art institute of chicago

Barbara Kruger on Why She’s Remaking Some of Her Old Critiques of Power for Her New Museum Survey

Barbara Kruger likely needs no introduction. Her work is taught in art history classes and is instantly recognizable to the uninitiated as well (think of the ubiquity of Kruger’s November 2016 New York Magazine cover with ”Loser” printed across Donald Trump’s sneering face.) She’s also very publicly tangled with the streetwear brand Supreme, whose logo and entire branding seems to have pirated Kruger’s visual vernacular, causing a circus of copyright infringements that ultimately prompted Kruger to laugh it off: “What a ridiculous clusterfuck of totally uncool jokers.” 

Despite these outbursts in mainstream culture, Kruger has been rather inconspicuous in the art world in recent years. Her last gallery showing was in 2018 with Mary Boone, and while her slogans-as-statements have been spotted at art fair booths since, there really hasn’t been an important exhibition–until now. This past weekend, the Art Institute of Chicago unveiled the largest comprehensive exhibition of Kruger’s work in more than 20 years. It will be on view until March 2022 before heading to the L.A. County Museum of Art, through July 2022, followed by a stop at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Kruger, a powerful critic of contemporary culture, isn’t approaching the exhibition in a standard format. She’s taking over non-gallery spaces in the museums, as well as intervening into the public domain, alway seeking to offer her art in the most accessible modes. 

We spoke with Kruger about how she’ll be remixing some of her most famous works, the thousand-year persistence of power struggles, and her major new traveling museum survey.

Barbara Kruger, Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You. (2019). Digital image courtesy of the artist.

I was told you were calling this an “anti-retrospective,” but then I read that’s not true. What is the deal? 

To me, this exhibition is called “Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You.” There we have the title of the show about our own ego constructions, our narratives, our ability to speak and listen, our investment in our voice, or others—all those shifting positions. So I would not call it a retrospective, it’s a conflation of new works and renovations of older works and changing them. 

This is just an open field, this isn’t a pushback, like “Wow, I have this terrific opportunity because these large-scale shows came a little later in my life.” I don’t have a MFA or an undergraduate degree. I loitered around for a few years before people knew my name. So I am appreciative not only to get to do a show like this, but of the great teams of people behind it. I take none of this for granted. I spent so many years doing all of this on my own before you knew my name, or anybody did, it’s a gift to me. I know how much labor has gone into this, and as someone whose parents traded their labor for wages, I have a great deal of respect for that. 

Tell me about the new works that are in dialogue with or a reevaluation of your previous works? 

There are different images of my work that have been altered through a very large scale of L.E.D. videos, in which I used motion graphics and animated a few of the works. Change meanings to make stillness move. There’s a large installation, Untitled (That’s the way we do it), which is basically a collection of images I’ve collected online over the last four or five years, and are folks’ renditions of my styles of work that I’ve incorporated into the installation. There are maybe 600 images? Things I’ve caught on Tumblr or Redbubble or Google Images and Instagram.  

In this exhibition there is the appearance of works that seem familiar to people, and the altering of the works (perhaps ruining them for some people) puts them in motion. Taking stillness and putting it into motion. There’s ambient audio throughout this exhibition, there are voices speaking to you in the halls and galleries, in the elevators and entries to the museum.

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Truth) (2013). Collection of Margaret and Daniel S. Loeb. Digital image courtesy of the artist.

You’ve played a significant role in designing the exhibition. Tell me about that.  Similarly, why was bringing work out in the streets crucial? 

Architecture has long been an engagement of mine, and it was only mid or later in my work that I was able to specialize. In the beginning it was very small, I was paying for everything myself and carrying it up five flights of stairs from the E train from the photo lab. As I started working with installations it was a great opportunity to engage the various spaces that the work was trying to make its meaning in. That’s so integral to my work, whether it was wallpaper or floors or surfaces, or even multi-channel videos which can change in scale so easily. 

Aside from billboards and posters on the elevated trains, bus kiosks, windows along main streets, large billboards along the highway, and the Merchandise Mart there’s a very huge video that will run every night for the next two months on the walls outside the museum and along windows on Michigan Avenue. That was really gratifying. It’s really wow, it’s really a great opportunity for me, and I never take for granted being offered that opportunity. 

I’ve always worked outside the museum space, from early on whether it was Art Angel in London or the Public Art Fund in New York, or out in L.A. That’s been an important space in my practice. Early on it was my only mode, I would snipe posters before people really knew my name or my work. I’ve said this before, but it’s still a surprise to me that things have rolled out the way they have. 

I think it’s amazing that the works have entered public space and discourse, and I think it’s part and parcel of the times we’re living in. The flow of images has changed so much because of social media and our online lives, and our lives on screens and through screens. In many ways my early work as a magazine designer really did prepare me for the kinds of readings that would be accessible online.

