New York

Willem de Kooning, Woman, 1953–54, oil on paperboard, 35 3/4 × 24 3/8". From “From Ancient to Modern: Archaeology and Aesthetics.”  © The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Willem de Kooning, Woman, 1953–54, oil on paperboard, 35 3/4 × 24 3/8". From “From Ancient to Modern: Archaeology and Aesthetics.” © The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

“From Ancient to Modern: Archaeology and Aesthetics”

Institute for the Study of the Ancient World

Willem de Kooning, Woman, 1953–54, oil on paperboard, 35 3/4 × 24 3/8". From “From Ancient to Modern: Archaeology and Aesthetics.”  © The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

“There is a train track in the history of art that goes way back to Mesopotamia,” Willem de Kooning once said. “Duchamp is on it. Cézanne is on it. Picasso and the Cubists are on it; Giacometti, Mondrian and so many, many more,” including, one might add, the organizers of this small, studious, remarkably concise exhibition at New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. “From Ancient to Modern: Archaeology and Aesthetics” took that train running the opposite way, following archaeological objects from Mesopotamia to the present day. The show featured two lush, powerful, lesser-known paintings from de Kooning’s fabled “Woman” series—the toothy, yellow-tinged Woman, 1953–54, and Woman on a Sign II, 1967, gooey, fleshy, sinister, and salmon pink—and placed them in a novel context. Here, they had little to say about de Kooning’s dramatic oscillations between brilliance and brutality, or about American painting’s epic struggles between figuration and abstraction. Instead, they gave evidence of the presence of Sumerian statues through decades of art, scholarship, excavations, exhibitions, mainstream media, avant-garde fashion, popular culture, and public imagination.

De Kooning first encountered the statues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art—upright, majestic, enigmatic with enormous hollowed out or kohl-lined eyes and diminutive hands clasped delicately to the chest. It was around 1950, the year he had finished the monumental abstract canvas Excavation, and he was about to embark on the first of his “Woman” paintings, which would torture him for years. Among other ancient artifacts and deities, the Sumerian statues of Tell Asmar, in modern-day Iraq, struck de Kooning as “contemporary as well as ancient, an Everywoman in many guises . . . open-ended and mysterious . . . mother and wife, monster and lover, a creature at once earthbound and hallucinatory.”

Presented as a collection of biographies telling the stories of archaeological objects through their origins, actions, and fates, “From Ancient to Modern” filled just two small galleries but included nearly two hundred items, from newspaper clippings, research materials, old books, journals, study photographs, and field notes from various excavations to five-thousand-year-old relics and rarefied works of art. In addition to de Kooning’s paintings were cast-concrete sculptures by Henry Moore; ink-and-pencil drawings by Alberto Giacometti; a grid of twenty black-and-white photographs related to the Gulf War by the Irish-Iraqi artist Jananne al-Ani (Untitled May 1991 [Gulf War Work]); and Michael Rakowitz’s capacious and tenderhearted installation The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist, which includes four pencil-on-vellum drawings from 2007 and twenty-five small sculptures from between 2007 and 2014 made of newspaper and food packaging and representing twenty-five of the artifacts that were stolen from Baghdad’s National Museum in 2003.

As important as the stories of the objects were the people who made them, discovered them, promoted them, or otherwise animated them, shaping their place in the world through a sensational press release (in the case of the archaeologist Charles Leonard Woolley, who desperately wanted Mesopotamia to compete with the Egyptomania triggered by the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922), a fast-paced detective fiction (Agatha Christie worked on Woolley’s dig, where she met her second husband, Max Mallowan, as well as Woolley’s wife, the model for her victim in the Hercule Poirot mystery Murder in Mesopotamia), or an erudite interpretation (as exemplified by Henri Frankfort, who spoke of Sumerian artifacts never in terms of primitivism but always in the language of fine art).

And yet, by focusing so closely on the materiality and movement of ancient relics, the exhibition made an important scholarly contribution to an ongoing curatorial conversation about the seemingly counterintuitive fascination of contemporary art with all things archaeological. Dieter Roelstraete’s essay “The Way of the Shovel: On the Archaeological Imaginary in Art” (2009) and subsequent exhibition “The Way of the Shovel: Art as Archaeology” (2013) at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago did much to articulate the debate in terms of pedagogy, research-based practice, and relentless political crises. “From Ancient to Modern” refined the discussion further, illuminating the ways in which the unabashedly academic field of archaeology has offered a set of skills and methodologies that are attentive to the mysteries of art without ever diffusing their power, all while admitting the uncomfortable fact that wars and archaeological expeditions almost always come paired. With an extreme economy of selection, arrangement, and pacing, “From Ancient to Modern,” itself an exercise in archaeological technique, allowed for unexpected moments of slippage, excess, and overflow, not only in the predilections and personalities of its characters but also, more importantly, in the sorrows and tensions of its contexts (colonialism, modernism, war without end in Iraq), which echoed everywhere among the objects on view and the stories they told of their journey, way back—and back again.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie