Reviews

Why It’s Worth Savoring Leonor Fini’s Enchanted Surrealism at Kasmin + Other Things to See and Read


Well, one month of 2023 already gone. I started the year with a New Year’s Resolution to write a bit more about art outside of the automatically must-cover big shows or controversies. That’s hard—every pressure of media life pushes towards becoming a brain in a vat plugged directly into trending topics.

But I do want to try! Despite the general bad vibes of our moment, people go on doing and saying interesting things and trying to figure it all out. We’ll see how the year goes. In the meantime, here are a few things I saw and liked, or read and felt worth recommending, in the last weeks.

 

Things to See

Work by Leonor Fini at Kasmin

Work by Leonor Fini at Kasmin. Photo by Ben Davis.

Leonor Fini at Kasmin

Leonor Fini (1907-1996) is a Surrealist great, and also one of those figures who has been greatly under-appreciated. I mean, just a few years ago, it took New York’s Museum of Sex to give her a first big American retrospective. More recently, the Argentinian-Italian artist’s star has been ascendant, with her declaration that she wanted to be seen as a “witch rather than as priestess” making her perfect for the feminist-Surrealist vibe of the recent Venice Biennale. Kasmin’s mini-survey has Fini’s numinous, libidinal paintings accompanied by her theatrical self-made outfits, freaky masquerade ball masks, and even a pair of clip-on gold devil horns. The show contains magic, maybe in metaphorical and non-metaphorical ways.

 

Installation view of Alfatih, "Day in the Life," at Swiss Institute

Installation view of Alfatih, “Day in the Life,” at Swiss Institute. Photo by Ben Davis.

Alfatih at Swiss Institute

The Switzerland-based new media artist’s slick, strangely engaging black-and-white digital animation in the basement of the S.I. centers on the doings of a seemingly super-intelligent cartoon baby, looping endlessly through different permeations of daily domestic rituals (cooking, taking a bath) within the confines of some kind of stylish domestic purgatory. If someone told me that I would be moved by something best described as—I dunno—“Yoshitomo Nara meets Spielberg’s A.I.” or “Limbo meets Boss Baby,” I wouldn’t believe them. But that’s why you don’t judge an art show based on pithy little riffs like that. A vignette where the enigmatic child plinks at the piano as rain pours and lightening strobes all around continues to circle in my brain long after I have left the cartoon creature to carry on with its own devices.

 

Installation view of Carrie Schneider, "I Don't Know Her," at Chart

Installation view of Carrie Schneider, “I Don’t Know Her,” at Chart. Photo by Ben Davis.

Carrie Schneider at Chart

A 16-mm film installation concentrating on a looping image of the Mariah Carey “I don’t know her” meme (the singer pretending not to who Jennifer Lopez is, often used to cast shade), multiply abstracted and reprocessed. It’s an old-fashioned film film showing a phone showing a meme made from a TV show clip of a pop star talking about another pop star. Of course there’s a Pavlovian ’90s nostalgia element to just seeing Carey’s stone-cold quip reframed as art, but I Don’t Know Her (as the work is called) wrings an unexpected bit of beauty from freezing this circulation of media into a shimmering suspension, the image abstracted and pockmarked as it acquires personal associations like a worn-down lucky penny. Fun and brainy and weirdly hypnotic.

 

Things to Read

Why Is Everything So Ugly?” by the Editors, in n+1

From the Winter issue of n+1, the scene-setting lead editorial on “the New Ugliness” made the rounds last month because it names something worth naming: the generally crappy, greige-colored sameness of the urban creative world now, presented via an entertainingly and convincingly cranky ramble across the full landscape of consumption, from architecture to advertising. “One paradox of the new ugliness is that it flattens the distinction between the rich, the very rich, the superrich, and the merely fortunate by ripping them all off in turn.”

TikTok’s Enshitification” by Cory Doctorow, in Pluralistic

A nice complement to the n+1 rant, and maybe its internet-specific corollary of the “New Ugliness.” The trigger for Doctorow’s screed is a consideration of the implications of recent revelations about how TikTok “boosts” key creators with the end of luring them into their platform with a fake sense of its potential. But really this is a famed web thinker’s master theory of why the internet feels so bad now, backed up by a pretty convincing, historically informed political economy of platform capitalism’s tendencies towards making its own services worse over time, i.e. “enshitification.” (While you are at it, Christopher Byrd’s conversation with Doctorow for the New Yorker last month is also well worth checking out.)

Finding Awe Amid Everyday Splendor” by Henry Wismayer, in Noema

As an argument, this one is a bit scientistic for my tastes, but I like its summary of the history and present research on the aesthetic concept of “awe.” The key argument here is that, in calling us to visceral awareness of our own smallness, awe is actually our brains signaling that we need each other. It is thus an emotion that “binds social groups in common purpose” (from which it follows that a society so jaded that it can’t make time for real moments of awe is also one that has lost one of its resources of holding itself together).

 

Things Also Worth Mentioning…

Outside Dunkunshalle for the book launch of Filip Kostic's Personal Computers

Outside Dunkunshalle for the book launch of Filip Kostic’s Personal Computers. Photo by Ben Davis.

Rachel Rossin’s Dunkunsthalle in FiDi

The scrappy art space in a repurposed Dunkin Donuts is worth keeping an eye on. It was a great site last week for the launch of L.A.-based Filip Kostic’s Personal Computers, a very amusing, long-in-the-making compendium of found photos showing the surreal lengths some hobbyists go to kit-out their PCs (gotta love the guy who built his CPU tower into a taxidermied beaver). Watching random passersby seeing Kostic fans packing the space, then peering slowly up at the “Dunkunsthalle” name in signature Dunkin lettering, and trying to figure out what was going on, was a bonus.