Barbara Kruger, still from Untitled (No Comment) (2020). Courtesy of the artist, Sprüth Magers, and David Zwirner, New York. Digital image courtesy of the artist.

In an age where your works are shared so widely online, and consumed by internet culture to the point of appropriation, why do you keep your personal internet presence discreet?  

Well, I am online. I certainly read and look at everything. Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, and every right-wing website you can imagine. I certainly keep up on that. It’s important for so many people to use Instagram and Twitter as a means of self-definition, and making themselves public by really communicating their loves, their hates, their projects, and I really have chosen not to. I don’t think it’s something that’s productive for me. It’s certainly part of my life. It’s not like I’m sealed off. 

I get input on my work a lot. I think it’s best for me to do my work and be as productive as possible. You can’t be everyone’s image of perfection, so what the hell?

This exhibition could be called, perhaps, “a moment of reflection.” What’s your take on your work’s prescience? Whether about consumerism, feminism, or the attention economy, you’ve been rather spot on when it comes to understanding the politics and crises of today.  

I am not clairvoyant! Absolutely not. I just think that the long shot, the big picture allows you to understand how history has worked. And I’m no historian. I certainly don’t know as much as I should, but I am vigilant about the machinations of power and trolling, fear, grievance and how they’ve played out over centuries. Of course, the difference is now that we’re more aware of it, because of the interconnection of a lot of the world. Certainly fears based on genders, race, and class are stalking us as never before. 

Barbara Kruger. Artist’s rendering of exhibition entryway at the Art Institute of Chicago (2011/2020). Digital image courtesy of the artist, source photo courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

You’re known for your bold stances. Do you think that society’s modes of outspokenness have changed in the last few years as politics has heated up, and has that affected your practice? 

It’s not really affected my work. I really think that my work has been concerned with a scrutiny of how we are to one another. How we love one another, adore one another, detest one another, damage one another, how we caress one another on both an intimate and global scale. The history of the past thousand years is fraught with power and its abuses. 

I did an installation I originally did in 1994, and re-did in 2004 in Zurich, and somebody thought it was my reaction to 9/11. Of course it was done years before. The conditions exist for punishment and damage globally are not hot news. It is just a perpetual slaughter. It’s really horrifying! 

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Forever) (2017). Installation view, Sprüth Magers, Berlin, 2017–18. Amorepacific Museum of Art (APMA), Seoul. Photo by Timo Ohler and courtesy of Sprüth Magers.

Your work has always been about the underlying systems and structures of society—power, capitalism, control, bodies, and identities. Has your view of contemporary culture become more or less critical in these times where the stakes are so high vis a vis your practice?

I wouldn’t say critical. I’m just trying, like most art or music or movies, to create a commentary—not literal—of how it feels to live another day, to watch the world turn itself inside out or try to turn us inside out. The sort of commentary of what I see and read. The resolute grievance, ignorance, and race we are seeing right now. 

You once said, “People will need to think very hard about how they are to one another.” And I’m curious after the almost two years we’ve had, what your thoughts are on that now?

I am certainly not cynical, but I feel that it’s tragic. It’s watching a slow-motion car crash of the destruction of so many lives and the economy (and I’m not talking about big corporations). I’m talking about people’s everyday lives and their livelihoods. And the ironies. I could see there’s a place for productive critique of the hierarchies of governmental structure but that’s not this. This is fueled by race and rage, and grievance. 

You could tell people anything now, and they would say “it’s just a lie, the truth is this or that.” It’s interesting because social media and the digital universe have enabled so many things and made connection so much easier, but then also allowed for a great deal of damage and distress and punishment, and everything in between. Both the pleasures and the punishment. 

How you feeling about Supreme these days? 

It’s not anything I think a hell of a lot about. 

It’s funny, in the first room of the exhibition, where you see all these internet images, there’s a huge L.E.D. of “I Shop Therefore I Am,” and there’s a collection of images I got from RedBubble with all these garments with quotes or tees with sayings with them. It’s a meditation for me on the difference between the figure and the body. Who’s become visible and who doesn’t is such a complicated conflation of arbitrariness, of social conditions and all that, and yet you become a name, this person, this figure. I find it thrilling, amusing and a little scary.  

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Here Are the 14 U.S. Museum Shows That Matter This Fall, From a Survey of 21st-Century Feminisms in Berkeley to a Radical Art Rediscovery in Atlanta

As museums begin to reopen in the United States, we cast an eye over upcoming exhibitions for those that promise the most urgent and notable art of our time. The resulting list contains a diverse roster of 14 shows—by solo practitioners and groups chosen by keen-eyed curators—coming to museums from coast to coast.

Some exhibitions will introduce you to artists you may not know, like Bani Abidi at the MCA Chicago, Michaela Eichwald at the Walker Art Center, and Nellie Mae Rowe at the High Museum. Others will offer new insight into artists or eras of artistic production you thought you knew, from a spotlight on Georgia O’Keeffe’s photography in Houston to a sweeping feminist art survey in Berkeley. 

