Vivian Crockett, Julia Pelta Feldman, Jonathan Patkowski, Gemma Sharpe, Rachel Wetzler

 

This roundtable discussion takes up the recent proliferation of exhibitions at prominent Western museums purporting to offer global or transnational perspectives on modernist and avant-garde art, including “Other Primary Structures” (The Jewish Museum, 2014), “International Pop” (Walker Art Center, 2015), “The World Goes Pop” (Tate Modern, 2015) and “Transmissions: Art in Eastern Europe and Latin America, 1960–1980” (Museum of Modern Art, 2015). Why are these exhibitions taking place now? What art historical methodologies and curatorial strategies have they relied on? Do they differ from previous attempts to “decolonize” the canon? And what is at stake in “globalizing” Western art historical categories like Pop or Conceptualism?

 

WHY NOW?

Rachel Wetzler: I think there are two main issues at hand. First, what is motivating this recent shift towards revisiting art historical moments in a specifically global way? Second, what methodologies have been used in particular exhibitions, and what is successful or unsuccessful about them? What anxieties do they reveal?

Obviously, the global exhibition is not a new phenomenon. It goes back to at least the nineteenth century: the Venice Biennial, for instance, is a “global” exhibition. But the tendency we’re interested in here is a different, and more recent, phenomenon: exhibitions that are revisiting canonical movements or periods in modernism and attempting to revise those histories within an expanded geographical perspective. So, rather than exhibitions that are simply exhibiting art from all over the world—like a biennial, for instance—the exhibitions we’re discussing today are taking existing historical narratives around particular movements or forms that have typically been considered to revolve around Anglo-American or Western European artists and making a case for them as global movements—or movements that had different global manifestations. The question is whether these exhibitions are simply inserting “other” artists into an existing canon while leaving its basic premises intact, or if they successfully challenge our ideas about the relationship between center and periphery.

Another question for us to consider: do these exhibitions propose something like a prehistory of the global art world? Even though they’re ostensibly historical, they’re projecting present-day concerns about the global circulation of artists and artworks onto past movements.

Jonathan Patkowski: Absolutely. And it’s important that we also specify not only when these exhibitions are taking place but also where: hegemonic Western museums that historically ignored the very art they are now celebrating. And that leads me to wonder: what work are these exhibitions doing on behalf of the museums in which they are staged? Perhaps they serve as a form of redress for their institutions’ past Eurocentricism. But it seems equally plausible that these exhibitions implicitly absolve their host institutions of any historical wrongs by suggesting that global art history didn’t exist before 1989 and they are now benevolently staging it for the first time.

Julia Pelta Feldman: It seems to be a gambit of stabilization.

Gemma Sharpe: Exactly. I remember having a conversation with a curator and writer on exhibition history a couple of years ago, who responded with incredulity when I said that I was studying global exhibitions and biennials before 1989. He said, “But there weren’t any!”  People don’t want to be disrupted by the historical revisions that are entailed by these events and histories, their capacity to destabilize assumptions they’re dependent on.

Of course, there are real reasons underpinning the idea of 1989 as marking such a decisive art historical break; from the Berlin Wall coming down and the neoliberal economy thriving in its wake, to the landmark exhibitions that anticipated the global turn of the ’90s. But again, it’s hazier than the idea of a clear break in history and in exhibition-making suggests, because apart from anything it takes more than a year to organize an exhibition like Jean Hubert Martin’s “Magiciens de la Terre” in France or the Third Havana Biennial in Cuba, which are often seen as simultaneous harbingers of the new global art world. 1989 offers a sense of a break but it’s obviously not like those exhibitions came from nowhere or appeared instantaneously!

RW: Along the lines of what Gemma was saying, there’s a certain amount of forgetting that has also taken place. A lot of the literature around Eastern Europe—and I imagine other “marginalized” regions as well—has emphasized isolation and the relative invisibility of these artists, but there were exchanges happening. For instance, there was an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1961 of contemporary Polish painters; this is work that has typically been discussed or presented as being completely ignored and overlooked, and in fact it was presented in New York, within the most hegemonic museum of its kind. But what’s most striking about it to me is less that the exhibition occurred, but that the memory of this having happened has disappeared.[1]

GS: At the same time, these exchanges aren’t always positive, even though we might like to look back to them and think, “Oh wow, wasn’t that great?” But such histories are also taking place in the context of the Cold War, neo-imperial cultural policies, and under the terms of funding from the Rockefellers and the Ford Foundation and oil companies, etc.

RW: Yes, but I do think that the fact that the exchanges have been obscured or forgotten is significant.  Often, these exhibitions and these attempts at historical revision are presented through a discourse around discovery: that these curators or institutions are highlighting things that no one knows about, that no one’s paid attention to, that have never been part of the conversation. But, in many cases, people did know about them, and did exhibit them, during their original moment. And it’s interesting to me to think about what happened in the interim that made these things disappear from view. In the case of Eastern Europe, the escalation of the Cold War certainly has something to do with it, and I imagine other regions have their own dynamics as well.

STYLES

JP: Rachel, your point about international exchange reminds me of something I was thinking about in advance of this conversation, which is that the exhibitions that we’re discussing seem to fall into two general categories: they either trace transnational networks of circulation and exchange, or they describe broadly-defined “international styles” (David Joselit has done really important work recently to rehabilitate and redeploy the term “style”).[2] And “Other Primary Structures” seems to perfectly exemplify the second category; the exhibition does no real historical work beyond identifying striking formal congruences across space between disparate artists.

JPF: You saw many works that had a superficial resemblance to known and loved and trusted New York minimalist works, but ultimately failed to be those works because they had other goals that were not visible in that context. For example, if you look at a work that was visibly hand-painted, and if you think it’s supposed to look like Donald Judd, it’s a bad work, a bad Judd. But this artist is actually interested in the painted mark; this isn’t a Primary Structure. So then the question is: how else can we understand this work if all we know are Judd boxes? We do need some kind of context.

