Helen Molesworth

  • James Ensor, Masks Confronting Death, 1888, oil on canvas, 32 × 39 1⁄2".


    THE VIBE started to trickle out via Instagram. For a few days, my feed was inundated with pictures of all the cool new shit on view at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. You could smell victory in the air: The artists were happy. Then the New York Times weighed in and touched the wide shoulders of the new, bigger-is-better MoMA with their magic wand. Could it be? Had MoMA, the perennial whipping boy of art historians, radical artists, and cranky art critics, gotten it right? And by right, at this moment, we mean that the collection has been installed with an eye toward inclusivity—of medium,


    Curated by Michelle White

    Roni Horn makes her haptic drawings by slicing and pasting, painting and dusting, reading and writing. Some are involved with problems of geography and mapping, of knowing where one is and where one is not; they are alternately utopian, nonsensical, and philosophical, charting terrain more imagined than real, more felt than known. Others play with similarity and symmetry, only to thwart those varieties of sameness, such that two small red shapes can induce a reverie about the relations between love and likeness. When Horn takes to cutting up language—notably that

  • Helen Molesworth

    IT’S BEEN QUITE A YEAR—talk about the personal being political—and I’ll be as glad to see the back of 2018 as anyone. But there were some good moments, and one of them has been haunting me: Nation, an image from Deana Lawson’s exhibition at Sikkema Jenkins & Co. in New York.

    I was introduced to Lawson’s work by the late artist Noah Davis. Davis hung Lawson’s Dirty South, 2010, a moody photograph of an old car in a pitch-black nocturnal landscape, in the back room of the Underground Museum, the exhibition space he cofounded in Los Angeles. (It remains there today.) Later, Lawson’s work was included


    BEFORE MY ENCOUNTER with Simone Leigh’s work, I had never heard of the United Order of Tents. Founded in 1867 by former slaves Annetta Lane and Harriet Taylor, the Tents is a secret society of black women whose focus was nursing, and they are the oldest continually existing sorority of black women in the United States. Today, the organization continues to pursue its mission of nursing and healing members of the black community by providing a variety of additional services, from aid in securing mortgages to assistance for building housing for the elderly to ensuring proper burial services for

  • Mark Bradford, Pickett’s Charge (detail), 2017, mixed media on eight canvases, overall 12 × 400'.


    Bradford’s work revels in the material and metaphoric properties of paper. One sheet can be shredded, but if you layer it and soak it with water, the stuff becomes as durable as rebar: We are indeed stronger together. If paper and printing were once essential to the democratic project, it’s telling that Bradford’s focus has been less on printing than on erasure. The textured, puckered, and scarred contours of his canvases evince a low hum of wounding, a palimpsest of the daily microaggressions endured by those not considered to be straight white dudes

  • Lorna Simpson, Three Figures (detail), 2014, twelve panels, ink and silk screen on Claybord, overall 9' 8 3/4“ × 8' 1 1/2”.

    Helen Molesworth

    THE STUNNING RISE OF NATIONALISM, populism, and fundamentalism has roiled the world. It is tempting to imagine that we are witnessing just another rotation of political modernity’s cycle of progress and backlash. But we can situate the undoing of the demos in democracy’s longue durée while rejecting the false comfort of the idea that what’s happening is not new, that we’ve seen it all before. How did we get here? How did we create the conditions for Trump, for Brexit, for Mosul, for a daily sequence of devastating events, whether shootings or strikes? Is shock, that quintessentially modernist avant-garde strategy of instigating mass perceptual—and therefore political—change, somehow more prevalent than ever, albeit in radically transformed ways? Does shock, in fact, go hand in hand with apathy and desensitization?
    Art must confront these shifts in experience and form. And so Artforum asked curator HELEN MOLESWORTH, activist TARIQ ALI, and political theorist WENDY BROWN to reflect on the year in shock: on the sudden reaction, the surprise turn, the violent wake.

    MY EARLY-1990S LIFE involved reading a lot of theory in graduate school accompanied by near-compulsive listening to Jane’s Addiction. This meant that while I was at home reading, lyrics like these hung in the air:

    The TV’s got them images
    TV’s got them all
    It’s not shocking
    Every half an hour
    Someone’s captured and
    The cop moves them along
    It’s just like the show before
    The news is
    Just another show
    With sex and violence

    Meanwhile, in my seminars, there was much talk of modernism and modernity and, therefore, of shock: shock as a modality that allowed us to understand everything from the destruction

  • Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Touch Sanitation Performance, 1979–80. Performance view, Queens, NY, May 15, 1980. Mierle Laderman Ukeles and sanitation worker. Photo: Marcia Bricker.

