When I was in graduate school studying art history, we used to joke about the “this looks like this” problem that we perceived as running rampant in the field. Stated simply, the problem is that it’s very easy to find visual similarities between objects that really have nothing historically, contextually, or subjectively to do with each other. Our professor, the brilliant, irreplaceable and much-missed Robert Rosenblum, called the comparison of two disparate objects that happened to look alike in some way a pseudomorphism, and this fabulous word has stuck with me, flashing in my brain like an alarm whenever I am looking at an artwork and that little light of recognition switches on. It cautions me to think: Sure that thing looks like another thing I have seen, but why? Are they from the same time period? The same geographical area? Did the artists know one another? Could one have seen the other’s work? Is what they share something in the air and evident in lots of other artists’ works either accidentally, or because of some big culturally significant happening that everyone witnessed, read about, or saw in a photograph?
“This looks like this” is a curatorial problem, but it is also the basis of a curatorial strategy for telling a story visually, with objects. Comparisons, even pseudomorphic ones, can sometimes help organize looking so that we may then begin to notice complexities, even differences. When objects are juxtaposed on the basis of broad affinities—say an interest in describing the human figure—there is the chance to see how a larger subject (human beings depicting human beings) is nuanced by each individual artist. In Gallery 11 of MoMA’s second-floor Contemporary Galleries, we have gathered together a group of works by a radically diverse group of artists. Their obvious commonalities include that they were produced at the turn of the millennium, and that they concern in intimate terms—in paint, through sculpture, in drawing—the human figure.
Henry Taylor is a Los Angeles–based painter who makes portraits of his relatives, his friends, his neighbors, and sometimes, anyone who strikes his fancy. Untitled (2011) a massive painting that dominates the gallery, is a portrait of Taylor’s friend, Will Gillespie. He is the nephew of the great Dizzy Gillespie, and, as the necklace the subject wears and the pose of his hands indicate, a practicing Buddhist. The key to Taylor’s ability to nail this likeness is a keen attention to his sitter’s facial features combined with a quickness in paint handling that communicates an “I was there and saw this” feeling. There is also an intimacy; no, an empathy in this portrait, a quality evident in all of Taylor’s paintings, and one that stems in part from his decade-long stint as a psychiatric nurse at a state hospital in Camarillo, California. Taylor neatly sums up the special, humanist something that emanates from paintings like Untitled, by explaining “I paint those subjects I have love and sympathy for.”
Taylor’s portrait is juxtaposed in the gallery with two sculptures: a family scene by the Irish born, Glaswegian artist Cathy Wilkes, and Bruno, a work by the Polish artist Pawel Althamer, which is a portrait of the artist’s teenage son. Both Europeans, Wilkes and Althamer are the same age, and though they have never met, they share what can be called—only half jokingly—an “old doll aesthetic,” manifested in their creation of expressive human forms using rough, old fashioned materials ranging from rags and straw to plaster and animal skin. The resulting sculptures are both lifelike and handmade. Their materials and their careful, but pieced-together look have a poignancy, even sadness, that makes these figures look alive, even though they are far from realistic.
Althamer’s sculpture was begun when his son Bruno was small, and completed when he was a teenager, and that moment between childhood and adulthood is lovingly captured in the almost formed shape of the figure’s thin, girlish limbs and torso. Standing before us naked with his arms outstretched as if he was requesting mercy, Bruno is moving because he is vulnerable, under the gaze of his father who made him, and under our gaze as well. Cathy Wilkes was born in Ireland but has spent her entire adult life in Glasgow where she has been a part of a close knit Glaswegian art community. Wilkes’ tableau of three children surrounded by domestic objects like a plastic washing tub, some rags, and a worn toy drum conjures similar feelings of pathos and vulnerability. Unattended by any adult, Wilkes’ children, too, seem pretty exposed, but Wilkes has posed them so they seem to be quite a hermetic group, absorbed not with those who might be looking at them, but with one another. In fact, they are taking care of each other, with one wiping the smallest figure’s face while a third, the tallest of the group, busies herself at the washtub. “The children are part of each other’s suffering, they show companionship and love,” Wilkes has explained, and it is this frank expression of affection in dire circumstances that grabs our hearts when we look at this work.
Pseudomorphic or axiomatic? There it is: three disparate artists all inspired by the broad, very human emotions of love and compassion for others, whether friends, family, or anonymous strangers. Is sentiment expressed through the human form a trend in contemporary art at the turn of the millennium, a coincidental simultaneous occurrence in Los Angeles, Warsaw, and Glasgow, or a universal strategy of making humanistic art for human beings?
My guess, as good as yours, is all three. Come see for yourself—the Gallery 11 installation is on view through February 2014.