GS: There’s also a way that particular artistic styles become almost hegemonic. Thinking about South Asian modernism, the artists gaining the most historical and curatorial revisionist attention at the moment tend to be those working in a minimalist language. There are very few artists comparable with Nasreen Mohamedi, Rasheed Araeen or Zarina Hashmi in South Asian art history. Those three are outliers in a context where figurative painting and post-cubist abstraction is more common and important. But at the moment they’re the ones making work that we can recognize and find visually legible, and they’re getting the retrospectives.

JP: Yes, I think this point of visual legibility that you’re both raising is so important. Gemma, I remember some time ago you mentioned to me in passing how in a certain way, “Other Primary Structures” distorts the legacy of Rasheed Araeen, because it recast an artist has worked so in many different modes – often ephemeral and politicized – into an apolitical geometric sculptor.

GS: Exactly. Rasheed Araeen is being canonised as a minimalist, but his activism, anti-internationalism, his performance and writing practices, which are often extremely antagonistic, aren’t playing a significant role in the way he’s absorbed by institutions today.

JP: Yes. And he was one of the only artists in that exhibition whose work I was intimately familiar with, so I can only imagine how many other artists could have been re-framed in similarly problematic ways. And this, in turn, raises the problem of expertise: how can a single person stage or critically assess a global exhibition without impossibly extensive art historical knowledge?

JPF: We get curatorial assistants who speak those languages and they do all the research for us.

GS: Vivian, working on Concretism and South America do you have a response to that question of the work that looks [like it’s] of a minimalist or concretist aesthetic being more easily absorbed into the global art world?

Vivian Crockett: I mean, if we think of the examples of people who are most recognizable to those who are not familiar with Brazilian art, it’s Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Clark. Hélio Oiticica gets the benefit of being seen as this “wild,” Brazilian, “tropical” version of Concretist-turned-participatory impulses without any sort of understanding of the nuances of his position in relation to the things that he is incorporating into his work. The work is read through a monolithic understanding of Brazilian: “This is Brazilian culture.” A lot of my work is around unpacking the different sociopolitical conditions that are at play at that time that are informing his interests.

And then someone like Lygia Clark does fit so easily into a broader global context. Her work gets understood via the psychoanalytic, the self, all these things that can be put into a global, universalizing framework without having to understand the culture. So I think with their work different things happen, but the way that they have been propelled forward, especially in the past couple of decades, I think definitely speaks to that, versus artists who are more obscure. Lygia Pape, a lesser known artist within the American and a wider global context, is going to have a show at Met Breuer. And I think we should also think about an institution like that. One of the guiding questions that maybe we can go back to: What are the impulses driving the decision to showcase the work of more obscure artists? The hope is that it’s not only based on the idea of going through a checklist and determining: “We need a Brazilian artist, but it should be a woman. Who can we pull?” Even within the drive for inclusion, solo shows of this nature can feel like the sort of move to tokenize versus expand or disrupt the narrative. And then we forget that this show or that show happened in 20 years, because it was a blip.

JPF: But can’t that turn out to be a good place to start? Before the new Whitney opened, the curators responsible for the collection deliberately looked for gaps. And one of those big gaps was, unsurprisingly, women and artists of color pre-1970. So maybe you can call that a kind of tokenism, but as a result the collection is much richer. In fact, the Carmen Herrera exhibition that’s up there now resulted from their decision to buy a single work by her. Dana Miller, the curator, decided that one token work wasn’t enough.

RW: I’ve found that when institutions like MoMA have staged solo exhibitions of lesser known, non-canonical artists, they’ve been much more successful than historical or group survey shows. For instance, in the last couple of years, MoMA has mounted retrospectives of Sanja Iveković and Alina Szapocznikow, both of which I thought were great. And yet, when they did “Transmissions,” which addressed the same region and general time period, I had a lot of problems with it. Some of that is inherent to the form of the solo show—the ability to do a deep dive into an artist’s work. But it also suggests that these institutions are having some difficulty integrating the artists and movements they’re researching into a broader historical picture of modernism.

JPF: Maybe that simply means that we need more solo shows, or maybe small group shows of two or three artists.

GS: I would push back against that a little, because I think there is also something quite violent about the retrospective and the strategy of pulling artists out of their context and suggesting that isolating a practice is the only means of understanding it or doing it justice. Group shows can be really provocative and important, but perhaps the problem with “Transmissions” was that it was just a bad show. It was a collection show in disguise that was filling space in the calendar. It was showing off the collection by throwing pieces of it together and pretending it was more academic than that. On the other hand, I’m very excited about Okwui Enwezor’s upcoming show “Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic,” which opens this November in Munich. The subsections and curatorial statement are really convincing and historically grounded, and it’s showing work that’s often ignored.

RW: Gemma, you and I were both involved with research assistance for this show, and based on what I’ve seen of the catalogue essays, it seems like a very smart model. Part of what is interesting about it is that it’s not oriented around movements. It’s a very different model to something like “Other Primary Structures,” which is taking a pre-existing, well known art-historical movement like minimalism, and then finding artists from all over the globe who they can retroactively incorporate or stick under that banner. Instead, the HdK show seems oriented around the major ideas that are circulating in the postwar period—the bomb, cybernetics, humanism—and thinking about the varied ways in which artists from different parts of the world responded to them.

VC: I would also want us to think about the role of someone like Enwezor and the idea that there is a notion of a global curator, or to understand the role of someone that has that sort of leverage, with a name that is recognizable on an international scale and what that opens up in terms of being able to maneuver through different institutional contexts and bring different communities together. On the one hand, this is an undeniably positive thing. But at the same time, there is a sense of a “hot list” of international artists who seem to fulfill a diversity quota.

There is this 2010 essay by the art historian Sylvester Ogbechie called “The Curator as Culture Broker” that is a very pointed critique of this phenomenon. His concern is that curators like Enwezor are operating within a very specific global framing that are still dictated by Western art world standards. For him, it ultimately leads to the same African and African-diasporic artists appearing in shows as stand-ins for those artists and cultural figures who do not have the means to circulate within a global network.

