In the last Whitney Biennial a significant percentage of the works on view took as their subjects actual historical episodes or addressed earlier moments in the history of art. This is different from artists grappling with and working out of tradition, which is how art gets made at any time. At the Whitney, and many times before and since, my thought has been, “This feels like the late 16th century in Europe.” I find myself surrounded by highly sophisticated and subtle artists making knowing reference to earlier episodes in the history of art, usually of the last century but also from earlier periods.
This is not news, as the phenomenon of the curator-as-artist/artist-as-curator makes clear enough. Nor is it merely a result of the spread of MFA programs. It has just been the atmosphere we breathe. In its December 2013 issue, Artforum ran a piece called “The Year in Re-,” which helpfully broke down the various actions we had been seeing in galleries and exhibitions for some time: reanimate, reenact, replay, reconstruct, reinstall, restage, reinvent, re-photograph, etc. The piece rightly included that other “re” word—relic—the necessary counterpart to all the remanaging. I am not saying that all artists are busy reworking and reframing earlier art; I’ve had occasional brushes with art that makes no historical reference at all. But there is no question about the basic orientation, and also about the fact that it’s nothing new. Just staying in Europe, not only the late 16th century, but also the late 14th, late 17th, and good chunks of the 18th century were predominantly retrospective in cast. These periods can last a long time; I leave it to others to predict how long ours will.
In an ironic crossover, just as the discipline of art history undergoes a massive (and tortured) shift in orientation towards the contemporary, contemporary artists are funneling us into persistent engagements with the history of art—by, for example, looking into provenances of displaced modernist furniture or shooting the present-day locations of scenes from the history of film (Amie Siegel); by exploring conjunctions of modernist architecture and therapeutic culture (Rebecca Chamberlain); by excerpting and adapting Persian and Indian miniature paintings (Shahzia Sikander); by reinventing the equestrian monument (Charles Ray); by masquerading as old-master portraits (Nina Katchadourian); by scripting a visit to the Galerie François I (Amelia Saul); by excavating what physically lies beneath Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, once owned by Walter Benjamin (R.H. Quaytman); or by investigating Manet’s use of photography and lecturing on comic art of the 1950s (Alexi Worth). They are doing something in some relation to the work of art historians and yet strangely different from it—an uncanny valley of art history. An implicit conversation is happening here, or rather not happening. Why not force it into the open?
For my Critics Page, I asked various artists to pick a work of art and look at it with me, then to write out of the experience. (The one exception was Charles Ray; we couldn’t make schedules align, so we had a conversation about several works.) The artists could choose something from anywhere in the world, with the requirement that it be from before 1800, so as to be sure to move beyond the familiar story of modernism and its aftermaths. Two different kinds of retrospection—the artist’s and the art historian’s—meet, creating a prismatic view.
The idea is not to listen in hushed silence to the timeless insights of artists into the art of all ages, but rather to produce new engagements and new thoughts through a three-way encounter. This is an effort to activate a latent potential in the culture—to make it articulate and effective. I see it as one application of a model that could be adapted in a number of ways. This fall, I plan to teach a course along these lines, where art history students will engage artists in the study of older works of art and then follow through with hard research on the unexpected directions the dialogue opens up.
In every case presented here, I found that whole areas of inquiry opened up, both for me and for the artists, often leading beyond the existing literature on these works. With Rebecca Chamberlain I realized that the fact that the Shoin Room at the Met is empty and we stand outside of it, looking at a museum replica, is not a deficiency but a phase of the room’s poetic life. With Shahzia Sikander, I began to see how a Deccan miniature painting coordinates two kinds of order, and that its secret is the jostling it allows within each and between the two. With Charles Ray, I came to see Michelangelo’s David, and several other famous sculptures, as beings caught in relations of scale that keep them in a middle zone, neither fictions of life nor merely objects of a certain size, and that that is the secret of their animation. With Nina Katchadourian, I discovered, as if for the first time, a whole area of manufacture that the museum kindly cares for without quite being able to manage, because locks, keys, and door knockers don’t have authors, they get reused and repaired, and they are difficult to place at any one point in time. With R.H. Quaytman, I discovered the full multiplicity of line in Marcantonio Raimondi’s engraving, methodical yet deeply unruly, a new medium opening a dizzying series of new questions for image-making, without resolving them. With Amelia Saul, the St. John by Donatello came into visibility as a troubled being, containing many figures, mostly repressed but visibly working in the sculpture, a modern portrayal of the spiritual life. With Alexi Worth, it became clear that van Eyck’s ambition was to present the event of the Crucifixion as if seen for the first time and yet from a viewpoint above history, a contradiction the painting dissolves. With Amie Siegel, the Dutch houses at the Brooklyn Museum became half-finished works of art, probably requiring a film to bring them to realization.
ALEXANDER NAGEL is a Professor at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University.