Conference review

“Multiple Modernisms: A Symposium on Globalism in Postwar Art” 
Louisiana Museum, Humlebaek, Denmark
Nov. 2-3, 2017
Videos available here.

Karen Kurczynski

The “Multiple Modernisms” Conference organized by the Louisiana Museum in Humlebæk, Denmark, Nov. 2–3, 2017, opened many perspectives on the ways scholarship of modernism in the mid-20th-century period needs reframing, without proposing specific overarching directions for how to proceed. Its breadth responded to the sheer complexity of the problems, and the premise that the multiple narratives of modernism are resistant to any proposal of an objective or global story, but must exist instead as a set of continually shifting comparisons complex enough to address particular temporal and spatial perspectives and histories of colonialism, inequality, and institutional suppression of oppositional perspectives. What primarily emerged was the impossibility of global answers, together with the importance of continually reframing the questions we ask.

Poul Erik Tøjner, Director of the Louisiana, welcomed the assembled scholars and a few visitors, stating that “the museum is an unsafe space.” The phrase directly echoed, with a slightly different emphasis, Fred Wilson’s characterization of the museum on a recent visit to the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, as a “safe space for unsafe ideas.” The challenges raised at the conference, however progressive and destabilizing in their cultural and political implications, seemed buffered by the privilege of the safe space so generously provided by Louisiana to argue them. Yet the juxtaposition of such a wide array of analyses of various objects and artistic contexts in such a short time generated new insights, laying bare persistent gaps and inconsistencies in art historical scholarship and curatorial practice.

As one of six keynote speakers, Terry Smith opened the conference with a valuable summary of the ideas presented in his recent scholarship on the global operations of the “contemporary.” He observed that in his own lifetime, the end of modernism shifted steadily backwards, from the 1970s to 1968 to the 1960s to, most recently, 1945 as the definitive opening onto the postwar moment – which, I believe it crucial to note, is “postwar” in name only. The advent of global contemporary art leads us to rethink what modernism was, as scholars like Richard Meyer among others have described. The problem, Smith maintains, is that most of the terms used to describe global art—including “global”—smother the distinctions we’re trying to make. He suggests a “world art” or “worldly art history” that views art neither from a European perspective nor from that of any locality in particular, but instead proposes “a constantly negotiated connecting of localities and regions, in the context of our shared, and increasingly urgent, need to act always in the interests of past, present, and future life on this planet.” Smith conveyed his respect for the revisionist historians of what was once called the “New Art History” such as Serge Guilbaut, and his own mentor Bernard Smith, whose book Modernism’s Histories describes the impact on artistic centers of approaches in the peripheries. He discussed recent revisionist exhibitions such as Okwui Enwezor’s 2016 Postwar exhibition at Haus der Kunst and the Art in Europe 1946-68: The Continent that the EU Does Not Know at the Zentrum für Kunst und Medien. He linked the striking expansion of scholarship on mid-century modernism to the rapid recent expansion of the contemporary art world, which increasingly calls for a “contemporaneity to come.” The phrase reorients the very notion of contemporaneity as sheer potential.

Four panel sessions over two days alternated with five other keynote presentations, each of which zoomed into a specific issue or story in more depth. Masha Chenova’s “Traveler’s Tales: Alfred Barr, the Soviet Union, and International Modernism in the Postwar Period” detailed the history of Barr’s understanding of modernism not as a series of simplistic influences, but an active exchange of ideas in a social network. His visits to the USSR over four decades coincided with his defense of modern art as a discourse of liberation – and liberalism – in the era of McCarthyism and the research into Russian modernism by Camilla Gray, among others, that he fostered. But as Smith noted in the discussion, Barr never recognized that Socialist Realism was “modern art” in Russia. The historical opposition was not Modernism vs. Socialist Realism but rather national (or local) modernisms in ideological conflict. Romy Golan’s “Renato Guttuso’s Boogie Woogie, A Geopolitical Tableau” examined the negative reception of a 1954 painting by Guttuso in relation to reactionary fears of cultural dissolution from both Communist left (Guttuso) and liberal right (Hans Siedlmeyer) in the 1950s. Guttuso’s presentation of a “toxic” image of young people enjoying American-style clothing and dance responded to contemporary cinematic images and found its appropriate response in the Soviet context, where upon its exhibition in 1961 officials worried about the painting’s potential corruption of young people.

Pamela M. Lee’s presentation “1973: The Arche of Neoliberalism” began with a brief description of a complex interactive digital and design project by the collaborative Or-Om called the Multinode Metagame project. The project explored a historical control room space called Cybersyn designed by an ex-Bauhaus architect in collaboration with cybernetic theorists under the Allende regime in Chile (and cut off from any possibilities of functional operation by the US-backed Pinochet coup). Lee’s talk made rational and cynical sense of a complex network of connections spanning what she terms the “Think Tank Aesthetics” of the Cybersyn control room design as its premises overlapped with the machinations of the liberal economists who founded the Mont Pelerin Society in Switzerland in 1947 and subsequently helped orchestrate the global apotheosis of liberal economic ideology. When asked afterwards about the upside of all the sinister connections thus laid out, she responded that the Multinode Metagame project, exhibited trans-culturally at the National Museum of History in Santiago and via live interactive presentation at the ZKM, successfully created a new network among diverse institutions, histories, and social contexts. If that were the point I would have preferred more discussion of the aesthetics of the art work and the ways it might foster greater connectivity and counter-political perspectives, and less of the ominous machinations of secret operatives it seems to fetishize.

