How the Guggenheim Got Its Groove Back

How the Guggenheim Got Its Groove Back

When lockdown lifted last spring, some of our big New York City museums were able to slide major waiting-in-the-wings exhibitions into place. The Guggenheim wasn’t so lucky. A traveling Joan Mitchell retrospective slated to fill its rotunda had been canceled. The museum might have whipped up a crowd-pleasing show of Modernist chestnuts from the collection. Instead, it did something more interesting. It turned itself into an old-style alternative space.

It already had some small side-gallery shows in place or on track, including a selection of gnarly, gripping photographs by the 2020 Hugo Boss Prize winner, Deana Lawson. But to fill its spiraling central space — high and wide, a combination cathedral and chasm — the museum had to get inventive, and it did so in a multipart series of installations called “Re/Projections: Video, Film, and Performance for the Rotunda.”

In part, the program was designed to facilitate social distancing. The ramp bays, which usually hold paintings or sculptures, were left empty. With the emphasis on projected imagery, the rotunda’s skylight was covered and internal lighting was kept low. And because some video works were as much about sound as sight, bench seating was provided. (On more than one visit, I’ve found people lying on benches, just listening.)

All of these tweaks have given the space an improvisatory vibe. They make Frank Lloyd Wright’s design feel inhabitable in a way I don’t remember before. They also create a sense of off-kilter tension, the way unexpected behavior in a familiar place can. And that tension filters into the more conventionally installed shows in off-the-ramp galleries. You find certain art you thought you knew, and the museum it’s in, looking a little less predictable.

The rotunda project kicked off last March with a program of short videos from the museum’s collection, selected by the curator of performance and media Nat Trotman and projected onto a large, suspended screen. This was followed in May with a New York debut show of film and audio work by the Rwandan-born Dutch artist Christian Nyampeta, which turned Wright’s grand spiral into the equivalent of an academic lecture hall and Pan-African video festival. The presentation was enthralling, a genuine lockdown gift.

So was a live performance titled “Romantic Songs of the Patriarchy,” orchestrated by the Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson and repeated over four days in early July. In it, two dozen singer-guitarists, all women or nonbinary, were stationed along the length of the ramp and performed golden-oldie pop love songs for hours at a time. The singers were terrific; the songs, by the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Cat Stevens and Lil Wayne, sounded sweet, but — why had you never noticed? — many of the lyrics were deeply misogynistic.

And the project’s current and final presentation, “Wu Tsang: Anthem,” turns out to be yet another stroke of silver-lining pandemic luck. Organized by the Guggenheim assistant curator X Zhu-Nowell, its main visual element is a short, looped film made by the transgender American artist and performer Wu Tsang of another pioneering trans figure, the African American composer and activist Beverly Glenn-Copeland, whose image is projected onto an 84-foot pleated curtain that hangs from the Guggenheim’s ceiling.

We first see Glenn-Copeland, who is 77, performing his own chantlike music, then singing an a cappella version of the spiritual “Deep River.” In both, his voice is woven into an aural and instrumental tapestry created by Tsang and the musical collaborators Kelsey Lu, Asma Maroof and Daniel Pineda. Swoony and unearthly in its visual and sonic effect and one of the most emotionally moving things I’ve seen in this space, “Anthem” was commissioned by the Guggenheim as lockdown was starting and was completed just in time for this presentation.

The Deana Lawson show, installed in one of several off-ramp galleries, is unearthly too, though in a very different way. Born in Rochester, N.Y., in 1979, Lawson is a combination of portraitist and fabulist, documentarian and storyteller. Her subjects are Black; most are strangers she spots on the street and in other public places in her travels in Africa, Brazil, the Caribbean and in Brooklyn, where she lives. In collaboration with her subjects she sets up tableaux, usually in domestic settings, that combine sensuous glamorizing and disturbing details.

A nude, pregnant young woman in repose in the 2019 picture called “Daenare,” shot in Brazil, wears what looks like a police surveillance monitor on her ankle. The woman, partly nude, possibly also pregnant, in “Deleon? Unknown” (2020) lies prone, eyes shut. She could be unconscious, even dead. And an older woman, dressed entirely in black, in “Monetta Passing” (2021), really is dead and lying in state, surrounded by flowers, in a cluttered room. James Van Der Zee’s unforgettable Harlem funerary portraits instantly come to mind here.

