3. Archival Myopia
Published: 02.10.2013
in the series Modernist Revisitations
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This week and next I’ll be addressing another retrospective tendency in contemporary art: artists presenting other people’s archives. This is already a well-known strategy on the biennial circuit: think of Akram Zataari presenting the archive of Lebanese studio photographer Hashem el Madani (Studio Practices, 2007), or the Otolith Group presenting the photo archive of Anasuya Gyan Chand, former president of the National Federation of Indian Women (Daughter Products, 2011). In a less global and more local vein, Carol Bove’s current show at Maccarone presents the archive of Harry Smith and the Qor Corporation (1958-1962), a New York-based studio that sought to explore the possibilities of mylar (a kind of polyester resin) as a print base for kabbalist designs. A mile and a half up the road, Goshka Macuga is doing something very similar at Andrew Kreps Gallery, presenting the archive of Czech photographer Miroslav Tichý (1926-2011)—but I’ll discuss that show next week.

This fashion for re-presenting a pre-existing archive is closely related to the repurposing of Modernist art, architecture and design that I discussed in the previous two blog postings: both concern a fascination with the past and a curatorial desire to draw the public’s attention to overlooked historical figures. Both reveal something about the historicity of our present day by focusing on a marginalized creativity redolent with the ideological mindset of a previous era. Both tendencies exploit the aura of the analogue (or at least, the pre-digital) by fetishizing worn and crumpled hand-made notes, drawings and manuscripts. Elsewhere I’ve discussed the relationship of these works to the ‘digital unconscious’ of contemporary technology. What I want to focus on today is what this retrospectivity adds up to for contemporary viewers.

Carol Bove is probably best known as an exponent of the mid-00s micro-trend of ‘shelf art’. Her exquisitely arranged, wall-mounted shelves and plinths hold an array of natural objects (sea shells, driftwood, peacock feathers), small sculptural forms, pen-and-ink drawings, and above all books. Worn and faded, these books have evocative titles and were all published in editions between 1965 and 1975. Bove has collaborated for almost a decade with Phillip Smith, a book dealer on the West Coast who specializes in metaphysical and spiritual publications. As used in Bove’s sculptures, these books cue us to a particular time and place: the countercultural imaginary of California in the late 60s and early 70s.

Carol Bove presents the Qor Corporation: Lionel Ziprin, Harry Smith and the Inner Language of Laminates (installation view) © Maccarone

It was through Philip Smith that Bove came to be aware of Harry Smith (no relative), well-known in the US but less familiar to Europeans, who pursued a range of idiosyncratic activities at the intersection of visual art, ethnomusicology and film-making (1923-1991). And it was through Harry Smith that Bove encountered the work of poet, artist and kabbalist Lionel Ziprin and his wife Joanne, with whom he frequently collaborated. In the late 50s and early 60s, the Ziprins ran a studio called the Qor Corporation; at Maccarone, one half of Bove’s two-part exhibition is dedicated to its archive (Qor Corporation: Lionel Ziprin, Harry Smith and the Inner Language of Laminates). Geometrical tile designs are hung on the walls alongside vitrines of mathematical notes and mylar samples. The checklist is extensive, but the room feels strangely empty. All these abstract shards of mysticism, so full of meaning for their makers, are less than rivetting today, especially when stripped of their eccentric kabbalist exegeses. Titles like Tree of Life read like new age relics, or worse, evoke Terrence Malick.

Carol Bove presents the Qor Corporation: Lionel Ziprin, Harry Smith and the Inner Language of Laminates (installation view) © Maccarone

Bove describes this part of the exhibition as ‘straight curating’. The second half of her show, in Maccarone’s main space, presents her latest sculptures—now decisively abstract (i.e. no more books). It also echoes her previous solo show there, The Middle Pillar (2007), in featuring objects by other artists alongside Bove’s own. In 2007 she included work by Bruce Conner, Arnoldo Pomodoro, and Wilfred Lang (a Bay-Area painter whose work was collected by Bove’s grandmother, but who remains otherwise unknown today). The current show is a similar hybrid of sculpture, installation art and curating, and includes a small abstract painting by Harry Smith, a vitrine of doodles and designs by Smith and the Ziprins, and Richard Berger’s My Couch (1976), which Bove remembered seeing at the Berkeley Art Museum as a child. In the latter work, an outline of a ghostly sofa is created out of carefully suspended lead balls; in many ways it’s classic ‘wow’ art—the tail end of Pop mingling with dematerialization.

