Articles in This Issue
In Allan's Intro
Art and national identity
Art has never been central to the cultural fabric of this nation, nor to most Americans’ lives. Any sense of a national cultural identity comes through the ad hoc development of pop culture—the movies; rock and roll; youth culture.
The United States was founded on notions of independence and freedom—the ability to realize one’s individual potential through hard work and entrepreneurial acumen. Art has often been peripheral to this, which has made it easy to undermine, to portray it as divisive and removed, to mock, demonize, and weaponize.
Had some titan filled this country with art museums 150 years ago, as did Andrew Carnegie with libraries, art might now be central to American experience. (Then again, given the current decline in literacy and general intelligence in this country, maybe not.)
Collecting in the USA
The reason why this country has become the epicenter of the art market for the past 70 years is because the majority of the buyers have been based here, as well as the majority of the artists they have been collecting. For many decades now, it has been natural for new buyers in this country to begin by collecting new art—that of their generation.
Indeed, the values of “The New” in art, and the spirit of modern life that it reflects, are perfectly in sync with the modern, experimental nature of this multicultural nation and its endless fascination with fresh starts. (Conversely, the current disintegration of the American Dream is resulting in increasingly reactionary, violent and xenophobic urges for a kind of American homogeneity that denies both our history and the composition of our peoples.)
Typically, most new collectors approach contemporary art as a means of assimilation. Learning through trial and error, they tend to wind up with collections that mirror those of their more seasoned peers. Those who catch the collecting bug with the greatest gusto tend, whether consciously or not, to evolve their collection as a kind of self-portraiture—as unique as a strand of DNA—so that it moves in directions beyond the latest top 20.
In terms of new wealth creation, China is today what the United States was in the 1980s. As the largest new population of art buyers, China may well be on the precipice of forming a major art market center, which will inevitably identify its own tastes, priorities and styles of collecting. If they do it well, with the amount of capital they have the capacity to designate for art collecting, China could well change the face of collecting for the next half century, as this country did more than a half century ago.
The evolution of Modern Art has always been defined by The New. By the time the avant-garde reached a natural exhaustion point through Minimalism and the impulse of abstraction to reduce the work of art to its essential elements; and through Conceptual Art, which took the object out of the picture altogether, the idea of The New as a fertile laboratory of ideas began to lose its life force.
With this, we lost the criteria through which we typically measured the health of contemporary art with each successive new generation. It is not coincidental that this occurred as the art market rose to become a central force in defining value in art, fulfilling the perception of art as a commodity. As The New has become commercialized and mainstreamed, it has become less of a vital artistic spawning ground.
The other major reason for the diminished veneration of The New in the 1980s in the United States was the onset of AIDS, which destroyed a whole generation of new creative voices, most of whom didn’t live long enough to fully form their artistic visions. Suddenly in America—a country so young itself and so wedded to the concepts of self-invention and reinvention—youth became equated with death. A decade which was defined at the beginning by virile Neo-Expressionist painting, which became larger and more self-confident as it became more successful in the mid-1980s, ended with introspective sculptures made on an intimate scale and focused on mortality and the articulation of the inner self (such as works by Robert Gober), and small paintings made of intentionally tentative gestures and imagery of unidentifiable origin (such as the work of Luc Tuymans).
Breaking the addiction to The New
By the end of the 20th-century, even as demand grew, The New was losing its prescience. I remember a Whitney Biennial in 1997 when the three most potent, original and daring works were made by the three oldest artists in the exhibition: Paul McCarthy, Bruce Nauman and Louise Bourgeois.
Some collectors began to realize that art by the recently old was often cheaper, more proven and more fulfilling to continue to own. Since then, the pursuit of collecting The New has been in a state of panic. Promising emerging art continues to be made and engaging voices continue to appear, but as the market for contemporary art has broadened so dramatically, demand is focusing less on untested artists because they are creating truly original art than because money needs to be invested somewhere. This, rather than curatorial acumen, drives the short-term and often short-lived success of much of The New.
Sometimes, it seems as though the tail is wagging the dog: that a younger generation of artists schooled as much in career as in content, concept and process are making art for a hungry market, while the market forces up prices for the work of untested artists out of the need for more product. The result has been greater volatility.
The conundrum of American in American art
We have never really come to grips with American art and what it means. That’s partly because our idea of what American means is ongoing and evolving. The diversification of museums in this country took place because the Metropolitan Museum didn’t want to collect The New, so the patrons who wanted to foreground it established the Museum of Modern Art in 1929 (reinforcing the fact that some of the greatest achievements in The New have been created not in times of plenty but in times of adversity).
That year the sculptor and arts patron Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney had offered more than 500 works by living American artists and a building to house them to the Met, which refused the gift. So she set up her own museum, which opened two years later: the Whitney Museum of American Art, which later moved to the legendary Marcel Breuer building (which is now, somewhat ironically, being used by the Met to build up its program for contemporary art that it had previously had little art historical interest in nurturing).
In the 1930s American vanguard art was running a distant second to the European abstraction that informed it. It needed a museum of American art to make it visible and to give it a safe zone in which to be honored and evolve. As the Whitney moved forwards it has, in recent decades, struggled with what it means to be a museum of American art. This was less an issue in the 1960s and 1970s, when most of what was great in new art seemed to be American (even if that wasn’t, in hindsight, totally accurate), than in the 1980s, when contemporary art began to thrive on a more transatlantic model.
Since then, there have been a number of occasions when it has been debated—on an artistic, curatorial, and board level—whether to drop the “American” in the Whitney’s name, out of fear that its national identity may be too provincializing. Now though, in its new location downtown (not far from its original location), the “of American Art” is a large part of what gives this vital institution its unique identity in a landscape of so many major Modern art museums.
I didn’t understand how different New York is from the rest of the country until I started traveling to Europe in my late teens and met other American travelers. “Are you American?” they would ask with great enthusiasm, seeking cultural communion. For the most part, these were people I felt no kinship with. “I’m a New Yorker,” I would respond. This wasn’t out of arrogance: I just felt estranged from that kind of bonding patriotism that tends to be exclusionary, and therefore alien to me (and, in a sense, un-American).
It’s not that Europe seemed like my long lost homeland either—I actually feel very much American, but in a liberal, progressive, melting-pot, immigrant New York kind of way. Which, outside New York, it turns out, is not so American after all. This was brought into particularly strong relief in 1975 when New York City was on the brink of bankruptcy and an infamous headline on the cover of the Daily News paraphrased the then-president Gerald Ford’s expression of national sentiment: “Ford to City: Drop Dead”.
In a sense, art collecting in this country has been the spread or regionalization of New York taste. Indeed, today’s market grew healthy roots and branches across the nation through networks of affiliated dealers across the country formed by Leo Castelli, the dealer who set the foundation for today’s vast art market, and who represented the lion’s share of every great artist after Abstract Expressionism through to Conceptual Art (and later, the art of the 1980s).
There has been much healthy art production in many different parts of the country that have been ignored or back-seated by New York—honored in their own communities but inevitably corralled under the term “regional” (which usually means work which doesn’t follow the formal Modernist line traced from Paris to New York).
In Chicago, for example, the Hairy Who—with many American influences, from folk art to comics—adopted a very specific practice of representation in a period when representation was considered backwards (side note: it is certainly no coincidence that Chicago has always been a center of for collectors of European Surrealism).
