An open-ended look at contemporary art – both inside the Walker and out – as framed by our Visual Arts curators.
At a time in our country when the values of a creative and inclusive society are being decidedly challenged, it is evermore important for arts organizations to affirm their values and promises to the communities they serve. As director of the Walker Art Center and on Arts Advocacy Day, this annual day of individual and collective action […]
At a time in our country when the values of a creative and inclusive society are being decidedly challenged, it is evermore important for arts organizations to affirm their values and promises to the communities they serve. As director of the Walker Art Center and on Arts Advocacy Day, this annual day of individual and collective action for the arts, I assert the Walker’s mission to be a catalytic and forward-thinking organization devoted to artists and audiences, and to supporting an open and inclusive culture grounded in the principles of free expression and concern for the common good, which are the foundations of our democracy.
As I boarded the bus this morning to join Minnesota Citizens for the Arts and nearly 1,000 arts and culture workers at the Minnesota State Capitol on Arts Advocacy Day, I felt pride in knowing that both the Walker and the National Endowment for the Arts, established in 1940 and 1965 respectively, were founded through federal support and action. Their creation was underpinned by a belief that national investment in the arts is essential and that it vitally matters.
Although I am deeply heartened by this history, I am struck by how the purpose of Arts Advocacy Day has never seemed more urgent and necessary, as threats to the existence of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) continue to mount and the values of openness and inclusivity are daily challenged. A society is only as free as its artists, and when individual freedoms around speech, travel, and funding are restricted, new more insidious forms of censorship and intolerance are bound to ensue.
Established by Congress in 1965 under President Lyndon B. Johnson, the NEA is the largest funder and champion of the arts across 50 states. Its mission is based on an abiding conviction that the arts play an integral role in our national life and public discourse. The NEA’s founding legislation attests to the belief of its legislative authors that the arts actively contribute to citizenry, to forging mutual understanding among people, and to improving livability in diverse communities across the country. I’m a member of the National Council on the Arts, a Senate-confirmed advisory body of nearly 20 artists and arts professionals who advise the NEA, and as a first generation Cuban American whose parents were Cuban exiles in the 1960s, I am proud to serve with an incredibly diverse panel of individuals who together represent the future demographic composition of our country and who all staunchly believe that the arts and the freedoms of artists in our society are integral to our democracy.
The mission of the Walker, which was founded as a public art center in 1940, was born of the same national conviction that art matters in society. Established under the auspices of the Federal Art Project and the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the Walker was conceived as a “meeting place for all the arts” in which the public could “meet the artist on common ground”—a place of gathering for citizens to find inspiration, connection, and community at a time of war and global conflict. We are thus a product of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal–era policies that sought to put Americans, including its artists, back to work following the Great Depression. As one of more than 70 community art centers established across the country by the WPA, the Walker was also envisioned as a vital space in which democracy and civil society could be enacted.
As an exemplar of this mission, one of the Walker’s earliest exhibitions showcased the work of the German painter Franz Marc, whose iconic painting Die grossen blauen Pferde (The Large Blue Horses) (1911) represented a work and painting style vehemently decried by the Third Reich as “degenerate art.” This painting, acquired by the Walker in 1942, became the cornerstone of the Walker’s collection of new art and enabled its director to host a broad public discussion about governmental censorship of the arts and the dangers of limits on individual freedoms. Its presentation and acquisition were foundational to crystalizing our active mission to “examine the questions that shape and inspire us individuals, cultures and communities” in an ever-changing world.
Since then, the Walker has been a curious and questioning institution that has sought to challenge the status quo in all forms of thinking and making. We take inspiration from the artists we present and seek to extend to our audiences the same freedoms that we offer artists. We have consistently championed the role of the art and artists in society and actively defended free speech and artistic freedom in the US and abroad. In the early 1990s, the Walker’s trustees and director testified before Congress during the Culture Wars. In the 2011, the Walker protested the Chinese government’s detention of Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei. A year later, we added our voice, along with hundreds of cultural organizations across the state, in opposing a constitutional amendment that, if successful, would have banned same-sex marriage (it failed). The following year, such unions were made legal.
