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What Was Contemporary Art?

by Richard Meyer
The MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2013
360 pp., illus. 36 color, 81 b/w.  $35.00
ISBN:  9870262135085.

Reviewed by Giovanna L. Costantini

Richard Meyer has written an incisive book about “Contemporary Art” as a field whose meaning eludes precise categorization.  Proceeding from a definition of the term “contemporary” as “belonging to the same time, age or period; and/or existing or occurring together in time,” Meyer examines the proposition that as a chronological marker, the contemporary in art occupies an “unstable space” due to time’s perpetual forward movement.  He evaluates diverse approaches to the notion of contemporary art based variously on chronology, newness, originality or other features that respond to a given cultural moment, such as those identified with European modernism as it emerged pre-WWI.  In so doing, he traces a skeletal “history” of contemporary art as it developed in the course of the early twentieth century among establishments that include Wellesley College, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art.

As a specialization within the discipline of Art History, contemporary art is regarded by Meyer to be a hybrid endeavor situated somewhere between history and criticism.  Whereas an historical approach is one determined by linear chronological development and influence, a critical evaluation proceeds from an artwork’s intrinsic values, which may or may not be confined to a particular historical moment.  Thus, contemporary art history represents a dual practice that combines contextualized treatments of art distanced in time from the observer with observations drawn from the perspective of contemporary experience.  Citing 1960’s publications by Rosalind Krauss and Michael Fried, he notes the erosion of “systematic objectivity” in assessments of contemporary art, replaced by judgments and convictions through which art history evolved into criticism.  In light of the surfeit of contemporary art production today and the preponderance of University courses and dissertations in the area (80% in 2011), Meyer’s study seeks to “reclaim the contemporary…alongside other moments, artists, and objects” so as to temper viewpoints confined to the limits of one’s own lifetime with a “more neutral condition of temporal coexistence between two or more entities.”  This position reflects an idea initially proposed by Thomas Crow whereby art that persists over time can become newly relevant to later socio-historic contexts, disrupting distinctions between then and now by rendering the past newly present.  At the same time, Meyer advocates a measure of intellectual distance from the present so as to encourage due weight of critical evaluation in the assessment of recent phenomena.

Meyer offers three key case studies of (then) current contemporary art events or exhibitions occurring over the course of the early twentieth century that contribute to a revised understanding of contemporary art and its properties: a 1927 undergraduate course at Wellesley College, “Tradition and Revolt in Modern Painting,” the first of its kind; a 1937 MOMA exhibition of facsimiles of cave paintings labeled “Prehistoric Modern” that challenged the idea of chronology; and a 1948 controversy over Boston’s Institute of Modern Art’s decision to change its name to The Institute of Contemporary Art to distinguish it from MOMA’s Euro centrism, prompted in part by Surrealist exhibitions that James S. Plaut, then Director of the Boston museum described as “deliberately perverse” manifestations of “deranged minds.” Within this framework, Meyer examines other relevant exhibitions that juxtapose the art of the past with that of the present to fulfill Barr’s intent to elicit meaningful comparisons between seemingly unrelated artistic tendencies.  These events include exhibitions presented at MOMA and Boston’s ICA during the 1930’s and 1940’s on subjects ranging from Russian icons and Persian frescoes to Italian Old Masters and industrial glass and plastics.  Meyer’s conclusion emphasizes the, at times, contradictory relevance of the historical past to the “unbounded consciousness” of the present thorough models of trans-historicity that extend to more recent artistic production: a 1985 interview with Andy Warhol conducted by Benjamin Buchloh in which Warhol refers anecdotally to the obsolescence of the human hand in the gathering of rhinestones in New York’s garment district; and a 2005 Toronto exhibition of Glenn Ligon’s neon “Warm Broad Glow,” as an example of “post-black” signage infused with anachronistic irony.

By his own admission, Meyer highlights the role of Alfred H. Barr, the Museum of Modern Art in New York’s first Director from 1929-1943, in the emergence, conceptualization and validation of contemporary art in modernism’s nascent history.  His analysis expands upon Sybil Gordon Kantor’s text Alfred H. Barr, Jr. and the Intellectual Origins of the Museum of Modern Art, also published by MIT in 2003, by placing emphasis on less prominent areas of Barr’s activity at MOMA than his association with Cubism and Surrealism. By examining several critical exhibitions, Meyer repositions Barr closer to the purpose of a cultural historian. He revises what would later become “formalist” critiques of Barr driven by Clement Greenberg’s formalist advocacy during the 1960’s by attributing to Barr more intrinsic core principles that stand at the forefront of vanguardism, especially Barr’s refusal to privilege any particular style, national school or chronological period in exhibits he curated at MOMA during the 1930’s and 1940’s and his commitment to flexibility and a capacity for change.  As a propositional platform from which to contemplate the present, Meyer cites Barr’s response to a 1931 NYT questionnaire as evidence of his catholicity:  “In the future, the Museum plans an exhibition which may include Dutch primitives such as Jerome [sic], Bosch, Baroque mannerists such as El Greco, Paleolithic cave drawings, Boeotian bronzes, T’ang figurines, Russian ikons [sic], Persian miniatures, and twentieth century sculpture and painting.  The general public will frequently be unable to tell the new from the old but it will learn to tolerate the strange even though it is contemporary” (117).

