Post-War Humanism Revisited at MoMA

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Jan Muller, Walpurgisnacht – Faust I, 1956, oil on canvas

The devil is in the details in Jan Müller’s grandiose painting  Walpurgisnacht—Faust I (1956), which is the centerpiece of an exhibition called Soldier, Spectre, Shaman at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. The exhibition – curated byLucy Gallun, Assistant Curator, Department of Photography, and Sarah Suzuki, Associate Curator, Department of Drawings and Prints – is a rare peek into MoMA’s collection of post World War II figurative art. What bonds these works is their concern for humanity in an age of crisis. The artists in this exhibition express sadness, confusion, anger, and complex reactions, as a result of being witnesses to the horrors of the second deadly world war.

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Suggested Reading: Pride in Collecting Edition

– They already own @ and the recycling symbol. Most recently, The Museum of Modern Art has acquired the iconic Rainbow Flag that artist Gilbert Baker created in San Francisco in 1978. The flag has become a symbol for LGBT identity and pride. via Hyperallergic

– It’s hard to write about Art Basel. I’d love to be there right now taking in the fair and finding some semblance of substance within the massive art market bubble. If I was in Basel this year, I would definitely be eager to check out Kader Attia’s Arab Spring (2014) installation, which was created in response to the cultural looting and destruction of the Egyptian Museum. via The Art Newspaper

– Art Philanthropy is on the rise in America. Donations to arts, culture and humanities grew 9.2% in 2014, which was the fastest of all philanthropic sectors. It’s a small start, but encouraging. via LA Times

– Jordan Casteel who I featured in this previous post was announced as a 2015-16 Artist in Residence at the Studio Museum. EJ Hill, and Jibade-Khalil Huffman were also selected! I am looking forward for their group show. via Art News

– Has there really never been a museum of “law” in the United States? I am a bit shocked, but I am more shocked to hear that Ralph Nader is opening such a museum! via Wall Street Journal

– The first art museum dedicated to displaying the work of Arab contemporary artists opened in Israel. via Shalom Life

Connecting Figures: New Humanism in Recent Figurative Painting

The formidable imagery of humanist painting has been troublesome to incorporate within the framework of today’s painting. In the 1960s and 70s when the art market was burgeoning for trendy “art of the day,” artists like those of the Rhino Horn group predicted the shape of things to come. In the group’s manifesto they stated:

“Realize when you see our work that the so-called “thirty years of painting and sculpture” in this country has been built on a lie; it has been packaged, promoted and super-sold by ambitious critics, dealers and curators trying to build their own reputation as they fatten their bankrolls.”

This quotation echoes in the Museum of Modern Art’s recent “Forever Now” exhibition, the museum’s first contemporary painting survey in three decades. MoMA is renowned for organizing groundbreaking painting survey’s such as Dorothy Canning Miller’s six contemporary exhibitions of American art, which introduced nearly one hundred American artists to the public. “Forever Now” was a far cry from the museum’s esteemed history of seminal contemporary painting surveys. The exhibition was loaded with (largely) derivative and abstract painting (albeit there were some gems in the show) by artists who are established art market favorites. There was very little work in the show that had an emotional impact, but rather an affirmation of the status quo. The influence of money makes the art world go round.

Humanism in the arts is an evolving concept and goes against the evolution of the status quo. Since the heyday of Rhino Horn, there have been monumental changes in technology which has pushed the way our culture communicates and functions to new extremes. The paintings in “Forever Now” felt as if they were driven by technological and material energy. Therefore, I have compiled a list (which is only the beginning and will be expanded) of contemporary painters who are swimming against the grain of technological impulses and art world trends. Their work is figurative and steeped in the human psyche and condition in times of crisis. In some cases their work explores absurd phenomena in our society, or questions the significance of life’s dualities. Sometimes it is meant to disturb, shock, and elicit a visceral response. Overall, they assert new meanings, add to the terminology, and interrogate the lineage of painting.

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Suggested Reading: Diversity in Art Edition

– The New York City Department of Cultural Affairs is embarking on a study to measure the diversity in NYC arts organizations. My educated guess is that this survey won’t take long and the results won’t surprise anyone. In the article, Jennifer Smith reports that “Whites make up nearly 80% of the workforce at U.S. museums, according to an analysis of 2009 census data by the American Alliance of Museums.” via WSJ

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Dubuffet’s Soul of the Underground

In the aftermath of World War II, the art world’s focus on American art meant to a lesser extent the promotion of Post-War painters from the former art world capital of Paris. However, there was one particular French name that emanated within the American landscape like none other. Parisian painter, sculptor and printmaker Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985) was considered the most important French artist in the United States during this era.[1] Clement Greenberg declared “As the brightest new hope of the School of Paris since Miró, it is quite fitting that Dubuffet should rise to notice on the wave of the first new aesthetic movement in Paris since surrealism, which similarly inspired Miró.”[2]

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Benny Andrews on view at MoMA

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Upon my ascension to the 4th floor wing of the Museum of Modern Art, I was immediately struck by the striking form of a large Benny Andrews collage hanging in the lobby. The work “No More Games” (1970) which was created around the time the Rhino Horn Group was formed, is a collage inspired by the social turmoil of the Civil Rights movement at home and the Vietnam War abroad. The large scale collage was purchased by the museum in 1971 through the Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller Fund. Rockefeller was a heavily involved and influential figure within MoMA and served twice as the museum’s director. The work of Bob Thompson has also appeared in this very spot on occasion (coincidentally?).

While I’m more than happy to see this work on view at MoMA, its seclusion from the rest of the “Painting and Sculpture II” wing is troubling. It doesn’t help to establish or suggest the major role that Andrews (and Thompson) had on the continuation of figurative art that presented an alternative to the Abstract Expressionism and Proto-Pop art that is a staple of the 1950s/60s rooms. Andrews and Thompson were part of a group of seminal artists during the Second Generation of Abstract Expressionism who returned to representational imagery. Both were also important for addressing the transforming social environment in their work. Aside from his studio practice, Andrews was significant for his activism which interrogated the ways in which institutions and the art world presented and displayed the work of non-white artists. It is therefore even more curious and unfortunate that this display of his work divorces it from its social and aesthetic context. There has been a notable lack of African American artists’ works on display in many major museums and galleries. In what I believe/hope will be a sign of good things to come, MoMA recently hired art historian Darby English to provide consultation and contextualization on their collection of African American art. I was happy to see the work of Sam Gilliam included in a section of late 60s and 70s abstract painters on the 4th floor. Perhaps there will soon be a day when artists like Andrews, Thompson, Emilio Cruz, Earle M. Pilgrim, Norman Lewis, Merton Simpson, Edward Clarke, et al., will be at the forefront the dialog of essential artists during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism, and art of the 1950s onward.

Suggested Reading: The State of the Artworld

– An exhibition of Basquiat’s southern themes will be on view at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. Also at the museum, Rhino Horn artist Benny Andrews’ work will be highlighted by Prospect.3’s Artistic Director Franklin Sirmans, in collaboration with Ogden Curator Bradley Sumrall. It all begins this week in NOLA! via Ogden Museum of Southern Art

– “Instead of any grown-up conversation, what we have instead, what America apparently wants, is artists who are doing very expensive toys,” he says. “Jeff Koons is a good example. What kind of culture expresses itself only in childlike behaviour? Shit jokes and childish humour – and is greeted with huge popularity.” Successor of Figurative Expressionism, Eric Fischl on the state of the arts (fair). via The Guardian

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