Regardless of what city you’re in, this fall’s season of museum programming is bound to open both eyes and minds.


New Time: Art and Feminisms in the 21st Century
Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA)
August 28, 2021–January 30, 2022

Farah Al Qasimi, It’s Not Easy Being Seen 3 (2016). Courtesy the artist; The Third Line, Dubai; and Helena Anrather.

With 140 works by 76 artists and collectives, this exhibition at the U.C. Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive is one of the largest to date on contemporary feminist art, and will coincide with a year of public programming focused on feminist theory. Works by the likes of Laura Aguilar, Christina Quarles, Zanele Muholi, Wu Tsang, and Francesca Woodman are included, tackling such topics as the fragmented body, domesticity, female anger, and feminist utopias. 


Raúl de Nieves: The Treasure House of Memory
Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston
September 1, 2021–July 24, 2022

Raúl de Nieves, The Fable, which is composed of wonders, moves the more (2021). © Raúl de Nieves.

Multidisciplinary artist Raúl de Nieves is adored for his exuberant works that blend queer club culture, religious iconography, and folklore traditions from his native Mexico. Here, the artist continues his ongoing exploration of his culture and its traditions through a new body of work, created especially for the ICA, that looks at memory and personal transformation.

Really Free: The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowe
High Museum of Art, Atlanta
September 3, 2021–January 9, 2022 

Nellie Mae Rowe, This World is Not My Home (1979). Photo courtesy of the High Museum of Art, Atlanta.

Born in Georgia in 1900, the daughter of a formerly enslaved man, Rowe achieved fame as a self-taught folk artist. The first major exhibition devoted to Rowe in more than 20 years celebrates the late artist’s notable drawing career, which was only fostered later in her life, after the deaths of her husband and employer, in the 1960s. The museum bills the show as the first to position Rowe’s creative pursuit as a “radical act of self-expression and liberation in the post-civil rights-era South.”


Joan Mitchell
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
September 4, 2021–January 17, 2022

Joan Mitchell, Untitled (1992). Courtesy of Cheim & Read, New York.

This highly anticipated retrospective devoted to the queen of gestural abstraction contains over 80 works, encompassing everything from early paintings and drawings, sketchbooks, letters, and photographs to the large, color-drenched, multi-panel works that defined her later output.  


Selena Forever/Siempre Selena
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas
September 4, 2021–January 10, 2022

John Dyer, Selena (1992). Courtesy of the artist.

At the height of the beloved Tejano singer’s fame, it was photographer John Dyer whom she entrusted to produce the images of her that were seared into the American pop-culture consciousness. Over the course of two collaborative photoshoots, in 1992 and ‘94, Dyer captured the legendary Selena Quintanilla-Pérez in her signature gemmed bustier and red lip, pictures that became immortal after her tragic death in 1995.


Bani Abidi: The Man Who Talked Until He Disappeared
Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
September 4, 2021–June 5, 2022

Bani Abidi, An Unforeseen Situation 4. Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.

Bani Abidi’s work infuses deadly serious subjects like militarism, nationalism, and memory with humor, holding up a mirror to power structures. The Pakistani artist, who lives in Karachi and Berlin, gets the survey treatment at the MCA, co-organized with the Sharjah Art Foundation, in a show that looks at over 20 years of her career and features new work alongside existing video, photography, and sound installations. 


Adam Pendleton: Who Is Queen?
Museum of Modern Art, New York
September 18, 2021–January 30, 2022

Adam Pendleton, Untitled (WE ARE NOT) (2021). Image courtesy of the artist.

Pendleton, who has put forth a “Black Dada” framework inspired by Amiri Baraka, ambitiously takes over MoMA’s Marron Atrium with an immersive floor-to-ceiling installation described as a “spatial collage” containing text, image, and sound. All together, the show’s paintings, drawings, textiles, sculptures, and moving images seek to disrupt the 1:1 relationship of words and images, allowing a complex new vision of Blackness to emerge in abstraction.

The Art Institute of Chicago
September 19, 2021–January 24, 2022

Barbara Kruger’s Untitled (Your Body is a Battleground) (1989), at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2013. Photo by Susan Broman via Flickr.

The prolific Pictures Generation artist has collaborated with the Art Institute to map out a survey of her entire career that takes up the whole of the museum’s 18,000-square-foot gallery space. It’s all here, and squirm-inducingly relevant: her trademark “pasteups,” works on vinyl, animations, and video installations, plus a new site-specific work in the adjoining atrium. On top of this, Kruger has created work for the city at large, making billboards and designs for the Chicago Transit Authority, among other organizations.


Naudline Pierre: What Could Be Has Not Yet Appeared
Dallas Museum of Art
September 26, 2021–May 15, 2022

Naudline Pierre, Lest You Fall (2019). Courtesy of the Dallas Museum of Art.

