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The Bowery In Two Contemporary Differential Systems

What does it mean to think about our contemporary condition today, and about contemporary art’s relation to it? For many years, art-world denizens in the main centers have occluded this relation by blanketing its complexities under an odd locution: the “contemporary.” Big-picture terms such as “the modern,” “globalization,” or even “capitalism” no longer set convincing agendas for everybody everywhere. They are being swamped by the world’s combustive multiplicity, its faceted multi-temporality, and its layered spatialities. We are left, instead, with the inescapable fact of our being in this kind of world today, naked to its incessant differencing.

We can, I suggest, employ the concept of “contemporaneity” to name the world’s current general condition. Contemporaneity is not simply the state of being contemporary. It is the multiplicity of ways of being in time, at the same time as others, wherever we are and wherever they are, right now. Once we grasp this spatial complexity within contemporaneity itself, we recognize that the conjunction of proximate and distant difference also shaped the experience of living at earlier times, and will do so in future times. Looking around us now, we see the living presence of a number of other, non-modern temporalities, and the concurrence of other kinds of time (eternality, for example). The big difference from modern times, however, is that this multiplicity is no longer subject to a larger story of, say, progress, growth, redemption, or realization, nor to still older recurrent stories of union with a higher being. It is just what it is, and is becoming more so, every day.

These differentiating processes saturate contemporary art and its institutions. They are the medium of contemporary creativity, its core subject, and its main effect. They are what define this art and its institutions as contemporary.1

What are “differentiating processes?” What are the distinct differentials in operation today? Let me profile a recent instance, one that reveals much about the constituents of our contemporaneity within current art practice. First, however, I need to set the scene by citing a precedent from a transformational moment in late modern art.

Search online for the exhibition Magiciens de la terre, curated by Jean-Hubert Martin in Paris in 1989, and one image pops up before all others (at least according to how Google has calibrated my searches). It is a view toward the back of the Grande halle in the Parc de la Villette. On the end wall a huge, circular shape looms. Entitled Mud Wall, the English land artist Richard Long, made it for the occasion with splattered river mud. On the floor in front of it lies a ground painting consisting of sacred symbols made with imported sand and other natural materials by a group of Aboriginal tribal elders from Yuendumu, a remote settlement in the Central Desert of Australia. Throughout Magiciens, works by Western artists, mainly European, known for their interest in spirituality, were matched with ritual creations by shamans, priests, folk artists, village decorators, and other craftsmen and women chosen from non-Western cultures. A fifty-fifty split, the selection was meant to counter the condescension toward non-Western artists in the infamous exhibition “Primitivism” in 20th-Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, shown at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1984. Even so, Martin copped sharp criticism for treating the Western artists as individuals while presenting the others as representative of their cultures in general.2  On the other hand, the exhibition introduced a number of artists to European and international audiences, provided a springboard for some of them to develop substantial international careers, prefigured what is by now almost a normalized format for biennials, and inspired a number of curators to offer more nuanced displays of the complex questions that it raised.3 

We can match this precedent with a contemporary contingency. The coincidence of two exhibitions from September and October of this year on New York’s Lower East Side enables us to take one measure of how the relationships between these differentials have changed, and not changed, since 1989. At Sperone Westwater, the most prominent piece in Long’s exhibition Crescent to Cross was a “large-scale mud work” that recapitulated his effort in Magiciens de la terre, something he has been doing on a regular basis since that show. Nearby, Salon 94 showed seven acrylic paintings by Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri, a Pintupi man from the Central Desert having his first solo exhibition in the United States. His paintings encapsulate the most recent stage of his style as it has evolved since 1987, three years after he “came in” from the remote desert to live in Papunya, an Indigenous settlement.4 Like other tribal elders with major ritual responsibilities, Warlimpirrnga creates “ground paintings” on the desert floor for sacred yet secret ceremonies. He also makes medium-to-large-scale acrylic paintings on canvas for circulation beyond his community. They are suffused with selected sacred content registered through secular forms, as an act of cross-cultural communication. With a constantly flickering precision, Warlimpirrnga’s intricate dotted lines suggest sheaths of space and oblique movements through time, evoking aspects of the experience of his major Dreaming site, Marawara, a clay pan in Lake Mackay, close to what the 19th-century British geographers of the continent of Terra Australis named “the point of disappearance.”

