Catalog review: Undercover Surrealism

Cover of Un Cadavre, Paris (1930)

Too many bloody idealists. –Georges Bataille (on the “orthodox” Surrealists)

Undercover Surrealism: Georges Bataille and DOCUMENTS was the catalog associated with the exhibition “Undercover Surrealism: Picasso, Miro, Masson and the Vision of Georges Bataille,” which showed at the Hayward Gallery in London in 2006. It sought to re-examine the works of many well-known Surrealists (or at least artists admired by Surrealists) and present them in a different light. As evidenced by the title, the exhibition and catalog revolved around Georges Bataille’s eclectic journal DOCUMENTS, of which 15 issues were published between 1929 and 1930. It examined art, ethnography, archaeology, film, photography, and pop culture, with a particular emphasis on “violence, sacrifice and seduction through which art was ‘brought down’ to the level of other kinds of objects” (11). This directly opposed orthodox Surrealism, which saw art and poetry as elevated expressions of unconscious thought and used somewhat roundabout ways (i.e. automatism) to circumvent conscious image-making control.

Georges Bataille, who was decidedly unafraid of confrontational and disturbing imagery, had (somewhat unwittingly) become the leader of the “dissident Surrealists,” which was comprised of people who had either rejected Andre Breton’s idealized version of Surrealism or had been excommunicated by Breton himself for opposing/questioning his doctrines. Unsurprisingly, Bataille himself had become Breton’s arch-nemesis early on in the development of Surrealism because he viewed Breton to be too idealistic, whereas Bataille was all about the base materialism of the genre. He also preferred to see Surrealism address the unconventional– homosexuality, the uber perverse, etc– the exotic, and the macabre; Breton, on the other hand, was more focused on the notions of the ideal, heterosexual love and automatism. Bataille is frequently referred to as “the enemy within Surrealism” in the catalog, and Breton hated Bataille so much that he actually dedicated several scathing pages to him in his Second Manifesto of Surrealism (he also called him a “staid librarian” at some point, referring to Bataille’s day job); Bataille was equally bitchy and took every opportunity in DOCUMENTS and elsewhere to express his distaste with Breton. Continue reading


Catalog/essay review: American Women Modernists (BYU)

Wanda Gag, “Moonlight” (1926)

Thus it could be argued that while modernism theoretically protected the values of individuals, those individuals were required to be of a particular race and class in order for society to reach its pure objectives. While modernism theoretically protected the expression of an individual, that expression would only be accepted if it supported the prevailing social march. And while individualism was the source of style and substance in art, it was often only recognized if it was in accordance with the prevailing practice or the emerging form that was its contradiction. (Campbell B. Gray, Preface)

Before I started reading American Women Modernists: The Legacy of Robert Henri, 1910-1945, I was a little appalled that the title of the catalog seemed to imply that some dude named Robert was the sole influence in the artistic careers of a number of women, or that their success was completely dependent on him. However, as soon as I saw that this catalog was published in 2005, I realized that there is no way that the scholarship included would paint such a picture (especially Erika Doss, who once called out someone I know on a particularly crass joke about finding a penny versus caring about women’s basketball). While Robert Henri is ultimately at the heart of this catalog, since the women artists discussed/exhibited were his students, it is more about how women and Henri’s beliefs about true modernism changed the course of modern American art history.  Continue reading

Catalog review: Pacific Standard Time

Ed Ruscha, “Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas” (1963)
(Image from Wmagazine)

I’m not sure if it’s because I was born in 1986 and grew up with the idea that LA was the other major city in the US (along with NYC), but it absolutely shocked the hell out of me when I read that the Pacific Standard Time: Los Angeles Art 1945-1980 was the first time anyone had ever taken a good hard look at the post-war art of Southern California. Not only that, I couldn’t believe that it was the first attempt to distinguish it from East Coast art and its art historical vernacular. In my less informed days, I would not have seen a problem with So Cal art being forcibly adhered to an East Coast standard (because it’s all American art, after all). However, now that I am wiser and more well-read, I can easily see that there are a lot of problems with lumping all post-war American art under one avant-garde flag.

