“Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945–1965,” 2016–17. Hanging: Sadamasa Motonaga, Work (Water), 1956/2016. Floor: Anthony Caro, Capital, 1960. Photo: Maximilian Geuter.

“Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945–1965,” 2016–17. Hanging: Sadamasa Motonaga, Work (Water), 1956/2016. Floor: Anthony Caro, Capital, 1960. Photo: Maximilian Geuter.

“Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945–1965”

“Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945–1965,” 2016–17. Hanging: Sadamasa Motonaga, Work (Water), 1956/2016. Floor: Anthony Caro, Capital, 1960. Photo: Maximilian Geuter.

IT WOULD BE DIFFICULT to overstate the ambition of “Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945–1965.” The exhibition includes hundreds of works by artists from six continents, the checklist is 192 pages long, and the catalogue weighs ten pounds. Yet the show’s material sprawl is dwarfed by an even more monumental historical-theoretical project. An exhibition summary provided by Haus der Kunst offers this description of the enterprise: “Probing differing concepts of artistic modernity . . . the exhibition explores how individual receptions and formulations of modernism informed the variant manifestations of modern art. . . . It examines art of the postwar era from multiple perspectives—East and West, North and South, colonizer and colonized, Pacific and Atlantic—placing regional, national, transnational, and other interests and affinities in dynamic relation to each other.” Curated by Okwui Enwezor, Katy Siegel, and Ulrich Wilmes, the show unquestionably enriches our understanding of art in the postwar era, upending hoary Western accounts of this historical moment and bringing new geopolitical and cultural constellations into view. But it also suggests that at a certain point, ambition produces diminishing returns.

Divided into eight thematic sections with a roughly chronological arc, “Postwar” is above all a narrative, and its rhetoric is powerful, even dramatic. The story begins with “Aftermath: Zero Hour and the Atomic Era,” a section focusing on artistic responses to the extreme political and moral crises engendered by the Holocaust and Hiroshima. Even though, during the decades that followed the war, more artworks seemed to endeavor to visualize or engage the legacy of the atomic bomb than the atrocities of the concentration camps (the mushroom cloud, for instance, became a familiar motif in art as well as in pop culture), “Postwar” approaches these two disasters on equal footing in its first section. In this context, the cruciform scoring of Frank Stella’s Arbeit Macht Frei, 1958, suggests an architecture of totalitarian control, while Isamu Noguchi’s Memorial to Man wallpaper, 1947—an embossed face in a vast expanse of whiteness—seems almost uncannily eerie, ghostly, deathly. The concluding section, “Networks, Media & Communication,” offers a reading of the art of the early 1960s that decenters Pop’s commodity critique. Favored instead are practices that engaged with cybernetics and information technology (Lynn Hershman Leeson, Nam June Paik) so as to create “an art adequate to a world conceived as a single integrated system or organism.”

There is a clear complementarity to these visions. At the zero hour, technology annihilates the human, exposing the spectacularly lethal consequences of Promethean hubris; at the dawn of the digital age, technology reimagines the human as a dense mesh of independent relationships and information in constant, self-modifying flux. Between these two poles—each, in very different ways, modeling the death of man—nevertheless marches the procession of mankind. Indeed, the six intervening sections, each presenting a nonhierarchical array of well- and lesser-known artists, tell a humanist tale, but not that of “an existentialist humanism that is as banal as it is beatific” (to quote Homi K. Bhabha’s catalogue contribution). Against the flawed Enlightenment universality of Jean-Paul Sartre, Karl Jaspers, et al., pride of place is given to Frantz Fanon and other theorists who gave voice to the subaltern and mobilized visions of a “new man”—one situated in history and emancipated from what Fanon called the “racial epidermal schema.”

In tracing the complex intertwinements of these discourses with the art of the era, the curators deemphasize established terms. For example, they subsume art informel and gestural abstraction under the rubric of “materialist abstraction,” the organizing concept of the show’s second section, “Form Matters.” The adjective here literally implies a privileging of matter and tactility, in opposition to a modernist geometric abstraction tainted by its association with scientific rationalism. This preoccupation with materiality segues into entropic, traumatic dissolution: Pocked, shredded, or scabrous surfaces proliferate (Alberto Burri’s Sackcloth and Gold, 1953; Carol Rama’s Black Oval, 1961; Lee Ufan’s Pushed-Up Ink, 1964). What is also dissolving, of course, is the teleology of capital-M Modernism, with its disembodiments and covert naturalizations of privilege. Surveying another set of responses to the vexed status of abstraction after Zero Hour, the fifth section, “Concrete Visions,” is devoted to reactivations of modernism in the ’50s and ’60s. The center of gravity is Latin and South America, where artists sought to replace the rigidity and authoritarianism of high modernism with forms that were participatory, “mobile and living,”e.g., Cuban artist Sandú Darié’s painted wood Transformable Structure, ca. 1950s, a polychrome precursor to Lygia Clark’s “Bichos” (Beasts), 1960–66, a selection of which are also on view.Here the curators construct a network of practices and positions, centered in the Global South and extending across continents to encompass, for example, Robert Morris’s Box with the Sound of Its Own Making, 1961; Hans Haacke’s Condensation Cube, 1965/2006; and Saloua Raouda Choucair’s wooden sculptures. This is an intriguing reorientation of received histories of geometric abstraction, but whether it contributes to our specific understanding of the art on view is unclear. While Mari Carmen Ramírez, in her catalogue essay, suggests that these diverse practices are united by a “concretist impulse,” such phrases do not banish the specter of pseudomorphology. We are talking about works that may share certain visual similarities, but that represent wildly disparate artistic strategies and intentions.