There is room to balance the pros and cons of this scenario, but Ogbechie’s concerns are important to consider.

GS: I often wonder how much art historical scholarship gets taken into account in the production of these global shows. So someone like Enwezor frequently collaborates with art historians including Chika Okeke Agulu and Katy Siegel, who is a co-curator on the “Postwar” show, for example. And he is clearly thinking about important scholarship that’s been done over the last 15 or 20 years, for the upcoming show and throughout his practice more generally. Whereas there are curators who don’t perhaps feel any need to take recent scholarship into account. Or they see their curatorial work as a sufficient scholarship in itself, with varying degrees of success!

JPF: I think of Jens Hoffmann as an example of the reverse phenomenon—an “artist curator”—but on the other hand, I must also say that “Other Primary Structures” was a very beautiful show.

GS: But it still purports to be revisionist.

JP: Absolutely—and consider the title, even. If you’re not going to adopt a post-colonial optic, then why choose the word “Other,” which is so laden with post-colonial connotations? Why not just “More”? [laughter] Especially given that Araeen’s 1989 exhibition “The Other Story” deployed the word so intentionally…[3]

JPF: How could it be progressive to fit artists who have previously not gotten sufficient attention in New York into a preexisting New York framework?

JP: Exactly. There is something potentially troubling about taking an art historical category that emerged in a specific Western context (say Minimalism in 1960s New York) and extending its reach globally. Does this relativize Western art history and open it up to broader horizons or does it covertly extend its categorical hegemony? Zoe Sunderland has recently pondered this question regarding Conceptualism in the pages of New Left Review and I think it’s something that’s at stake in all of the exhibitions we’re discussing.[4]

JPF: Another institution that comes to mind is the Grey Art Gallery, which has a very strong collection of international modern art. Their most recent exhibition of modern Iranian art is an interesting case: “Global/Local 1960–2015: Six Artists from Iran.” They went through many versions of the title before settling on that one. Should it foreground the Iranian part or the modern part? I think the Grey ultimately does a fine job of avoiding essentialism because they’re sensitive to these ideas, and because their collection already is such a strong context. The point of this show was to show three generations of artists from the same region who have some of the same history and are responding to some of the same historical circumstances. I thought that was very effective in creating context, because context is the earlier artists. So you actually see a lineage there.

NETWORKS

JP: The title of that exhibition reminds me how there is a scale between the global and the local that is absent from the exhibitions we’re discussing: the regional. What curators once would have readily used to frame a culturally and geographically diverse body of work (think Latin American art or Eastern European art) now appears suspiciously essentializing. This is something that I think is at stake in all the exhibitions we’re discussing: how to situate artists geographically and biographically without essentializing or provincializing them. And as MoMA’s 2013 “Inventing Abstraction” exhibition illustrates, one potential answer lies in the network.

The exhibition recast art history as developing through transnational social networks of individual artists who were unmoored from any national or regional affiliation.  What was so remarkable was how explicitly it made this argument: visitors were greeted by a inspired wall-sized social network diagram that visualized the social and professional relations between members of the international avant-garde. The color and font choices recalled Barr’s famous 1936 “Cubism and Abstract Art” diagram, but the historical lesson was entirely different. Instead of progressing forward through a series of “isms,” the avant-garde extended laterally through a web of social connections. The avant-garde became LinkedIn!

VC: Networks have also played an important role in the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time initiative. The next iteration in 2017 is going be focused on Los Angeles/Latin America and there will be various shows around the exchanges between Los Angeles and Latin America as well as shows that are specifically about Latin American movements and artists. This is one model for examining how artists from different national contexts are interchanging ideas and overlapping in influences, concerns, and oftentimes geographically crossing paths and interfacing and/or collaborating.

JPF: That sense of connectedness in terms of networks—granted that there are problems with it—can be a great answer to the problem of context.

JP: And I think, too, the network can really alter the geography of art history; it maps where people are, not where they’re from. It provides for a relational map that doesn’t tie people to essentializing locational identities—potentially, a Latin American artist could be any artist who happens to work in Latin America. So, on a methodological level, the network can be an effective tool for addressing these thorny issues of identity and place that we’re discussing.

RW: That issue was something I thought about a lot with regard to “Transmissions;” there was a lot of confusion or slippage in that show about what constituted “Eastern European” or “Latin American.” And those are huge, heterogeneous regions to begin with, so the labels are already difficult, but they were further confused by the inclusion of artists like, for instance, Ana Mendieta. Is Ana Mendieta really a Latin American artist for these purposes, just because she’s from Cuba originally? She grows up in Iowa and spends most of her career in New York. Does her work or her career actually have anything to do with what it means to be an artist in Latin America in the 1970s? My sense is no.

JPF: But in a sense, why not? Don’t we want exhibitions that allow a single artist to have multiple identities?

RW: The broader question around these labels is whether it’s more important where you are or where you’re from. Obviously so many of these artists move around; they’re not just staying in one place. And one of the problems with attaching the label of Latin American art to someone like Ana Mendieta is that it treats nationality or origins as more important than the specific place or context in which an artist is working.

JPF: Good point. We would never have a show about New York in the ’80s based on who was born there—that would be preposterous. Because there wouldn’t be any.

JP: Rachel, your point reminds me of a great article of network-based exhibitions by art historian Daniel Quiles, in which he describes how Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro’s 2007 exhibition “The Geometry of Hope” presents Paris as a peripheral node in a map of Latin American art history, which strikes me as such a brilliant move.[5]

But I also think we need to identify the potential dangers of a network-based art history. One of the big ones I see is how it can exclude actors who don’t have the social capital to participate in networks. For example, by measuring an artist’s influence in terms of the quantity of interpersonal relationships she or he accumulated, “Inventing Abstraction’s” Artist Network Diagram made a subtle but striking art historical revision, relegating Kazimir Malevich to the periphery of the avant-garde.[6] Apparently he didn’t have many friends! It’s hard to imagine an account of abstraction that does not dwell on Malevich, and so I wonder what happens to art history more generally when social capital is equated with artistic importance.

