Symbols & Knowledge & Histories

One of the best ways to appreciate an artist’s work is to learn the meaning of their most used symbols, but not just the basic definitions. Instead, you need to study the significance and value that they assign to those symbols, while also understanding the background and history each image possesses on its own. Only after that, can you start to comprehend the who, what, when, where, and why of an artist.

Applying this framework to this week’s featured artists, we can see layers and connections between them even though stylistically their works are very different. In our ‘Opening This Week’ choice, the art of Wifredo Lam takes Cubism’s shapes, Surrealism, Afro-Cuban history and religion, and European artistic training to produce a set of symbols used to comment on racial, political, and moral issues. The new show at Pace Gallery features different aspects of his symbols, from birds signifying attributes of Santaría gods, to his ‘femme cheval’ hybrid used as a stand-in for followers of Afro-Cuban religions as well as a reference to the exploitation, sexual and otherwise, of poor, mixed-race Cuban women.

Following a similar set of interests but using a mix of figurative and abstract styles, Radcliffe Bailey’s work (on view now at Jack Shainman Gallery and featured in our ‘Gallery Shows’ section) often references Black American history. His symbols include African art from regions where the European and American slave traders operated, maps of the United States with dates and arrows on them to focus viewers’ minds on national incidents, and using found objects to build a story or commemorate the unknown persons who are part of the historical record in the US. Bailey’s art and its symbols are a distillation of past, connecting to the present, with layers of information that engage, inform, and stay in the memory.

The Art History Hiding in Plain Sight

One of the depressing yet great things about recent art history is how much of it isn’t documented or easily accessed. Depressing because it only takes a few decades to completely lose knowledge of a person’s position and influence on artists, collectors, and institutions; but great because a scholar’s research can reveal fascinating artistic, cultural, and historical information that redefines how to understand an era and the people who lived in it. This week’s selections feature two gallery exhibits that demonstrate how easily historical information can be lost and how difficult it can be to retrieve, record, and establish its importance to an existing narrative full of errors and omissions.

The ‘Opening This Week’ section presents Hollis Taggart’s show on the gallerist and collector Martha Jackson, whose eponymous gallery represented new and established artists working in various facets of Abstract Expressionism and experimental art practices. The sixteen-year run of the gallery brought Karl Appel, Sam Francis, Grace Hartigan, Willem de Kooning, Sven Lukin, Louise Nevelson and others to public attention, creating a more nuanced view of contemporary art than was available at such galleries as Leo Castelli and Sidney Janis or promoted by critics like Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. With a client roster like that, you’d think the Martha Jackson Gallery would be lauded in every history of Abstract Expressionism in the US – but it isn’t.

The ‘Gallery Shows’ selection focuses on women printmakers who trained, studied, and worked in the print school Atelier 17 and/or The Art Students League of New York. The astonishing variety of talent and interests that passed through these two legendary institutions could only have happened with an enforced academic policy of accepting women artists with a strong interest in learning the various techniques of printing and with any level of artistic skill. Solid training, encouragement to experiment, and near equal representation in school exhibitions gave women artists a level of empowerment and professional credentials to push against the existing biases towards them with varying degrees of success and influencing future generations, whether they were artists, collectors, dealers, students, or historians. Shows like these are important: by reclaiming a history lost to dusty newspaper clippings and passing mentions in biographies, they demand that all of us learn about the long-neglected aspects of women’s contribution to the inter- and post-war American arts scene, especially here in New York City. And we hope that exhibitions like this are the start of a genuine trend to re-assess and offer a more rounded history of art.