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Magazine

30 October 2017
The Young Never Die

Xavier Acarín

Revisiting works by older artists, be they forgotten, dead or alive, has become a trend on the rise in the art world. Such exercises clearly obey economic prescriptions, whose force influences and consolidates dynamics and interactions between the various agents in the art system. Sometimes, the inclusion of such artists in shows, biennales and documentas is also the result of academic and curatorial interest, enabling us to explore, underpin or challenge genealogies and sketch hitherto unknown stories. It can also be read as an experience linked to critical revisions of key exhibitions in recent art history, so popular lately [1], and last but not least, as a reflection on current modes of distribution and visualisation, and those conceptions of time in an age of profound global transformation.

At a commercial level, the recovery of artists has gained presence and value in the art market at a time of great uncertainty. We are speaking here of low-risk products, as the oeuvre of senior artists is almost limited and in all probability will shortly increase in value as the artists pass away, so it is vital for these artists to be established within academic canons and for them to obtain a certain degree of recognition before they die. In keeping with this situation, trade structures have been set up to meet the needs of such operations, broadening the business of bequest administration and management. One example of this change of trend is Andrea Rosen, who closed her gallery last spring to devote herself exclusively to this specific market — resurrected at each transaction, the dead provide us with wealth.

Despite the difficulties in evaluating this market, we should note that in recent years specialised spaces have emerged such as Spotlight, a section of Frieze dedicated to artists who held their first solo shows before 1970, which has been very successful of recent years in London and New York, as confirmed by few details of last year’s Art Basel:[2] postwar and contemporary art still represent more than half the market, despite being on the decline since 2014. The slump in sales of modern art, that dropped by 43% in comparison to the previous year, is more pronounced, and the only sector of the art market that has grown by a discreet 5% is that of European old masters. Only 41% of the sales of postwar and contemporary art correspond to works produced by living artists. Unfortunately, I haven’t found specific data regarding age in this group of artists. I would like to add that all indicators show a slow yet continuous decrease in the volume of the art market in all regions of the world.

In recent times, New York has staged several shows dedicated to artists unknown to the general public, most of them women. A symptomatic case is that of Carmen Herrera, an artist who continued to work in the city despite her scarce commercial success and who entered official history at the age of 101 when her work was the object of a retrospective exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2016. Agnes Martin, Lygia Pape, Lygia Clark, Carol Rama, Nicola L., Teresa Burga, Virignia Jaramillo, Simone Forti, Anna Halprin, Senga Nengudi, Maryanne Amacher, Tarsila do Amaral, Ellen Cantor and Mary Corse are some of the other artists who have recently received critical attention in the city. Funnily enough, this recovery of artists is often produced from a logic of discovery that is diametrically opposed to the type of work that many of these artists have developed from radical, activist, feminist or post-colonial stances. This fact reproduces one of the contradictions inherent to the contemporary art system: the chasm between the intentions and the results, or between what art is supposed to mobilise and what it truly ends up being: a provider of content for structures that preserve the status quo. Particularly strange to see is the work of Lygia Clark, or that of Helio Oiticica, until recently unknown to American audiences, transformed into domesticated installations more like the experience of a spa than that of their original radicalness. The ‘Instagrammisation’ of art is heroically exemplified by another long-lived woman, Yayoi Kusama, 88 and the only female name on the list of the twenty best-selling artists of 2016, in twelfth position.