But even more troubling, I think, is the way the exhibition quietly wrote non-Western art out of the story of abstraction. Because its network-based methodology could only account for relationships between artists that were personal and reciprocal, it simply couldn’t describe the mediated and inequitable relationships between, say, African mask producers and a Parisian avant-garde artist like Picasso. And so entire non-Western populations of the world were quite literally dropped off the art historical map.

RW: I can’t remember there being any artist who was not already central to the story being elevated in that diagram. But from the perspective of local histories, each of us could probably identify one of those artists who might not seem significant on the global stage, but had enormous impact on a national or regional level. For instance, in “Inventing Abstraction,” the Polish Constructivists Władyslaw Strzemiński and Katarzyna Kobro were quite small on the map, but their impact on modern and contemporary art in Poland, even in the present, is impossible to overstate.

GS: Similarly, sometimes the artists who we think of as relatively unimportant in their own contexts can also become really important in another. In India in the 1950s, for instance, artists weren’t looking at the New York School so much as they were looking at Picasso, Matisse, Klee and, in many cases, Jean Dubuffet. He’s an artist we now love to sneer at, but given how important Paris still was to artists outside Europe at that time, his work had quite an influence. On the other hand, when Greenberg brought an exhibition of Abstract Expressionism over to India in 1967, he himself so mortally offended everyone that the artists felt resistant to the movement, which undermined the project of sending him there.

VC: I’d like to return to this Quiles article, because your point is reminding me of this notion of Paris as a force for Latin American art. I think in relation to some of the artists that I studied, they don’t care about New York art as much. If we’re thinking through the existing hierarchies for examining something like the Brazilian context, the U.S. is maybe understood more like an older sibling, but Europe retains the position as the paternal figure. In fine arts training, you’re looking at the same European models that potentially an artist in the United States is. So then we have more of like a simultaneity happening versus any sort of direct response to American art. We talk a lot about Eurocentrism, but I think in a lot of American discourse there is like a lack of acknowledgement that maybe these artists didn’t care about American art. They saw it and they didn’t necessarily find any useful models and are much more impacted by European models. Hélio Oiticica, for example, was obsessed with Malevich and Mondrian. In his early work, those European artists are moreso his models than anything coming out of the U.S.

JPF: My general impression is that in the larger sense—that is, going back centuries—Latin American art was always deeply connected to European art, that there was always an interchange, with many artists traveling going back and forth. The self-understanding connects to the European tradition in a much stronger way than in North American art.

VC: It absolutely does, yeah.

JPF: There’s the interesting case of Joaquín Torres-García, who learned about primitivism through European modernism and then did something new with it to connect with the past of his own country.

RW: That was another solo show I thought was amazing.

GS: But then the curator had been working on that show for 10 years, which goes back to this question of rigor. It was a seriously rigorous show.

RW: What I found revelatory about that exhibition was that it was impossible to resolve what I was seeing with conventional wisdom around international constructivism. Certain scholars, like Benjamin Buchloh, have proposed a stark divide between the Soviet avant-garde, which is both formally and politically radical, and international constructivism, which is positioned as a bunch of hapless imitators who misread constructivism as a style and create something conservative and derivative from it. That position has been so influential that it’s almost closed the book on groups like Cercle et Carré or Abstraction-Création for years. But when you look at an artist like Torres-Garcia, it opens up an entirely different perspective, allowing us to think about the very diverse ways that a constructivist language was reinterpreted by artists working in different contexts, filtered through local aesthetics and concerns.

JP: I think this returns us to the question of style. As I mentioned earlier, David Joselit has made a really useful distinction between periodization, which suggests a succession of visual forms, and a style, which is essentially a visual paradigm that can be adopted and adapted by a diverse range of practitioners. And for me, this maps on directly to Buchloh’s condemnation of international constructivism. As an avant-gardist critic committed to a progressive, periodized model of history, he can’t help but view international constructivism with disdain – it’s just too unoriginal, too stylistic.

JPF: The problems raised by international constructivism may also lend themselves to the network model. If you have a group of artists in Poland, the similarities between them are not due to their shared Polishness but rather because they are a group—they’re working together with similar influences, talking to each other constantly, and are also geographically removed from other influences. They are connected to other artists all over the world, but naturally, they are most connected with their friends and collaborators.

VC: And then thinking about Gemma’s comment about artists using these influences as a way out. Those artists don’t get to be called an avant-garde, because the avant-garde is capital letters “Avant-Garde” and then what is the term we use to discuss their work? That’s a huge debate within Latin American art. We talk about the vanguard, we don’t get to call them the avant-garde. We find all these other sort of ways to talk around it. Then I think about this question of stylistic grouping. I think it stems from a lack of legibility around what the artists are trying to do. One sees it through a formal context. And then when someone from an outside context looks at it and has none of the cultural cues, they just pick out the understanding “oh, this is also stylistically connected to this” and then that’s how it’s read when there is more depth there that remains illegible.

GS: Which is why the formal approach is so problematic, this kind of tracking of influence, which makes it possible to say that anything using a minimalist vocabulary links to minimalism somehow. But then we can think of Krauss’s argument that in many ways a grid is a grid is a grid. It’s a fundamental form that’s bound to repeat, and not always because of “influence.”[7] So if a grid, or a cube, or whatever occurs in art outside Europe or America, it may just be because it’s a fundamental form, not because it’s been influenced by the “center.”

VC: There is an essay by Kaira Cabañas that asks, “What if the grid is the new palm tree of Latin America?”

