What Do We Want from Art History? Shows Around New York Expand the Canon, With Varying Success

Long before Hannah Gadsby made their hit Netflix standup special Nanette, they were painting on the walls of their childhood home. Sometime around 1995, in their parents’ basement, Gadsby made their own version of Pablo Picasso’s Large Bather with a Book, a 1937 painting of a figure bent over an open volume, the person’s back abstracted into colliding spheres and prisms. It’s not too shabby for something scrawled by a teenager.

But the doodle isn’t exactly what you’d expect to see in a museum. Still, it wound up in one nevertheless—the Brooklyn Museum, that is, where the comedian co-organized, with staff curators Catherine Morris and Lisa Small, the instantly infamous “It’s Pablo-matic: Picasso According to Hannah Gadsby.” The chunk of wall hangs beneath a gigantic Cecily Brown painting and among several Picasso pieces, with masterworks by feminist artists like Howardena Pindell, Dara Birnbaum, and Ana Mendieta sprinkled throughout.

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It would be easy to write off “Pablo-matic” as a joke—it’s organized by a comedian and titled with a pun, after all. But doing so has proved polarizing: the backlash to the backlash casts the show’s critics as protectors of a dying canon. Brooklyn Museum director Anne Pasternak rebutted the controversy in an interview with Curbed NY by saying, “if you talk to young art historians, they are like, ‘I don’t care if I ever see another Picasso.’ ‘I don’t care if I ever see another Degas.’” She seemed to side with these unspecified youths, adding that she wanted her museum to be a part of “the conversations that people are having today.”

“Pablo-matic” is the splashiest in a number of museum exhibitions on view in New York right now that urge us to rewrite art history, given all the progress we’ve made when it comes to gender and racial equality, and start the story anew. Fair enough. Most of us who have endured an art history survey—or have even seen a major museum’s collection—know how many white men populate the canon. This fact is underscored by one “Pablo-matic” artist, Kaleta Doolin, who made A Woman on Every Page (2018) by slicing out a vaginal void from every page of H.W. Janson’s landmark textbook History of Art, first published in 1962 and still updated and taught today. The book is shown open to a page bearing the image of Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907).

A giant read sign reading 'IT'S PABLO-MATIC: PICASSO ACCORDING TO HANNAH GADSBY' at the entrance to an art gallery. A painting is visible behind its doors.
The entrance to the exhibition “It’s Pablo-matic: Picasso According to Hannah Gadsby,” 2023, at the Brooklyn Museum.

But rewriting is one matter, and recklessly argued hot takes, entirely another. “It’s Pablo-matic” falls into the latter category, offering works that allegedly contend with Picasso’s legacy in some way, but in fact have other references. There’s a Faith Ringgold painting that refers directly to an Henri Matisse canvas, for example, and a Nina Chanel Abney work that pays homage to a Manet. Picasso, who physically and emotionally abused women in his orbit while also using them as his muses, is deserving of criticism, but shoehorning in tangentially related works such as these is a weird way to do that.

There were brave women who exposed Picasso’s bad behavior during his lifetime, among them painter Françoise Gilot, who, after a decade-long relationship with him, wrote a revealing book about it. But the curators don’t even include any of her work, an omission that became all the more glaring when she died just days after the show opened.

“It’s Pablo-matic” is proof that the field of art history is changing, for better and for worse. Museums are somewhat newly self-reflexive about their role in shaping the culture and the discourse, and are working hard to stay relevant and expand the canon—and to grow their audiences. Once, museums were places to engage with meaning and beauty, to try to comprehend the human experience across time and cultures. Now, nuance is being swapped out for one-liners in an effort toward an elusive kind of “accessibility.”

“Rear View,” a cheeky meditation on artists’ obsession with plump rumps across the years at LGDR gallery in Manhattan, is also born from this tendency. This group show would have been dismissible as flimsy had the gallery not secured so many first-class artworks. There was a stunning Barkley Hendricks painting of a nude woman from behind, one arm holding the other, and a fabulous Félix Vallotton image of a female backside that doubles as a study of contrapposto. Prime examples of works by market darlings like Issy Wood and Jenna Gribbon were also on view, offering feminist perspectives.

