New York

“Western Artists/African Art”

Museum for African Art

The “white cube” exhibition style eliminated context and focused attention on the objects, which were then supposed to enter the viewer’s field of pure sensibility completely free of associations. Recently, how­ever, the belief in such a sensibility, or in the possibility of experience without associations, has waned. Artworks, like every­ thing else, seem embedded in webs of mediation, a condition that many recent exhibitions have attempted to address.

Curated by Daniel Shapiro, “Western Artists/African Art” presented 46 objects, mostly examples of traditional African art, from the collections of 28 living artists­—ranging from Arman to Brice Marden to Howardena Pindell—along with statements by the Western artists and tiny reproductions of their own work. In most cases there was little visual relationship between the work collected and the work made by the contemporary artists, but in a few cases there was a suggestion either of influence or, in the Robert Goldwater tradition, of affin­ity. Ouattara’s painting Nok Culture, 1993, for example, seemed to refer to the figure on the Shango Dance Staff which he says is in­volved in his painting ritual. Ellsworth Kelly’s gridded Ewe Cloth from Ghana re­sembled his early paintings, which were photographed with it in his storage space though they preceded his acquisition of the cloth by a number of years. A figure in Jasper Johns’ Winter, 1986, closely resembled the iron figure of uncertain provenance from his collection.

In a relaxed way, the exhibition involved a deepening of the premise of the ‘“Primitivism”’ show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1984, implying that, not just early in this century but even late in it, there is a sig­nificant interplay between African and Modern or contemporary art. Even more interesting was the exhibition’s post-Modernist indirection, working as it did through a continual deflection of the viewer’s attention, as in a hall of mirrors. The act of looking was undermined or problematized by the number of questions left unresolved. Was one meant to look at the African works for their own sake, or as expressions of the collectors’ sensibility, or as influences on the collectors’ work? En­acting the very interplay addressed by the exhibition, the viewer continually shifted between the two cultural poles—Africa and the West.

Thomas McEvilley