One measure of the impact of Warlimpirrnga’s painting on art-world insiders is this brief notice in the New Yorker for October 5, 2015:

The paintings of this outstanding Australian artist, who lived nomadically until 1984, when he was in his mid-twenties, are marvels. Against soft backgrounds of gray or coral, Warlimpirrnga paints lambent circuits of white dots whose irregular contours seem to tremble and oscillate. In the clean white cube of the gallery, these pulsating paintings might, at first, seem consistent with nonobjective art as we know it (based on description alone, the Op art of Bridget Riley may come to mind, or Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Nets”). But these works aren’t abstract. They are ardent, knowledgeable depictions of specific sites in the bush, irrefutable evidence that modernity and the sacred are not mutually exclusive. 5

Another measure is the response of the New York Times senior art critic Roberta Smith, who began her review with, “It’s always thrilling when examples of a given art form make you think this is the best (fill in the blank) I’ve ever seen.” She goes on to offer some acute formal descriptions, and ends by inviting the viewer to expand on them “through looking, a ritual unto itself.”6

The conjunction between the exhibitions by Warlimpirrnga and Long was an adventitious coincidence that nonetheless also typifies the differentiations that define our present situation. Compared to 1989, in 2015 the Aboriginal artist’s work displays the most striking, unexpected, and seemingly infinite generative power, whereas the British artist seems locked into a time warp, ever more elegantly repeating a moment that has long past. The temporal terms of colonization, those that prevailed throughout the long 19th century and for much of the short 20th century are, suddenly, reversed.

Oblivious to such changes in the wider world, the Sperone Westwater press release describes the Long wall piece as “an index of the intensely physical act of its making. While it possesses an archaic quality, the work’s site-specific installation in the gallery underscores its spontaneous creation, calling attention to the artist’s human scale and the passage of time.”  In his own statement as cited in the press release, the artist is more modest yet no less ambitious in his reach for the most profound connotation possible: “Early on, I realized the world outside the studio was more interesting than what was going on inside. People have been making impressions in the earth for thousands of years—in general my work takes its place amongst many other man-made marks.” Long’s art consists mostly of making interventions into actual landscape by rearranging found elements into geometric shapes that evoke the structures of prehistoric peoples, or by importing into art galleries natural materials and arranging them within geometric confines. The “archaic quality” in his work is actually a subdued primitivism, a generalizing evocation of the unknowable practices, beliefs, and values of long-extinct peoples. Long has refined this generalization since he first began to take it up in the years around 1970, deepening its metaphorical subtlety but also, inevitably, increasing its distance from its “sources.”

For “remodernists” such as Long, the only option is to keep repeating the originary moment when the idea of making this allusive connection first occurred. By repeating the Mud Wall, and the assemblages of found materials, at different locations and at site-specific scales, Long’s art settles into the stasis once ascribed to the art of “primitive man”: it aspires to be unchanging, timeless, eternal. In fact, the reverse is occurring. Precisely because of the revivification of Indigenous cultures through the resistance, revival, and, at times, flourishing of Indigenous peoples, and because of their constant renovation of their own art, Long’s art becomes anachronistic. It is yet another instance of late modernism endlessly rehearsing its break-through moment, ever more beautifully, at larger and larger scales, in even more expensive and exotic materials, and at greater prices.7

When the art of actually existing anciens is juxtaposed with such evocations, the effect can be quite powerful. The conjunction, in effect, removes the “source” from the modernist artist’s work, takes away from the non-Indigenous artist his or her presumed “right” to use this imagery, thus evacuating what is, after all, the subliminal source of its real value, its claim to be closest to timeless non-contemporaneity. Instead, the “prehistoric” world comes alive, demonstrating that it has survived, has adapted to all subsequent changes, and is quite ready to represent itself, thank you very much. These living dead are constantly setting out on new trajectories rather than staying in their expected place. The art of primitivist modernists suddenly becomes “non-Indigenous.” It cannot match the changes being brought about by Indigenous artists because it does not originate them. It is obliged to surrender the old connection, and thus lose a key element of its core logic as art. On a worldwide scale, this is the challenge that Contemporary art by Indigenous peoples has been mounting against the modernist presumptions that still prevail at the traditional art centers, those not-so-coincidentally of the colonial powers. It calls for the forging of postcolonial connections: a slow, awkward, fraught, but necessary and ultimately hopeful process.