There are plenty of regional centres, from Northern California to Texas, Detroit to D.C., where the art produced has been rooted in the local cultures. But the American center outside of New York with the greatest wealth of artists who have changed the course of post-war art history has undoubtedly been Los Angeles, which was unjustifiably pushed into a regional pocket through New York’s critical, institutional and market dominance.
Look at Bruce Nauman, Chris Burden, John Baldessari, Paul McCarthy—they’re all LA. These artists, and the generations of students they inspired (who went on to define The New in New York in the first half of the 1980s), exhibited as much in Europe as they did anywhere in this country, so theirs was hardly a regionalist art. The world is beginning to come to grips with this distorting bias.
Less well understood is San Francisco, which has also been a major center for significant artists since the 1950s, many of them rooted, not surprisingly, in countercultural perspectives. Thus far, the American museums of the future are the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, with its new paradigm of private/public collaboration, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, whose new facility, if it gets built, promises to rethink the behemoth of the encyclopedic museum. Los Angeles in particular, seems inevitably less focused on Europe and New York and more on Asia to the east, and Latin America to the south, for its future.
The gain within the loss
As a nation in which art has never been seen as central and yet one which has been in the driver’s seat of contemporary art history for the past 70 years, have we messed up the whole enterprise with our entrepreneurial predisposition, reducing what was previously understood to be a calling by so effectively professionalizing it? While The New may have become diluted in recent years by a growing market’s increased need for new product to consume and gamble upon, we are, at the same time, in a golden age of knowledge, gained and shared through technology and globalization and the resulting diversification in knowledge, taste, and sense of cultural responsibility.
While the top end of the market has been concentrating greater amounts of wealth on a smaller number of artists, both museums and private collectors are “discovering” overlooked postwar masters, including art from Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. The lineage of art of the past century—a narrative that was neatly wrapped—is being retraced. American museums and galleries that have recognized for decades the inevitably skewed white male bias of the history of art, are now actively pursuing the representation and collecting of, for example, African-American artists. This is taking place at the same time as the broader political discourse in this country seems more invested than ever in reducing and homogenizing our definition of what “American” identity means.
The current dilution of The New is perhaps just a pause, as we take a breath to absorb the massive amount of change that has taken place in art over the past few decades. Perhaps this can-do nation is maturing culturally beyond its teenage years and is on the brink of embracing the complexity of art instead of so efficiently boiling it down to something easily packaged and understood.
In Other Insights
We have invited several people we admire to engage with the idea of America and its culture for this special edition of the newsletter commemorating the celebration of the Declaration of Independence.
We are grateful to artists Richard Prince and William Powhida; to the museum directors Max Hollein (director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco), Rod Bigelow (executive director & chief diversity and inclusion officer at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art) and Naima Keith (deputy director of exhibitions and programs at the California African American Museum); to the writers Felix Salmon, Laila Pedro and Antwaun Sergeant; to Sotheby’s Liz Sterling and Eric Shiner; to Art Agency, Partners’ Ed Tang; and to our regular contributors, the critic Christian Viveros-Fauné and the artists Pablo Helguera and Jason Adam Katzenstein.
This is the first of our summer issues, which will be arriving in your inbox at a more leisurely pace than usual—once every two weeks. Coming up next, a podcast from LA with Lacma director and CEO, Michael Govan.
In Other Insights
An excerpt from “Tell Me Everything”, a memoir I’m writing… something that probably won’t see the light of day… but who knows? First I have to deal with trying to get thru the next 20 years to even finish the fucker…
1970? (I’m bad with dates)… I’m a junior in college… avoiding the draft, in Springvale Maine. The college is Nasson College… a real shit hole, mostly for losers who couldn’t get accepted anywhere else or just decided not to apply to other colleges because they were too lazy to leave their neighborhood and comfort of their own bedrooms. But I’ve discovered since I’ve been hiding out there, an amazing small art program located “off-campus” in a carriage house that I’ve managed to work my way into and make sense out of and take advantage of and help turn me onto the side effects of something that I can hardly believe.
But then this happened…
I kind of got tripped up and found myself outside of what had become my small private art world on May 4th 1970.
Everybody was freaking out about the Kent State shootings. I had pretty much stayed away from any political commitment. I had grown tired of hippies protesting the war and then coming home after the protest at 4:30 in the afternoon to listen to their Neil Young albums. (Never trust a hippie).
I didn’t give a shit about what the government was trying to put down. For me, I had already come around to thinking Gauguin’s paintings were a political statement. Painting beauty was where it was at. I mean… can anybody tell me who the president of France was when Gauguin was off painting his beautiful paintings in Tahiti? I thought so…
But the Kent State shootings were different. That got to me. The shootings pissed me off and I found myself wandering around the campus trying to come to terms with the murder. Nixon and Agnew were shitheads and already dead people to me. I really thought they were going to try to stage some kind of coup and take over the government. I was ready to pack it up and retreat to the upper parts of the Adirondacks… put a hold on “beauty” and work out and get in shape, stockpile supplies, turn on the ham radio, do some reconnaissance, get camouflaged and ambush, (hit and run)… and guerrilla the shit out of the republican army.
After more wandering I found myself sitting on the stone wall that surrounded the flagpole which was planted in the middle of the campus. I’m not sure why, but I decided to lower the flag to half-mast. It was a spontaneous action. There was no thought to the gesture. It was probably just that… a gesture. A way of coping with the murdered students. I don’t know. It seemed like something that needed to be done. There was no one around and I just got up and did it. I untangled the rope that was fixed to the cleat and lowered the stars and stripes. What did I know about patriotism? The only thing I knew about flags was that Jasper Johns painted them.
What happen next was surprising, maybe even bizarre. Students started coming out of their dorms and came over to the “quad” and stood there… silently. More came. In a minute or two it seemed like the whole student body showed up. It was like a congregation standing still with heads bowed down. I half expected them to get down on their knees and start praying. What was it I had just done?
The campus police showed up and then the real police. Officials from the administration arrived. The president of the college was called. (“The vice-presidents gone mad. When? Last night. Where? Downtown. Gee, that’s too bad”… Just so you know that’s not me, that’s Dylan from the Basement Tapes)
The police asked who lowered the flag. I said, “I did”. (I wasn’t fingered, I volunteered the information).
I was told to “come with us”.
I was escorted to the president’s office and questioned by the president himself.
He seemed like the kind of guy that would rather be off campus somewhere doing anything but running the day to day affairs of a college. He was the definition of a dick.
This was a “hassle” for him. What I did was apparently confusing to him. I don’t think anybody knew if what I did was exactly against the law. But what I did wasn’t something I was told I should “get away with”.
The taking over of “our flag” was against the rules. And if it wasn’t it should be. “Private property.” “Off-limits”…”Son, there are some things you just don’t touch.”
He was struggling to make me see that what I did was something that I shouldn’t have done. His struggle was useless. What I had done had nothing to do with his “god and country”. I could give a shit about his god, his country.
He asked me again why I did it.
I sat there, silent.
“Don’t you know that a flag at half mast means honoring the dead.” “It fucking stands for something”. (I don’t know if he used the word “fucking”…but he was clearly upset and was trying to rattle me with his outrage). He started babbling on about the “state of affairs”.
“dignity” and “national mourning”.
I wanted to say you’re talking to the wrong guy about “regulations” “respect” and “good government bullshit”…but I kept my mouth shut. I should have quoted Marcel Duchamp… “Can one make art that is not a work of art”? I should have buzzed him with some jive and rap from Lord Buckley… messed his mind and shined his eyes… but I was way too new and uniformed to think about “indifference” or be defined as “meta-ironic”. (Shit… I don’t think I even knew who Duchamp or Lord Buckley was).
