On Kawara—Silence: A Conversation with Assistant Curator Anne Wheeler

On April 27, 2015, IFA PhD candidate Anne Wheeler and IFA MA alumna Sarah Zabrodski sat down to discuss the Solomon R. Guggenheim’s current exhibition, On Kawara—Silence. Wheeler is the assistant curator of the exhibition. Zabrodski blogs at emergingartcritic.com.

Installation view: On Kawara—Silence, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, February 6 to May 3, 2015 Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

Sarah Zabrodski: On Kawara proposed most of the exhibition sections and was a close collaborator in the early stages of exhibition planning. What was it like working with the artist?

Anne Wheeler: Senior curator Jeffrey Weiss met On Kawara in 2005, in the process of acquiring the painting Title (1965) for the National Gallery of Art, so he had a relationship with Kawara before approaching him in October 2011 about doing the Guggenheim show. I came onto the project full time in April 2012, and worked for about a year before meeting Kawara himself. We first met almost two years ago to this day, on April 28, 2013—a day I remember clearly—a Sunday. Kawara sent Jeffrey and me a map of a park, with a dot drawn in the location where we were to meet him. We went, and we waited, and finally he came walking toward us, and brought us to a picnic table where we sat and talked with him and other members of his family until the sun went down.

Kawara was very deliberately not a public figure—he was infamous for his refusal to grant interviews, show up for openings, or make public appearances. He told us early on: “I am an artist that never made any public statements,” and we always tried to be extremely respectful and protective of this choice, and of his privacy. Jeffrey took Kawara on a walk-through of the museum early in the process, and we brought him models of the Guggenheim and maquettes of his Date Paintings and other work to help him conceptualize the exhibition within the space without actually having to be there. We always measured what was worth bringing to him, what was worth asking.

Our meetings involved a lot of exhibition planning and talk about the facts of each series—how and when certain artworks were made, or what they were made for—but ultimately the meetings turned out to be more conversational than strictly business. We would go in with questions about, say, where to place a certain Date Painting, but we would end up discussing cave paintings, gravity, the role of art throughout time, the history of human consciousness—really big topics, and his opinions were quite profound. After each meeting, I’d leave thinking, “What was that?”—and then as a researcher, to always have these new “assignments” was such an education for me.

As far as the artwork, though, we never talked about why—“why” questions were not discussed. It’s been one of the funny and difficult things about giving tours, responding to the why questions: “Why these newspapers? Why the red, blue, and gray? Why this or that?” I can say all of the things that I think about the work, but I can never reference anything he actually said.

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Surround Audience’s Politics of Prediction

Reviewing Surround Audience, the New Museum’s third Triennial (on view February 24 through May 24, 2015), is no easy task. The survey packs nearly 150 complex works by fifty-one artists into the downtown kunsthalle, requiring exceptional stamina or, for the rest of us, multiple visits. The exhibition’s focus on early-career artists (there is no longer an official age limit, but the vast majority of those included fall below the thirty-three year mark at which the first Triennial was capped) means that almost every work bears the burden of both introducing and standing in for an unfamiliar practice—an impossible task, not much helped by the bricks of artspeak-heavy wall text that strive to bridge the gap. One is tempted to simply praise the event as a model of inclusivity (twenty-six countries and six continents are represented) and opportunity for the selected young artists—more than half of whom were commissioned to make new work specifically for the Triennial, with seven of them receiving research and production residencies—and leave it at that.

On the other hand, at the level of curation, the model all but compels a critical response. While positioning itself as “predictive” rather than “retrospective,” the Triennial by no means presumes the posture of neutrality that the term “survey” might suggest. On the contrary, the “predictions” we encounter emerge from the highly particular perspectives and sensibilities of its organizers, New Museum curator Lauren Cornell and artist Ryan Trecartin. As Cornell notes in the foreword to The Animated Reader, an anthology of poetry published to accompany the exhibition (in addition to the catalogue), “when we were starting our research, I asked my co-curator Ryan Trecartin if he could define the main concerns in his work, thinking we could use them as a point of departure for developing themes to structure the show” (her emphasis). Trecartin’s answer, “Language and Humanity,” while no doubt sincere, hardly adumbrates the specific qualities of his video works—frenzied, kaleidoscopic funhouse mirrors of reality TV and the deeper strata of YouTube, replete with clownish characters howling in seemingly private languages. Sure enough, many strains of Trecartin’s aesthetic run throughout Surround Audience. They traverse a wide variety of themes and concerns, but nonetheless circumscribe a particular sphere of art production, the ongoing vitality of which it is the argument of this survey exhibition to predict.