As in so many other instances, we could say that it was Hans Ulrich Obrist who perhaps unsuspectingly championed this kind of work as early as the nineties, when he promoted the figure of Gustav Metzger, who has died this year. The artist’s self-destructive work articulates a confrontation between time and matter in the context of industrialisation, the deterioration of the environment and atomic war that is still present and is a backdrop for the theme of longevity versus the immediacy of human satisfaction. This is a phenomenon that should make us reflect on how we work today and how we manage the spaces for the distribution and presentation of art; on who has access to information and who succeeds in capturing the attention of the sector. Standardisation and homogenisation are processes in neo-liberal globalisation that do not only affect economic production or urban gentrification, but also imagination and knowledge. Contemporary art is also characterised by styles and formats that we see repeated to the umpteenth degree and that provide guidelines for the critical and commercial fortune of the work of many artists. Hans Ulrich Obrist appears once again, now as co-founder of 89+, a platform dedicated to researching young artists that conveys a certain addictive compulsion for unknown products and, with luck, radically different. Paradoxically, the new isn’t always the most innovative and we look back in search of artists who took creative risks, maintaining their practice in spite of moving against the tide, being marginalised by narrative simplification and overexposure to great white men. This search for the past becomes a historical redress, with implicit progressive values and exquisite artistic interest, albeit it doesn’t escape the logic of the discovery and the process of market absorption.

To speak of the longevity of artists, of their works and ideas, is to speak of history and its legacies, of memory and of the past that follows and pursues us. Objects thus become a tangible connection with what has been experienced, with what lasts longer than the finite nature of human individuality. Elements charged with meaning that, with various functions, draw a system of open and intricate relations. History is also made up of the ideas that prevail. Conceptions, constructions, arguments, questions and doubts that trace a mental map peopled with facts, factors, certainties and feelings through which we ramble in search of positions that may help us understand what we are like and what we would like to be. When we look back we delve into history, as if it were alive, an open dimension capable of being visited on multiple occasions to find a nuance, an unknown name or event. Here I introduce an asterisk — visiting isn’t a case of revisionism. This conception of time isn’t linear, but places us on equal terms with the past. I’ve always thought it was funny when someone exclaims ‘And this is going on in 2017!’, as if the passage of time were sufficient guarantee to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past or to confirm a supposed collective evolution of mankind. Who can imagine someone exclaiming the same thing in 1978, 1934, 1917 or 1898?

Every year will be left behind; we already live in the past. Every year is a future that becomes a present; we live in the future. Conceptions of linear time have been transcended. We no longer are torpedoes propelled into the future, nor stunned angels advancing with our backs to the future, nor spiral accumulations of circles. In this sense, Suhail Malik and Armen Avanessian have suggested another conception of time, in which the present derives from the future. Preventive military attacks appear in commercial logic, where our wishes are dictated by algorithms before we have even defined them. Past and future are blended, the present disappears and with it the feeling of being able to control our human experiences. This could be one of the more plausible explanations to deal with the host of worries that disrupt human subjectivity, fragile and disturbed by globalisation processes and at once tensed by techno-commercial systems and democratic regression on all continents. Soon we’ll have the first generation of adults of the twenty-first century. The twentieth century gradually disappears, taking with it certain frameworks of reference., so it comes as no surprise that we should search the past as if we were seeking terra firma, a place from where to be able to protect our visions of the present world, that has already changed and doesn’t wait for us. Nostalgia embodied in cultural products that, from film to art, transport us to an age when everything seemed more tangible and viable.

It’s impossible not to connect the recovery of artists to the recovery of historical memory. In an old inefficient country, a bit like Spain, between two civil wars … history isn’t a shared past but a projectile weapon made to measure by the winning State. Art and museums are those spaces of resistance and imagination for exploring in which way(s) we can build a shared story of coexistence. As opposed to amnesia, sedition.

Notes

[1] A paradigmatic case was Other Primary Structures, curated by Jens Hoffman at the Jewish Museum in Nueva York. The show presented the work of non-English speaking artists with a work similar to the minimalist generation presented at Primary Structures, exhibited in 1966 in the same museum.

[2] Art Basel & UBS Report. Dr. Clare McAndrew (Arts Economics).

Xavier Acarín is fascinated with experience as the driving force of contemporary culture. He has worked in art centres and cultural organizations both in Barcelona and New York, focussing in particular on performance and installation.

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