On Curating “Postwar” at Haus der Kunst (ARTMargins Print 8.2)
Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945-1965, curated by the late Okwui Enwezor alongside Katy Siegel and Ulrich Wilmes, was held at Haus der Kunst, Munich, only a little over two years ago (October 2016-March 2017). The exhibition and its accompanying catalog have already achieved canonical status among scholars interested in the increasingly interconnected networks of modern art internationally after World War II. Ambitious in scope, generous in outlook, and remarkable in its capacity for critical and self-reflexive dialog, Postwar exemplified many of the qualities that made Enwezor the most significant curatorial voice of the last quarter century.
Postwar explored how more than 200 artists from over 50 countries responded to a radically transforming world in the aftermath of World War II, the Holocaust, and the atomic bomb, and amidst Cold War divides, decolonization movements, the struggle for Civil Rights, and the invention of new communication technologies. As Rattanamol Singh Johal outlines in his review in the current special issue of ARTMargins print, the exhibition was most notable for its historically rigorous and inclusive approach that juxtaposed critical if often underrepresented art historical movements as diverse as Socialist Realism, calligraphic abstraction, and Neo-Concretism in dialog with more recognized movements such as Abstract Expressionism and Neo-Dada. Ultimately, in the words of Johal, the greatest achievement of Postwar was its ability to “confront head-on the challenge of perceived incommensurability, closely related to the notion of quality, that had for decades prevented many artists in the show from exhibiting alongside their more credentialed peers.”
On March 8, 2017, Siegel delivered a lecture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, that outlined the historical and conceptual framework of Postwar by providing a broad overview of the show’s contents, the logic behind its various thematic sections, and the ways in which the curators developed nuanced strategies to decenter—rather than eliminate—American and European art from a more global story of postwar modernism. As the final event in the Art, Institutions, and Internationalism conference (on which the ARTMargins special issue is based), the lecture capped off two days of intensive discussions on how political internationalism and its attendant institutions impacted the development of art around the world in themid-twentieth century.
In the conversation with art historian Romy Golan following her lecture, Siegel outlined the various curatorial decisions that went into Postwar and discussed how exhibitions can confront entrenched ideas of quality and belatedness inherited from Eurocentric readings of modernism and initiate new directions in scholarship.
Romy Golan: In many ways Postwar was a perfect show—a moving and generous show. It was maximalist and it made you really recalibrate. An exhibition is a format where you can work synchronically, in contrast to a text or a film. For example,the section Nations Seeking Form was one of the most original parts in the exhibition. It showed the different positions of nations that just became independent. And at the same time, it included what I thought were daring things like décollage, which asked questions in France about Algeria. Every time you thought you knew what you were getting into everything was reformatted. It’s rare that an exhibition can do that. Every single one of the eight sections questioned itself as it defined itself at the same time.It was really quite extraordinary.
There are, however, some issues I want to discuss. First of all, the Haus der Kunst building. It’s a toxic building. What were the curatorial gestures where you felt you were addressing the building? I couldn’t forget for a second where I was; the ground was burning under my feet. I felt this especially in the first room. Yet I have to say as an Israeli I was very struck by the way the Holocaust was not addressed directly, I thought it was actually very moving. It was done by Hannah Arendt’s deep voice, interviewed in German at the outset of the show.
Katy Siegel:Germans do a much better job of addressing the Holocaust than Americans have done with slavery. We Americans have had a lot longer and we’ve just started to look at it. Haus der Kunst has done a relentless job of looking at the Degenerate Art Show. They have a whole section of the museum called the Archives Room where they do these exhibitions that look at their own history but without congratulating themselves for doing it. And they do it with meticulous detail. If the museum staff had their own way there would probably be a whole room of that in the Postwar exhibition but for me that’s out of proportion. Without trying to offend anybody, it was important for me to acknowledge the genocide happened, but it didn’t become “the Holocaust” until years after the war. The exhibition was saying the Holocaust is a fact and very much concentrated as an awareness and a trauma after the war, but with a broader geopolitical scope in mind, we could not say it was a greater tragedy than the tragedy of colonialism and other atrocities in the world. There’s no sense in saying one or the other is the ultimate and comparing tragedies.
RG: In a way, Germany was both present and absent in the exhibition. In spite of the Joseph Beuys’ work in the first gallery, I felt there was a certain absence of Germany and in particular of East Germany throughout.
KS: I feel like Stephanie Barron and Eckhart Gillen addressed that issue so immaculately with their exhibition Art of Two Germanys: Cold War Cultures at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2009. I’m not sure what we would have added. That exhibition, and its substantial catalog, provided a comprehensive view of art produced on both sides of the Wall in divided Germany. What we did do was include artists like Ernst Ney, whose paintings traversed the boundaries between abstraction and realism. Ney is not someone who is on our mind here in the US, but who was so important in every Documenta and other exhibits at the time.
