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An ambitious statement about American art, Take It or Leave It: Institution, Image, Ideology examines the intersection of institutional critique, a practice entailing a structural analysis of museums and the art market, and appropriation, a mechanism of recontextualizing found images and ideas. Curators Anne Ellegood and Johanna Burton show that the two, despite having originated from distinct strategies of practice and consecutive historical periods (the 1970s and 1980s), have overlapped significantly, as reflected in their reception by the generation of artists that followed. Although the two movements have typically been understood as extending from Conceptual art, the exhibition highlights the formative role that feminism played in their development, underscoring the significance of artists such as Adrian Piper, Mary Kelly, Martha Rosler, and Dara Birnbaum in the redefinition of subject matter, methods, strategies, and aesthetics. It demonstrates that the revolution in the 1970s against heteronormative values and the institutions that sustain them, such as the family unit, language, and regimes of representation, led to a parallel questioning of the assumptions at the heart of artistic practice. In this way, Take it or Leave It poses a feminist genealogy where before there has been primarily a male-oriented one.
With thirty-six artists, many represented by more than one work, the show is bursting at the seams, with works spilling into the hallways and installation-sized projects butting up against one another. However, rather than overwhelming the viewer, it communicates the energy of a highly politicized era in cultural production, where artists believed in the persuasive power of art. The show opens with Silvia Kolbowski’s Proximity to Power, American Style (2003–4), an audio and slide work revealing the machinations of power and masculine ideologies; Nayland Blake’s Feeder 2 (1998), a rendition of a gingerbread house with strong olfactory as well as visual allusions to the interconnection of mythology, identity, and radical sexuality; and a classic Barbara Kruger text piece Untitled (Hello/Goodbye) (2014) that aggressively interpellates museumgoers walking up the grand staircase from the lobby. Through these, the exhibition’s focus on the relation of subjectivity to politics is established. The opening wall text separates works in various media into themes, including politics, media, America, interaction, archive, and public record, which structure the display while revealing overlaps between and among them. Foregoing chronology, canonical works are shown through the lens of their posthumous influence. For example, two sections from Kelly’s epic Post-Partum Document (1973–79), a chronicle of her infant son’s introduction into language and worldview that mimed the organizational procedures of the arts and sciences, are classified under the rubric “Representation” and follow a previous thematic clustering under “Museum” that gathered works by Renée Green, Andrea Fraser, and Mark Dion. Accepting that chronological sequencing results in a false comfort (as if in history one thing follows another), the curators chose instead such strategies as showing the past through the lens of the present, revealing the ways in which narrations of the past are a construction and do not necessarily represent an absolute truth.
Like any exhibition, this one is not without fault. The inclusion of some artists, such as Rirkrit Tiravanija, better classified as practitioners of relational aesthetics, may seem idiosyncratic, a fact the curators admit to in the catalogue essay but that nevertheless weakens rather than strengthens the show. Most jarring is the inclusion of Paul McCarthy and the juxtaposition of his Michael Jackson (Fucked Up), Silicon (2001), a steel and black-silicone-rubber sculpture in the scale of a modest equestrian monument, with Glenn Ligon’s Notes on the Margin of the Black Book (1991–93), a complex comment on Robert Mapplethorpe’s scandalous Black Book (1986). That Mapplethorpe’s hyper-sexualized images of African American men are appropriated from a book is highlighted by Ligon’s persistent inclusion of the book’s page numbers within the frame. Contrasted with citations selected from texts discussing the multiple controversies surrounding Mapplethorpe’s photographs, Ligon’s configuration, regardless of the various intentions of the writers and their levels of nuance, ultimately underscores how the photographed subjects have been constructed as images, as ideas.
In contrast, McCarthy’s vaudevillesque work references, as opposed to appropriates, Jeff Koons’s Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988), a specimen of mass-produced porcelain kitsch scaled to life size. While it may serve to bring in the spirit of one of appropriation art’s namesakes, the viewing conditions demarcated by Michael Jackson (Fucked Up) clash with the cerebral contemplation and full concentration that Notes on the Margin demands of the viewer to grasp the multiple meaning layers produced as the recontextualized materials clash and collide. Nevertheless, the exhibition coheres, as its strong cluster of artworks shares attitudes, strategies, and concerns.