Increasingly, and overtly, Lawson deals with spirituality: African, Afro-Caribbean, Afrofuturistic. Religious images and references turn up everywhere. The photographs are displayed in mirrored frames that send prismatic halos floating across the gallery floor. Placed at the center of the installation is the artist’s first free-standing hologram, a pulsing abstract nugget of light around which the show, organized by Katherine Brinson and Ashley James, orbits. The tableaux in some pictures are stagier than in others; a few push, uncomfortably, toward the grotesque. But Lawson’s most memorable portraits have always walked a precariously thin high wire over the politics of photographic intimacy.

Politics of another, more public kind is the theme of “Off the Record,” a 13-artist group show — harvested from the collection by James, the museum’s associate curator of contemporary art — that questions the vaunted “objectivity” of journalistic reporting and historical “fact.” Here, the confusion of truth and fiction that Lawson’s work forthrightly manipulates is in play, too, but as a political weapon in the realm of commercial mass media and establishment record-keeping.

In the show’s earliest piece, “Herald Tribune: November 1977,” the Conceptual artist Sarah Charlesworth (1947-2013) visually edited a month’s worth of newspaper front pages to isolate a recurrent, though officially unacknowledged theme: the prevalence of male-generated violence. In a series of prints titled “Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America 1968-2008,” Hank Willis Thomas mines insidious truths at work in racially targeted advertising. And, in an ongoing project, the California-based artist Sadie Barnette examines and annotates a 500-page F.B.I. file on her father, Rodney Barnette, a former Black Panther, to expose the document as the instrument of harassment it was.

The show is well-timed for the reality-denying “fake news” era we’ve been living through. But even if artists can diagnose post-truth as a problem, can they do anything about it, get the word out? At least one, the Colombian-born Carlos Motta, tries to in a text piece titled “A Brief History of U.S. Interventions in Latin America Since 1946.” For it, he has compiled his own brain-stinging chronology of government evildoing, printed it as a handout, and left a stack of takeaway copies in the gallery. Pick one up. Read it. Pass it on.

In most big, general-interest art museums, a midsize show like “Off the Record” would be one item on a variegated tasting menu, its arguments and urgencies forgotten as you move on to the next attraction. (The roots of the modern art museum lie in the modern department store, and that model remains strong.) But at the Guggenheim, in its present pandemic-forced “experimental” mode, all the exhibitions feel connected by a shared political charge, including the small historical survey called “Knotted, Torn, Scattered: Sculpture After Abstract Expressionism.”

Organized by Lauren Hinkson, it’s a snapshot of a late-1960s American movement — Post-Minimalism — as sampled through the work of six artists: Lynda Benglis, Maren Hassinger, Robert Morris, Senga Nengudi, Richard Serra and Tony Smith. The work, made of rubber, ropes and bodies, was considered innovative in its time, a thumb in the eye of Minimalist monumentality. And the mini-survey has its own innovative (for the Guggenheim) features.

Three of the six artists are women; and of those, two are African American; and of those two, one, Hassinger, has only fairly recently, after a long career — she’s in her mid-70s — begun to attract the institutional attention she deserves. Her piece in the show was acquired by the museum only last year, and it’s a beauty: a graceful, ceiling-high, drawing-in-air network of draped rope that could double as a dance set. (She’s a performance artist as well as a sculptor.) And today, in a Black Lives Matter world, it’s impossible not to see that many of the lengths of rope she uses end in nooses.

Black Lives Matter has permanently changed our cultural institutions. Covid-19 and the disinformation campaigns around it have changed them too. So, in ways yet to be clarified, has Jan. 6. There’s no going back to an old “normal.” Normal is not what art is, if it’s any good. I like to think that the post-lockdown Guggenheim, home to the single most charismatic art space in town, is a looser, less-in-love-with-normal museum than it once was. We’ll see. Meanwhile, its summer lineup gives a taste of what could be.

The following exhibitions are at the Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Avenue, (212) 423-3500; guggenheim.org.

Wu Tsang: Anthem (through Sept. 6);

The Hugo Boss Prize 2020: Deana Lawson, Centropy (through Oct. 11);

Off the Record (through Sept. 27);

Knotted, Torn, Scattered: Sculpture After Abstract Expressionism (through Sept. 19).

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