Pierre is known for her colorful canvases that depict ethereal beings and explore power struggles in intimate relationships. The Brooklyn-based painter’s first solo museum exhibition will consist of existing works—one of which was recently acquired by the DMA—as well as new creations, with five major paintings making their debut. 


Greater New York
MoMA PS1, New York
October 7, 2021–April 18, 2022

Robin Graubard, selection from “Peripheral Vision” (1979–2021). Image courtesy the artist and Office Baroque, Antwerp.

One of the hottest survey exhibitions of new art from across New York’s five boroughs is back for its fifth iteration. This latest edition, curated by Ruba Katrib with Serubiri Moses, Kate Fowle, and Inés Katzenstein, was delayed by a year due to the pandemic, but still promises to showcase the best of artists and collectives currently working in the Big Apple, including Carolyn Lazard, Alan Michelson, and BlackMass publishing.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Photographer
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
October 17, 2021–January 17, 2022

Georgia O’Keeffe, Jimsonweed (Datura stramonium) (1964–68). © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe.

The artist best known for her paintings of flowers and Southwestern landscapes is recast here in the first exhibition to focus entirely on her photography, with nearly 100 prints from a newly examined archive to go on view. Described as a “Modernist approach” to the art form, O’Keeffe’s pictures document family members, fellow artists, and her travels. 


Soft Water Hard Stone
The New Museum, New York
October 28, 2021–January 23, 2022

Amalie Smith, Clay Theory (2019) (still). Courtesy of the artist.

The latest triennial from the downtown institution draws its title from a Brazilian proverb: “Água mole em pedra dura, tanto bate até que fura,” meaning “soft water on hard stone hits until it bores a hole.” Curators Margot Norton and Jamillah James have translated this idea into an exhibition of 41 international artists focused on how systems we once considered infallible have been, in fact, proven fragile by recent global crises. 


My Barbarian
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
October 29, 2021–February 27, 2022

My Barbarian, Broke People’s Baroque Peoples’ Theater, 2011–15. Studio photograph, courtesy of the artists.

For the occasion of the performance trio’s 20th anniversary, the Whitney has commissioned a new filmic piece, Rose Bird, about California’s first female chief Supreme Court justice, to accompany this two-part survey of My Barbarian’s work. A series of live events—including a play, a festival, a cabaret-style concert, and a “rehearsal-as-performance”―will be enacted alongside an exhibition containing footage of previous performances, in addition to sculptures, paintings, drawings, masks, and puppets.

Michaela Eichwald
Walker Art Center, Minneapolis
November 14, 2020–May 16, 2021

Michaela Eichwald, Die Unsrigen sind fortgezogen (The Ours Have Moved Away) (2014). Collection Brian Pietsch and Christopher Hermann.

The Berlin-based artist and writer, who is primarily a painter, marks her first solo exhibition in the United States with a presentation looking back at the past ten years of her career. Her palimpsest-like paintings, sculptures, and collages contain surprising materials like candy and chicken bones, and often allude to her interests in philosophy and literature.

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Kehinde Wiley’s Presidential Portrait of Barack Obama Is Arriving in New York. Here Are 3 Things You Might Not Know About It

In recent history, few artworks have captured the public imagination quite like the Obama Portraits—the official portraits of 44th U.S. President Barack Hussein Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama, which set off a media firestorm when they were unveiled in 2018. 

The president’s portrait, painted by Kehinde Wiley, and the first lady’s, painted by Ashley Sherald, marked a sharp—and refreshing—departure from the staid, traditional styles with which these official portraits had become synonymous. 

And it wasn’t just the art world that was enthralled. When the portraits went on view at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., attendance skyrocketed 300 percent. Visitors not infrequently broke down in tears before the paintings. 

Since then, the public’s enthusiasm has not waned. Now, in an attempt to bring the images to a wider audience, both portraits have been sent on a cross-country museum tour that will last into spring 2022. With the first leg at the Art Institute of Chicago having just ended, the portraits will go on view at the Brooklyn Museum next week, from August 27–October 24. They will then travel to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the High Museum in Atlanta, and the MFA Houston.  

To mark the tour, as well as President Obama’s recent 60th birthday, we decided to take a closer look at Kehinde Wiley’s foliage-filled portrait. Here are three details that just might change the way you see it.

1) Wiley Does Away With (Most) Of His Famed Historical Motifs 

Kehinde Wiley, Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps (2005). Collection of the Brooklyn Museum.

Kehinde Wiley, Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps (2005). Collection of the Brooklyn Museum.

One of the most celebrated artists of our generation, Kehinde Wiley has defined his career with monumental oil paintings that often place Black men and women into traditional Western art-historical iconography and against lushly colorful, patterned backgrounds.

