Saturday, April 13th, 2013

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today: NYC 1993 at the New Museum

NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star at The New Museum

February 13 to May 26, 2013
235 Bowery, between Rivington and Stanton streets
New York City, (212) 343-0460

Felix Gonzalez Torres, Untitled, 1993.  Courtesy New Museum, New York. Photo: Benoit Pailley
Felix Gonzalez Torres, Untitled, 1993. Courtesy New Museum, New York. Photo: Benoit Pailley

NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, currently on view at the New Museum, examines the art scene in New York over the course of one year and attempts to chart a lineage connecting the city’s artists working today with the major players of twenty years ago.  Of course, many of the featured artists are still active in the New York scene, and it’s a falsehood to suggest that this group of artists was the first to engage in robustly political art.  The insinuation that these artists were the first to tackle such historically broad issues as race, gender, economic concerns and sexuality is one of the many frustrations of the exhibition, and while the works on display are some of the most visible of the period, one senses a missed political opportunity on the part of the curators.

The show is certainly prolific in scale, the first in the New Museum’s history to span all five floors and take up every gallery space.  The wall text and catalog essays (much of it written by curator Massimiliano Gioni and the New Museum’s director Lisa Phillips) stress the notion of “capturing a particular moment.”  This moment, according to Gioni, saw the rise of relational aesthetics—in his view a product of a global recession—as well as a critique of consumerism, and an emphasis on art as a basis for community building.  But why turn to 1993 as a time capsule for these problems?  On the same day as the press preview, the brilliant critic and theorist Amelia Jones was featured on a panel at the College Art Association Annual Conference titled “Art Criticism: Taking a Pulse.” In her talk Jones brought to light the enormous debt that Rirkrit Tiravanija and others working directly within Nicolas Bourriaud’s definition of relational art owed to the feminist artists of the 1960s and ‘70s.  I bring this up to illustrate that what Gioni terms a “new conceptual climate” seems much more influenced by the art of twenty years prior than is made public in the text for the show. The missing historical link is the broad adoption in the 1970s of postmodern theory in academia and MFA programs across the country, and the guidance of artist-teachers who were deeply invested in feminist and relational politics.

While much of the work in NYC 1993 is rooted in institutional critique and questions of gender and race, the wall labels and curators’ comments in the catalog are no match for the intellectual rigour of the art on display.  Furthermore, many of these works would be greatly enriched by a reading that steps outside of their historical contingency. David Hammons’s quietly shocking In the Hood consists of the hood cut from a green sweatshirt, hung on the wall.  The work recalls decapitation, the suspicious image of the hooded black man so often seen on facial composite sketches, and even evokes the Ku Klux Klan.  If the curators were to initiate a conversation that relates the art practices of 1993 with the political landscape of today, the shooting of the black teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012 would have been an obvious parallel to draw with this piece.  Hammons’s simple work is imbued with suspicion, fear, and the simultaneous concealing and exposure of identity: issues that are far more nuanced than the translation of “hood” as black lexicon for “neighborhood,” which the wall text offers.

With that being said, many of the works on display are incredibly powerful, and, for me, aesthetically representative of the time period the show examines.  Two understated pieces by the Mexican-born artist Gabriel Orozco on display in the second floor gallery fell under this category. Yielding Stone is a clay ball of the artist’s weight, which he rolled from his studio on Broadway to the New Museum in 1993.  The sculpture resembles a boulder, and though its surface is constituted by the grit and grime of lower Manhattan, the art object more closely resembles an organic form found outside the city.  Isla en la Isla (Island within an Island) is a small photograph taken next to the West Side Highway of a miniature Manhattan skyline made from garbage and wood debris facing the real skyline.  This “gritty” work, in which the city plays a lead role, is characteristic of the overall aesthetic of the exhibition. The rough simplicity of Orozco’s work shares an urban poignancy with the enormous, yet equally subtle, Félix González-Torres billboard Untitled, on the fourth floor. In marked contrast, the filmmaker Larry Clark’s multimedia installation revels in the same “downtown” aesthetic without the conceptual or emotional weight.

David Hammons, In the Hood, 1993. Athletic sweatshirt hood with wire. 23 x 10 x 5 inches. Courtesy of New Museum, New York. Photo: Benoit Pailley
David Hammons, In the Hood, 1993. Athletic sweatshirt hood with wire. 23 x 10 x 5 inches. Courtesy of New Museum, New York. Photo: Benoit Pailley

An arresting work to see in person was Janine Antoni’s installation Lick and Lather consisting of fourteen self-portrait busts deformed either through Antoni bathing herself, as she did with the busts carved from soap, or gnawing and licking away at those made of chocolate. The work was originally displayed at the ’93 Venice Biennale, and this show along with the ’93 Whitney Biennial were touched upon numerous times within the exhibition.  Glenn Ligon’s contribution to the 1993 Biennial catapulted him to art superstardom, and while his Notes on the Margin of the Black Book was absent from NYC 1993 (perhaps because he started working on the piece in 1991) his Red Portfolio was an ingenious addition to the exhibition.  The work exists as a series of framed descriptions, white text on black background, of Robert Mapplethorpe photographs as penned by the Reverend Pat Robertson in a 1989 letter for his constituents in an effort to describe government-funded works.  “A photo of a man in a suit exposing himself” refers to Mapplethorpe’s Man in a Polyester Suit (1980), an image that is a subtle and tender a commentary on the fear of black masculinity this is possible in the presence of an enormous black penis.  The culture wars of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s was certainly burned into the public consciousness of the time, and Ligon’s work brilliantly displays the attitudes of the religious right without judgment or commentary, allowing the slippery relationship between art images and language to be laid bare.

My experience of NYC 1993 was one of equal parts frustration and fascination.  It would have been impossible to include every revered work from that year in the exhibition, but the selection of art chosen by the curators was extraordinary. It must be noted, however, that a majority of the work was rooted in the political or institutional critique of its time.  The frustration thus lies in a reticence on the part of the New Museum to examine more closely the historical and social contingencies of the art on display, and the ways in which it differentiates itself from art being produced in 2013. Instead of taking up these thorny issues, the curators have presented a neat time-capsule exhibition that seemingly functions no differently today than it would have in 1993.

Gabriel Orozco, Island Within an Island, 1993. Silver dye bleach print, 16 x 20 inches, Edition of 5. Courtesy New Museum, New York. Photo: Benoit Pailley
click to enlarge
Janine Antoni, Lick and Lather 1993. 7 soap and 7 chocolate self-portrait busts, 24 x 16 x 13 inches each. Courtesy New Museum, New York. Photo: Benoit Pailley
click to enlarge