Installation view of Surround Audience featuring Ed Atkins, Frank Benson. Courtesy of the New Museum. Photo credit: Benoit Pailley

Installation view of Surround Audience featuring Ed Atkins, Frank Benson. Courtesy of the New Museum. Photo credit: Benoit Pailley

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Sharon Hayes and the “Near Past”

Contemporariness is, then, a singular relationship with one’s own time, which adheres to it and, at the same time, keeps a distance from it. More precisely, it is that relationship with time that adheres to it through a disjunction and an anachronism.[1]

– Giorgio Agamben

Although Sharon Hayes is a contemporary artist, reviewers of her work almost always discuss it in relation to American art and culture of the 1960s and ’70s. Critics such as Quinn Latimer and Paul David Young write of Hayes’s “plaintive missives [that] recalled songs from the ’60s and ’70s by Marvin Gaye and Nina Simone”[2] and that her art “speaks of a longing for the golden era of artistic and political radicalism of the late 1950s through the ’70s.”[3] During the Q&A following Hayes’s February 24, 2015 talk at the Institute of Fine Arts (part of the Artists at the Institute lecture series), Professor Robert Slifkin addressed this theme, asking the artist about any sense of nostalgia in her work: either for that period of American history, or for the radicality the era offered.

The question followed naturally from the artworks Hayes chose to highlight, which included Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) Screeds #13, 16, 20 & 29 (2003), Everything Else Has Failed! Don’t You Think It’s Time for Love? (2007), Parole (2010), An Ear to a Sound in Our History (2011), and Ricerche: three (2013). Many of these were exhibited in her 2012 solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and Hayes presented them as examples of engagement through video art. Of these five works, four explicitly reference or build upon art and events of the 1960s and ‘70s, from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Comizi d’amore (1964) to Patty Hearst’s kidnapping by the Symbionese Liberation Army (1974). Hayes explained that, having been born in 1970, she had a “temporal” relation with that decade, but could not at the time process that moment’s politics and culture in which she finds such rich inspiration now. She told the audience that she does not mourn the loss of that era, but uses it as “the past that exists in the present,” or the “near past.” For Hayes, this “near past” has an unfinished relationship to our present moment, and sets the parameters for the questions and issues with which we still contend.

Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) Screeds #13, 16, 20 & 29 (2003) was Hayes’s MFA work at UCLA. In it, she “re-speaks” the words of Patty Hearst on the videotapes released by the SLA, but without any of the fidelity of a reenactor, which is a purposeful distinction. Hayes explained to the audience that she finds the concept of “reenacting” problematic because such endeavors attempt to make whole the past, without its natural ruptures.[4] Instead, in the Screeds, the “notness” of the work is foregrounded: she is not Patty Hearst, it is not 1974, the camera crew is not the SLA. As Hayes stumbles through her partially memorized monologue, the audience eagerly jumps in to correct her mistakes, emphasizing the video’s disjunctures—not continuities—with the 1974 tapes. In 2006, Julia Bryan-Wilson astutely described Hayes’s approach as “investigations into the stutters of history, its uncanny reoccurrences and unexpected recyclings.”[5]

Hayes then screened Ricerche: three, a video of her interviewing Mount Holyoke students about gender- and sex-related topics, directed by Brooke O’Harra. I was surprised by Hayes’s blunt, direct, and leading questions, which contrasted so starkly with her usual careful speech, and often derailed the conversation or stymied the students. After the video, Hayes explained that the piece was formulated on director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Comizi d’amore, and her interviewing style mimicked his, sometimes using the same questions. As did Pasolini, Hayes talked to the students in a group, “as their social selves,” and as they developed debates about feminism, identity politics, and trans issues, rifts formed: between the students who found “feminism” a welcoming label and those who didn’t, or those who saw sex as central to their identity and those who didn’t. During a lively and often provoking debate about current understandings of sex and gender, the transposition of Pasolini’s 1960s method and questions was often jarring and frustrating. And this fidelity to her source material displayed what Hayes called “disrupted time,” emphasizing, as in the Screeds, the distinctions (not the similarities) between the two contexts.

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Design for the Future in Latin America, Both Past and Present

Installation view of Moderno: Design for Living in Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela, 1940–1978, Americas Society.

Installation view of Moderno: Design for Living in Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela, 1940–1978, Americas Society.

An unlikely but revelatory pair of exhibitions, one on each side of Central Park, is showcasing the long and sometimes idiosyncratic history of design in Latin America. Moderno: Design for Living in Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela, 1940–1978, at the Americas Society (on view February 11 to May 16, 2015), is the more historically-minded of the two, concerned with the apogee of the modernist moment as it played out in three markedly distinct countries. New Territories: Laboratories for Design, Craft and Art in Latin America, at the Museum of Arts and Design (on view November 4, 2014 to April 5, 2015), more loosely surveys contemporary trends from the past fifteen years, uniting fashion, furniture, textiles, and ceramics, to name a few of the categories it seeks to dismantle. Indeed, design in both shows seems to know no boundaries and remains nearly impossible to define. Rather than enforcing a taxonomy or otherwise attempting to regulate the objects, however, the curators use this ontological slipperiness as an opportunity to complicate what could be fairly standard narratives of formal experimentation or technological innovation. Beyond their shared subject of Latin American design, the two shows diverge sharply in terms of scope, chronology, and curatorial approach, but taken together they tell the complex, often contradictory story of how design sought—and continues to seek—to shape the identity and the destiny of the region.