We have also consistently sought to be a “safe place for unsafe ideas,” one where artists and audiences feel supported to ask provocative questions, gain insights about other cultures and alternative ways of thinking, and explore spaces of difference and intersection, as well as find unity and social cohesion, especially at times of great social division and political unrest. In a radio program in 1940, the Walker’s first director Daniel Defenbacher gave a telling and inspiring response to the question of why the arts matter on the eve of the United States entering World War II. He proclaimed: “Because our cultural defense is as important as our geographic defense.”
Now more than 75 years later, our challenges are different as the Walker’s ability to enact its inclusive values and global mission are challenged by new restrictions on our borders and limits to individual freedoms. Yet we remain emboldened to affirm our pursuits with even greater resolve and conviction. We vow to:
- Actively support artists and amplify their voices, no matter where they come from,
- Champion the role of the arts and artists in society and the rights to free expression,
- Bring artists and audiences together,
- Host risk and experimentation,
- Be a generative place for new thinking, and
- Embrace the world around us through relevant programming, publishing, and events.
And we do so through the programs we offer and the artists we present:
- A new website, launching in May, with new functionalities that foster cross-pollination of viewpoints,
- An expansion of the Artist Op-Eds series, a digital platform that for nearly three years has commissioned artists to respond to events in the news.
- Programming that’s relevant to both our times and the communities we serve, from the native film series INDIgenesis this March, which will include a showcase of indigenous perspectives on Standing Rock, to the exhibition Adíos Utopia: Dreams and Deceptions in Cuban Art Since 1950, which looks at artistic expression during Cuba’s revolutionary epoch, when many artists were censored by the government.
- Due to a dynamic response, the Cinema of Urgency film series—usually programmed only on election years—will continue next fall with a focus on films that pose critical questions about today’s most pressing social, political, environmental, and economic issues. Each screening will include discussions with filmmakers, local community leaders, and other guest speakers.
- Major survey exhibitions of and new commissions with artists of color from the US and around the world.
- A commitment to showcasing the works of artists from countries of origin impacted by the current administration’s travel ban.
- Collective action with other arts organizations to preserve our federal agencies and challenge policies that negatively impact the advancement of culture.
- A lasting commitment to creating accessible spaces for audiences of all genders and abilities in our new indoor and outdoor spaces.
We believe that the Walker and the expanded Minneapolis Sculpture Garden offer a welcoming civic space for the public to not only be introduced to and be inspired by art we present but to bring a multiplicity of perspectives into respectful consideration and focus. This is what the Walker does best, and has always done as a curious, questioning, catalytic organization founded on the principles of our democracy—principles that today more than ever call us to question everything.
I recently had the pleasure of visiting artist Carmen Herrera at her home/studio in New York, where she has lived for the last 40 years. It was June 4, just a few days after she’d celebrated her 100th birthday (May 31) at a local restaurant with a small group of colleagues, family, and friends. While […]
I recently had the pleasure of visiting artist Carmen Herrera at her home/studio in New York, where she has lived for the last 40 years. It was June 4, just a few days after she’d celebrated her 100th birthday (May 31) at a local restaurant with a small group of colleagues, family, and friends. While I regrettably had to miss the festivities, we shared tea and birthday cupcakes I’d brought her from Magnolia Bakery.