I just wanted to split and get my ass out of the big wooden chair they had me sitting in and get back to the art studio and disappear and blend in.
Instead I was hauled down to the Sanford police station, arrested, fingerprinted, and had my mug shot taken. I was put in a jail cell with other scumbags, lowlifes and wankers. I tried to keep my chin up. I kept singing to myself the lyrics to Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant. (“You can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant”).
My arrest warrant stated that I had “interfered with government property”. In other words they didn’t know what the fuck I did.
While in custody I heard from one of the police officers that the campus was on “lockdown” and that there were a “good number” of students trashing their dorm rooms.
“There’s a riot going on”.
I was being referred to as “the ring leader”.
Is this some kind of joke?
That’s what went thru my mind.
I didn’t want to lead anything.
(Even back then collaboration gave me a stomachache. I was a loner. Anti-social. To me that Three Dog Night song about the “number one” being lonely was wrong.
I made bail and scrammed. I didn’t even make it back to the parking lot of the campus. I avoided any applause and pats on the back and made it over the border to New Hampshire and phoned an uncle who was a janitor at UNH and camped in his garage and tried to make sense of the sudden glare of the limelight.
(Recognition can sometimes be the anti-Christ).
Live Free Or Die.
That’s what it said on the states license plate.
(I was thinking maybe I’d be making them soon).
I was still pretty much shaken up by the National Guard opening up on innocent civilians who thought they had inalienable rights. The picture of the woman kneeling next to a student’s dead body with her arms and hands outstretched would soon be seared into my senses and become one of the icons of that terrible afternoon.
Way to go, Ohio.
I needed to find a way to bring the flag all the way down.
All the way would mean finding my own beauty, on my own island.
Maybe I should check out Manhattan. There’s a place there called Soho. South of Houston. I’d read about it in the magazine section of the NY Times. About how a crappy industrial neighborhood full of burned out cast iron buildings (lofts) was suddenly taken over by “squatters and creative types”. The picture accompanying the article showed two girls and a guy outside of a restaurant they “cobbled together”. The name of the restaurant they were standing in front of was called Food. That was it. Simple, direct. Almost a no name. Maybe I could start there. Go down for three months and check out all the hullabaloo… sign up under a different Uncle Sam.
I’d have to ignore my parole and jump bail. I’d be a minor fugitive…wanted or “almost” wanted… a small time hood. But the numbers where on my side. New York was a big place… a “melting pot”… a place an artist could get lost in and start over. Take on a new identity, a fresh start, a clean slate. “I never had a penny to my name, so I changed my name”.
So that’s what I’ll do.
I’ll go and paint the protest.
*This was first published by Skarstedt for Richard Prince’s exhibition “Protest Paintings” (October 15-December 20, 2013)
In Other Insights
Our world—and how we perceive and understand it—is both shaped and reflected by art. This is especially true for the history, culture and values of a specific country. The celebration of Independence Day in the United States commemorates not only the determination to forge a New World national political identity, but also a self-conscious separation from Old World European influence.
In the ensuing decades, American cultural leaders attempted to establish movements such as the Hudson River School of artists and the Knickerbocker Group of writers. However, even the most democratic Americans, who rejected European monarchies and aristocracies, found it difficult to resist the multifaceted allure of European culture—including art, architecture, decorative arts, literature, music, and fashion.
Accordingly, early American tourists made their own “Grand Tour” of Europe, seeking out ancient and modern cultural role models that would promote social status, civic virtue and cultural refinement at home. In the ensuing two centuries, American collectors seeking high culture and artistic achievement initiated what became perhaps the greatest transfer of significant art objects from one continent to another in history.
This is why museums throughout the United States are filled with many of Europe’s—and the world’s greatest art treasures—and why many countries now have national patrimony laws preventing the further transfer of such treasures.
Yet, while great collections of European art are now publicly accessible in every major American museum, both in the permanent collections and temporary exhibition galleries, this has been a one-way cultural appropriation that has not been reciprocated. Major European museums house almost no American art that pre-dates the ascent of American Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art in the post-Second World War years.
For decades, the French government’s 1891 acquisition of James McNeill Whistler’s Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (1871) was an outlier. As late as 2014, it was international news when the National Gallery in London acquired its first major American painting—George Bellows’ Men of the Docks (1912).
How can Europeans understand American identity if they don’t experience its art?
The problem is not merely one of adequate cultural representation, but also of potential misunderstanding. If a nation’s art offers one of the best reflections of its culture, how can Europeans reasonably evaluate and understand the core identities and values of Americans if they can’t readily experience their art first-hand?
For example, the ability to properly “read” and understand American art requires an appreciation that landscape painting in the United States is essentially a completely different genre to that in Europe. In the absence of established traditions of history and religious painting, landscape painting flourished as the principal platform for nationalist rhetoric in 19th-century America.
A case in point is the Hudson River School of landscape painting, which established a uniquely American conception of landscape as a metaphor for the new nation. In formative works like View Near the Village of Catskill (1827), Thomas Cole depicted the American landscape as a New World Garden of Eden that represented both God’s creation as well as the nation’s destiny to settle and cultivate the “wilderness” landscape previously occupied by Native Americans.
In Our Banner in the Sky (c.1861) a painting inspired by the outbreak of the Civil War (1861-65), Cole’s pupil Frederic E. Church explicitly stated that the nation’s destiny was prophesized in the heavens. Albert Bierstadt’s California Spring (1875), exhibited at Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition in 1876, is tantamount to an advertisement for America’s “manifest destiny” to settle the entire continent—a mission fulfilled in Gold Rush era California.
In such works one can trace the roots of core elements of U.S. identity such as “American exceptionalism”, the still pervasive and potent belief that the US is a unique democratic nation with a God-given mission to transform the world in its own image.
In the 1950s, the U.S. government—aided by the C.I.A.—strategically and successfully positioned Abstract Expressionism as the quintessential American art movement, one embodying freedom of expression. In the 1960s, thanks to European collectors and curators, Pop Art assumed the mantle of being the most distinctively American art movement, reinforcing stereotypes of the United States as being consumed by consumerism. Yet, like Whistler’s Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 and Bellows’ Men of the Docks, these examples are outliers, and reveal the risks attending simplistic stereotypes.
A more complex and nuanced understanding of the United States by Europeans would require a stronger presence of classical American art in Europe. The fact that the U.S. lacks an overarching cultural foreign policy to promote its heritage abroad (very different from France’s national cultural ambitions or Germany’s network of Goethe Institutes) highlights the importance of cultural exchanges between museums on both sides of the Atlantic—and the Pacific.
Similarly, art dealers at home and abroad—especially at the international art fairs—have the potential to serve as cultural ambassadors for a broader and deeper understanding of 18th-century, 19th-century and early Modern art in the United States. This type of dialogue seems to be more important now than ever.
Museums such as the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, with their exceptional 350-year survey of American art and 1,000-year survey of European art, can pay an instrumental role in achieving just such a discourse.
In Other Insights
I have never spent as much time in an art exhibition as I did at “American Art in the 20th Century”, the blockbuster show which transfixed Berlin and London in 1993. It was my first large-scale exposure to modern American art, and exhibits really don’t get bigger than this: among its 252 pieces were not only Jackson Pollock’s 1943 masterpiece Mural, for instance, but also Robert Rauschenberg’s magnificent 1959 combine Canyon.
