Arriving at the firehouse-turned-studio where sculptor and architect Dee Briggs centers her art practice, it’s hard to ignore the feeling that you’ve stumbled upon a well-kept secret. Located in Wilkinsburg, a small town just outside of Pittsburgh that’s become better known in recent years for its economic decline rather than its prosperous history, the building is partially obscured from public view by an abandoned house that towers over nearby Swissvale Avenue. In fact, nearly every street within walking distance of Briggs’s studio features either a vacant lot or an abandoned home, nature quietly reclaiming the open spaces and derelict structures in a tangle of thistles and ivy. The reality outside her front door, however, is not lost on Briggs. Instead it’s an issue that occupies her thoughts and informs her work.
I wonder whether there will ever be enough tranquility under modern circumstances to allow our contemporary Wordsworth to recollect anything. I feel that art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos. A stillness that characterizes prayer, too, and the eye of the storm. I think that art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction. —Saul Bellow, the Art of Fiction No. 37, 1966
Cory Arcangel’s new book, Working on My Novel—based on the Twitter feed of the same name—is a compilation of tweets from people who are putatively at work on novels. No more, no less. On Twitter, this concept feels merely clever; printed and bound as a novel would be, though, it becomes a vexed look at novels’ position in the culture, and a sad monument to distraction.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, nightmare-like imagery appeared on television screens across the country. News footage of two commercial airliners flying dangerously low through the New York skyline played on an infinite loop. The twin towers of the World Trade Center hemorrhaged fire and black smoke against a clear blue sky. Office workers helplessly plummeted from windows. Clouds of ash rolled through New York’s financial district like slow-moving dust storms. Crowds of strangers wept and hugged one another in the streets. It was unbearable to watch, yet impossible to look away. Thirteen years later that graphic imagery still lingers in the nation’s collective memory, a stark reminder of what personal loss and incalculable horror looks like.
Like so many other people who looked on in disbelief that day, Chilean-born artist Sebastian Errazuriz was influenced by the events that transpired. For more than a decade, Errazuriz—whose first major solo museum exhibition, Look Again, opened last Friday at Carnegie Museum of Art—has been creating sculptures, photographs, collages, and sketches in memory of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Collected under the title Never Forget, Errazuriz treats the ongoing project as not only an exercise in memory, but as a way to reconsider the messages and imagery that surfaced both during and after the attacks.
Let me start by saying this: Carnegie Museum of Art, where I am curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, could go further to be more welcoming, more accessible, and frankly, more fun for Pittsburgh’s artists. Working toward this goal has been a priority, among many, for me—and my colleagues, including Amanda Donnan (guest editor at Pittsburgh Articulate, where this essay originally appeared)—since I got here in May 2009.
As part of this effort, the five curators then in the contemporary art department (Daniel Baumann, me, Amanda, Tina Kukielski, and Lauren Wetmore) initiated the Apartment Talks series at a space in Lawrenceville. We ran this alternative space, a component of the 2013 Carnegie International, for almost two years on top of 12-13 hour days at the museum, and loved doing it. Pittsburgh artists made up the majority of the presenters, and their names and images of their work were published in the International catalog. This is not nothing. That catalog is in the hands of curators, collectors, critics, and artists all around the world. For two years that small apartment in Lawrenceville became what I would like to see all over Pittsburgh: a place for Pittsburgh artists, writers, filmmakers, educators, collectors, curators, and others to connect and exhibit with artists from all over the world. This coming together should not be the exception, but rather the rule. Continue reading
Read part 1 of this essay.