RW: That was one of the things I kept coming back to with “Other Primary Structures,” because of course that formal language is so fundamental that you can find it anywhere. But then what is to me constitutive of American minimalism is its relationship to a specific kind of spatial and/or institutional context, which does not necessarily exist in the same way in other parts of the world. So works that are ostensibly minimalist in form are not always negotiating the same questions.

JPF: I do believe that all of the New York minimalists were thinking about context, but certainly it was a very specific kind of context. Yet it was still different for each of them. Perhaps we can even use this idea of the network to explode some of our customary narratives, because what fundamentally united those artists was not a single style or even a unified set of ideas, but a network.

RW: Going back to the question of style, I think that’s very relevant to thinking about the two Pop shows last year. Something I thought a lot about when they opened was how, exactly, to define Pop, and where a region like Eastern Europe fits in. Is Pop a style that’s defined by flatness, bold color, and the appropriation of commercial aesthetics—in which case there are not necessarily very many artists in Eastern Europe making Pop art in the 1960s? Or is Pop about articulating a relationship to consumption? There are a lot of Eastern European artists who are taking up an ambivalent relationship to consumption as a central issue, but the work doesn’t look like what we’d call Pop; it tends to look more like conceptual art or performance.

GS: That was a major problem with the Tate show, which was the criticism David Joselit raised in his Artforum review.[8] That show relied on a formal reading of Pop art. So if artists were using printing technologies or block color, then they would be appropriate, but someone like Bhupen Khakhar from India (who did just have a retrospective at Tate), and was very much working with Pop art in mind, wouldn’t have been appropriate because he doesn’t fit the formalist conceit of the show, irrespective of how relevant his work could be to an understanding of Pop art globally.

VC: It’s also fascinating that prior to this there were women Pop shows, like “Seductive Subversion,” which was also awkwardly trying to bring in artists who had been excluded. It seems to come from this drive to address gaps in our understanding, but then necessarily leads to these artists being understood through the criteria of the dominant canon. They are inevitably seen as a minor subgroup of the true canon.

POLITICS + DISSENT

JP: In the review of “International Pop” and the “World Goes Pop” that Gemma just mentioned, Joselit criticizes the latter exhibition for not including any canonical American or British Pop art, which he sees as well-intended but historically inaccurate. For him, it’s better to contextualize and provincialize that art in a broader global context, as “International Pop” does. Do we agree? Should global exhibitions, for lack of a better phrase, practice responsible art history, or should they polemically intervene in Eurocentric narratives?

RW: It’s disingenuous to pretend that American art wasn’t exerting a huge amount of influence; you can’t look at art of the 1960s and act as if Warhol doesn’t exist. And ultimately, I don’t think an exhibition of Pop that excludes the Anglo-American canon undermines a Eurocentric narrative, because it’s positioned as something fundamentally different and incomparable through its absence.

JP: I have to say though, one aspect of “The World Goes Pop” that I enjoyed was how unabashedly political it was. Jessica Morgan’s catalogue introduction describes 1960s America as a neo-imperialist hegemonic cultural center exporting politics, popular culture, and art across the world, and global Pop art as occurring in the moments when artists received, re-made and contested those exports.[9] In essence, the exhibition subscribed to a classic center-periphery model of cultural transmission shaped by domination and contention, in which Pop art served as a kind of localized anti-colonial cultural practice. This is completely at odds with “International Pop,” which presents the 1960s as the dawn of our globalized present, a period of unprecedented global circulation of artists, artworks, and ideas. In this “horizontalist” world of fluid cultural exchange, questions, contention, and oppositionality all but disappeared.

Now I don’t mean to extol center-periphery models of cultural analysis, which have come under a great deal of critique by theorists like Arjun Appadurai in recent decades, or to decree that exhibitions always be political. But the question of where politics fit into global modernist exhibitions—especially those focused such volatile periods as the 1960s—is worth asking.

GS: But at the same time I remember feeling disturbed by that in the actual show, which fetishized politics somehow. It had that cliched sense that every object from Latin America, for example, was inherently political. Like it was from Latin America so it must be.

JPF: So it replaces old stereotypes with new ones.

GS: Exactly.

RW: This is also a problem with the way Eastern European art is presented: everyone is a dissident. If you walked down the street and waved at someone, you’re a dissident artist engaging in a heroic act of defiance.

JPF: And if you’re not, no one wants to write about you.

RW: Right. But in reality, I think few artists at the time can be called political dissidents in any meaningful sense of the term. Within a kind of residual Cold War framework, that’s been the easiest way for Western critics or curators to make sense of them. But artists’ relationships to the state were typically much more complex than the dissident paradigm allows. The bigger issue with the dissident label is that it assumes that the value of the work resides exclusively in its politics. Ultimately, though, they’re making art; they’re making conscious formal decisions, which tend to drop out of the discussion in favor of highlighting a perceived oppositional relationship to power.

JPF: That’s the other side of the spectrum from the formalism problem.

GS: I have encountered this a lot working with Pakistani art and the Pakistani artists, but it’s somehow an inverse. When the work is shown or talked about in Pakistan or in private, its relation to the extremely complex and difficult politics or images—like the suicide bomber, for example—can be really vexed and even sympathetic. But when that same work travels to Europe or America it is made inherently secular, liberal, and simple. That process deradicalizes the work, if you like, so it doesn’t upset anyone. You certainly can’t be a dissident if you want to get by as a Muslim artist, but perhaps you have to be if you’re an Eastern European artist.

VC: But then is it only because the revisionist model works because it’s then distanced? It’s only OK if it’s the political of the past. We can’t actually talk about current political tensions; we’re not going to include Palestinian artists. We as museums don’t want to go there.

GS: Yeah, or if we do, we’re going to deradicalize it. This is such a problem for contemporary artists. I find it really fascinating that the museum apparently isn’t a place where we can really have difficult conversations about fundamentalism, or ethics and geopolitics. Conversations that go beyond platitudes.

VC: Well, just, I want to circle back to your question about why museums aren’t spaces where we can engage political questions directly. I don’t think we can forget that museums are dependent on donors and connected to these sort of financial forces and any political message has to be filtered through the question of, “who are we upsetting.”