Two of the keynote presentations related to recent exhibitions exploring overlooked aspects of modernism. Hiroko Ikegami presented “New Inspirations, New Conflicts: Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange,” detailing Rauschenberg’s ROCI project as presented in the recent retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Her fascinating account of the way Rauschenberg developed ROCI exhibitions in radically different artistic contexts, at times as a direct provocation for the next generation of artists as was the case for artists Xu Bing and Zhang Wei in 1980s Beijing, illuminated what Roberta Smith called the “at once optimistic and self-aggrandizing” aspects of the project. In “Surrealism in Egypt and the Making of the Exhibition Art et Liberté,” Sam Bardaouil detailed the groundbreaking traveling exhibition he curated based on the research for his 2017 book Surrealism in Egypt. His compelling and polished account argued that Surrealism took hold in Egypt in the 1940s for three reasons: its ability to oppose bourgeois and nationalist exhibitions of modern French art, to illustrate the misery of the poor in a society of extreme class division, and to depict the suffering of women. His talk was enlightening and grounded in the cosmopolitanism of the artists involved in the movement. The fact that Surrealists like Lee Miller were active in the Cairo scene provided a clear argument for using the European term without the usual equivocations present in discussions of modernist movements outside Europe. Surrealism was a fluid international, experimental movement, open to multiple hubs, networks, national and cosmopolitan contexts. Whether it was truly a scene of equality for women artists as he claims remains to be verified by further scholarship.

Bardaouil’s proposal of “transmodernism” as a productive model to consider such movements—in opposition to Orientalism which reinforces binary thinking—was one of several theoretical paradigms mentioned but not truly weighed or evaluated at the conference. My own talk, “Cobra Itineraries: Comparative Perspectives on Ferlov, Mancoba, and Tajiri” played with the possibility of other terms like “minoritarian cosmopolitanism,” “revisionist universalism,” and “post-colonial humanism” as part of my own ongoing search for adequate ways to describe the deliberate utilization of abstraction among marginalized artists to create a new language of formal experimentation expressly indebted to and in conversation with cultures suppressed by mainstream modernism (in relation to feminine, black, postcolonial, and interracial experiences). I had hoped for more productive examination of such terms at the conference, but given the breadth of new investigations presented in only two days, limited discursive engagement may have been inevitable.

Many of the shorter presentations summarized new research into understudied contexts of global modernism, or world art history, or whatever we want to call it, in a series of fascinating yet at times disconnected discussions. After my own paper on Cobra in the panel “Travel and Migration,” Sooran Choi reframed the experimental art of South Korean artists in the 1960s in light of Fluxus developments in “Fluxus, Revisited in Global Context: Fluxus in South Korea in the 1960s and 1993, the Meta-Avant-Garde.” Her discussion revealed the ways the Western avant-garde mantle, even aside from the Fluxus label, served as protection against censorship under a repressive regime. Nikolas Drosos’s lively account of “Fellow Travelers: Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros in Postwar Eastern Europe” illuminated the impact on Polish art in the 1950s of the Mexican Muralists. The reception of their work evolved in the space of a few years from too modernist in 1951 to too realist in 1955, when given the rapid turn toward modernism in the Polish scene, Siqueiros’s work – previously too experimental – was suddenly dismissed as Stalinist.

The panel “Collecting Modernisms – Rewriting Modernisms” focused on curatorial strategies. Katarina Wadstein Macleod’s account “Curating at the Centre of the Periphery: Lunds Konsthall in the 1960s” addressed the ways Eje Högestätt, curator at Lunds Konsthall, introduced experimental art related to the Fluxus festivals into a provincial scene that has been subsequently completely overlooked given the focus on Moderna Museet in discussions of Swedish art in the 1960s. Camila Maroja, in “Showcasing Brazilian Modernity? The Case of the Museum of Art of São Paulo (MASP),” described how Italian expatriate and former Fascist P.M. Bardi and his wife, designer Lina Bo Bardi, framed the tendencies of popular art, Indian art, and modern art (which they called “civilized art”) in the MASP, founded in 1947. Their presentation of culturally autonomous art that they believed deserved a place in the “universal concert of cultures” continues to shape exhibitionary discourse today, in galleries that still feature Bo Bardi’s innovative “crystal easel” mounts to display a more nuanced range of Brazilian art work, but the relationship of their framing to Italian Fascist principles has still not been fully addressed. Nadine Siegert’s presentation “African Modernism and Entangled Collections – A Critical Reconstruction of Collecting Activities Between Kampala, Frankfurt and Bayreuth” presented an ongoing and extremely promising research project. Siegert is directly involved in “African Art History and the Formation of Modernist Aesthetics,” a collaboration among Uganda’s Makerere Art Gallery, Weltkulturen Museum Frankfurt, and Iwalewahaus at University of Bayreuth, Germany. Researching the history and strategies of collecting modern African art in these institutions, the project is uncovering new insights and producing intensive “biographies of objects.” There seem to be few precedents for such a transnational project among art institutions, and its procedures and revisionist histories deserve recognition.

