An open-ended look at contemporary art – both inside the Walker and out – as framed by our Visual Arts curators.
As director of the Walker Art Center from 1961 to 1990, Martin Friedman—who passed away May 9 at age 90—oversaw the construction of a new Walker building, spearheaded the creation of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, and put the center on the map internationally for its astute curatorial vision, multidisciplinary focus, and artist-centric values. Following up […]
As director of the Walker Art Center from 1961 to 1990, Martin Friedman—who passed away May 9 at age 90—oversaw the construction of a new Walker building, spearheaded the creation of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, and put the center on the map internationally for its astute curatorial vision, multidisciplinary focus, and artist-centric values. Following up curator Joan Rothfuss’s reflection on Friedman’s life and legacy, we’re commemorating his passing by inviting friends, family, and colleagues to share their memories of the man who indelibly shaped the Walker. This post will be updated as new reflections come in; if you’d like to contribute a reflection, please email us.
Tom Arndt, photographer, Walker Art Center (1975–1981)
The six years I worked at the Walker Art Center changed my life.
The first time I went to Europe was with Martin and Mickey. Mickey took me to England where I photographed four projects by the British architect James Sterling. The photographs I made comprised an exhibition of his work at the Walker. Martin and Mickey were so good to me on that trip. They took me to plays in London and got me a personal tour of an exhibition of Fabergé eggs at the Victoria and Albert Museum. It was an amazing experience for me. I co-curated an exhibition on Minnesota press photography with Mickey. It was a great success.
Martin introduced me to George Segal. “Tom,” he said, “I’m going to create a friendship for you.” He did, and George Segal became my good friend. I still have letters from him.
There are so many other moments when they both were so supportive to me. They were there for me when I had a personal crisis in my life. When my parents died, I received wonderful personal notes of condolence from both Martin and Mickey. In 1981, Martin told me it was time for me to go and pursue my own work. I left the Walker that year, and for my going-away party we had a Hawaiian luau (I wore a lot of Hawaian shirts in those days). The guys on the exhibition crew made some palm trees, and everyone wore Hawaiian shirts, including Martin and Mickey. It was very special for me.
I learned from Martin and Mickey what a special calling it is to be an artist. They taught me to expect the best from myself and strive for the perfection of my ideas. I have gone on to have a good artistic life. I recently emailed Martin telling him that I now have galleries in New York and Paris and that I owe so much to him and Mickey for instilling in me, and so many others, a rigorous method of inquiry and the expectation of the best for ourselves.
I miss Martin and Mickey so much. I know there are so many great artists and curators that have worked with them over the years. I am so grateful to them both for making my life so profoundly better.
All my love and respect to you Martin, to you and Mickey.
Bruce Atwater, Honorary Trustee, Walker Art Center, and former president of the board
Those who knew Martin best have commented on how he combined scholarship with showmanship, intense support for loyal staff with demanding perfectionism, and expansive vision with fiscal reality.
Martin’s capacity for real friendship was another unique and very important defining characteristic. He became a real friend to so many in the art world: artists, gallery people, collectors, other museum directors, young people just becoming interested in art, and many others.
Martin’s main friendship criteria were probably a strong interest in the arts, an appreciation of the comedy in human affairs (and, of course, of Martin’s wonderful wit), and an easy compatibility.
Our friendship really deepened when I happened to be president of the Walker board during the lead up to Martin’s retirement after so many years at the helm. All who knew him well were very concerned that this might be a traumatic period as Martin wrestled with what he would do and where he and Mickey would live after the Walker. I had several warnings about how difficult this was likely to be for all concerned.
Fortunately, Mike Winton and Tom Crosby, both of whom were very close to Martin, had been quietly thinking about this, talking with Martin, and had all three put together a plan for the Friedmans to move to NYC.
Martin and I could talk very openly about the potential emotional issues of retiring as I was thinking about the same issue. Martin handled his “retirement” in a totally admirable way. He went on to be a major force in the art world for more than twenty years based in New York.
So, here is to my dear friend Martin!! You were the best!
Katharine DeShaw, director of development, Walker Art Center (1991–1999)
There is tale that the idea to create a Minneapolis Sculpture Garden came to Martin after the City of Minneapolis asked him to place a “dandelion fountain” in a field in front of the Walker. He was horrified—loathed the piece and did not like anyone dictating his artistic choices. That fountain is now located on the distant edge of Loring Park, far away from the brilliant garden that Martin ultimately built.
Kathleen Fluegel, director of development, Walker Art Center (1989–1991)
Martin’s passing brings back a rush of memories, such as the day after Kathy Halbreich was in town for the announcement that she was to be Martin’s successor, and he was going over a proposal with me in excruciating detail. At one point he looked across his desk at me and growled, “I’m still the director!”
I replied, “I know you are Martin, and I’m glad you are.”
He growled back, “You. Are. Not.”
At which I laughed and said, “You’re right!”
To his credit, he laughed, too.
Emily Galusha, program officer, Bush Foundation (1971–1979); Board treasurer and chair, then executive director, Northern Clay Center (1991–2012)
Fifteen years ago, I was interviewing someone I very much wanted to hire as the exhibitions director at Northern Clay Center when he asked me who my role model was as an arts organization director. With no hesitation, I said Martin Friedman. His vision for the Walker as a national and international leader in its field; his almost limitless curiosity about contemporary art, as well as the culture in which it is made; his ability to bounce back and forth between relentless attention to the details that go toward perfection and the larger ends toward which the enterprise was moving; his unbending commitment to quality in all things—whether the art being presented, its presentation, the words written about it; and, finally, his wit and sense of humor: all provided characteristics to emulate. My response apparently hit a sympathetic chord, and my candidate said yes.
I first met Martin in 1971, after I joined the staff of the Bush Foundation. My colleagues and most of the board were firmly embedded in St. Paul, so the Walker was, and was in, terra incognita; I got to be the lucky explorer for the organization. After the foundation approved a couple of grants to the performing arts program, Martin approached us for support for exhibitions. Martin’s vision, and his ability to realize that vision, produced an outsized impact of those grants on the Walker, the region, and contemporary art. His exhibitions were not just about objects, but about ideas expressed through objects.
Not long after the foundation began supporting the Walker’s exhibitions, Bush approved the Bush Artists Fellowships. The foundation’s executive director, Humphrey Doermann, was deeply skeptical about much of contemporary art, based on an almost complete lack of exposure. However, he did respect what Martin was accomplishing with the Walker. I arranged, with Martin’s help and participation, a lunch seminar for Humphrey, which also included curators Graham Beal and Lisa Lyons. In a wonderful three hours, they walked Humphrey through the development of contemporary art, using examples from the Walker’s collection, with no hint of artspeak or condescension. While Humphrey didn’t leave as a convert, he at least lost some degree of cynicism and took with him respect for their scholarship and passion. I was deeply grateful—and it was a lot of fun for me.
Kathy Halbreich, director, Walker Art Center (1991–2007); Associate Director and Laurenz Foundation Curator, Museum of Modern Art (2008–present)
Martin was universally recognized as an inspired, synthetic, and progressive leader; under his stewardship, the Walker became a magnet for all of us everywhere who cared about artists, performers, filmmakers, and designers of all stripes. He created a museum that was more than willing to share the risk of making new work with creative practitioners from around the globe: it, along with supporting artists early in their careers, was a mandate. I visited the Walker way before I became director in 1991; once, I came because Martin agreed to host a survey of Elizabeth Murray’s paintings and drawings I had organized with Sue Graze from the Dallas Museum. Despite his success and status, Martin also was willing to take a risk on younger curators, and many of the very best were trained by him. It meant a lot to receive his blessing, as we all knew his standards were exacting and pure. I never forgot the thrill of seeing that exhibition at the Walker.
