had a booth which featured three Jamaican artists, Sane Mae Dunkley, Kemel Rankine, and Eddie Harris (an artist based in Nonsuch, Portland, who makes miniature shanties from recuperated wood). I have visited the Outsider Art Fair a few times before and always leave with mixed feelings, mainly because of the misgivings I outlined in the previous paragraphs. It is good to have an alternative, furthermore on a more human scale, to the high-profile mega-art fairs that dominate the art world, and one that serves artists, galleries and art-buying audiences that are not usually served by those mainstream channels (and while there were some jaw-dropping exceptions, most works on offer were still in the affordable range). There however seemed to be a strong focus on the well-established “big names” by most of the top galleries—ironically thus, on those dead artists who have already been canonized and included in major museum collections—while less attention was paid to other voices and living artists. This is perhaps understandable, since participating in art fairs is an expensive and labour-intensive undertaking for galleries, in which costs need to be recovered mainly through sales, but it also contributed to the feeling of sameness that prevailed across the fair.

The uniformity however also applied to the work of lesser known artists and may stem from the fact that such art tends to derive from similar cultural and psychological sources. It however also suggests that a particular formula is at work in what is recognized as Outsider Art. It appears that there is a fixed Outsider Art aesthetic, which is shaped by rather narrow notions about the social outsider, the vernacular and the handmade, with very little room for anything that departs from those norms or for any new cultural, social and technological developments. This, too, cries out for some critical re-thinking and opening up. One of the reasons why the newcomer Antillean did very well at the fair and received several critical accolades may be that it brought fresh, new voices to the conversation.

These concerns aside, there was a lot to see and enjoy at this year’s Outsider Art Fair and several dealers I spoke with said it was the best edition yet, with unprecedented sales. While this may merely be a reflection of the (short-lived?) stock market boom, it also suggests that the market and audience-base for Outsider Art is expanding and that there are art audiences who are willing to look, and buy, outside of the dominant norm, which is in itself encouraging in the current socio-political environment.

My second day was spent at the Whitney Museum, my first visit to its new, Renzo Piano designed building on Gansevoort Street, to which the museum moved in 2015. Located at the end of the popular High Line and overlooking the Hudson River, the building deserves to be commended for its exemplary integration into its physical and social environment. The eight-floor structure’s sculptural, quasi-industrial look stands in an interesting dialogue with the existing architecture of the (heavily gentrified) Meatpacking District while carefully positioned gallery windows and terraces provide visitors with sweeping views of the environs.

The Whitney has in recent times not been shy about controversy and I was struck by the strong, deliberate political charge in the current exhibitions. Three exhibitions presented selections from the Whitney’s own collection. Where We Are, consisted of key American art works from 1900 to 1960, organized around the themes of family and community, work, home, the spiritual, and the nation and provided the most seamless integration of African-American art into the narratives of American art I have as yet seen—as it should be, but as is not always attempted or achieved. Another exhibition from the permanent collection was Experiments in Electrostatics, which explored photocopy art from 1966-1986. While I did not spend much time there, I should note that this exhibition made a political statement in its own right, about the politics of art this time around, as such photocopy art has served to challenge conventional notions about media and technology, and about value and originality in art.

Guerrilla Girls poster (1987)

The third permanent collection exhibition I viewed was An Incomplete History of Protest, which surveyed the protest art that has proliferated in the USA, with selections from 1940 to 2017, and tackled issues such as racism, feminism, gay rights, the AIDS/HIV crisis, the Vietnam War, the #BlackLivesMatter campaign, as well as the race and gender biases of the art world of the art world itself. The exhibition notably included works in which the Whitney itself was the target, as what was once surely a bastion of white male privilege in the (New York City) art world. Faith Ringgold’s Hate is a Sin (2007), for instance, refers to the 1968 protest Ringgold organized outside of the Whitney, during which she was racially abused; while a 1987 poster from the Guerrilla Girls, a feminist artists’ collective known for its satirical critiques of the gender biases in the art world, refers to one of their scathing “reviews” of the Whitney. The Whitney has sure come a long way.

A lot of the work on view An Incomplete History of Protest consisted of posters, flyers and other graphic interventions, which illustrates the point made in part I of this extended blog post, that political art needs “reach” to be effective and thus often involves interventions that are, at least in their original moment, more ephemeral and elude the conventional art market and its limitations. What also stood out is how many works incorporated text and quite often consisted of slogans combined with simple, graphic images. Obviously protest art needs to be very specific and clear about its messages to get those across, but this is also one of its limitations, as it means that such art often lacks nuance and those contradictory layers of meaning and interpretation that make for really great art. I however left this exhibition marveling at the passion and potency of some of the statements made and the manner in which they had helped to galvanize particular moments of activism. And the exhibition drove home that there is another important function such art also fulfills, namely as historical documents that shape the collective memory of those defining moments.

