The Guggenheim has unveiled two excellent exhibitions that identify and address issues of social transformation and cultural conflict – but, taken together, the pairing makes for an awkward couple.
Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video
The first exhibition, Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video, is a thirty-year retrospective for an artist long at the forefront of contemporary art (one who was recently awarded a MacArthur Fellowship). In Three Decades, Weems investigates the structures of social inequality and cultural difference, presenting a myriad of images – through photographs, videos, textiles, ceramic, and other media – that offer an impactful, striking critique, executed in masterful form and technique.
Weems is also an artist whose career – as a woman of color examining issues of gender and race – has unfolded with a conspicuous lack of institutional support. In fact, the retrospective is not only a landmark for Weems, but also for the Guggenheim: Three Decades marks the first large-scale exhibition of work by an African-American woman at the museum. Indeed, the symptoms of institutional ‘othering’ make up the majority of works on display, and together provide a nuanced and thoughtful analysis of cultural oppression and social privilege.
The exhibition is expansive – there are well over a hundred works on view, mostly photographs – but for a career retrospective it feels surprisingly modest. In fact, others have noted that portions of the exhibition, which has been traveling around for nearly two years, were either parsed down or cut entirely from the Guggenheim exhibition. Furthermore, the retrospective is actually split between two different floors, uncomfortably sandwiched into the auxiliary galleries off the main spiral corridor. This exhibition design gives the visitor a rather stilted, sometimes frustrating experience, as is the case when trying to follow the sequence of Weems’s famous Kitchen Table (1990) series. Three Decades would benefit from a little more breathing room – perhaps afforded by the main exhibition space, where it should have been installed.
Italian Futurism, 1909-1944: Reconstructing the Universe
In contrast, the exhibition on view in the main gallery, Italian Futurism, 1909-1944: Reconstructing the Universe, is a delightful collection of blockbuster painting and sculpture, accompanied by rare or never-before-seen works, including drawings, prints, textiles, and a colored light-and-sound environment. The exhibition is a behemoth, to say the least, presenting one of the most comprehensive displays of Futurist art ever shown in the United States.
Italian Futurism was a diverse movement that ushered in a new paradigm for aggressive, forward-thinking art in the twentieth century. This description can be easily applied to much of the historical avant-garde – those radical artists, groups, and movements, that symbolize the so-called ‘Era of Isms’ – and, like many others, the Futurists truly saw themselves (and their art) as agents of social change.
The Futurist movement was formed in 1909 following the publication of F. T. Marinetti’s inflammatory “Futurist Manifesto,” which vehemently attacked cultural tradition and respect for the past. Instead, Marinetti and others extoled what they understood as virtues of modern life: machines, speed, and war. For the Futurists, the use of bombastic political rhetoric and the creation of celebratory, dizzying images of Italy’s industrial infrastructure, could jumpstart what they perceived as its artistically and morally bankrupt culture. By embracing the conditions of modernity – speed, technological progress, mechanization – it was believed they could instill greater ethics, passion, strength, and social integrity, in turn reviving the state’s depressed, poverty-stricken economy.
The movement began as a diverse group of artists, writers, and political activists who were fascinated by the concepts of speed and movement – symbols of modern industry and mass urbanization. Specifically, they were interested in the capacity of modern art to address themes of invention, originality, and irreproducibility, and were particularly engaged with the representational experiments of the Cubists, such as Picasso and Braque, synthesizing their devices of spatial abstraction with their own interests in durational movement. As such, artists like Umberto Boccioni, Gino Severini, and Giacomo Balla, were not as interested in depictions of space itself as much as the movement of objects (cars, trains, people) through space at high speeds. Many of the works on display – mostly, paintings, but also sculpture – depict fractured, synesthetic scenes of undulating, repetitious forms, which only slightly resemble the objects they are meant to represent. Instead, the Futurists attempted to capture, preserve, and transpose the visceral, psychologically affective sensations associated with modernity. The exhibition presents an engaging chronological survey of this collective effort, beginning first with the group’s modest engagements with Post-Impressionism, their subsequent adoption of Cubist-inspired fractured space, the use of propagandistic imagery at the onset of WWI – which many of the members actively supported – and the later, second phase of Futurism following the war through the rise of Benito Mussolini’s Fascist regime. Overall, the exhibition provides a rare opportunity to see the movement as stylistically dynamic rather than monolithic, presenting many artists, including the infamous noise-maker Luigi Russolo, in a new light.
However, the Futurist movement was an incredibly masculine endeavor, and the group actively condoned, embraced, and even instigated, acts of confrontation, aggression, and violence. For example, in Marinetti’s manifesto, the author goes as far to decry the current Italian state as too feminine, and thus too weak, a symptom apparently rectified by, among other things, driving fast cars and shooting canons. These aspects, including Marinetti’s early friendship and later support of Mussolini, make for an unsettling experience, where delicate, analytical studies of light, space, and movement, are juxtaposed with declamatory celebrations of war, nationalism, and social superiority.
There is minor thematic overlap between Italian Futurism and Three Decades – namely, a pervading sense of cultural unrest – but the exhibitions quickly diverge. In fact, the unabashed celebration of white male aggression in the former only further reinforces themes of social oppression within the latter, making a challenging experience for the viewer who sits somewhere in the middle. This connection was likely unintentional, but, for better or worse, remains an important – and at times uncomfortable – paradigm that places the two exhibitions in dialogue.
Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video is on view January 24–May 14, 2014
Italian Futurism, 1909-1944: Reconstructing the Universe is on view February 21–September 1, 2014
Charles Eppley is an art historian and sound enthusiast living in Brooklyn, NY.