Frieze: ‘Is Humanism Dead?’ Asks Redux of 1959 MoMA Show

March 12, 2020

Jonathan Griffin

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‘Is Humanism Dead?’ Asks Redux of 1959 MoMA Show
By: Jonathan Griffin

Today, figurative painting abounds, shaped – with rare exception – by concerns around identity and diversity of representation. In 1959, curator Peter Selz’s exhibition ‘New Images of Man’, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, also proposed a return to figurative painting and sculpture. Critics were upset by the show’s expansive reach and its apparent disrespect towards New York abstraction: it featured white male artists not only from the US (Richard Diebenkorn, Leon Golub, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock) but also white male artists from Europe, including Francis Bacon, Jean Dubuffet and Alberto Giacometti. Among 23 featured artists, Germaine Richier was the only woman.

You might expect Alison Gingeras, curator of this revisionist ‘New Images of Man’ at Blum & Poe, to have much to say about the original exhibition’s overbearing masculinism. Yet, while there are many more female artists in her show, they still remain a minority. (Overall, the number of artists has increased to 43.) Gingeras’s phenomenally involved and multivalent exhibition is, at once, strikingly ambitious in the ground it attempts to cover and modest in its refusal to promote any one single proposition – except, perhaps, Gingeras’s personal tastes. My guess is that she had a long curatorial lead time, and the show became increasingly complicated; the outcome is enthralling, informative, surprising and, occasionally, bananas.

In the original show, Selz examined how mid-century artists were wrestling with the traumatic fallout of two world wars and the fear of nuclear apocalypse. Humanism was considered to be the world’s best bet for universal peace and harmony. In her catalogue essay, Gingeras calls this discourse of universalism ‘deeply flawed’, but her exhibition seems generally willing to entertain it as a theoretical position.

She describes her project as ‘part homage, part radical revision’ – two divergent approaches that threaten to tear the show apart. In an attempt to imagine what a better survey might have looked like in 1959, alongside contemporary figurative work Gingeras includes pieces by artists overlooked the first time around: the Haitian painter Roland Dorcély’s Sans titre (Untitled, c.1958), for example, or Mithuna Orange (c.1960) by Indian modernist M.F. Husain. Other works hail from Egypt, Iran, Japan, Senegal and Sudan. Self-taught artists feature prominently, too: a wall is given over to the paper body-builders of Cuban artist Misleidys Castillo Pedroso, while nearby hangs work by Enrico Baj, Kazumi Kamae, Maryan and Eugene Von Bruenchenhein. 

Gingeras’s homage, however, is less evenly applied. Each room is dominated by a large-scale reinterpretation of a piece from the original show, including two acrylic and gesso facsimiles of the original 1959 MoMA catalogue by Dave Muller, New Images of Man Spread (p. 62–63, Annotated by Alison and Dave) and Dust Jacket #1 (NIM Strand) (both 2020). Three other tributes – including a wall of Francis Bacon tote bags from the Centre Pompidou, Paris – are uncredited. These verge on the facile. Since works by original participating artists Karel Appel and César both make it into Gingeras’s installation without irony, why humiliate Bacon but celebrate H.C. Westermann, whose wooden sculpture Memorial to the Idea of Man if He Was an Idea (1958) is rebuilt, at giant scale, with care and craftsmanship?  

It’s hard to tell what Gingeras really thinks of Selz’s show. Does she find its anachronisms ridiculous or does she believe it speaks across the decades? Do conversations between artworks separated by time or geographical distance imply the possibility of a universal humanism or is such an idea only a fiction – and, if so, is it a fiction worth upholding? I like the notion that the curator herself isn’t sure but, through this exhibition, is trying to find out. 

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