The titles of both shows emphasize the new, the modern, and the cutting-edge. “Moderno,” as the introductory wall text of that exhibition explains, signified “ideas of novelty and accelerated development, rather than [being] associated with a particular style or art movement.” It’s an ideological rather than aesthetic framework, and one that pertains specifically to mid-century Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela, all of which experienced sudden industrial development and urbanization from the 1940s to the 1960s. Guest curators María Cecilia Loschiavo dos Santos, Ana Elena Mallet, and Jorge F. Rivas Pérez are smart to historicize and localize the terms of modernism by tethering it to burgeoning senses of nationalism that accompanied, and bolstered, this period of development. This context begins to explain why the exhibition at the Museum of Arts and Design, focusing exclusively on the twenty-first century, dispenses altogether with the terminology of “modernism.” The term comes from Italian designer Gaetano Pesce—whose work comprises kinetic art, architecture, and furniture design—and refers to the “new territory” in which boundaries of art, craft, and design are blurred in contemporary global practice. Like “moderno,” the phrase is deployed in a somewhat counterintuitive way, describing process instead of geography, but it is also not a stretch to draw the line one step further, from “new territory” to “new world.”

That notion of the “new world”—of the Americas as a land of possibility—is the unstated link between these two exhibitions. Utopian overtones are more obvious throughout Moderno, which situates its nearly eighty objects within a hemispheric context of mid-century developmentalist ambitions, but the very fact that it looks at this moment through the lens of design is noteworthy. Art and architecture usually get the lion’s share of the glory when it comes to visual manifestations of Latin American modernity—think of the immensely photogenic Brasília, the iconic geometry of a Carlos Cruz-Diez Fisicromía, or the future-past architectonics of a Gunther Gerzso abstraction—but design is a crucial and oft-overlooked component of the modernist project in Latin America. In the broader effort to close the gap between art and life, arguably the most successful imbrication of these two realms was realized through design itself: through objects created for utilitarian purposes, their formal rhythms and physical contours structuring and even transforming lived experience.

Installation view of Moderno: Design for Living in Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela, 1940–1978, Americas Society

Installation view of Moderno: Design for Living in Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela, 1940–1978, Americas Society.

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Time Traveling: On Kawara at the Guggenheim

On Kawara—Silence, organized by Guggenheim Senior Curator Jeffrey Weiss with Assistant Curator and IFA PhD Candidate Anne Wheeler (on view February 6 through May 3, 2015), bears the distinct imprint of the artist’s own logic. This is not unexpected given Kawara’s role in determining the exhibition’s structure. Still, following the artist’s death this past summer, viewing Kawara’s work on his own terms is deeply gratifying. Early in the planning process the artist proposed a number of “chapters” or sections that would inform the composition of On Kawara—Silence. Collectively, these chapters include all of Kawara’s artistic production since 1963: notebook sketches known as the Paris—New York Drawings, paintings from the artist’s first years in New York, Code drawings, One Million Years, One Hundred Years Calendars, Pure Consciousness, Journals, as well as the Today, I Got Up, I Went, I Met, and I Am Still Alive series. In the eponymous exhibition catalogue, Weiss explains the genesis of the show’s unique organization: “In choosing these groups of artworks, On Kawara was generously responding to a curatorial proposition: to attempt to represent his practice as a practice rather than assemble a more exclusive selection of individual objects.”[1] In the Guggenheim’s exhibition, hallmarks of Kawara’s practice—repetition and duration—are easily distinguishable, while other connections in and amongst various bodies of work also come to the surface.

On Kawara,Telegram to Sol LeWitt, February 5, 1970, From I Am Still Alive, 1970–2000, Telegram, 5 3/4 x 8 inches (14.6 x 20.3 cm), LeWitt Collection, Chester, Connecticut

On Kawara, Telegram to Sol LeWitt, February 5, 1970, From I Am Still Alive, 1970–2000, Telegram, 5 3/4 x 8 inches (14.6 x 20.3 cm), LeWitt Collection, Chester, Connecticut

From 1966 until his death in June 2014, Kawara assiduously monitored and recorded his own passage through time and space in serial bodies of work, each of which was developed over the course of a number of years. Collectively, Kawara’s work accounts for time in various units: minutes, hours, days, years, centuries, and millennia. The legibility of Kawara’s chronicling activity is reliant upon the repetition of certain activities (mailing, listing, telegramming, painting) according to the self-imposed restrictions and conditions that limited the production of each distinct body of work: a Date Painting had to be completed within the span of twenty-four hours, the maps comprising I Went charted the artist’s movement in a given day, and each page included in One Million Years contained five hundred years typed into a grid formed by rows and columns.

On Kawara, JAN. 4, 1966 “New York’s traffic strike.” New York, From Today, 1966–2013, Acrylic on canvas, 8 x 10 inches (20.3 x 25.4 cm), Private collection, Photo: Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London

On Kawara, JAN. 4, 1966 “New York’s traffic strike.” New York, From Today, 1966–2013, Acrylic on canvas, 8 x 10 inches (20.3 x 25.4 cm), Private collection, Photo: Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London

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