Matthew S. Witkovsky

  • “Shape of Light: 100 Years of Photography and Abstract Art”

    Abstraction, an enduring tendency in modern art, regularly occasions historical overviews. Earlier shows debatably posited the camera’s inbuilt verism as a prompt to painters to abandon figuration, while more recent exhibitions have included scattered works in digital media. This Tate survey encouragingly finds in photographic abstraction neither a specter nor a sideline but a motive force. With more than three hundred works in painting, photography, sculpture, and prints that date from roughly 1915 to the present, this exhibition should bring

  • Iakov Chernikhov, untitled, 1933, graphite, ink, and gouache on paper, 30 × 24". From “Imagine Moscow: Architecture, Propaganda, Revolution.”


    THE REVOLUTION IS STILL WITH US: A century ago, the Russian uprising of October 1917 defined the world order we know now, in which the struggle between individual and collective, capital and welfare, identity and authority continues to rage in new and unexpected ways. And though the Soviet state ultimately failed, it nevertheless left smoldering the embers of unrealized utopias and potentialities—visions of life and experience that challenged Western realities of oligarchy, democracy, colonialism, and war.
    Art was at the center of these transformations. More so than Thermidor or Tahrir Square, the October Revolution posed the perceptual as political. Changing the way we see and sense could change the way we acted and thought. Forms, materials, making, organizing—these were, and could still be, the elements of a new society. In the essay that follow, curator Matthew Witkovsky examines major new exhibitions exploring the cataclysmic event.

    THE CIVILIAN UPRISINGS of 1917, the new world order that followed, and the seismic shifts in art that preceded, accompanied, and dialogued with those events remain subjects of fascination one hundred years later. To mark this centennial, new exhibitions on Soviet Russia abound. In particular, two shows held in London this past spring—at the Design Museum and at the Royal Academy of Arts—helped to gauge that fascination, but also reminded us of the opportunity, realized or misused, for political and cultural self-analysis that the occasion presents. Such concerns are on my own mind as

  • Thomas Hirschhorn, ABSCHLAG (Felling) (detail), 2014, mixed media and paintings by Kazimir Malevich, Pavel Filonov, and Olga Rozanova. Installation view. Photo: Egor Rogalev.

    Manifesta 10

    AS A STUDENT OF MODERNISM in the 1980s and ’90s, I was taught that the genre of manifesto literature, rich in declarative sentences and visionary ambitions, had petered out before my time; I was reading great prose in a dead language. Then came 1996, and Manifesta. Cleverly feminized, corporatized, and maybe pluralized, “Manifesta” as a title revived a modernist keyword—an emblem of the collective and rebellious—while acknowledging the institutionalization of a modernist ethos in contemporary times. “You will not find paintings or monumental sculptures. You will not see a traditional

  • Roman Ondák, Freed Doorway, 1998, door with glass window, 76 3/4 x 30 3/4 x 2 3/4". Photo: Jens Ziehe.

    “Rearview Mirror”

    The title for this show of nearly two dozen artists from across the former Soviet bloc—though none from Russia proper—communicates a processing of past events that may be closer than they appear.

    The title for this show of nearly two dozen artists from across the former Soviet bloc—though none from Russia proper—communicates a processing of past events that may be closer than they appear. Exhibitions on Eastern European art are nothing new, but this show’s updated, post-Conceptual roster is particularly strong. Despite a curatorial focus on “divergence” of cultural experience across the region, the works will reveal commonalities, such as the heritage of mass housing (exploited by Paweł Althamer, Ján Mančuška, and Roman Ondák and discussed brilliantly

  • Daniel Balabán, Plants, 1996, watercolor on canvas, 63 x 47 1/4". From “. . . and don’t forget the flowers.”

    “. . . and don’t forget the flowers”

    Flowers are among the kitschiest subjects—along with kids and pets. It would seem impossible to address them in modern and contemporary art except in a repressed or ironic mode: Think of Mondrian paying the devil for his Neo-Plasticist heaven with secretly executed floral still lifes, or Warhol rolling hibiscus blossoms off his assembly line in 1964 as the provocatively anodyne sequel to car crashes and electric chairs. Yet the roster of contemporary artists who have contemplated flowers is remarkable: Ellsworth Kelly, Charles Ray, Jay DeFeo, Christopher Williams, Peter Fischli and David

  • View of “Che fare? Arte Povera—The Historic Years,” 2010, Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein, Vaduz.

    “Less is More” and “Che fare? Arte Povera—The Historic Years”

    IN SEPTEMBER 1971—in “Notes on the Spectator,” his editorial statement for the inaugural issue of the Milanese art journal Data—Tommaso Trini discerned the collapse of a classic avant-garde opposition between art and anti-art. The embrace of previously rejected forms, an ever-quickening cycle of acceptance increasingly determined through the “complicity of a clique [gruppetto] of spectators-readers-dealers-critics-collectors,” had imploded when artists definitively joined the gruppetto, making their function as producers indistinguishable from that of participants in art’s consensual