Last year, Andrea Bowers was in conversation with Martha Rosler at the Dia Art Foundation. The two artists discussed “If You Lived Here…,” a project about homelessness and real estate in New York City Rosler presented at the Dia in 1989. Invited to explore the Dia’s archives and select a show to discuss, Bowers said she chose Rosler’s because it “educates, activates, and organizes—everything I hope my work can do.”
Los Angeles-based Bowers is a self-declared activist and feminine artist whose multidisciplinary practice is political, addressing immigration, gay rights, rape, and environmental issues, among other topics. Given the opportunity to browse another archive, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection of more than 450,000 objects, Bowers said she was inspired by the work of Howardena Pindell (b. 1943), an African American artist who essentially created her own form of painting by using a hole punch to deconstruct painted surfaces and make collaged, layered works by reconstituting the circular cut outs.
In a new book, “The Artist Project: What Artists See When They Look at Art,” Bowers explains her attraction to Pindell’s works on paper, a postcard collage in particular.
“Howardena Pindell studied painting at Yale in the sixties. She talked about how art teachers would say, ‘You won’t be taken seriously if you use pastel or glitter or flowers.’ So she decided she was going to use those things. She’s expanded aesthetics to prioritize other colors, forms, or textures that have been seen as nominal or insignificant or too feminine,” she said.
Bowers added that she “loves” Pindell’s “Oval Memory Series II: Castle Dragon,” a mixed-media work acquired by the Met in 1981, because its organic oval shape departs from “the square grid of patriarchy” and it also connects “the personal to the historical.” Composed of dissected postcards, the 1980-81 work references the artist’s memory loss after a serious car accident as well os displacement and loss of rootedness in the African diaspora as a result of slavery.
“The Artist Project” is the book version of the web series the Met produced in 2015-16. The museum selected 120 critically acclaimed contemporary artists and released brief videos (available online) in which each shared “what they see” when they look at art in the Met’s collection, which dates back 5,000 years. The project provided a platform to highlight the museum’s holdings and draw connections between largely historical works and the fresh perspectives of artists working today.
A number of African American artists were included in the project. Nick Cave, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Kerry James Marshall, Julie Mehretu, Hank Willis Thomas, Mickalene Thomas, and Kehinde Wiley, and several others were among those who participated, revealing the artists and works in the museum’s collection that inspire them and may influence their own work.
It's a handsome volume. The book includes more than 250 matte-finish pages almost all of them illustrated. Two pages are devoted to each contemporary artist and the work to which they are responding.
Similar to Bowers, artists share details about what drew them to the works and ways in which the artists summoned something in them. These first-person insights provide the text throughout the book. Many of their choices seemed natural, representing through line from one artist’s work to the other. African American photographers Dawoud Bey and LaToya Ruby Frazier, for example, talked about African American photographers who came before them.
A social documentary photographer, Frazier is recognized for a major body of work exploring how the decline of the steel industry has impacted her hometown of Braddock, Pa., her family and its health. She was particularly moved by “Red Jackson,” a 1948 photograph of a Harlem gang leader taken by Gordon Parks (1912-2006).
She called it a “non-judgemental portrait” and said his approach to image making “allows the poor and the ostracized and the alienated to have power and an authority in their images because he is shooting it with so much dignity and human awareness and care.”
Gordon Parks “allows the poor and the ostracized and the alienated to have power and an authority in their images because he is shooting it with so much dignity and human awareness and care.” — LaToya Ruby Frazier
For Bey, Harlem artist Roy DeCarava (1919-2009) was the first African American working in the medium of photography that he could look to for inspiration. He focused on DeCarava’s technical acuity, his use of natural light and shadows and the style and composition of his images. The photographs capture the people and places he encountered in the “ongoing movement and flow of everyday life.”
Bey, a Chicago photographer who won a 2017 MacArthur Fellowship, considers political and social issues through the lens of community-based projects in his own practice.
Emphasizing the documentary value and cultural significance of DeCarava’s work, Bey said, “His photographs were not only of African American subjects, but his deeper contribution was as an African American artist who took that piece of himself out into the world and brought that into his work. He understood that his own particularly racial subjectivity was a deeply embedded part of the meaning of the work.”
Other artists reached further back into the Western canon. Wiley selected John Singer Sargent (1856-1925). Akunyili Crosby, another 2017 MacArthur Fellow, responded to “Embroidery: The Artist’s Mother” by George Seurat (1859-1891). Marshall identified with “Odalisque in Grisaille” by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867).
Chicago-based Marshall paints big, beautiful portraits and scene paintings that explore the black experience. His mission is to diversify the art history canon with representations of black people and black narratives. Given this, his interest in the French artist is fascinating. “I am a fan of Ingres as a painter. But the best is the portraiture. It’s stunning in its pictureness because we don’t know any of those people. Don’t care, in some ways, who they are. But they look beautiful in a picture. I am interested in the artifice of it all,” Marshall said.
