Six Feet Under
Why does contemporary art love to spotlight Old Masters and forgotten outsiders?
keep running across them these days at international exhibitions,
biennials, and art fairs—Old Masters and artists who were neglected
during their lifetime. Massimiliano Gioni, for example,
programmatically showcased outsider art on equal footing with
contemporary pieces in his Venice Biennale show “Encyclopedic Palace.”
But are the borders between epochs and genres really breaking down? Or
do these rediscoveries and revivals merely open up additional marketing
Daniel Baumann. Curator of the Adolf Wölfli Foundation, Museum of Fine
Arts Bern, and co-curator of the 2013 Carnegie International in Pittsburgh.
Photo: Courtesy Daniel Baumann
On a cultural level, this reflects our society's obsession with youth and
success. Both are anti-heroes—the outsider artist for (seemingly) not
caring about success; the old master for having successfully survived
youth and being still relevant. On an economic level, it is the
expression of a strong and oversold market looking for new territory:
the young and hot are overrated, the old and outsiders underrated.
Beside this, they draw attention from people who are truly committed to
an art that is relevant to history and our lives. However, more is
needed than exciting discoveries and naive enthusiasm. Overlooked
artists challenge our thinking, our canon, categories and collections,
and ask us to reassess existing narratives and formulate new ones. They
ask us to use our brains, not just our bank accounts.
Amy Cutler. Artist, New York.
Photo: Witold Riedel
As an artist, I’ve never felt constrained by these “boundaries.” My work
is informed by a wide range of interests, including art from the
fifteenth century and folk art from around the world. If I burdened
myself with the restrictions of categories and labels I would never get
anything done. There are plenty of art historians out there that have
these topics covered. This type of thinking is counterproductive and is
bound to stunt any kind of creativity. What goes on in the commercial
art world has no bearing on what happens in my studio. I’m interested
in looking at the art of my peers, as well as works from the entire
history of art, and the arts and “crafts" of other cultures. The art
market is the furthest thing from my mind while I’m working. I don’t
see this as a rediscovery/orchestration of dead outsiders and old
masters. The work of outsiders and old masters will remain a constant
and far from just another marketing possibility. Art that is removed
from its original context and continues to inspire people from another
generation is very powerful. This integrity holds my fascination. It’s
the intention and the skill that the artist uses that transcend trends
and economic concerns.
Massimiliano Gioni. Associate Director and Director of Exhibitions, New Museum, New York;
director Trussardi Foundation, Milan; and artistic director Venice Biennale 2013.
Courtesy: la Biennale di Venezia. Photo: Giorgio Zucchiatti
I am not
so sure that contemporary art really loves to celebrate old masters and
forgotten outsiders. If you look at the coverage in the mainstream
media, it looks like contemporary art is mostly about record auction
prices, about parties and art fairs, about a very limited number of
artists who command extraordinary prices. On many levels I think that
the interest towards under-recognized artists has a lot to do with a
refusal of this overly commercial attitude that appears to dominate the
image of contemporary art both inside and outside the art world itself.
The interest in under-recognized figures expresses a desire for
complexity, which stands in for a need to prove that art can be much
more than just a pastime for the rich and a form of visual
entertainment: it expresses a belief in art as an uncompromising
existential adventure – hence the insistence on the biographical
aspects in the reception and appreciation of certain forgotten masters.
In other words, the interest in less canonical figures expresses a need
for authenticity that is perceived by some as an antidote against the
most spectacularized and glamorized aspects of contemporary art.
Obviously we have to be careful because it is relatively easy to turn
authenticity into a myth and fall into the trap of kitsch: the
discourse surrounding the inclusion of outsider art in mainstream
contemporary art exhibition is not foreign to the temptation of kitsch,
an excess of sentimentality that makes us look at the outsider as a
perennially innocent “noble savage” – I myself with some of my shows
might have fallen into this trap, but if I did it was also because I do
believe we are in need of a new enchantment of art and through art. If
we are capable of avoiding the kitsch trap – and I think it is possible
by treating both canonical works and less recognized ones in the same
way, and that is as documents of different visions of the world that
enrich our vision of art and of the world itself – then the
appreciation for under-recognized figures can help us build a history
of art and a view of contemporary art that is much richer, more
polyphonic, more textured, and as such more rewarding than a sterile
“Top 100” list of the most powerful and expensive artists.
Jerry Saltz. Senior Art Critic, New York Magazine.
Photo: Courtesy Jerry Saltz
All art is contemporary art. From cave paintings to a Kara Walker slave narrative.
All art comes from other art.
All art is a comment on all the art that’s ever been made.
There is no more a lionizing of the past today as there was in the past.
Art is long.
Questions like this are short-sighted.
Victoria Siddal. Director Frieze Masters, London.
Photo: Jonathan Hokklo
Contemporary art is often discussed as being separate from the rest of art history,
but all art was contemporary once. The present is constantly informed
by the past, something that artists have known for centuries. The Renaissance could not have happened without ancient art made hundreds of years earlier.
Artists tend to explain this better than anyone else. Lucian Freud said that he visited the National Gallery in London as he would visit the doctor. Ed Ruscha said of Ophelia, painted by Millais
in 1851: “I feel as if there is a little silver thread between that
painting and mine. So maybe the years between the works are not that
Frieze Masters Talks has brought artists including John Currin, Luc Tuymans and Beatriz Milhazes
together with curators of historical museums to give their perspective
on old master painting - their insights on the connections between past
and present have been fascinating. All are available to watch online.
Axel Vervoordt. Antique dealer, Antwerp.
Photo: Bertrand Limbour
Art has always been contemporary, it is marked by timelessness. All
objects, regardless of their origin and value, are infused with a
timeless, universal meaning and an intrinsic purity that preserves
their contemporary relevance. A passion for the arts is not restricted
to a certain time frame, it spans continents, centuries and cultures.
increased interest of today’s art in old masters and forgotten
outsiders is – I believe – a consequence of the fact that the 21st
century produces, consumes, and disposes more than the earth can take.
We look for silence, shelter, and tranquillity in the timelessness of
art. The desire and need to treasure the old will keep on increasing.
This is exactly what we wanted to express with Artempo – When Time Becomes Art, our first exhibition at the Palazzo Fortuny in Venice in 2007.
Julia Voss. Head of the art section, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung,
Frankfurt am Main.
Photo: Courtesy Julia Voss
The question has to be reversed: Why has the art world excluded these
artists for so long? Why are they only now being shown in museums and
galleries? The Swedish painter Hilma af Klint
(1862 – 1944) is a good example. A wider audience was finally able to
view her work in a large-scale retrospective in Stockholm and Berlin in 2013. Massimiliano Gioni
showed her paintings at the Venice Biennale. Her work is unique. The
artist arrived at her own unique formal language in 1906 – 07, with
huge abstract images, organic shapes, and glowing colors. Whoever talks
about Kandinsky in the future will also have to refer to Hilma af Klint. This exhibition was long overdue.