RG: Throughout the exhibition, the push of this new postcolonial era and the ongoing processes of decolonization was extremely strong. But I felt there was a reemergence of the soft power of America at the end. America was both nowhere and a little bit everywhere.
KS: Part of the problem of a show like this is American art waseverywhere in the 1950s and ‘60s: we had so much more money, so many more artists, and the artwork didn’t get destroyed as in other countries. American art was also worth money. After Jackson Pollock’s death in 1956, the American art market takes off. Then of course America has this military-economic dominance. To look at it in terms of overall composition of the exhibition, how much America is too much? I would have maybe rolled it back a little bit further but Okwui and Ulrich were saying that in reality, American art was everywhere and it was important and that a lot of that art was really good.
We didn’t want to obsess about a certain nationalist, institutional vision— for example, to recreate the exhibition New American Painting (1958-59). We talked about recreating exhibitions within the Postwar exhibition, but we ended up with a compromise throughout the show, representing work that was shown at the time. For example, there’s a book that was published in Cairo called Female Egyptian Painters(1953) and then, you look at the São Paolo Biennale in 1953 and the Venice Biennale in 1952, both of which include the Egyptian artists Gazbia Sirry and Inji Efflatoun. Those points of overlap between local and international exhibitions are the artists we chose. There’s something of that rough and sloppy calculation with selecting a lot of the artists. But that can also be quite arbitrary and we didn’t want to let that be our only guide. The only place where this selection process is problematic by default is in the section Networks, Media and Communication at the end of the exhibition. Media and technology are unevenly distributed so it’s hard to keep that from being a teleological history. We relapsed into a discussion around development and who’s advanced because the research is all there to show how important radio was in Egypt and Algeria, so it’s not as if people did not have technology in the Middle East or Africa, but it doesn’t show up in the art. So then you have to say that it is what it is. And that’s a genuine measure and matter of power: who has the atomic bomb, who has computers.
RG: Concretism and Neo-Concretism were brought together in the Concrete Visions section, which meant that in the sections on New Images of Man and Forms Matter you didn’t have to deal with gestural abstraction versus geometrical abstraction. The geometric abstraction moves to South America away from Europe, where it’s considered a little bit passé, and is instead in South America where it’s revitalized. Was there a sense in the exhibition of two different temporalities? Was that a conscious decision?
KS: The section Form Matters was really about materialist abstraction. I’m going to insist that we not use words like “passé.” These things happen simultaneously. An area where young scholars are doing really interesting work is the global life of artistic strategies and practices, emphasizing their specific meanings in different locations, more than parsing the slightly different times they happen. The meaning in a so-called center like Paris is just as provincial and local as it would be anywhere else. It’s also interesting to track the ways in which figures like Max Bill and especially David Alfaro Siqueiros circulate and engage artists very broadly outside their context of origin.
RG: Now on to the Realisms section. In writing the essay for the Postwarcatalog with Nikolas Drosos, we realized how paintings from some Western communist nations ended up in collections in the East, and especially Moscow. Mecca was Moscow for these artists, but many of them never made it there so it was very interesting to think of the movement of their works and where they went. In that section we also had marvelous juxtapositions of an Andrew Wyeth painting next to a painting of Stalin by Fyodor Shurpin both with the same endless landscape and big sky and that sense of sovereignty and calm that only the Soviets and the Americans could have during those years.
Of course, some of the juxtapositions we had in mind when writing the essay were not what ended up being in the section. Some of the Palestinian paintings were originally in Realisms, and I remember saying they belong to Nations Seeking Form. They ended up there next to the Israeli paintings which, well, we can think what we think about that juxtaposition. These juxtapositions are very powerful. If you study the history of exhibitions you have to see those curatorial gestures. Additionally, the section included all these different realisms, which was striking in particular, with China and also the southeastern parts of the Soviet Union, because there was a very strong center and periphery within the Soviet Union. However, at the end, these realisms remained contained within one section. Boris Groys would say that these big Socialist Realist paintings don’t belong to museums at all. That they were made to be “art and life,” that they are not artworks. At the end of the exhibition, when we get to the mediasection suddenly there is no more Socialist Realism, though in fact it continues in many countries way after the end date of this exhibition. I had a definite sense of containment.
