Old Habits Die Hard: Museums, Modernism, and the Pitfalls of a White Male Art History

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Joseph Shaikewitz on Gallery 39 at the National Gallery of Art

There’s a quiet pocket of gallery space at the National Gallery of Art that has slowly and continuously crept under my skin ever since I first encountered it a few months back. With the museum’s East Building—its hub of modern and contemporary art—currently under renovation until the fall, the sleek architecture that remains within public reach has eerily transformed into a ghost town of sculptural work by a familiar cohort including Alexander Calder, David Smith, and Sir Anthony Caro. A few pleasant surprises scattered about (e.g. a Michelangelo Pistoletti mirror work, a colossal Isamu Noguchi sculpture, a droll Richard Artschwager cube) animate a space that otherwise seems stuck in limbo, awaiting its imminent re-opening before it can truly take off.

The gallery in question, though, appears as if a temporary fix to this sparse showing in the East Building. Following the breadcrumbs of the NGA’s website, a subheading tersely titled “Where is the Modern Art?” directs visitors to Gallery 39 where “a select group of modern paintings and sculptures is being installed in the West Building throughout the coming months.” Dropped in the middle of a building that contains the NGA’s collection predating the mid-20th century, Gallery 39 reads a lot like a lost child with noticeably rebellious and defiant tastes.

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Where my criticism truly begins, however, is with regards to the artwork displayed within the space. If we take Gallery 39 to function as a condensed rundown of modern art—a rough sketch of what we might otherwise hope to experience in full in the adjacent East Building—then the pieces chosen on this occasion form a disappointingly stale story of recent art history. The gallery is filled exclusively with the usual suspects—chapter 30 of Gardner’s Art Through the Ages come to life. Yet in doing so, the NGA demonstrates a veritable tunnel vision and communicates a tired and stagnant rendition of modern art, one that excludes just as much as it precludes broader understandings of modernity.

To the left of the gallery, Jackson Pollock’s monumental No. 1, Lavender Mist (1950) is flanked by two swelling, laconic canvases from Clyfford Still and Barnett Newman. A pair of stirring Mark Rothko paintings frames this arrangement, facing one another from across the room like bookends to a transcendental whole. The right half of the space highlights Helen Frankenthaler’s ethereal 1952 work Mountains and Sea, which is curiously bordered by three hard-edged and intoxicating pieces by Jasper Johns. The dripping lines of a Morris Louis painting complete this grouping, whose aesthetic strategies along with Johns’ feel almost antithetical to those in the central Frankenthaler that grounds the installation.

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Despite several internal incongruences, there is an even greater offense to consider: the gallery, in its reliance on a routine canon of Western art, offers itself as an ostensible ‘greatest hits’ of postwar painting. White male artists dominate the room and Frankenthaler—left alone as the sole female painter and in spite of her incontestable merit—here can be seen as fulfilling a quota of inclusion and feigned diversity—tokenism at its finest. And while Johns, in his reception as an artist, has undergone a complex relationship with his homosexuality, the works in Gallery 39 exclude many of his pieces that toy with themes of sexuality and perhaps skirted the limelight as a result.

The gallery as such advances a digestible account of modernism, one that practically abandons the artworks on view to slip into a flat one-dimensionality. Frankly, the absence of any attempt to invigorate an existing narrative of modern art in this day and age and amid our current social climate feels lazy, negligent, and particularly tiresome.

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It should come as no surprise that the traditional history of art from an American academic perspective upholds a storyline of the white male genius. At times, this stems from a societal—rather than art historical—fault: historically marginalized communities had significantly fewer opportunities to follow artistic pursuits (a change that we’ve really only began to witness relatively recently in this country’s history), resulting in a primarily white, male, and outwardly heterosexual community of artists who reflect the social qualifiers for success at the time.

Of course art was still being made outside of this prevailing structure, but it either lacked critical reception or was written out of our consciousness altogether; over time, those shaping a public understanding of Western art grew into the habit of highlighting a narrow and insular demographic of artists. Eventually though, things took a much-needed turn for the better. As the incomparable curator Helen Molesworth explains:

“For many, many years, we were very comfortable with that [pre-existing] story. But then, as a result of the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, gay liberation, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the rocking of our geopolitical boundaries and the rise of the Internet, we come to realize that the story we used to tell doesn’t begin to encompass the fullness of the world as we know it.”

As these once-oppressed groups made their way into mainstream understandings of contemporary art, it was done so through a nominal sequestering of categorical other-ing: Black art, feminist art, queer art, etc. Rather than embrace a climate of multiplicity and inclusion, the art world continued to uphold an antiquated set of prerequisites for artistic achievement and tolerated fringe spaces (both physical and epistemological) for underrepresented communities—so long as they stay out of the way. Hard to flex your muscle as an artist, one might imagine, when that bicep better be attached to the arm of a straight white male.