And there’s also the question of estates. What are artists’ estates going to give their OK on? If you’re going to marginalize a major figure in a group show and then ask to borrow the work, there will likely be resistance from the estate.

JPF: Judith Butler was disinvited from the Jewish museum last year, because she said something critical of the Israeli government.

KEYWORDS

JPF: I’d like to ask: what is the difference between international, transnational and global?

VC: Yeah, let’s go there. There is also this other term that comes up in October’s recent “The Global Before Globalization” roundtable.[10] Alessandra Russo brings up the term mondialisation in contrast to globalization; in other words, a world phenomenon versus a global one. For her, it’s a term that accounts for a multidirectional circulation that predates any of our current socioeconomic conditions that influence how globalization is conceived. You can’t even translate it into English, you just look like an asshole who’s trying to speak French . . . but mondalisation gets at something different than what globalization signals.

JPF: Earlier in the conversation, we referred to the Venice biennial being global from its origins, which upon reflection is ridiculous. Rather, it was “international” from its origins. So perhaps international basically means Europe and the U.S., with a few other countries sprinkled in for flavor.

VC: A concept of a global artist is also connected to access, right? The global artist is one that can move freely and probably speak English or can perform certain roles. . .

GS: Or their work speaks English . . .

VC: . . . is Biennial friendly!

RW: There’s a work by a Croatian artist, Mladen Stilinović, from 1992 which is literally a banner that says an artist who cannot speak English is no artist. And it speaks to the fraught dynamic that accompanies the shift to a global model in a sense: after ’89, in the post-socialist sphere, there was suddenly this access to the international art world that had not existed before. But at the same time, artists were having to make their way into an entirely different, unfamiliar context—a market context, for one [thing].

GS: Terms like that represent different periods and are useful in that way, so we can now think historically about [how] “internationalism” was once preferable to “universalism” or “transnationalism,” and why. That helps us be a bit more sophisticated when thinking about extended histories of globalization. So we can avoid the compulsion to see it as a smooth progression. I think that compulsion impacts the way that the Third Havana Biennial is historicized now, for example. As I mentioned earlier, it’s seen as one of the first big global shows that signalled that the global art world had arrived and that 1989 was a watershed. But perhaps it’s more correct and accurate to think of the Biennial as one of the last internationalist shows before globalization as we now know it arrived. And when you think about it like that you can remove some of this glossy rhetoric that the globalization of the art world often carries, along with the patronizing notion that the internationalist projects that preceded it were so amazing. You know, all the little countries getting together and making their little biennials. But it wasn’t glossy. Internationalism was fraught. Non-alignment didn’t always work, and the biennials and exhibitions that we contextualize through that history weren’t always friendly affairs. That needs to be understood.

JP: I think that’s such a good point and reminds us how we have to preserve the historically-contingent meaning of these words. Their definitions are not timeless.

JPF: There is a sense in which a national label can be neutral. It’s not an interpretation if you’re simply listing what’s on the artist’s passport.

VC: But it is. Yeah, it is, because then it’s like there is this unique, singular, monolithic idea of what a national identity means when there are all these particularities with their national framework. National identity gets maneuvered to stand in for a homogenous understanding of a nation.

JP: Absolutely—a global art history should never automatically discount the historical importance of the nation-state, even as a shared fiction.

COLLECTIONS

RW: Has anyone seen the 1960s rehang at MoMA, which is also a global display?[11] That also used a model that I found extremely unsuccessful: the show moves through the decade chronologically, with each gallery devoted to a single year, but the work in each room is a geographical and stylistic mix.

JPF: But is it the model itself that’s the problem? I came away from that feeling glad that they had tried this experiment, but also that it ultimately failed.

RW: I see ways in which, hypothetically, that could work. My problem was that it seems like there was a chronological determinism at play, where all of a sudden the year 1963 for instance becomes the justification for putting a bunch of stuff in a room. And ultimately it projects meanings onto them.

VC: Like the “affinity” model, only chronological affinities.

RW: There was one room in particular where almost everything was black: a black-and-white Op art work by Julian Stanczak, black monochromes by Daniel LaRue Johnson, Alberto Burri, and Leon Ferrari, a black wood relief sculpture by Louise Nevelson, and so on. All of these artists are doing profoundly different things, but you walk away with the sense that 1963 is just the year of the black monochrome.

JPF: I found that grouping very effective, because the viewer is confronted with the fact that while some artists—working in Op, say—used the color black in a purely formal way, others found ways of exploding that neutrality.

RW: I thought it was very flattening: in a sense all I could see was the fact that everything was black and white. But more importantly, even if you can make an interesting formal comparison between these works, when you use the timeline as the primary organizational logic, you’re assuming something about their contemporaneity—that there is something shared by these artists because they are working in the same year, or that the timeline is universal. But the social, political, and artistic landscape of 1963 is very different from region to region, as are the major touchstones.

JPF: That was one of the great successes of Okwui Enwezor’s Documenta 11, in that it stepped outside of the European timeline, looking beyond dates like 1945 or 1968. It’s amazing that such a simple gesture can have such power to reorient our thinking.

GS: It’s interesting to compare it to how the Tate has been displaying its collections over the last two or three years, and especially now since the new extension opened. In a way Tate has never claimed to be totally rigorous because it’s had to find creative ways to show a patchy collection. It can’t really do a solid chronology, so it’s always tried more experimental displays. Sometimes that doesn’t work, and sometimes it’s really useful and interesting. The current collection hang is really, really global and there are so many works in there that I’ve never seen before and didn’t know anything about. And what’s been really striking is that in order for it to become more global, it’s kicked out so much of its really canonical material.

JPF: You have to kick something out. . . .