Richard Berger’s My Couch (1976) in Carol Bove’s RA, or Why is an orange like a bell?, 2013 © Maccarone

When I pushed Bove to explain what motivates her interest in her in the 1960s and 1970s, she explained that the ‘portal’ is the time when she was born (1971): this is 'the moment when I can most easily enter history, psychologically.' The years either side of this date set the terms of her interest. Her parents weren’t into mysticism or particularly countercultural, but the parents of her friends were, and the objects in her sculptures correspond to the ‘imprint’ or ‘hypnosis’ of growing up in the 1970s. The current show finds ‘harmonizing vibrations’ with this period in the 1950s. Bove adamantly believes that Harry Smith is one of the most important artists of the twentieth century, but that he’s been eclipsed because the totality of his activities (from ethnographic sound recordings, to assembling the influential Anthology of American Folk Music, to making experimental films, to collecting Ukrainian easter eggs—30,000 of them!) was unrecognizable as art during his lifetime.

The problem is that the extraordinary life of Harry Smith is far more vivid than the impression one receives of it from the fragments in both of these current shows, which by emphasizing his collaborations with the Qor Corporation end up reducing him to a monochromatic mystic tinkering with geometrical forms. Without a larger context (which is arguably the task of a book or documentary rather than an exhibition), Bove’s incorporation and repurposing of Smith’s work into her own ultimately remains somewhat textural. His sketches, letters, designs and field recordings (the show includes one from the Bowery, dated to 1987) add a certain formal quality to the overall ensemble, albeit a formality as much about ideas as appearances. Smith’s objects are tokens of a prior age; he comes to stand for an overlooked (and perhaps unfashionable) symbol of an artistic past, playing a role not unlike that of Pomodoro and Lang in The Middle Pillar.

Carol Bove presents the Qor Corporation: Lionel Ziprin, Harry Smith and the Inner Language of Laminates (installation view) © Maccarone

But this ‘idea’ of Smith only goes so far. Rather than stemming from a fascination with his thinking, with a view to rebooting it in the present (the ‘potentiality’ argument put forward by Christine Ross, discussed in last week’s blog), we seem to be dealing with a curatorial eye gazing back at the late 1950s like a distant historical curio. The archive of a mystic surrealist polymath and his pals comes across as an exclusively inner vision (rather than any kind of social project). At best, Smith’s obsessions with collecting and taxonomy dovetail with Bove’s own interests in the archival; while Smith roved between disciplines, Bove seeks to present her work in a hybrid realm between sculpture and exhibition display. 

Contemporary art that incorporates the archival, and/or leans heavily upon the proper name of historical precedents, is therefore replete with questions about the redoubling and appropriation of authorship. Depending so heavily upon pre-existing culture as the starting point for art, this work blurs the (already hazy) line between installation art and curatorial practice. But is re-presentation enough? Just because the artist is fascinated by someone or something, does this mean viewers will be fascinated too? Doesn’t the apparatus of display risk conferring excessive historical significance on a body of work that may not, at the end of the day, really be so interesting or relevant? These questions are of course both highly subjective and deeply hierarchical, which is—I assume—why so much archival art goes unquestioned. No-one wants to question the significance of a marginalized figure, especially when a contemporary artist is his/her advocate.

Tougher questions follow on—not necessarily in relation to Carol Bove, but to this tendency in general. Are the archives of these resuscitated figures ultimately only of trainspotter value, gratifying the obscure obsessional with their very own champion? Is the artist (consciously or unconsciously) seeking to ground the significance of their own work in an appeal to the (purported) historical importance of their elective precedent? Ultimately, I wonder if this particular strand of retrospectivity risks lapsing into a myopic form of aestheticism, wherein a fetish for the autographical trace and the aura of history erodes the bigger picture of collective meaning through a reluctance to transform this material wholesale.

4 comment(s)
Joe Scanlan
Posted 07.10.2013 at 15:01

Let's start with this sentence, which I love and which, for me, is a question that can be asked of any appropriative gesture:

"The problem is that the extraordinary life of Harry Smith is far more vivid than the impression one receives of it from the fragments in both of these current shows."

To my mind you would be no less right if it was 1917 and the sentence read:

"The problem is that the extraordinary life of a plumber is far more vivid than the impression one receives of it from this overturned porcelain fixture."

Or it was 1964 and the sentence read:

"The problem is that the extraordinary life of a cardboard carton traversing the supply chain from factory to store to kitchen cupboard is far more vivid than the impression one receives of it from these plywood facsimiles."