Much has changed at Carnegie Museum of Art since the heyday of Conceptual art, and the movement is now fully integrated into the permanent collection alongside Abstract Expressionism, Pop, Minimalism, and other major developments in postwar art history. The Carnegie International, the museum’s unique asset, has helped immeasurably in this regard. Today, visitors even have their experience of the entire collection prefaced by works of Conceptual art, including one created for the 1985 International. Despite their bright colors and bold shapes, Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawing #450, A wall is divided vertically into four equal parts. All one-, two-, three-, and four-part combinations of four colors (1985) and Wall Drawing #493, The wall is divided vertically into three equal parts. All one-, two-, and three-part combinations of three colors (1986) exemplify an art of ideas that prioritizes the artist as thinker over the artist as maker. LeWitt conceptualized plans for both works but left to others what he called the “perfunctory affair” of actually drawing them. Installed as they are alongside the staircase that leads from the museum’s entrance to the second-floor Scaife Galleries (where the collection largely hangs) and visible from the adjacent Sculpture Court, LeWitt’s drawings stage Conceptual art’s core proposition—that art is thought—at the point of greatest visibility within the museum.
I mention this transition from invisibility to full visibility because it has considerable historiographical importance. A small but dedicated body of scholarship has emerged in recent years to examine Conceptual art’s exhibition histories and collection histories. Within it, however, the question of how museums contribute to historicizing Conceptual art has received less attention. Carnegie Museum of Art proves an instructive case study of this process because its involvement with Conceptual art occurred after the movement’s emergence and development. Its interest in the movement has always been historical in character—the museum’s primary means for engaging with contemporary art, the Carnegie International, was undergoing a period of transformation that overlaps almost exactly with the emergence, development, and decline of Conceptual art. After a successful run of Internationals during the 1950s and early 1960s that facilitated the acquisition of major paintings and sculptures by the likes of Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and David Smith, the International was shuttered (for various reasons) after the 1970 International. It reopened in 1977 in the newly built Scaife Galleries as a showcase for the work of one or two artists before finally settling into its present format during the 1980s. (It should be noted that when the International was on hiatus in the 1970s, curator Sally Dixon’s film program at the museum did support a number of filmmakers, including Hollis Frampton, Tony Conrad, Michael Snow, and Paul Sharits, whose work is in dialogue with Conceptual art.)
Conceptual art was not yet historicized when the museum took an interest in it, so its collecting and exhibiting was not predetermined by a history of prior historicizing. As a result, the museum’s belated engagement with Conceptual art emphasizes the movement’s legacies—what could be called Conceptual art since Conceptual art—more than its original moments. This notion is instructive insofar as it highlights a museum playing an active role in constituting an art movement’s legacy through a program of acquisitions and exhibitions.
Few works by Conceptual artists entered the museum’s collection until 1980, when a combination of gifts and purchases began to address what had grown to become a major blind spot. Mel Bochner, a Pittsburgh native, played an important role in jump-starting the process. His wall drawing Syncline (1981) was commissioned at roughly the same time that Bochner himself donated a small LeWitt drawing, A Point Equidistant from Three Points… (1974). These are the first Conceptual artworks to find their way into the museum’s collection. Painted directly onto the wall in Scaife Gallery 16, the work is the first of several works by Conceptual artists to be incorporated directly onto the museum’s architectural surfaces as permanent installations.
The acquisition of LeWitt’s wall drawings in the mid-1980s continued this tendency, and Lothar Baumgarten’s large and permanent installation The Tongue of the Cherokee (1985–1988), acquired from the 1988 Carnegie International, extends it further. Located in the Hall of Sculpture’s skylights, where it requires viewers to crane their necks and direct their gazes up to the lofty realm of concepts and ideas, the work presents the syllabary of the Cherokee language that Sequoyah invented in the early 19th century. Like Bochner’s and LeWitt’s wall drawings, Baumgarten’s work shows Conceptual art developing in its own aftermath. All three artists are original practitioners of Conceptual art who emerged in the 1960s and 1970s and had achieved significant institutional recognition by the 1980s, enabling them to elaborate upon their ideas on a grander or more monumental scale than the humbler works they had previously produced.