We were accompanied by Carmen’s longtime friend and neighbor, the painter Tony Bechara, a passionate champion of Herrera’s art since the 1990s and the man the artist’s late husband, Jesse Loewenthal, entrusted with preserving and promoting Herrera’s art. Although based in New York on and off since the mid-1950s and working in close proximity to American painters Leon Polk Smith (a friend) and Barnett Newman, Herrera and her art remained in relative obscurity until 1998. That year, New York’s El Museo del Barrio, where Bechara served on the board, organized a small exhibition of black-and-white paintings from the 1950s. Shortly thereafter, prescient collectors Agnes Gund and Ella Cisneros began to acquire and exhibit Herrera’s paintings. The story of Herrera selling her first painting in 2004 at age 89 has been the subject of innumerable stories and profiles since then, including a recent article focused on elder women artists who found recognition later in their careers (published in the New York Times’ T Magazine this spring).
The centenarian’s career is now markedly on the rise. Subject of a new documentary, The 100 Years Show by film director Alison Klayman (premiered at Toronto’s Hotdocs festival this April), Hererra’s career will be highlighted in a survey exhibition, organized by Dana Miller, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2016. Represented by the Lisson Gallery in London since 2012, Herrera’s works are now in the collections of the Walker Art Center, the Whitney, the Museum of Modern Art, Tate Modern in London, and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C.
I was first introduced to Carmen Herrera in the mid-2000s through Ella Cisneros, the Miami-based collector and founder of CIFO Foundation, on whose curatorial advisory counsel I sat at the time. It was in Ella’s foundation office that a painting by Herrera caught my eye. Shortly thereafter I arranged the first of several visits to the painter’s studio, and in 2007 I acquired a painting directly from the artist for the collection of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, where I was the director. The Hirshhorn’s Rondo (Blue and Yellow) (1965) is a circular painting—one of a handful of tondos from the period with characteristically crisp flowing lines that define volumes of geometry and space in perfect counterbalance. I installed the painting in the Hirshhorn’s collection galleries in the company of other American painters of the 1950s and ’60s, including Ellsworth Kelly, with whom her works have strong association. Indeed both artists spent their formative years in the late 1940s and early 1950s in Paris, each maintaining a commitment to hard-edge abstraction at a time when other American artists were exploring the more gestural approaches of Abstract Expressionism. Upon returning to New York in the mid-1950s, Ellsworth Kelly and his paintings took some time to capture the art world’s imagination, while Herrera found little or no support as a woman in an art world less hospitable to female artists. It was a revelation to see Herrera’s canvas hanging in the Hirshhorn’s galleries in dialogue so fluidly with an unacknowledged peer.
Shortly after arriving at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, I similarly sought to bring one of Herrera’s impressive structuras (structures) into the collection. I thought that one of the artist’s painted wood constructions would forge a powerful dialogue with the minimalist paintings and sculptures that are core to the Walker’s collection of abstract and minimalist works of the 1960s. In 2010, Untitled (1971) entered the Walker’s collection along with three related works on paper from 1966. The freestanding blue construction is currently featured in the Walker’s Art at the Center: 75 Years of Walker Collections, where it is installed in the company of Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly, Donald Judd, as well as British painter Bridget Riley, where it equally commands the galleries.
First conceived in 1966, Herrera realized the Walker’s blue structura in 1971 with the support of the Cintas Foundation, a Cuban American private philanthropic foundation that supports Cuban artists living and working in the US since the late 1950s. With this modest grant, Herrera found a carpenter to help her produce a group of wall- and floor-bound works in relief, including the Walker’s Untitled (1971). The funds also allowed her to help a family member leave Cuba in the years immediately following the Cuban Revolution. Affixed to the floor, the piece is comprised of two separate hollow wood-framed panels. The top panel sits on top of the bottom panel and swivels forward ever so slightly. When lit with gallery lights from above, the top panel casts a defining shadow across the bottom panel to give it its signature shape and form. While Herrera intended to make complementary pieces in red and green based on the related drawings in the Walker’s collection, only the blue structure was realized. More recently Herrera fabricated the red structure based on the Walker’s drawing and may realize others.
While in New York I also visited the Whitney Museum and was delighted to see Carmen Herrera featured in the museum’s opening installation with a large painting from 1959, which recently entered the Whitney’s collection. This work is one of Herrera’s signature “green and white” paintings that have been a staple of her career. Installed next to Ellsworth Kelly, this striking juxtaposition reinforces Herrera’s pioneering import in the history of American abstract painting and affirms that her reinsertion in the history of this art is now complete.