Martin always set the pace for artistic and administrative innovation. Believing museums were civic entities rather than privileged enclaves and publicly supporting artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe when their art became political fodder for the right, he never ran from controversy. Martin was an intrepid leader, almost singularly so in the late 1980s when the culture wars sent a shudder through the field. I am sure there were things that kept him up at night, but he always appeared to be confidant, a characteristic that made him unusually persuasive. I suspect these qualities, as well as his superb eye, drew people to him and to the Walker. It never has been easy to elicit support for contemporary art, but Martin was a wizard; the Walker’s endowment was unique among contemporary museums, providing a foundation for all sorts of experimentation. Martin was brilliant at all aspects of being a director, but perhaps his most crucial talent was in developing a board that was as engaged with new ideas and as welcoming to new people as he was. Many of those trustees became his dear friends and the most devoted patrons of the museum during his tenure and beyond. As Judy Dayton often repeated, “It was a joy to support dear Walker.”
Many people told me that it was foolish to try to follow Martin, and in some ways it was taxing to follow a legend. But, in all the important ways, Martin and Mickey cared about—loved—the Walker so deeply that they left behind an immensely stable, elastic, and forward-looking institution. This made it possible for those of us who followed to be inventive and ambitious, to break some rules, and to dream big. I felt very lucky when I became director of the Walker. That sense of opportunity and good fortune only grew stronger during the 16 years I spent there, happily working with a staff and board in a community that were unparalleled, special. The Walker was a place where good governance was practiced every day and a director had unusual support. I came to realize that Martin’s profound commitment to creative people, in tandem with his belief that museums truly mattered, made everything past, present, and future possible. His work will not be forgotten because it has informed all museums of contemporary art. So many of Martin’s original ideas ultimately became accepted as routine practice. For example, when people wonder why the presence of performance in museums has suddenly become ubiquitous, I remind them that the Walker created a department of performing arts in 1970.
I always will be very grateful to Martin for cultivating the museum field so that people such as myself wanted to be part of it and could find a place to grow within it.
Ann Hatch, Walker family member; she has served on the Walker Art Center board since 1975
I was quite young when I started attending the big annual Walker family meetings at the museum. Jade Mountain was in full view then, but there was so much more to take in. At one meeting we were introduced to the new directorial candidate who was up for vote by the board and family. That young confident individual was Martin. I had gone to museums all my short life, but I’d never thought our family had started such a world-class institution, and I didn’t think about the people directing or the leadership it took to make an institution great. Mostly I wanted to stay away from the smelly guards.
Martin’s presentation was inspiring: he spoke of the TB Walker legacy, the collection, and how he intended to make a world-class institution in Minneapolis. That introduction made me realize what I was invited to be a part of at the Walker, as a world class museum, going forward. Martin never stopped.
Whenever I went back for board meetings, he always took time to show me around and remind me in a passionate way of the importance of the legacy and my potential role in its future. That made a huge impression on me. Martin always sent me catalogues with personal notes. He encouraged me to read and see work. I loved the Walker shows and was so proud of the Walker for being the best museum for artists imaginable.
I went on several trustee tours where we met great artists in a very personal and meaningful way. Isamu Noguchi, and all the artists we saw, really respected Martin. I realized the relationships needed to build an institution. It is highly personal, taking great integrity and vision. Martin saw the big picture and had acute attention to detail.
When I started Capp Street Project in 1983, I asked Martin for his opinion of the program. His vote of enthusiasm was empowering. He wanted to know all about who was coming to be in residence and suggested artists and advisors. I was very grateful to Martin and his vision, dedication and unwavering enthusiasm for the arts.
I’m glad I knew both Martin and Mickey.
John Killacky, curator of Performing Arts, Walker Art Center (1988–1996); executive director, Flynn Center for the Performing Arts (2010–present)
Four loving memories of Martin
First day hired: He showed me a map of the US with pins in it showing where former staff members were working. “Someday you’ll be a pin on this wall.”
Favorite Martin memo to all staff: “There was a dead fly in the stairwell this morning.”
Shiva: Hearing Isamu Noguchi had died, I sat in the darkened gallery, joined by Martin.
Lunchtime: January 1990 interdisciplinary Cultural Infidels festival opened with Karen Finley. Martin and Mickey attended the performance, as did the vice squad. The next day Martin asked me to lunch off-site. I thought I was fired. His comment: “I think that woman needs therapy.”
Jonathan Lippincott, author of Large Scale: Fabricating Sculpture in the 1960s and 1970s
I only had the opportunity of speaking with Martin Friedman twice over the years, but his writing and his work as a curator were inspiring to me in writing my book, and in many projects since. His catalogs captured the excitement and innovation of their times, and his deep interest in artists’ motivations and ideas comes through in his essays and interviews. Of particular interest for me, in thinking about sculpture, were 14 Sculptors: The Industrial Edge, a survey exhibition that took place in 1969, and Oldenburg: Six Themes, a show delving into six recurring images in the work of Claes Oldenburg, from 1975. The former explores the major directions that sculptors were pursuing at the time, within the larger realm of industrially fabricated sculpture. The latter looks at the work of one artist in depth, considering the whole body of work and the threads of interconnection among these works. In both catalogs, Friedman’s clear critical eye and genuine interest and affection for the artwork offer a model of how to think and write about art.
Kirk McCall, exhibition technician/carpenter/draftsperson, Walker Art Center (1987–present)
We were installing the exhibition Foirades/Fizzles in 1988. I had only been at the Walker for a year or so and had felt the power and decisiveness of this small giant of a man who really deeply cared about every single aspect of the art, the artist, and its presentation. He would come in a day before an exhibition opened and always change a work (or 10) around. We called it “One-Hour Martinizing.” I remember Martin having a hard time figuring out a particular room layout. It was days going back and forth—switch, switch, switch. We’d just leave it to come back and get fresh eyes the next day. The next morning I went in and switched them the way I thought they should go to settle my own curiosity. Martin came in and looked puzzled. I felt really nervous and honestly afraid for my job. He looked up at me and didn’t say anything but winked and smiled and said, “This could work.” I knew he knew I had rearranged them, and from then on he trusted me with a question or two once and a while. It made me feel on top of the world, sincerely validated and encouraged. I knew I was in the right place and have called it home ever since.
Peter Murphy, media specialist, Walker Art Center (1972–present)
When I first started working at the Walker I would cheerfully take on any task assigned, filling in anywhere there was a need. On snow days I came in at 5 am to shovel snow, and later I would be painting galleries or doing building maintenance or donning the guard uniform of the time. My first encounter with Martin Friedman was when he abruptly led a contingency of us guards down to Receiving in the basement where items from the Native American show were accumulating. He gave us an impromptu lecture on what was about to emerge into the galleries. That day I was so struck by:
a. how egalitarian he was to include us nobodies,
b. how unbelievably intelligent and engaging he was (his narrative was engrossing!), and
c. how contagious his enthusiasm was. He wanted to share it with us, for this place, and what he was doing here.
Pretty good first impression! It fostered a lasting loyalty. He wanted everyone to participate and believe.
In those times—in the tailwinds of the Sixties—when the classes met full-circle (at wild, Breakfast at Tiffany’s–like parties and events), there were more intersections among all types of groups. Martin would scoop up all us hangers-on—anyone present at the end of the event, his “entourage”—and we would end up at his house. While the positions I held were not prestigious, I must have been at Martin’s at least four times. (It was there I was honored to meet and shake hands with none other than Robert Rauschenberg!) It didn’t matter who you were. He was always very direct and seemed to expect that you would rise to his level of conversation.
His expectations were high and sometimes awkward. If he walked by you and saw some refuse on the floor, he would tell you clean it up. You might think: that’s not my job, but it was clear, it is now. We should care about our own pride in the place, not just protect his. Some of his demands could be puzzlingly cryptic. I remember when I was a projectionist, Martin running into the booth saying, “We need more air!” I was perplexed as to what I was expected to do. I laughed to myself as I pictured blowing more air in—whew! whew!!
Still, I always felt we were in good hands with Martin and Mickey. You could feel the acceleration of the place in those times. He made us proud to be part of it.
Claes Oldenburg, artist
I remember meeting Martin on the terrace of the newly finished Barnes building, where we installed a yellow and blue twelve-foot high Geometric Mouse to keep an eye on its twin at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm.
