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It was late, and five of us were on a Zoom happy hour call that had already lasted over four hours—a length of time that would not have seemed excessive if we were all together in a living room, but now, in this quarantine era of endless screen time, felt indulgent. We were questioning our work in the arts when one friend passionately asserted that art was “the most important thing right now.” Art is about human experience, introspection, and empathy, she said, all things we need. We had all been drinking, but the rest of us were still too sober to lean into her optimism: yes, there is always a need for refection and expression, yet even performance artists are making face masks for health workers right now while curators are hounding city council about eviction protections. The human condition itself seems, currently, more urgent than anything art can say about it, which is why it is especially challenging, in this moment, to make sense of New Images of Man, a just-closed exhibition at Blum & Poe that strove to explore humanist struggle.
Curated by Alison M. Gingeras, New Images of Man reimagined a former, now-iconic, though never broadly liked exhibition: 1959’s New Images of Man, organized by longtime MoMA curator Peter Selz. Selz’s show included 23 artists, all of them white and from the U.S. or Western or Central Europe. Twenty-two of them were male. According to what he said at the time, Selz wanted to demonstrate the many ways in which postwar artists were taking “the human predicament” into consideration, a goal that was very much as unspecific as it sounds. In deliberate contrast, Gingeras pulled together a more international, intergenerational, and diverse group of 43 artists, bringing some from the original show into conversation with artists who could have been. In addition, she looped in artists living and working now—who are both still concerned with “the human predicament” and also aesthetically influenced by the original show’s artists. Her vision, according to the gallery press release, was to expand the range and “thus more acutely [enact] the original curator’s vision.”1 In other words, by correcting Selz’s tunnel vision, the show could present a much more alive and openminded exhibition about the human condition in art. As historical revisionism, (new) New Images succeeded in showing how much more the original could have done if the art establishment, and Selz as its agent, looked beyond its own circle. But as a look into how art speaks to human trials and tribulations from today’s vantage, it still felt limited by the shadow of Selz’s show, once again leaning on the art establishment— which is certainly more diverse than it was in 1959, but still not diverse enough.
Peter Selz died in summer 2019 at age 100. His daughter Gabrielle, interviewed for his New York Times obituary, observed, “He would say that everything—a somber painting by Rothko or a Rodin sculpture—was about the human condition. My dad responded to emotion.”2 This indiscriminant interest in art as a window into humanity nicely explains the wide net cast by the first New Images. In his 1959 catalogue essay, Selz explained that the art in his show expressed “wounds of existence,” and revealed “sometimes a new dignity, sometimes despair, but always the uniqueness of man.” The work also asserted the “personal identity” of individual artists who were working in a time that, according to the Selz, was bogged down by “stereotypes and standardizations which have affected not only life in general but also many of our contemporary art exhibitions.”3 This read as a not-too-subtle jab at the dominance of Abstract Expressionism, and its associated ideologies, in the post-war New York art world.