At age 100, Herrera doesn’t quite know what to make of all the recent attention, which at once seems gratifying and enervating. The recognition is long overdue for an artist who has never wavered in her practice or commitment to her vision, which has remained consistent for more than 70 years. To this day, Herrera continues to make a painting at her window each and every morning, working with her assistant Manuel to scale up her drawings into larger canvases. As she expressed during my visit, “This is when everything is most clear.”
In conjunction with 2014: The Year According to , our series of artist-generated best-of-2014 lists, Walker director Olga Viso shares her favorites—exhibitions, news events, projects, and inspiring moments—of the last 12 months. To read more of the Walker’s curatorial […]
In conjunction with 2014: The Year According to , our series of artist-generated best-of-2014 lists, Walker director Olga Viso shares her favorites—exhibitions, news events, projects, and inspiring moments—of the last 12 months. To read more of the Walker’s curatorial perspective on the year, read 2014: The Year According to Fionn Meade, by our new senior curator of cross-disciplinary platforms. (more…)
In 2012, Walker executive director Olga Viso traveled across the state and around the world, from Minneapolis, New York, and Kassel to Gwangju and Beijing. Reflecting here, she shares her highlights from the year that was. The Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s final performance at the New York Armory, with set designs by Daniel Arsham, launched my […]
In 2012, Walker executive director Olga Viso traveled across the state and around the world, from Minneapolis, New York, and Kassel to Gwangju and Beijing. Reflecting here, she shares her highlights from the year that was.
The Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s final performance at the New York Armory, with set designs by Daniel Arsham, launched my new year at midnight January 1, 2012. It was an unforgettable night of great dance, poignant emotion, and heartfelt tribute to one of the great choreographers of our time.
The arrival of Jim Hodges’ boulders on the Walker’s green space commenced the spring season, creating a new destination for visitors atop the Walker’s hill. Hodges will be the subject of a retrospective at the Walker in 2014.
Philip Glass’ surprise solo piano performance in honor of Walker Director Emeritus Martin Friedman at Martin’s tribute organized by New York’s Madison Square Park Foundation. Glass was among an assembly of artists, including Chuck Close, Frank Stella, and Claes Oldenburg, who joined me and Whitney director Adam Weinberg in toasting Martin’s legacy.
Pierre Huyghe’s unmonumental outdoor project for dOCUMENTA(13) in Karlsaue Park in Kassel, Germany stands out as one of the most potent public projects in recent memory. Huyghe’s commission embraced the themes of documenta like no other work in this sprawling international survey that happens every five years.
Matt Bakkom’s project in which he repurposed benches in the public park across the street from Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Bakkom painted nearly 40 benches, each inspired by the color schemes of original art works from the MIA’s collection. Labels for individual works appear on each bench. Go explore!
China’s Terracotta Warriors: The Emperor’s Legacy at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts was one of the Twin Cities’ exhibition highlights this season–a beautifully designed exhibition with breathtaking objects and impressive scholarship.
My visit with Chinese artist Ai Weiwei in his Beijing studio to discuss ongoing work for a potential commission on the Walker campus.
Minneapolis mayor RT Rybak’s rallying tweet during the world’s first Internet Cat Video Festival (and the Republican National Convention) that welcomed 10,000 people (and some celebrity cats) to the Walker’s Open Field.
“Lowercase P: Artists & Politics,” a series of interviews published on walkerart.org (edited by Paul Schmelzer) to coincide with the US presidential election cycle of 2012.
Jasper John’s set design for Merce Cunningham’s Walkaround Time (1968)–borrowed from the Walker’s collections–serving as the centerpiece of the current exhibition Dancing Around the Bride: Cage, Cunningham, Johns, Rauschenberg and Duchamp at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
During its Open Field residency ROLU staged a reading of James Lee Byars’ 100 questions from The Black Book in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden in memory of the Walker’s late librarian Rosemary Furtak and created in collaboration with MoMA PS1 curator Peter Eleey.