Arguably his most famous painting, Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps (2005), which is in the Brooklyn Museum’s collection, reinterprets Jacques Louis David’s Neoclassical masterpiece Napoleon Bonaparte Crossing the Alps at Great St. Bernard Pass (1801–5). Given Wiley’s dexterity with these political and art-historical references, one might have expected his take on the U.S. presidency—an office with no shortage of historical imagery associated with it—to be filled with eager eggs. 

Instead, Wiley set Obama, the first African American president, in an environment free of overt references, though he retains the imposing physical scale of the history paintings he often echoes. (This one measures over seven feet tall.) Other points of inspiration are even subtler. Obama’s left foot, as New Yorker writer Vinson Cunningham aptly pointed out, doesn’t press into the earth as one might imagine, but floats in an almost otherworldly way, like a Byzantine saint in a golden eternal realm.

Here, Obama the person, rather than the office, is the focus. He is dressed in a nondescript black suit and white shirt, open at the collar, leaning forward toward the viewer with his arms crossed, as though he were listening or just about to speak. His expression could be seen as stern or reassuring. By eliminating any easily decoded symbols, Wiley offers a portrait that revels in its own ambiguity.


2) Those Flowers Are More Than a Pretty Backdrop 

Detail of Kehinde Wiley's Barack Hussein Obama (2018). Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

Detail of Kehinde Wiley’s Barack Hussein Obama (2018). Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

Where, we might ask ourselves, is the president meant to be, exactly? Seated in a varnished antique chair, he hovers against a lush green backdrop of leaves and flowers. (The enveloping background inspired some Internet jokesters to compare the image to the famous meme of Homer Simpson getting swallowed up by a green hedge.) 

Wiley painted this portrait working from a series of photographs he made of the president and the image has been celebrated (rightly) for its verisimilitude. But the artist paid almost equal attention to the decorative elements of the picture. The highly varnished rosewood of mahogany chair rosewood of mahogany is a highly specific and yet unreal conglomeration of 18th and 19th styles with curved arms, inlaid patterns, and an oval back that combine aspects of English regency and American styles. (It’s worth noting that the decorative arts have, perhaps more than any other art form, quietly been shaped by the histories of trade, colonization, and warfare, from Chinoiserie to the Egyptian influence on Art Deco. Wiley’s blending of styles seems to purposely confound this connoisseurship).

As with many of his paintings, Wiley does not keep the flora neatly in the background but allows it to curl and twist with its own agency. Upon closer examination, the greenery is laden with symbolism: jasmine references Hawaii, where Obama was born; the African blue lilies represent Kenya, Obama’s father’s birthplace (Wiley’s father is Nigerian); and chrysanthemums are the official flower of Chicago, the city where his political career began and where, of course, he met Michelle Obama. 


3) The Portrait Harkens Back to the Very First of the Presidential Portraits   

Gilbert Stuart, Portrait of George Washington known at the "Lansdowne" portrait (1796). Collection of the National Portrait Gallery.

Gilbert Stuart, Portrait of George Washington known as the “Lansdowne” portrait (1796). Collection of the National Portrait Gallery.

While Wiley has done away with his boldest art-historical references, that antique-looking chair Obama is sitting in has conjured up some critical interpretations. Art critic Holland Cotter noted in his New York Times review that Wiley’s portrait bears some resemblance to ​​Gilbert Stuart’s 1796 Lansdowne Portrait of George Washington, a version of which has hung in the East Room of the White House since 1800.

As Cotter notes, “the clothes are an 18th-century version of current POTUS style: basic black suit and fat tie.” Plus, the “vaguely throne-like chair [is] not so different from the one seen in Stuart’s Washington portrait.”

While in another context, this might seem an interpretive stretch, here it feels intentional: in the first presidential portrait, Washington stands beside an empty chair. Two hundred and twenty years later, Obama, the first African American president to occupy the White House (a house built by slaves), has taken a seat at the proverbial table.

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More Museums Are Taking Advantage of Pandemic-Era Rule Changes to Sell Art at Auction, Including a $12 Million Childe Hassam

New York’s oldest museum had a tough pandemic year. The New-York Historical Society, founded in 1804, was shuttered for months and has been operating at 25 percent capacity since September. As revenue fell 30 percent, it laid off 15 percent of its staff and furloughed 11 percent more. 

With financial pressures showing no sign of letting up, the institution decided to take a drastic step: sell an iconic Childe Hassam painting from its collection. 

Estimated at $12 million to $18 million, Hassam’s Flags on 57th Street, Winter 1918 (1918) will be offered at Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern art evening sale on May 12 alongside gems by Monet and Cézanne. The work is poised to set a new high for the American Impressionist, whose record hasn’t been challenged in more than two decades.  

