On ViewMitchell Algus Gallery
Acquired on eBay (and from other surrogate sources)
January 11 – February 23, 2020
We New York-based art critics date ourselves by reference to our memories of the Museum of Modern Art. Some of us can remember seeing Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937) on the third floor, or recall the vision of modernism articulated by William Rubin’s Frank Stella retrospectives. Many of us certainly recollect the brouhaha over the High and Low Modern Art and Popular Culture (1990-1) exhibition and the Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern (1984-5) show. And now we scrutinize the newest post-postmodernist reinstallation of the permanent collection. The strength of this institution lies in its willingness to repeatedly rethink fundamentals—and although it may be hard to imagine a Manhattan art world venue less like MoMA than the Mitchell Algus Gallery, Acquired on eBay, which currently occupies Algus’s Delancey street space, is similarly concerned with the institutional writing and re-writing of art history.
Acquired on eBay consists of dense hangings of drawings, paintings, sculpture, and also some books, mostly small, by relatively marginal recent artists. On the second floor of a building on the Lower East Side, the Algus Gallery is about as far from gentrification as you can get in the Manhattan art world. There are no guards, no crowds, and certainly no posh galleries (there is a Xeroxed handout, with provenance information). This is the kind of low-key commercial site that I remember fondly, but which has all but vanished, at least in New York City. Although he eschews the hectic atmosphere of most striving contemporary art galleries, Algus has long been a bravely adventuresome dealer. And his gallery is not unconnected to the bustling commercialized world of MoMA. Acquired on eBay provides a visual record of the fallout from that influential institution’s constant revision of the canons of contemporary art. It’s amazing, as it turns out, what you can find on eBay or from other surrogate sources: challenging works that have fallen outside the mainstream of the museum world and art market.
A few of the works here are by artists whose names I recognize. At the entrance is Marie Laurencin’s lithograph Anne Bronté (1929). Then you see two drawings by Hans Bellmer, acquired at French auctions, and two more by Pavel Tchelitchew, whose Hide and Seek (1940–42), once much admired by MoMA, has only recently been displayed there again. There is an untitled ink wash by Paul Jenkins, purchased at a charity auction; an undated painting titled Ocean Song Seascape by Elaine de Kooning; and a marvelous little Self-portrait by Saul Steinberg from the 1940s. Also appearing is Edward Aveidsian’s Normal Love (1962), an abstraction by an artist currently featured in Amy Sillman’s Artist’s Choice exhibition at MoMA. But many of the other figures who appear in Acquired on eBay are less familiar, at least to me. This exhibition began when Algus found a tiny surrealist painting from 1958, title unknown: a majestic portrait of a Black woman by James Wilson Edwards, an African-American who studied in Paris and belonged to the Princeton Colony of Black artists. And, also, there are works by Elie Lascaux, who showed with Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler in Paris, and Aline Meyer Liebman, whose Gray Day (1927) was included in 31 Women, a pioneering exhibition curated by Max Ernst and Peggy Guggenheim in 1943. There is a lot to look at here.
In his classic account of the canons of the European old masters, Rediscoveries in Art: Some Aspects of Taste, Fashion and Collecting in England and France (1980), Francis Haskell condemns the idea “that variations in taste in the arts are…wholly arbitrary and capricious.” To make this claim is, in his view, “to abdicate responsibility.” What’s required, Haskell argues, is seeking to understand how, for example, the modern revival of interest in the Baroque, the fascination with El Greco, and the admiration for Cimabue (along with the fall of many once-admired figures) are all the products of close looking and forceful revisionist analysis. Can the same be said of the changes in contemporary taste that are identified by this exhibition? Certainly, African-Americans and women—two groups whose marginalization by canonical accounts of modern art has been the subject of sustained criticism—are well represented in this exhibition.
Algus’s handout expresses the hope that “as an exercise in cultural consumption, collecting and curation this exhibition…provides some incentive to venture beyond the art world’s realms of consensus.” That claim is spot on. Were I teaching a survey of contemporary art, I would ask my students: What would you take home from this exhibition? What I myself took home was not a desire to possess this or that work, but, rather, a fascination with the visual evidence of our evolving critical standards. In two recent books about what we call ‘wild art,’ Joachim Pissarro and I have argued that there is no essential difference between art that thrives within the art world system and the work that is excluded from it. Acquired on eBay is a perfect illustration of this thesis.