Critics’ Picks

View of “Canceled: Alternative Manifestations and Productive Failures,” 2012.

New York

“Canceled: Alternative Manifestations and Productive Failures”

The Center for Book Arts
28 West 27th Street Third Floor
July 25 - June 30

Richard Prince v. Patrick Cariou, a fair-use case currently in appeals, threatens to set a dangerous precedent for the legality of appropriation. The initial ruling against Prince in 2011 included—in a surprisingly draconian injunction—an order that the works be destroyed or never displayed publicly. Cases like this can make an artwork seem considerably less interesting than the machinery of art and institutions that revolve around it. Greg Allen’s YES RASTA, 2011, a deadpan bound volume that reproduces depositions in the case, is one of the sixteen quasi-documentary, quasi-performative works on display in “Canceled.” The exhibition courses through several decades of art’s challenges to censorship, from the Los Angeles Police Department’s late-1950s persecution of Wallace Berman’s work and exhibition (“pornography”), to the imploding of Manifesta 6 in 2006 (Cypriot politics), to David Wojnarowicz’s recent expulsion from the Smithsonian’s “Hide/Seek” exhibition (an “assault on the sensibilities of Christians”).

Some remarkable artifacts come to the surface in this extensive trawling: a one-of-a-kind collaged mailer from the artist Cameron to Berman; Hans Haacke’s personal copy of his monograph Werkmonographie, which documents his inspired struggle with the Guggenheim in 1971. (The muscular neutrality of Haacke’s work made him seem a particularly stylish David wielding nothing more than Concept against Goliath’s vested interests. Here you can find the best joke, from the Guggenheim’s rejection letter to Haacke: “The trustees have established policies that exclude active engagement toward political and social ends.”)

At times the curatorial conceit can be a bit baggy: Seth Siegelaub’s books-as-exhibitions from the 1960s are a form of rejecting the gallery’s physical space, but they have little rapport with the conflict that animates most of the other selections. The curator, Lauren van Haaften-Schick, suggests in an accompanying essay that that the exclusion of contested artworks from exhibitions represents “ultimately productive failure,” which reminded me of the chestnut “fail better” from Samuel Beckett’s last novel, Worstward Ho (1983). Beckett was fairly black about about one’s prospects in the end (hence that title)—“Canceled” leaves one with a much more generous feeling about the possibility of failure.