Meyer’s arguments point up the relativism of contemporary art to events occurring within an established historical trajectory, to which the contemporary becomes attached, co-mingled or collaged. Though every expression emanates from a particular context, each event coexists with or is positioned between others.  Depending upon the viewer’s perspective, work may appear progressive, retrospective, juxtaposed or superimposed. To the extent that innovation requires comparison to determine similarity and/or dissimilarity, Meyer argues for an eternal currency, immediacy and relevance of the past to the present in its capacity to inform one’s ability to think critically in trans-historical and meaningful terms.  This mental outlook relegates “now-ism” to the margins of the contemporary, replaced by less context-specific imaginaries.  Quoting Renaissance art historians Alexander Nagel & Christopher Wood who describe the “bending of time” that occurs in artworks that reference a particular moment of creation as well as an origin, precursor or state outside of time, as in divinity, Meyer describes ways that artworks “not only disrupt temporality but reconfigure historical perception through dialectical engagement” with the past.  He cites the title of a 1907 book English Society of the Eighteenth Century in Contemporary Art or Kara Walker’s appropriation of eighteenth century silhouettes as illustrations.

Interspersed throughout Meyer’s discussion are debates that raged amid the political turmoil of the 1930’s, especially the lead-up to World War II for which contemporary art provided a battleground. Between the wars strident Americanists, regionalists, realists and anti-intellectuals sought to advance the stylistic autonomy of American artists, liberating them from foreign (purportedly Socio-Communist) influence.  Other factions reacted equally as strongly to the rhetoric of Fascism with its taint of vainglorious heroism and the authority of classicism.  The move to incorporate industrial design into the modernist canon pitted functionalism and the machine aesthetic against the commercial interests of companies like Steuben Glass, together with charges of commodification and corporate sponsorship that would fuel later controversies of the 1960’s. Projecting forward to theoretical positions that would dominate the last quarter of the twentieth century, Meyer notes how the deliberate introduction of facsimiles, reproductions and watercolor copies into MOMA exhibitions anticipated critiques of avant-garde originality to be mounted during the 1980’s by Rosalind Krauss in her essay “The Originality of the Avant-Garde and other Modernist Myths” that referenced Foucault’s theories of authorship, and critiques of inauthenticity and simulacra championed by Jean Baudrillard.

A book that tackles the definition of Contemporary Art in America must of necessity establish parameters that restrict the field of vision to something focused and coherent. Yet a sequel might well consider a formative arc that extends beyond Alfred Barr and MOMA to the early Whitney Museum in Greenwich Village, the Brooklyn Museum, the Socièté Anonyme and proponents such as Peggy Guggenheim, Hilla Rebay and Katherine Dreier among many others, whose energies contributed powerfully to the making of the modern. Though Meyer cites opposition to MOMA’s policies by such figures as Ad Reinhardt and Peter Rutkoff, more prominent critics such as Meyer Schapiro are scarcely mentioned in countering Barr’s schematic formalism with more contextual or interpretative approaches.  Some of the major controversies surrounding Barr, such as his notorious flow-charts, which ironically evidence linear art historical methodology, or debates surrounding figuration and realism that formed a backdrop to Regionalist programs that preceded the nationalistic posture of Abstract Expressionism, are deserving of further exposition.  The theoretical confluence of Barr’s curatorial posture with what would later emerge as Greenbergian formalism, particularly in reference to collage as a precipitating event in advance of contemporary practice would be another fertile line of investigation.

Any discussion of Contemporary Art as a dialectic over time, especially one that attempts to account for contemporary art’s intertextuality, must address markers both forward and back that include the structuralist logic of modernism as it would come to be dismantled by Barthes and Derrida, as well as the post-structural contingency of post-modernism as a linguistic exercise engaged in destabilizing or decentering the authority of tradition.  At the same time, such efforts must implicitly acknowledge a shift in consciousness towards fragmentation, pluralism and contradiction of a magnitude comparable to those energies that catapulted Renaissance Europe into the Scientific Era through the relinquishment of dogmatic religio-philosophical belief structures.  Meyer’s mapping, oriented around the agency of Alfred Barr’s provocative exhibitions at MOMA, assigns to early twentieth century modernism a definitive place in the history of ideas that approximates the Cartesian revolution in relaxing the strictures of representational imagery, referentiality and meaning as it had come to be inscribed in aesthetic language, iconography, context and tradition.  The revolt that coincided with Barr’s course in Modern Art at Wellesley inaugurated a more combinatory global condition forged of staggered progressions, autonomous cycles, assorted currencies.  It signaled an opening out of the mind to change and receptivity as the necessary precursor and correlative to the hyper-pluralism of the contemporary moment.  Contemporary art, as Meyer argues, was never dedicated to the proposition of “now-ism” or even novelty in the manner of a severed member, but to a biological condition in which art participates in active and perpetual regeneration from an integrated molecular sequence.

Last Updated 3rd May 2013

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