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RIDGEFIELD, Connecticut — I can tell you the moment when, in mid-March 2016, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign stopped being funny, and I can tell you the moment when, after more than two hours of taking it in, William Powhida: After the Contemporary stopped being funny.
It was when I reached the placard at the warren-like installation’s dead end, and read the following passage:
The permanent relocation of both Art Basel’s Miami Beach edition and the general population of Miami Beach following the devastating flooding of Hurricane Hillary in 2023 served to wind down the Contemporary period. Art Basel ushered in the Alt-Contemporary with the announcement of its ambitious plans for a private, Ultra-only fair in Thieland, a micronation established by legendary ArtsTech guru Peter Thiel in 2025.
I should hit pause for a moment and explain that Powhida’s exhibition, which takes up half of the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum’s second floor, is a meta-besotted extravaganza of image and text, mostly text, purporting to take place in the year 2050.
Filled with futuristic arcana and art world in-jokes (including one aimed at the editor-in-chief of this publication), it takes the form of a survey tracing a quarter-century of contemporary art history, using Powhida’s benighted career arc and the rise of Grevsky
To unpack the above-quoted text: the “Contemporary period” is a time more or less synonymous with Modernism, in which artists maintained their ”historic position as avant-garde, iconoclastic figures who rejected the status quo and the dominant values of society.”
These values, however, had been “slowly compromised by the increasing professionalization of the visual arts after World War II,” which tempted artists with “the possibility of joining the middle class through sales and teaching.” (All quotations are from the exhibition’s placards.)
By 2050, however, the Contemporary has been replaced by the “Alt-Contemporary” (hence the exhibition-within-the-exhibition’s title, After the Contemporary: Contemporary Art 2000-2025) — an era forecast by The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World, a show that opened at the Museum of Modern Art in December 2014.
The Forever Now was a turning point, codifying a cultural paradigm in which “artists were no longer bound by time or innovation and could borrow from any period of art to produce paintings” — a “winnowing of style” from the personal and political to the corporate and homogenous, which was viewed not as “an aberration or error of judgment” but “a triumph of the erudite sensibility of the Ultra collector, whose tastes and desire for apolitical content had already begun to directly influence the production of culture.”
Eventually, the class of super-rich patrons (known as Hereditary Ultra High Net Worth Collectors, or Ultras — which is also a term used by the speculative fiction writer Alastair Reynolds to designate “a post-human race of technologically advanced immortals”) began to demand “the luxury of art” while rejecting “the burden of supporting artists.”
This is the niche that Grevsky
This synopsis barely skims the surface of a multilayered, impudent, lacerating exhibition that pricks pretense and self-delusion on every level, from mega-rich collectors fancying themselves pillars of civilization to politically committed artists rationalizing their aspirations to the high-end gallery system. (Subplots include the oligarchical “Great Restoration of a natural social order that did not include a middle class”; the suppression of social justice movements; efforts at worldwide depopulation; extreme climate events; the defunding of the NEA; the 2024 merger of Gagosian and Zwirner; and the development of derivative algorithms to perpetuate the careers of deceased art stars.)
Powhida has been alternately called a conceptual artist and a political artist, and here he demonstrates that he is both and, it could be argued, neither. This is an exceedingly text-heavy show, to the point of self-parody, with nine eight-by-four-foot panels of sheetrock covered with narration and, in one instance, cultural and economic timelines. There are also nine pages of a Grevsky
And yet, the texts on the sheetrock are hand-stenciled in pencil — with full justification, no less — which defines the exhibition as a work of immense physical labor. And up and down the edges of the panels are dozens of snarky, subversive, and hilarious marginal notes in red capital letters that systematically undercut the more straightforward narration of the pencil text.
And so, what, formally, is going on here? Powhida possesses some of the best drawing chops of anyone working today, yet he seems to be deliberately suppressing the visual. (The only place his skills are fully manifested is in the small “retrospective” in the exhibition’s final room, where the introductory wall text confides, “The artist’s work remains significantly undervalued in the secondary market and would make an excellent addition to any collection.”)
The exhibition’s dearth of imagery is compounded and contradicted by the intense, protracted labor that went into the stenciling, which, paradoxically, also delivers a potent materiality and an old-fashioned sense of touch. These narratives and charts, with their bravura precision, red highlights, and subtle, silvery textures, are a hundred times more alive than the blindingly boring generic works on display in the faux Grevsky
The booth is key to the exhibition’s refusal to distinguish between parody and reality: its collection of paintings, ceramics, and fabrics — dominated by a giant color photograph of the Trump Taj Mahal and presided over by a video simulacra of a bored gallerista — are indistinguishable from bona fide Art Basel Miami Beach tchotchkes. If this is life after art — in which the work of “iconoclastic figures who rejected the status quo and the dominant values of society” has given way to “a triumph of the […] desire for apolitical content” — then isn’t the iconoclasm of the relentless text panels the only legitimate response?
But the denial of art represented by the text panels is undermined, to my eye, by the thrum of the human activity that created them. Is this then a hint of resurrection stirring beneath the values of a collector class “who derived their wealth and status almost entirely from returns on pure and perfect capital accumulation”? Or is it the illusion of an optimist?
The maddening thing about Powhida is how closely he holds his cards to his chest. He nonchalantly presents his constructed persona, a narcissistic fraud named William Powhida (here played by Amos Satterlee in a video interview with art critic Ben Davis) as the author of his work, which routinely skewers the art establishment’s glitterati with assertions bordering on the libelous. His compulsion for playing fast and loose with the facts, however, always seems to be operating at the service of some higher, darker truth.
And this is especially true for After the Contemporary, which effortlessly harnesses his obsession with art world inside baseball to a righteous anger fired by political hypocrisy, exploitation, and opportunism. Here it is obvious that art, as an investment tool for “hereditary heirs […] primarily from established art-collecting families with their own private museums,” isn’t simply symbolic of the economy’s subjugation by the financial elite, but rather, in itself, an irrefutable engine of that subjugation.
Still, paradoxes abound, and the same art that is compromised, denied, and vilified throughout the exhibition retains the power of revelation. As I read the lines quoted above citing “Thieland, a micronation established by legendary ArtsTech guru Peter Thiel,” I suddenly recalled watching Donald Trump on television last March, whipping up his followers with his cock-of-the-walk strut and Mussolini chin-thrusts, sucking up their vitriol and spewing it back at them like some kind of fire-breathing ogre. Something, at that moment, seemed irretrievably broken.
And a little more than a year later, the idea of a neo-feudal state dominated by an impregnable economic elite whose personal wealth exceeds that of the French Ancien Régime, or of a micronation governed by a data-mining billionaire, suddenly seems as implausible as the presidency of Donald J. Trump.
William Powhida: After the Contemporary continues at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum (258 Main Street, Ridgefield, Connecticut) through September 4.
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