One of the most memorable and important shows I saw in 2012, Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde at the Museum of Modern Art–curated by Doryun Chong, it opened in November–brings fascinating new research to light. Walker audiences will recognize works by Tetsumi Kudo, Genpei Akasegawa, and artists from Gutai in this show that is a visual feast.
Joshua Oppenheimer’s unforgettable world premiere of The Act of Killing at the Telluride Film Festival. This film forever re-imagines the form of documentary filmmaking by having the perpetrators of war crimes in Indonesia (now elderly) personally re-enact their stories for the camera.
Andy DuCett’s ambitious “Why we do this” project at the Soap Factory in Minneapolis created an interactive exhibition and stage set for public performance.
While in South Korea for the 2012 Gwangju Biennale, I visited the main venue of the 7th Seoul International Media Art Biennale — Mediacity Seoul 2012 — at the Seoul Museum of Art. The title of this installment was Spell on You, which was meant to conjure the deluge of media and its effects we […]
While in South Korea for the 2012 Gwangju Biennale, I visited the main venue of the 7th Seoul International Media Art Biennale — Mediacity Seoul 2012 — at the Seoul Museum of Art. The title of this installment was Spell on You, which was meant to conjure the deluge of media and its effects we are witnessing in contemporary culture. This theme, set by artistic director Jinsang YOO, professor of Kaywan School of Art and Design, seemed apt in a digital media city like Seoul defined by its commitment to advancing technology and myriad technological industries in the country.
My top picks, out of the 49 participating artists from 20 countries.
1. Zbyněk Baladrán’s diagrammatic lecture Model of the Universe, 2009
2. Till Nowak’s digital creations of impossible amusement parks
3. Akram Zaatari’s melancholic typewritten love story on film Tomorrow Everything Will Be Alright, 2010
4. David Claerbout’s black and white montage of 600 different views of the same “happy moment” on an Algerian rooftop
5. Dennis Feser’s absurd performance before the camera, staged on a rooftop overlooking Frankfurt using tape and celery
6. 3D video installations by Robert Lepage, Sarah Kenderdine, and Jeffrey Shaw that create a projected theatrical space that visitors can experience in the round
7. Donghee Koo’s melancholic quest on camera as a man searches for a manmade stream using a divining rod
8. Ryota Kuwakubo’s hypnotic shadow installation, The Tenth Sentiment (2010), created using a child’s train set and light
9. Hong Seung-Hye’s minimal projections of rectangles on the wall and floor
10. Zimoun’s audio recording of 25 woodworms consuming a piece of wood
11. Daito Manabe & Motoi Ishibashi’s mesmerizing installation Particles involving an 8-spiral rail with animated balls of LED lights
12. Robert Overweg’s haunting still photographs of the precipitous edges of landscapes in video games
On a recent trip to Seoul, South Korea, where I was invited to participate on a panel at the National Museum of Contemporary Art about the role of museums in the 21st century, I had the opportunity to travel three hours south to the Korean city of Gwangju to see the ninth installment of the […]
On a recent trip to Seoul, South Korea, where I was invited to participate on a panel at the National Museum of Contemporary Art about the role of museums in the 21st century, I had the opportunity to travel three hours south to the Korean city of Gwangju to see the ninth installment of the Gwangju Biennale. I was joined by Walker senior curator Clara Kim and MoMA curator Doryun Chong (formerly of the Walker) to see ROUNDTABLE, which closes November 12. This sprawling global survey, with a strong focus on artists from Asia and the Middle East, includes works by more than 92 artists, artist groups, and temporary collectives from 40 countries around the world and encompasses multiple city venues, including the main Gwangju Biennale Hall, Cinema Gwangju, Temple Mugaksa, Daein Market, and several other off-site locations around the city. Some 45 commissions and 15 artist residencies were realized in ROUNDTABLE.