Josh On relaunches TheyRule.net

The project, debuted in 2001, is a net art classic and a very early and important example of what Albert-László Barabási recently termed “dataism.” Via crisp, no-nonsense web animation, it compiles a catalogue of the names on the boards of the major companies in the U.S. and shows how they interlock. The new version of TheyRule has updated data for our even more corporate-dominated present, with an autoplay feature endlessly walking you from one end of the network to the next via branching graphics. The site is searchable by name or company, so it can serve as a research tool—but it’s also very much an artwork, something like an x-ray image of the economy so that you just see the unsettlingly alien bone structure underneath.

The artist modestly calls TheyRule a “one-liner,” but it’s a one-liner that hits, maybe even more than when it first launched.

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An Extremely Intelligent Lava Lamp: Refik Anadol’s A.I. Art Extravaganza at MoMA Is Fun, Just Don’t Think About It Too Hard


Refik Anadol: Unsupervised” is being touted as Artificial Intelligence’s triumphant arrival in the museum-art canon. So I went to see the splashy installation currently in the Museum of Modern Art’s ground-floor annex with a mission, to get a glimpse of what MoMA-approved A.I. art promises, or threatens, for the future.

Born in Istanbul and currently based in Los Angeles, with a studio of more than a dozen people, Anadol was known for many years more for interactive public-art commissions than for work in museums and galleries. He boasts collaborations and support from the likes of Microsoft, NVDIA, and Google. In the recent past, his stock has dramatically soared—which makes sense given the fact that his work engages with three trends that have lately shaken up the art conversation: immersive installation, NFTs, and generative A.I. “Unsupervised” combines a bit of each.

Here is what you see at MoMA: A towering, high-res screen where abstract images morph hypnotically and ceaselessly. Sequences run a few minutes each, toggling between different styles of animation.

The most crowd-pleasing of these simulates a seething, gravity-defying cloud of colorful fluid, the palette based on colors derived from the works in MoMA’s collection. New colors are constantly swirling into the image and taking over, the whole thing surging in and out restlessly, like a psychedelic, drugged-out ocean wave. The high-res screen renders the simulated rainbow gloop convincingly thick and dimensional.

Refik Anadol: Unsupervised

“Refik Anadol: Unsupervised” at the Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Ben Davis.

While this mode is the most visually memorable, it is also the one that has the least clear connection to the ostensible Big Idea of the show. “Anadol trained a sophisticated machine-learning model to interpret the publicly available data of MoMA’s collection,” the show’s description explains. “As the model ‘walks’ through its conception of this vast range of works, it reimagines the history of modern art and dreams about what might have been—and what might be to come.”

This premise is more directly enacted in the other two types of animation, which are also harder to describe. One evolves endlessly through blobby, evocative shapes and miasmic, half-formed patterns. Sometimes an image or a part of an image briefly suggests a face or a landscape but quickly moves on, becoming something else, ceaselessly churning. It looks like this:

A third type of animation does much the same, but with jittery networks of lines connecting different key points as the art-inspired shapes define themselves. I’m not totally sure what these vectors suggest, but they give the image texture and atmosphere. It looks like this:

Art History, Without the History

You can tell, in these latter two types of animation, that “Unsupervised” is manifesting art-like images specifically inspired by some constellation of works in MoMA’s collection. Despite a screen that appears as punctuation between sequences displaying dense graphics related to what you have seen, the exact operation is not really clarified.

The ever-new, synthetic images of Anadol’s “Unsupervised” are blobby and chaotic, and look exactly like what art made via Generative Adversarial Networks most often looked like before the breakthroughs of DALL-E and its A.I. ilk captured the imagination of the public last year: Woozy, semi-random, art-like visual outputs, with wispy, unresolved edges. They look a little bit like preliminary sketches for art you might have seen in the original data-set (or in the galleries)—if you squint.

"Refik Anadol: Unsupervised"

“Refik Anadol: Unsupervised” at the Museum of Modern Art. Photo by Ben Davis.

The effect is pleasant. What it is not is anything like what MoMA says it is: an experience that “reimagines the history of modern art and dreams about what might have been.”

MoMA has spent recent decades trying to move beyond the formalist ideas of art that it inherited from its founding director, Alfred H. Barr, Jr. with his famous graph of Modernism as a bunch of styles mechanically branching off of one another. Generally, contemporary art historians would insist on rooting meaning in culture and context. Abstraction means one thing when its Gee’s Bend Quilts, another when it is Abstract Expressionism, still another when it’s Tibetan sand painting, and still another when you put a bunch of images into an A.I. blender and remix them.

It’s striking to see MoMA tacitly let a new high-tech formalism through the door, one even flatter and less historical than Barr’s—as if the curators were so excited by the wonders of A.I. that they didn’t notice. What the endorsement of “Unsupervised” as an alternative-art-history simulator insinuates, for its audience, is that art history is just a bunch of random visual tics to be permuted, rather than an archive of symbol-making practices with social meanings.

 

Dreaming… Reimagined?

Describing his works that use A.I. to make generative art out of huge datasets like “Unsupervised,” Anadol speaks of them as machine “dreams” or machine “hallucinations.” But the terminology, once more, mystifies what is going on.

"Refik Anadol: Unsupervised"

“Refik Anadol: Unsupervised” at the Museum of Modern Art. Photo by Ben Davis.

As Jorge Luis Borges once wrote, citing Coleridge, in dreams (I guess I have to specify here, in human dreams) emotional causality is reversed: “Images take the shape of the effects we believe they cause. We are not terrified because some sphinx is threatening us but rather dream of a sphinx in order to explain the terror we are feeling.”

