Alter-Canons and Alter-Gardes – Formations and Re-Formations of Art Historical Canons in Contemporary Exhibitions: The Case of Latin American and Eastern European Art

By Oesterreich, Miriam; Handberg, Kristian | Journal of Art Historiography, December 2018 | Go to article overview

Alter-Canons and Alter-Gardes – Formations and Re-Formations of Art Historical Canons in Contemporary Exhibitions: The Case of Latin American and Eastern European Art


Oesterreich, Miriam, Handberg, Kristian, Journal of Art Historiography


Introduction

Recently, major curatorial efforts have focussed on redrawing the global map of modernism and delineating alternative histories of art in the twentieth century. Examples include Postwar: Art between the Pacific and the Atlantic 1945-1965 (20162017), Art in Europe 1945-1968 (2016-2017), and The Other Trans-Atlantic: Kinetic and Op Art in Eastern Europe and Latin America 1950s-1970s (2017): three large-scale exhibitions of mid-twentieth century modern art aiming both to unify an appeal to a wide audience with a research-based approach, and to establish a global focus, moving beyond the fixation with the West.

Drawing on the case studies of the presentation of Latin American and Eastern European art in the aforementioned exhibitions, our aim is to discuss how current art historical canons are defined and by whom, how a new interest in rethinking the traditionally perceived centres and peripheries is finding expression in the museum landscape, and how newly shaped, 'alter-modern' canons are integrated into these processes. While recent curatorial initiatives have stimulated an understanding of the modernist art world that focusses on the fragmentary and ruptured, enabling a re-positioning of 'peripheral' art production within the latter, we propose that these initiatives nevertheless contain mechanisms for re-formations of canons, albeit in an all-inclusive global form. Our article will include a revision of the traditionally attributed roles of Latin American and Eastern European art,1 a comparative analysis of the three recently-held exhibitions (2016-2018) and a discussion of models for alter-canonizations.

The modern museum, as Hubert Locher has pointed out, 'displaying the canonical frame of reference, [...] was to become the most important institution for the formation of art-historical canons [.].'2 Accordingly, art historian Hans Belting has highlighted the role of the Museum of Modern Art, New York (MoMA), as the museum institution that "created the canon of modernist art" like no other and launched the "modernist myth'".3 If modernism itself is the history of artistic rebellion against established notions of the canon and transgressions of traditional genres by a diverse array of 'new' approaches, its musealization has nevertheless been tied to the formation of a specific modernist canon - exemplified, as Belting explains, in the twentieth-century collections of MoMA. Belting even claims that '[m]odernism often functioned as a barrier protecting Western art from contamination by ethnic or popular art, and it marginalised local production as unprofessional. In response, non-Western art sometimes acted with an antithesis to the claim of universalism that was inherent in modernism.'4 The logic is thus set: inclusion into the modernist canon at the same time always meant exclusion. The canon is not a neutral term to describe 'natural' tendencies of art reception but is more like an ideological field, expressing powerful, instable struggles for dominance.

A famous visual attempt to construct and fix a canon of modernism is the chart of Cubism and Abstract Art drawn up by Alfred H. Barr (1902-1981): the founding director of MoMA visualised a genealogy of modernist art which was printed on the dust jacket of the Cubism and Abstract Art exhibition in 1936 (Fig. 1).

Starting in the upper section, Barr presents fin-de-siecle art movements and their main protagonists as the sources for a genealogy of modernism that then complexly unfolds with the ongoing downwards timeline. "Primitivist" inspiration sources are marked in red, while abstractionist or proto-abstractionist tendencies and their protagonists are in black. In a surprisingly reductionist finale, the chart ends with only two categories, both contemporary to Barr then: non-geometrical abstract art and geometrical abstract art.

Several artists have followed Barr's example and visualized genealogies of modern art in a much more figurative, if no less selective way: Nathaniel PousetteDart in 1938 and Ad Reinhardt in 1946 constructed tree charts, thus creating strong hierarchies operating from a roots-trunk-leaves metaphoric and visual constructions of a linear and progressive time. …

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