PRINT December 2012

Helen Molesworth

Nicole Eisenman, Untitled, 2011, monotype on paper, 25 x 20". From the 76th Whitney Biennial.

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 the body is both ours and not ours, a fact never more evident than when facing illness and death. We exist for others, and Szapocznikow’s work shows us how heartbreaking that is.

Co-organized with Wiels Centre for Contemporary Art, Brussels; the Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw; and the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

2 Nicole Eisenman (Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York) Eisenman’s wall of portraits was the standout of this year’s Biennial. Was it their unrelenting gaze? During a period when the US military has killed an unknown number of civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan, largely through the use of unmanned drones, these searching faces—handmade, expressive evocations of an encounter between artist and sitter—-spoke, perhaps, to a need to return to some humanist basics. They did so through the infinite reproducibility of the print, demonstrating Eisenman’s conceptual rigor as well as her wonderful draftsmanship.

3 “Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974–1981” (The Geffen Contemporary at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; curated by Paul Schimmel) Schimmel’s survey of post-Watergate West Coast Conceptualism was bracketed by two modes of the mendacity that characterize contemporary power. Opening with the thirty-seventh president’s resignation letter allowed the curator to summon the Nixonian legacy of lying and subterfuge, while the repeated images of Reagan homed in on the spectacularized, Hollywood version of populist falsehoods. It’s hard not to see the exhibition in retrospect as a warning to the public about what was to come (Schimmel’s ouster in the name of the “popular”) and a riposte to the men who currently hold power at MoCA (Jeffrey Deitch and Eli Broad).

4 William Kentridge’s Norton Lectures (Harvard University, Cambridge, MA) Harvard’s corporate slogan, Veritas, helps to explain its notoriously difficult relationship to contemporary art. This spring, a different breeze blew across campus as William Kentridge gave a series of six lectures called “Drawing Lessons,” each dedicated to a topic such as the studio, colonialism, or antientropy. As he paced the stage, he read from a notebook while behind him a projection of drawings, animations, notations, and music unfolded. The talks constituted a plea to salvage the humanist dimensions of the Enlightenment project, while staring down that project’s abuses by denying the omnipotence of a universal truth.

5 Tino Sehgal, This Variation (Documenta 13, Kassel) You stumbled (literally) into a room so dark you couldn’t see your hand before your face. Sounds emerged—shuffling, breathing, whispering, all manner of air being pushed in all manner of ways from all manner of mouths. Slowly, the piece cohered; performers mingled with the audience, dancing, walking, singing, stomping, sitting, clapping, falling, reveling in the syncopated rhythms and staggering variety of African-American popular music. It had no beginning, no end; you could stay all day. The performers were on point, displaying a combination of James Brown–like exactitude and Cagean chance operations. It made the trip across the ocean (in economy) worth it.

6 Lynne Cooke’s installation of “Blinky Palermo: Retrospective 1964–1977” (Dia:Beacon, Beacon, NY; and CCS galleries at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY) Cooke’s installation at Bard bowled me over. She thought through every segue, making the exhibition a series of visual connections that magisterially worked in both directions—no entrance or exit was privileged. It was an exercise in the spatialization of parity.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled, 2010, pigment print on PhotoTex adhesive fabric. Installation view, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2012. Photo: Thomas Griesel.

7 Cindy Sherman’s wallpaper (Museum of Modern Art, New York) Sherman’s foray into wallpaper is, for me, a near Brech­tian exercise in affect: Laugh or cry? Alone, misshapen, melancholic, Sherman offers herself as a Pierrot for the twenty-first century. If Watteau’s fêtes galantes were covert critiques of an aristocracy run amok, in which the artist was imagined as a kind of decorator-clown, then Sherman’s wallpaper intimates that decades of feminism have resulted in modest gains in a game whose rules remain dishearteningly unchanged.

8 Bill Horrigan on Chris Marker Marker passed away this year, and the only good thing about that was reading Horrigan’s reflections in the days that followed. As a media curator at the Wexner Center for the Arts (and, full disclosure, my former colleague), Horrigan organized several exhibitions of the director’s work, but the substance of the two men’s relationship was a steady old-fashioned correspondence, one Marker peppered with photographs and drawings. Writing about these exchanges on the Wexner Center’s blog, Horrigan insisted that Marker was not an antisocial recluse. An aversion to being photographed or socializing en masse does not a misanthrope make. Intimacy and friendship come in many forms; long live the epistolary mode.

9 “Everything Falls Apart, Part 1” (Artspace, Sydney; curated by Mark Feary and Blair French) A pointed rejoinder to the feel-good globalism of this year’s Biennale of Sydney, the first installment of this two-part show (I didn’t see the second) was dominated by Occupy—Sarah Goffman’s remade signs and Jem Cohen’s appropriately scrappy films of the activities in Zuccotti Park. Rather than presenting an affect of false optimism or cynical reason, “Everything Falls Apart” offered a much-needed history lesson: As Phil Collins’s marxism today (prologue), 2010, reminded us, the fall of the Soviet Union left in its wake not only a global power vacuum filled by the US war machine but a slow ebbing away in the academy of a commitment to teaching alternatives to US hegemony, perhaps resulting in a dearth of rigorous structural thinking about what makes the current financial crisis so profitable for the 1 percent.

10 “Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960–1980” (Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; curated by Kellie Jones) This show had it all: the ascent of Los Angeles as a postwar art center, the recognition of performance as a structural element of contemporary art, and gender parity. Additionally, it introduced me to lesser-known artists (Noah Purifoy) while reframing well-known ones (David Hammons). But mostly I loved the deeply intelligent narrative arc provided by Jones. She showed us—visually, conceptually, historically—how we got from the race-positive imagery of master printer Charles White to the funky exploration of the body offered by Senga Nengudi, all the while insisting that no story of twentieth-century art is anywhere near complete without acknowledging the centrality of art made by African Americans.

Helen Molesworth is the Barbara Lee chief curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, where her exhibition “This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s” is on view through March 3. She is currently organizing Amy Sillman’s first museum survey and working on an exhibition of paintings by Steve Locke.