Curator Alison Gingeras on Revisiting One of the 20th Century's Key Art Shows
By: Andrew Russeth
As the Cold War loomed and Existentialist philosophy held sway in 1959, the Museum of Modern Art opened a famously divisive exhibition called “New Images of Man” that brought together now-canonical works by artists like Alberto Giacometti, Francis Bacon, and others working in the wake of world war. “Humanity is not something man simply has,” the theologian Paul Tillich intoned in its catalog. “He must fight for it anew in every generation, and he may lose his fight.” Artists were integral to that battle, the show argued, and they were responding with depictions of humans that are fractured and precarious.
On Saturday, an exhibition of the same name arrived at Blum & Poe gallery in Los Angeles—as it happens, just a few days after the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved its Doomsday Clock closer to midnight than ever before. This version, curated by the freewheeling curator Alison Gingeras, expands on the original’s sobering remit in dramatic—and, in some cases, mischievous—fashion.
“It’s a revision but not a revision in a rapping-you-on-the-knuckles kind of way,” Gingeras says with characteristic wryness, sitting at a café near her home in Manhattan’s East Village a week before the opening. “It is very much an homage in that I think that the core ethical call to action that is behind the show still feels urgent.”
This is a moment of “humanism under pressure,” she says, mentioning that she started assembling the show after the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Alongside a couple artists from the 1959 affair (César and Karel Appel), Gingeras has marshaled an international array of 40 more who address the human figure in disparate ways. There are current superstars, like the restless L.A. painter of black life, Henry Taylor, and the British sculptor of elegant raunch, Sarah Lucas; rising talents such as the Cuban-born Misleidys Castillo Pedroso, who makes meaty paintings on paper of bodybuilders (pictured up top); as well as historical artists that could have fit into the original, from the American Surrealist Dorothea Tanning to the Japanese renegade Yuki Katsura.
Curatorial biases being as blinkered as they were in 1959, though, Tanning and Katsura would have been unlikely to make the cut back then: the show’s curator, Peter Selz, featured only one woman (the French artist Germaine Richier). While there were a few raves, most reviews were negative, but not because of that gender gap. New York abstraction was the dominant mode of the day; Selz had focused on figuration from a broader field. “I had all these Europeans,” he said later “and worse than that I included artists from the hinterlands—two from Chicago and three from California.”
Gingeras’s exhibition proposes a history of postwar figurative art that is geographically expansive (India, Japan, Senegal, Cuba, and beyond), proudly idiosyncratic, and marked by the trauma of war. As in the original, there are Holocaust survivors and refugees, like the Polish-born Maryan S. Maryan who was shot by the Nazis and left for dead, later endured Auschwitz, and eventually settled into 1960s New York bohemia. And there is Kikuji Yamashita, who painted grotesque, otherworldly scenes, “served in the Japanese army, and wrote about being haunted by all the Chinese soldiers that he witnessed being killed and that he participated in killing,” Gingeras says.
Also here is a poignant miniature show within the show. In a nod to the 1955 MoMA exhibition “Family of Man,” images by the Polish photographer Zofia Rydet, who was active from the 1970s through the 1990s, hang alongside those of the contemporary African-American photographer Deana Lawson. (Antonina Gugała is co-curator of this section.) The two bodies of work home in on family life, and “even though they have totally approaches—different eras, different countries—the portraits that they make resonate with each other,” Gingeras says.
Strictly speaking, works by the male giants that Selz championed are not on hand, but those artists appear as “patriarchal ghosts of the original show,” Gingeras says. “I had this idea we would turn it more into décor as opposed to the actual auratic objects so they are almost like a backdrop memory of the original show.”
Which is to say that she has asked artists on Blum & Poe’s staff to make a huge chalk drawing on the gallery floor that riffs on Willem de Kooning’s “Women” paintings, and affixed scores of tote bags from the recent Bacon blockbuster at the Centre Pompidou in Paris to a wall—a way of highlighting how his work “has infiltrated the culture and where it ended up,” Gingeras says. Bacon has become wallpaper—a ground for something new. Atop the bags she has hung a 2016 painting by Taylor, Untitled (ethiopian pharmacist), that shows a man in his shop. He is going about his work, quietly getting through the day.