However, given how much of the work in the original New Images belonged to or was inspired by Abstract Expressionism and Art Informel, it is difficult to understand just how effectively Selz sidestepped “stereotypes and standardizations.” Certainly, the exhibition rebuffed any false sense that abstraction was still the newest, most dominant or progressive development in art of the time. The language of anguish and intense emotion that Selz attached to the work in his show also may have defied stereotypes and standards, but many of the same artists had been described in more subdued terms elsewhere. For instance, Jean Dubuffet, who contributed to New Images violent and rough, textured portraits that were childishly rudimentary in their approach to anatomy, was described by critic Clement Greenberg as having “intensity” and “concentration”4 —whereas Selz said his work questioned existence itself. Rico LeBrun, then one of the main internationally-known painters based in Los Angeles, contributed loose charcoal and oil figures with heads vaguely resembling skeletons, and the then-young New Yorker Leon Golub showed a painting of a sometimes-limbless and out-of-proportion figure—Selz described both artists’ works as “frightening in their anguish.” He also found these artists “courageous” in their depiction of human hardship, hyperbole that now, looking back at the economic and social disparities of the 20th century, feels embarrassing.5 Critics at the time thought so too; Manny Farber wrote in Artnews that “the Museum’s monster show is confusion with wishful thinking buried under its sentimental hide.”6
Despite its curator’s aforementioned attempt to defy standardization, the original show’s homogeneity remains its most frustrating element. There were no artists of color (though some, like Selz himself, were Jewish), and while Germaine Richier, the one woman included, worked in many veins throughout her life (she died the summer before New Images opened), Selz chose to include works of hers that closely resembled those of her contemporary, Giacometti. This indirectly supported the inaccurate assumption that the latter influenced her (the type of sad, faceless figures depicted by Giacometti, whose work was featured on the exhibition catalogue’s cover, were clearly Selz’s preference). Selz did try to improve his gender parity record when he resurrected the show at Alphonse Berber gallery in 2009, including a few more women and revising the title to New Images of Man and Woman.
While (new) New Images of Man at Blum & Poe featured art by the original show’s old guard in multiple galleries, it was at its best when demonstrating how different the original could have been, by including works like Marilyn (1964) by Niki de Saint Phalle, an artist whom Selz made a habit of excluding from exhibitions (while championing her husband and collaborator, Jean Tinguely). Perched sphinxlike on a plinth, the almost-life-size figurative assemblage has burlap skin, lush raffia hair, large blue eyes, and smeared lipstick. Plastic baby dolls, toothy skulls, animal figurines, and fake flowers emerge from her body. The “wounds of existence” this sculpture speaks to—gender stereotypes, consumerism’s abuses—are far more local than existential. Beyond Saint Phalle, Gingeras included a number of female artists who were living and working back in 1959, and could have easily been included in the original MoMA exhibition: Yuki Katsura, Alina Szapocznikow, Lee Lozano, Carol Rama. They would have brought the levity and razor sharp wit that Selz’s self-serious dive into messy, painterly post-war figuration lacked. (The woman, used to being excluded, didn’t really give a damn about conveying epic emotion. Being artists who expressed any emotion at all was rebellious enough.)
In some ways, however, despite its inspired revisionism, the Blum & Poe show remained bogged down by its predecessor. For instance, Dave Muller, an artist on Blum & Poe’s roster who often reproduces vintage record and book covers in his work, made two massive paintings based on photographs of the original New Images of Man catalogue. In one, the larger-than-life image of the cover sports a yellow $5.00 Strand Books price sticker next to the mummy-like Giacometti, and in the other, Gingeras and Muller together annotated the blown-up rendering of the catalogue’s pages about Dubuffet. They circled scare quotes and questioned verbs (“‘emergence’ is a repetitive trope…as if figures ‘develop’ …organically or subconsciously”). They also installed small works by three artists—one female, and all self-taught—on top of this annotated spread. The intimately-scaled untitled 1944 watercolor by Italian artist Carol Rama, which features the same nude, ethereal and impudent woman Rama painted many times (this time with a floral crown and tongue hanging long over her chin), floated above Dubuffet’s bio. A mystical 1960 painting by mid-century American outsider artist Eugene Von Bruenchenhein and small, threadbare figurines that French artist Michel Nedjar made in the 1980s and ’90s interrupted a page about Dubuffet’s interest in masks and graffiti. Rama, Von Bruenchenhein, and Nedjar certainly complicated the narrative, but it was still Selz’s words that loomed largest.
