The provincialism of collectors and cura- tors of contemporary art is a signal fact of our culture. The geographical exclusivity, class narrowness, formal predictability, and political innocuousness of the art on view at even the newest museums and galleries of contemporary art is testimony to this fact.
Two cases in point: The “New Contemporary” galleries at the Art Institute of Chicago, which opened this year and the Broad Museum in Los Angeles, which debuted in 2015. Many people have written critically about the new galleries at the AIC including me, so I won’t repeat myself, except to say that its parochialism is compound- ed by the sin of pride.
All 44 of the works recently donated by Stefan Edlis and Gael Nesson, which constitute the core of the re-installation, must remain exactly where they hang for at least a generation. The current U.S. president might contrive a third term, the economy may collapse, and the planet may roast, but works by Jeff Koons, Gerhard Richter, Richard Prince, and Andy Warhol will remain exactly where they are, undisturbed.
The Broad Museum is a larger and more ambitious undertaking than the New Contemporary and a clearer example of the problem of parochialism. Located on Grand Avenue in Los Angeles next door to Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall, it stands opposite MOCA (designed by Arata Isozaki) in what is emerging as a contemporary art corridor.
On a trip to Los Angeles and vicinity last November, I visited The Broad twice and viewed the contemporary collections at the LA Country Museum of Art, MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art) and the Palm Springs Museum.
Its other nearby, contemporary art rivals include the Geffen MOCA (formerly the Temporary Contemporary) about a half-mile to the south, and near that, Hauser and Wirth, a behemoth commercial gallery in a converted flour factory. Finally, about five miles west is the Broad Contemporary Art Museum at the LA Country Museum of Art, which opened in 2008. The artworks at the LACMA Broad however were transferred last year to the eponymous downtown museum.
At a total of 120,000 square feet, the Broad Museum is bigger than its rivals, and its architecture, by Diller, Scofidio and Renfro, more conservative. Its decorative, white, honeycomb facade recalls Edward Durrell Stone’s classicizing U.S. Embassy in New Delhi (1959) though without the brass, cruciform columns and portico. Its biomorphic lobby however is pure Hollywood.
In addition to the gift shop, it contains a pair of grey arterials, one for the escalator and another for the stairs, carrying visitors to the galleries on the third floor. In-between the gallery floors is a vast, storage area visible through a glass window- wall alongside the down-escalator. Transit up and down reminded me of the Cold-War cult classic “Fantastic Voyage” (dir. Richard Fleischer) starring Raquel Welch and Stephen Boyd as scientists shrunk to micron size in order to travel by miniature submarine through the blood vessels of a comatose scientist. In this case, voyagers are treated to nothing more exciting than rack upon rack of art storage, with the works themselves largely invisible.
Inside the galleries are rotating exhibitions drawn from the 2,000+ works comprising the collection. At the moment, the lower galleries feature an exhibition called “Creature,” concerned with human animality, though the thesis is gen- erally indiscernible in the actual artworks. There were a few that contained actual bits of animals, including Meyer Vaisman’s Untitled Turkey XIV, which consists of a stuffed turkey enveloped in wool fleece (its beak is just visible), perched on top of a pine crate.
The artist, who like many of the Broad artists came to prominence in the 1980s, (in this case via the so-called “Neo-Geo” movement) has recently foresworn effigies of humans and animals as part of his newfound Jewish orthodoxy. Turkey XIV unfortunately rehearses the clichés of teratology—that nature produces monsters and that visual pleasure comes from gaping at them.
Other works in “Creature” are more successful, some even compelling. These include a group of six enormous Leon Golub pictures: Mercenary, Interrogation, White Squad, Wounded Sphinx and Thremody. Unframed, hung from the wall with grommets, scraped raw like picked-at scabs, they remain today what they were when they were painted in the 1980s: indictments of U.S. sponsored torture, death
squads, and terrorism.