GS: Exactly, you have to make space, and MoMA will never make space, because its Modernism collection, the “Post-Impressionism to Ab-Ex” story, is just too strong to be moved. So it kind of sits there in the museum as kind of deadweight. And Tate is really fascinating because it’s refused to create its own deadweights. But what it’s also done recently, which is really interesting, has allowed itself to become a bit boring! It’s not aiming to be populist, and it may not satisfy the crowds who want to take selfies in front of the Warhols, because it would rather show an Eastern European artist you’ve never heard of instead. What’s so great is that in the end the display isn’t sexy, spectacular, or even familiar. But it’s really fascinating.

VC: And it avoids a sort of cabinet of curiosity feel?

GS: Yes, because it refuses spectacle. It takes itself a bit seriously and like I said, is a bit boring sometimes! I think that’s how it avoids a cabinet of curiosity feel.

JP: While the drive behind many of these global exhibitions seems to be to towards horizontal interconnection, you’re both describing moments which instead highlight radical disjuncture, and that seems very important to hold onto.

VC: In our preparation for this conversation, one of the texts we were considering was the Thelma Golden piece from the Summer 2016 issue of Artforum where she is reflecting back on her 1991 Whitney exhibition, “Black Male.”[12] There is this sort of elephant in the room in our conversation here, where we might find a lot of parallels to the questions raised by our discussion: identity, or any show that connects to identity. How can we connect the question of identity within art world practices to our discussion of the global? We haven’t necessarily bridged why we chose to include this text and what models we can examine from the context of identity-based shows.

GS: I wonder if it speaks to how important thinking critically about the 1990s is within a discussion like this. That show was so important in the context of the decade of multiculturalism, and identity politics, and Frederic Jameson’s white-male postmodernism, and globalization post-1989, if we’re going to use that date. Arguably we’re negotiating the 1990s even if we’re working on art in the 1950s and 1960s and earlier. We have to look through or over that decade. Exhibitions and texts and discussions that took place in the 1990s are influencing our methodology. They have created openings, and blockages, and perhaps we aren’t always as aware of it as we could be.

VC: Going back to Thelma Golden’s reflections on the “Black Male” show: one of the points she makes is that she wanted to make sure to include artists who weren’t necessarily black or male in the show. The goal being to bring in artists who are addressing black masculinity in some way. In this way she is dealing with the double-bind of identity and the drive to put artists united under one identity category in only shows that are about that category.

JPF: Is that sort of like the difference between a show of women artists and a show on feminism?

VC: Yes. I think that is the argument she is making. Or similarly in Kellie Jones’s curatorial practice. We can see this in her recent shows, “Now Dig This!” and “Witness.” “Witness” is about civil rights–related subject matter, but then also includes artists like Jim Dine that you wouldn’t necessarily assume would be in that show.

RW: The shift we’ve been talking about also coincides with the wave of exhibitions around feminism from 2007 to 2010 or so, in which a number of major museums did big shows of women artists: “Global Feminisms” at the Brooklyn Museum (2007), “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution” at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art and MoMA PS1 (2007-08), “elles@centrepompidou” in Paris (2009).

VC: Which is also around the time of the “women in Pop” shows we mentioned earlier.

RW: Yeah. So there are also these other kinds of thematic or categorical revisions that have been happening as well. And a lot of those feminist or all-women shows were not well-received by feminist scholars and critics: it seemed like some institutions were responding to criticisms about gender bias in their displays by simply throwing all the women artists in a room and saying, “See? We brought them out.”

VC: And then within that phenomenon, the “Global Feminisms” show seems to me a deliberate attempt to address an international framework.

GS: Vivian, that also goes back to your question about “Black Male,” and the way that the ’90s has thrown up questions of identity.

VC: That’s a good point. And the drive towards multiculturalism is a really important thing to consider in this context, too.

RW: It’s interesting that the word “multiculturalism,” which was such a touchstone in the 1990s, has dropped out of use. There’s something a little embarrassing about that “United Colors of Benetton” moment—the naive belief that structural inequality can be overcome or erased simply by acknowledging cultural difference.

VC: Yes, “we are the world.”

RW: While we’ve found a lot of problematic issues with these global exhibitions, would we agree that initiatives like C-MAP at MoMA are doing really important research?[13]

VC: Which “Transmissions” comes out of. So where does the failure of that show come from for you?

RW: I think there’s a disconnect between theory and practice. C-MAP comes out of an acknowledgment of the blind spots in the collection and has a group of curatorial researchers that are actively seeking out material in a way that seems quite rigorous. But I have yet to see that research translated successfully into exhibitions. “Transmissions” was a completely unrigorous show.

JPF: And yet the most radical thing about C-MAP, in my opinion, is that it’s not exhibition driven, because that is a superficial and short-term way of engaging with any topic. The goal is building the collection itself to be more inclusive, and also, and simply, learning—building the expertise of the team for the long-term.

JP: On a slightly different note, and without sounding too conspiratorial,  I wonder if there is any connection between exhibitions like the “World Goes Pop” or initiatives like C-MAP and broader institutional efforts by the Tate or MoMA to gain expertise in and ultimately acquire non-Western artwork, much of which I assume is undervalued?

GS: The market is an elephant in the room, and in this discussion. You just mentioned “The Other Story” and in 2010 the Aicon Gallery in London staged an exhibition “revisiting” it. It’s a great gallery and they’re doing important work in terms of bringing Araeen’s work to prominence. But that show was also about galvanizing his market and that’s not necessarily a bad thing at all. There’s a great article by Kavita Singh in which she argues that the state-run institutions in India don’t have the money or the resources to get involved in supporting or collecting contemporary art anymore.[14] But she argues that galleries and collectors are doing a pretty good job of filling the gap left by the state. They’re putting together experimental shows and supporting critical projects. I will admit that I feel quite grateful when a commercial gallery starts showing an artist that I want to work on. And the galleries are often really keen to give you support and work with you, because it helps them and they’re happy to help you. It’s so problematic but we can’t get away from it in this field.

