Now there are no real-world exhibitions to see, many of us are turning elsewhere: online; to catalogues on our shelves; to our personal photo-archives—or just towards our memories. Here is some of the works and shows we have metaphorically been dusting down.
In the Jaws of Rousseau
Nostalgia is a peculiar by-product of lockdown. I have been thinking about when I first took an interest in art. It was—of course—to impress a girl. This was the early 1990s and she was an art student in a now defunct college on the south coast of England. She had flecked smocks and peppery language (she had a way of saying “gouache”). If I was to stick around I needed to make an effort. And so, while she attended lectures, I visited the city’s public art gallery. And there I found Henri Rousseau’s Tiger in a Tropical Storm (1891), on loan from the National Gallery. I was bitten.
Rousseau’s composition is a symphony of foliage, composed of layer upon layer of green, through which prowls his titular tiger, like a snarling, beautiful assassin. But it was the weather that really gripped me. Rousseau had caught the omniscience of rain, it’s fine barrage.
The painting’s execution defied my understanding of paint. It was both naïve and intricate. I leant into the leaves and branches. Looking at Rousseau’s tiger was like having a dialogue in a downpour. The girl moved on—of course—and I believe became an art teacher. And I was improved by that afternoon’s lesson. C.H.
Documenta 14, 2017, Kassel and Athens
This sprawling exhibition irritated many with its heavy political overtones, the lack of name-recognition of many of its 250 artists, its emphasis on performance, documentation and long, low-tech videos in which very little happened for minutes at a time. It certainly had lofty ambitions—artistic director Adam Szymczyk said his goal was “to question this very supremacist, white and male, nationalist and colonialist way of being and thinking”, and to highlight “indigenous practices and techniques of knowledge from all over the world”.
These lofty ambitions were soon overshadowed by bitter debates over the exhibition’s €7.6m overspend. But with hindsight, the exhibition looks increasingly prescient, with its emphasis on decolonization, the environment and identity politics. Works from the show, including a video by Pakistani artist and activist Lala Rukh (who died in 2017), have been bought by museums such as the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and the likes of Otobong Nkanga and Cecilia Vicuña have since won prizes and had major shows. J.M.
“America is Hard to See”, 2015, Whitney Museum of American Art
It was a complete fluke that I arrived in New York the day before the opening exhibition of the new Whitney Museum closed, and that the apartment I was staying in was just around the corner. Sadly, there is still no catalogue for this exhibition of North American art (several commentators at the time noted the lack of Latin American artists in the exhibition, Carmen Herrera aside) but it’s a great reminder to look back at the pictures I took.
One of the most striking rooms was arranged under the heading “Guarded View” (also the title of a 1991 work by Fred Wilson), with David Hammons’ Untitled (1992)—a spider-like mixed media sculpture incorporating African-American hair—as its centerpiece. Another highlight, if that is the right word, were David Wojnarowicz’s moving deathbed photographs of his close friend, the artist Peter Hujar—the Aids epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s was presented as both a crisis and an artistic turning point. J.M.