The New-York Historical Society is the latest institution to sell art amid snowballing fallout from the pandemic. This season, it’s joining six other museums—the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the Art Institute of Chicago, the San Diego Museum of Art, the Newark Museum of Art, and the Brooklyn Museum—taking advantage of temporarily loosened deaccessioning regulations. Notably, the majority of the works on offer are in the American art category, a sector that has seen mostly lackluster sales since the financial crisis. 

Georgia O'Keeffe, Green Oak Leaves (ca. 1923). Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Green Oak Leaves (ca. 1923), from the Newark Museum of Art. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The works arrive on the auction block halfway into a two-year window during which museums have been granted leeway to use the proceeds from art sales for “direct collection care,” an umbrella term that covers everything from curators’ salaries to HVAC systems. (Traditionally, funds from art sales can only be used to acquire more art.) Tens of millions of dollars’ worth of art have already been sold under these relaxed rules, which are set to expire on April 10, 2022.  

Nina Del Rio, head of advisory and museum services at Sotheby’s (which is offering the entire slate of museum works this season), is seeing “a steady flow” of museum consignments in the pipeline. “Some conversations are happening and others haven’t started yet,” she told Midnight Publishing Group News.


More Museums Mulling Art Sales

When the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which had a $150 million revenue shortfall last year, recently floated the idea of selling art, the blowback was swift and fierce. The institution is still considering whether to apply sale proceeds to collection care, but hasn’t determined what will be sold and how, according to a spokesman.   

The Whitney Museum of American Art, which rarely sells works from its 25,000-piece collection, may also join the fray after completing a three-year strategic review of its holdings, according to director Adam Weinberg. 

“I am open to the idea,” Weinberg said in a recent interview with art-industry insider Josh Baer of using funds from art sales for collection care. Of the 3,000 artists in the Whitney’s permanent collection, two-thirds are living, and their works are off-limits for deaccessioning, Weinberg said. A Whitney spokeswoman declined to comment further.

While deaccessioning is usually a standard part of collection management for museums, the temporary policies have ignited fiery debate. 

Marsden Hartley, <i>Shell</i>, from the Newark Museum of Art. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Marsden Hartley, Shell, from the Newark Museum of Art. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Last fall, the Baltimore Museum of Art withdrew multimillion-dollar works from Sotheby’s after an outcry by its trustees and other museum professionals. The Everson Museum of Art was also criticized for selling its only Jackson Pollock painting and eyebrows were raised when the Brooklyn Museum sold its sole Cranach.

“It’s going to be complicated for a long time,” said art lawyer Nicholas O’Donnell, who argued against the Berkshire Museum’s plan to deaccession in 2017. (The legal battle went all the way up to the Massachusetts supreme court; ultimately, the museum was allowed to sell art to close a financial gap, netting $53 million.)  

“The opposition is not as monolithic and singular as it used to be,” O’Donnell said. “There are people who would say it’s OK to sell art to emphasize some part of the programming. And there are people who would say it’s OK to sell art for whatever reason they want.”


Looking for Duplicates

Museums, perhaps having internalized some of the blowback, are opting this season to sell works that they say replicate others in their collection. 

The New-York Historical Society owns two flag paintings by Hassam. The one it is selling, Flags on 57th Street, Winter 1918, was a bequest from collector Julia Engle in 1984. It is keeping The Fourth of July, 1916 (The Greatest Display of the American Flag Ever Seen in New York, Climax of the Preparedness Parade in May), gifted by the late financier Richard Gilder in 2016

The Brooklyn Museum is parting with Mary Cassatt’s Baby Charles Looking Over His Mother’s Shoulder (ca. 1901), one of 17 pieces by the artist in its collection. Estimated at $1 million to $1.5 million, it will be offered in Sotheby’s American art sales.

Mary Cassatt, Baby Charles Looking Over His Mother's Shoulder No. 3 (ca. 1901). Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Mary Cassatt, Baby Charles Looking Over His Mother’s Shoulder No. 3 (ca. 1901), from the Brooklyn Museum. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The work has been rarely shown and was considered for deaccession “for some time,” according to a spokeswoman. Its “departure would in no way undermine the strength of our collection or our ability to continue to tell the story of Cassatt and women’s transformative role in the 19th century avant-garde,” she said.

The Newark Museum of Art is selling off 20 objects from its 130,000-piece collection following a strategic review. It plans to use the proceeds for collection care. Georgia O’Keeffe’s Green Oak Leaves, slated for sale, is one of its four paintings by the American modernist. The museum is also selling two of its seven Hassam works, including Woman Cutting Roses in a Garden (1889), estimated at $1 million to $1.5 million.


A Moment for Hassam

Museums typically hold onto the best examples by an artist, but buyers are still attracted to the institutional provenance, prestige, and freshness of deaccessioned works. Experts say the museum trove at Sotheby’s could reenergize the American art market. 

