When the lockdown was lifted last spring, some of our major museums in New York City were able to host major exhibits in the wings. The Guggenheim wasn’t so lucky. A traveling Joan Mitchell retrospective that was supposed to fill her rotunda had been canceled. The museum may have put together an audience-friendly show of modernist chestnuts from the collection. Instead, it did something more interesting. It turned into an alternate old style room.
There have been a few small side gallery shows already, including a selection of gnarled, gripping photographs by 2020 Hugo Boss Prize winner Deana Lawson. But in order to fill its spiraling central space – high and wide, a combination of cathedral and abyss – the museum had to get inventive in a multi-part series of installations called “Re / Projections: Video, Film, and Performance for the Rotunda “. . “
In part, the program was designed to facilitate social distancing. The ramp bays, which usually hold paintings or sculptures, have been left empty. With the emphasis on projected images, the rotunda skylight was covered and the interior lighting was kept low. And because some video works were as much about sound as sight, the bench was provided. (On more than one visit, I’ve found people lying on benches just listening.)
All these optimizations have given the room an improvisational atmosphere. They make Frank Lloyd Wright’s design appear habitable in a way I can’t remember before. They also create a feeling of extraordinary tension, as can unexpected behavior in a familiar place. And this tension penetrates the more conventionally installed shows in off-the-ramp galleries. You can find certain art that you thought you knew about and the museum it’s in looks a little less predictable.
The rotunda project started last March with a program of short videos from the museum’s collection, selected by performance and media curator Nat Trotman and projected onto a large, hanging screen. A debut New York exhibition of film and audio works by Rwandan-born Dutch artist Christian Nyampeta followed in May, transforming Wright’s great spiral into an equivalent of an academic lecture hall and pan-African video festival. The presentation was exciting, a real lockdown gift.
One of them was a live performance entitled “Romantic Songs of the Patriarchate”, orchestrated by the Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson and repeated over four days at the beginning of July. Inside were two dozen singer-guitarists, all women or non-binary, stationed along the ramp, playing golden pop love songs for hours. The singers were great; the songs of the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Cat Stevens and Lil Wayne sounded cute, but – why had you never noticed? – Many of the lyrics were deeply misogynistic.
And the current and final presentation of the project, “Wu Tsang: Anthem”, turns out to be another stroke of luck of the pandemic. Organized by Guggenheim assistant curator X Zhu-Nowell, its main visual element is a short, looped film by American transgender artist and performer Wu Tsang about another pioneering trans figure, the African-American composer and activist Beverly Glenn-Copeland, whose picture will be shown on an 84 – Pleated foot curtain projected from the ceiling of the Guggenheim.
First we see 77-year-old Glenn-Copeland, who performs his own chant-like music and then sings an a cappella version of the spiritual “Deep River”. In both, his voice is woven into an acoustic and instrumental tapestry created by Tsang and the musical collaborators Kelsey Lu, Asma Maroof and Daniel Pineda. Powerless and unearthly in its visual and sonic impact and one of the most emotionally moving things I’ve seen in this room, “Anthem” was commissioned by the Guggenheim when the lockdown began and was completed in time for this presentation.
The Deana Lawson show, installed in one of several off-ramp galleries, is also unearthly, albeit in an entirely different way. Born in Rochester, NY in 1979, Lawson is a combination portraitist and storyteller, documentary filmmaker and storyteller. Her subjects are black; most of them are strangers whom she discovers on her travels in Africa, Brazil, the Caribbean, and Brooklyn, where she lives, on the streets and in other public places. In collaboration with her motifs, she sets up tableaus, mostly in domestic surroundings, that combine sensual, glamorous and disturbing details.
A resting naked, pregnant young woman in the picture taken in Brazil in 2019 called “Daenare” is wearing what looks like a police surveillance monitor on her ankle. The partly naked and possibly pregnant woman in “Deleon? Unknown ”(2020) lies with his eyes closed. She could be passed out, even dead. And an older woman dressed entirely in black in “Monetta Passing” (2021) is really dead and lies, surrounded by flowers, in an overloaded room. The unforgettable Harlem funeral portraits of James Van Der Zee spring to mind.
