Art as Totem and Taboo

John Haber
in New York City

Primitivism Revisited

Joe Ovelman, Philip Maysles, and Armando Reverón

When the Guggenheim toured African art, it seemed to do everything right. A notorious 1984 show of "Primitivism in Twentieth-Century Art," curated by William Rubin, had paired works by Pablo Picasso and other modern artists with their African models. In responding in 1996, the Guggenheim restored African art and artifacts to their place, time, and purposes. It assaulted the myth of the primitive—by removing a European lens and displaying an entire continent in all its diversity. One could no longer see these cultures as existing before or outside of time.

Suddenly, however, the Modern looks prescient. By agonizing over the collision of cultures, it anticipated the leap today from imperialism to something less grand but more ominous today—globalization. What better could shed light on economics today? And with "Primitivism Revisited," art's models and markets look as confusing as ever. Armondo Reveron's Doll (Fundacion Museos Nacionales, Caracas, 1940s)

Along with "Primitivism Revisited," this month has supplied ample chances to turn away. Joe Ovelman calls his show "For Whites Only," but he dares one to decide who counts as white and the exploiter. Blackness becomes confrontational politics once more at P.S. 1, where Philip Maysles turns the walls into a ghostly, oversized Robert Motherwell. Unfortunately, it comes with not just a video lecture and a lengthy handout for required reading, but also an implicit final exam. Finally, a little-known Latin American artist, Armando Reverón, has his own lost continent all to himself.

Should one then try to erase the primitive, root it in a long history, or write it off with modern art? Should one recover it at last, surround it with scare quotes, or let quotation itself spin off new possibilities? Whatever one tries, by then art both black and white will surely have moved on.

Continental divide

The Met had not done altogether badly in 1984, in acquiring work from the former Museum of Primitive Art and giving it fresh attention. If its assumptions seemed suspect, Robert Goldwater's comparable 1938 study of Primitivism in Modern Art remains required reading even today. Yet the Guggenheim's "The Art of a Continent" did better still, at once furthering its mission of understanding Modernism and broadening its focus. Who knew then that the show marked the first of the many multinational blockbusters about everything and nothing?

For all that, has the time come to return to the Met's approach after all? One has every reason to consider artists from Africa and the West side by side, especially living artists. Black American artists redefining their own history, the global art market, and the urgency of African economic and political upheaval—all these have demanded seeing the continent as anything but fully separate from my own. Appropriation has evolved from Picasso's double-edged strategy to a fact of gallery life. Then, too, criticism has moved on, just as it once evolved from embracing Modernism's assault on Western traditions to deploring art's condescension toward "the dark continent." Now, one can look critically at how modern art has worked, what it means, and what that "primitive discord" says about others.

"Primitivism Revisited" attempts just that. Both words in the show's title already sound the theme of appropriation. Susan Vogel and her Columbia University students mingle African art from the last century or so with contemporary art almost entirely from America. Apparently, art in Mali, the Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, and elsewhere is alive and well, while respectful of "classical" models that Picasso or Constantin Brancusi might have known. The documentation takes due care with attributions, and the arrangement avoids simple juxtapositions, which might subordinate one culture to another. On the Western team, the roster including Robert Mapplethorpe, Félix Gonzáles-Torres, Marina Abramovic, Carolee Schneemann, and Alfredo Jaar certainly sounds good.

It also sounds surprising, with the potential to shake up how one sees contemporary European and American art—which has plenty of gaping tourists of its own. Mapplethorpe's black nudes and Abramovic's "erotic rituals" still invite controversy. It seems only reasonable to examine them again, this time in light of black identity and real rituals, not to mention the imagined ones of a primitivist like Huma Bhabha. The gallery even includes the Met's old exhibition poster, reduced and in reproduction. And there the Met had already asked the right question: what does count as primitive?

When, then, makes this display so boring—or, for that matter, primitive? For all the show's sincerity and interest, Africa recedes once again into the unconscious. For the most part, the African artists necessarily remain anonymous, while the Americans have a reputation. They also mostly date from some time ago. If living African artists are engaging or struggling against both Western and local idioms, one would hardly know it here. The show's loosely thematic arrangement rips cultures from their context all over again, and labels show little concern for an object's original function.

Worst of all, the works on display have almost nothing to do with one another. Sarah Lucas's arrangement of an undershirt and coconuts really does parody the aura accorded the primitive along with the feminine mystique. However, Schneeman's famous performance, unscrolling a feminist text from her vagina, or Gonzáles-Torres's pyramid of candy does not. I could live without other works entirely, such as a fashionable sketch by Elizabeth Peyton. African art ends up once again as art, and business as usual can resume where it left off twenty-three years ago.

Whites only

Joe Ovelman asked for volunteers who identify themselves as black, one for each day of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. He photographed whoever showed up, regardless of flesh tone. They, not the art world, got to keep the results. In exchange, they signed and took snapshots of the young white artist, displayed here in small prints like a work in progress. Alongside, he supplies further appropriations of racial flash points, including framed racial slurs and wire images of lynching.

The exchanges recall how cultural anthropology describes non-Western societies, with implications for race in America. The display looks left over from Richard Prince, and one might praise him for piling on yet more cultural reference points. In practice, they tilt more to fatigue and incoherence. The snapshots belong to any number of individuals defining their identity. Yet he seems less to put all these devices on the spot than to be groping for an answer or its visual equivalent. Maybe the obvious has its advantages.