The sector, which covers a roughly two-century period from colonial-era portraits by Gilbert Stuart through American modernism, “changed in 2008 and it never really recovered,” said Elizabeth von Habsburg, managing director of Winston Art Group. Hassam and Cassatt have been “volatile” at auction while O’Keeffe’s market is strong in Asia, she added.

Hassam’s flag paintings are in a category all their own. Most works in the series of 30—considered his most famous (and expensive)—are owned by museums. One hangs next to President Joe Biden’s desk in the Oval Office. 

Hassam’s auction record was set in 1998 for Flags, Afternoon on the Avenue (1917), which fetched $7.9 million. 

The series was inspired by a “Preparedness Parade” on Fifth Avenue in 1916, which celebrated the end of America’s isolationist policies as it prepared to enter World War I.  

Childe Hassam, Piazza di Spagna (1857). Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Childe Hassam, Piazza di Spagna (1857), from the Newark Museum of Art. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Like most works in the series, Flags on 57th Street, Winter 1918 depicts a busy urban landscape from above. Three flags wave in the wind; snow covers the ground.   

The New-York Historical Society declined to comment on the value of the painting or discuss its valuation process. It hasn’t deaccessioned art in 20 years, a spokesperson said.

If sold within the estimated range—$12 million to $18 million—the proceeds would amount to a windfall. To put things in perspective, the museum’s total revenue was $42.7 million during the 2018–19 fiscal year, according to its last available tax return. 

And herein lies the danger for museums, O’Donnell said.

“If you view the collection as a revenue source, will you keep managing a nonprofit institution as carefully as you should?” he said. “If, in the back of your mind, you know that if things don’t work out, you can make up the difference here and there by selling a painting?”

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How Bisa Butler Went From Being a High School Art Teacher to an In-Demand Quilter With a Show at the Art Institute of Chicago

Bisa Butler’s intricate portrait quilts are often based on found black-and-white photographs of Black people—some famous, some anonymous, some familial.

The New Jersey-based artist can spend thousands of hours translating these photographs into meticulously dazzling images. The process, Butler says, is akin to pulling her subjects out of the past and into life today; as she works, she wonders what these people were like. What did they sound like? What made them tick?

While Butler has been making quilts since the mid-’90s, the past year has proven a watershed moment for the 47-year-old artist. Though long delayed by the pandemic, an exhibition of her portraits has just opened at New York’s Katonah Museum and is already a critical hit. Another solo show—her most prominent outing to date—is on view now at the Art Institute of Chicago, featuring 20 of her luminous, multi-layered fabric portraits.

Butler, who is represented by New York’s Claire Oliver Gallery, has also recently been tapped to create portraits of influential figures such as Kenosha, Wisconsin, activist Porche Bennett-Bey. (Butler’s image of Bennett-Bey appeared on the cover of Time magazine when the activist was named the Guardian of the Year.)

Just last week, it was announced that Butler’s portrait of Me Too founder and activist Tarana Burke will appear on the cover of Burke’s forthcoming memoir, Unbound (available September 14). 

We spoke with Butler about her whirlwind year, why finding success in her 40s has been a blessing, and how she recharges in stressful times.

Courtesy of the artist.

Courtesy of the artist.

Your quilts are often based on old black-and-white photographs. How do you find these images? Do you search for particular figures, or do you just wait to see an image that draws you in? 

Mostly, it’s a person who captures my attention. I follow different archivists on Instagram and sometimes a photo will catch me. You’ll notice in my works that people usually look directly out and at you. That kind of gaze stops me too, and I get thinking, “What is this person about?” Then I start looking around them for clues: what they’re wearing and what they might be doing. So at first, I won’t really know the context beyond the year the photograph was taken.

Say I find a photograph and the description or title is simply something like “Negro girls, Virginia.” I’ll just know the year, where they’re from, and that they’re Black. Then I have to fill in the blanks for the context. That makes it more interesting for me too, because then I’m like a detective trying to find out what was happening in Richmond, Virginia, in the ‘40s. What was the state of life for the average Black person? If these girls are in school, I know most likely that it’s a segregated school. What was happening in the country around that time? How did that impact this community? 

It was interesting in the Katonah Museum exhibition to read about how you don’t necessarily feel the need to directly transpose a photograph into a quilted form, it’s more of an inspiration. Can you talk about that process?

There is a work called The Four Little Girls, a reference to the four little girls who were killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963. I had actually found a photograph with three little girls on a stoop, in what looked like church clothes. All I thought was, “Oh, this is so cute. Look how adorable these kids are.” I was working on it and then my husband walked by and he didn’t notice how many girls were he just said, “Oh, the four little girls.”

He made this connection that made that whole historical reference so much deeper—because these weren’t those little girls that were killed. I wound up adding the fourth girl. But it was revealing of our collective memory—when we see a group of little Black girls together in their church clothes, our mind goes to that bombing, which wound up being a catalyst for the Civil Rights movement.

