On ViewCarnegie Museum of Art
October 13, 2018 – March 25, 2019
No curatorial task is more difficult than assembling an international survey exhibition. If in Pittsburgh, the task is further complicated by the history of the Carnegie Museum and its Internationals. Under the Carnegie’s roof are two museums—an art museum and a natural history museum—as well as a vast hall filled with plaster casts of antique and medieval European architecture. This exhibition series, which was started in 1896, is the United States’s oldest international survey. Curator Ingrid Schaffner says that this year’s exhibition is about “museum joy,” by which she means joy in the activity of creative interpretation. Certainly, there is a lot to interpret in this latest iteration. Works by thirty-two artists and collectives—plus Postcommodity, a cooperative group that constructs exhibitions—are installed on the two large floors of the museum, with spillover into the Hall of Architecture.
From the street entrance, you view Henry Moore’s Bronze Figures (1957) and Richard Serra’s massive, thirty-eight-foot-tall Carnegie from the 1985 International. El Anatsui has installed a mantle composed of folded, crumpled, and crushed printing plates from a local shop on the 30-by-160-foot façade of the Barnes building (added to the museum in 1974). Tavares Strachan uses neon signs to add the names of overlooked figures, including African American and feminist heroes, to those inscribed on the stone of the original building—Beethoven, Michelangelo, Newton, and Shakespeare. Sarah Crowner’s ceramic tiles fills one wall of the high-ceilinged Heinz Galleries, running from the room at the top of the stairs, near Ulrike Müller’s weavings. Art Labor, Vietnamese collaborative based in Ho Chi Minh City, comprised of Phan Thao-Nguyen, Truong Cong Tung, Arlette Quynh-Anh Tran, working with the American artist Joan Jonas, has created a kind of truck stop within the museum, a café serving Vietnamese coffee. Reclining in hammocks, you look up at drawings in the form of kites painted by Jonas. Finally, the last room on that floor contains a house by Alex Da Corte. It’s been a half-century since Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle (1967) was first published, and in this neon-walled, candy-colored psychedelic architecture—home to fifty-seven videos riffing on familiar cartoons and television favorites, of which the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood TV series in particular will resonate with a Pittsburgh viewer, we believe that that critical analysis has been radically transformed. This International deals in spectacle, not critique, as did Debord, granted eye-catchingly and seductively. Da Corte’s spectacle fits Schaffner’s notion of museum joy effortlessly; the neon House may merely be a decorative frame, the videos may provide the real joy.
The premise that the museum should be a locus of joy, even in a time when the world is crumbling, is one that needs to be carefully explored. Perhaps, to be more exact, we could say an encounter with a work of art should ideally excite, and this can involve joy. The experience of joy is often intuitive and immediate, but in this exhibition, many of the artists provide plenty of opportunity on which to think. The Carnegie Museum’s large and often-cavernous spaces allow the artists to work on the impactful scale of similar International exhibitions; that is pretty much a requirement today. We must search for the deeper messages also required today: the allusion to important issues such as colonialism, diversity, and other political topics that exist both within and outside of the museum.
These issues may not present themselves easily or without controversy, but work over time on the mind. The show’s strange feature is Schaffner’s reluctance to convey any sense of awareness regarding the urgency of circumstances outside the world of the museum. Pointedly, she has kept the action of the International firmly within or on its walls. The handbook is called The Guide, and it does have a nineteenth-century guidebook feel, including in its style and design, on the lines of a Baedeker. It does not consider this issue, yet Baedeker’s publishing house was the firm-handed handbook of cultural imperialism.
A number of the installations riff on the permanent collection. Karen Kilimnik picture salon invades decorative arts collection (2018), a group of thrift-shop-style paintings and photographs, disrupts the otherwise dignified hanging of the decorative arts. Koyo Kouch’s Dig Where You Stand (2018) reorganizes some works from the collections, including paintings not recently on display and a bald eagle from the natural history museum, as a nonlinear constellation of clusters prompting visual dialogue. In the small room containing the collection of dollhouse miniatures, you see Jeremy Deller’s historic wars on tiny TVs (2018) reenacting Napoleonic and Jacobite wars. Other works in this International reference Pittsburgh’s civic history. The massive center of the Hall of Sculpture is filled by a coal, glass, and steel construction by Postcommodity, alluding to Pittsburgh’s industrial past—a piece that will be interpreted in regular performances by jazz musicians. There also are mini-retrospectives of three important local artists. On the ground floor, a marvelous exhibition—indoors and outside in the sculpture court—of wood sculptures by Thaddeus Mosley. Displayed throughout the galleries, upstairs and down, are word-paintings by Mel Bochner, another Pittsburgh native. And in a hallway are journalistic photographs by the great midcentury African-American artist Charles “Teenie” Harris. This whole show is very generous at using space and at avoiding busy hangings. The two roomfuls of paintings by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s large figurative paintings of black people are a wonderful presentation of a young artist. The sevent-foot-long comic strip by Kerry James Marshall is a highly innovative display for an artist who was presented in an earlier International. And we admired Yuji Agematsu’s 365 small worlds (2018), bags of debris he found in the streets in daily walks, here shown in a small gallery-vault once called the Treasure Room.
In 1985, curator John Caldwell and museum director Jack Lane—responding to fierce criticism of the recent Internationals—presented well-known New York City figures, a number of German artists, and their Italian peers. A good survey of the most prominent figures of the day, short on women, with no one from Asia—that show could almost have been assembled from the most prominent New York galleries. And so it was legitimate to ask that a Carnegie International include a wider geographic array of artists. On this, the International delivered with ambition and dedication. A guide to this exhibition includes maps of the worldwide travels of the Carnegie curators from 1991 to the present. Five curators assisted Schaffner in her extensive research trips. The critical question we pose is how to understand this ritual, when surely it’s abundantly obvious that so many rushed visits could hardly result in any real feel for the astonishing variety of the diverse visual cultures. The very concept of a survey of worldwide contemporary art production has become problematic. So too, we believe, has the idea that as a global art survey, this exhibition can avoid straight-on political discussion.
This exhibition was curated by Ingrid Schaffner with Associate Curator, Liz Park, and Curatorial Assistant, Ashley McNelis.
This review draws on Carrier’s “A Selective History of Curating in Pittsburgh: The Recent Story of the Carnegie International,” which is forthcoming in an anthology of essays about curating.