Piotr Uklanski’s Nazis (1998), consisting of rows of still photos (164 in all) of Polish and Hollywood actors dressed in the costume of SS officers, successfully conveys the manner in which mass culture manages to familiarize and domesticate even the most rebarbative of subjects. (James Mason appears no less than three times in the pictures.) But other works here are over familiar or anodyne in the extreme including a Beuys felt suit, and neo-expressionistic paintings by Susan Rothenberg, Georg Baselitz and Jean Michel Basquiat.
The un-themed galleries upstairs include works by Warhol, Kara Walker (a dedicated room), John Baldessari, Jasper Johns, Keith Haring and Bas- quiat (also with a dedicated room), Cy Twombly (again a solo room), Robert Longo, David Salle, Beuys and Anselm Kiefer (in their own room), Damien Hirst, and Takeshi Murakami.
The Broad Museum, like its LA and Chicago rivals, promotes a highly circumscribed vision of contemporary art, one dictated by the big galleries, museums, donors, art fairs, auction houses and investors. It consists almost entirely of painting and sculpture, with the prominent exception of large-scale photo- graphs by Cindy Sherman, Andreas Gursky, Jeff Wall, Richard Prince and one or two others.
There are no films or videos, no installations, no Fluxus or Neo-Dada, no conceptual works, no performance art, and no straight photographs. There are no artworks that may be described as “relational” or “social practice,” and nothing associated, for example, with Creative Time, the non-profit that sup- ports site-specific and politically engaged art. None of the art at the Broad or its rivals may be described as in any way functional. Its uselessness is vaunted. There are no agitational posters, broadsides, handbills, props, puppets, or other works of protest or tendency. There is no ceramics, glass, or woodwork. There is no furniture, textiles or wearable art or craft. None of the art is made for ritual use. None is made by amateurs, outsiders, children, or the mentally disabled. None is made by Australian Aborigines, Native Hawaiians, First Nation or any other indigenous peoples from around the world. None is from about 150 other countries represented at the United Nations. None is made for tourists or proletarians and none is affordable to any but the very, very wealthy.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When European and American artists associated with the avant-garde first encountered tribal, indigenous and folk arts and crafts in the 1880s and ‘90s, it led to a transformation in their practice. No longer was art simply a matter of rendering a likeness or even establishing a new, representational style. It was instead a question of sheer expressivity, regardless of whether a particular person, place or thing was being explicitly depicted, or pure functionality.
At one level, this meant that European and American art could gain sustenance from (and even exploit) the art and culture of its colonies, both external and internal. But at another level, it meant a newfound appreciation and respect for the cultural achievements and even political rights of traduced nations, peoples and commu- nities around the world.
It was not coincidental, for example, that the British Arts and Crafts Movement, Art Nouveau, and Dada and Surrealism were among the most formally and politically advanced of the late 19th and 20th Century avant-gardes. The same can be said for Abstract Expressionism.
The art of Jackson Pollock and Norman Lewis, for example, does not simply document the desire to represent what Lewis called “uni- versalism.” (Pollock was influenced by Navajo sand painting and Lewis by traditional Chinese and Japanese calligraphy.) It is instead a plea for the actual inclusion of indigenous and non-West- ern art in the institutions and imaginations of the globally dominant classes and powers. It exists as a challenge to hegemonic authority.
But this critical history of engagement with dif- ference, dating back to the 19th Century, has been largely broken by today’s contemporary art—at least the art on exhibition at the most ambitious and well-funded museums of contemporary art in the U.S., such as the Broad. “I like the fact,” Broad said, “that art reflects what’s happening in the world, how artists see the world.”
That sentence, inscribed near the entrance to the Broad’s upstairs galleries, summarizes the perspective on contemporary art that I have been describing here—art as a passive mirror, not as an intervention; and artists, curators and crit- ics as blinkered spectators rather than as critical agents. The time is right for a new international- ism, a new inclusiveness, and new institutions to exhibit the diversity of contemporary art.
Stephen Eisenman is a professor of art history at Northwestern University and a contemporary Art expert. This is his first appearance in the New Art Examiner.
Volume 31 number 3, January / February 2017 pp 11-13