But there is no emotional text to Anadol’s endless animation at MoMA. At most, the installation conveys a generalized awe at the machine’s superhuman capacity of visual analysis. (The fact that the soundtrack is a kind of shapeless, droning synthesizer score that is almost a cliché in “futuristic” video work doesn’t help.)

I sat through two hours of “Unsupervised.” I can’t think of a single image in it that evoked any feeling in me besides curiosity about what it might be referencing. As one might expect, they are just semi-random acts of syntheses and recombination of properties, expressing nothing about anything in particular except for the machine’s ability to do what it is doing.

Mis-recognizing Dystopia

I would contend that scraping away the ill-considered metaphors (e.g. reimagined art histories, dreaming) helps to better see what’s really happening in front of your eyes.

This would be nitpicking, though, if it weren’t for the fact that what these poetic readings of the technology are doing is selling us on a certain style of thinking about A.I. as a creative proposition, at a time when A.I. text-generation and A.I. image-generation are being deployed so fast that society is racing against the clock to catch up with the implications—as if “move fast and break things” hadn’t been discredited as a motto.

It is because Anadol has created such a purely decorative, cheerleader-ish style of A.I. art—so different than the critical lens that artists such as Hito Steyerl and Trevor Paglen have brought to the subject in recent years, with great impact—that he received so much support along the way from the tech giants. Indeed, his positivity is probably an unstated condition of that support.

Refik Anadol: Unsupervised

“Refik Anadol: Unsupervised” at the Museum of Modern Art. Photo by Ben Davis.

In the last few years, I’ve noticed a pervasive and perverse rhetorical sleight of hand in the art-tech conversation. Call it the willful misreading of dystopia. You hear technologists reference artworks that are meant as sci-fi cautionary tales but, weirdly, purely as positive design inspiration, divorced from their prophetic moral or ethical substance. The recently trendy idea of the “metaverse,” which comes from Neal Stephenson’s grim take on virtual reality in Snow Crash, is an obvious example.

Anadol is a notable dystopian mis-reader. When he refers to his works as “machine dreams” and “collective hallucinations,” he often says his inspiration is Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. In a TED Talk, he describes having his imagination fired by the moment in that movie when the android Rachael realizes that her memories are not real, but implants. “Since that moment,” Anadol says, “one of my inspirations has been this question: What can a machine do with someone else’s memories?”

Blade Runner is a melancholy work about the uprooted sense of self and collapsing sense of reality in a future where humanity and machine are no longer distinguishable. None of this seems to register with Anadol, just the idea that machine-generated memories are cool.

"Refik Anadol: Unsupervised"

“Refik Anadol: Unsupervised” at the Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Ben Davis.

Anadol’s first work that used A.I. to generate infinite new outputs based on a massive dataset was Archive Dreaming, executed in spectacular installation form in 2017, as an application of the experiments he had been engaged with at Google’s Artists and Machine Intelligence Program. It looked at 1,700,000 documents and generated ever-new images based on them.

In that same TED Talk, Anadol claims that Archive Dreaming was inspired by Borges’s famous short story The Library of Babel, which envisions a universe that is one never-ending library, whose books contain every possible combination of characters. But The Library of Babel was an intellectual horror story, a parable about the nihilism that results when all meaning collapses into nothing. When the inhabitants of Borges’s library finally realize the implications of the world they live in, they commit mass suicide!

The point is, these cultural references are mined in the most superficial way—very much as MoMA’s archive is sucked up in Unsupervised and stripped of real substance outside of pure visual inspiration. And so, you can read this style of art as emblematic of a moment in which tech aesthetic of perpetually novel gadgetry is dominant while the humanities, with their unprofitable baggage of historical and moral concerns, are being allowed to wither.

"Refik Anadol: Unsupervised"

“Refik Anadol: Unsupervised” at the Museum of Modern Art. Photo by Ben Davis.

And Then There Are the NFTs

Don’t get me wrong. “Unsupervised” is amusing enough on its own, if you look past the cloud of mystification. It’s a bit like an extremely intelligent lava lamp.

But if it seems a little vacant, there is reason to suspect that MoMA is incentivized not to ask too much of it.

With his background, Anadol was well-positioned to become one of the biggest stars of the NFT art scene during the crypto boom of 2021. In fact, his “Unsupervised—Machine Hallucinations—MoMA Dreams” line of NFTs based on MoMA’s collection is being sold on Feral File, the NFT marketplace from the well-respected art-technologist Casey Reas (one of Anadol’s former teachers at UCLA). “Ten years ago, when we asked, Can we mint machine memories and dreams in the blockchain of one of the world’s most inspiring archives? I wouldn’t have imagined that was possible,” Anadol enthuses in MoMA Magazine. “I mean it was a very Philip K. Dick idea, but I feel like we are, right now, truly doing it.” (Finally, a way for MoMA to play a part in bringing the cheerful world of Total Recall closer to reality!)

MoMA itself gets a percentage of the sales of the digital artworks—17 percent of primary sales and 5 percent of secondary. Surely showing “Unsupervised” prominently at MoMA has to be considered as a great ad for the associated line of NFTs that sends profits back to the museum (you can see the spike of trade in them that coincides with the show opening on OpenSea). The curators have been promoting the show with conversations featuring both Anadol and Reas, where they talk as much about NFTs as about the installation.

It may be that the exact same thing that makes this genre of work commercially appealing for people buying NFTs—its untroubled techno-philia—is what makes it feel flat to me as an artistic statement. The suspicion that MoMA is incentivized to fast-track this kind of art is going to linger.

Sadly, the melting of commercial and non-commercial borders strikes me as more prophetic of “what might be to come” in art than any of the images summoned up by the machine in the gallery.