Later, when the Seventies set in, Martin and I spent days in cafes along Sunset Boulevard developing my interpretation of ordinary objects, such as a giant ashtray and three-way plug, into the exhibition Six Themes.
In 1988 came the placement in the sculpture garden, laid out by Martin, of the 50-foot-long shining spoon to which Coosje had added the red cherry that glistens with running water as spray from its stem emits rainbows.
Martin caused things to happen, and I consider his presence essential to the art of our time.
David Ryan, curator of Design, Minneapolis Institute of Art (1999–2009); librarian and assistant coordinator, Performing Arts, Walker Art Center (1965–1968)
I had the exceptional good fortune to begin a 40-year museum career with Martin Friedman at the Walker Art Center in 1965. It was the beginning of a bond that lasted until his death. As with so many colleagues, his influence as a lifelong mentor is unshakeable.
At the beginning of Walter Mondale’s tenure as vice president, his wife, Joan, asked Martin to come to the VP mansion to see what he could do to lay out preselected art works in the home’s public spaces. She and her husband were the first couple to inhabit the residence on the grounds of the US Naval Observatory, and it was Joan’s wish to turn the home into a showcase for American art.
By this time she had traveled extensively, attending museum exhibitions, dedicating new works of art, and otherwise directing national attention on artists. During her tenure as “Second Lady” of the United States, President Carter named her honorary chairman of the Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities.
Prior to visiting Washington, Martin asked me to assist him in working out logistics at the Mondale’s residence as we had worked together on many past museum installations. At that time, I was assistant director of the Museum Program at the National Endowment for the Arts.
We began early one bright morning in the spring of 1977, soon after the Mondales had moved in. Aside from their lovable dog following us about, no one was home. Without losing a step, Martin begin moving art works and furnishings around, bustling about without hesitation.
“Let’s move that over there.” “And this one over here.” “Good.” “Hmm.” “No, no.” “Not there” “Over here.” “How about this one?” “What do you think?” “Not too bad.” “I think if we move that stuffed chair out of the way—how homely can it be?” “Now then, we’re getting somewhere.” “And, that chest of drawers! That has to go!”
“Uh, Martin,” I said. “This is the vice president’s home. Perhaps, we should slow down a bit and give some thought as to what the Mondales might want in the way of a comfortable atmosphere. It’s their living quarters!” “Hmm, yes, well, we’ll just make a few subtle changes.”
Not much later, Martin was asking the VP staff to take furniture downstairs to storage and bring up other pieces in exchange, furniture that better complemented the art. This went on for quite an extended period. Eventually, we enjoyed a quiet lunch served by the staff while surveying a thoroughly redecorated vice president’s living space from top to bottom.
The immediate reaction from Fritz and Joan upon first coming coming through their door is not on public record, but they certainly took pride in extending a welcome mat to all thereafter. Joan’s wish was fulfilled. Overnight, their home had indeed become a showcase for art.
One instance, one episode of a perfectionist at work. A lesson learned—a true perfectionist knows few bounds. I am immensely grateful for that invaluable lesson and many, many more at the hands of Martin Friedman over the years, forever indebted our paths crossed early on.
John Walsh, director emeritus, J. Paul Getty Museum
Martin was the museum director I admired the most. He was a dear friend, too, but I hardly ever saw him at the Walker. I did see him often at the Getty Museum in the 1980s and 1990s, where I was its thoroughly inexperienced director and needed all the help I could get. So we put him on an advisory committee of luminaries. We convened them once a year to review our plans for creating a brand-new museum, which we’d started to do, and for devising programs for the public, which lay a few years in the future. The best moment for Martin came when the new Getty was under construction and over budget. At its meeting the advisory committee learned that the Trustees were thinking about charging admission after the opening. It was only fair, the argument went, and besides, most museums charge, and people expect to pay. We had never conceived of doing that. The endowment was somewhere close to $6 billion. Admission to the Getty had always been free. When the issue arose at the meeting, Martin asked a few practical questions but mostly leaned back and listened to the discussion. After a half hour or so, he said to the head of the Getty Trust, “I think you people have a death wish.” Not much was said after that. The issue of an admission charge was never raised again.
Penny Winton, longtime Walker Art Center supporter: her husband, Mike Winton, was a Walker Trustee who served as president of the board
Mike and I had known Martin ever since he was appointed director, about the time Mike joined the board. We knew how perfect Martin was for the job. We knew how miserable he could make staff and crews feel. (Picture Mickey at Wuollet’s bakery the minute it opened the morning after a Martin number, filling a box of mea culpas to assuage the wounded.) We knew his strengths and his weaknesses. We knew how loyal Justin Smith [a Walker family member and longtime trustee] was to Martin through some awkward times early on. We knew how amazing he was. We became very close to Martin and Mickey up to Mike’s last day and now to Martin’s.
The strongest glue that kept us close was Martin’s ever active sense of humor. He was at his most basic self a droll man, exceedingly droll. He loved telling funny stories even when he was the butt of them. There was the bespoke gentleman from South America Martin was certain would end up a major contributor, and of course he’d be happy to show him around. The gent asked if the Walker had any Flegers, because he was such a Fleger fan and always looked for Flegers at every museum he visited. Eventually, Martin figured out he was taking about F. (Fernand) Leger and excused himself for a meeting he had forgotten. He was a tease. At a board meeting a staff member was pouring coffee for the members around the table, “No, no, no, not for Winton. He’ll just roll hand grenades across the floor!” He was mischievous. Not too long ago, he and Mickey and I went to see a show on the art of Islam at the Met. Mickey quickly disappeared for a moment of peace, and I trotted after Martin. Now rather deaf, he was practically shouting, “Now where is that vase. I must show you this beautiful vase. You will love it and I am going to give it to you for Christmas,” as he leaned over its vitrine with an eighth of an inch to spare, while I watched guards racing toward us.
His love of the human comedy was constant.
Kimberly Drew and Jenna Wortham. Photo: Naima Green To commemorate the year that was, we invited an array of artists, writers, designers, and curators—from abstract painter Jack Whitten to musician C. Spencer Yeh, choreographer Trajal Harrell to designer Na Kim—to share a list of the most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects they encountered in 2015. See […]
To commemorate the year that was, we invited an array of artists, writers, designers, and curators—from abstract painter Jack Whitten to musician C. Spencer Yeh, choreographer Trajal Harrell to designer Na Kim—to share a list of the most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects they encountered in 2015. See the entire series 2015: The Year According to .
What started as a series of casual DMs between Kimberly Drew and Jenna Wortham has evolved within the last year into an ambitious and multifarious research project that launches publicly today under the name Black Futures. The hybrid project will combine short essays and original, commissioned artworks from a variety of sources, all drawn from personal networks that span from storied institutions to Internet artists to online communities. “We’re devoted to the act of preserving and documenting contemporary blackness in the post-digital age,” the state, “and our ultimate plan is to create a time capsule that reflects the deep contours of global blackness at this precise moment in history.” In line with this vision, Black Future’s year-end list offers a nuanced exploration of the year’s undercurrents, from activism and appropriation to gender identity and global interconnectivity.
Kimberly Drew (@museummammy), currently the Associate Online Community Producer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, founded the Tumblr blog Black Contemporary Art, and has delivered lectures and participated in panel discussions at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, the Performa Biennial, Art Basel, the Brooklyn Museum, the Bronx Museum of the Arts, Creative Many (Detroit, MI) and elsewhere.
Jenna Wortham (@jennydeluxe) is a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine, where she previously covered technology and Internet culture. She has also written for The Fader, The Paris Review, The Hairpin, and Vogue. Other side hustles include: Bloop, Heartline on Bel-Air Radio, Everybody Sexts, the Emoji Art Show & Girl Crush Zine.
Social activism, community organizing, and subversion have been at the foundation of art movements since the dawn of time. But, in 2015, we have witnessed (and seen some grand, financial support for) a new wave of social practice art-making. Artists like LaToya Ruby Frazier, Mark Bradford, Theaster Gates, Rick Lowe, Maria Gaspar, Titus Kaphar, and Wangechi Mutu have been making major waves place-making and fundraising. With the US election on the horizon and the world basically in shambles, these artists have the audacity to help try and make the world a better place.