We have had many many cracks at understanding the impulse to select and relocate existing things (live people included) as art -- disinterest, anti-art, psychoanalytic symbolism, anti-subjectivity, the death of the author, appropriation theory, anti-aesthetics, commodity fetishism, deskilling, social production, the archival impulse -- but none account for the fact that the thing is usually greatly diminished in its new role. Sterilized, hollowed out, stabilized, made captive, like a taxidermied migratory bird. No one thinks the Puffin is better off on its groomed chunk of styrofoam cliff face, but we (myself included) think the urinal, the brillo box, the inflatable toy, the seven-year-old interpreter are.
So to come round to your basic question, it would seem that we like these continual gestures by artists to bring real life down a peg or two, lest it get too cocky, too interesting, too vivid for art to compete with. Obscurity is just another aspect of life that threatens to be too interesting for art to handle, and so it, too, becomes a meta-entry in encyclopedia of art.
I can really only see it as a defense mechanism, conscious or not, that carries the legacy of the readymade forward while also assenting to altruistic demands of the present. The archival gesture kills at least three or four birds with one stone in ways that successfully resolve pressures put on the artist by the demands of the current field. Bove's gesture is at once deskilled (she didn't make the archive) reskilled (she curated it) amateur (the artist as scholar) social (she collaborates with other artists across time) falsely modest (it's not about me, it's about these great forgotten people) and redemptive (rescues Smith et al from the dustbin).
The religious undertones of these last two pressures are most interesting to me in that they suggest artists who accede to the archival impulse feel the need to enact some kind of public penance by repressing their own professional ambitions and aesthetic desires in the service of resuscitating those of others. And not on the weekends, extracurricular, out of sight to anyone but God, but by doing so on their dime and in space normally allotted to them (the gallery, the advert, the show review).
There is a quaking, submissive aspect to the archival impulse that distinguishes it quite dramatically from that of the readymade. If the readymade was about hubris, the archival impulse is a kind of cowardice.

David Campany
Posted 10.10.2013 at 19:28

Which of the 43 different archival 'impulses' or 'tendencies' are you talking about? And which of the 76 Modernisms?


Claire Bishop
Posted 20.10.2013 at 23:26

David—for me, the whole point is not to get sucked into yet more taxonomy, but to deal in general with the persistent retrospectivity afflicting contemporary art since the late 1990s, informed by the dual events of 1989 (the collapse of the Soviet Union as the decisive end of utopian modernism) and the rise of the Internet (prompting a new relationship to the archive and information). I am interested in the ways in which these shifts become manifest in contemporary art as a fascination with the past 'tout court'. In this regard, which Modernism or which archival impulse is less important than what the past in general has come to signal in the present. It’s as if artists (and culture more broadly) are finding the twentieth century to be a foreign place, inaccessible to consciousness, as disconnected from our lives as tribal artefacts were to artists a hundred years ago—or, to stretch the analogy, as remote as Classical antiquity was to artists of the Renaissance. And as with Primitivism and the Renaissance, past forms are taken up and repurposed to entirely different ends: utopian modernism finds itself transformed—from functional objects for the collective transformation of society, to luxurious meditatations on a past when such transformations were felt to be possible.

As for Joe—wow, the outspoken accuracy of your response makes me envious (I wish I had the balls to write that last line myself!) but also depressed—because if your diagnosis is correct (the archival/curatorial position resolves the contradictory pressures placed upon the field of contemporary art practice today), then these are sorry times. We are not, after all, dealing with the production of shimmery bling for Russian oligarchs; the artists engaging in this tendency are unquestionably among the more intelligent ones of their generation. And wasn’t it only thirty years ago that Fredric Jameson was lamenting the presentism of contemporary culture, making a plea for more historical continuity through ‘cognitive mapping’? Today it seems as if every artist read Jameson as a student, and decided to respond by becoming a curator/historian/archivist by way of over-compensation. The question for me is whether this work does provide any form of historical continuity with the present or if (as I suggest in the paragraph above) it's presented as just one more historical curiosity.

David Campany
Posted 21.10.2013 at 17:31


My point was rhetorical, not really a call for taxonomy, and was motivated by the twin suspicions that to "deal in general with the persistent retrospectivity afflicting contemporary art" is going to offer slim pickings given the breadth of practices that could be stuffed in that particular grab bag, and that the desire to do so might be motivated more by the opportunities it offers for the kinds of speculative thinking and sweeping flourishes to which we writers are prone, including Joe Scanlan above and the brilliant Fredric Jameson. I always feel Jameson has been at his weakest when dealing with the particularities of art practices. He seems much more convincing on literature and cinema (interestingly, back then he thought western cinema, both popular and art-house, WAS preoccupied with the past but warned against general conclusions). So it might be worth asking why a writer so unconvincing on art's specifics was so appealing to the "more intelligent" art students a generation ago, if indeed he was.

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