Last month when I visited the Takashi Murakami exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery, I mentioned how retrospective exhibitions were among my favourite type of art show. Perhaps it is the historian in me, or the interest I have had since I was a young kid in reading biographies of famous people, but I find something deeply resonant in seeing the lifework of an artist curated in a dedicated space. Not to be mistaken, retrospectives are admittedly among the most romanticized and least critical of all art exhibition types. They are seductive in their visual storytelling, positioning the artist as hero-genius in the isolated white cube, and shamelessly appealing to that part of us that wants the short-cut version of an artist’s career.
Retrospectives follow a long tradition in the history of art that sought to distinguish and elevate particular individuals into the canon of art history. Originally exclusive affairs with limited audience, retrospectives were made more commercial and mainstream in the late nineteenth century as part of the rise of World’s Exhibitions. Importantly, the move grew out of an interest by the state in nationalizing and even laying claim to particular artist movements and traditions, yet by the early twentieth century, sprawling retrospective exhibitions also existed to attract larger audiences, and potential buyers, to the new “modern art” of the era. Important retrospectives (what we would call “blockbuster” shows) held across Europe at this time, of artists such as Gauguin, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Seurat, and Matisse, helped to inspire new generations of artists and educate the public through a survey of carefully selected works meant to represent the individual artist’s oeuvre.
As art historian Robert Jensen argues in his study Marketing Modernism in Fin-de-Siècle Europe (Princeton University Press, 1996): “after 1900 the retrospective was widely and self-consciously employed as a weapon to redress the exclusions of the past, to rewrite history, to construct a canonical history of modernist artists as a sequence of great individuals in the evolution of modern art.” Ironically, the era of retrospectives, which began as a way to recognize artists on the margins of the art world, and in post-WWII would act as important cultural exports in the name of liberal democracy linking modern art with open societies, continues today with many problematic dimensions, exclusions, and the aura of privilege. For these reasons, it is always important to approach the retrospective with both healthy scepticism and an understanding of the larger contexts at play.
Case in point-- while in Los Angeles, I visited the Jasper Johns exhibition “Something Resembling Truth” at The Broad (click on selected image gallery below to view individual works and titles). This was a retrospective that was co-organized with the prestigious Royal Academy of Arts in London, where it was first on display through the fall of last year. Jasper Johns, an American painter, sculptor, and artist (associated with the Neo-Dada and pop art movements of the 1960’s), who is today 87 years old and regarded by many as among the most important living artists in North America, was chosen for a retrospective by a curator and art historian duo in London who had been working on publishing and releasing a five-volume academic catalogue on Johns. The Los Angeles contingent organizing the show was headed by The Broad’s founding director, and the Jasper Johns show would be part of the private museum’s programming, helping to raise the profile of the brand new art institution in the eyes of the art world. In short, the Jasper Johns retrospective does one kind of job in England, and an entirely different kind of job in the U.S.
In London, the venue for the retrospective, in one of the cities oldest and most venerated art spaces, was presumably staged to showcase the research of the curator and art historian organizers. Still, the show was met with much less enthusiasm as one might expect. Seeing all of John’s famous American flag works was likely unsettling to a British public coming to terms with the Trump era, and was once again a reminder of the art historical narrative and mythology surrounding what Jason Farago in the New York Review of Books termed “the primacy of American art as the postwar successor to European modernism.” In sharp contrast, as I noted when I was in L.A. after seeing the tremendous marketing machine promoting the Johns show all over the city, there was a very different way that the Johns show was being used to attract a new kind of crowd to the local art scene. In L.A., Johns was positioned as both retro and sexy—a recycled version of an American art legend in a city that venerates heroes and everything shiny and “new.” As Catherine Wagley aptly described in an artnet review:
“The exhibition may indeed be particularly illuminating for younger Angelenos, who, even if they visit museums regularly would rarely see Johns paintings (LACMA and MOCA mostly own prints). It’s seductively installed, lit to make colors pop. The aspiring painter can, and should, geek out over Johns’s surface texture, trompe l’oeil, and material competence. But the Broad, with its ahistorical hanging, does to Johns what it usually does to art: privileges objects over context. Hopefully viewers will be beguiled enough to learn on their own how deftly Johns’s work spoke and responded to his political and aesthetic milieu.”
In the case of the artist himself, Jasper Johns had very little to no input in the staging of the retrospective. Reading a longer New York Times article on Johns by Deborah Solomon ahead of my trip, it was interesting to learn how little the interpretation of his legacy mattered to the artist: “Mr. Johns himself is loath to offer biographical interpretations of his work — or any interpretations, for that matter. He is famously elusive and his humor tends toward the sardonic. He once joked that, of the dozens of books that have been written about his art, his favorite one was written in Japanese. What he liked is that he could not understand it.” In fact, the important lesson in understanding the wider context of this and many other retrospectives, is how little the artist’s actual lived experience or interpretations figure into what one sees. Retrospectives, like many other kinds of storytelling devices, say more about the culture that produces them than the subject under examination.