Most galleries included at least one reference to a prominent old guard artist—in fact, in the catalogue, the show’s different galleries are labeled “after Giacometti,” “after Dubuffet,” “after de Kooning,” “after Bacon,” and “after Westermann,” though this organization isn’t specified in the press release. A floor piece in one gallery, described on the image list as an “interpretation of Willem de Kooning,” was a pastel drawing mimicking one of the same woman paintings that de Kooning contributed to the 1959 exhibition. The vital difference was that the Blum & Poe version was made by un-credited contractors hired by the gallery and laid underneath plexiglass for gallery-goers to walk on top of. While the difficulty of obtaining a de Kooning woman painting perhaps led to this improvisation, a greater significance was hard to pin down. Was the point just that we, in the 21st century, have become less reverent, better at appropriation and manipulation? And what does it mean that the maker went uncredited in a show about the human condition, staged at a time when thousands of art world laborers have been unionizing in an effort to make their voices heard (and now, in the wake of the pandemic, many of these same workers have been let go)?
In another gallery, work by Francis Bacon—also an old guard New Images artist—hung on a wall, except not in the way you’d expect. Again, sidestepping inclusion of an actual Bacon work, the gallery sourced an army of maroon Centre Pompidou tote bags with Bacon’s Seated Figure (1974) printed alongside the museum’s logo. The bags were repeated again and again across the wall, forming a type of wallpaper. Hovering over these totes was a painting by Henry Taylor, Untitled (ethiopian pharmacist) (2016), much larger than the miniature Bacon images, but ultimately quieter. While Bacon’s commercially reproduced figure writhes, Taylor’s sits calmly, working with a mortar and pestle, a cross on the wall beside him. Taylor, who depicts people he knows in addition to anonymous or historical figures, portrays a more class conscious world than Bacon ever did, one in which there is at least as much, if not more, cause for anguish and despair but less palpable interest in it. Though the use of the totes sits a bit uneasily—many artists in the show, including younger ones, have become ubiquitous in art world marketing, and it wasn’t clear if the totes were there to acknowledge or poke at this—the contrasting energy of these two artists was compelling. Such juxtapositions were a strength of Gingeras’ curation.
Elsewhere in the show, Sarah Lucas’ loopy, bodily, flesh-colored bronze (Elf Warrior, 2018) aped a 1965 bronze by Alina Szapocznikow, both of them weirder and more anatomically defiant than a nearby towering bronze female figure by César (another old guard male artist). César cut off his figure at the chest (she has no shoulders, arms, or head), and while Szapocznikow’s and Lucas’ figures have unnatural numbers of twisting limbs, they still seem more alive. The sheer number of artists in (new) New Images made room for many charming pairings, the best of which was the pairing of photographers Deana Lawson, active since the mid-2000s, and Zofa Rydet, who died in 1997 after spending the last 20 years of her life trying to document the interior of every home in her native Poland for a project she called Sociological Record. The two were paired in an installation in Blum & Poe’s lobby that was essentially a show inside a show—an homage to another influential “human condition” MoMA show often discussed alongside New Images: 1955’s The Family of Man. This felt less confusing in person than in writing, as the two photographers’ images were the first and last works viewers saw when walking through the exhibition— Rydet’s a compelling attempt to convey people’s economic realities alongside the care they put into their personal environments, and Lawson’s opulently staged in collaboration with her subjects, who pose in their own cared-for but imperfect homes.
While this pairing beautifully traversed class and opportunity divides, the majority of the artists represented in (new) New Images now have art world and art market credentials. Granted, there are a few exceptions: Luis Flores’ career is still young, and others, like the late Yuki Katsura, still don’t have the museum presence they deserve. But even once obscure outsider artists like Von Bruenchenhein have become market darlings; others, both late and living, have had their share of major museum shows and are represented by established galleries. Whatever progress it has made since 1959, the art world is still not known for its democracy and inclusivity. Being a gallery-represented artist is not accessible to all humans who make art, and situations like the one we are in now— where young artists lose the part-time museum jobs keeping them afloat and others realize that art school is not something they can afford—further reduce that access. For all (new) New Images did to upend a problematic, yet iconic, moment in art history, its lingering complicity with art world hierarchies ultimately lessened its resonance.
Catherine Wagley writes about art and visual culture in Los Angeles.
This essay was originally published in Carla issue 20.