Someone once said to me that for him, one of the famous modernists, I think it was Paul Klee, represented the values of serious play. That idea lingered in cobwebbed corners of my mind until I walked into the Lehmann Maupin’s downtown gallery to see Adriana Varejão’s Kindred Spirits when it flashed into relevance again. Taking in the small, almost square paintings, I intuited the game, thinking to myself, I see the visual references to Sol Lewitt, to Jackson Pollock, to Robert Rauschenberg, Jaspers Johns, Donald Judd, and Barnett Newman — the heroic modernists, at least in the canonical version still taught in freshman art history courses.
It was fun to make guesses based on what I thought I remembered. It’s a bit like watching Jeopardy and blurting out the answers at the TV screen. Better still, it reminded me of how I used to walk quickly through the “greatest hits” galleries at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) when I was in my twenties pulling my then girlfriend to follow me faster, pointing out the work I knew and talking about it, and making guesses at the rest based on stylistic cues. I thought about how I had learned about American and European art through a few textbooks, but more fully, and with deeper significance through my MoMA trips.
It’s a good idea to (as the British say) take the piss out of a heroic modernist narrative that many, like me, learned through schooling or constant trips to those authoritative survey museums that never let you in on the secret that they had a point of view, an agenda that deliberately manicured a more organically messy set of historical developments. The gallery’s press release claims that the artist, using both the Kindred Spirits work and the Mimbres paintings also included in the show, “demonstrates how Native American approaches to line, color, and shape influenced 20th century art.” I disagree. It does not demonstrate that. There would have to be a systematic marshaling of evidence and convincing argumentation for that to happen. More accurately, she shows us that there are homologies of visual form among the decorative practices of indigenous people and the motifs employed by the mostly European modernists — which is enough to destabilize the story of modernism birthed ex nihilo from the minds of genius artists.
I later learn that many of these small portraits were modeled on images made by the photographer and ethnologist Edwards Curtis, who in turn copied the portraits made by Charles Bird King. So you could see these works as copies made from copies made from copies. These portraits are themselves skewed versions of what was initially witnessed. Nevertheless, Varejão is, according to the press release, “especially influenced by theories of mestizaje (a term for the mixing of ancestries) and cultural anthropophagy — as proposed by the Brazilian poet Oswald de Andrade, who urged artists to ‘cannibalize,’ rather than reject, cultural components of their country’s colonizers.”
So the game is to guess which portraits are (more or less) actual images of native people versus the images that are versions of famous modernist designs, suggesting that the indigenous people might have influenced the canonized painters. After all, this has been a winning strategy for much of modern American culture: It’s how we got the blues, and jazz and rap, syncretic inventions of a new form based on older, inherited traditions that got exploded out because they couldn’t contain the imagination of a new, hybrid people. This is serious play, bringing together inquiries into anthropology, colonial trade, and racial identity, and it asks us, ‘can you guess where one stops and the other begins?’ I only got some of them correct which I found out by looking at the “cheat sheet” provided by the artist via the gallery.
The work has to do more in that gallery space. The ceiling is 26 feet high and the white room is wide and deep. It feels like showing the work in such a space is raising the stakes, making it even more obvious what the work is up against in challenging the standardized story of modernism’s development. The work holds up, and perhaps that is the challenge it needed to meet.
The question that now occurs to many who recognize the limitations and failures of the story of modernism as unidirectional progression, is ‘how does one get a skeptical audience to believe less in that and accept complications?’ You show them, taking them by hand, playing a little game in which new winners emerge.
Adriana Varejão’s Kindred Spirits continues at Lehmann Maupin (201 Chrystie Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through June 19.