Other latter-day works by early Conceptual artists to have made their way into the collection include Lawrence Weiner’s boldly colored wall text Ever Widening Circles of Shattered Glass (1984–1986). Though it continues the highly reductive comportment of his earlier and definitive artist’s book Statements (1968), this work is, by comparison, monumental in its mode of presentation as it takes up an entire gallery wall rather than a mere page in a book. In a related manner, Dan Graham’s Heart Pavilion (1991), an installation made of mirrored glass and aluminum, remains conceptually tied to his materially humbler but groundbreaking photo and text works, many published in magazines, like Homes for America (1966–1967), which consider, among other things, the meaning of architectural forms. Bruce Nauman’s neon work Having Fun/Good Life, Symptoms (1985) similarly builds upon the artist’s own precedent by developing his earlier interest in neon as a material in an elaborate and colorful way as well as extending his thematic interest in language to encompass more diverse verbiage.
Though the museum’s collection is deepest in these later works by early practitioners of Conceptual art, it has also acquired a few older works of Conceptual art, including two early Bruce Nauman videos, Bouncing in the Corner No. 1 (1968) and Slow Angle Walk (Beckett Walk) (1968), that both document the artist performing in his studio. Nauman’s videos were acquired in 2009, one year before several others by Martha Rosler, another artist whose ties to Conceptual art involve scrutinizing both language and the body. Her Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975) and Vital Statistics of a Citizen, Simply Obtained (1977) have proven to be especially valuable additions to the collection, as demonstrated by their recent and fruitful pairing with an installation of International alumnus Haegue Yang’s Series of Vulnerable Arrangements — Domestics of Community (2009) that emphasizes shared concerns with gender and domesticity across a generational gulf. Rosler is, like Broodthaers, a good example of an artist whose work has only increased in stature since its original creation as her impact on a subsequent generation of socially and politically conscious artists has made itself abundantly clear. Yang, meanwhile, is one of many artists to have emerged in Conceptual art’s wake. Others include Mike Kelley, Tim Rollins + K.O.S., Cindy Sherman, Rirkrit Tiravanija, and Jeff Wall, and all have shown in Internationals. Their work in the museum’s collection manifests the diversity of Conceptual art’s influence on artists working in mediums ranging from painting and sculpture to photography, installation, and participatory art.
The curatorial team that organized 2013 Carnegie International made a novel decision to reinstall the museum’s permanent collection as part of their exhibition. Throughout this combination of two surveys—one restages the histories of modern and contemporary art through time and the other presents a selective overview of art being made around the world now—the continuing impact of Conceptual art remains much in evidence. For instance, Gabriel Sierra’s Untitled (111.111.111 x 111.111.111 = 12345678987654321) (2013), a purpling of the Hall of Architecture’s exposed surfaces, uses the wall directly in a manner not dissimilar to LeWitt, Bochner, or Weiner. Like these precedents, Sierra’s work is visually bold yet open-ended as far as its meaning is concerned. In a different but still distinctly conceptual vein, Bidoun Library’s presentation of its holdings of printed matter pertaining to the Middle East uses the pavilion form previously employed by Graham. Its critical explorations of representation draw on Broodthaers’s precedent-setting investigations of the museum as context and site of power in order to unpack how the concept of the Middle East, like the history of art, is not given but culturally and socially constructed.
These two drastically different works show that issues raised by Conceptual artists remain vital and, moreover, unresolved. Nearly everything about the movement is open to debate, and decisions made at museums about which artworks to acquire and what art to exhibit play an important role in the ongoing process of historicizing Conceptual art. Carnegie Museum of Art’s later reception of Conceptual art overlaps perfectly with the history of that historicizing, and its collecting and exhibiting exemplify Conceptual art’s unfolding legacy. This activity testifies to one of the movement’s most welcome characteristics: its refusal of closure and its seemingly infinite openness to ongoing permutation. The history of Conceptual art since Conceptual art continues apace.
Robert Bailey is assistant professor in the School of Art & Art History at the University of Oklahoma. He is writing a book about the Conceptual art collective Art & Language.