With Revolution On Hold, Vintage Dissent Reawakens In Four NY Shows: Arte Povera; Ashley Bickerton; Kara Walker; Alexander Calder & Cady Noland
By G. Roger Denson
It’s a truism that capitalism can subsume and make profitable even the critics and criticism that would tear capitalism apart. That truism has since the nineteenth century been a maxim in the marketing of Western art, when oligarchs supplanted aristocrats as the patronage class even as the lower classes increasingly came to supply the talent and the aesthetic and historical expertise. In the 250 years since David, Goya and Delacroix not only weathered their revolutions, but flourished to establish new aesthetic and ideological movements and schools, artists came to reconceptualize the unrelenting expression of discontent, dissent, even revolution, into art movements hugely successful for permeating the social membrane separating the classes of artists and patrons, middle class and oligarchy.
Since the 1960s, the unrelenting memory of political and aesthetic revolutions that drove the present class hierarchy and economic apparatus of perpetual renewal into place has become the status quo that reinvigorates discontent and dissent not as a political necessity, but as a desired renewal of cultural luxury. Except that there always remains outside the artistic craving for change a world beset by realities too unreliable to assimilate even by artists. In the US, after a decade of nearly-unfettered liberal progress, we’ve found ourselves suddenly grappling with an abrupt change of circumstances. So confident were we on the Left that our political imperatives had a clear trajectory ahead of us, we were caught without a contingency plan when an abrupt, retrograde turn to the Right overtook us. The result is the Left at present is stunned and running void of course. In the artworld, where the Left and the Right come in close professional contact, this void manifests as a discreet tug-of-war. But perhaps it got too discreet in recent years, given that for the first time in over two centuries, artists in the West had no progressive art movement waiting in the wings to renew Leftist values.
Not that we don’t have an abundance of young artists engaging Left critiques. This past spring and summer there has been a spate of small exhibitions by emerging and established artists mirroring the discontent that has ensued since the appearance of the Black Lives Matters movement and the nationwide women’s marches in contention with our Groper-And-Chief in the White House. But none of these efforts have so far supplied a truly reflexive, critical and coordinated vocabulary, semiotic, or tactical market strategy that can be called significantly reflective of the global macrocosm, or even the artworld microcosm. At least nothing that has left the hive mind of art professionals buzzing.
The Left political winds did blow through the New York artworld this fall. They just didn’t blow in the kind of new and provocative talent that stirs a movement. And except for The Whitney Museum’s late summer-to- autumn show, An Incomplete History of Protest, the Left political winds didn’t blow through museums or alternative spaces, but rather through New York’s blue chip galleries, compelling them to behave like nonprofit museums in catering to the enthusiastic but non-purchasing audience that keeps activist art vital as both a communal cultural zeitgeist and a mythical succession to our lost avant-garde. Consequently, the best shows have been scaled-down surveys, or small selections by artists who over the last twenty-to-fifty years have received a lion’s share of critical approbation. The strategy seems to be one of catering to the growing-if-nostalgic desire to rekindle the kind of loudly-radical art that we became accustomed to since the 1960s, only now filling the void of art — and the longing by art audiences — for an art retaliating against the corporate takeover of national governments from Russia, China and Saudia Arabia to the European Union, Britain and the US.
It’s more than a coincidence that in this fiftieth anniversary of the birth of the international counterculture that all of the work being discussed here has been embraced by collectors decades after it was deemed too radical to discuss directly, and so was addressed in ironic and discreet terminology thickened with theory, or as in the case of Alexander Calder, was disguised in outright formalist paradigms. The exceptions are Kara Walker’s 2017 renderings, which are impossible to reduce or disguise as ironic or formalistic. But even they are variations on a radical critique of race in society and art that Walker introduced nearly three decades ago, and that white audiences fervently resisted for at least half that time. We might credit the current crisis in American government for revitalizing the messages and aesthetics of the historical art of dissent that just a few years ago was perceived to have acquired the kind of patina of age that pushed it outside the
Arte Povera at Hauser & Wirth
It takes a crises in the realpolitik to show just how wrong we art professionals can be in our retirement of once-provocative art. The anti-corporate art of Arte Povera, introduced in 1967 and carried on still today, stirred viewers who visited all five floors of Hauser & Wirth’s cavernous space in the former DIA Chelsea building on West 22nd. The show satisfied as much for its re-introduction of the once provocative new media and aesthetics seized upon since the mid-1960s, when Arte Povera was a direct affront to the Minimalist and Expressionist abstractions that corporate American and European collectors and firms were purchasing and promoting at unprecedented prices for modern art.