Lawson is increasingly and openly concerned with spirituality: African, Afro-Caribbean, Afro-futuristic. Religious images and references pop up everywhere. The photographs are displayed in mirrored frames, with the prismatic halos hovering over the gallery floor. At the center of the installation is the artist’s first free-standing hologram, a pulsating abstract nugget of light around which the show organized by Katherine Brinson and Ashley James revolves. The tableaus in some pictures are more tiered than in others; a few encounter the grotesque uncomfortably. But Lawson’s most memorable portraits have always walked on a precariously thin tightrope over the politics of photographic intimacy.
Politics of a different, more public kind is the subject of “Off the Record”, a 13-person group exhibition – which James, the museum’s deputy curator for contemporary art, took from the collection – which demonstrates the vaunted “objectivity” of journalistic reporting in Question asks and historical “fact”. Again, the confusion of truth and fiction, which Lawson’s work directly manipulates, is at play but as a political weapon in the realm of the commercial mass media and establishment records.
In the show’s earliest piece, Herald Tribune: November 1977, conceptual artist Sarah Charlesworth (1947-2013) visually edited the front pages of a month’s newspapers to isolate a recurring, if officially unrecognized, topic: the prevalence of male violence. In a series of prints entitled “Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America 1968-2008,” Hank Willis Thomas investigates insidious truths at work in racist advertising. And in an ongoing project, California-based artist Sadie Barnette is examining and commenting on a 500-page FBI file on her father Rodney Barnette, a former Black Panther, to expose the document as an instrument of harassment.
The show is well timed for the reality-denying “fake news” era we went through. But even if artists can diagnose post-truth as a problem, can they do something about it, spread the word? At least one, Colombian-born Carlos Motta, attempts to do so in a text entitled “A Brief History of US Interventions in Latin America Since 1946”. To do this, he put together his own crazy chronology of government crimes, printed it out as a flyer and left a pile of copies to take away in the gallery. Pick one up. Read it. Pass along.
In most large general interest art museums, a medium-sized show like “Off the Record” would be an item on a varied tasting menu whose arguments and urgencies would be forgotten by the time you move on to the next attraction. (The Museum of Modern Art’s roots are in the modern department store, and that model remains strong.) But at the Guggenheim, in its current pandemic “experimental” mode, all exhibitions feel linked by a shared political charge, including the small historical overview with the title “Knotted, Torn, Scattered: Sculpture After Abstract Expressionism”.
Organized by Lauren Hinkson, it’s a snapshot of a late 1960s American movement – post-minimalism – sampled through the work of six artists: Lynda Benglis, Maren Hassinger, Robert Morris, Senga Nengudi, Richard Serra and Tony Smith . The work made of rubber, ropes and bodies was considered innovative at the time, a thumb in the eye of minimalist monumentality. And the mini-survey has its own innovative (for the Guggenheim) features.
Three of the six artists are women; and two of them are African American; and of these two, only recently, after a long career – she is in her mid-70s – has Hassinger begun to attract the institutional attention it deserves. Her piece in the exhibition was only acquired by the museum last year, and it’s a beauty: a graceful, ceiling-high web of draped ropes that soaks in the air that could serve as a dance set. (She’s both a performance artist and a sculptor.) And today, in a world of Black Lives Matter, it’s impossible not to see that many of the pitches she uses end up in snares.
Black Lives Matter has permanently changed our cultural institutions. Covid-19 and the disinformation campaigns associated with it have changed them too. So, in a way that has yet to be clarified, January 6th. There is no going back to an old “normal”. Normal is not what art is if it is good. I like to think that after the lockdown, the Guggenheim, which houses the city’s most charismatic art space, is a looser museum, less in love with the normal than it once was. We will see. Meanwhile, the summer lineup gives a foretaste of what could be.
The following exhibits are at the Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Avenue, (212) 423-3500; guggenheim.org.
Wu Tsang: Anthem (until September 6th);
The Hugo Boss Prize 2020: Deana Lawson, Centropy (until October 11th);
Off the record (until September 27th);
Knotted, Torn, Scattered: Sculpture According to Abstract Expressionism (until September 19th).