In early November, Performa 15 was host to a work by Brisbane-based Indigenous artist Richard Bell. Installed in a temporary space at 350 Broadway, Embassy recalled the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, a cluster of tents erected in 1972 on the lawns opposite the entrance to the Australian Parliament House, Canberra. Despite recurrent attempts to dismantle it, the tents remain, and the protest continues, to this day. On Broadway, Bell and collaborators erected a military-style tent, in which current activist material was shown. Embassy also acted as a hub for screening films of the original Tent Embassy and ethnographic documentation of sacred ceremonies held at Yirrkala, for presentations of work by Black Panther member Emory Douglas, Vernon Ah Kee from Palm Island in the Torres Strait, and Mohawk artist Alan Michelson. It served as the site of anger management workshops conducted by Melbourne-based artist Stuart Ringholt, and debates between these artists and activists such as Sylvia McAdam, a Nêhiyaw woman and leader of the global grassroots movement Idle No More. This mix of local and global activism is typical of the concerns of city-based Indigenous artists throughout the world, and parallels the cross-cultural reach of Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri and other artists based in remote communities. This, too, is recursive, but not to modernism as the touchstone.

Indigenous art comes from a temporality that has survived by insisting on its own deep difference, one that includes, fundamentally, its own logics of renewal. At the same time, this form of life incorporates modern times into it, as much of them as it needs, primarily in order to outlast them. In this way, it achieves its own contemporaneity, not as an abstract right, but on its own terms, and as a strategy for surviving the present. In doing these things, it offers the rest of us a glimpse of what inspires it to persist, and invites us to decolonize our ways of seeing. This art is showing us something about what it would be like to become true contemporaries.


  1. For outlines of the larger framework of contemporary art within our contemporaneity, see Terry Smith, What is Contemporary Art? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), and Terry Smith, Contemporary Art: World Currents (London: Laurence King, 2011; Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2012).
  2. See Benjamin Buchloh, “The Whole Earth Show: An Interview with Jean-Hubert Martin by Benjamin H. D. Buchloh,” Art in America, 70, (5) (May 1989): 150 – 213.
  3. A striking example of this impact is Nicolas Bourriaud’s review of this show: “Magiciens de la Terre,” Flash Art International, no. 148 (October 1989): 119 – 121. For a detailed retrospective discussion, see Lucy Steeds et al., Making Art Global (Part 2), ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ 1989 (London: Afterall Books, 2014).
  4. For background information see Bette Clark, “Report on First Contact Group of Pintupi at Kiwirrkura,” Report to Joint Working Party of Central Land Council and Department of Aboriginal Affairs, 1985; and Fred Myers, “Locating Ethnographic Practice: Romance, Reality, and Politics in the Outback,” American Ethnologist, Vol. 15 (1988): 609 – 624. On the Salon 94 exhibition, see Henry Skerritt’s notes at Miami-based Dennis Scholl, whose collection includes work by Warlimpirrnga, underwrote the exhibition, which, in the event, sold out. Selections from the Scholl collection are in the exhibition No Boundaries: Aboriginal Australian Abstract Painting, curated by Henry Skerritt and William Fox for the Nevada Museum of Art and touring during 2015 – 16.
  5. “Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri,” The New Yorker (October 5, 2015): 18.
  6. Roberta Smith, “Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri’s Aboriginal Dreamtime Paintings,” New York Times, October 16, 2015.
  7. This is what the leading galleries and museums in New York, Los Angeles, and London constantly celebrate. It is the bedrock of their instinctive aesthetic, the driver of their economic growth, the “location, location, location” of their real estate expansionism: Gagosian and Zwirner meet the MoMA and the Whitney, via Dia. Despite some recent efforts by these museums and museum-like galleries to join the 21st century, and despite the consistent striving of some institutions such as the New Museum to open their programs to the wider world, the most obvious, and actually anti-contemporary, aspect of the New York art scene is its incessant recursion to its late modern glory days. Holland Cotter is the only New York-based mainstream critic to consistently highlight the need for change. See his “Toward a Museum of the 21st Century,” New York Times, October 28, 2015. Yet even he omits reference to indigeneity, including that of Native Americans, in this article.


Terry Smith


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