Curated by the uber Arte Povera collector and scholar, Ingvild Goetz, the comprehensive survey incorporated work made over five decades and reminding us of what a true, and by some views, the last robust artistic and political avant-garde looked, felt and thought like. It was a selection that shames MoMA and The Guggenheim for failing to assemble their own curatorial surveys of the artistic and political art of the 1960s and 1970s. (Perhaps the museums can make up for the oversight by curating surveys of Fluxus, Happenings, AfriCOBRA, Conceptual Art, Environmental Art, Performance Art, The NEA Four, the art of AIDS and LGBT and Feminist Art: Certainly all will seem relevant, if not current.)
Goetz didn’t just select an arbitrary representation of Arte Povera artists. She bestowed New York with it’s closest approximation to the 1967 Italian exhibition, “Im Spazio” (The Space of Thoughts) show that had been assembled by the Italian art critic, Germano Celant, when he launched the Arte Povera movement at the Galleria La Bertesca in Genoa, Italy. Celant reinforced the show that same year by publishing his famous manifesto, “Arte Povera, Notes for a Guerilla”, in Flash Art. Goetz even corresponded the dates of her show with the 1967 run from September through October.
Having named the diverse and loose-knit group of artists — that included Giovanni Anselmo, Alighiero Boetti, Enrico Castellani Pier Paolo Calzolari, Luciano Fabro, Jannis Kounellis, Mario Merz, Marisa Merz, Giulio Paolini, Pino Pascali, Giuseppe Penone, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Emilio Prini, and Gilberto Zorio — Celante characterized his selection as epitomizing a denunciation of capitalism in general and as a reprimand of the art market’s then-narrow privileging of painting and traditional sculptural media specifically. Goetz painstakingly made evident how disparate were the artist’s concerns and the media they converted into analogies, paradigms, languages and even ethical, humorous and ironic scenarios.
What gets lost today without reading either Goetz or Celante is what was obvious in Celante’s original show: the overwhelming and startling presence of unabashedly industrial, electrical, commercial and functioning commodities in either their pristine, just-off the assembly line condition, or after they had been maligned by use, taken apart and thrown away as garbage. Of course the art cognoscenti of 1967 saw the precedence of Marcel Duchamp and Dada in the work. But after fifty years of acquaintance with Arte Povera, we see Anselmo, Boetti, Castellani, Kounellis, the Merzs, etc. Not that anyone with an aptitude for modern art history was scandalized by Celante’s show in 1967, but they were unaccustomed to seeing such materials realigned so inventively, humorously, and most importantly, scathingly as a pointed criticism about the waste machines consumers in Europe had become in just the two decades after so much of the civilization around them had been reduced to rubble, and the people to utter impoverishment.
There is also the irony at work that the Arte Povera show in 2017 succumbed to the fate that the Arte Povera show in 1967 professed art should not suffer — recalling, responding to, or continuing a history, least of all its own. Art must not fill up the new with the old, closing off the experience of the present by forcing sight, sound and sensation through a tunnel of time to “connect” a conceptualized continuity from past to future that is neither natural nor real. On the other hand, the shock of the new that such a linear narration of art history once justified, is today, if not exhausted, has been exceedingly hard to replicate when even the expectation of the new has become increasingly frustrated. Today, only the uninitiated can share in the shock that the 1967 Arte Povera audience (or for that matter the 1917 Dada audience) experienced when expecting a picture show, or display of nudes in marble or bronze, and getting a pile of potatoes (or an upturned urinal) in its place.
Which is why political art has become so relevant and ubiquitous. Political art minimizes the importance of formalism and historicism in a media-saturated age in which the shifts in power from the personal to the global monopolize the thinking of the populace, from the leadership to the street schizophrenic. At the same time, political art is imbued with a sense of personal responsibility and efficacy that earlier audiences might not have been able to so fully experience. How could they when they were still without the knowledge that the human propensity for stripping the earth for profit, comfort and entertainment as manufacturers and consumers, and our blithe acceptance of the destruction of the environment with our waste, would come to hang over our heads in the thick dark air and wash around our feet in the grey flood waters, as Africans climb over and under the mounds of commodities we once opened on Christmas day.
