The world is a mansion with many rooms
Toby Kamps & Gesine Borcherdt on the Spotlight section at Frieze New York

The Spotlight section of Frieze New York is rewriting art history. Each booth shows a twentieth-century artist who has been overlooked by the art scene due to gender, origins, or originality. Gesine Borcherdt, an editor of the art magazine Blau, met with curator Toby Kamps.
Gesine Borcherdt: The Spotlight section at Frieze Art Fair is growing, with more galleries than ever participating: This spring in New York, there are going to be 34. How do you explain this enormous interest?

Toby Kamps: The idea of Spotlight is part of a general trend. There is a tremendous interest in telling stories of 20th century art beyond those we already know. A lot of the artists in the Spotlight section, both at Frieze New York and Frieze Masters in London, are from corners of the world that haven’t gotten enough attention in the past. There are also many women artists who were pushed to the margins. And there are a lot of self-taught artists at odds with the art world or their society, so they didn’t get proper attention. All of these factors come into play in Spotlight. The section has also experienced serious musuem attention over the past few years, with the Brooklyn Museum Fund acquiring a painting by Virginia Jaramillo for its collection at Frieze New York last year,

GB: Has the art market become too bland, too pale? Are people so bored that they have started to look at older and overlooked positions?

TK: Well, there is always amazing new work coming along, and art changes as the world changes. But the past is fascinating too. One cannot just go and buy works by big name 20th century artists any more. Either they’re not available, or they’re extremely expensive. The works in Spotlight come with the aura of history, and they often represent a kind of Zeitgeist. Many were created by major artists of the 20th century, but they might not be as expensive because these artists have not been at the center of attention for some time, or they have only been known for a special body of work. Spotlight is looking at what has been overlooked. That is very appealing for collectors, I think.

GB: Does art history have to be re-written because there are so many artists who didn’t make it into our Western canon?

TK: Absolutely. The dominant stories of art history of the 20th century were told in North America and Western Europe. Just think about the diagrams of Alfred Barr, the first director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York: They show pedigrees of different movements that look very logical and rational, but they don’t allow for a lot of variation—and they represented such a dominant narrative of 20th century art. Ad Reinhardt did versions of them later on.
But now we’re finally beginning to see that all around the world there were figures operating outside of those narrative threads. Certainly now, with our perspective on the last century, there is a greater understanding that the mainstream narratives aren’t always complete. There is a much broader story of contemporary art if you look at different artists and different corners of the world.

GB: What are the most common reasons for important artists remaining unknown during their lifetimes?

TK: The two main reasons are gender and geography. The mainstream does not do well with things at its margins. Latin America for example, and Brazil in particular, had very rich modern movements. But at the time, when their artists were flourishing, it was not always easy to get information about them. There wasn’t as much interchange at the time as now, and certainly little technological means to connect.
Many of the Spotlight artists even lived outside of their home countries—for instance, in New York or Paris. They received a fair amount of attention at the time, but it was an age in which there was no automatic archiving of their efforts. There was no internet, so you had to look at art magazines, slides or microfiche to learn about them. Paradoxically, there is far more information about a young contemporary artist’s first exhibition archived online than about the great international artists that populate the Spotlight section. They were pre-digital.

GB: Of course, most of the famous artists of the 20th century came out of the pre-digital age. But the Spotlight artists also probably didn’t fit the particular standards of their time.
On the one hand, yes. But at the same time, none of these artists were really unknown. They all had dealers, critics, and collectors. So they are not pure discoveries. They just lack extensive critical receptions. As curators, we are not the ultimate discoverers—those were the artists’ supporters at that time! Today, we go through history and make our choices, but we can’t take credit for bringing these artists into the world. They all had highly developed networks, but those networks might have been in places that were not on the main trade routes of the art world.

GB: Can you give an example?

TK: In 2016, we showed Mrinalini Mukherjee in London. She was an Indian artist who had gotten a lot of attention there. She worked with traditional materials—like hemp rope—associated with villages in India. But being a woman in India in her time didn’t help her get much attention overseas. Now, the art world has woken up and Tate Modern has bought a major work by her.
Or look at Betye Saar: She is pretty well known in the US. In 1977 she participated at Festac ’77, a festival in Lagos, Nigeria. In terms of scale, scope, and ambition, this event had no precedent. It showcased international African fine art, literature, drama, dance, and music. Sixteen-thousand participants, representing 56 African and African diaspora nations and countries, performed there. The American delegation included, among others, Betye Saar, who captured the optimism of the festival in her sketches on site. Her subsequent assemblages and collages absorbed the multiple social and political influences: specifically, African-American women, political mobilization, collective action, and historical traditions of resistance. That body of work was never shown in the US. Forty years later, it will have its premiere at Spotlight.

