As planning for the 2013 Carnegie International intensifies, so does curiosity about previous iterations of the show. Recently, I saw a New York Times review of the 1982 International. The exhibition marked a return to the traditional survey format, after a hiatus of more than a decade when Carnegie Museum of Art was building a new wing and then mounting one- or two-person shows of contemporary art. I’ve always heard that, despite the return to the tried-and-true anthology form that Andrew Carnegie had prescribed in 1896, the 1982 show was not well received, and the review confirmed that.
In my memory, 1982 is a pivotal moment when artistic trends that had been coalescing over the previous five years or so finally cohered. There was a shift away from the anti-materialist ethos of Conceptual art that had prevailed from the 1960s through the 1970s, when many of the best-known artists made ideas paramount over visual impact, and works were often reduced to words typed on an 8 ½ x 11” sheet of paper. In 1982, Conceptual art was still with us, but the most influential works took new, more marketable forms (e.g. large-scale photography and photo-processes) and often appropriated known images and tropes from art history and advertising. In addition, painting—thought to be “dead” during the heyday of Conceptualism—came roaring back. Works were huge and often deliberately in questionable taste or made using debased materials. US artist Julian Schnabel, for example, painted on black velvet—associated with kitschy souvenirs—and attached antlers to his works.
There was also a challenge to the American dominance of the international art world that had emerged after World War II. Germans such as Anselm Kiefer and Georg Baselitz, and Italians like Francesco Clemente, Enzo Cucchi, and Sandro Chia were garnering serious attention in New York. They, too, made spectacularly large paintings in emotive, expressionistic styles.
The International’s curator Gene Baro did not include any of these artists in his exhibition. A well-known writer and curator who had been the director of the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC, Baro seems to have seen himself fighting a lone battle against commercialization. He wrote in the catalogue of avoiding “art that has been fashionably overexposed,” and “new superstars, puffed by media hype.” He purposely focused on artists concerned with “the operations of color,” who were “out of favor.” There were some exceptions—David Hockney, for instance, was a big star in the 1980s—but most of the featured artists worked in styles that, in 1982, had little resonance.
Critic Grace Glueck was reasonably evenhanded in her review of the show. She acknowledged that it contained some beautiful works but also a lot that were just dull. In the end she asks, “Should we laud Mr. Baro for his wish . . . to sidestep the trendiness of the art scene?” She decides not. “The raison d’etre, after all, for any big international show . . . is to report what’s going on, not what one wishes were happening.”
The point is not that curators should show trendy work. Including emerging artists and those who have been overlooked or forgotten—telling people something they don’t know—is crucial to the success of an exhibition; but those artists must speak to the cultural moment. Showing artists who are obviously out of favor can actually hurt them professionally and it doesn’t do the curator or the museum any good, either. It’s often helpful to look back at the past. The curators working in the 2013 International are certain to keep the 1982 exhibition in mind as they give form to their show.
Until next month,