“Refik Anadol: Unsupervised” is on view at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, through March 5, 2023.

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Parallel Shows in London and Berlin Conjure Up Political Utopia, Using A.I. and Celebrity Deepfakes


This will sound terribly jaded, but, in the spirit of honesty: artists Annika Kuhlmann and Christopher Kulendran Thomas presented two types of exhibitions I normally would have walked out of.

On the first floor of their show at Berlin’s KW Institute for Contemporary Art is a political video documentary; on the second an all-too familiar Ab-Ex relaunch. So many biennials later, I’d rather read about a political uprising in a book by an anthropologist than hear about it from an artist. Abstract painting, for its part, can be enjoyable in a straightforward way, but, these days, it is often employed not because of what it is, but because of who made it. These kinds of encounters are often with art that doesn’t need to be art, but rather art that is promoted simply because it supplies a window onto a subject of importance.

“Another World,” where the focus is on the Tamil Tigers, an ex-militant organization once based in northeastern Sri Lanka, is not that. Rather, Kulendran Thomas and Kuhlmann’s exhibition is so self-conscious as to what it means to think through and with art—and so forceful in that self-consciousness—you cannot help but be intrigued. And so I stayed; it stayed.

Christopher Kulendran Thomas The Finesse (2022) in collaboration with Annika Kuhlmann. Installation view of the exhibition Christopher Kulendran Thomas. “Another World” at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin. Photo: Frank Sperling

Kulendran Thomas, a Berlin-based artist of Tamil descent, alongside his German collaborator Kuhlmann, created “Another World” as two parallel exhibitions simultaneously on view at KW and the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), London. Its central work, The Finesse, a newly commissioned video work, is projected onto a mirror, and facing it is another screen showing slow-panning footage from a forest planted by the Tamil Tigers. Sandwiched in between the two are the viewers, collapsing three image-situations into one. The video itself is based partly on early 1990s archive footage featuring a member of the group who speaks with other-worldly eloquence about the Western fictions of democracy and freedom. A democracy should allow us to choose between different systems, she says, but in the West, there is only one. Her wit and charisma are of a type made for political influencing; her TikTok would be irresistible—and this, partly, is what the work is about. 

The narrative of Tamil Eelam’s independence movement (a proposed autonomous Tamil state that the Tamil Tigers were fighting for) is neatly slotted into the context of the media spectacle of OJ Simpson’s trial, which took place at the same time—so neatly that I am not sure which parts of the film are authentic, and which not. It is not so difficult to manufacture a VHS grain, recreate an old Yahoo search, nor, it turns out, render a deepfake of Kim Kardashian, who appears in The Finesse, though slower, more immovable, and perfectly mesmerizing. With the same eloquence as the young Tamil, and with reference both to her Armenian roots, and, indirectly, to her early adjacency to the media vertigo of the Simpson trial, Kardashian’s avatar argues that certain people are less prone to believe in the fictions of capitalist hegemony. Certain circumstances—such as that of the Tamils in Sri Lanka, we can infer—require you to be more realistic when it comes to how stories are fabricated as truth in newsrooms and on the internet.

Christopher Kulendran Thomas The Finesse (2022) in collaboration with Annika Kuhlmann. Installation view of the exhibition Christopher Kulendran Thomas. “Another World”
at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin
2022. Photo: Frank Sperling

In another segment of The Finesse, contemporary recordings follow another young Tamil investing in the legacy of the once-imagined Eelam state, now more than ten years lost. But the possibility of that history and its politics to become wearable as an identity for the young woman in the present is put into relief by a phone call she gets from an older friend or relative. It was a fantasy we had, says the voice on the other end of the line, who questions what it is that the younger generation expects to get out of identifying with it now. And the viewer— themselves caught inside the projection—wonders too.

It is through such sober, whip-smart interjections that Kuhlmann and Kulendran Thomas consistently install self-consciousness into their narrative while smugly escaping the dangers of romanticism. What I like about the work is that it does not allow us to take its politics at face value; rather, it is laced with an irony that has generally not been tolerated in the art world since the DIS-curated Berlin Biennial in 2016 (where Kulendran Thomas also participated). There is a critical tension without which we would risk collapsing into the neo-essentialisms of post-truth. Eloquence, charisma, and charm, too, are art forms, which each cease to function as modes of manipulation once we accept them as such. In parallel, the extent to which these conversations and monologues are scripted, made deepfake, or not, likewise loses importance.

Upstairs, Being Human, a video work from 2019, is screened on a translucent wall, dissecting the space. The rooms on either side of it are lined with the abstract paintings, which, it turns out, are generated by AI and executed by Kulendran Thomas’s studio, as are their sculptural counterparts. Climaxing like a pop song, the screen occasionally lights up to reveal the other side of the room. Art and modernism are part of the same ideological image circuit as Kardashian and Taylor Swift (whose deepfake reflects on the possibility of authenticity in Being Human) and the propaganda machines that would render the Tamil Tigers terrorist insurrectionists, or not. The theoretical implication is that we are completely immersed in the simulacrum, but it is also plain beautiful; as an experience, enchanting.

Christopher Kulendran Thomas The Finesse (2022) in collaboration with Annika Kuhlmann. Installation view of the exhibition Christopher Kulendran Thomas. “Another World”
at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin
2022. Photo: Frank Sperling

In The New York Times, critic Travis Diehl wrote about the London-chapter of the exhibition, a mirror of the KW show. “If Kulendran Thomas genuinely aims to offer new political possibilities, count me as a skeptic. If his goal is to ruin contemporary art, he just might,” he says. Here, Diehl refers to the zombie abstraction that is part of the installation of Being Human, and, perhaps, to the generally unplaceable morality of the tone. But this is far from a threat to contemporary art. Rather, after a summer where structure, relational aesthetics, and good intentions stood in for artworks at ruangrupa’s Documenta 15, “Another World” retains a medial self-consciousness that presents a hopeful glimpse for its future. The element of spectacle in both works—The Finesse peaks in an exhilarating rave scene—might have come across as cheap in its pop appeal, but it is precisely this hint of cynicism that makes both works at once disturbing and intelligent.