A painting of a woman's behind.
Felix Vallotton: Étude de fesses, ca. 1884.
A close-up of a hairy buttocks.
Yoko Ono: Film No. 4: Bottoms, 1966.

Every so often, a sharp juxtaposition appeared: the Vallotton was cast beside the Yoko Ono film Bottoms (1966), a series of close-ups of men’s and women’s derrieres. In this context, the Ono film felt like a more equitable and less horny alternative to Vallotton’s male gaze. The works were amusing, but I didn’t come away feeling like I learned much about these artists or, for that matter, butts. I cringed at the pairing of an Anselm Kiefer photograph of the artist performing a Nazi salute—a work that once caused art historian Benjamin H.D. Buchloh to label Kiefer “a fascist who thinks he’s antifascist”—and a Carrie Mae Weems shot of the artist herself standing in the doorway of a Louisiana house where multiple white owners held enslaved people as their property. Buttocks appear in both these works, sure, but the reductive framing of keisters as their binding theme feels insensitive.

Much-needed attempts to revise the canon and offer retorts to the form it has championed are finally being made. But they’re being done hastily, and worse, as a disservice to the artists (and to nuance in general). This provokes a larger question: What do we want from art history?

The query echoes in the phenomenon that ArtReview recently termed the “blockbuster dialogue exhibition,” wherein a lesser-known figure is paired with a famous one, as if to secure the former’s spot in the canon and put them on equal footing with a bona fide “master.” Think Tate Modern’s current show about Hilma af Klint and Piet Mondrian, two pioneering abstractionists whose work has formal similarities, or the Fondation Louis Vuitton’s acclaimed Claude Monet–Joan Mitchell doubleheader.

When the pairings are successful, this formula has offered revelatory looks at beloved figures. But in New York this season, two smaller museum exhibitions following the model showed its limits, with tenuous matches for unlike artists.

A gallery with a large pedestal on which stand sculptures of elongated white figures beside abstract black monolith-like sculptures formed from crushed bronze.
View of the exhibition “The Encounter: Barbara Chase-Riboud/Alberto Giacometti,” 2023, at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

At the Museum of Modern Art, “The Encounter” places Barbara Chase-Riboud’s and Alberto Giacometti’s sculptures side by side. His are spare, spindly figures; hers are blocky, metallic abstractions. Unlike af Klint and Mondrian or Monet and Mitchell, Chase-Riboud and Giacometti did meet—she visited his Paris studio in 1962. She was 39 years his junior and had just moved to the French capital after becoming the first Black woman to receive an MFA from Yale. The show features works by both artists with titles referring to female Venetians. Giacometti’s Femme de Venise (1956) boasts a slender white figure formed from white plaster; Chase-Riboud’s Standing Black Woman of Venice (1969/2020) is a towering monolith crafted from crushed black bronze.

But the exhibition also includes Chase-Riboud works that don’t have a lot to do with Giacometti’s. One example is the gorgeous 1973 sculpture Le Manteau (The Cape) or Cleopatra’s Cape in which braids of rope spill from a structure covered in copper squares. This allows her to speak on her own, avoiding the “Pablo-matic” pitfall of framing a woman’s work as a retort to the male canon. But the show might have been just as effective without showing any Giacometti works at all.

Over at the Frick Collection’s temporary Breuer space, a newly commissioned Nicolas Party installation responds to a painting by Rosalba Carriera, whose Italian Rococo pastel portraits are badly in need of a retrospective. Party hung Carriera’s circa-1730 portrait of a man in a pilgrim’s costume against a mural of his own: it shows a pastel patterned dress floating and undulating in a black void. Two similar images also appear on adjacent walls, both with Party’s own garish paintings of blue- and white-faced people hung atop them. It’s clear that Party reveres Carriera’s sfumato—his floating garments are glossy and lush, just like her surfaces—but the similarities end there. Party’s domineering visual fanfare forces Carriera’s painting into the background even as her work overlies one of his. In the end, this feels less like a meeting of minds across centuries than just another feather in Party’s cap, proving that in some “dialogue exhibitions,” one voice will still be louder than the other.