Curated by a six-member team of Asian curators, all women, the show uses the metaphor of the roundtable as a locus for nonhierarchical exchange and the intersection of divergent perspectives and urgencies. Despite best efforts to hold in balance a multiplicity of contradictory world views, artistic sensibilities, and curatorial approaches, the spirit of the roundtable seemingly devolved during the show’s organization and, the result was an unfortunate hodgepodge of an exhibition with very mixed results and uneven curatorial selections and positions.
As is always the case in these massive biennial exhibitions, individual artists and works stand out to make the journey and research worthwhile. For me, the highlights were:
Walker executive director Olga Viso shares snapshots and notes from her late July 2012 trip to European art exhibitions and venues. In addition to dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel–which she reviewed this week–she visited Antwerp, Genk, and Ghent. Here are some of the works that stood out. Kendall Geers’ flaming tire sculpture outside the entrance of […]
Walker executive director Olga Viso shares snapshots and notes from her late July 2012 trip to European art exhibitions and venues. In addition to dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel–which she reviewed this week–she visited Antwerp, Genk, and Ghent. Here are some of the works that stood out.
Yesterday, Walker executive director Olga Viso shared her review of dOCUMENTA (13), the art exhibition that occurs in Kassel every five years. As a supplement, here’s her top picks from her July trip. Coming soon, her highlights from Manifesta and TRACK.
Yesterday, Walker executive director Olga Viso shared her review of dOCUMENTA (13), the art exhibition that occurs in Kassel every five years. As a supplement, here’s her top picks from her July trip. Coming soon, her highlights from Manifesta and TRACK.
“Our emotional environment is poor and dangerous. Artistic work can’t change it, but it can transcribe it. It can also give an opinion, which we are never asked for.” –From Claire Fontaine’s Requiem for Jean Charles de Menezes, a work in the 2011 Istanbul Biennial After my recent visit to the 12th installment of […]
“Our emotional environment is poor and dangerous. Artistic work can’t change it, but it can transcribe it. It can also give an opinion, which we are never asked for.”
–From Claire Fontaine’s Requiem for Jean Charles de Menezes, a work in the 2011 Istanbul Biennial
After my recent visit to the 12th installment of the Istanbul Biennial, which closes November 13, I was struck by the overwhelming sense of nostalgia and lament that pervades this major survey of international contemporary art. Curated by Jens Hoffmann, a U.S.-based curator from Latin America, and Brazilian curator Adriano Pedrosa, the exhibition takes on the age-old debate between form and content — an art world polemic that predictably resurfaces in urgent times when formal and aesthetic concerns seem less relevant in the face of economic and sociopolitical turmoil.
Taking inspiration from the influential work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1957–1996), the curators pay homage to the late American artist of Cuban descent, whose sculptures and installations of the 1990s provide an ideal lexicon of artistic practice to address the current moment. Indeed, Gonzalez-Torres was an artist whom Hoffmann and Pedrosa contend “successfully negotiated the personal and the political while maintaining an extremely sophisticated formal vocabulary, utilizing an aesthetic language drawn in part from post-Minimalism, Conceptualism and in part simply from everyday life.”
Organized into five sub-exhibitions, the biennial took as its point of departure five iconic works by Gonzalez-Torres, among them a history dateline piece, a candy pile totaling the ideal weight of his deceased lover Ross, a minimal grid from the “bloodwork” series (in which the artist charted the declining T-cells of his HIV-ridden immune system), and several paper stacks — one comprised of images of the sky printed in the form of passports and the other of posters memorializing the number of deaths in the U.S. by gunfire during a violent week in 1989. These works provided the organizing principle for the biennial around the potent themes of Gonzalez-Torres’ art: abstraction, history, identity, violence, and loss. To further reinforce this artistic tribute, the curators titled the biennial Untitled (12th Istanbul Biennial), appropriating Gonzalez-Torres’ own titling convention in which he would leave his works untitled (save for a short subtitle) to privilege both his subjectivity and that of his audience.