    “Mierle Laderman Ukeles: Maintenance Art”

    In 1969, Mierle Laderman Ukeles invented the phrase maintenance art to articulate the undeniable fact that the wealth of nations, the workings of capital, and the privileges of the patriarchy are all predicated on the unpaid and/or undervalued labor of maintenance: the daily acts of cleaning, cooking, and other sundry tasks meant to prepare individuals and institutions for their so-called real work. This means that the efforts of janitors and housewives, conservators and sanitation workers, have served as source material for the artist’s most

  • Abraham Cruzvillegas, Reconstrucción2: Here We Stand, 2015, wood, iron, leather, carpet, cardboard, glue, stainless steel, cloth, falcon dung. Installation view, Bird and Animal Market, Sharjah. From Sharjah Biennial 12. Photo: Deema Shahin.

    Helen Molesworth

    1 SHARJAH BIENNIAL 12: “THE PAST, THE PRESENT, THE POSSIBLE” (VARIOUS VENUES; CURATED BY EUNGIE JOO WITH RYAN INOUYE) This biennial had three unique attributes: Its art could be seen in the time of a “normal” visit, it was exceedingly well curated, and it was beautifully installed. Joo and her team lived and worked in Sharjah, and it showed. Artists were intelligently matched to offsite locations (Abraham Cruzvillegas in the Bird and Animal Market, Adrián Villar Rojas in an abandoned ice factory), well represented (the witty and poignant Beom Kim), gorgeously staged (Rayyane Tabet in the long

  • Noah Davis, 2009. Photo: Ed Templeton.
    passages October 06, 2015

    Noah Davis (1983–2015)


    On September 17, 2014, I drove from my office in downtown Los Angeles to the Underground Museum. I still didn’t understand what east and west meant in LA, so I ended up somewhere on East Washington Avenue surrounded by train tracks and electrical lines, and I remember thinking either this joint is seriously underground or I am majorly lost. A few minutes and a big U-turn later I arrived at the actual Underground Museum, a storefront space located on a block that was home to a Jamaican lunch spot and a Spanish language evangelical church. It was ninety-six degrees. I

  • University of Southern California Roski School of Art and Design MFA students and faculty at Michael Heizer’s Double Negative, 1970, Overton, NV, June 23, 2011. Photo: Sean Kennedy.


    IN AN ERA when creative economies are leading the hypermonetization of every aspect of life, from attention and identity to privacy and time, it’s not surprising that this country’s most progressive models of art education are under attack. In fact, the liberal arts and humanities are besieged across the board, increasingly expected to justify their funding, even their very existence, in universities and beyond. We are witnessing a massive cultural shift when we see the corporatization of higher education—with its top-down power structures, bloated bureaucracies, “synergistic” partnerships

  • “Robert Gober: The Heart is Not a Metaphor”

    Robert Gober’s iconic wax legs and oblique domestic objects possess the force of an eruption. They remain the most evocative sculptural rendition I have seen of the unconscious making itself known. That his work emerged during the plague years of HIV/AIDS only adds to the pain that typically accompanies psychic discovery. Gober is also one of our primary interlocutors with Marcel Duchamp—not the Conceptual, institutional-critique Duchamp, but the more elusive and evocative strain of Duchamp’s oeuvre that concerns itself with the problems of love,

  • View of the Whitney Biennial, 2014. From left: Joel Otterson, Camp, 2014; Joel Otterson, Curtains Laced with Diamonds Dear for You, 2014; Sheila Hicks, Pillar of Inquiry/Supple Column, 2013–14; Molly Zuckerman-Hartung, Notley, 2013. Hanging, from left: Joel Otterson, 187 Bottoms Up, 2013; Joel Otterson, 84 Bottoms Up, 2013. Photo: Chandra Glick.

    the Whitney Biennial

    I SUSPECT THAT VERY FEW PEOPLE in the art world—whether artists, curators, dealers, or collectors—expect the Whitney Biennial to present an absolute version (or even a vision) of the current state of affairs. Nor do many of us think that any genuine discoveries will be made. (As you can see, like so many others, I am skirting the crucial question of whom these exhibitions are for.) Sure, we might see work by someone we didn’t know, but in today’s hypermediated art scene, no one actually expects to be bowled over by anything “new.” This makes a kind of sour sense, since the new as a