In recent years, the discourse around politics and art has seen a loss of distinction between the sphere of representation and reality, taking, for instance, images for actions, depictions, or reflections on violence as that violence itself. But “Another World” does not let reality become subsumed by its image; instead, it asks the audience to continually observe the line between the two, even as it blurs. And the experience of sitting inside of Kuhlmann and Kulendran Thomas’s infinity mirror, oddly, makes you quite sure of what parts of reality that survive the spectacle of media and what truth rises to the surface of a deepfake. There is so much, in fact: the intelligence and humanity of the protagonists (real or not); the pleasure and fun of imagining another world, and in being surrounded by images of it; how political dreams and artful fictions can overlap in certain moments, and in others, crucially, diverge. And while you may not be able to spot the difference, you will feel it.

“Another World” is on view through January 22, 2023, at the Institute for Contemporary Arts, London, and through January 15, 2023, at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin.

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The Medici Were History’s Greatest Patrons—and Also Tyrants. The Met’s New Show Tackles How Art Served Power


Portrait paintings are sometimes described as windows into the soul. The Renaissance likenesses presented in the Metropolitan Museum’s “The Medici: Portraits and Politics, 1512–1570” have other purposes. Their cold, opulent beauty is more akin to the calculated image curation typical of modern day influencers than to the revelation of character that permeates the paintings of the Met’s nearby Alice Neel exhibition. And that, it seems, is the point of this fascinating exhibition.

This is not the High Renaissance of the celebrated Lorenzo de Medici whose patronage brought us masterpieces by Michelangelo, Botticelli, and Leonardo da Vinci. The exhibition focuses on the later 16th century rule of Florence by Cosimo I de’ Medici and introduces the cast of Mannerist painters who helped him craft his image as the city-state’s benevolent dictator.

Organized by the Met’s Keith Christiansen and Florentine professor Carlo Falciani, the exhibition is laid out in thematic sections that tell the rollicking tale of Cosimo’s rise to power and consolidation of authority through the artworks that helped make it possible.

Installation view of "The Medici: Portraits and Politics, 1512–1570" at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo by Hyla Skopitz, Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Installation view of “The Medici: Portraits and Politics, 1512–1570” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo by Hyla Skopitz, Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Ruthless Medici

The story begins with the machinations that brought the Medicis back to power in Florence after the reestablishment of Republican rule following their expulsion in 1494.

For forty years, Florentine Republicans had mostly held off the onslaught of the Medician autocrats through periods of civil war, plague, and siege. A potent symbol of this struggle was Michelangelo’s David. Installed in 1504 outside the Palazzo Vecchio, the seat of Florence’s civic government, the figure’s stern resolve and youthful vitality provided inspiration for the city’s anti-Medici partisans.

The second coming of the Medici was aided by a pair of Medici Popes: Leo X, a hedonistic pontiff who bankrupted the Vatican with dynastic wars and personal luxuries, and the inept Clement VII who brought on the Sack of Rome and lost half the Church to the Reformation. However otherwise disastrous their reigns, they secured the return of the Medicis to Florence.

Jacopo da Pontormo, Portrait of a Halberdier (probably Francesco Guardi) (ca. 1528–30) with a display of arms in "The Medici" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Hyla Skopitz, Courtesy of The Met

Jacopo da Pontormo, Portrait of a Halberdier (probably Francesco Guardi) (ca. 1528–30) with a display of arms in “The Medici” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Hyla Skopitz, Courtesy of The Met

A series of skirmishes between Republicans and Medici supporters culminated in the 1529 siege of Florence which was led by Clement’s ally the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Following the city’s capitulation, Clement installed Alessandro de’ Medici as Duke. The licentious Alessandro, who may have been Clement’s illegitimate son, did not last long. He riled the city’s Republican families and was assassinated by a distant cousin in 1537 in what was celebrated as an act of tyrannicide.

Thanks to wars, murders, and early deaths of designated heirs, Florence was now running out of direct descendants of the original Medici family. As a result, the Dukedom passed to seventeen-year-old Cosimo de Medici, a descendent of a lesser branch of the family. Expected to be a weak leader destined for exile, assassination, or domination by stronger factions, he ruled Florence for over thirty years, established a Medici dynasty that lasted for two centuries and transformed Florence with art patronage and massive public works into the city we know today.

 

The Bronzino Touch

Although “The Medici: Portraits and Politics” includes works by such luminaries as Jacopo Pontormo, Rosso Fiorentino, Benvenuto Cellini, Giorgio Vasari, and Francesco Salviati, the real stars of this exhibition are Cosimo and his favored artist Agnolo Bronzino.

Bronzino was perfectly in tune with his patron. In numerous portraits he depicts Cosimo in a variety of guises: a young warrior in full armor whose hands caress his helmet; an older man of forty, now bearded and dressed in somber black as befitting the statesman he has become; and in an allegorical painting as Orpheus, naked from the back as he turns toward the viewer.

Bronzino, <em>Florence Cosimo I de’ Medici as Orpheus </em>(1537–39). Philadelphia Museum of Art; Gift of Mrs. John Wintersteen, 1950. Image: Courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Bronzino, Florence Cosimo I de’ Medici as Orpheus (1537–39). Philadelphia Museum of Art; Gift of Mrs. John Wintersteen, 1950. Image: Courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art.