The show at the Royal Academy, curated by Christos Joachimides and Norman Rosenthal, aspired to being definitive, and didn’t shy away from grand gestures. The first thing you see, on opening the exhibition catalogue, is a list of three patrons: the heads of state of Germany, where the show opened; the UK, where it ran for almost three months; and, of course, “His Excellency William J. Clinton, President of the United States of America”.
To look back at that 1993 experience today is to be truly astounded at how much has changed
To look back at that 1993 experience today is to be truly astounded at how much has changed, in the way we look at and think of American art. For one thing, there were only five women in the show, all of them white, and three men of color: the other 58 artists were all white men. There’s no way you could get away with that today. But the other huge change is that 1993 was still early days in terms of looking at art in terms of its dollar value.
Say that you wanted, today, to point out how institutionally racist the curation of the show was. One of your first instincts would be to go to auction records. You would point out that the three black artists (Martin Puryear, David Hammons and Jean-Michel Basquiat) are all incredibly well established in the market, with auction records of $1.8m, $8m and $110m respectively. White artists, on the other hand, seemingly need no such ratification: the auction record for Gary Hill is $169,000, while that of John Covert is just $45,000. (Of course, the difference would have been smaller in 1993—but then again, no one would even have thought to have made the comparison back then.)
From a present-day perspective of art fairs and horse-race commentary about whose prices are rising fastest, it’s almost charming to read Rosenthal, in his catalogue essay, complaining about how “the explosion of the art market” in the late 1970s “caused immense confusion, rendering it ever more difficult to make aesthetic judgments”. We were now in an era, he lamented, where “market mechanisms alone (certainly not art criticism) determine hierarchies”.
But really that wasn’t true, not in 1993, when Rosenthal could pack a show like this one with the art he thought to be objectively the most important, and when viewers like myself would walk slowly around it, taking each piece on its own merits, making amateur critical judgments of our own, but ultimately taking it on authority that these really were the officially-anointed greatest works of the century.
Today, many of the same paintings are inescapably linked with money and gossip much more than they are with curatorial gravitas. Consider Willem de Kooning’s Police Gazette (1955), which was credited in the 1993 exhibition simply as coming from a “private collection”. Today, a five-second Google search will bring up a string of bold-face owners (Robert and Ethel Scull, Steve Wynn, David Geffen), as well as a suitably eye-popping price tag of $63.5m when Geffen reportedly sold it privately in 2006 to Steven Cohen. At the top of the Google results: a column by Donald Kuspit, devoted to “the triumph of money over art” and declaring that “only art that makes money finds its way into the textbooks, which sometimes seem like rationalizations of auction results. Official art history tends to follow the lead of the art markets, consciously as well as unconsciously.”
Kuspit’s column is notable because he also appears in the 1993 exhibition catalogue, with an essay about how six major critics (Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, Michael Fried, Rosalind Krauss, Lawrence Alloway and Lucy Lippard) all “had a lasting effect on our understanding of” the art they advocated. Such an essay could never be written about the critics and artists of today: the crucial role of ratification has been almost entirely outsourced to the market—the most successful and expensive artists are entirely critic-proof. Who needs Rosalind Krauss if Mera Rubell is following you on Instagram.
Then again, one of the lessons of the 1993 catalogue is precisely that it was America which created the art market as the driver of broader importance. In the immediate post-war period, when the biggest galleries were still in Paris, the foremost dealer of Abstract Expressionists, Sidney Janis, relied on selling European art to make rent, and never had more than nine American artists at any one time. By the mid-1960s, however, Pop Art was already being described as “a collectors’ movement”, driven in large part by the Sculls and other buyers, largely impervious to critical disapproval. American artists and American collectors were driving the art-world bus, and they have been doing so ever since.
Today, the most important and influential contemporary art museums are overwhelmingly in America, and are almost by definition the ones with the richest collectors on their boards. Those board members, in turn, who often spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year on art just for their own personal collections, are ultimately responsible for the curatorial vision and acquisition policy of the museum. For all the talk of the internationalization of the art world, the power of the almighty American dollar is still at an all-time high.
If you look at Wikipedia’s invaluable list of the 78 most expensive paintings of all time, an astonishing fact jumps out at you. With just seven exceptions (one Picasso, three Bacons, one Eakins and two paintings from China), all of the pre-1945 works are European, and all of the post-1945 works are American.
America invented AbEx, Pop and Minimalism, and countless other movements; it gave us the heroes of the 1993 show, such as Pollock and Johns and Warhol and Basquiat, as well as thousands of less-celebrated artists who are slowly carving out their own place in the canon and in the auction records.
But more than any of that, America gave the world the entire structure of an art world dominated by rich collectors and astonishing valuations, a world which uses terms like “investment” and “asset class”, a world where someone can say that they’re interested in “mid-market” works—and that actually tells you something about them, even though it indicates nothing at all about what kind of work they like.
Which is to say: The most important American object in the history of art is not Mural, or Canyon, or even something like Jeff Koons’ Puppy. It’s the dollar. And it changed everything.
In Other Insights
America is home to more than a quarter of the world’s billionaires, and half of its top 200 art collectors: facts we can attribute to the country’s extreme wealth inequality. Of these collectors, 22 summer in Aspen and each of them contributed to the construction of the Aspen Art Museum in 2014, an institution built without a single taxpayer dollar (which should make Republicans happy) in a town with a year-round population of 6,000 people.
Contemporary art collecting is an activity that revolves around the transfer of private property, dominated by high net worth Americans. Art in America has everything to do with private ownership of an object or of intellectual property. Historically, patrons of the arts have used their fortunes to create institutions such as the Guggenheim, the Whitney, the Frick and more recently, the Broad. Earlier this year, the philanthropist Agnes Gund—who has donated more than 250 works to the Museum of Modern Art—sold Roy Lichenstein’s Masterpiece (1962) for a reported $165m in order to fund a social justice program dedicated to reducing mass incarceration. Gund, who has six children of African-American descent, says she has always been sensitive to inequality.
Levels of wealth and income inequality are higher now than any period in modern history. Wages have been stagnating over the past three decades, and the “before-tax incomes of the top 1% of America’s households have increased more than four times faster than bottom 20 percent incomes”. We are in a period of wealth concentration that will likely result in new rounds of cultural institution building, particularly by private individuals, while social inequalities like mass incarceration continue to persist.
If contemporary art has a particular American quality in a globalized art world, it is these highly stratified class distinctions between the owners and the producers, which are enabled by the sanctity of US private property law. A concept that is perhaps held almost as dearly by most Americans as the idea of individualism, private property laws have defined America and its history through colonization, Revolution, civil war and contemporary art auctions.
Owning Human Capital
What troubles me is the way art serves as a symbol of ownership of human capital, the term coined by economist Gary Becker referring to any characteristics, skills or knowledge the worker possesses, which contribute to his or her economic productivity. In a recent essay “Art, Humanism, and Technology,” the theorist Boris Groys describes works of art as a second, artificial body of the artist: “The valuable, precious object that can only be contemplated, not used.”
Groys notes in the essay that when we go to the museum, “we say, ‘Let’s see Rembrandt and Cezanne’ rather than ‘Let’s see the works of Rembrandt and Cezanne.'” But before works of art enter permanent collections and are taken off the market (becoming effectively ‘priceless’), they are most certainly used as vehicles for speculation, investment, and the transfer of wealth between private individuals who can profit enormously from the labor produced by artists. Here, the artificial, symbolic body of the artist is bought and sold, and price is very much the object of much contemplation. What do people say when they go to auctions and art fairs? Do they say “Let’s buy Basquiat” rather than “Let’s buy a work of Basquiat.”