Bisa Butler, The Equestrian (2019). Photograph by Margaret Fox.

Bisa Butler, The Equestrian (2019). Photograph by Margaret Fox.

One of your works, The Equestrian, is a portrait of Selika Lazevski, the famous Black woman equestrian who lived in Belle Epoque-era Paris. The quilt is based on a photograph by Félix Nadar, but it’s so vibrant in color. It has a kind of Wizard of Oz feeling for me, coming into color. Do you ever feel that way, that you’re bringing these figures back to life?

That’s interesting that you even mentioned it. In the very first quilt work I ever made, I was trying to imagine what my grandfather looked like. My father’s father was from West Africa. My father’s in his 80s now and his father died in the 1950s from appendicitis. They didn’t have any photographs of him—he was living in rural Ghana and if there were photographs of him, they didn’t survive.

I had this desire to recapture him. I looked up men from Northern Ghana because there’s a distinct look to people from that area. They had migrated into the country from places like Mali, and were a desert tribe of people, not the Ashanti people we think of generally. So I started looking at photographs, and in making that work, I was trying to recapture my grandfather in color, and imagining what it would be like if I could talk to him. What are the things that he would have to say to me? What did his voice sound like? That sense of longing spreads to how I look at other photos, too. Who is this person I am looking at? I want to bring them back in a way.

Bisa Butler, Dear Mama (2019). Collection of Scott and Cissy Wolfe. Photograph by Margaret Fox.

Bisa Butler, Dear Mama (2019). Collection of Scott and Cissy Wolfe. Photograph by Margaret Fox.

There are an incredible number of different types of fabric in each work. In these little itty bits of area, you have multiple types of fabrics layered in. Where do you find all these? Do they have any certain significance to you? 

One of the best things about working on a wider national scale is that more people see what I’m doing, so I’m getting help finding fabrics. Before, all I had were my mother’s and my grandmother’s leftover fabrics because I couldn’t afford to buy new fabrics, and they had so many remnants that I didn’t need big pieces. I started out using mostly dressmaker’s fabrics. Traditional quilters would never be using silk and lace and chiffon all together, but those were what was available. My mother had bits of fabric from wool to gaberdine to tweeds and my mindset was, “What can I do with this?”

But that forced me to expand my definition of what a quilt could look like. My grandmother used a lot of vintage African fabrics. African fabrics only have a short run—companies will put them out for a month and then they retire that print and that’s it. One print had these squares on it and for whatever reason women in the marketplace saw it and they call it “that billionaire.” It got really popular and so it became like a status symbol. If you were wearing that billionaire fabric, it meant that you bought it within a certain month. It is very cool because when people see it they say, “Oh, I know that fabric. I remember when billionaire came out.”

Do you have a least favorite part when you’re working on a new work? Is there some part that you’re dreading doing? 

I don’t know why, but every time I start a new face, I’m always a little worried that I won’t get it. I kind of say a little prayer to myself like “Oh God, I hope I get this right.” Because if I don’t, then I have to scrap it and start all over again. I have like a bunch of half-done faces—a little catalog of them that I just had to put aside. I will just have to say, “Nope. I’ve been working on this thing for three days straight, 10 hours each time, and it’s not right. It’s actually getting worse.” 

Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago, Cavigga Family Trust Fund, and the artist.

Bisa Butler, The Safety Patrol (2018). Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago, Cavigga Family Trust Fund, and the artist.

You were a high school art teacher for many years. Do you think that teaching had any effect on your work? 

Oh, for sure. The influence of the kids helped a lot, being around their energy and their interests. I started doing these images of children, especially when I was getting ready to leave teaching and was feeling sad about it. I made some of my favorite pieces then, like The Safety Patrol and South Side, Sunday Morning. I had a student, this young girl Vivi, and her mom owns a yarn shop in town. She just came in with a big bag of fabric and was like, “Oh, I was just thinking about you, Ms. B.!” 

The past year has been trying on a number of levels. How do you try to recharge?

I really love to read and lately, I’ve been really into Gua sha. It makes me feel so relaxed and helps with tension. 

Recently, you’ve made portraits of some of the activists you admire, including Porche Bennett-Bey and Tarana Burke. But I wonder, who are some of the artists who inspire you?

I think about Elizabeth Catlett, Romare Bearden, Faith Ringgold, and Jacob Lawrence, who were educators for years and years. Elizabeth Catlett worked until she was 98. Aside from Jacob Lawrence, these artists worked well into their 40s before they were recognized. I feel a kinship because I wasn’t able to work on a national stage until recently.

Another artist I love is Alma Thomas. She graduated from Howard, too, and taught in the DC public schools until she was in her 60s. She went big time after she retired and became the first Black woman to have a show at the Whitney when she was in her 70s. She worked until she couldn’t. So if Alma could do it, there is no reason for me to sit around and act like I can’t.

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