1.22.18 — Join the Club

Groucho Marx would not join a club that would accept him as a member. Jimmie Durham feels the same way about citizenship in a nation.

Make that at least two nations, counting what Anglos might call a tribe. Born in 1940, Durham grew up in the American South but left for Geneva to study art. He showed in New York in the glory years of alternative spaces, but left again for Mexico and then Europe. By his own account the most prominent Native American artist, he gave up activism in 1973, and the Cherokee will not recognize him as their own. Either he could not document his ancestry or he could not be bothered. In each and every case, he never once looked back.

Jimmie Durham's Self-Portrait Pretending to Be a Stone Statue of Myself (ZKM Center for Art and Media, 2006)If it gets tiresome to keep track of his movements and affections, he embraces the charge. Wherever he goes, he says, he is the “center of the world”—and the Whitney adopts just that as the title of his retrospective, through January 28. He might be there only in spirit, but he finds his spirit everywhere. He could not make it to the United States for the opening, but he does leave the polished branch of a “saved tree” to open the show and to mark its location. If it looks like a flagpole, it accompanies text art from 1992 labeling it an Anti-Flag. Try not to salute.

If something here sounds phony, he embraces that charge, too. His art boasts of its artifice, not least when it consists of pretend Native American artifacts. Even when he sets real animal skulls atop New York police barricades, they look like something left in the garbage. Maybe he hoped that they would join his 1982 Manhattan Festival of the Dead. He lived uptown in those years, not far from the Cathedral of John the Divine, which he revered as fake Gothic. Even when he displays what may or may not be his blood, he labels it “color enhanced.”

If he also sounds awfully self-involved, he would be the first to question himself, sincerely or not. His self-portrait looks like flayed skin, with a paper head and an opening onto his fragile heart. The penis of found plastic is anything but erect. He could be the consummate New Yorker after all, always doubting, always complaining, and always demanding that one listen. His Six Authentic Things include turquoise and obsidian, but also words. But then, as more text has it, “I forgot what I was going to say.”

Durham is in constant dialogue with others, but he has scripted the voices, not least his own. Works on paper speak up for Caliban from The Tempest, and one can never doubt that he identifies with the ignoble savage. Another complains that he “made me without regard to his art career or I am sorry to say the sensitivity of the general art public,” but soon enough he interrupts. The text on his largest work, from 2005, advises humility: “we worry . . . but the world has already moved on and has forgotten us.” Do not believe that he has forgotten himself for one minute.

Those words precede an odd assortment of exhaust ducts, a spare tire, and dated electronics. Durham has some of the trash and macho of contemporary installations, some of today’s identity politics, and a touch of outsider art as well—but the work’s heart is appropriation as improv, with a debt to Robert Rauschenberg. His moose’s head sprouts one antler like the wings of Rauschenberg’s eagle, but with steel pipes in place of the other. Art as an ongoing ending experiment drew him in the 1990s to science, but again as sheer subjectivity or comedy. “Boy! Those are pretty colors, aren’t they?” Yellow Higgs Transmitting Apparatus from 2013 sounds meaningful, but do not count on results.

He quit the American Indian Movement after just four years to make art, but he could not resist a dig at its leadership on the way out. One could accuse him of faux politics, much like his faux everything else. It can infuriate people, including me, and it has kept him on the margins, although he appeared in the 2014 Whitney Biennial—his first in decades. He plays the saint or sinner well enough, pounding an old refrigerator with stones, as if stoning Saint Stephen, but his “homages” have veered from Native Americans to artists of other races, like David Hammons and Alexander Calder.

No doubt he would just as soon pay tribute to himself. Yet his work has at least one thing going for it, in its insistence of self-reference and artifice as inextricable from art.

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