Helen Molesworth


    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


    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


    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

  • 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: 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

  • 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

  • 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


    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,

  • 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

  • “Lari Pittman: A Decorated Chronology”

    Lari Pittman’s paintings are notoriously difficult to describe. Intricate layers of foreground and background combined with a dazzling array of mark-making (spray painting, sign painting, precise curlicues applied like spun sugar, and the list goes on) defy single-point perspective, monocular camera vision, and abstraction. Pittman shows us what the world looks like when hierarchy is banished and everything is equal. It’s no coincidence that looking at his paintings feels like being in a car—objects in the mirror are closer than they appear, a moving landscape

  • “Blues for Smoke”

    STANDING AT THE THRESHOLD of “Blues for Smoke,” one could see the following, reading from foreground to background: a video monitor playing Richard Pryor Live in Concert (1979); a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat; portraits of Jean Genet, Charlie Parker, and James Baldwin by Beauford Delaney; a row of fifty-one old-fashioned hard-top blue suitcases arranged by Zoe Leonard; a black-and-maroonish abstraction by Jack Whitten; a wall drawing by Kira Lynn Harris; and, hovering off to the left, a wall of Glenn Ligon’s black-on-gold Richard Pryor paintings, all inscribed with the same joke: “I was a

  • Helen Molesworth

    1 Alina Szapocznikow (Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; curated by Elena Filipovic and Joanna Mytkowska) This was one of the most exciting bodies of work I’ve seen in a long time. Mouths, boobs, lightbulbs, limbs, marble, plastic—the exhibition, organized here by Allegra Pesenti, proceeded from a classic post–World War II account of the human form, shot through with existentialism and horror, to something darkly playful, a sculptural reckoning with the exigencies and absurdities of survival. The Polish artist, who died of cancer in 1973 at the age of forty-seven, made visible the ways in which


    IN EARLY JUNE 2000, I visited Art Basel for the first time. I was naive, which meant that I was subsequently shocked and dismayed. The convention hall was filled with stalls, many of which were displaying objects I knew and loved (works by Piero Manzoni, Marcel Broodthaers), pieces made by people I admired from afar (Jeff Wall, Rodney Graham) or by artists of great historical merit (Piet Mondrian, Ed Ruscha). Then there were pieces by artists I knew personally. All of this gave me a charge of recognition mixed with a creeping sense of sadness; by the time I reached my hotel, unironically called

  • Helen Molesworth

    1 Sharon Hayes, Parole (Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York) This haunting video, projected on multiple screens, presents a fragmented Godardian narrative—literary scholar Lauren Berlant discusses intimacy’s philosophical implications, someone reads a love letter, and so on. The redheaded protagonist performs empathy while remaining mute and listens to it all via omnipresent sound equipment. When the red-haired attempts to capture the sounds emanating from a dancer’s body, we know we are at the limit of our sensorium and at the threshold of a new kind of knowledge.


  • Helen Molesworth

    FOR ME, THE CORE DILEMMA FOR MUSEUMS TODAY is the sheer scale and scope of artistic production. At no other time has the world generated so many people who identify themselves as artists, who make so many things that people can buy, and who have so many places to exhibit. The production and distribution system is so vast that anything like consensus—which I still romantically hold on to as a notion—is at the threshold of impossibility. And if consensus is not quite possible, but one is suspicious, as I am, of one’s personal taste—be it connoisseurship or the whole notion of the “I”—then how does


    You’re my favorite work of art . . .”

    AS YOU MAKE YOUR WAY toward Marcel Duchamp’s Étant donnés at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, you walk down a long hallway with Paul Cézanne’s Les Grandes Baigneuses (The Large Bathers), 1906, squarely in your sight line. For all its iconic status, it is a bizarre canvas. Its scale is monstrous and not particularly in keeping with its ostensible subject matter: nudes at play in a pastoral landscape. The nudes (or shall we call them women?) proliferate, seated and standing; they arch toward one another like so many windswept trees, forming parentheses around

  • Ree Morton

    As we watch the dust of the feminist revolution settle, Ree Morton may turn out to be the artist we need most.

    Ree Morton’s line is offhand and kooky, her sense of color winsome, her use of materials such as glitter, wallpaper, doilies, and wood downright goofy. But what’s most interesting is her expedient passage through Minimalism into the more affective registers of joy and melancholy. Her oeuvre celebrates the banishment of irony—hence, following her death, at age forty, in 1977, she was pretty much ignored for most of the ’80s and under-recognized through the ’90s. But Morton’s number has finally come up: Her inclusion in 2007 in “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution” was