The panel “New cities – New locations” included Kate Cowcher’s presentation “Hyphenated Modernisms as Prelude to Revolution in Ethiopia.” Her overview of the “Addis spring,” a period of artistic experimentation in Ethiopia in the 1960s, foregrounded discussions of the “hyphenated Ethiopian” caught between cultures. Sabrina Moura’s “Between ‘rootedness and openness’: The Dakar School of Visual Arts and the Modern Project for Post-Independence” examined artistic institutions in post-independence Dakar in the 1960s, albeit with such short attention to individual art works as to leave more questions than answers about the impact of new institutions, exhibitions, and debates around Léopold Senghor’s idea of black universal expression. Sarah C. Johnson’s presentation “Archaeology’s Multiple Modernisms: Uncovering Modern Art’s Role in Shaping Archaeology In Mid-Twentieth Century Iraq” produced a more cohesive account, historiographic problems included, of Johnson’s ongoing analysis of modern artist Hafez al-Droubi in Iraq. Al-Droubi produced paintings reconstructing archaeological history in the basement of the national archaeological museum in the 1940s, fascinating works known primarily from photographs. As essential as they appear to formulating and legitimizing an Iraqi understanding of modern art, many of them are nearly impossible to view or, in some cases due to looting, even locate today. Karen Stock’s paper “Blinded by Mao: The Challenge of Seeing Modernism in the Art of the People’s Republic” was the only presentation on Chinese modern art, raising the question of whether and in what way Maoist ink painting could be called “modernist.” Stock’s account suggested deeper questions of what might be gained by the attempt to label non-western art according to western terminology, as opposed to seeking new paradigms beyond Euro-American definitions.

The final session on “Commensurability – Incommensurability” presented more studies of alternative or overlooked modern movements. Sofia Gotti’s discussion of the “Semiotics of the Living Room: South American Proto-Feminist Furniture by Teresa Burga and Beatriz Gonzalez” illuminated the transformation of furniture as a feminist statement in Latin American art aligned for better and worse with global Pop art. Gotti argued that domestic imagery signified progress for women in mid-20th century Latin America, as women’s role in the family took on new ideological power in newly independent Latin American cultures. In “Calligraphic Abstraction and Postwar Art,” Mariola V. Alvarez further explored Brazilian art. She mobilized the term “calligraphic modernism,” coined to describe Middle Eastern modernists like Ibrahim El-Salahi and Siah Armajani, to the work of Manabu Mabe, Flavio-Shiró, and Tomie Ohtake, Japanese abstract painters in Saõ Paolo. Alvarez aims to produce a decolonial art history to challenge the ideology of geometric modernism predominant in 1950s Brazil, investigating an aspect of Tachisme related directly to developments in Europe and Japan but rejected at the time by Brazilian critics like Mário Pedrosa and Ferreira Gullar. Finally, Susanne Altmann presented “East Looking East. Geometrical Abstraction and Architectural Practice Subverts Ideologies.” Her study of abstract nonconformist art in the former East Germany addressed geometric abstract artists of the GDR who felt doubly victimized, condemned by art critics for being on the wrong side of art history in 1947 and then again in 1989. She called for a closer examination at the art work and its engagement with international standards of modern form, not least abstraction’s claims to freedom, which she argued that East German artists were uniquely able to conceptualize due to their daily experience of non-freedom. Communism did not strip geometric abstraction of its utopian legacy, she claimed, but maintained transformative possibilities within public decorative projects like Hermann Glöckner’s influential mural at Technical University in Dresden in 1957, among others.

Closing the conference, Michael Sheridan presented a buoyant account of the history and architecture of the Louisiana museum. Founded by Knud Jensen in 1957 on the former estate of a royal beekeeper who happened to have three different wives named Louisa, the museum was designed unconventionally as a series of connecting paths through a tranquil landscape. Over the years and through several expansions, it established an innovative space to examine international modernist tendencies from abroad in the tranquil Danish countryside. That the art came primarily from Europe and the United States remained unexmained. The conference built productively on this legacy of pushing the boundaries of what art is examined at a given moment with its expanded historical discussion. It packed a rich array of perspectives and histories into a brief couple of days, introducing a new constellation of established and emerging scholars and curators to each other’s work. With so many compelling perspectives, the time inevitably felt too short, but the expanded networks created by the conference productively complicated the existing narratives of modernism as well as contemporaneity, proposing diverse possibilities for new investigations to come.