VC: I think there is one more factor in terms of the market. I think part of the anxiety for museums and other art institutions to include new narratives is because they are recognizing the economic power of certain places like Brazil, for example. I think Brazilian art has had this huge spike in attention within the art world, because it partially comes out of recognizing that there is a market there, that there are a lot of rich Brazilians. And I think the same is true for like a lot of Middle Eastern art. To me, the impulse also comes from understanding that there is a network of people from these different contexts who are going to buy.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

JPF: What do we want from these exhibitions? We want destabilization, and we want more risks. Curators should not be afraid to make mistakes, but let’s at least make mistakes that err on the side of shaking things up.

VC: We need context, too. Some of the criticism around MoMA’s Lygia Clark exhibition made clear that there was little to no context for the art. Some writers had no understanding of the culture, and so the argument goes: “Oh, she went to Paris. She was influenced by French artists.” And that’s the end of the argument about the show. So it’s not enough to have these shows if we are lacking in the tools to historicize and contextualize the work.

JPF: Yes, I also heard the importance of context mentioned multiple times today.

RW: Yes. It’s very important to contextualize unfamiliar work that is being presented to an audience—even an informed audience—for the first time. I don’t know anything about Pakistani art and I think a lot of art historians probably don’t know anything about Polish art. That means giving a sense of the artist’s individual background, but also what’s going on around them politically, culturally, and socially.

VC: And how do we successfully address these simultaneous occurrences that happen on a global scale? We need to successfully present these transnational connections without sliding into that MoMA chronological affinity position.

JP:  Yes—and in that vein, we need to account for disjunction as well as interconnection; to map global art histories that capture the world’s uneven geographies and not only its fluid horizontal connections.

RW: I think we have to accept that it’s impossible to create a seamless narrative around a single style or movement that will be able to encompass the entire globe. And that’s why I’m optimistic about “Postwar,” because I think it starts from the presumption that movements are not the most productive way to conceive of a global art history, that picking up a thread or theme that artists in different places are exploring at the same time might work better.

JP: Yes, it invites us to consider new methodologies for “curating the global”—to imagine exhibitions organized around, say, the television or atom bomb instead of Pop art or Minimalism.

   

Julia Pelta Feldman is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Fine Arts at NYU. Her dissertation research focuses on New York in the 1970s. She is a Joan Tisch Teaching Fellow at the Whitney Museum of American Art, as well as director of Room & Board, an artist’s residency and salon at her home in Brooklyn.

Vivian Crockett is a multinational, Brazilian-born independent researcher, scholar, and curator focusing largely on art of African diasporas, (Afro)Latinx diasporas, and Latin America at the varied intersections of race, gender, and queer theory. She is a Ph.D. candidate in art history at Columbia University whose dissertation examines artistic practices and discourses in Brazil in the sixties and seventies. 

Jonathan Patkowski is a PhD Candidate in Art History at The Graduate Center, CUNY. His doctoral research focuses on questions of politics and cultural identity in post-war UK art, with emphasis on moving image-based practices.

Gemma Sharpe is a PhD candidate in Art History at the Graduate Center, CUNY. Between 2011 and 2014 she was based in Karachi, Pakistan, where she taught at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture and was a Coordinator at Vasl Artists’ Collective.

Rachel Wetzler is a doctoral candidate in art history at CUNY Graduate Center and a lecturer at Baruch College. Her research focuses on postwar art in Eastern and Central Europe. 

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NOTES

[1] “Fifteen Polish Painters,” Museum of Modern Art, New York, August-October, 1961.

[2] David Joselit, “On Aggregators,” October 146 (Fall 2013): 3-18.

[3] “The Other Story: Afro-Asian Artists in Post-War Britain,” Hayward Gallery, London, 1989, curated by artist and writer Rasheed Araeen.

[4] Zoe Sunderland, “The World as Gallery,” New Left Review 98 (March/April 2016): 81-112.

[5] Daniel Quiles, “Exhibition as Network, Network as Curator: Canonizing Art from “Latin America,” Artl@s Bulletin 3.1 (Spring 2014): 62-78.

[6] The Artist Network Diagram can be viewed on the “Inventing Abstraction” exhibition page here: http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2012/inventingabstraction/MoMA_InventingAbstraction_Network_Diagram.pdf (accessed September 30, 2016).

[7] Rosalind Krauss, “Grids” and “The Originality of the Avant-Garde” in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985): 8-22 and 151-170.

[8] David Joselit, “‘International Pop’ and ‘The World Goes Pop:’ Walker Art Center, Minneapolis and Tate Modern, London,” Artforum 54.5 (January 2016): 230.

[9] Jessica Morgan, “Political Pop: An Introduction” in The World Goes Pop, eds. Jessica Morgan and ‎Flavia Frigeri (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015): 15-28.

[10] Barry Flood, David Joselit, Alexander Nagel, Alessandra Russo, Eugene Wang, Christopher Wood and Mimi Yiengpruksawan, “Roundtable: The Global Before Globalization,” October (Summer 2010, 133): 3–19.

[11] “From the Collection: 1960–1969” is a re-installation of MoMA’s fourth-floor collection galleries that purports to highlight the inter-disciplinarity of artistic production in the 1960s. On display from March 2016 to March 2017, the exhibition is arranged chronologically, with each gallery focusing on work from a single year.

[12] Thelma Golden, “On ‘Black Male’ (1994–95),“ Artforum 54.10 (Summer 2016): 141-142.

[13] Founded by MoMA in 2009, C-MAP (Contemporary and Modern Art Perspectives) is a cross-departmental research initiative that is dedicated to the study of art history outside of Europe and the United States. Per the Museum’s website, one of C-MAP’s overarching goals is to foster “greater geographical diversity in the Museum’s exhibition and acquisition programs.” See https://www.moma.org/research-and-learning/international-program/globalresearch (accessed October 15, 2016).

[14] Kavita Singh, “A History of Now”, ART India, Volume XV, Issue 1 (June 2010): 26-33.