KS: Realisms did in fact blur with the adjacent section on New Images of Man, where you had directly figurative work, like paintings by Alice Neel and Beauford Delaney depicting real people like James Baldwin, and then also less naturalist painting by Wilfredo Lam. I think those works are some of the most complex. Lydia Liu, a historian at Columbia University who works on questions of transnationalism, wrote an essay about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights written in 1948, which was a monument of internationalism. She talks about the translation of it in every country and how it ends up meaning something different depending on the way it’s translated. I feel like it’s necessary to acknowledge that these modes—humanism, abstraction, realism—don’t translate seamlessly from one context to another. You would think Realismwould translate but it doesn’t in some ways. It stays contained.
RG: In Forms Matter, I loved the way gestural abstraction was collapsed with materialism, but the most original sections in Postwar were the sections Cosmopolitan Modernisms and, as I said earlier, Nations Seeking Form, which had works we had not seen before. In this case a lot of the artists from India, Pakistan, and other countries were also distributed throughout the exhibition. What do you say about the fact that the Cosmopolitan Modernisms section, which was about calligraphic modernism, didn’t include work from East Asia, from countries like Japan?
KS: We didn’t include the genre of calligraphy per se, from any country, which is a decision one could debate. Cosmopolitan Modernisms mostly focused on permutations of the Arabic script as adapted in painting as a modern genre. Mark Tobey’s Verso i Bianchi (Towards the Whites)from 1957 is included, and for example, Tobey was specifically interested in China and that would be another transnational project to talk about that relationship. We could also think of how many of the Arab artists were working as painters, poets, and graphic designers. You can see that a lot of catalog covers were designed by the same artists in the exhibition. You see this in Eastern Europe too, that there is not a firm line between these genres.
RG: Another issue that came up is pseudomorphism, bringing together works that look alike although they were produced in totally different situations and for different aims. Pseudomorphism was a powerful thing in Postwar, and I felt that the curators used it as a creative tool.
KS: With “pseudo” the term starts badly and then it ends badly with “ism.” In between there’s possibly something of value. A provincial New York strain of formalism, developed by critics like Clement Greenberg and extended and calcified by the October circle into an ideology, underlies the idea of pseudomorphism. The more productive question could be: what place might looking have in a historical and rigorous investigation of modern art globally? Where might that take us as a starting point, rather than an ending or a closing down? I think we need to be encouraged to look and to see what was happening at the time through the circulation of works. Everyone was looking at Paul Klee at the time, for example, and many Middle Eastern artists claim an affinity with him, or with Tachisme or Informel. Each case must be individual, but I think we need to start with open eyes.
Christian Rattemeyer (from the audience):One of the most striking feelings I took away from Postwar was that you were proposing a profoundly different reading of what it means to be a good artist. You spoke about equality rather than quality in your lecture. I felt you were proposing that a good artist is a moral artist and not an experimental artist. This rejects an October-edited Art Since 1900 (2005) insistence on the experimental, formal, progressive, propulsiveness of the avant-garde. If the project of the avant-garde is radically disavowed, as is the idea that art after 1945 is a resuscitation of the utopian impulse of the prewar avant-garde, how does that completely reorder the way we rewrite an art history of modernism?
KS: I’m not a social worker. It’s not that I’m proposing a morality test in order to decide who is a good artist. I would argue that most of the work in the show is really fantastic. I would not accede to the idea that Varujan Baghosian is not as good an artist as Carl Andre. With regard to “propulsiveness,” for one thing, Art Since 1900is one of the most bankrupt histories I can imagine. It’s predicated on what it leaves out, and on knowing that what counts is the end result and that whatever gets you to that end is what counts. The second thing I want to put aside is the whole idea of a neo-avant-garde. I never believed in accounts of a neo-avant-garde as what was driving post-war art. I see these accounts as a refusal to provincialize or to see as local each iteration of modernism in Europe and the US, instead continuing a seamless transcendent story that goes from Europe to America, that propulsive story, where it doesn’t matter where anything happened. The story continues whether you are in Russia or America, or wherever. The reason I ended up doing the show is because as an art historian my account of the US is entirely about its provinciality. When you look at it that way, you do end up with a different story and a different set of criteria.
In 1956, the Nigerian painter and sculptor Ben Enwonwu went to Washington, DC, through the Harmon Foundation’s exchange program for African and African-American artists. In the newspaper he talked about how he expected American critics to say that his art was bad, adding that painting well isn’t the only criteria for good art. He didn’t say what the other criteria were for good art. Is it that he’s black and he’s African? That’s not what he was talking about. But his statement, even today, let’s us wonder what those criteria might be. And to think about what those criteria might be is such a good starting place. It’s a good question for museums to ask. It’s a question I feel I haven’t answered properly after working on this project for five years. I always want to argue for a history that is not a stylistic history nor a moral litmus test, but a social history.