Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Art Review: "The Art of 9/11", curated by Arthur Danto

Originally appeared in the WBUR Web Site

 "The Art of 9/11,"
curated by Arthur Danto
Apex Art
291 Church Street

This past September 11, New Yorkers marked the fourth anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center by reading aloud, at Ground Zero, the names of those killed. Compared to this straightforward approach, art critic Arthur Danto's way of marking the occasion might seem eccentric. The art exhibit he curated at Apex Art could impress a casual viewer as making only marginal reference to 9/11. This was no accident; it was precisely the "obliqueness" of artistic responses to the attack that he wanted to highlight.

To this end, he ruled out the documentary approach, which meant, for example, there would be no footage of men and women jumping from the blazing towers. He also declined to showcase the political response that took shape later, in opposition to the Patriot Act and to the invasion of Iraq. That's not because Danto himself shies away from politics. His influential, eminently thoughtful art reviews have been appearing for years in The Nation, hardly an apolitical venue. And in the culture war that has raged over the last few decades, Danto has staked out a pluralist, postmodernist position. He has, for example, at book length, praised the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe, and is responsive to the kinds of art -- including, for example, performance art, which he dubs "disturbatory art" -- that right-wing culture critics sneer at. Danto credits his column in The Nation with giving him a voice in our country's debate about art and culture that was not available to him as a professor at Columbia University, where he taught philosophy.

In curating "The Art of 9/11," Danto sought insight into some fundamental questions about art: What art seems worth making in the face of catastrophe? What kind of art can emerge in an atmosphere as thick with grief and horror as New York was after 9/11? The show affirmed that making art remained a vital activity, even as the towers smoldered. This, in fact, is the defiant point made, in one medium or another, by many of the artists on view, some of whom only recognized later how deeply their feelings about 9/11 entered into what they made.

This was the case, for example, for Audrey Flack. Flack was just arriving at a foundry north of New York City to work on a large religious statue when she learned of the attack on the World Trade Center. Resuming work on the statue was emotionally impossible. Nor, with the roads closed, could she get back to the city. Instead, she took a ferry to Long Island, and spent long late summer days at Montauk, producing the watercolors of fishing boats in bright water that are among the visual delights of this show. She records in her artist's statement that she now finds these pieces to be a departure from the more restrained work she had previously produced in that medium. The colors of the Montauk work, "were so intense," she wrote, that, "they seemed to vibrate with the energy of the crash."

Robert Rahway Zakanitch's "Blue Birds" and "Red Squirrels," both made of lace, are, like Flack's fishing boats, images it would be difficult to tie to 9/11 without help from the artist. In his statement, Zakanitch notes that lace itself has metaphorical significance for him, symbolizing "the interconnectedness of all things." 9/11, he wrote, left the "firmament . . . badly torn." Lace -- "delicate, beautiful, and powerful" -- served as a sort of field dressing, a cosmic bandage.

The reputation of Cindy Sherman, probably the best known artist at the show, is based on the photographs she takes of herself assuming widely different personae. Here, she is photographed impersonating a sad-faced clown. This color photograph can seem arbitrary at first: What links clowns to terrorism? But Sherman's view of clowns -- "cheery on the outside but horrific underneath" -- gives the piece a chilling relevance to 9/11.

Some pieces make more direct, less coded references to the attack. That's true, for example, of Leslie King-Hammond's installation, "Prayers for the New Ancestors," a lavish shrine consisting, among other things, of newspaper articles, cowry shells, masks, beads, garments, Red Cross announcements, candles, poems and African statuary. The generous, eclectic spirit of the piece brings to mind the numerous shrines and altars that arose all over New York City in the days following 9/11. "Prayers for the New Ancestors," consequently, has a double function: it is a memorial in its own right, and, at the same time, salutes the impulse that drove so many New Yorkers to devise folk shrines and altars.

In the end, the sensibility most on display in "The Art of 9/11" is that of the curator. Danto has long labeled himself a Duchampian, meaning that, in the spirit of Marcel Duchamp, he believes there is more to visual art than meets the eye. The eye alone cannot, for example, distinguish a real Brillo Box from a Warhol counterfeit, or, for that matter, a "real" bicycle wheel from a Duchamp appropriation. Where does the world end, then, and art begin? What separates art from non-art? These are the questions Danto has pursued ardently in his columns and in the numerous books he has written on the subject, starting in 1981 with "The Transfiguration of the commonplace: A Philosophy of Art."

The fact that artists' statements play a central role in "The Art of 9/11" is in keeping with Danto's refusal to seal off the visual. The texts and objects of "The Art of 9/11" combine to make it a satisfying show. It would be worth seeing in any case just because it is his show.

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