PST was a massive decade-long undertaking that began as an archiving project at the Getty Research Institute. The history of Southern Californian art made in the post-war years was in danger of being lost, so the GRI set out to get everything they could documented. This project turned into an unprecedented series of exhibitions in 60+ museums and cultural institutions throughout the area between Fall 2011 to Spring 2012. Before this study, the LA art scene was believed to have developed as a center after 1980 while the East Coast dominated the post-war years. However, because PST regards Southern California as a center for post-war art that was largely independent of the East Coast, it more or less re-writes the history of Modern art in LA, and of American art in general. It was referenced multiple times in my In Wonderland catalog, as well as in the Westword review for West of Center, but I did not think to read it until my minor advisor suggested I look it up to inform my studies on regionalism and minor history. And am I glad I did, because not only was I able to make correlations with Colorado art history in the ’40s and ’50s, but it gave me a fascinating insight into the different histories of American art. Continue reading

Delusions about Denver

While I was reading West of Center (you can see my post here) and doing further research into reviews of the exhibition, I came across this review in Westword by Colorado-phile Michael Paglia. He quoted art critic David Hickey’s scathing response to the show: “It’s corny... It’s the kind of thing Denver would do. They would do Mountain Standard Time.” He is of course referencing the seminal Pacific Standard Time exhibitions (the catalog of which will be read and reviewed by me this weekend), which began exhibiting in 2011 and proposed that the West Coast (specifically Southern California) was never inferior to the East Coast (specifically New York City) which was long regarded as the center of the avant-garde in America. In a way, PST is almost re-writing history, and it is being widely accepted because it is difficult to deny that California is not a center in its own right. However, Hickey is blatantly stating that Denver– a peripheral, regional area– cannot possibly attempt the same sort of re-write because we just don’t matter enough.

I’m going to be blunt here: David Hickey, you are an ignorant a**hole.

Dan Ostermiller, “Scottish Cow and Calf” (2001)
(Photo from Blaine Harrington Photography)

Denver– and the whole of Colorado, really– is always being made out to be some po-dunk hick town, and the stereotype is being reinforced by many of our own inhabitants. For example, in 2006, the former Denver Art Museum director, Lewis Sharp, made the following comment in The Denver Post regarding the giant bronze “Scottish Cow and Calf” by Dan Ostermiller: “Yeah, we’re a cow town. But there are artists working in a representational manner who are creating works of art of artistic merit, and to embrace that in the broader community of public art gets right back to offering a variety of experiences.” While he is sort of trying to break the Denver stereotype with this statement, he is simultaneously reminding everyone that, artistically, we’re still behind the ball.

Colorado art is constantly seen as subpar and irrelevant in the grand scheme of art history. My own proctor for my comps, who I should mention is NOT my thesis advisor, tried to talk me out of my thesis topic, asking that I do something a little more “traditional.” To support this, he said that too many grad students end up doing stuff on local topics because they are afraid of going outside of their comfort zone. I rebutted by saying that I am interested in exploring why Colorado art “doesn’t matter” outside of the state and rattled off the concepts of regionalism, minor history, post-structuralism, and post-modernism to back up my stance.

It is with this background in mind that I am going to take this opportunity to break many of the myths and over-exaggerated stereotypes about Denver and Colorado at large. I am going to start with art and expand outwards. Not everything is going to be covered, and I am speaking largely from my own perspective. Fellow Coloradans are welcome to (nicely) refute my views. Continue reading

Catalog/essay review: West of Center (MCA Denver)

Clark Richert, Richard Kallweit, JoAnn Bernofsky, Gene Bernofsky, and Charles DeJulio, “The Ultimate Painting” (1966, in front of the Theatre Dome, Drop City – Trinidad, CO)

If naivete and idealism eventually gave way to cynicism and reaction, temporarily falling those utopian dreams, the desire for the unachievable never dies. It provides something to brainstorm about, something to long for, something to work for something that cannot yet be put behind us. -Lucy Lippard (Foreword)

Never before have I been gripped by an indescribable desire to go back in time and visit the ’60s (and early to mid-70s, for that matter). Actually, I rarely ever think to myself, “How cool would it be to go back to the (insert memorable time period)?” Why? Because I love living in 2012: the environment hasn’t quite gone totally to hell yet; major advancements have been made in medicine; and substantial progress has been made for women, the LGBT community, civil rights, etc. Don’t get me wrong, there is still a lot of work to be done in these latter areas, but seriously, look at history. We’re doing a hell of  a lot better now than we were for centuries. But this exhibition brings back the spirit of the ’60s that I always idealized in my head.