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We all know now that this viewpoint is gravely outdated and, in a time of growing social consciousness, many institutions have dared to re-evaluate their own histories as collecting institutions and adherents to an overarching field of study. This is, without question, a necessary move in the right direction. Museums exist to push boundaries, to seek out truths, and to challenge complex ideas. Complacency, on the other hand, fuels ignorance and reinforces the status quo, neither of which embodies the critical-minded visions behind what I hope to be the majority of museums.

Gallery 39, small and unassuming as it may appear, is symptomatic of these larger issues at hand. Its organizers have resorted to a bare-bones narrative of modern art, but that story has been exhausted. The selections promote a subset of artists who enjoyed the privileges of an art world that readily embraced their work and ideas as a result of prevailing social criteria. What’s worse—as the gallery represents a one-off encapsulation of modern art—the work included precariously purports itself as the default tale of painting from the 1950s—that is, that these are the ‘obvious’ or ‘go-to’ artists through which one must convey the story of art from that time.

My goal here is not to downplay the irrefutable contributions of the abovementioned artists who have unquestionably earned their places as timeless greats in the history of modern art. However, it is ultimately to the benefit of these very individuals—whose work can easily undergo reductive interpretations and tropes of understanding—to be contextualized by a more inclusive picture of their contemporaries. Juxtaposition can be one of a curator’s greatest tools and the presentation of pairings outside of those rehashed across American museums like a reflex can yield tremendous insights and novel observations. For the sake of artists and audiences alike, we must seek out and demand new ways of telling the same old story.

There are many individuals who promote this experimental and forward thinking, but I believe we need more. Among them is Molesworth at MOCA LA whose re-installation of the permanent collection titled “The Art of Our Time” skillfully offsets the dominant story of modernity upon which numerous peer museums so readily rely. The Walker Art Center is likewise a vanguard into new frontiers, with recent exhibitions such as “International Pop” and “Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art” (organized by the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston) complicating the shorthands and expanding the lens through which we’ve come to understand some of the canon’s most revered movements. Add into this picture the Whitney’s touchstone inaugural exhibition “America is Hard to See,” which brought big-name artists into conversation with their oft-overlooked peers, and the visibility of this creative momentum is impossible to ignore. Not only does the history of art begin to feel alive and vibrant—a goal, I would assume, of most museums—but it also seems to get closer to the true state of things.

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his leaves us with many pressing questions: Why is it that, as curator Naomi Beckwith has noted, females make up more than half of art school graduates, but “far less than 50 percent of monographic exhibition subjects are women?” And, as art historian and queer theorist David Getsy forthrightly asks, “Why shouldn’t people who have struggled with being erased from representation come together to demand it, to infiltrate protocols of legitimacy, and to undermine the camouflaging of power and prejudice?” As art historian and curator Darby English offers:

“No one has ever called Guernica ‘Spanish art’ because you diminish the fact that it’s a Picasso, that it’s a hallmark of political Modernism, that it’s such a statement. Why is that diminishment of all the complexity [… somehow] perfectly fine if you’re talking about a Glenn Ligon painting or work by Kara Walker, Jacob Lawrence, Palmer Hayden, Ed Clark, or Betye Saar?”

“That is a not a rhetorical question,” English concludes, “and as long as we treat it as one, nothing changes.” And he’s right. Cultural institutions must be deliberate in their treatment of the past as a reflection of present attitudes; no longer can they afford to ignore these ongoing conversations or resort to the approaches of their predecessors.

I realize that Gallery 39 represents an ad hoc solution to the NGA’s current and temporary plight of modern art and is therefore not necessarily emblematic of the museum’s full curatorial might. Very little has been said about how the new East Building will be activated by the museum’s collection, so there’s hope still that the museum’s curators of modern and contemporary art—an impressive team of individuals, it’s worth noting—will join the bandwagon of keen and insightful exhibition-making. Yet even then, countless museums remain that presently do a huge disservice to this field, to their audiences, and ultimately to themselves by forcing these tangential narratives to exist on the periphery—or worse, altogether out of sight.

Inclusive and wide-reaching exhibition practices are not only beneficial for the sake of fostering diversity, but for their ability to more accurately express passing zeitgeists as well. After all, shouldn’t it be the goal of academia and institutional knowledge (to which museums both subscribe and later relay) to rectify these omissions and create a genuine picture of the past?

Author Joseph Shaikewitz is a Baltimore-based writer and curator from St. Louis, MO. He is the Gallery Manager at Hamiltonian Gallery in DC and a graduate of Johns Hopkins University.

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