“I don’t get it. What’s it supposed to be?”
“Is it an advertisement?”
“I don’t know.”
“What’s with the Chinese designs?”
They stood and stared for a good ten minutes, examining the portrait, reading the signage and talking it over, mainly derisively—along the lines of “Americans have a nutty idea of what constitutes art.” It was one of those moments when eavesdropping becomes irresistible. So I parked myself in front of the adjacent painting and pretended to stare at it. What was amazing was that these three Russians really seemed to want some key to unlock the mystery of this painting. Again and again, they read the curators’ words, shook their heads and finally shrugged it off.
Surely, one might harp on their implicit anti-Americanism (as has become the habit of American media, without a thought to possible reasons for anti-Americanism). But really, I find things I see in Russia nutty all the time. Why shouldn’t they feel the same way about America? I was more impressed by what seemed an earnest attempt to “get” a piece of work that wasn’t immediately accessible. I was also completely disappointed in the exhibit's commentary that provided little assistance to frame the art in a relevant social, cultural or political context.
This was a problem throughout the Art in America: Three Hundred Years of Innovation exhibit, currently showing at the Pushkin Museum, as the curators—the show was put together by the Guggenheim Foundation in partnership with the Terra Foundation and sponsored by the US State Department and Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to celebrate two hundred years of diplomatic relations between Russia and the US (a curious claim in and of itself)—eschewed discussion of political and social conflicts in American history.
A more adept art historian could quibble with matters of selection and presentation, but I was satisfied, more or less, with the inclusion of a number of works that dealt with important social and political themes in American life (most notably Joe Jones’ work). I did find it odd that African American art only appeared after World War One, if I remember correctly, and Asian-American art, not at all. Then again, it was a little startling that there was no mention of slavery in the exhibit, only “inhabitants from Africa and Asia” in the colonial period, who, alas, made little contribution to American art of the time.
These peculiar historical framings repeatedly jarred me as I wandered through the exhibit, awkwardly fitted into the second floor of the museum. The history of America and American art were neatly divided by the curators into six periods:
Colonization and Rebellion, 1700-1830
Expansion and Fragmentation, 1830-1880
Cosmopolitanism and Nationalism, 1880-1910
Modernism and Regionalism, 1915-1945 (what happened to 1910-1915—I don’t know)
Prosperity and Disillusionment, 1945-1980
Multiculturalism and Globalization, 1980-present
The bother with “neutral” framings like “fragmentation” (that is, a war over slavery?) or “prosperity and disillusionment” is that they are essentially meaningless references. I actually started to wonder if this curiously empty mode of description was an indication that the exhibit was curated by Russians, especially when I learned that the era of “multiculturalism and globalization” was marked by the elevation of idea and concept over execution. Representative artists? Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. No wonder that Kehinde Wiley’s portrait seemed nutty to the Russians—apparently the curators thought so too! Nice one, Guggenheim and Terra.
At the end of the exhibit, I couldn’t resist a stop to read the visitors’ comment book. (Actually, I sat there so long I lost my companion and a group of Spanish tourists, assuming I must work at the museum, asked me in broken Russian, then broken English, if they could take photographs in the museum. ) Comments in the log included:
“If you thought the only fools lived in Russia, you were wrong.”
“It’s all good, but where are the surrealists?”
“What a dear little exhibit! Such a rich country and such poor art… The poor souls, I feel bad for them. In a word, happiness is not to be found in money.”
“No soul. No ideas.”
I do feel bad for the artists who didn’t, I think, get a fair shake from this exhibit. But it’s difficult not to agree that this exhibit lacked soul or ideas.
09 August 2007
“I don’t get it. What’s it supposed to be?”