October 4, 2018
Canonical Silences: Bringing the World in to the Exhibition Space
The Museum Ludwig is the home of one of one of the most important collections of US American modern and contemporary art outside of the United States. As such it has a unique position in the discourse of modern and contemporary art from the United States: its collection includes artworks by artists who have had a profound influence on the development of art after World War II. The list of artists represented in the museums’ collection is like a who’s who of 20th century art: there are of course Pop Art superstars Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and James Rosenquist, Abstract Expressionists Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman, followed by Color Field painters Mark Rothko and Kenneth Noland and pioneers of conceptual and media art Joseph Kosuth, Carl Andre and Bruce Nauman. Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Ed Ruscha or Donald Judd are there as well. Each one of these artists is known for having shaped a specific movement or style and today they are considered to be among the most important and influential artists of the past century. Our understanding of this group of almost exclusively male artists and their work has been shaped by the writing of critics and art historians such as Clement Greenberg or Harold Rosenberg1 whose main focus was on the aesthetic and formal qualities of the works. They all have influenced how we view art and the canon of 20th century US-American art.
The founding of the Museum Ludwig was made possible by a donation of modern and contemporary art from Europe and the United States by art collectors Peter and Irene Ludwig. The collectors were among the first in Germany to collect art from the United States in the decades following WWII. The postwar period marked the beginning of an ongoing development that saw US American culture gaining popularity within Europe until it began to dominate the cultural scene. As collectors the Ludwig’s were an instrumental part of this development.
Yet, the picture of art that emerged out of this development and that is tied so closely to how we understand US American art today, is centered on a white male artist identity and matters of form and aesthetics. It leaves out female artists and artist of color as well as all those who do not live up to the heteronormative standards that this view perpetuates and places them in the second row. It also disregards the historical and political circumstances and the societal changes that occurred in the 20th century that continue to have an impact on culture and society on both sides of the Atlantic to this day.
This is the point of departure for the project that has at its center a re-evaluation of the US American works of art created before 1980 that are part of the Museum Ludwig’s collection. Titled Mapping the Collection, it focuses on the museum’s collection, focusing on the US-American works of art created before 1980, and approaches it from a position informed by post-colonial, feminist or queer discourses, taking the social, political and historical conditions under which the artists lived and worked into consideration. By identifying the blank spaces on the map of the collection and in its presentation, the frame of reception shifts towards a more multifaceted and varied picture of art and society in the United States after WWII that recognizes the influence that female artists, artists of color and queer artists had and the roles they played in pioneering new movements and styles. Presenting such a “counter-reading”2, of the collection gives a voice to narratives that, especially in Europe, are often marginalized in art history. This approach adds new layers of context to the collection and its presentation, generating knowledge for further study and future exhibitions and presents the museum as a space for research and discussion. Mapping the Collection also emphasizes the role of the museum within discussions surrounding the meaning of the canon and the role of the museum in the 21st century in Germany and United States. For visitors, this can also lead to new ways to approach a work of art, the collection and the museum in general. All of this is becoming more and more important in light of recent shifts in society and due to the rise of right wing populism on both sides of the Atlantic.
The goal is not to draw attention away from familiar narratives but to show that there are multiple ways to understand, view or approach a work of art and that there is more than one way to tell a story. It is not that these stories are not being told, but that we ̶ museums, art critics, art historians and others ̶ often find ourselves telling the same stories again and again; repeating and re-affirming familiar narratives. And this is why we must try harder to give these “new” stories just as much space and attention within museum walls. Echoing the words of Brian O’Doherty and Robert Smithson, it is a way of bringing the world back in to the gallery.
The foundation this narrative is based on; the canon of art, has never been a fixed concept, but it is always changing, its boundaries permeable and malleable, and in recent decades has been challenged from various positions. Despite this its influence persists, visible in the ways we speak about art and teach art history; it continues to shape our understanding of what is art-historically significant and influences museum collections as well as modes of presentation.3 First called in to question by feminist art critics in the 1970s4, they questioned the lack of female representation within museums. This criticism was expanded on by artists engaged in the discourses surrounding post-colonialism, decolonization and gender representation that emerged in the early 1990s.5 They called out the lack of representation of artists of color, queer artists and women within cultural institutions in the West and contributed to the establishment of counter-narratives that challenged the dominance of the white Western male within art and culture. By telling their stories, the stories of artists of color or female and queer-identified artists, they gave a voice to those that for the longest time had been ignored by the narrative of modern and contemporary art. At the same time they also questioned established formal and aesthetic categories used to describe art. These discussions were accompanied by debates surrounding the role and the function of the museum within society that emerged from inside the institution itself.6 All together they sought to challenge the modes of representation within the institution of art, asking not only who is represented within the institution, but also how. Mapping the connection builds upon and connects with these discourses that have only slowly started to gain traction within Germany, by looking at the museum’s collection, at the works of art and artists represented within it, focusing specifically on the US American works of art up until 1980. Being part of these discussions also highlights the necessity for German cultural institutions to re-examine the way they present themselves today, how museums view and understand their purpose in society, engage with their collections and the surrounding communities.