New Black Geographies
Afro-Iran is a hyphenated identity that may not be familiar to most, and Mahdi Ehsaei’s gorgeous, Kickstarter-funded photography project provided a textured glimpse into the lives and communities of African Iranians that have settled alongside the Persian Gulf. African slaves were sold to wealthy families in Persia as servants and concubines, and these are their descendants. The diaspora is so vast and varied, and in recent years we’ve been afforded the opportunity to learn about our pasts and move forward deftly into the future. Additionally, that’s why the ongoing body of work by Zanele Muholi, a queer South African photographer who documents the lives of lesbians and gender-nonconforming people in Africa, is also among the most important narratives to gain global recognition this year.
#GenderMuse: Talking Gender in Museums
The gender revolution has arrived (again.) This year, museums globally have been charged with reconsidering how they can be receptive to the myriad identities of their visitors. It’s our hope that unpacking cis-gender-centric museological practices will be one of the art world’s greatest challenges in the 21st century. That said, news flash: gender equity is more than just bathrooms! Yes, gender neutral bathrooms are a step in the right direction, but they surely aren’t the only qualifier for gender-inclusive museum practices. So, get on it y’all!
Notes on Language & Internet Vernacular
Claptalking is a uniquely black gesture, an action one associates primarily with black women and black womanhood. It is a part of our colloquial vernacular as familiar as any other part of the English language. As emoji became popularized in America and social media services like Twitter adapted their software so that the colorful cartoons would show up in tweets, something interesting began to happen. People, including non-black Americans, began using the claphands emoji to emulate claptalking online. Is this linguistic minstrelsy? And is it the Internet’s fault for facilitating it? None of these questions have answers, but Martine Syms’s provocative and brilliant project helps to explore the meaning of language and, by association, the ways online media and the Internet debone culture from its origins, how we process digital representation and cultural migration in a post-Internet era. (Further reading: Manuel Arturo Abreu’s Online Imagined Black English.)
The Year of the Hoe
2015 was undoubtedly the year of the hoe (and in many ways, “whoremongering.”) Self-proclaimed, self-affirming hoes like Amber Rose and Cardi B forged a new path towards decolonizing black female sexuality. Rose’s How to Be a Bad Bitch is perhaps the first book of it’s candor since Karinne Steffans’ seminal 2005 book, Confessions of a Video Vixen. Rose doesn’t hold a candle to Steffans as a novelist, but the Amber Rose Slut Walk has had an undoubtedly profound impact on the public dialogue around black female subjectivity.
An enormous and ongoing theme from 2015 was the slow-rising awareness of the Internet as a biased, hegemonic, and very-not-neutral space. It is not the democracy we’ve lulled ourselves into thinking it could be. Plenty of dialogues have emerged about how multibillion-dollar corporations like Uber, AirBnb, Facebook, Spotify, and the like continue to reinforce—not disrupt—age-old hierarchies. But none have been as entertaining as the work of online artist Tabita Rezaire, a French-Guyanese-Danish multimedia artist living in Johannesburg, South Africa. Her work addresses the colonist attitudes of the Web and forces you to address that we might be co-opting a new form of slavery, one that’s too far embedded to extricate ourselves from.
“I’m not going to ask Lena Dunham to write a story about Asian-American girls; that’s not her experience. But if we want more stories about Asian-Americans, then we have to help foster the creators, the writers, the producers, the directors. I’m trying to read more books that are written by Asian-Americans. It’s important to me that I read these stories.” —Constance Wu
2015 was a year of strange cultural confusion. Identities were borrowed, racial histories co-opted, and the post-Internet etiquette of “sharing first and worrying about crediting later” came to a head with the Fat Jew and a handful of other popular aggregators. But perhaps no one broke it down better than Amandla Sternberg, actress and musician, in a YouTube video talking about the dangers of appropriation and what is lost when we just assume aesthetics, fashion, and ideas are up for grabs.
New Online Narratives
There’s something so revolutionary about black Internet users deciding to simply make themselves known a few days each year by flooding Tumblr with resplendent images of blackness. It’s a way to push back at an overwhelmingly Eurocentric images of beauty media and claim a little space for oneself. Acknowledging the power to create and control independent narratives—to define what it means that the Internet is intended as a democracy—was one of the most important themes for keyboard activism in 2015.
In January 2015, the New York Times ran an article outlining web initiatives by major art museum including the Whitney Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and others making images in their collection accessible online. In the piece Ken Johnson asks, “Will global interconnectivity promote homogeneity and less idiosyncrasy?” The clear answer here is: hell no. This year was chock full of intensely creative infrastructures for global interconnectivity. For example, Tulane University’s Bounce Archive, Sonia Boyce’s Black Artist and Modernism, the #CharlestonSyllabus, the digitization of 1.5 million of the Freedmans Bureau’s papers, and many others are inflating the traditional definitions of archives or databases. Global interconnectivity was turnt in 2015 and we can’t wait to see what 2016 has in store.
Jack Whitten. Photo: Gene Pittman To commemorate the year that was, we invited an array of artists, writers, designers, and curators—from artist-musician C. Spencer Yeh and choreographer Trajal Harrell to filmmaker Tala Hadid and theater director Daniel Fish—to share a list of the most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects they encountered in 2015. See the […]
To commemorate the year that was, we invited an array of artists, writers, designers, and curators—from artist-musician C. Spencer Yeh and choreographer Trajal Harrell to filmmaker Tala Hadid and theater director Daniel Fish—to share a list of the most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects they encountered in 2015. See the entire series 2015: The Year According to .
2015 was a momentous year for Jack Whitten. A 50-year retrospective of his work was shown in three cities—San Diego, Columbus, and Minneapolis (its Walker presentation closes January 24), and he witnessed the publication of his first book, the catalogue for Jack Whitten: Five Decades of Painting. But, as he notes below, it was noteworthy in so many other ways as well. Here, he recaps the year that was in a list that ranges from hedgehogs to quantum mechanics, Picasso sculptures to an exhibition of art he says contains “every fragment of ancient memory buried deep in my psyche.”
Sunday November 29, 2015: My New York Times is delivered every morning at approximately 7 am. I stepped out of the elevator in my bathrobe, picked up the newspaper, took off the blue plastic protective cover, and saw Norman Lewis on the front page! That made my day. What a joy for me to see one of my mentors on the front page of the New York Times.
A Career Chronicled
The opening of my 50-year retrospective at the Walker Art Center and the publishing of my first book: Jack Whitten: Five Decades of Painting. Perseverance, hard work and dedication is starting to pay off, I’m still alive and working at age 76. Not bad, eh?
Atopolis at Mons
My participation in Atopolis, an exhibition honoring the ideas of Édouard Glissant in Mons, Belgium, was a beautiful experience. I knew Glissant, and his books have been helpful to me. I especially liked Lawrence Weiner’s installation mounted on the front of the gallery: “We are ships at sea, not ducks on a pond.” Somehow, this summed up the whole show in terms of the significance of place.
Picasso at MoMA
Clem Greenberg was asked what did he think of Jean-Michel Basquiat? Clem sardonically answered, “No one can have that much freedom.” Viewing the Picasso Sculpture show at MoMA, my reaction was how is it possible for anyone to have that much freedom? The man did whatever he wanted with totally unabashed freedom. He was a master! Personally, this show came at the right time for me and sent me a powerful message: Just Do It!
Melvin Edwards at the Nasher
Mel Edwards’ retrospective at the Nasher Sculpture Center was the best installation of his work ever. Mel’s control of molten steel in binding diverse elements taken from an infinite variety of sources directed at a specific symbol reveals the hand of a master. This was one of the best shows of the year.
Family Thanksgiving dinner at cousin Tom Tryforos’ home was especially celebratory this year. We had several bottles of Brunello di Montalcino from different vintages and different producers. All were superb! Turkey has never tasted better.
