How the Guggenheim got its groove back


When lockdown was lifted last spring, some of our largest New York City museums were able to slide major wait-in-the-wing exhibitions into place. The Guggenheim wasn’t so lucky. Joan Mitchell, who traveled retrospectively to fill out her rotunda, was cancelled. The museum may have whipped up a crowd-pleasing show of modernist chestnuts from the collection. Instead, it did something more interesting. It transformed itself into an old-fashioned alternative space.

It already had a few small side-gallery shows on place or on the track, including a selection of stunning, captivating photographs by 2020 Hugo Boss Award winner, Dina Lawson. But to fill its spiral central space – high and wide, a combination cathedral and moat – the museum had to be inventive, and did this in a multipart series of installations called “Re/Guess: Video, Film and Performance for the Rotunda.”

In part, the program was designed to facilitate social distancing. Ramp bays, which usually hold paintings or sculptures, were left empty. With an emphasis on projected imagery, the rotunda’s skylight was covered and interior lighting was kept low. And because some of the video work was as much of a sound, bench seating was provided. (On more than one visit, I’ve found people lying on benches, just listening.)

All these tweaks have given the space an improvised vibe. They make Frank Lloyd Wright’s design feel livable in a way I can’t remember before. They also create a sense of off-kilter tension, the kind that can lead to unexpected behavior in a familiar place. And that tension filters into more traditionally set shows in off-the-ramp galleries. You find some art that you thought you knew, and the museum it houses is looking a little less predictable.

The Rotunda project began last March with a program of short videos from the museum’s collection, selected by the exhibit’s curator and media, Nate Trautman, and projected on a large, suspended screen. This was followed in May by the first show of film and audio work by the Rwandan-born Dutch artist in New York. Christian Nyampeta, which made Wright’s grand spiral the equivalent of an academic lecture hall and Pan-African video festival. The presentation was engaging, a real lockdown gift.

So there was a live performance titled “Romantic Songs of the Patriarchy,” Composed by Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjrnsson and repeated over four days in early July. It featured two dozen singer-guitarists, all female or non-binary, positioned along the length of the ramp and performing golden-old pop love songs at a time. The singers were great; Songs like Bruce Springsteen, Cat Stevens and Lil Wayne sounded melodious, but – why didn’t you ever notice? – Many of the lyrics were deeply wrong.

And the current and final presentation of the project, “Wu Tsang: Anthem,” silver-lining pandemic turned out to be another stroke of luck. Organized by Guggenheim Assistant Curator X Zhu-Nowell, its main visual element is a short, loopy film created by a transgender American artist and artist. wu tsango Another pioneer of trans figures, African American musician and activist Beverly Glen-Copeland, The image of which is projected onto an 84-foot pleated curtain hanging from the ceiling of the Guggenheim.

We first see Glenn-Copeland, who is 77, perform her own chant-like music, then sing an a cappella version of the spiritual “Deep River”. In both, his voice is woven into an aural and instrumental tapestry created by Tsang and musical collaborators Kelsey Lu, Asma Maroof and Daniel Pineda. Jerking in its visual and sound effects and vaguely and one of the most emotionally moving things I’ve seen in this space, “Anthem” was commissioned by the Guggenheim as the lockdown was starting and this The presentation was completed on time.

NS The Dina Lawson Show, set in one of the many off-ramp galleries, is also, inexplicably, in a very different way. Born in Rochester, NY in 1979, Lawson is a combination of painter and fabulist, documentarian and storyteller. His subjects are black; During her travels in Africa, Brazil, the Caribbean and Brooklyn, where she lives, most of the strangers she sees on the street and in other public places. In collaboration with her subjects, she usually creates tableaux in domestic settings, which include sensuous glamorizing and disturbing details.

A naked, pregnant woman in a repo in a 2019 photo titled “Denare”, shot in Brazil, looks like a police surveillance monitor on her ankle. Woman, partly naked, possibly even pregnant, lying in “Delion? Unknown” (2020), eyes closed. She may faint, may even die. And an old woman, completely dressed in black , in “Moneta’s Passing” (2021), in fact Is Dead and lying in a state, surrounded by flowers, in a chaotic room. James van der Zee’s unforgettable Harlem funeral pictures come to mind immediately here.