West of Center: Art and the Counterculture Experiment in America, 1965-1977 is yet another exhibition that I missed, and my excuse is the worst yet: I didn’t know it was happening. It was at MCA Denver from November 11, 2011 to February 19, 2012. And I have another embarrassing confession: I’ve never been to MCA Denver. Admittedly, I’m much more of a modern art person than a contemporary person anyway– ironic, considering how much I like living in the here and now, not to mention that I see an enormous amount of contemporary work at my job– but as has been previously alluded, I really, REALLY need to work on my game. Luckily, one of the reviews of the exhibition I read said that the catalog was much more informative than the exhibition, and the exhibition itself was more of a “cultural documentary.”

Moving past my personal musings about time travel and inadequate museum-going, West of Center was a fascinating first attempt at a wide-ranging (but not comprehensive) look at the counterculture born out of the 1960s. The flower-toting, LSD-imbibing, commune-living hippy is the most prominent figure that comes to mind when discussing counterculture, and while counterculture was made up of hippies, one has to be careful to not reduce it to a stereotype. Counterculture, when properly used, is a term used to define a sect of society that “radically disaffiliated” itself from mainstream culture. According to historian Theodore Roszak, counterculture is characterized as “both cultural and political, organized around a ‘personalist style’ and directed toward liberation from the alienating forces of technocratic domination, highlighted… as a form of cultural radicalism wherein personal transformation was embraced as the key to revolution” (xx). It is different from subculture in that subculture  is generally ambivalent to dominant society, making it a subset of mainstream culture. Counterculture sought to instigate social and political change through cultural radicalism. Art was a way of life, ideals were highly utopian, psychedelia was widely embraced, and hierarchy amongst the community (and between genres) disappeared. The true counterculturalist movement did not last long, and has unfortunately been widely disregarded as a legitimate movement worthy of serious scholarship, but it had a lasting impact on contemporary art and scholarship.  Continue reading

Exhibition review: Yves Saint Laurent (DAM)

Considering that I see myself as a museum person, I am shockingly bad at going to museums (and galleries, for that matter). I can blame school and broke-ness, I guess, but they’re pretty lame excuses. It is quite fitting that I showed up to one of the most celebrated shows to ever come through Denver two weeks before closing. Nevertheless, it made for a great date night, for not only was it Untitled (a monthly Final Friday night party) at the DAM, but it was my long-awaited visit to YSL!

I am not a fashionista. At all. Not even in the slightest. Yves Saint Laurent probably turned over in his grave last night when I showed up to the exhibition wearing a tank top, jeans, and tennis shoes, with my hair in a loose ponytail and not even wearing makeup. I do not keep up with fashion, unless you count the fact that I am an avid viewer of “Project Runway.” There is nothing I can say that will contribute to or critique fashion in any way. However, my appreciation lies mainly in the making– the craft, if you will– of fashion. I love looking at the folds of the fabric, the seams between the panels, the interaction of the colors, and thinking about the genius involved in achieving its effects.  Continue reading

Catalog review: Independent Spirits (Autry, 1995)

Louise Emerson Ronnebeck, “4-B” (1937)

The full title of this exhibition is “Independent Spirits: Women Painters of the American West, 1890-1945.” This was the first exhibition to look at women artists in the American West during this time period, at the end of a time where the West was considered the Last Frontier. In addition to actually identifying and displaying works by these oft-neglected artists, the exhibition’s larger goal was to look at “the shifting mechanisms of privilege and exclusion, as women evolved from amateurs to professionals, from the Victorian ideology of ‘separate spheres’  to a more integrated participation in the arts” (ix). The catalog (and presumably the exhibition) looked at women artists in multiple states/areas in the West: California (there were actually 3 essays on this state alone, taking into account Northern, Southern, and Modernism), the greater Northwest, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, the Rocky Mountains, and the Great Plains. Women still had a lot of issues to deal with at this time, such as the over-bearing nature of a patriarchal society and the general marginalization of the American West as peripheral to the East Coast centers, but amazingly, women had more opportunities for independence– both artistically and socially– in the West than their Eastern counterparts did. This was because the West was not as rooted in European gender traditions that were more prevalent in the East (although, arguably, the East Coast was not as bad as Europe in this regard). I cannot even begin to describe how much I wish I could have seen this show, but unfortunately, I was 9 years old when it came out. Thank god for catalogs. For my research purposes, I have so far only read 3 of the 9 essays in depth: “The Adventuresome, the Eccentrics, and the Dreamers: Women Modernists of Southern California” by Ilene Susan Fort; “Inner Voices, Outward Forms: Women Painters in New Mexico” by Sandra d’Emilio and Sharyn Udall;  and “‘I must paint’: Women Artists of the Rocky Mountain Region” by Erika Doss.  Continue reading