Science is one of my main sources of inspiration it triggers my imagination. Our age is defined by science and technology and I believe that for art to qualify as significant form it must signify the age in which it is made. Most of my reading is philosophy and science, and The Quantum Moment: How Planck, Bohr, Einstein, and Heisenberg Taught Us to Love Uncertainty by Robert P. Crease and Alfred Scharff Goldhaber opened up my mind tremendously and gave me another level of consciousness.
My woodcarving studio is shaded by a large fig tree, and in August, when the figs are ripe, they attract a large variety of birds and animals that gorge themselves senselessly. My memory of this hedgehog is especially potent, he would eat so many figs that his stomach was extended like a balloon! It doesn’t get any cuter than this.
I thought that Sarah Palin was the ultimate political comic book character until Donald Trump entered the scene. How much worse can it get? The good thing is that Donald Trump and people like him expose the loophole in our Capitalist Democracy. Freedom of speech works both ways; everything is possible in America.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition Kongo: Power and Majesty sums up the season for me. These works contain every fragment of ancient memory buried deep in my psyche. I identify so much to the Nkiski. Without a doubt, they are a major influence in my thinking about art.
Next week, artist Coco Fusco will again undergo a transformation a few of us at the Walker were lucky enough to witness a year ago: she’ll become—outwardly, at least—Dr. Zira, the chimpanzee psychologist from the 1968 film, Planet of the Apes. The in-costume talk Observations of Predation in Humans, A Lecture by Dr. Zira, Animal […]
Next week, artist Coco Fusco will again undergo a transformation a few of us at the Walker were lucky enough to witness a year ago: she’ll become—outwardly, at least—Dr. Zira, the chimpanzee psychologist from the 1968 film, Planet of the Apes. The in-costume talk Observations of Predation in Humans, A Lecture by Dr. Zira, Animal Psychologist was presented at the Walker November 6, 2014, as part of the exhibition Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art, and on November 18, 2015, Fusco will reprise the piece at New Jersey’s Monmouth University. In honor of Zira’s return, we decided to share some of what went on in the green room last year, as Fusco—her voice occasionally muffled as she underwent her simian change—shared her thinking about the performance.
Over the course of nearly three hours, a professional makeup artist turned Fusco into Zira, the scientist who studied human behavior in the 1960s and ’70s film series. Using film industry makeup, costumes, and prosthetics, the transition involved adhering facial features, a mane of human hair, and tufts of fur to Fusco’s knuckles. But getting into character mentally and intellectually took much longer—starting with a request from the Studio Museum in Harlem to re-perform a past work for the New York presentation of the CAM Houston-organized Radical Presence show in 2013.
Her initial reaction to that request: “I’m not Marina Abramović! I don’t do that. I’m not gonna get in a cage again!”—a reference to her performance with Guillermo Gomez-Peña, Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit the West (1992–1994), in which the duo appeared in a cage. As the Walker’s Mia Lopez wrote last October, citing the work’s 1992 presentation in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden:
During the performance Gomez-Peña and Fusco presented themselves as members of the fictional Guatinaui tribe, inhabitants of an uncolonized island in the Gulf of Mexico. Wearing leopard print loincloths and artificial feathers while contained in a gilded cage, the artists told stories in a made up language, performed fictionalized ritual dances, and ate bananas fed to them by docents/zookeepers. Despite exaggerated theatrics and outlandish costumes and props, many museum visitors believed the performance to be authentic and reacted accordingly.
Fusco sees a deep link between her depiction of Dr. Zira and that early work with Gomez-Peña. “For Two Undiscovered Amerindians, I researched how the scientific discourse of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries contributed to popular understanding of non-Europeans as subhuman; I was exploring the boundary between humans and other animals,” she told Elia Alba, writing for Art 21. “That returns in Zira’s monologue. Zira studies humans through the lens that humans use to study nonhuman primates.”
But not wanting to rehash a work from two decades ago, Fusco proposed a new piece. She had been teaching undergraduate classes on race, science fiction, and Afrofuturism and noticed that whenever she’d show films from The Planet of the Apes series, students would connect—deeply. “I had this realization: damn, these films—there’s a lot of material in here to work with,” she recalled. “And the one book that I used with the students about it had to do with the connections between the race riots and the Apes films, and it underscored how there’s so much overlap. So, this works, I thought, and also, you know, what is the most overused stereotype of blacks? It’s that they’re like monkeys, right? So, I was like: OK! A talking ape in the Studio Museum is a pretty radical presence.”
What also appealed to her about the original movies—for her use as an educator and for this performance—was that they contained “full-on social commentary about that time—a really strong anti-nuke message, anti-war message, all about race relations.”
To develop her embodiment of Dr. Zira, Fusco says she did hours upon hours of research. She watched nature shows, online lectures by scientists like Stanford primatologist and neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky, and documentaries like Project Nim (2011) and Koko: A Talking Gorilla (1978). “I would look for films about primatology, science—National Geographic–style stuff—and just watch the people talking about them. Jane Goodall, of course. But she’s so particular. She has this combination that’s kind of like Zira, of being very arch and very superior on the one hand and then very excited on the other. When she starts imitating the chimps, she starts going, ‘Oh ooh ooh ooh!’ and all that, and you can see that she’s all happy that she gets to play with chimps.” (See an excerpt from Observations of Predation in Humans.)
Were zoos part of her research? A bit, but more for Two Undiscovered Amerindians than Observations of Predation in Humans. “Zoo animals are depressed. They’re not very active. So it’s more instructive to watch science films about them in the wild, to see them interacting in the wild.”
This close observation underscored the similarities between humans and chimpanzees (geneticists say there’s only a 1.2 percent difference between the two species’ genomes). “Even without recognizing the DNA, you can see it,” says Fusco. “When you see them interacting with each other—having sex, playing with their kids, feeding each other… There’s really practically nothing separating us from these other animals.”
And that—grappling with the animal in the human—is one of the main reasons Fusco has repeatedly undergone her transition into Dr. Zira. As she told Artforum in 2013:
Studies of animal behavior often focus on aggression and predation. We tend to think of predation usually in terms of the hunt for prey—carnivores attacking other animals to feed themselves. But in a broader sense predation means “to plunder,” and in animal psychology it is understood as goal-oriented aggression for the accumulation of resources. Dr. Zira comes from the future and focuses on our species’ drive for status, territory, and material. These are aspects of behavior that humans share with primates and many other animals.
To commemorate the year that was, we invited an array of artists, writers, designers, and curators—from artist Kalup to poet LaTasha Diggs, author Jeff Chang to futurist Nicolas Nova—to share a list of the most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects they encountered in 2014. See the entire series 2014: The Year According to […]
To commemorate the year that was, we invited an array of artists, writers, designers, and curators—from artist Kalup to poet LaTasha Diggs, author Jeff Chang to futurist Nicolas Nova—to share a list of the most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects they encountered in 2014. See the entire series 2014: The Year According to .
Rima Mokaiesh is director of The Arab Image Foundation, a nonprofit organization established in Beirut in 1997 with a mission to collect, preserve, and study photographs from the Middle East, North Africa, and the Arab diaspora. The AIF’s expanding collection is generated through artist- and scholar-led projects. The Foundation makes its collection accessible to the public through a wide spectrum of activities, including exhibitions, publications, videos, a website, and an online image database. The ongoing research and acquisition of photographs include so far Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Iraq, Iran, Mexico, Argentina, and Senegal. To date, the collection holds more than 600,000 photographs.
Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait at Cannes
Alexandre Paulikevitch’s Elgha performance premieres in Beirut
Le Plus Beau Jour by photographer Fouad Elkoury at Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris
Monditalia at the Venice Architectural Biennale
Mommy, by Xavier Dolan
55 artists confront the São Paulo Biennal about its sources of funding following Israel’s attack on Gaza
Fifty-five of the 68 artists exhibiting at the 2014 São Paulo Biennal addressed an open letter to the curators questioning the event’s funding in light of Israel’s attack on Gaza. In response, the biennal’s curators engaged in a conversation about the sources of funding of cultural events and the necessity of independence.
