new-york

Fred Wilson

Metro Pictures

In “Panta Rhei. (A Gallery of Ancient Classical Art),” 1992, a plaster cast of Atlas bent under the weight of a stack of Western art history books. Barely visible beneath the base on which the figure stood was a single volume devoted to African art. As with Fred Wilson’s best work, this seemingly simple, shamelessly didactic sculpture resonates with subtler messages. We all know by now that European and American art historians have stacked the cards heavily in favor of the classical tradition, at the expense of African and Far Eastern cultures. H. W. Janson’s History of Art tops Wilson’s pile—in Wilson’s sculpture, the Western tomes supplant the globe: they are the world we have been taught.

By juxtaposing dense scholarly books and the graceful white figure, Wilson reminds us how much we “see” with our minds, how our notions of beauty and indeed of art are shaped by what books tell us.

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