There are disturbing parallels within America’s history regarding the trade of human capital, but today there are aspects of the art world that evoke broader, neoliberal anxieties around very real inequalities.
In Other Insights
The relationship between art and power, and consequently between art and politics and artists and the political, is longstanding. For centuries, those with capital and influence have (often literally) fed artists. In return, the expectation has been that the artists create work that furthers the ends of the power brokers. This system of exchange can feel cynical when expressed baldly, but the truth is more complex than the naked, undergirding mechanics of power.
The relationship predates America. Take Dante: deeply entrenched in Florentine politics, he also held minor political office, in the apothecaries’ guild, with the aim of furthering his literary prospects. He was implicated in financial scandals tied to the pope, and conceived the Divina Comedìa (1320) while in political exile from Florence.
The politics of his home town play a role in the poem: Dante missed no opportunity to skewer his enemies—among the many memorable punishments, the Florentine politician Filippo Argenti is torn apart by other wrathful souls. These moments of personal retribution enrich the work, foregrounding the human emotions and social foment that surrounded its creation.
Of course, Dante was not alone among Renaissance artists in having a strong personal stake in politics. Michelangelo created works to glorify the Medici (including two popes); Leonardo da Vinci served the Medici in Florence, the Sforza in Milan, and Cesare Borgia—who happened to be one of the inspirations for Machiavelli’s The Prince. Money and military power were tied to the church and therefore, inevitably, so were artists.
In more recent history, there is the theory that throughout the 1950s and 1960s the United States government used Abstract Expressionist art, with its embedded glorification of individual expression and personal liberty, as a symbolic counter to the rigidly aestheticized Soviet propaganda images of the Cold War. To understand how America has wielded the power of its art, and how that power has been structured, it is useful to think of terms of the “American experiment”, a nation conceived through collective thought.
The power of the nation’s art is connected to who has power in that country. The founding fathers began by imagining a political and social system that had never before existed. Yet, because the system was conceived by a group that was fairly homogenous in terms of class, gender, race and education, it necessarily privileged particular viewpoints to the exclusion of others.
If, philosophically, America is grounded in the hazy ideas of liberty and happiness, materially it depends upon organizing capital in the service of specific agendas. Like in all great empires, art and artists have been used explicitly and otherwise to serve national interests and extend national power. Equally, everyday visual images have also reinforced ideas about status (think of the ubiquitous Aunt Jemima syrup bottles in American kitchens, for example).
Nonetheless, various American groups have found artistic means of reclaiming their own power. The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s brought about a shift in consciousness, with many artists responding by creating work with explicitly political ends. For many, like David Hammons, Noah Purifoy, Lorraine O’Grady, or Marie Johnson Calloway, this was a means of grappling with injustice, asserting the right to create one’s own history, and, more subtly, foregrounding their own perspective in reshaping a visual culture that excluded or diminished people of color.
Barkley L. Hendricks’ richly saturated, powerful portraits of black men and women were a direct visual corrective to a culture that oppressed and brutalized black bodies. His revolutionary gesture was having the audacity to simply share his own worldview: if others read it as politically radical to paint black people as dignified and beautiful, well, it was their own ideology that was broken—it wasn’t his problem.
Artists also began to critique their own microcosms, calling attention to the non-representation of black artists and women artists in the art world itself. There was a rash of activity following the Civil Rights movement. The Studio Museum in Harlem was founded in 1968; the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition picketed the Whitney’s famously catastrophic “Contemporary Black Artists in America” show in 1971 (the museum had reneged on an agreement with the BECC that the show would use the expertise of black art historians). By the 1980s, the Guerrilla Girls were making posters such as Do Women Have To Be Naked to Get Into the Met. Museum?”(1989).
These forms of institutional critique opened the doors for the highly sophisticated and nuanced visual critique of the system that followed, one that took on capitalist power and American nationhood as a mutually reinforcing dynamic. As brands’ aesthetic identities have come to saturate our lives, the critique has expanded to take on political and monetary systems, and the ways in which those systems have fed social constructions and hierarchies of race and gender.
For example, in Branded Head (2003), Hank Willis Thomas transformed the iconic Nike swoosh into a slave brand, while The Cotton Bowl, from his 2011 series “Strange Fruit”, suggests that little progress has been made. Adam Pendleton invented the concept of Black Dada, which he defines as “a way of talking about the future while talking about the past”. Torkwase Dyson has dedicated a series of black abstract paintings to “black interiority”, reclaiming traditions of abstraction and deploying them to deal with the physical spaces inhabited by black people, which are often absent from the mainstream narrative.
Now, art and politics seem to be merging. During the 2016 presidential election campaign, Thomas, along with several other artists, appropriated the language of politics and big business by creating For Freedoms, “the first artist-run Super PAC” (political action committee). On the other side of the coin, the far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, host of InfoWars, has called himself a “performance artist” in order to avoid any journalistic accountability. At a moment when the narrative of what America means appears increasingly fragmented, art and politics continue to feed each other in surprising, diverse, and complicated ways.
In Other Insights
Building Crystal Bridges in Bentonville, Arkansas—a small town in the middle of the United States—brought great works of American art to an area that previously had little or no access to them, since most major museums are located in urban or coastal areas, far away. Providing access is at the heart of everything we do at Crystal Bridges—both physical access (by locating the museum in the middle of our nation) and economic access (by providing free admission to the permanent collection).
We strive to make the works accessible, intellectually and emotionally, by making visitors feel welcomed. We try to provide tools for engaging with, and thinking about, the works in ways that might relate to visitors’ lives. At the museum, we are constantly seeking ways to remove barriers, real or perceived, to a connection with the art: whether through offering programs that reach out to specific groups in our community, such as English language learners or visitors with disabilities, or by allowing visitors to “see themselves” on the gallery walls.
By creating a new museum from the ground up, in a place where such an institution had not existed, we are developing a new paradigm for museums. As our society changes, our idea of how museums function in that society must change as well.
In building Crystal Bridges at this moment, in this place, we are able to take steps in a new direction, without the legacy of traditions and procedures of more established museums. We can look at both the development of the collection and at how we engage with our audiences through a fresh lens.
Art is a fundamental human impulse, and great works of art touch us on the deepest and universal human level. We are moved and inspired by art; it fills us with awe and wonder; it makes us think about things we may never have considered. It can be a catalyst for a powerful thoughts, feelings and actions. In that way, American art today carries the same meaning it always has: it is a distillation of our American culture, flavored by our history and by the events and ideas of our moment in time.
That said, American art, like American society, is now perhaps more varied and complex and interesting than ever before because of the wealth of information and viewpoints that contribute to it.
What Does “American” Mean?
It’s a question that has been asked by every generation of Americans from the Founding Fathers onward. And the answer is constantly evolving. You can see it when you walk through our galleries: the images American artists have used to portray what it means to be American have changed.
In colonial times, Americans portrayed themselves in terms of their European heritage, trying hard to look as “civilized” and European in their portraits as they could. Later, artists began to use the wide, dramatic landscapes on the western frontier as a metaphor for American grandeur and potential. In the Industrial Age, skyscrapers and machinery symbolized American ingenuity, technology, and power. Both the symbols, and the values they represented, changed with the times.