“I am a fan of Ingres as a painter. But the best is the portraiture. It’s stunning in its pictureness because we don’t know any of those people. Don’t care, in some ways, who they are. But they look beautiful in a picture. I am interested in the artifice of it all.” — Kerry James Marshall
Marshall’s choice and that of Bowers and others demonstrate one of the values of broadening the canon. Artists are inspired by artists, not necessarily black ones or white ones. The Artist Project provides prime examples of intellectual, conceptual, and aesthetic connections overriding tendencies toward homogeneity.
Hence, Josiah McElheny talked about being inspired by Horace Pippin (1888-1946) and Wangechi Mutu delcared she is stunned by drawings of Egon Schiele (1890-1918). “The power, the simplicity, and the clarity in his line are absolutely dumbfounding,” Mutu said.
Glenn Ligon sought the unfamiliar. His text-based painting practice explores race and identity. In the Met’s collection, the Brooklyn-based artist was attracted to The Great Bieri, a wood sculpture that is the head of a reliquary ensemble from Gabon. “I often say that I don’t understand sculpture. What I mean is that I don’t make it so the problems of sculpture are foreign to me,” Ligon said.
By contrast, Bradford was drawn to a kindred spirit. The Los Angeles-based abstract painter, who represented the United States at the 2017 Venice Biennial, focused on Clyfford Still (1904-1980), the 1950s abstract expressionist. When Bradford discusses Still’s work, he emphasizes his use of color, scale and mark making and how his works were in all likelihood responding to the politics of the time—observations one could make about Bradford’s layered collage paintings, which do indeed comment on contemporary social justice issues.
“Clyfford Still pushes back against intimacy. It’s big. It’s not easel painting that was containable and something you snuggle up around and get cozy with. When I see a mark that’s being repeated almost obsessively I always ask myself, what is he trying to get to?” said Bradford.
“There’s a conversation that he’s having with that surface and with himself, and probably with art history and his peers. He’s leaving little markers, guideposts, for us. As an abstract painter, I do the same thing: I leave bits of the conversation.”
“Clyfford Still pushes back against intimacy. It’s big. It’s not easel painting that was containable and something you snuggle up around and get cozy with. When I see a mark that’s being repeated almost obsessively I always ask myself, what is he trying to get to?” — Mark Bradford
The Artist Project won a 2016 MUSE Award from the American Alliance of Museums. The gold award for online presence cited the smart mix of storytelling and technology on the Met’s website that “allows for multiple voices beyond just the museum’s…” The book version of the project also stands out.
When Frazier talks about photographs by Parks or Bradford discusses Still’s paintings, the included text stating their insights is a copyedited version of what they said in the videos. In this respect, the published volume is a close reproduction of the digital project, which begs the question as to whether it is duplicative. Why get the book when you can watch the videos online?
I viewed many of the Artist Project videos and found the corresponding content in the book to feel fresh, insightful, and revealing. The printed volume provides an alternative, more intimate, way of accessing the information, understanding the artists’s perspectives, and studying the images from the collection. If you followed the online project, you will appreciate the book. Similar to an exhibition catalog, it’s a tangible documentation of the online project. Page after page, artist’s speak with candor and passion about what they “see when they look at art.”
“I’ve read a lot of reviews of Pindell’s work, and every review talks about her rage. It’s a horrible stereotype that black women are angry, and I don’t see rage in those works at all,” said Bowers. “Just because she has a political voice and she she’s standing up for what she believes in does not mean rage.”
Bowers goes on to say this: “The most important thing about an artwork is being able to hear what an artist is saying. What do they care about? What is their voice?”
“The Artist Project: What Artists See When They Look at Art” by The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Phaidon, 272 pages). | Published Oct. 16, 2017
TOP IMAGE: Detail of HOWARDENA PINDELL, “Oval Memory Series II – Castle Dragon,” 1980-81 (cut and pasted postcards, tempera, gouache, fluorescent paint, punched papers, nails and thread on foam board). © Howardena Pindell | Screenshot from Met Museum Artist Project, Andrea Bowers Video, Season 6
“Howardena Pindell: What Remains to be Seen” documents a forthcoming five-decade survey of Howardena Pindell’s practice organized by MCA Chicago in February 2018. Earlier this year, “Shade: Clyfford Still/Mark Bradford,” was presented at the Denver Art Museum (DAM) and Clyfford Still Museum (CSM). The exhibition at DAM featured Mark Bradford’s work alongside related paintings by Still. Meanwhile, at CSM, Bradford curated a show of Still’s work. The catalog for “Shade” is sold out, but many other volumes explore the work of Still and Bradford.