Outliers and American Vanguard Art
National Gallery of Art, Washington
Opens January 28
Who’s in, who’s out? Who matters, who goes uncounted? The irony of the art world’s massive expansion of the last 30 years is that a greater breadth of permissible styles has not been matched by a greater breadth of creators; credentials, whether from an MFA program or the right gallery, matter more than ever, while strangers to the system are treated as curiosities at best. Even the best efforts to equate insiders and outsiders — such as Massimiliano Gioni’s 2013 Venice Biennale, where established names showed alongside visionaries, prison inmates, the insane, and other self-taught artists — have underlined the distinction between the two, as if to remind us of how reliant we are on biography and official explanation. The avant-gardes have shuffled off to the retirement home, pluralism is the art world’s only watchword, but let’s be serious: when form no longer speaks for itself, social distinction has to pick up the difference.
What we today call “folk art” — a term abjured by Lynne Cooke, the curator of this years-in-gestation exhibition, one of the most important on the books for 2018 — was invented by American art dealers in the years around 1920. Later, during the Depression, the Works Progress Administration assembled its Index of American Design, which codified the country’s material culture into an art historical reference. The untrained painters and sculptors it catalogued were not deemed “artists” in the way that academicians and avant-gardists were. But untrained painters, quilters, ironmongers, and scrimshaw masters were everywhere in the young United States, and those outside the mainstream could often end up in the forefront of artistic development. James Castle, a deaf mute from Idaho, drew with soot and found paper, and his collisions of everyday objects and signs unfixed from any meaning prefigure the work of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. Or have a look at the midcentury artist Janet Sobel, whom Clement Greenberg pithily called “a ‘primitive’ painter...who was, and still is, a housewife living in Brooklyn.” She was, whatever her label, making all-over drip paintings before Jackson Pollock.
It’s not only that artists outside the mainstream came to the same discoveries as paid-up art world members; they were, at times, direct influences. For a new generation of American artists, the flatness and abstraction they saw in folk art had an uncanny correspondence with the modernism they saw trickling in from Paris — which, in turn, had been decisively influenced by unnamed African and Oceanic sculptors also denied the status of “artists.” And this is the promise of Cooke’s show, which tours after its Washington debut to the High Museum in Atlanta and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art: that by forgoing any distinction between “folk art” and “real art,” we might begin to picture more fully how forms migrate across geographic distances and social distinctions, and at last get a sense of the country’s whole culture. This show’s clunky title is an early indication that the “American vanguard” is to be found in more places than New York, and sprang from more fonts than just art school.
Butterfly Wu: Queen of the Movies
Shanghai Center of Photography
Opens January 20
Three years old now, China's first museum for photography presents an exhibition devoted to Hu Die, who under her lepidopteran pseudonym became perhaps the biggest movie star in louche prewar Shanghai. Butterfly Wu starred in China's first sound film, Songstress Red Peony, and her confident portrayals of independent women, evoked through more than 200 images here, served as a model for half of modern China.
Opens January 20
As part of a huge season of Japanese contemporary art — suitable for this Alsatian outpost of the Pompidou, designed by the Japanese architect Shigeru Ban — Centre Pompidou-Metz is presenting the largest show ever of a dance and theatrical troupe that made strides in video art and early multimedia. This substantial retrospective, organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo director Yuko Hasegawa, will reintroduce Europeans to Dumb Type's groundbreaking works from the 1980s, which combined moving images and motion sensors to create deeply moving tableaux.
Fondation Beyeler, Basel
Opens January 21
An upside-down world: the German artist, turning 80 this year, paints angry and ugly canvases that are at times bottom-side-up, and he remains certain that women just “don’t paint very well.” A retrospective of this ultra-prolific figure offers a chance to see if he meets his own criteria for excellence that he denies to an entire gender. Travels after to the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington.
Museum de Fundatie, Zwolle, Netherlands
Opens January 21
In the 1990s, Rauch emerged as the most prominent figure in the briefly world-famous school of Leipzig, grabbing hold of the tradition of East German figurative painting and making it theatrical, ornery, strange. Not all Leipzig painting aged well; this 65-work retrospective, starting off with works from his first show at Eigen+Art in 1993, promises a chance to consider.
Slovak National Gallery, Bratislava
Opens January 25
A rediscovery of one of the most significant architects of 1920s central Europe takes place this month in an underrated city, just an hour from Vienna by train. Like his fellow Danube-dweller Adolf Loos, Weinwurm designed buildings whose lack of ornament belied extreme care, and his rational, unified homes and apartment blocks envisioned a new model of living. The Jewish architect died in mysterious circumstances in 1942, and won renewed esteem after the end of communism.
Morgan Library & Museum, New York
Opens January 26
Even if you haven’t read A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara’s alternately adored and reviled novel of love and abuse, you’ll remember the cover photograph: Hujar’s Orgasmic Man, in which a blond ephebe shuts his eyes in painful pleasure. The American photographer receives the full treatment in this retrospective, which tours afterwards to the Berkeley Art Museum.
Stories of Almost Everyone
Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
Opens January 28
One of the most ambitious exhibitions of the season aims to unravel one of the biggest headaches of the age: if we really believe contemporary art can communicate ideas, why do the wall texts usually do most of the speaking? The thirty artists in this show all make works resistant, in various ways, to textual interpretation; among them are Matthieu K. Abonnenc, who produced a portfolio for Even no. 3, and Christodoulos Panayiotou, interviewed in Even no. 7.
Frick Collection, New York
Opens January 31
An unprecedented American outing of 13 paintings by the master of the Spanish Golden Age, depicting Jacob and his dozen sons and loaned from a castle in northern England. If his contemporary Velázquez seemed to be charging into the modern age but had the 17th century stuck in his way, Zurbarán has a different appeal: grand tableaux that mix the redemptive promises of Catholicism with the earthiness of provincial Spain.