Throughout it all, I suppose you could say that the quest to somehow capture and define what it is to be American is itself part of the definition, and because there are many voices and intellects trying to answer that question, there are many different answers. As a museum, our job is to bring those voices together and offer a place where our visitors might engage with and consider them all in the context of our national history and their own experience.
Art museums help to bring history alive for our visitors. All art was “contemporary” when it was made, and so each artist creates work that is naturally freighted with his or her place and time—personal experience, emotions, opinions—all of those things are born of the historical realities of the moment and so naturally come to light in the work.
Remembering that there are real, individual, and very human lives attached to each of the works in the collection helps to make those history-book stories much more personal. We know, from a study done shortly after our opening, that experiencing great works of art improves our sense of historic empathy, which enriches our understanding of history and also makes us more tolerant of the differences of others.
The museum also provides what we call “brave spaces”, where we are able to encounter a range of different points of view and enter into conversations about them. In our current political and social environment, that in itself seems to me to be of immeasurable value.
We typically think of American ideals being those of freedom—to be able to pursue one’s own dream, to speak one’s mind, and to follow one’s own beliefs; ingenuity—the ability to come up with ideas to solve problems and improve lives, and to implement them; and community understanding that we are stronger when we work together and support one another than when we are in isolation or opposition. These ideals are manifest in the work of the museum.
We celebrate the creative spirit of American art, which is a physical and living testament to our national ideals of freedom of expression, of speech, and of the individual. We emphasize the power of art to provide us with insights into the challenges we face, both as individuals and as a nation.
We serve both as centers of our community: places where people can come together to learn and grow, and as agents of change: actively seeking to make our communities stronger and better through outreach, individual and group experiences, and education. We also strive to shed light on the diverse and complex combination of people, voices, heritages, experiences, and beliefs that make America what it is.
Though the face of America has changed and will continue to change over the course of our history, the fundamental American belief in a truly democratic society—one that provides social equality and justice for all—remains the same. This is, for our museum, perhaps the most important of American ideals: that by bringing together a diversity of voices, and by listening to and considering those voices, we are stronger, freer and more just.
In Other Insights
“One night I dreamed that I painted a large American flag,” said the artist Jasper Johns, revealing the inspiration behind Flag (1954-55). The work, considered Neo-Dadaist by some, predates aspects of Pop, Minimalism and Conceptual art, bucking the wave of Abstract Expressionism that had developed in New York during the 1940s and 1950s. In taking on of America’s most significant symbols, Johns—who would go on to paint more than 40 iterations of the work—influenced countless contemporary artists to engage with the image in both patriotic and subversive ways.
Johns never spoke directly about his intentions in creating Flag, which is now part of the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. Yet, in an interview in 1990, he recalled a childhood memory that may have been formative: “In Savannah, Georgia, in a park, there is a statue of Sergeant William Jasper. Once I was walking through this park with my father, and he said that we were named for him. Whether or not that is in fact true or not, I don’t know. Sergeant Jasper lost his life raising the American flag over a fort.”
When I first encountered Johns’ work as a young adult, a wave of patriotic pride washed over me, transporting me back to elementary school, where small American hands fall over hearts whenever the flag flies. Flag is a largish object, measuring 42.2” by 60.6”, created using the fast-drying Ancient Egyptian wax technique encaustic, together with oil paint and newsprint collage on three separate canvases set on plywood. It reflects the shape of America in those years: 48 white stars symbolizing the states in the Union (Alaska and Hawaii are omitted); and 13 red and white stripes, an homage to the original colonies that broke free of British rule.
AA Bronson’s was inspired by Johns’ White Flag (1955) to create a series of the same name in 2014. His version is given a grim twist: by covering his flags in a chalky, white powder, he refers back to the dust that covered New York as the Twin Towers fell on 9/11. The name of the works also alludes to a plant called white flag, a flower that has been popular in Muslim and Christian cemeteries for thousands of years.
There is redemption in Robert Mapplethorpe’s Flag (1987), a black and white photograph of a pristine banner flying proud above the clouds, which he captured near the end of his life, when he was dying of AIDS. He had first depicted Old Glory, as the flag was nicknamed by the 19th-century sea captain William Driver, a decade earlier in American Flag (1977). The image, which was taken on Fire Island in New York, is formally beautiful, the torn ends of a tattered flag referring to the innate hopefulness of this country’s founding as well as the turmoil of its history.
Those frayed ends prefigured William Pope. L’s Trinket, a monumental American flag measuring around 54ft x 16ft that hung on a pole in the Geffen Contemporary at LA MoCA in 2015. The flag was blown continuously by four industrial fans (the kind used in Hollywood to manipulate the weather), a wind-whipping that caused the ends to unravel—which Pope.L saw as a metaphor for the arduous process of engaging in democracy.
On a much smaller scale, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s crumpled 1979 Untitled (Flag), in which he switches the usual stars for a large letter “X”. The artist “always saw the flag as American art”, according to his former roommate Alexis Adler.
As I’ve grown older and become more aware of my blackness and my American-ness, I’ve wondered whether our shared flag could celebrate my community: its black hair; its unique style and language; the pain of its history; our fight for cultural power. David Hammons reimagined the flag along these lines in Untitled (African-American Flag) (1990), a work currently flying high outside the Studio Museum in the historically black neighborhood of Harlem.
Created in the Pan-African tricolor of red, green and black, Hammons fuses national and local, slyly suggesting the separateness of the African-American experience. Made on the occasion of the election of David Dinkins as the first and only black mayor of New York, the current installation of the flag almost 30 years after its creation begs the question: where is the progress?
Hammons’ African-American Flag (a version of which sold at Phillips New York in May this year for $2m, est. $70,000-$1m), colored his stars black. I imagine them as 50 black patriots: Harriet Tubman, Amiri Baraka, Sally Hemings, Malcolm X, Nina Simone, Coretta Scott King, Emmett Till, Louies Armstrong, Audre Lorde, Marian Robinson, John W. Boyd Jr, Philando Castille, Beyoncé, my mother… Unlike, Johns’ work, which lives indoors in temperature-controlled environments, Hammons’ American-American Flag lives outside, battling the elements.
Other artists have made the black experience more overt. In The Black Light Series: Flag for the Moon: Die Nigger (1969), Faith Ringgold wrote the words “DIE NIGGER” across a painted image of the flag. “It would be impossible for me to picture the American flag just as a flag, as if that is the whole story,” she said at the time. “I need to communicate my relationship with this flag based on my experience as a black woman in America.”
More recently, Awol Erizku’s HOW THAT MAKE YOU FEEL? (2017) comprises an embossed silkscreen print of the Black Panther logo on a found flag, fusing the organization’s radical revolutionary ideas with America’s own.
For artists who feel disempowered, there is power in reworking the imagery. Robert Longo’s large-scale sculpture, Untitled (The Pequod) (2014)—named after Ahab’s doomed ship in Hermann Melville’s Moby Dick—is a large, black, wooden American flag sinking into the ground like a wrecked ship, which appears to be a metaphor for the darkness beneath American hegemony.
Similarly, Barbara Kruger’s 1991 work, Untitled (Questions), converts the white stars and stripes into text interrogating America’s history of gender inequality, patriarchy and jingoism. The lettering is pretty but the questions she poses are difficult: “Who is free to choose? Who is beyond the law? Who is healed? Who is housed? Who speaks? Who is silenced?”