Increasingly, and openly, Lawson deals with spirituality: African, Afro-Caribbean, Afrofuturistic. Religious images and references appear everywhere. Photographs are displayed in reflective frames that send a prismatic halo floating across the gallery floor. At the center of the installation is the artist’s first free-standing hologram, a pulsating abstract nugget of light around which the show, hosted by Katherine Brinson and Ashley James, revolves. The tableau in some paintings are more stable than in others; Something pushes, uncomfortably, toward the bizarre. But Lawson’s most memorable portraits have always gone on an indescribably thin high wire on the politics of photographic intimacy.

Second, the more public type of politics is the subject of “off the record,” A 13-artist group show – cut from the collection by James, associate curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art – questions the “fairness” of journalistic reporting and historical “fact”. Here, the illusion of truth and fiction that clearly manipulates Lawson’s work is also at play, but as a political weapon in the realms of commercial mass media and establishment record-keeping.

In the early part of the show, “Herald Tribune: November 1977,” Conceptual artist Sarah Charlesworth (1947–2013) blindly edited the front pages of a month-long newspaper to isolate a recurring, though officially unacceptable theme: the prevalence of male-generated violence. In a series of prints titled “Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America 1968-2008,” Hank Willis Thomas employs insidious truths in racially targeted advertising. And, in an ongoing project, California-based artist Sadie Barnett examines a 500-page FBI file on her father, Rodney Barnett, a former Black Panther, and annotated the document to expose her as a means of harassment. .

The show is well timed for the reality denial “fake news” era we are living in. But even though artists can diagnose post-truth as a problem, is there anything they can do about it, get the word out? At least one, Colombian-born Carlos Motta, tries to in an article titled “A Brief History of the American Intervention in Latin America Since 1946.” To this end, he has compiled his mind-blowing chronology of government misdeeds, printed it as a handout, and left a pile of takeaway copies in the gallery. raise a. Read it. pass it on.

At most large, general-interest art museums, a medium-sized show like “Off the Record” will be an item on a diverse tasting menu, with its logic and urgency forgotten as you move on to the next attraction. (The Museum of Modern Art has its roots in modern department stores, and that model remains strong.) But at the Guggenheim, in its current pandemic-forced “experimental” mode, all exhibitions feel connected by a shared political charge, Including the small historical survey called “Knotted, Torn, Scattered: Sculpture After Abstract Expressionism”.

Organized by Lauren Hinkson, it is a snapshot of the American movement – ​​post-minimalism – of the late 1960s, as sampled through the work of six artists: Linda Benglis, Maren Hasinger, Robert Morris, Senga Nengudi, Richard Cera and Tony Smith. The work, made of rubber, ropes and bodies, was considered innovative in its time, a thumb in the eyes of the Minimalist Monument. And the mini-survey has its own innovative (for the Guggenheim) features.

Three of the six performers are women; And two of them are African American; And one of those two, Hasinger, recently after a long career – in his mid-70s – began to get the institutional attention he deserves. Her piece on the show was just acquired by the museum last year, and it’s a beauty: a beautiful, ceiling-high, drawing-in-air network of draped rope that can double as a dance set. (She’s a performance artist as well as a sculptor.) And today, in the world of Black Lives Matter, it’s impossible not to see that she uses multiple lengths of rope, the noose at the end.

Black Lives Matter has permanently changed our cultural institutions. Covid-19 and its surrounding propaganda campaigns have changed them as well. So, in ways yet to be clarified, January is 6. There is no going back to the old “normal”. Ordinary is not what art is, if it is good. I like to think that the post-lockdown Guggenheim, home to the most charismatic art space in town, is a looser, less-loved-than-usual museum than it once was. we will see. In the meantime, its summer lineup gives a taste of what could be.


The following exhibitions are at the Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Avenue, (212) 423-3500; Guggenheim.org.

Wu Tsang: Anthem (through September 6);

Hugo Boss Awards 2020: Dina Lawson, Centropy (through October 11);

off the record (through September 27);

Knotted, Torn, Scattered: Sculpture After Abstract Expressionism (through September 19).



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