Laureate of the Prix Carmignac Gestion Photojournalism Award returns grant, jury indignant
Iranian photographer Newsha Tavakolian received, returned, and re-accepted the Prix Carmignac Gestion Photojournalism award, igniting strong reactions from the prize’s jury members. The whole story shed light on the role of patrons in art and photography, and, again, the non-negotiability of independence.
Ebola doctors named Time Person of the Year
Bob Dylan performs a private concert for one single fan at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia
Lebanese cops cannot tell a Salafi apart from a hipster
To commemorate the year that was, we invited an array of artists, writers, designers, and curators—from author Jeff Chang and composer Eyvind Kang to designer Eric Hu and filmmaker Sam Green—to share a list of the most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects they encountered in 2014. See the entire series 2014: The Year According to […]
To commemorate the year that was, we invited an array of artists, writers, designers, and curators—from author Jeff Chang and composer Eyvind Kang to designer Eric Hu and filmmaker Sam Green—to share a list of the most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects they encountered in 2014. See the entire series 2014: The Year According to .
Korakrit Arunanondchai is a New York– and Bangkok-based artist whose artistic discipline spans a wide range of media. Inspired by Rirkrit Tiravanija, he creates immersive installations that emphasize “social participation” and incorporates elements that allow the audience to discover themselves. Arunanondchai has had solo exhibitions at MoMA PS1, Long Island City (2014); The Mistake Room, Los Angeles (2014); the Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw (2014); and CLEARING gallery, New York and Brussels (2013). He has has been featured in major group exhibitions at ICA, London (2013); Jim Thompson House, Bangkok (2013); Sculpture Center, Long Island City (2012); and the Fisher Landau Center for Art, New York (2012).
The three-fingers hand salute from the Hunger Games is now banned in Thailand due to the military takeover.
A happening of 2014, apparently coming back in 2015 as well.
In relationship to Polar Vortex, this is a movie of 2014 about a time when we have to leave Earth because we’ve destroyed it.
No real-world impact yet, but the fact that the Higgs boson particle actually exists seems promising for quantum physics. It took them 40 years, including the building of Cern’s Hadron Collider, to discover the particle.
One of my favorite exhibition I saw this year.
A very touching performance in a room filled with Dan Flavin. Part of a larger project, which is a feature film called A Day in the Life of Bliss.
420 at the capital of USA????? Not confirmed yet but still a possibility.
The Lego Movie
I hope there are sequels.
Without watching the final episodes of South Park this season, I would never have guessed that the most subscribed YouTube celebrity in the world is ………. Pewdiepie.
Let’s not forget this happened in 2014. Most importantly, we have to remember that it was about raising awareness for ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis).
Kalup Linzy. Photo: Daniel Trese To commemorate the year that was, we invited an array of artists, writers, designers, and curators—from poet LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs and musician Grant Hart to designer David Reinfurt and composer Eyvind Kang—to share a list of the most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects they encountered in 2014. See the entire series 2014: […]
To commemorate the year that was, we invited an array of artists, writers, designers, and curators—from poet LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs and musician Grant Hart to designer David Reinfurt and composer Eyvind Kang—to share a list of the most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects they encountered in 2014. See the entire series 2014: The Year According to .
Kalup Linzy is a Brooklyn-based video and performance artist, whose work is featured in the Walker’s presentation of Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art. Best known for his satirical soap opera–style narrative videos, Linzy is interested in exploring stereotypes, sexual identity, race, and gender. In 2010, he appeared alongside James Franco in the ABC soap opera General Hospital in an episode featuring performance art. More recently, he released an album for his multi-platform project Art Jobs and Lullabies, which can now be found on Spotify, iTunes, and other digital outlets. His videos can be viewed here. Linzy has held solo exhibitions at the Studio Museum in Harlem (2009); MoMA, New York (2008); Prospect.1, New Orleans (2008); MoMA PS1, Long Island City (2006); and LAXART, Los Angeles (2006). He has been featured in group exhibitions at the Garage Center, Moscow (2010); Corcoran Gallery, Washington, D.C. (2008); The Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, London (2008); Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (2007); Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2007); and Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney (2006). His work is held in the collections of MoMA, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Studio Museum in Harlem, among others.
Mass die-in, St. Louis Galleria on Black Friday
Demonstrators poignantly and peacefully protested Black Friday in response to Darren Wilson not being indicted for shooting and killing Michael Brown. Several malls in the area were shut down.
Dan Colen, The Brant Foundation, Free Arts NYC, and The Department of Homeless Services.
Wonderful to hang out, mentor, eat pizza, and appropriate, through the eyes of children, Colen’s work.
Muñoz cared, understood, and contextualized the work of many queer artists that most would not think twice about engaging with. Produced by the Whitney’s department of education and initiated by Gordon Hall, many of us took to the stage to perform. Included were myself, Nao Bustamante, Jorge Cortiñas, Juliana Huxtable, Miguel Gutierrez with I.n. Hafezi, My Barbarian, Kate Bush Dance Troupe, A.L. Steiner, and Jacolby Satterwhite. RIP, Jose. You are greatly missed.
Black-ish on ABC
A single-camera comedy that centers on an upper-middle-class African-American family. Many of the episodes focus on identity and cultural politics that contemporary art world types should find engaging. It stars Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross, who is pictured above with Thelma Golden.
Hosted by Iman, Naomi Campbell, and Tyson Beckford. This was the most fun I had had in a while. Congrats to Bethann and all her pioneering contributions to the fashion industry!
Creative Time Presents Kara Walker’s A Subtlety or The Marvelous Sugar Baby
Viewing the exhibition, I remembered a summer hanging out in the pepper fields with my father, who was a farmer and overseer in migrant work. I don’t ever recall being in a sugar cane field with him, but I do remember them existing and playing in them with my cousins. One day I told my father I wanted to be a farmer when I grew up. He said, “No, I want you to have an office job, because farming is hard labor.” At the time I didn’t really understand. I was just a kid who loved and was always excited to be with his dad. I left Walker’s exhibition being grateful for evolution and parents who desire more, fight, and work hard for their children to have a better life.
Chris Ofili: Night And Day at the New Museum
Inspiring, rejuvenating… fanning that desire within to produce work that continues to resonate over time.
A beast of a show with intimate moments of offspring dispersed throughout.
Rachel Feinstein’s The Last Days of Folly at Madison Square Park
With her sculptures as a backdrop, a one-day performance festival was staged and brought together luminaries from art, fashion, film, television, dance, and theater. Had me wanting to do one of my own. Kudos, Rachel! Hoping there’s more to come!
Sweet Liberty Censored
The muddled, confusing details sounded like a plot from my web series As Da Art World Might Turn. Because I am not a fan of mine or my collaborators’ artistic voices being shooshed, here is the censored billboard with our original intentions above it. A sweet beautiful narrative.
From time to time the Walker invites outside voices to share perspectives on art and culture. Today, Shelly Bancroft and Peter Nesbett, who together run Philadelphia-based Triple Candie, share their thoughts on Donelle Woolford, a work in the 2014 Whitney Biennial that featured a fictitious African American artist performing a 1977 Richard Pryor stand-up routine. […]
From time to time the Walker invites outside voices to share perspectives on art and culture. Today, Shelly Bancroft and Peter Nesbett, who together run Philadelphia-based Triple Candie, share their thoughts on Donelle Woolford, a work in the 2014 Whitney Biennial that featured a fictitious African American artist performing a 1977 Richard Pryor stand-up routine. A creation of the white artist Joe Scanlan, Donelle Woolford’s inclusion prompted the YAMS collective to withdraw from the biennial. As guest writers, Bancroft and Nesbett’s opinions do not reflect those of the Walker Art Center.
We first learned of the project and met Joe in 2006 when he stopped in to our Harlem gallery to see a show we had curated on a fictional artist named Lester Hayes. As it turned out, Joe and his wife lived near us in Harlem, and in time we started socializing. Woolford, at that point, was but a shadow of her later self. Some two years later, we commissioned a short text for art on paper, a magazine we owned, to begin to critically unpack the project. It was the first text written about Woolford in a US magazine. After that, we more or less forgot about her.