An argument can be made that Fluxus, another loose-knit group of internationally-born artists who chose New York as their center, inspired Arte Povera in preceding them by a few years. The two groups certainly shared the proclivity to introduce industrial materials, electronic media and political motives as worthy art media. Fluxus was also the first truly global assembly of happenings and performance artists, musicians, dancers, video artists and filmmakers. Like Arte Povera, Fluxus was inspired by the memory of the Dada movement, and just as Dada was formed in response to the outbreak of World War I, Fluxus and Art Povera in 1967 responded to the escalation of the US war in Vietnam. But then Fluxus and Arte Povera can also be said to have been the roots to the more methodical and thought out hybrids of Conceptual Art, Performance Art, and Earthworks that would dominate the Euro-American artworld throughout the 1970s and spread artists’ valuing of dissent. The subsequent global diffusion of an art of poverty made from scraps and throwaways proved ideally suited to the poorer nations that came to receive and reprocess the exported industrial and consumer waste of the superpowers — and inspire such ingenious art made from these spoils as that made by the Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui.
Ashley Bickerton at The Flag Art Foundation
What we need now is a followup to the Arte Povera show that indicates the extent to which the 1980s and 1990s generations assimilated into their art the lessons learned from the Fluxus and Arte Povera artists. In this regard, Ashley Bickerton’s Flag Art Foundation retrospective — also deserving to be installed in major museums — has already excelled in demonstrating how much more sophisticated the Commodity Artists had become in the two intervening decades regarding the capitalist consumption of materials that went into making commodities.
Especially keen were the Commodity Artists’ awareness of objects as signs encoded with cultural and political access, status, power and wealth. Even more than Pop Art, though not as stylistically and intellectually revolutionary, Commodity Art compelled audiences to see the extent to which individuals in industrial and postindustrial societies had become subliminally accustomed to calibrating self worth on the basis of what manufactured products we own. This is the biggest difference between the reflexive, theoretical, if sometimes cynical Commodity Artists, and the more spontaneous and exhilarated Pop, Fluxus, and Arte Povera artists, the latter whom, to great extent, still bought and sold Proudhon’s romantic notion that property is theft.
Bickerton’s early art supplies insight into how the radical invention of one generation informed the sophisticated fluidity of styles and media hybridization of the succeeding generation — which besides Bickerton, includes Jeff Koons, Barbara Kruger, Haim Steinbach, Jenny Holzer and Richard Prince — as counting among the most incisive and sustaining today. It’s clear the Commodity Artists followed the disparate leads suggested by Arte Povera, as articulated in Germano Celante’s manifesto, as well as the Pop Artists, while taking their innovations to an exceedingly self-critical level.
The postmodern world that the Commodity Critique alluded to was constructed from motivational signs—words, images, sounds, gestures, and objects—sent out over the airways and through print and department store displays to stimulate human receptivity to the still relatively new culture of commodity consumption. With the strategies of advertising now raised to a high art of global consumer conquest that the Pop Artists predicted, Bickerton and the others embraced and invented new imagistic and sculptural vocabularies and sign systems to effect their own subversive semiotic twists. These sign systems then acted doubly as critiques and celebrations of an industry that came to control the perceptions, if not the thought processes, of billions.
As activists, Bickerton and the Commodity Artists virtually compelled collectors to buy art that lectured, made fun of, even mocked their acquisitive imperatives. Until 1993, Bickerton’s art was designed to make us see that the acquisition of art was as much an instrument for attaining status and wealth, even facilitating power, as it was a signifier of a brand — the artist’s brand. This is why Tormented Self-Portrait (Susie at Arles), 1988, is plastered with brand names. At his outset, and following Warhol’s lead, branding for a short time became Bickerton’s brand. But that was in the decade that he spent living in the US.
From about 1984 to 1993, Bickerton appears to have wrestled with the limitations of the commodity critique, specifically the challenge of determining when does the commodity critique that the artist insists is activated by the work truly become evident to the viewer? And especially becomes evident to the collector whose purchase is somehow supposed to negate the capitalist system. When does the critique change the collector, if ever? Without knowing these answers, we never really know if the strategy of the commodity critique has been activated or truly is negating the capitalist imperative; whether it is pragmatic or even sincere.