In all these depictions, Cosimo offers the same gaze, mask-like in its impenetrability, presenting a picture of steadfast purpose and icy control. This essential message became part of Cosimo’s cultural diplomacy. The non-allegorical portrayals were repainted multiple times and distributed as gifts to friends and potential allies.

Bronzino’s portraits offer a similar treatment of Cosimo’s family. His impressive wife Eleonora di Toledo was a granddaughter of Lorenzo de Medici and served as his frequent political advisor while bearing him eleven children. She is seen here as a gravely modest young wife and as an equally serene mother subtly pregnant as she pushes forward her equally composed young son Francesco.

Bronzino, <em>Eleonora di Toledo and Francesco de’ Medici</em> (ca. 1550). Museo Nazionale di Palazzo Reale, Pisa. Image © Haltadefinizione® Image Bank by permission of the Ministry of Cultural Activities and Heritage—Polo Museale della Toscana.

Bronzino, Eleonora di Toledo and Francesco de’ Medici (ca. 1550).
Museo Nazionale di Palazzo Reale, Pisa. Image © Haltadefinizione® Image Bank by permission of the Ministry of Cultural Activities and Heritage—Polo Museale della Toscana.

Francesco reappears elsewhere as a slightly older boy, holding a letter, and, in a 1570 painting by Bronzino’s protégé Alessandro Allori as a young man suited for battle. Francesco would succeed Cosimo as Duke of Florence in 1571, when his father went on to the more august position as the first Grand Duke of Tuscany.

 

Art as PR Push

None of Bronzino’s depictions of Cosimo or his family match the fierceness of Cellini’s bust of the Duke. Two versions, one in bronze and one in marble, introduce the exhibition. They present Cosimo as a supremely confident military man swathed in armor ornamented with classical motifs.

Two portrait busts by Cellini in "The Medici: Portraits and Politics, 1512–1570" at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo by Hyla Skopitz, Courtesy of The Met

Two portrait busts by Cellini in “The Medici: Portraits and Politics, 1512–1570” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo by Hyla Skopitz, Courtesy of The Met

This representation was meant to underscore the association of Florence’s 16th century ruler with Rome’s imperious Caesar Augustus. All these official portraits seem designed to smooth over the messy trajectory of Cosimo’s rise to power, his suppression of civil liberties, the political intrigues that marked his reign, and his brutal campaigns against other city-states.

The exhibition includes portraits of other notable figures, both by Bronzino and by other artists. Among these are Francesco Salviati’s probing portrait of Bindo Altoviti, a leading banker and Republican sympathizer; Bronzino’s subtly sexualized depiction of naval commander Andrea Doria as a powerful, nearly naked Neptune; and his tribute to poet Laura Battiferri. The homosexual Bronzino carried on a long platonic relationship with this formidable woman and here depicts her in profile with features that deliberately echo those of a more allegorical painting of Dante he had created thirty years before.

Francesco Salviati, <em>Bindo Altoviti</em> (ca. 1545). Private Collection. Photograph © Bruce M. White, 2020.

Francesco Salviati, Bindo Altoviti (ca. 1545). Private Collection.
Photograph © Bruce M. White, 2020.

There are as well portraits of some of the more dubious characters in this drama: The ill fated Alessandro de Medici appears in Pontormo’s portrait as a sober, cultured young man captured in the act of sketching the bust of a woman on a piece of paper. Pope Clement VII, painted by Sebastiano del Piombo just before the disastrous Sack of Rome, is a regal figure blissfully unaware of the debacle to come.

The exhibition is dotted with various artifacts. These include rapiers, halberds, and ornamented axes of the sort used by both sides in the siege of Florence, original manuscripts, a red velvet dress that may have been worn by Eleonora di Toledo, and coins that celebrate Cosimo’s architectural projects. These public works were an equally important part of his cultural legacy, dedicated to cementing Florence’s place at the epicenter of Italian Renaissance.

 

The Problem of Michelangelo

So as to underscore the cool sobriety of Bronzino’s approach, the show ends with a face-off between him and painter Francesco Salviati, a fellow Florentine with more cosmopolitan tastes who had lived in Rome and traveled throughout Italy. Salviati’s portraits, many of them dotted with now obscure mythological motifs, exhibit a warmth and naturalistic approach that make a striking contrast to the chilly perfection of Bronzino’s figures.

Installation view of "The Medici: Portraits and Politics, 1512–1570" at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo by Hyla Skopitz, Courtesy of The Met

Installation view of the “Florence and Rome: Bronzino and Salviati” gallery in “The Medici: Portraits and Politics, 1512–1570” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo by Hyla Skopitz, Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

But perhaps a more telling comparison would have been the works of Bronzino and Michelangelo, then and now Florence’s most famous artist. Michelangelo casts a long shadow over the exhibition even though he appears here only in a portrait by Daniele da Volterra. Even unfinished, the work captures its subject’s life force and craggy vitality in a way that seems a rebuke to the flattering elegance of Bronzino’s representations.

Michelangelo posed a problem for Cosimo. Towering above other Florentine artists, he sided with the Republicans in Florence’s civil wars and fled the city forever when Cosimo came to power. Cosimo attempted unsuccessfully to lure him back and only succeeded after Michelangelo’s death, when the old master’s body was returned to Florence and given an extravagant state funeral. With this gesture, Cosimo hoped to tie himself to the revered artist and to obscure Michelangelo’s Republican sympathies. Cosimo had already brought artists of Florence under his patronage through the founding of Florence’s Accademia del Disegno. His embrace of the dead Michelangelo reveals his efforts to control the narrative of history as well.