Woolford came back into our life this past February when the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit informed us that they had booked Woolford’s Dick’s Last Stand routine to coincide with an exhibition we had curated there titled James Lee Byars: I Cancel All My Works at Death. And in Minneapolis in early July—a month after Woolford performed at Midway Contemporary Art—we heard that Lester Hayes was being cited in conversations about Woolford.
We are critical of Joe’s project, but we aren’t summarily dismissive. Aspects of it bring to the surface essential conditions of the contemporary art experience. These include the scripting of value-producing biographical narratives (e.g. the fetishization of birthplaces, or the pretensions of multi-city residency), the exhuming and critical reevaluation of history, the prop as artwork and the artwork as prop, the exhibition as stage-set, and the combination of all these elements into a performative gesamtkunstwerk that may or may not involve the presence of an actor. Despite the relationship these issues have to our own work, and our appreciation for many of Joe’s other projects, some things just don’t sit right with us here. It is hard to put it in words but we think the problems have to do with context, communication, and commerce.
Let’s start with context. Woolford was conceived in a pedagogical culture (Yale University’s School of Art, where Joe was then teaching) that values aesthetic autonomy over social considerations, as Coco Fusco pointed out in The Brooklyn Rail. Her career was then nurtured by museums and galleries—specifically, Galerie Valentin in Paris, Wallspace in Chelsea—that espouse similar values and promote a certain academic conceptualism that reinforces the aesthetics and cultural values of privilege (a lingering WASP-y penchant for double-speak and understatement?). For this reason alone, the cries of minstrelsy heard from some are likely to haunt this project for years to come. It isn’t simply that this is a white artist ventriloquizing a black-actor-playing-a-black-artist, but rather that this performance is being presented in settings that have, intentionally or not, mostly white audiences. If the project had made its way to the 2014 Whitney Biennial via a different route, the fundamental social and ethical tensions would still be there, but they might have played out differently.
As for the issue of communication: From the start, Joe was cagey with the public about his relationship to Woolford. For her solo debut in Paris, in 2007, the press released noted both that Woolford was “a narrative by Joe Scanlan” and that she had served as his alter-ego for a period of years. But for Woolford’s New York debut the following year, Joe wanted the audience to experience the exhibition without knowing either that she was fictitious or that she was his creation. The press release made no mention of Joe, and when we attended the opening reception he asked that we not shatter the illusion for other attendees. Anyone paying close attention that night would have recognized that something was unusual. For example, as we were chatting with Woolford, trying to break the actor out of character (we couldn’t), she suddenly excused herself and another woman claiming to be Donelle Woolford took her place and continued our conversation. The experience was uncanny, but it wasn’t enough to communicate to a visitor that neither woman was who she said she was, or that they had both been cast by an artist named Joe Scanlan.
Similarly, when the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit booked Woolford for her Richard Pryor routine, its curator of public programs did so through a man named Joe Scanlan, who said he was Woolford’s agent. What the curator, who has a background in music and film, learned about Woolford was that she was an artist participating in the Whitney Biennial, that she was born in Detroit, and that she was doing a national performance tour. Joe didn’t tell him that Woolford herself was an act, and the curator didn’t think to ask.
The reason we find this problematic is that it reinforces rather than effectively critiques codes of behavior based on insider knowledge that are used to accumulate or maintain power, for social and economic benefit. In other words, the Woolford project has two audiences: a club of the initiated who know of the fiction and those who experience it naively—those who are in on the joke and those who are its butt. In that sense, the project divides. Divisive projects aren’t in and of themselves bad—we would agree with the art historian Claire Bishop on that—but projects can divide through open provocation or through the revelation of a deceit, and we think that people, even artists, have an ethical responsibility to commit to their position and own their actions. If you chose deceive, don’t ever let anyone know.
Friends of ours have countered this criticism by pointing to the issue of Aprior magazine published in Belgium in 2007 in which Joe talked with Raimundas Malašauskas about Woolford and was photographed with her, or the article we commissioned in art on paper. The argument is that Joe let the cat was out of the bag long ago and that anyone who did a little research could easily learn the back story. That is true, but our response is that these sources of information are consumed by few—let’s face it, the audience for Aprior magazine in the US is a tiny segment of an already small segment of gallery-goers and people who read certain art magazines. Even within the various art worlds of privilege, there is an invisible velvet rope separating those in the know from those not in the know.
This all begs the commerce question: “Is it OK to monetize deceit?” The obvious answer is no, but this case isn’t so obvious. Those who are buying Woolford’s Richard Prince-like paintings are ostensibly in on the joke. As for everyone else—does it matter?
Triple Candie is a Philadelphia-based entity, run by art historians Shelly Bancroft and Peter Nesbett, that curates and produces exhibitions about art but devoid of it. In 2005, in their Harlem gallery, they presented an exhibition titled Lester Hayes: Selected Work, 1962–1975. The artist was a deceased, bi-racial, post-minimalist sculptor. The art historians are white. The press release and wall texts noted that he was fictional. The gallery discarded the exhibition’s contents during deinstallation.
In conjunction with our series 2013: The Year According to…, we invited Hrag Vartanian, editor-in-chief and co-founder of the New York–based “art blogazine” Hyperallergic, to share his perspective on the year that was. He zeroes in on a key development he noticed last year: performance art blasting into the public consciousness in a new way. […]
In conjunction with our series 2013: The Year According to…, we invited Hrag Vartanian, editor-in-chief and co-founder of the New York–based “art blogazine” Hyperallergic, to share his perspective on the year that was. He zeroes in on a key development he noticed last year: performance art blasting into the public consciousness in a new way.
Many issues have been on my mind in 2013, including the vast destruction of cultural heritage in Syria, which only seems to be getting worse, the disrespect for Hopi and San Carlos Apaches Katsinam at auction, the rising cost of urban life for artists and cultural workers, and the massive (and frightening) role of state surveillance in the lives of every single person on the planet. All these are very serious issues impacting the creative community, even though it can often feel like there are no easy answers to any of these issues.
Yet 2013 was not only a year of serious challenges and many disasters. As an art critic and blogger, I feel it’s important to remark on one of the most fascinating developments for art in the last year: the evolving nature of performance art.
It has been a long time coming, but 2013 was the year when performance art not only crossed over to the mainstream but made waves around the world in a way it has never done before.
From the Free Pussy Riot movement that helped free the captive singers from a Russian gulag to Marina Abramović’s cult-like institute (not to mention the fact that she inspired JAY Z’s foray into gallery performance art), the terrain for performance art is a boom town of possibilities. Even the Museum of Modern Art’s proposed renovation appears to factor in a larger role for performance in the museum’s programming — something that, in my opinion, is sorely needed.
But this added attention raises some serious questions: will the marriage of celebrity and performance art simply be a way for Hollywood actors to parlay their pop culture fame into seemingly more affluent cache in art, or will it be more? Thankfully, along with the mainstreaming of performance there has been a swell of alternative and indie festivals, like the Brooklyn International Performance Art Festival, to fill the need for experimental projects that don’t require stars sleeping in museum lobbies or televised roasts masquerading as performance art.
No discussion of performance art today would be complete without mentioning Performa, RoseLee Goldberg’s biennial performance brainchild that has done more to develop the form than anything else in the last decade. Goldberg’s work as an art historian, curator, and champion has slowly raised the standards for performance over the course of the last four decades.
The exciting part is that the future is up for grabs in this evolving field.
JoAnn Verburg. Photo: Jim Moore To commemorate the year that was, we invited artists, designers, and thinkers across disciplines — from painter Matt Connors and ebook publishers Badlands Unlimited to design firm Experimental Jetset and writer Greg Allen — to share a list of their most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects of 2013. See the […]
To commemorate the year that was, we invited artists, designers, and thinkers across disciplines — from painter Matt Connors and ebook publishers Badlands Unlimited to design firm Experimental Jetset and writer Greg Allen — to share a list of their most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects of 2013. See the entire series 2013: The Year According to .