We cannot even know if the artist is conning the audience to make a name for himself. In Richard Prince’s work, especially that work that is largely regarded by women as demeaning to women, are the bad wife jokes and the pictures of “sluts” meant to remind collectors they might be misogynist? Or do they reinforce their misogyny? When is the Jeff Koons kitsch puppy making the collector think deeply about his assets that are of no use to the public unfamiliar with the notion of irony in art? Or is only the collector and her friends who are in on the ironic strategy from the start know or even care s/he is the targeted audience to be effected, which isn’t much of an effect when they resell it at ten times the cost.
Except for the ever-exfoliating phenomenon that is Jeff Koons, and to a lesser extent Jenny Holzer, we don’t hear much today about the artist’s commodity critique. And yet the question we asked repeatedly in the 1980s remains, if not remains more urgently: Have the Commodity Artists succeed in co-opting the oligarchical collectors or has the oligarchy bought out and neutralized the commodity critique?
Bickerton’s early commodity art never came to match Jeff Koons’ in its measure of audacity. For instance, it never compelled collectors in pursuit of immortality through art patronage to spend millions on kitsch and pornography they’d never consider buying for a few bucks, yet because it was rebranded “investment art” and avant-garde, the collectors knowingly sought it out. Nor did Bickerton wittily knock off aphorisms, as did Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger, that indicted the complicity of the very collectors and class who collected their art. He didn’t, like Haim Steinbach, confront collectors with the objects they bought at the mall, possibly at the discount counters, then charge them tens of thousands of dollars more simply because his name, and some elegantly geometric ready-to-hang formica shelving (sculpture), came with it.
Bickerton did, however, challenge the sacred cows and shibboleths of the ‘avant-garde’, the one-time class of artist provocateurs he helped to make appear antiquated, if not reveal them to be pretenders in an epoch of relativism and pluralism that we for a decade or two called ‘postmodernism’. But he did this best after he kissed New York consumer hell goodbye for the island paradise of Bali.
As the Flag Art Foundation installation made clear, Bickerton is the only one of the Commodity Artists to strike it rich, especially artistically, by lampooning himself as having succumbed to the romantic myths of a by now eroding Modernism, and modern art in particular. (Koons may appear to be lampooning himself in his tepid softporn self-portraits, but in fact he embellished his image to the point of self-aggrandizement.) The myths to which Bickerton pictures himself succumbing are, in his New York years, the myth of the artist as social conscience and, in his Balinese reorientation, to the myth of the retreating artist saved by communing with “primitives”. Except that the primitives he came to live among in the 1990s were as sophisticated as the moderns in their touristic seductions, bargaining, industry and cons. Ah, but then the primitives turned out to have been moderns all the while, which Bickerton knew, given that he lived his childhood in Barbados and Hawaii.
Bickerton’s self-critique and critique of the artist in postindustrial culture isn’t as much a self-portrait as it is a critique of the global (no longer just Western) tourist-consumer. In this gesture, Bickerton is the only one of the Commodity Artists to advance the critique to himself. Note that in Famili, 2007, he paints himself in the blue skin color of the Hindu god Krishna, thereby invoking the Hinduism practiced by a majority of the Balinese. This is no mockery of the faith. Rather Bickertom lampoons himself and his former participation in the Western notions of racial identity. (Remember, the 1990s were the Identity Art decade, particularly after the infamous maligning of artists of color, sexual and gender difference in print by dumbfounded Eurocentric critics of the 1993 Whitney Biennial that we now remember as the The Identity Art Biennial).
It may tempt the more theoretically inclined observer to elaborate a model in which Bickerton is ‘deconstructing’ — to use the zeitgeist term of the 1980s and 1990s — the myth of the modern artist as purveyor of ‘primitivism’ that had been born with Gauguin. But Bickerton is really celebrating the misunderstood Gauguin while shunning the Euro-Amertican lifestyle in favor of rearing a family of Balinese citizens. His lurid chromatics, cartoonish characters, and his elaborate zest at collecting and assimilating tropical objects and materials purposely enlarge the touristic stereotypes of Balinese life, just as his family portraits embrace oceanic lifestyles because they are superior in terms of quality of life. Portraits of other Westerners, — like The Vlaminkos — similarly seeking nirvana on earth, are semiotically conveyed in stark contrast and complexity, retaining Western proclivities, kinks, paraphernalia, without the slightest tinge of disorientation. To great extent, the visual signs of Western and Eastern, continental and oceanic, integration compose Bickerton’s most successful commentaries on the cross-fertilization of the serious nomadic, even the frivolous touristic, sensibilities that proliferated in a pre-9/11 decade uncomplicated by terrorism that since then has marred even Bali.