Benvenuto Cellini, Cosimo I de' Medici (1545). Museo Nazionale del Bargello. By permission of Ministero della Cultura. Photo: Antonio Quattrone

Benvenuto Cellini, Cosimo I de’ Medici (1545). Museo Nazionale del Bargello. By permission of Ministero della Cultura. Photo by Antonio Quattrone.

But in the end, Michelangelo escaped Cosimo’s grasp. His David, now installed in Florence’s Galleria dell’Accademia, is one of the world’s most famous works of art. The generic blandness of Bronzino’s court portraits pale next to the giant slayer’s steely gaze and taut determination. David remains Michelangelo’s compelling monument to the resistance to tyranny.

Is there a lesson here for our so-called Modern Medicis? The art world is currently engaged in an unprecedented inquiry into the political and economic entanglements of museum board members and the ethics of museum patronage. As history reveals, art often finds itself in service to power. But the saga of Cosimo de Medici also suggests there are limits to the control patrons have over the power of art.

“The Medici: Portraits and Politics, 1512–1570” is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, through October 11, 2021.

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Veering From the Didactic to the Lyrical, El Museo del Barrio’s Worthy New Triennial Defines Latinx Art Through a Common Struggle


In a new format called La Trienal, El Museo del Barrio’s survey of contemporary Latinx art “Estamos Bien” asserts that Latinx art is defined by a confrontation to systems of power. Bringing together a collection of works from intergenerational artists without a history of exhibiting at the museum (save for Candida Alvarez), curators Susanna V. Temkin, Rodrigo Moura, and guest curator Elia Alba argue that while there is no singular form or aesthetic to Latinx art, it is intrinsically tied to social critique.

The show gathers works by 42 living artists and collectives spread over eight gallery spaces including the entry and a brand new gallery. These artists outline the resilience in Latinx culture, reclaim lost histories, elevate the quotidian, and some even laugh at the absurdity of it all.

With a diverse crop of diasporic artists with backgrounds from all over Latin America, Guyana, and some that identify as Indigenous, La Trienal shatters a rigidity within the ‘Latino’ label exemplified in previous gatherings. However, the political framing here that ties the artists to traumatic social issues isn’t necessarily novel. “Estamos Bien,” the museum’s first national survey, emphasizes strong convictions about the detrimental state of our environment, class and racial dynamics, and the forces powering displacement, but at times these convictions shine brighter than the works. Though the show spotlights artists who have been deserving of recognition for decades as well as many young artists demonstrating excellence early in their careers, the need to display the concerns of Latinx communities does take the front seat.

Upon entering, Peaceful Protest (2020), a photograph of Black Lives Matter protesters at a die-in by Philadelphia-based photographer Ada Trillo, sets the curatorial tone, which wavers between the serious, the sarcastic, and, at times, the poetic.

Ada Trillo, Peaceful Protest from the "Black Lives Matter" series (2020). Courtesy the artist.

Ada Trillo, Peaceful Protest from the “Black Lives Matter” series (2020). Courtesy the artist.

Nearby, a wall painted black is dedicated to Dominican-American artist Lizania Cruz’s work Obituaries of the American Dream (2020-21). Taking a nod from the New York Times’s revisionist obituary project, Cruz’s participatory project inserts excluded narratives taking the form of a stack of newspapers one can take from the gallery. Each newspaper contains testimonies highlighting sad truths about the country’s failure to live up to its commitment to immigrants.

Lizania Cruz, Obituaries of the American Dream (2020- 21). Courtesy the artist

Lizania Cruz,
Obituaries of the American Dream
(2020- 21). Courtesy the artist

One gallery over, the same critique takes the form of pink cake frosting with Chicago-based artist Yvette Mayorga’s paintings that also embody the idea of phony American idealism. (I reviewed Mayorga’s work in 2019.)

Yvette Mayorga, The Procession (After 17th Century Vanitas) In loving memory of MM (2020). Courtesy the artist.

Yvette Mayorga, The Procession (After 17th Century Vanitas) In loving memory of MM (2020). Courtesy the artist.

The floor-to-ceiling vinyl chart Who Defines your Race? from San Diego-based Collective Magpies, also setting the tone right at the entrance, gets straight to the point of proving Latinx people exist as multitudes. The massive infographic shows survey responses about the complexity of personal and collective racial and ethnic perceptions, which quickly nods to a self-awareness in La Trienal that identity labels such as “Latinx” are imperfect. (The show is organized using the term ‘Latinx’ as a “placeholder” from which to unite and organize, curator Elia Alba said in a curatorial talk posted online.)

Collective Magpie, Who Designs Your Race? (2020-21). Courtesy the artist.

Collective Magpie, Who Designs Your Race? (2020-21). Courtesy the artist.

Like this infographic, there are several pieces in the show that favor straight-up facts in lieu of more poetic form. A 2018 video from the collective Torn Apart/Separados shows data visualizations taken from its interactive website using mapping technologies to draw conclusions or explore culpability for the humanitarian crisis of family separations in the U.S. The website is a response to an urgent need for justice that persists even with the country’s new administration under Joe Biden where minor detention centers continue to be built in Texas. Though the work is a clever use of technology, is it art and does it belong in a survey with the most reputable Latinx artists of our moment?

Torn Apart/Separados, video demo from website. Courtesy TA/S team.

Torn Apart/Separados, video demo from website. Courtesy TA/S team.

