New York/Los Angeles. In times of bounty, when appetites are abundant, taste tends to favor the big, bold, and definitive, particularly in the realm of contemporary art. The most desired work is often that which is easy to like, to understand and consume.
When times are more challenging, interest shifts to complex and demanding art. What was recently popular in the market can now appear shallow, frivolous or decorative. Instead, focus gravitates to art that engages with themes of mortality and identity; art that is concerned with the profound, the not-easily-understood or that which is not fully knowable.
In times of uncertainty, content takes precedence over convenience. (Incidentally, these differences can also delineate the line between speculators and real collectors.) I saw this shift from the bullish early 1980s, when bold expressionist painting ruled the day, to the more intimate and introspective work that started to gain recognition at the end of that decade, just as the decimating impact of AIDS on creative communities could be felt and seen everywhere.
It is perhaps not surprising, then, that at this time of political and social unease, the most engaging exhibitions of contemporary art to launch the new year are major retrospectives of two of the most compelling—and yet, for many people, unfamiliar—contemporary artists working today. These are exhibitions not of young artists, but of work by the 90-year old Marisa Merz at the Met Breuer in New York, and by the 76-year old Jimmie Durham at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. Both are artists who have shown infrequently.
The Italian Merz achieved great success in the early days of Arte Povera—one of the few women artists in Europe of her generation to gain such acknowledgement. Marisa has spent her lifetime drawing, weaving, and sculpting intimate and highly personal expressions of self in ways that could be as naturally linked to Christianity as to feminism. Her work has over time, however, faded into the shadows cast by her husband, another giant of European postwar art, Mario Merz. This back-grounding of her work was partly Marisa’s own personal decision and partly due to the way the market tends to favor male artists.
As for the Native-American Durham, he was a major presence in New York in the 1980s as an artist, curator, and activist who brought to the public the work of many artists of color long before the recent upsurge of interest by collectors and mainstream museums. He has been addressing issues of racism and of political and cultural struggle in sculptures, drawings, and assemblages that can be complex, confrontational, and beautiful. He had chosen to not visit or exhibit in the United States in many years, until now.
Both exhibitions are exquisitely curated, and lay out the artistic, psychological, and cultural complexities of the artists. The shows reflect the rigor of Merz and Durham, two singular practitioners of the past 50 years who have at once been central to the dialogue of their times, while making work on the periphery of dominant styles.
Often it takes decades to absorb the profoundly beautiful and insightful when made on terms that do not yield to the systems by which we process, value and evaluate contemporary art. The implacable clarity of those that choose their own paths, who shy away from conformity—even those in nonconformist worlds, such as art—often construct the most solid foundations. Presto! Perfectly exquisite visions shout in their own ways, whether with forceful determination, as is often the case with Durham, or elfin splendor, as is the case with the fragile resilience of Merz’s adorational women.