Bickerton, however, shows no sign of the terror paranoia as he synthesizes pictures and sculptures of the oceanic aesthetic into a cross-cultural hybrid with unadulterated glee, meaning it is more like a meal combining western sauces with eastern herbs and garnishes, than a paradigm to be studied rigorously by art critics and historians. In this, Bickerton resembles that most inexhaustible, free-rambling and culturally-assimilating artist, Robert Rauchenberg, in that though he is well aware of the hypersensitive cross-cultural efforts to bridge societies and civilizations that awkwardly proceeded in the 1980s and 1990s, he relaxes his guard to fluidly integrate components of difference without concern for what fits where. It’s the difference between foolishly designating the West as “reflexive and active” and the East as “intuitive and passive” — as had the inexperienced but still somehow mysteriously uninformed Western academics up to the end of the last century — and coming to understand that East and West are both. In other words, multiculturalism shows every sign of outgrowing the Eurocentrisms and Asiancentrisms of government statecraft, postmodern scholarship, anti-aesthetics, and secularist prioritization. We’ve learned there is no ‘Other’, that there is only ‘Us’. Haven’t we? Well, certainly not all of us. Not by far. Which brings us to...
Kara Walker at Sikkema Jenkins & Company
Kara Walker in her press release expressed her exhaustion after 30 years of drafting art that carries forth the legacy of slavery; the American antebellum segregation; the intervening false starts and hard won gains of the Civil Rights movement; and the interminable slides back into the swamp of racial fear and loathing that faced every single African American generation up to their confrontation by white suprematists in Charlottesville, Virginia just as Walker’s New York show opened. Her exhaustion shows at various levels, the chief being that she has stylistically and technically devolved her work from the elegant and historical shadowplays that for two decades she measured out across panoramas to enumerate atrocities and indignities seemingly dancing across a stage as harmoniously as a ballet within a proscenium. The silhouettes that hid facial expressions have given way to a faux-unfinished, if savagely unleashed, cartoonish state of inhuman criminal affairs in her 2017 series.
While Walker’s widely exhibited art has always characterized the pit of human despair, it did it in broad strokes that made light of the liberal’s naive belief, or pretense, that racism was wilting away with increased education and expansive wealth. Yet her cartoons are as self-defacing and self-knowing (that is, ‘self’, as in racial self) as they are indicative of white guilt. The work she released this fall is even more given to comic book accounts between the perceived master and slave races. Now, however, her desublimating eyes seem to reveal that she is channeling every one of the maligned to bear witness to the rapes, hangings, eviscerations, and castrations that her confident hands furiously lash out in loose and racing renderings composed on paper and linen with ink, blade, glue and oil stick. After so many years of shadows, the visibly- as much as emotionally-stark details raise the pitch of Walker’s disgust and hopelessness to hurricane intensity, unlike anything her audience had come to expect of her.
Now the fields of antagonists as much compose scenes evocative of medieval last judgements with slave drivers and bounty hunters assuming the roles of demons carrying off souls to the hell of slave ships, as they are intended to embody real historical battles and crime sprees that in one composition represent four centuries and three continents of racial conflict. The “judgement” however is void of any god or savior, and in resorting to so existential a compendium of crimes, the new sketches are both as savagely articulate and expressionistic as anything that Goya and Kollowitz conceived — the only art historical analogies that come close. There is also a stab at Delacroix, in modeling one of her frenzied killing sprees after his painting of a harem being slaughtered in The Death of Sardanapalus. Whereas the silhouettes distanced us from the tragic and savage histories in the way that a theatrical scrim keeps us from from seeing the full color and details of a scene, the figure drawings deliver a detailed existential account of the mortal sins of the white fathers and mothers in blemished detail. And that leveling of the races already noted, though always made to seem sexually driven now appears to be as well to reduce to the primordial competition for survival. The master race portrayed in Walker’s earlier panoramas has been brought down. The slave race has been relegated to the freedom that is abject poverty. And the artist appears ready to exit the stage.