Although no original works by Gonzalez-Torres were included in the exhibition, they were repeatedly evoked throughout the installation, which filled two former naval hangars adjacent to the Istanbul Modern Museum, which is situated along the Bosphorus River. The curators’ desire to organize and thematize viewer experience through the show was complemented by the architecture of Ryue Nishizawa, who was commissioned to design a wall system to house the exhibition. Ryue created a metaphorical village that evoked the notion of parallel neighborhoods.
The exhibition included works by well-known and unfamiliar artists from around the world with notable emphases on artists from Latin America and the Middle East. Among my favorite works in the biennial were Kris Martin’s installation Obussen II (2010), a glistening pile of more than 700 polished Howitzer shells from World War I that evoked the human casualties of war; Simryn Gill’s haunting photographs of abandoned houses outside Kuala Lumpur; William E. Jones’ film archiving hundreds of “killed” negatives from the U.S. Farm Security Administration (shown in the Walker exhibition The Spectacular of Vernacular; Milena Bonilla’s Stone Deaf (2009), a film that records all variety of insects crawling along the crack across Karl Marx’s grave; and Alessandro Balteo Yazbek & Media Farzin’s wry “Cultural Diplomacy” project, which finds curious and striking parallels between the development of modern art and global politics. These were among the few works in the exhibition that captured the spirit of Gonzalez-Torres and his approach to balancing the “personal” with the “political.”
The rest of the exhibition unfortunately suffered from an explicit and often far too literal illustration of central themes, specific content, and the formal and conceptual qualities of Gonzalez-Torres’ art. Nicolás Bacal’s appropriation of Gonzalez-Torres’ pivotal work featuring two wall clocks, Perfect Lovers (1991), went too far for my taste. By far, the strict avoidance of color in the palette of the art works chosen was at times unrelenting. Frustrated visitors during my visit described the exhibition as “cold,” “clinical,” and unnecessarily “oppressive.”
As I journeyed through the show, I could not help but at times feel as if I had been transported back to 1996, the year that Felix Gonzalez-Torres died, when Dave Hickey was still completing his infamous essays on beauty and the debates about form and content were raging in the contemporary art world. It was a time when global consciousness was an imperative in the mainstream art world and many of the artists of Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East — like Gonzalez-Torres, Mona Hatoum, Lygia Clark, Leonilson and others presented here — were just starting to be championed in an array of international venues, including the Istanbul Biennial. All this was happening just as geo-political borders around the world were dramatically shifting and the internet was about to explode.
We now find ourselves in a vastly different place and time, one inexorably wrought by the advances, ideals, obsessions, and failures of the prior two decades. Yet, rather than mine this fertile territory of the recent past to understand the exigencies of artists in the present, the curators of this year’s Istanbul Biennial seemed weighted down by their overwhelming nostalgia for the past and their lament for an impotent present.
This lament of the present was also visible in the 2011 installment of the Venice Biennale, which I wrote about in June. Yet, what registered for me in Istanbul was a lament of a different order. This lament was one specifically focused on art produced outside the mainstreams of contemporary art, and in particular on art made in Latin America and the Middle East. The lament I heard was twofold — that the contemporary arena has sadly only marginally advanced since Gonzalez-Torres first emerged on the global stage and that most of these artists, as well as a host of others we don’t know, still need to be given significant voice and championed.
While I undoubtedly share in this lament, what I still find lacking in the 2011 Istanbul Biennial is acknowledgement anywhere in the exhibition (save for in the uncontainable canvases of Mark Bradford) of the qualities that even the most politically engaged and challenging works of Gonzalez-Torres still possess — an indefatigable spirit of generosity and faith in the potential of art to not only transcribe the exigencies of the present moment but transcend them too.