The use and abuse of the American flag was the subject of the exhibition “Old Glory: The American Flag in Contemporary Art” a 1994 survey at Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art. Donald Lipski’s chair wrapped in an American flag, Who’s Afraid of Red, White & Blue # 13 (1990), was presented next to Andrew Krasnow’s 48 Star Flag (NU)5? (1990)—a flag made of dried human flesh. In Kate Millett’s The American Dream Goes to Pot (1970), the flag is stuffed in a toilet, an abusive presentation of the banner for protestors of the show. (It was closed when shown at Phoenix Art Museum two years later)
Yet more controversial was Dread Scott’s 1989 installation, What Is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag? Part of a larger series, American Newspeak… Please Feel Free (1989), the installation comprises a photo montage of South Korean students burning American flags and holding signs saying, “Yankee go home son of bitch” and of flag-draped US military coffins. Scott placed a flag on the ground, laying notebooks on top of it with pens for the audience—who would have to step on the flag to answer the question posed by the work’s title.
The original display of the work at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1989, which President Bush Sr. called “disgraceful”, led to a court case. Congress strengthened a law banning the desecration of American flags in response to Scott’s installation and controversy about flag burning at the time. Seeing this as “compulsory patriotism”, Scott led a flag-burning protest on the steps of the Capitol. This resulted in the landmark 1990 Supreme Court decision, United States v. Eichman, in which the court ruled that Americans have a First Amendment right to burn or display the country’s flag however we want.
The notebooks revealed the changing thought process of one museum visitor. She simply read the clippings and observed other peoples’ reactions on a first visit. Then, a few days later, she went back to see the work again, this time picking up the pen to write: “There are many questions you have raised. For that I thank you. It does hurt me to see the flag on the ground being stepped on. Yet now after days have passed, I have realized [that] this is the ultimate form of patriotism… Our country is so strong in believing what it stands for that we would allow you to do this. You have made me really think about my own patriotism, which has grown stronger.”
In Other Insights
As we celebrate the Fourth of July and the anniversary of American independence, I find myself reflecting on what it means to be an American, especially in light of a historic election year and an increasingly fractured political climate. According to a recent article on the Public Broadcasting System’s (PBS) website, entitled “What does it mean to be American?”, the answer depends on your politics.
The author outlines how the country is not only divided along political lines (i.e., Republican v. Democrat), but also on the question of what constitutes American identity. According to the article, Democrats favor diversity and openness to refugees and other immigrants as central components of being American, while Republicans are far more likely to cite a culture grounded in Christian beliefs and the traditions of early European immigrants as essential to identity in the United States. Those factions have seen their competing visions of American identity brought to a boil at points throughout history, but things have become particularly tense in the current political landscape, as debates over race, police brutality, immigration and the welcoming of refugees remain hotly contested.
So, in this context, what does it mean to be American? Immediately, I think of opportunity and its conditions; solidarity and individuality; hard work; a desire for hunger to end; and racial inequity. When I think of the word “American”, I think of potential; of endless possibility; of an idealized promise to think progressively; to act humanely; to be true to democratic ideals. I think of Lyle Ashton Harris’s Miss America (1987–88), a photograph in which the artist used portraiture to interrogate issues of representation. The subject, sitting for a formal studio portrait, is shown in whiteface, wrapped in an American flag. The transformation of black skin to white with the application of thick, ghostly makeup, the cloaking of the figure in the flag and the exposed breasts are all politically charged, symbolic gestures that offer a pointed critique of race, sexuality and gender in the U.S.
“American” means anyone who makes a meaningful contribution to our country regardless of their skin color, sexual orientation, gender, age or occupation—and regardless of the language they speak or where they were born. “American” means giving everyone the opportunity to make their dreams come true. “American” means an eclectic range of opinions and ideas and an ongoing conversation about what’s right and, especially, what’s wrong.
Being American means reconciling with the reality that in 2016, police killed at least 258 African Americans; 34% of the total number of unarmed people killed were black males, which is alarmingly disproportionate since black men make up only 6% of the U.S. population. I think of David Hammons’ America the Beautiful (1968) a striking “body print” that the artist made early in his career, soon after his arrival to Los Angeles in 1963. To create this print, Hammons made impressions of his own face, arms and torso by covering his body with oil or margarine, pressing it against a sheet of paper and then sprinkling pigment on the surface. He then used lithography to add the American flag that envelops the central figure. The assertive combination of a patriotic symbol with the body of a black man (the artist) underscores the heightened racial tensions in the U.S. during this period.
To be from America is to hope, to travel, to accept the good and to fight collectively for human rights because it is the responsibility of every American to speak loudly against injustice, to make sacrifices in the name of advancing equality and to hold the country to the promises laid out in the Constitution. I think of Glenn Ligon’s Double America 2 (2014), a large neon sculpture illuminating the word “America.” The top row of letters in this work are painted black, such that the viewer sees only the illuminated backs of the letters reflecting off the wall. The bottom row depicts the word upside down. This arrangement of skewed perspectives evokes the political turmoil caused by the election of America’s first black president, Barack Obama, and the country’s involvement in multiple wars.
America, for me, is not a piece of land nor a collection of states unified under one flag. America is a collection of ideals. At the foundation of those ideals is equality of opportunity. The idea that everybody—no matter where you’ve come from, culturally, ethnically or otherwise—has the chance to create for themselves a free life. To be an American is to bet the house on that ideal.
In Other Insights
A nation, a place, a concept, an ideal: all of these are possible takes on the notion of “America”. Forever rich as a subject, artists have analyzed, critiqued, celebrated and questioned the fundamentals of the American experience as they have encountered it, either directly or from worlds away. Today, in a political and social landscape fraught with tension, many wonder if the democratic principles upon which the United States of America was founded are in dire jeopardy, whereas others view this age as one of necessary change and ultimate prosperity. That disparity is the beauty of the America that I love: a place of difficult juxtapositions in a constant state of flux that is bound to the voice of its people and, ultimately, to their collective choices.
We must remember that artists are critical in defining their age. They are often among the first to comment upon it: heralding the victories and aspirations of flush times and serving as a voice of reason in darker periods (or perhaps more pointedly, as equal parts critic, incendiary and witness). They become the documentarians of their time, and the works they leave behind bear the weight of human history, tracing what came to pass or what should have been.
Regardless of their politics, artists act as the mediators of their surroundings. Indeed, we may look to art, both past and present, for affirmation of our own views, just as we can find opposing mindsets validated or contradicted in equal measure. Ultimately, through art, differing viewpoints are given an equal playing field, creating a truly democratic stage upon which all voices matter.
Now is the time to strive more fiercely than ever for the American dream
Like Andy Warhol, now is the time, I believe, for all of us to strive more fiercely than ever for the American dream. The son of immigrants from Eastern Europe, Warhol combined his incredible talent with an intense work ethic to become one of the most important artists the world has ever known. He loved America and all that it stood for: equality, prosperity, freedom and wealth, to name only a few. He often said that he was as American as apple pie, and in so many ways he embodied what we understand as the founding notion of this nation: if one works hard, one can rise to the upper reaches of society, whether in the economic, social, or political strata. He, decidedly, hit all three.
It is important to note that it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever that Warhol was able to achieve his various successes. He was poor; he was gay; he was sickly. He was the anomaly that became the paradigm. His ability to overcome the countless challenges facing him was in so many ways due to the American condition itself—here, more than anywhere, one is able to overcome one’s lot in life in order to become someone else entirely, should one so desire. This intrinsic ability of artists to innovate, reinvent and reimagine their known experiences is what drives society, thought and understanding forward through visual means. Warhol excelled at this, and so too does any successful artist.