The timing of the show couldn’t have been better — or worse — to paraphrase Dickens. Walker stated in her personally written press release that the works were created throughout the Summer of 2017, a season in which so, so many on the Left, especially the black Left, have publicly and privately manifested an intensified paranoia — understandably justified — since the 2016 election. Everyone expected the Walker show to be a kind of crucible of catharsis for blacks. Now more than ever her haphazard, overcrowded, and frantic collages of figures resembling the hideous white suprematist graphic novels kept under the counter at the many Klandestine stores across the US. Of course these new panoramas electrified her expectant audience.
It is rare that we witness such an immediate, visible and sustained simpatico between an art exhibit and a politically-minded audience. More often at least we critics are left asking when does the critique impact the audience and collector? When does it change her? In terms of Walker’s art, when is the picaninny in the shadow play making the collector of the work think deeply about his business being of no use to the advancement of racial relations? But unlike many artists, Walker admits the futility is evident. Which is why she took charge of the show’s press release and wrote:
“I know what you all expect from me and I have complied up to a point. But frankly I am tired, tired of standing up, being counted tired of ‘having a voice’ or worse ‘being a role model.’ Tired, true, of being a featured member of my racial group and/or my gender niche. It’s too much.”
We may doubt that Walker intended it to sound that she had reached the end of her artistic activism, but the impression here is that Walker’s politicization has been as an artist standing alone, when nothing could be further from the truth. They may not have been fortunate to have Walker’s buildup to their shows or the kind of market demand that ensures her output remains impressive. How could they when the white art world wouldn’t facilitate it. But Walker must be remembered as one in a long line of black artists — Bill Traylor, Jacob Lawrence, Elizabeth Catlett, Romare Bearden, Faith Ringold, David Hammons, The Coalition of Black Revolutionary Artists (COBRA), Harmony Hammond, Renée Green, Fred Wilson, Lorna Simpson, Gary Simmons — whose work, if not always activist, has kept an account of black life in the hood, on the other side of the tracks, on the plantation, in the galleys below deck, in the huts of the tribal village.
Faith Ringgold in particular bears comparison to Walker for her American People series of political paintings begun in 1963 and finished in 1967, along with related murals and political posters. Although Ringgold became highly regarded from the 1970s onward for her many series of African-American story quilts, the American People series remained hidden from public view until November, 2011, when the Miami Art Museum finally featured them in the exhibition, “American People, Black Light: Faith Ringgold’s Paintings of the 1960s”. Not as frankly disturbing as Walker, they no less displayed the extremist and violent side to American life that we came to know well in the 1960s both as a result of the proliferation of television and the profusion of hand guns made available to ordinary Americans recently invested with purchasing power. The series came as somewhat of a shock to the audiences accustomed to seeing her later depictions of historical scenes and everyday African American life. In fact she was the censored Kara Walker of her generation and a courageous museum would profit from a pairing of Ringgold’s and Walker’s rampage paintings.
As much as Walker’s complaint may express true fatigue and frustration with the capitalist economy and its monopolization by white suprematism lite, it also belies a new edge to her outlook. Walker’s expressed fatigue, combined with her new leveling of black and white protagonists, may be a sign that she has come to identify somewhat more closely with her collectors regardless of their race. Is this yet another affirmation that capitalism subsumes and makes profitable even the critics and criticism that would tear capitalism apart?
Kinetics of Violence: Alexander Calder and Cady Noland at Venus Over Manhattan
The smallest of the shows, Kinetics of Violence, at Venus Over Manhattan gallery on Madison Avenue, is also the most surprising for bringing together two artists we might not picture in dialogue, given that Cady Noland was born nearly sixty years after Alexander Calder. In fact, Noland’s work draws out the political and humanist implications in Calder’s work, which, if we accept curator Sandra Antello-Suarez’s word, is too eagerly sanitized by art historians, critics and curators as ‘formalist’, when really his mobiles and stabiles have at least since the Spanish Civil War in 1921 evoked the pathology of international fascism. In fact, until recently art critics and historians hardly if ever disclosed that Calder’s kinetic objects and silhouettes were born with and evoked the missiles, propellers, and flying debris of explosions, which he then transferred to his mobiles issued with the mobilizations of World War II, the Cold War, and the Vietnam War. Upon learning this, the old man we thought was a formalist suddenly seems the perfect political chaperon for the woman artist who wore her political radicalism on her sleeve, inside and out.