The Whitney also had three temporary exhibitions: a mid-career survey of the Los Angeles painter Laura Owens; a solo project by the young Nigerian-born painter Toyin Ojih Odutola; and Jimmie Durham: At the Center of the World. Two of these exhibitions were dedicated to contemporary painters and those who are convinced that painting has been marginalized in contemporary art should think again, since it is clear that there is in fact a strong revival, in the practice itself and in the attention paid to it by cultural institutions. For the purpose of this blog post, I will however focus on the Jimmie Durham exhibition, a touring exhibition which was previously shown at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

Jimmie Durham 3
Jimmie Durham – Self Portrait (1986)

Jimmie Durham, who has claimed to be Cherokee, is probably best known for his activism in Native American affairs in the 1970s, and most of his work has continued to revolve around Native American identity politics. His humorously deadpan but mordant critiques of the politics of representation around Native American art and culture are certainly engaging but it is impossible to view the exhibition without considering the questions and controversies that have for many years surrounded Durham’s persona and art (and the two cannot be separated).

When the retrospective opened at the Walker, a group of Native American artists, scholars and curators issued a statement that decried him as an imposter and noted that he does not in any way qualify as Cherokee, legally or culturally. Inconsistencies in his biography, such as his place of birth (it turns out that he was born in Texas and not Arkansas, as he had claimed), also confirm that his art persona is far more of a fictional construct than Durham has ever admitted. His detractors claim that he is merely an opportunist who has appropriated Native American culture for his own professional benefit, while the New York Times’ critic Holland Cotter has praised him for what he calls “a truly brilliant, half-century long act of self-invention.”

Jimmie Durham 2
Installation view – Jimmie Durham: At the Center of the World

Jimmie Durham’s case, again, raises the question of who can and should speak on behalf of broader collectivities and causes. At the very least, we need to ask whether Jimmie Durham’s work has benefited or detracted from the causes he has claimed to represent. His critics have argued that the attention he has received has come at the expense of genuine Native American artists, who are overshadowed by him. Does this mean that the perspectives he presents have no value and that his museum exhibitions ought to be cancelled and his work dismissed? I think not, but the tensions and controversies that arise from the persona adopted by Durham certainly need to be part of the discussion. While this was acknowledged on the exhibition web page, which cited and linked diverse critical responses, there was no sign of it in the exhibition itself.

Such controversies are admittedly not easy for museums to handle, since they also have to support the artists they exhibit and respect the rights and expectations of their audiences, but protests against specific artists and art works have become quite common. There had in fact been a protest at the Whitney at the opening of Laura Owens’ exhibition, against the role of her dealer, Gavin Brown, and herself in the “artwashing” and gentrification of the working class community in Los Angeles where their gallery space is located. More recently, there were protest performances in various locations by Emma Sulkowicz to protest the continued exhibition of the work of Chuck Close and Pablo Picasso at MoMA and the Metropolitan Museum, given the recent allegations of systematic sexual harassment of models against the former and Picasso’s well-documented history of misogyny, which is evident in many of his works, and ill treatment of his female partners. One of these protests took place at MoMA, in front of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, so even for a museum that is less explicit about its involvement in politics, there is no escape from the present moment.

While it is necessary for the abuses, biases and hierarchies of the art world to be recognized, challenged and productively addressed, I believe that we also have to be wary of what may be lost in what has now become a decidedly moralistic and iconoclastic moment. Ian Buruma, in a recent article for the Globe and Mail, asked whether an artist’s behaviour should disqualify their art and argues that the focus needs to be on the work instead of on the person, although he acknowledges that the two can be hard to separate. While several Chuck Close exhibitions have been cancelled and works removed from permanent display at several museums since the revelations about his sexual conduct came to public attention, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art offered what is in my view a more productive alternative: it kept its Chuck Close exhibition but organized a concurrent exhibition and discussion programme about gender and power. I would myself also rather see the current moment as an opportunity for frank but thoughtful dialogue about the issues at hand rather than for drastic, kneejerk reactions.