In the introduction to the catalogue published along with the show, Ellegood and Burton describe their method as “tracing critical impulses over time.” Rather than observing how movements or practices stack chronologically, the exhibition considers “horizontal” influences, where artists are constantly learning from one another in a concurrent intergenerational reality. To demonstrate their logic of overlapping histories, the curators point to the Venn diagram, a schema used by Jacques Lacan to describe the intersection of psychic strata, and which Kelly had applied in demarcating her area of intervention when she brought psychoanalysis and feminism to bear on conceptualist art making. For artists of her generation, interdisciplinarity was a means with which to use the tools of one field for critical perspective on the ideologies of another in order to reveal how disciplinary axioms end up arranging our lives. Kelly extended her analysis to how the vocabulary of display reflects, and even produces, our modes of knowledge, addressing museum display as a site consolidating received ideas, definitions, or modes of practicing art. Today Kelly’s influence manifests in both art and curatorial methods, as does, for example, Fraser’s work—the writing of these artists providing some of the most astute bibliographies for the burgeoning field of curatorial studies. The significance of feminism is seen everywhere, then—not only in the artwork, but in the approach that drove the curators to rethink period, chronology, or movement in how they corralled the artworks.
Take It or Leave It thus takes its place alongside recent related shows, including This Will Have Been: Art, Love and Politics in the 1980s (Helen Molesworth curator, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, 2012) and NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star (Massimiliano Gioni, Gary Carrion-Murayari, Jenny Moore, and Margot Norton curators, New Museum, New York, 2013), revisitations of the political thrust in late twentieth-century art. With the first surveying a long decade and the second focusing on one key year, both consolidate what many in the field have long recognized: that identity politics has had a lasting impact on art making. While Take It or Leave It foregrounds feminism and only mentions identity in passing, as an approach consolidated around the significance of gender, feminism is a political program based on identity.
Together with its contemporaneous revisions, Take It or Leave It forms a discourse. Foregrounding a set of exhibitions as points of reference, it reinforces the significance of their narratives alongside that of historians. In this way it supports an extended canon of curatorial projects, such as The Decade Show: Frameworks of Identity in the 1980s (Sharon F. Patton, Julia P. Herzberg, Laura Trippi, and Gary Sangster curators, New Museum, Studio Museum in Harlem, and Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art, 1990), the 1993 Whitney Biennial (Elisabeth Sussman, John G. Hanhardt, Thelma Golden, and Lisa Phillips curators, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1993) and the same institution’s Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary Art (Thelma Golden curator, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1994), or Freestyle (Thelma Golden curator, Studio Museum in Harlem, 2001), that despite having been controversial at the onset, have over the years, with continued interest, revisionist analysis, and contextualization, revealed themselves to have captured the paradigm of their times.
In her catalogue essay Burton directs attention to two key precedents: Pictures (Douglas Crimp curator, Artists Space, 1977) and What Happened to the Institutional Critique? (James Meyer curator, American Fine Arts, 1993), smaller-scale efforts that have had sizable historical impact. Critical of the “the generalization of the political” at the 1993 Whitney Biennial, Meyer’s curatorial antithesis nevertheless helped focus what would ultimately become the most significant aspect of the 1993 Whitney Biennial, which although disorderly, spoke quite coherently in the language of cultural studies about the topic of identity politics. The discourse it produced alone made it one of the most significant exhibitions in the late twentieth century. The hybridization of ostensibly incompatible models in Take It or Leave It has the 1993 Whitney Biennial to thank as its precedent (as the latter in effect consolidated a cross-section of institutional critique and identity politics). The ambition of Take It or Leave It is that it aims to compensate for a lack of a systematic history to support an exhibition like itself, which charts a nuanced track within a very large field in which conceptualist-based practices from the 1960s to the present were significantly influenced not only by the civil rights movement, as Take It or Leave It’s main label mentions, but by an entire range of aesthetics of resistance best classified under the umbrella term identity politics, the maligning of which has resulted in a gaping hole in American art history. As a movement that overlaps with much of the progression from institutional critique to appropriation and forward, identity politics is the specter haunting Take It or Leave It’s relationship to its past. If there is anything lacking for Take It or Leave It to become as precise a response as Meyer’s was to the 1993 Whitney Biennial, it is that identity politics is still waiting for a project that will do for it what WACK: Art and The Feminist Revolution (Connie Butler curator, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 2007) (click here for review) did for feminist art. I am not advocating here for canon formation as much as noting that these exhibitions, being statements about the state of the field, have authority, and that, even if generalized and populist, they change the direction of the discourse by forming a mainstream, affording projects like Take It or Leave It the opportunity to elaborate a focused contribution in response.
Associate Professor, School of Art, California State University Long Beach
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