PRINT October 2002


LIVING ARTISTS HAVE LONG MADE for conflicted subjects of museum retrospectives, as Ed Ruscha's drawing I Don't Want No Retro Spective testified on the cover of his first retrospective catalogue, in 1982. Institutional laurels can lend an eerie historicity to a career in full bloom (and the newly popular euphemism “major survey” isn't fooling anyone). But the historical perspective can be a boon to artists too, offering them a singular opportunity to consider the development of their work—and their changing relationship to the work of others. With a twenty-year “survey” of his paintings opening this month at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, Carroll Dunham has lately been engaged in precisely this kind of personal reflection, which he shares here in a companion “retrospective” of sorts for Artforum.

“Mostly it's about putting myself in the middle of this bunch of things that either once did or now do help me think about what I do,” Dunham says of his curatorial premise. He credits each of the older artists gathered here with helping him “turn a corner” in his studio practice, but such influences aren't always easy to see. Certainly the colorful biomorphism of Tarsila and the cartoonish narratives of Jean Hélion or William Copley strike a chord with Dunham's recent painting. But what of less obvious choices like Nancy Graves or Dorothea Rockburne? Here Dunham's personal history plays a part, since he worked as Rockburne's assistant on Domain of the Variable, 1971–72, and remembers an early encounter with Graves's Shaman, 1970, as his first “blow your head off” experience of contemporary art.

To this mix Dunham adds Howdy Doody (“a really formative influence”) and younger picks—including Matthew Ritchie, Steve DiBenedetto, and Alexander Ross—whom he sees as “representing something really encouraging about what art can do right now.” That kind of “encouragement” is crucial at any point in a career, Dunham explains: “As an artist you're looking for things that will help you go in a direction you want to go. Sometimes you just need help getting there.” Now we have a road map to a few of the lesser-known stops along the way.

Scott Rothkopf