GB: So Spotlight is also about certain works being re-discovered, not just artists themselves?

TK: We don’t rule out well-known artists—rare and rarely seen bodies of work by established artists are just as important. Many artists in the Spotlight section already have a certain visibility, like Billy Al Bengston. Now we are going to see his Moon Paintings. He started surfing at night and doing these nocturnal, cosmic universe and sky scenes, often viewed from the perspective of a floating surfboard. The paintings will be complemented by a selection of Bengston’s rugs, designed by the artist at the same time he made the paintings.

GB: Your section shows “radical” and “visionary” works, as you put it. What do you mean by that?

TK: To me, it is radical when someone makes art out of an inner necessity, outside the traditional orbit. I would call Betye Saar a radical for investigating concepts of ritual, community, inherited African traditions, and how objects retain the histories of their owners. Or look at Atsuko Tanaka: She was a Gutai artist famous for her Electric Dress—a dress made of variously colored light bulbs. We’re now showing her drawings, which are a bit like electrical diagrams, but free-form.
Then we have FX Harsono: He is an Indonesian artist from a Chinese ethnic minority that was severely persecuted in Indonesia. There were a couple of very violent attacks on the group—he talks about them in his video works and installations. At the time, speaking out was a real risk. Many Chinese ethnic groups emigrated from Indonesia to other countries. But he decided to stay and try to be a voice of resistance. I would call him one of the most radical artists in this year’s Spotlight section.
It is also interesting that a lot of Spotlight artists became cultural connectors. They moved from their native cultures into another place and tried to connect different worlds. Like Pavel Ilie from Romania, who went to Switzerland early on and later taught in Scotland. He was kind of a conceptual art pioneer. His work revolved around ritual, contemplation, and vegetative life. He may not have been radical in a political sense, but he was someone who didn’t fit neatly into a particular box, and he was moving around the world.
Another real radical who was working in the US was Merrill Wagner: She was an abstract artist who made paintings that she mounted on fences. She is probably as much as scientist of perception as a studio artist. She studied how changing daylight and weather–sun, rain, wind–would affect her images.

GB: Which artists do you consider important for our current debates on art and politics?

TK: Ardeshir Mohassess from Teheran is somebody I’m very interested in. He was a satirist and caricaturist working in drawing. We’re showing him because he was also a phenomenal artist. He did covers for publications like The New York Times, The Nation and Playboy, and he had an international career, moving to New York just before the Iranian revolution. Some of his drawings are very abstract and beautiful, but he was also very involved in politics before and after the earthshaking revolution. He is somebody who, to me, is really very interesting to look at in the context of Spotlight.

GB: How do you make your choices for Spotlight? What are your criteria for selecting an artist?

TK: That is very hard! I start out with a kind of vision for the section, thinking about topics I am interested in, and which have a particular relevance right now. For example, I am thinking a lot about women artists, particularly under-recognized American women artists. I am also thinking about Pop Art and how it circulated around the globe, taking on different lives in different corners of the world. I think about areas like Brazil and Latin America where there has always been a strong tradition of abstraction and concrete art. I call some galleries to ask if they might want to submit an application with a particular artist. But then suddenly there are galleries that submit things that come as a complete surprise! This year it’s especially hard to choose. We have had record-breaking numbers of applications for New York and London. And of course you want to be open to self-taught and visionary artists that are always part of the mix.

GB: What makes you the right curator for this job? What is your expertise in the field of re-discoveries?

TK: I have worked in big museums all around the US, but never in New York or L.A. So you might say I have an appreciation for things that happen inside and outside of major art hubs. Before I came to the Blaffer Art Museum in Houston, Texas, I was a curator of modern and contemporary art at that city’s Menil Collection, an amazing institution that has hewn its own path through art history. The Menil really likes to pay attention to under-recognized artists, and doesn’t always follow the major mainstream trends. The galleries and exhibition programs there are filled with Spotlight artists. But I have also gotten to travel a lot during my career as a curator. I realized early on that every city and country has its own aesthetic histories and artistic innovators, and I have always tried to be open to learning from them. The art world is a mansion with many rooms—and there are all kinds of amazing things to be discovered if you start opening doors. I hope Spotlight gives a richer sense of the art of the last century.

Frieze New York
May 2 – 6, 2018
Randall’s Island