Los Angeles-based artist Carolina Caycedo, known for her poignant works about environmental justice, uses the recognizable format of a memorial: a drawing of a tree with the names of environmentalists murdered outside of the U.S. The piece, Genealogy of Struggling (2021), has a small altar with candles and herbs placed before it. Unlike the artist’s “Cosmotarrayas” or abstract water portraits, the piece is unequivocal rather than engaging. Like the Torn Apart/Separados website and Collective Magpie’s infographic, the altar foregrounds the global issue rather than using artistic nuance. These works function more as tools in service of content rather than forms that challenge the viewer.

Other works are more allusive in intention such as the unassuming sculptures of ektor garcia. The self-described nomadic artist uses craft techniques like ceramics, fiber, and metalwork in works that accentuate the hand. His elongated form of cascading butterflies is crocheted in copper wire and tenderly constructed with detailed craftsmanship. Ideas about the essence of the butterfly’s migratory patterns, the fluidity of gender, and the perpetual movement in garcia’s practice and existence could all be considered in interpretations of the work.

Eddie Aparicio, City Bus Memorial (Fig. and Ave. 60, Los Angeles, California) (2016). Courtesy the artist.

Eddie Aparicio, City Bus Memorial (Fig. and Ave. 60, Los Angeles, California) (2016). Courtesy the artist.

The rubber casts of Los Angeles trees by the artist Eddie R. Aparicio also challenge traditional forms and use novel techniques to create meaning. Aparicio visits ficus trees around parks on the outskirts of L.A. in danger of being cut down. Each time he visits the tree, he applies layers of rubber until he can capture the exterior essence of the tree, human markings and all. The works hold fleeting cultural imprints of communities also on the verge of displacement and are visualizations of the human effects on the environment.

There’s a prevailing theme of resilience that runs throughout the galleries. La Trienal’s title “Estamos Bien” is also the name of Puerto Rican pop star Bad Bunny’s post-Hurricane Maria anthem, a tongue-in-cheek declaration that “we good” despite experiencing an extraordinary natural disaster and delayed aid from the U.S. That adaptive sentiment is explored in pieces like New York- and Peru-based artist xime izquierdo ugaz’s photo archive documenting a chosen queer family. Spilling from a gallery corner, the intimate portraits are reminiscent of a proud parent’s living room wall where the star qualities of loved ones are on display. The pictures document the radical act of recreating the supportive bonds of family that queer folks may be denied.

From Michael Menchaca, A Cage Without Borders (2020-21). Courtesy the artist.

From Michael Menchaca,
A Cage Without Borders
(2020-21). Courtesy the artist.

Moving in the opposite direction of resilience toward compounding anxiety is Mexican-American artist Michael Menchaca’s critique of the surveillance state as related to Black and brown people. The chaotic 3-channel digital animation A Cage without Borders asks us: What if you could step inside the Latinx algorithm? Would it contain images of Selena, AOC in her ‘tax the rich’ sweatshirt, and ICE agents opening fire? The work subjects the viewer to these and a cacophonous overload of flashing graphics while a computerized narration drawls on about the state of technological surveillance over a techno beat.

Menchaca’s collaged scenes of viral Latino imagery pop up phrases like “Carceral Technology Up to 100% Off!” and “Behavioral Gentrification,” presenting a constant state of pandemonium. The crowded screens are lined with emojis, corporate emblems from Google, Amazon, and Homeland Security, and Menchaca’s remixed Pre-Columbian cat glyphs. Not only is this an apt critique of how Latinos are mined as consumers, it physically reproduces the psychological anxiety of experiencing the landscape of online activism.

Another stunner in the show are from art darling Patrick Martinez whose impressive painting literally brings the outdoor aesthetics of Los Angeles—neon signs, stucco walls, and his signature clay rose adornments—into the gallery, playing on the appearance of quickly gentrifying neighborhoods. The artist told me this is the first public showing from this series, which is two years in the making, as his works are snatched up by institutions and collectors before being exhibited—a rare kind of market success for other artists in this survey.

Raelis Vasquez, The Other Side of Tourism. Courtesy the artist.

Raelis Vasquez, The Other Side of Tourism.
Courtesy the artist.

Representational painting also makes a few cameos here, notably with both the youngest and most senior artists in La Trienal. Born in 1995, New York-based painter Raelis Vasquez, renders exquisite domestic table scenes of his family in the Dominican Republic, while Chicano artist Joey Terrill from L.A., born in 1955, paints vivid vanitas with fruit-filled tables featuring oversized pills, alluding to his 40 year experience living with HIV.

Joey Terrill, <em> Black Jack 8</em> (2008). Courtesy the artist.

Joey Terrill, Black Jack 8 (2008). Courtesy the artist.

The variance in mediums and subject continues throughout the show as performance, minimalist architectural interventions, and sculptural works substantiate the claim that Latinx art cannot be defined through format but maybe through a sense of urgency. Although fulfilling a curatorial aim was favored over a balance of formal experimentation, aesthetics, and content in a few works, La Trienal shows how much latent and under-recognized talent there is in the field.

Installation view of "Estamos Bien" at El Museo del Barrio. Photo by Martin Seck.

Installation view of “Estamos Bien” at El Museo del Barrio. Photo by Martin Seck.

Though one could say the categorization of art through ethnic identifiers like “Latinx” becomes broad and obscures meaning, the exclusion of Latinx art from relevant art conversations—even in El Museo’s own recent history of prioritizing Latin-American art over Latinx artists—is a reality. That persistent exclusion in museum collections, gallery shows, etc., and a lack of contextualization that feeds misunderstandings about the work, is a running testament to the need for these surveys. Though the collected works are but a glimpse into the range of Latinx art, the curators have outlined a communal need for doing justice to its breadth. It’s up to the rest of the art world to respond—but if not, no worries. Estamos bien.

“Estamos Bien—La Trienal, 20/21” is on view at El Museo del Barrio, New York, through September 26, 2021.

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