While the challenges of life can be difficult, JoAnn Verburg said on Twin Cities Public Television’s MN Original last May, we’re not alone: “Yet, at the same time, you’re the only one that looks at things the way you do. I think everything I’m doing comes out of that: the fact that we’re alone and we’re not alone.” As a photographer, Verburg has used her lens to examine this seeming paradox — of intimate connection and individual experience. As MoMA curator Susan Kismaric put it when Verburg’s MoMA-organized survey Present Tense came to the Walker in 2008, Verburg’s photos are “grounded in an attention to human interaction — between the people in her pictures, and between her work and its audience — which keeps both artist and viewers perpetually approaching a threshold between searching and finding.”
Verburg took time from her schedule — which includes preparing for a show this fall at Pace/MacGill Gallery of new work shot at Italy’s Fonti del Clitunno (see below) — to share some of her “searching and finding” from the past year in a best-of-2013 list. Many of her picks show an exploration of what connects us across geography, race, religion, and time — from the pages of Richard Wright’s 1940 novel Native Son to a predawn listening session overlooking Moroccan rooftops, an artistic mashup about loving kindness at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts to a posthumous exhibition of works by Mike Kelley, her friend and studio neighbor when she first arrived in Minneapolis in 1981.
Best rehearsals and performances
One of my favorite moments of the year was experiencing Robert Wilson’s The Old Woman in a 17th-century theater in Spoleto, Italy (traveling to BAM this summer). When I see direction (“notes”) being given to an actor or the crew, it feels like an X-ray into the mind of the director. Of course, in theater, it is never as simple as one person — Bob Wilson, in this case. Articulation is the word that comes to mind to describe how Willem Dafoe and Mikhail Baryshnikov — dressed alike, in matching white face paint, campy clothes, and plastic windblown wigs — used their bodies. Brilliantly. For us, the lucky audience. The story isn’t much more than a device that allows Wilson, via Dafoe and Baryshnikov, to stimulate and hold our attention with nonstop stunning visuals and weird sounds. By the way, why is Defoe’s tongue that color? From far up above the stage, on the ceiling of the theater, a super precisely focused red spotlight is shining on it.
Most surprising sound
In Fez, Morocco, not really knowing why, I was obsessed with the idea of making sound and video recordings of the call to prayer. So one night, before the sun rose, I climbed up to a rooftop terrace above the city with my equipment. I can’t describe how beautiful it looked. I waited and recorded for about an hour, and finally I had to leave when my fingers were too cold to work. Here’s what I heard: I must have had the time wrong for the call to prayer, but as black night turned to the dark grays and browns of predawn, a lone rooster called out, sounding both ecstatic about life and and disappointed at not to be able to explain it. After many cock-a-doodle-dos, a second rooster cried out, then another, and another, etc., until countless invisible sound-points defined, almost visibly, the broad bowl shape of the ancient city below.
Best architecture/installation combo
Next time you’re in Paris, head for the Institut du Monde Arabe, the sister-building of the Guthrie Theater, by architect Jean Nouvel. The exterior entrance wall sets the tone. It’s a grid of intricately patterned circles, apertures lauded for their photosensitive responsiveness, opening and closing with the sun. Inside, the installation of the exhibition is astonishing, especially the entry hall of floor-to-ceiling mirrors alternating with floor-to-ceiling video projections of daily life in various neighborhoods in the Arab world. Someone is buying spices in Cairo as you see yourself walking. It pulls you in confusingly, beautifully and instantly.
Best sacred space
In July, I went back again to make pictures at the Fonti del Clitunno, sacred headwaters of the Clitunno, where it is said that Jove mated with a mermaid. I’ve been using the idea of the park as a point of departure for an installation of photos, sound, and videos. Parks and exhibitions are both places where strangers come, walk around, look at the sights, maybe feel inspired, maybe have a conversation, and leave. I wasn’t sure what direction to go next with my shooting, but Ping Chong was teaching nearby at La Mama, Umbria, and was willing to model. I guess I don’t have language for what happened next, but the connection between stories of past visitors and our present-tense hot summer day, and also the layered feeling of earth, blue sky, cold water, human nature, conversation, ducks quacking, swans floating, trees, and so on did feel magical, if not part of something sacred. There was something about the moment his toe touched the water, sending out ripples…
Best classic novel
Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940) was on the required reading list for one of my sociology classes in college, but I didn’t read it until 2013. It is a tragic and too too relevant story about America.
Best movie Q&A
Steve McQueen at the Walker. I’d been intrigued by comments made by the actors in 12 Years a Slave. For example, given how unmitigatingly horrific most of the film is, that McQueen says that for him, it is a film about love. Love? Love. Yes, and that the actors felt trust and support and safety, and thus, were able to go deeply — even into their darkest selves — to perform their roles. Seeing McQueen in person at the Walker was a glimpse into the mind — the man — who needed to create extreme and obsessive hate, desire, and shame in 12 Years a Slave (and his movie Shame) and who, as a visual artist, had developed the discipline and skill to do it. Thank you to the Walker and other Minnesota institutions for bringing our artists into town: our artists dealing with our ugly problems and the exquisite beauties, too, of this moment.
In Destiny Disrupted, Muslim author Tamim Ansary walks his readers through the origins of two different world views: Western and Islamic. To oversimplify his simplification, what we Westerners think of as “world history” has remained remarkably distinct from Islamic versions of what’s been happening within the same boundaries during the same 1,500 or so years. While our seafaring, sea-trading ancestors were developing and spreading our religions and ideas from port to port, a second set of religions and attitudes was simultaneously developing along overland trade routes. Certainly, there were points of overlap, but the mountains and other geographical barriers to travel and trade were overwhelming enough that surprisingly distinct cultures have survived. When many of us woke up on 9/11 with the questions “Is this really happening?” and “Why?” it was without much understanding of Islam, Islamic governments, or Islamic attitudes about science, individualism, human rights, and so on. For a long time — for other reasons — I’ve wanted to travel to Turkey, and this book pushed me over the edge. Jim and I just got back from two trips to Istanbul and Morocco.
Mary Stucky’s journalism class in Rabat, Morocco. Fifteen American journalism students partnered with as many English speaking Moroccan journalism students. After weeks of immersion and training, each pair ferreted out a story idea and interviewed Moroccans ranging from a 21-year-old man with AIDS to a sub-Saharan woman trying to escape the sexual slave trade, not to mention the only woman competing as a break dancer in a hajib (scarf). It’s thrilling to see hopeful brave optimistic American kids open themselves up to the big world, bonding with their new Moroccan partners, stumbling through language barriers, absolutely game. And lucky me, I got to listen.
Best saddest exhibition
Mike Kelley’s retrospective at PS1. Mike and I both moved to Minnesota in 1981 for one-year positions as visiting artists at MCAD, the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. For that year, we had side-by-side classroom/studios and spent a lot of time looking at each other’s work, photo-ing (me), creating performances (him), going to see visiting filmmakers at Film in the Cities, and taking day trips to funny Minnesota places in my car. Mike’s performances were unique and ugly and powerful. In 2013, I kind of had to drag myself to Queens to see his post-suicide retrospective. It is worse than painful that Mike got himself into a corner he couldn’t gracefully exit, and it was impossible for me to see his exhibition without that filter. The drawings and videos from our shared year in Minnesota held such promise. He established his voice and his career. He was so dear and funny and ironic and pissed and sad, and I’m glad all those qualities live on in the work, but what a waste. Oh, and we had done a collaboration, a triptych of him as the Banana Man, but I’d never seen the finished video, which for about an hour, wonderfully brought him back to me.
At the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, a beautiful large wood sculpture of a bodhisattva is the only visible artwork (although it wasn’t originally made as art) in a darkened room. There are benches, so it is possible to sit and contemplate this beautiful transporting figure. And there’s more. Local artist Jan Estep has created an audio piece of voices reciting the loving kindness meditation. It’s an extraordinarily effective example of putting two artworks together in such harmony that neither one detracts or distracts from the experience of the other. In fact, for me, the sculpture focuses my seeing, and the rhythmic sound keeps my mind from wandering. I can’t wait to go back.
For more on the artist, read the September 2012 interview “JoAnn Verburg on Newspapers as Portals to the Political.”