At the core of the show—the third and fourth sections, “New Images of Man” and “Realisms”—figuration takes center stage. The catalogue text introducing “New Images of Man” offers the following frame: “Philosophers and artists sought to inquire into human nature itself, in debates that included the discourses of Négritude and existentialism and of the rights of individuals and groups within larger (often oppressive) social and political entities. ‘New Images of Man’ features pictorial versions of such inquiries.” The pictorial evidence suggests a grim view of human nature indeed. From Jean Dubuffet’s splayed, microcephalic nude (Woman’s Body—Butcher’s Slab, 1950) to Ben Enwonwu’s tense and teetering bronze androgyne (Anyanwu, 1954–55) to Rufino Tamayo’s screaming man (Cosmic Terror, 1947), the human figure is shown suffering, in extremis.

Illuminating the multiplicity of violent histories inscribed on the body by war and colonial atrocity, the pictorial apparitions here are virtually antithetical to those that appear in the next section, which is dedicated to the “realisms” that developed throughout the world during the Cold War. Here the body is not experiencing pain or expressing pathos. It is vigorous and active, laboring or marching, and sometimes positively invulnerable (as in heroic Stalinist propaganda). Parsing the distinctions within a school of art often perceived as monolithic—socialist realism—this section contrasts the bombast of works such as Vasily Yakovlev’s Portrait of Georgy Zhukov, Marshal of the Soviet Union, 1946, with more oblique and ambiguous imagery, such as Li Xiushi’s study of bicyclists on the way to work, Morning, 1961, where the vast pastel sky is a serene yet overweening emptiness.

The remaining two sections have a powerful dialectical relationship: mobility, openness, and hybridity versus the celebration of roots and the rehabilitation of traditions. “Cosmopolitan Modernisms” focuses on the work of artists in diaspora and in exile (Siah Armajani, Uzo Egonu, Gustav Metzger),interestingly highlighting a common kind of mark-making, a quasi-calligraphic line visible in the work of Armajani, Ahmed Shibrain, and others—a textuality without text. “Nations Seeking Form” gathers works in which artists grapple with both the toxic and the liberatory aspects of national identity: Melvin Edwards and Jack Whitten’s evocations of American racism and violence, Mawalan Marika’s extrapolations from Australian Aboriginal motifs, Enwonwu’s deployment of traditional Nigerian iconography. The catalogue contextualizes this work in relation to differing conceptions of nationalism: as blood-and-soil ideological weapon on the one hand, vital tool for postcolonial reclamations of agency and history on the other.

The overarching principle that emerges in “Postwar” is the logic of the third way: National identification is neither good nor bad, but both at once; the history of the ’50s and ’60s is neither national nor transnational, but both at once; painting is neither exclusively abstract nor exclusively figurative; artists opt neither for unequivocal primitivism nor for technological euphoria. Highlighting heterochrony, excavating subaltern and peripheral histories, and espousing a materialism that retains little if any association with Marxism, the catalogue texts (there are dozens) have an irreproachable quality.Strangely enough for such an ambitious and audacious show, the impression is one of prudence. The sheer exhaustiveness of the exhibition might in fact preclude the possibility of more definitive claims. It’s also extremely difficult to assimilate the incredible quantity of work on view, and the catalogue is less of a guide than a formidable challenge in itself. The curators state their intention to present a polyphonic exhibition, but what emerges is a kind of hyperpolyphony that may be counterproductive—one might even say cacophonous. One is left feeling nostalgic for exhibitions that stake out positions and that accept the limitations of their inevitably arbitrary purviews.

Amazingly, “Postwar” is the first of three shows. “Postcolonialism” and “Postcommunism” are to follow. But of course “Postwar” is already postcolonial; the curators are not suggesting a simple chronological sequence. Their trio of “posts” raises provocative questions about the very nature of postness: When does an aftermath stop being an aftermath? Maybe it doesn’t. Today, Hiroshima has been superseded in the cultural imaginary by the Anthropocene, and subalterns are multiplying even in the so-called developed countries. We are once more on a strangely familiar threshold, facing indeterminacy and uncertainty, oscillating between apocalyptic pathos and desire for political renewal. Hopefully, the next installments in this colossal curatorial enterprise will continue to provoke revisions of history and rethinkings of conventional periodizations and temporalities, while, at the same time, providing a more legible map of the vast territories under consideration.

“Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945–1965” is on view through March 26.

Maria Stavrinaki is an associate professor in the history of contemporary art at Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne.

Translated from French by Molly Stevens.