Antello-Suarez elaborates: “When paired in physical proximity, Calder and Noland construct critical visual and conceptual paradigms for a kinetics of violence that threaten, if not rains down on, whole populations with a general destiny of strategic and metaphorical physical and/or sociological movement.” Any resistance we cling to in digesting this disclosure is likely to drop away when we encounter the show’s centerpiece, Calder’s Rhombus. The massive, 1.5-ton, pointed metal artillery-like stabile has been situated in the gallery with the ceiling cut away to accommodate its symbolic “kinetic of decapitation” and which can be manually — and somewhat hazardously — set in motion by the viewer. The work is uncharacteristically violent for a Calder stabile, but according to Antello-Suarez it more adequately embodies the deadly despotism that Calder spent his life both in Europe and the US opposing.
In fact, Rhombus was made at the same time that Calder co-published a full, two-page spread in the New York Times on May 31 1972: A Resolution to Impeach Richard Nixon as President of the United States, which, as an addendum to the sculpture, is represented at the gallery in facsimile.
How does a stockade embody the kinetics of violence when it arrests the motion of its captive? The work invites us to see ourselves in the place of the prisoner, and in so doing, we come to imagine having to watch the movements of others. In addition to shaming the prisoner in the publicly-exposed stockade, the prisoner experiences the free movement of others as a kind of psychological violence inflicted on her or him. A violence echoing in the mind even as s/he shuts her eyes, and thereby is inescapable. In art, the proper mimicry or nuanced signs of trauma, and especially the isolation and framing of these signs by the appropriate political and moral context and presentation, makes the authoritarian inducement of trauma readable to anyone possessed of the most rudimentary recognition of healthy and sick human behaviors. Noland’s Gibbet excels at conveying the semiotics of human brutality and suppression by presenting no more than the minimal, but no less formidable, restraints required by authority to perpetuate authority.
As an addendum to the show, Antello-Suarez points out in her essay that “even after his death, Calder’s art foreboded the kinetics of violence: His much-lauded sculpture, Bent Propeller, 1970, which resembled an airplane propeller, was permanently installed at The World Trade Center in Manhattan, where it was destroyed in the carnage of planes flown into the Twin Towers.”
Adjacent to Calder’s Rhombus, is Cady Noland’s Corral Gates, 1989, a pair of tubular metal gates made with angular supports adjacent to the rectangular construction that the viewer can open and close. Noland supplies a saddle string to define the context. And here is where the pairing of the two artists reveals itself to be particularly ingenious. For just as Calder’s early mobiles and stabiles evoke the semiotics of missiles, propellers and flying debris of explosions, Noland ‘s tubular gate and saddle strap together impart signifiers of the overly-romanticized image of “an invisible cowboy”, with “invisible cattle in the conceptual distance”, “with all their imaginable joys and pains, all the whats and whys of a phantom, omnipresent Wild West to question the viewers’ trespassing into a forbidden space”.
Noland’s famous Gibbet, 1993, is the show’s masterpiece. Composed of a wood and aluminum stockade that mimics minimalist sculpture, except that it is comprised of wood with five round holes cut for the extremities of forcibly-confined human bodies. Draped over the stockade is an American flag with large corresponding holes displacing both stars and stripes for us to peer through. The effect is a semiotic superimposition of contemporary nationalism over an anachronistic medieval brutality that inundated American prisons of war while symbolically foreseeing such scandalous atrocities as Abu Graihb a decade after its making. But even without knowledge of America’s dark and covert violence abroad, we all recognize the overtly authoritarian stockade as a public relations effort to terrorize populations into conformity.
Perhaps the most ingenious analogy to kinetic violence in the show is Antello-Suarez’s dead-serious allusion of Calder’s 1943 wall stabile, Constellation, to the flying drones it resembles. The name Constellation, coined by Calder, in Antello-Suarez’s allusion converts from referencing star configurations to invoking the satellite trilateration in space guiding the GPS of drone receivers, their surveillance cameras and bombs, to strategic operations and targets around the world. Calder’s mobiles and stabiles may have been born amid the missiles, propellers, and flying debris of the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s, but here it proves to be just as evocative of the militaristic technology threatening global populations a century later.
Any one of the shows alone, but especially the four shows together, conveyed that as we excavate beneath the surface of our democracies and global alliances, we find that all manner of malfeasance, hostility, untruth, informs our friends and our enemies alike. Amid the artists’ persistence to convey such an array of inhumanity, gratification of desires, sheer ignorance and naked and covert grasps at power alike, one question remains: Can activist art remain activist so long as its marketing, the sustenance of artists and gallerists, depends solely on oligarchical patronage?