It is thanks to artists such as Dara Birnbaum, Hank Willis Thomas and Dulce Pinzón, to name just a very few, that we come to understand our own America, its strengths and its failures. Each, in her or his own way, has looked deeply in to the heart of America and created works of art that challenge us , the viewer, to consider other realities and positions that might reflect or stand in stark opposition to our own.
Whether through Birnbaum’s feminist stance through her looping video image of the all-powerful Wonder Woman transforming from mere mortal into superheroine; via Willis Thomas’s realignment of continents showing that “America” is forever bound to Africa through the ravages of the slave trade; or through Pinzón’s celebration of Mexican immigrants and their oftentimes underappreciated labor that makes this country function (while providing necessary support for families far away), all of the works illustrated here stand as markers of the America that we navigate on a daily basis.
As we celebrate the birth of our nation this Fourth of July week, we must thank all artists for their labor and their bravery in choosing to become the arbiters of our age. Without their questioning, critique and selfless examination of power structures, social mores and culture writ large, we would not be able to imagine, let alone actualize, alternate outcomes. Luckily, this is not exclusive to the American condition, as the voices of artists the globe over have changed the world in truly countless ways. May we always remember—and value—the true power of art, which is to change things for the better.
American Modernism is, in general, undervalued by the market compared with its European counterparts. With the exception of Georgia O’Keeffe and Edward Hopper, both of whom have international followings and whose works have sold at auction for in excess of $40m, there remains a disparity in price—and therefore a misperception of the historical value and importance of a number of artists.
World auction records for the best works by Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley and Oscar Bluemner are all in the $5m-$7m range but those for luminaries such as Stuart Davis, Charles Sheeler, Max Weber and John Marin are lower (though there have been works sold privately for prices higher than their auction records).
Milton Avery, whose work can be seen as an important bridge between American Modernism and post-war art, has broken the $5m barrier, though rarely. However, this may change now that Victoria Miro is representing the artist’s estate: the gallery presented a dedicated booth at this year’s Art Basel, as well as a solo exhibition currently on view at its Mayfair gallery in London (“Milton Avery”, until 29 July).
Beyond these relatively well-known names, there is a group of talented and important American modern artists who remain undervalued, under-appreciated and largely unknown by the broader market. These artists, including Charles Green Shaw, George L.K. Morris, Albert Eugene Gallatin, Paul Kelpe, Charles Biederman, John Ferren and Burgoyne Diller, among others, embraced abstraction and the influence of European art, particularly Cubism, from the 1920s to the 1940s.
The relative anonymity of these artists outside a small group of collectors and dealers is due to a number of factors. The most important was the emphasis on Nativism in America between the wars, which coincided with the nation’s growing isolationism following the First World War. During this period there was an emphasis on the creation of truly “American” art, which heralded the rise of American Scene painting, Social Realism and Regionalism.
These undercurrents compelled a number of artists, particularly those of the Stieglitz Circle, to reject European influences and abruptly end their earlier forays into abstraction—O’Keeffe’s wonderful meditations on form and color, Hartley’s Synthetic Cubist works painted in Provincetown and Bermuda in 1915 and 1916, Dove’s seminal series of pastels from 1910-11—and focus on more recognizable subject matter. The formalist, abstract style of this group ran counter to the currents of public and critical taste, denying them appropriate recognition.
The exhibition “Abstract Painting and Sculpture in America 1927-1944”, which opened at the Carnegie Institute in 1983 and travelled to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Minneapolis Institute of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, was a watershed show which re-evaluated the importance and influence of this group of abstract artists.
The period 1927 to 1944 was chosen because 1927 was the year that Gallatin opened his Gallery of Living Art at New York University, the first permanent, public collection of abstract art, and also when Davis started his seminal “Egg Beater” series; 1944 is the year Piet Mondrian died in New York.
This exhibition hung works by European luminaries Josef Albers, Fernand Léger, Mondrian and László Moholy-Nagy alongside those of these lesser-known American abstract artists, and those of painters and sculptors associated with the Abstract Expressionist movement, including Hans Hofmann, David Smith and Arshile Gorky. Placing the work of these long-under-appreciated artists in this context brilliantly underscored their importance.
The result of the exhibition was a surge of interest in these American abstract artists, yet their market still lags behind that of the Stieglitz Circle as well as Modernists such as Sheeler, Bluemner and Jacob Lawrence. The majority of auction records for the Park Avenue Cubists—Gallatin, Shaw, Morris and Suzy Frelinghuysen—are below $100,000; the auction records for Ferren and Biederman are $109,000 and $62,500, respectively.
However, dealers regularly sell works for higher prices, often two to three times the auction record, largely due to the fact that the works they offer are often of higher quality than what comes to auction. Prime examples are Biederman’s Abstraction (1935), recently sold by Jonathan Boos, and Gallatin’s No. 52 (1942-43) currently at James Reinish & Associates, both of which are exceptional examples of the artists’ work.
Also, dealers have more time to educate potential buyers as to the importance of these artists and their work, which is critical to growing the market. There is still much to be done in terms of scholarship for this group of artists and their work remains undervalued by the market, presenting a good opportunity for collectors who are engaged with their aesthetic.
In Must See
“The first thing I saw was hundreds of people on platforms. The train took about eight hours. It was eight hours of a constant flood of emotion.”
The speaker, Magnum photographer Paul Fusco, was on the train that transported the body of slain politician Robert F. Kennedy from New York, where a funeral service had been held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, to Arlington Cemetery near Washington D.C.
Fusco chronicled the somber journey, taking thousands of color photographs from the moving train of the two million Americans who lined the tracks to pay RFK their last respects.
On commission from Look magazine, Fusco was able to record the country’s enormous outpouring of grief following Kennedy’s assassination, as well as the remarkable human diversity on display.
Forty years before the election of President Barack Obama, Americans of every stripe came together to salute a political leader whose example filled them with confidence during dark times. But unlike Obama’s upbeat victory speech delivered 2008 at Chicago’s Grant Park in 2008, Fusco told The New York Times that, on 8 June 1968, the nation “saw hope pass on a train”.
Fusco captured nameless American mourners from his restricted vantage point as the train travelled from city to town to country, and back again. One photograph depicts a college-age couple perched pensively on a motorcycle; another, a large family sitting in lawn chairs in their backyard; a third, two shirtless boys saluting the passing cortege like adult soldiers.
But it is a fourth image that best condenses the national tragedy animating Fusco’s subjects. The picture depicts a trio of brightly dressed African-Americans, two women and a man, holding up a large hand-lettered sign that reads “SO-LONG BOBBY”.
This photograph, which is currently on show in the exhibition “Magnum Manifesto”, a 70th anniversary celebration of the Magnum Photos agency at New York’s International Center of Photography until September 3, is a poignant memento of America during a profoundly anxious age.
Shot in Kodachrome with a slow shutter speed and blurred areas of exposure, the photographs grasp the hazy human aftermath of an event that made a nation reel. Fusco captures the blurry hands and faces, and waving handkerchiefs, the instability of the photographs matching the mood of 1968-era America to a T.
In a 2008 interview with The New York Times, Fusco spoke about his RFK funeral train pictures as signs of the “breaking up of the world, the breaking up of society emotionally”.
Though this photograph was taken a half century ago, its fuzzy contours and saturated color foreshadow a great deal of the unease—and not a little of the civic-minded grief—felt by millions of today as America motors into unknown, divided territory.
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