A tall gallery with knotted wire arrangements in the shape of grids hanging down.
View of the exhibition “Gego: Measuring Infinity,” 2023, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

The #MeToo movement and Black Lives Matter pushed scholars and curators to look back at art history for figures who have been overshadowed, and ever since, each season has boasted a “rediscovery.” The big one this summer around was Gego, a modernist sculptor who fled Nazi Germany for Venezuela in the 1930s. The Guggenheim rotunda is filled with an array of delicate geometric sculptures that Gego formed by gently twisting steel into hanging grids and globes. The show began with sculptures of the ’50s formed from painted iron lines that intersect, creating the illusion of movement, but it is her signature sparse nets and weaves, made between 1969 and her death in 1994, that are the exhibition’s stars.

The Guggenheim version of this traveling show, curated by Pablo León de la Barra and Geaninne Gutiérrez-Guimarães, generally relies on formalist readings of Gego’s art, pointing out that her sculptures were never just flat, static things. But these abstractions are ripe for plucking from their sociopolitical context, which has been relegated to the indispensable catalogue, as has Gego’s complex life story. In that book, curator Julieta González, who organized this retrospective’s initial showing at the Museo Jumex in Mexico City, positions Gego’s grid-like arrangements as analogies for what was taking place in Caracas at the time: artists were creating networks of their own, often in opposition to the Venezuelan government’s preference for unruly modernist utopianism. It’s revelatory reading. Curiously, almost none of González’s points make it into the Guggenheim galleries.

Perhaps this is because the Guggenheim was afraid the nitty gritty of Gego’s context would be tricky to translate across time and cultures. So instead, the show positions her as an artist who “defied categorization,” a zeitgeisty phrase used to describe people and artworks that cross classifications of all kinds. This feels like a giveaway about what this show’s curators—and those of other “rediscovery” retrospectives—are really after: they want art that speaks to the present, not art that enhances or challenges our understanding of the world.

A gallery wall hung with images of a Black man in jeans and a T-shirt set against a white background. His image shifts between the artworks. Above one of them is an image of three figures under a darkened sky.
View of the exhibition “Darrel Ellis: Regeneration,” 2023, at the Bronx Museum, New York

Against all this, you have a show by Darrel Ellis, an artist whose story resists traditional narratives of the heroic straight white male artist. In fact, he confronted this myth directly in his work, while also embracing more vulnerable and humble materials. His extraordinary Bronx Museum of the Arts retrospective provides a strong case for why he deserves greater recognition.

Before he died of AIDS-related causes in 1992 at age 33, Ellis frequently worked with the photography archive of his father, who was beaten to death by plainclothes police officers not long before the artist was born. Ellis rephotographed his dad’s black-and-white pictures of his family and projected them on uneven plaster surfaces. The resulting photos of those original shots against the plaster appear fractured, split, and rumpled, troubling the images of the past while also reanimating them.

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It helps that Ellis himself was an art history enthusiast, and thus aware of his relationship to the canon, to which he responded directly. He grew up in the South Bronx, gravitated toward museums in Manhattan, and fell in love with Eugène Delacroix, Edvard Munch, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Curators Antonio Sergio Bessa and Leslie Cozzi point out that Ellis even cribbed compositions from these artists for his own paintings. Take Untitled (After Delacroix), ca. 1980–90, in which Ellis appropriates a Delacroix painting of Hamlet from 1839, with the Frenchman’s rich reds now rendered in brushy black and white. If Delacroix lavished attention on Hamlet, Ellis seems more focused on the man holding Yorick’s dug-up skull. Perhaps Ellis saw in that man a parallel for himself, an exhumer of the past, more than one of history’s protagonists.

A painting of a Black man standing in a white portal in an apartment. A telephone hangs on a wall beside him alongside a painting of a person.
Darrel Ellis: Untitled (Self-Portrait after Allen Frame Photograph), ca. 1990.

Ellis also copied images of himself photographed by icons such as Robert Mapplethorpe, Peter Hujar, and Allen Frame, whose picture of Ellis standing in a doorway Ellis translated across papers and canvases in varying sizes, in both ink and acrylic, all hung next to each other in the Bronx Museum show. In Ellis’s hands, the edges of Frame’s photo fade into stark blankness. We’re ultimately left with a ghost—a living memory of a dead image. Ellis was keenly aware of the specters of art history, and he welcomed them, even as he also distanced himself from them. We’d all be wise to do the same.

Source: artnews.com

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