Levels of Engagement
The project will unfold on three levels: the first is the research happening inside and outside of the museum and will be presented on this blog. This includes in-depth analyses of specific movements, works of art or artistic practices but also a look at the circumstances, historical, social and political, under which they were created. The blog will also look at activities that the artists were involved in that are not necessarily related to art-making, e.g. their day jobs, social or political activism.
The second level will be a re-contextualizing of the museum collection, as visual or textual comments based on these findings within the presentation of collection. Together with the blog, both will give a behind the scenes look at the research happening at the museum and how a collection is developed and presented. The re-contextualization also shows how academic research and more “practical” museum work go hand in hand and makes abstract concepts and ideas visible. Visitors can gain an understanding of how artists developed ideas for their work and executed them, but also how they were influenced by each other, by the media, by culture, history and politics, both personally and collectively. The addition of archival material such as historical and personal documents or photographs reconnects the works of art with the larger context from which they were removed once they entered the museum’s collection.
The reception of US American art and culture within Germany after WWII will be one of the subjects addressed at a conference organized as part of the project. This third level will be a conference where scholars, curators and artists from Germany, the United States and beyond can discuss and exchange ideas on US American art until 1980 and on its reception and influence. Furthermore, the conference will also look at the role of the archive within art history and how it can be actively used in museum displays. The role of cultural institutions in the 21st century and how it can connect with and represent the communities that they are a part of in a long-lasting and meaningful way will also be a subject of discussion.
The goal is not to present definite answers, but to create a space where these questions can be discussed and reflected upon. It also brings us closer to a view of American art until 1980 that is more in tune with the reality that the artists lived in and allows us to draw parallels between the past and the present without further contributing to the mythologization of familiar narratives and of art history. Most importantly, such an approach challenges the claims of universal representation that many view as being inherent to the museum and its collections.
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Doherty, Claire. “The institution is dead! Long live the institution! Contemporary Art and New Institutionalism” engage, summer 2004, pp. 6-13.
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Foster, Hal. Return of the Real. MIT Press, 1996.
Iskin, Ruth, ed. Re-Envisioning the Contemporary Art Canon – Perspectives in a Global World. Routledge, 2016.
Jones, Amelia. A Companion to American Art since 1945. Wiley-Blackwell, 2006.
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Möntmann, Nina, ed. Art and Its Institutions. Black Dog Publishing, 2006.
O’Doherty, Brian. Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space. University of California Press, 2004.
Rebentisch, Juliane. Theorien der Gegenwartskunst. Junius Hamburg, 2015.
Smith, Terry, ed. Antinomies of Art and Culture. Duke University Press Books, 2009.
Smithson, Robert. “Cultural Confinement.” The Writings of Robert Smithson, edited by Nancy Holt, New York, New York University Press, 1979.
Verwoert, Jan. “Research and Display: Transformation of the Documentary Practice in Recent Art.” The Green Room: Reconsidering the Documentary and Contemporary Art. Edited by Maria Lind and Hito Steyerl. Sternberg Press, 2008.
- Greenberg and Rosenberg for example both promoted US American art, specifically Abstract expressionism as the new influential art movement within Western art after WWII but make almost no mention of the female artists working in that tradition such as Elaine de Kooning, Lee Krasner or Perle Fine.
- In this context, the idea of counter-reading is borrowed from literary theory. It is not a refusal of art history nor does it want to suggest that what we know is wrong. But by “supplementing” it with stories that often take the back seat, we expand the frame and challenge the familiarity of this narrative and call it claims to universality in to question all at once.
- Iskin, p. 9
- A few examples are Linda Nochlin’s essay “Why Are There No Great Women Artists” (1971, in Woman in Sexist Society, edited by Vivian Gornick and Barbara Moran), the writing of Lucy Lippard and Faith Ringgold’s art and activism as part of the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition and the Art Worker’s Coalition.
- Edward Said’s Orientalism(1978), Gayatri Spivak’s essay “Can the Subaltern Speak” (1993) or Judith Butler’s book Gender Trouble(1990) are some relevant examples.
- Examples would be the work of Fred Wilson or Renee Green, Douglas Crimp’s essay “On the Museums Ruins” (1993) or the development of New Institutionalism as a movement within European art institutions that Nina Möntmann has described as a “curatorial intention to create ‘an active space’ that is ‘part community center, part laboratory and part academy’” (http://eipcp.net/transversal/0407/moentmann/en)