Speaking of which, all set for that quiz? Did Motherwell paint Elegy to the Spanish Republic as black profiles on a white canvas—or white icebergs on black? Cannot remember, or have no clue why it matters? You have clearly failed to grasp racism in art. Worse, does the very thought of figure and ground sound wrong to you for Abstract Expressionism? Sorry, but the Philip Maysles makeup class has closed.

Maysles's wallpapering alternately repeats and inverts the original's black on white. Intriguingly but anachronistically, he quotes Motherwell himself. As late as 1976, well after his breakthrough work, the painter was trying on titles with reference to Haiti and Africa. One can start to imagine a "symbolic use of color" that connects two antecedents—Modernism's discovery of "the primitive" and the Romantic sublime. Yet Maysles manages to make charges of racism sound ridiculous even in America.

While I shall not annoy you with quotes from the handout, it finds only good guys and bad guys, always meaning black and white. It cannot locate irony even in Melville's great white whale. Besides, darkness and daylight had connotations long before slavery in America. Then, too, artists and scribes have long had ample reason to resort to dark outlines on bleached surfaces. They did so in a cave in Lascaux. They do it with soot, ink, and graphite on paper even now.

Perhaps one can indeed return to Motherwell, in order to turn his work inside out. His totems lie thick as the heads on Easter Island, flat to the picture, or still flatter to the wall. They serve as wallpaper or as objects found nowhere else on earth. In work after work, created over many years, they point to a single, despairing moment in European politics, while shooting for eternity. They live in Europe, the South Seas, Africa, Spain, a New York loft, a museum, or nowhere at all. They speak in the same black and white as newsprint, but in no known language.

All dolled up

Armando Reverón's first landscapes have the soft haze of a lazy summer's day—or of a lazy painter. They seem about right for a Caribbean artist, born in Venezuela in 1889, who has studied abroad not gotten over his impressions of Europe. So does an early portrait of two ample women, in garish colors on a blue background. He cannot get past Pablo Picasso, not even Picasso before Cubism. He even touches up the Spaniard's Blue Period, lest it dwell too long on sadness, starvation, or artistic rebellion.

As one proceeds through his retrospective, however, something unexpected happens: step by step, the haze deepens into white. Brushwork becomes thicker while the image grows sparer, until paint and canvas take turns defining the blankness. A work by Pierre Bonnard might have swollen to the point of exploding, leaving behind only its traces. Deciphering any one scene has its pleasures. No single landscape from the late 1920s, however, can deliver the charge of that sequence in time and space across the first long wall.

Reverón nurtures opacity, often in tempera and black chalk along with oil. Not that the white paintings have anything like the emptiness, iconicity, or modernity of Kazimir Malevich. They stick to representation, and what appears at first as the most strict economy may better represent an awkward spirit just scraping by. So does Reverón's sculpture of the time, slightly misshapen guitars and household items fashioned out of wood. This clumsiness undercuts the sentiment of his turn in the 1930s to pudgy female nudes. So does their frequent grouping within a painting, as if the circle of women suffices without a viewer.

So, too, does the realization that by 1940 one is looking at mannequins. Reverón constructed his models himself, almost at life size, and suspended them from above while they pose. Their feet bear no weight, contributing to a painting's unreality, but of course puppets cannot in real life either. Does woman as both subject and literally a plaything burst the bubble of art as male fantasy or merely confirm it? Reverón is not saying, although he did cover the faces of his mannequins with paint, like the makeup on Picasso's whores, and dress them. Late paintings include the artist's dark face, decisively modeled, further hinting that everything takes place in his head.

Reverón retreated into his own world in life as well—or, rather, he continued to toy with the idea of the outside world. He and his lover kept to a small Caribbean village, making their home an enclave within an enclave, and he populated it with his wooden female cast. His returns to landscape, however, describe an active, commercial seaport. This modest exhibition of a Latin American artist, in just four rooms, makes it easy to follow his career's curious back-and-forth progress in what the Guggenheim calls art under the sun. Display cabinets for the sculptures make them that much more claustrophobic. The nudes may never lose their greeting-card sensibility, but they make one embarrassed to notice it.

One could hail the show as a belated discovery or dismiss it as political correctness. One could look hopefully for a revolutionary in monochrome or a Surrealist, like the puppet theater of Hans Bellmer without the sex. One could take his academic skill as a now-fashionable assault on the Modern's original vision. One could consider him a primitive, an outsider, or a Freudian catalog of madness. Take your pick, or think of so much prewar American art. Reverón absorbed early Modernism, but only up to a point—say, up to about 1905. He had got drunk on it, and he spent the rest of a quiet life savoring the buzz.

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"Primitivism Revisited" ran at Sean Kelly through January 27, 2007, Joe Ovelman at Oliver Kamm/5BE through February 10, Philip Maysles at P.S. 1 through January 15, 2006. and Armando Reverón at The Museum of Modern Art through April 16, 2007. For further views, check out my past reviews of "Art of a Continent" and "Primitive Discord." For slippery black identities, also look at reviews of David Hammons, Gary Simmons, and Lorna Simpson.


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