My final day was spent at MoMA, where I had been invited to present a seminar as part of the C-MAP programme. I presented on the art-historiography of Jamaica and the curatorial practice related to it, with a focus on the manner in which this has evolved over time. The subsequent discussion was excellent and I was impressed by how well-informed my interlocutors were about the goings-on in the Caribbean art world, including National Gallery of Jamaica exhibitions I had not included in my presentation, such as the 2016 Digital exhibition. It was good to know that the work that is being done in the Caribbean has not gone unnoticed at MoMA.

Shortly after my visit, MoMA announced the appointment of its new Curator of Latin American art, Inés Katzenstein, who also serves as the Inaugural Director of the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Research Institute for the Study of Art from Latin America. MoMA is slated to receive a major donation from the Phelps de Cisneros collection. MoMA’s long-standing involvement with Latin American art will obviously be strengthened with this new appointment and it will be interesting to see how the Caribbean will fare in this context. For sure, MoMA has not missed a beat during the transition: shortly after I left, it opened an installation by the Cuban artist Tania Bruguera, Untitled (Havana, 2000), and more recently, it has opened a major survey by the Brazilian modernist Tarsila do Amaral. Both are (female) artists who have placed politics at the centre of their work: Bruguera uses her work to question the abuses of state power, particularly in the Cuban context, while do Amaral used indigenous culture to develop a subversive artistic language to challenge colonial power and its legacies.

During the early years of MoMA, in the 1940s under the directorship of Alfred H. Barr, the Caribbean received quite a bit of attention, with an exhibition of Modern Cuban Painters (1944), which was co-organized by Barr and the Cuban art critic Jose Gomez Sicre; visits by Barr to Cuba and Haiti; and a number of acquisitions, including Wifredo Lam’s The Jungle (1943). In fact, most of MoMA’s Caribbean holdings date from that period. This may not have stemmed from a strong interest in the Caribbean per se but from a confluence of history and personalities, particularly Barr’s friendship with the Surrealist leader Andre Breton. Breton had travelled through the Caribbean during World War II, on his way to the USA after escaping the German invasion of Paris, and he did so in the company of several other Surrealist artists and writers, including the Cuban painter Wifredo Lam, and had become enthused by the artistic and intellectual milieus he encountered along the way—a defining moment in the history of Surrealism as well as in the artistic and intellectual life of the Caribbean. MoMA’s online archive on these developments is impressive and I highly recommend perusing it (and I have inserted a few links to this archive above).

hyppolite - Congo Queen
Hector Hyppolite – The Congo Queen (by 1946)

After the seminar, I roamed around at MoMA for a few hours and viewed the temporary exhibitions that were on view, which included comprehensive surveys of the work of the sculptor and painter Louise Bourgeous and the photographer Stephen Shore, and an exhibition on fashion: Items: Is Fashion Modern? But I also took time to visit some of my old favourites in MoMA’s permanent collections. I had heard that, right after President Trump made his infamous comment about “shithole countries,” the curators had put on display the Haitian artist Hector Hyppolite’s painting The Congo Queen (1946). I found it in the Surrealist galleries, along with a sculpture by the African-American artist William Edmondson (who was, by the way, the first African-American artist to receive a one-person exhibition at MoMa, in 1937). It was rewarding to see a big, canonical museum like MoMA delving into its own archives and histories to make a subtle but pointed political statement. That this work was placed on view in response to that specific incident amounted to, as one observer noted, a reactive approach, and I would certainly like to see more of MoMA’s Caribbean collection on a regular basis. However, it was arguably also a necessary reaction, made in a particular moment and it made a strong statement, if only to those in the Caribbean who were aware of it. And I unapologetically enjoyed viewing Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which remains as one of my favourite paintings in the MoMA collection.

Pablo Picasso – Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907)

New York City, and its art world, may be a bubble of Liberalism and is certainly not representative of the rest of the USA or the global art world, but I left the city feeling positive about the potential of art to critique the present moment and to help renegotiate our futures. Art activism used to be the province of smaller, alternative organizations and individual artists and is perhaps still most effective at that level. I was nonetheless heartened to see a new institutional courage at what used very mainstream museums and a willingness to take positions in the political dialogues of the moment, no matter how controversial and professionally perilous doing so may be (and there have already been some casualties). On further reflection on the multitude of recent contentions, however, my initial enthusiasm became more subdued and I had to question the effectiveness and vulnerabilities of a Liberal Left (if such a collective term can even be used in the present moment) that seems to be turning more on itself than on its common enemies. And I was forced to wonder whether it would not be more productive, given the urgencies of the present moment, to bury the hatchet, at least temporarily, and to focus the collective attention on the shared concerns and challenges. Strategically embracing common cause is, after all, how elections are won, and lost, these days.

(Edited with some minor corrections and changes on February 18, 2018)

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