Do Artists Make the Best Curators? Guggenheim Reveals Groundbreaking Exhibit

Sandra Bertrand


A three-dimensional sensibility is at work at the Guggenheim’s first ever artist-curated exhibition, Artistic License: Six Takes on the Guggenheim Collection.  The first dimension is the initial shock of the viewer confronting the artworks; the second is the awareness as you move from one selection to the next, that there’s another mind, the curator’s, at work.  The third dimension as you move through the six levels of the rotunda, is the merging of the viewer’s take along with the curator’s own into a rich, sometimes disorienting, dizzying impression.


The result?  The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.


Six artists, each having had influential solo shows at the museum, comprise the curators in question.  Be forewarned:  This is not a team working to present a unified concept of the museum’s holdings.  These are six separate sensibilities, allowed to search the collection in storage—not only the best-known creators but less renowned artists, some of whose works have never been shown. 


It’s all here: early modernism, mid-century abstraction and the sociopolitical debates through the 1960s and ‘70s.  Over 300 paintings, sculptures, works on paper and installations, the output limited from 1900 to 1980, are on display, but with six subjective, original minds at work. 


It would be fair to ask why this experiment has never been attempted by the museum before.  The outcome, with a nod to A.E. Milne’s classic, The Wind in the Willows, is a thrilling Mister Toad ride up and down the six levels.  (I started at the top, winding my way down so that I didn’t know whose take was on display until I reached the wall notes before the next level.  For this reviewer, the mystery added to the fun.) 



Jenny Holzer (b. 1950, Gallipolis, Ohio)

This section makes the argument for women’s representation loud and clear.  Holzer does an admirable job of ferreting out an impressive list of artists, considering only 15 percent of the collection was created by women.  This lack of diversity has become, particularly in the age of the Me-Too generation, a visible shortcoming of the museum’s early acquisitions.  Thankfully, several masterworks are presented here.  Natalia Goncharova’s 1913 Cats (rayist perc.[tion] in rose, black and yellow bursts give the viewer a no-holds-barred catfight in her colliding shapes. 

The adrenalin is pumping in the second-generation women abstract expressionists.   Joan Mitchell’s Canada 1 in three panels occupies its own bay for viewing.  The athletic “take no prisoners” brushwork is evident, and the size only adds to its power. 


Helen Frankenthaler’s Canal from 1963 shows an evanescent transparency in her thinly layered style, no less powerful for its vivid pastels.   Not to be outdone by her contemporaries, sculptor Louise Nevelson’s Night is here as it should be in all its black magnificence.  Louise Bourgeois’ ink on paper surreal depiction is another entry not to miss.  Femme Maison gives the viewer a woman’s figure, whose head has been transformed into a petit bourgeois house.  


Power and delicacy merge in Rubla Asawa’s copper wire constructions, beautifully suspended mid-air. And what better way to introduce photography in the mix than to showcase Nan Goldin’s angry dropout cronies such as Trixie on the Cot, NYC from 1979.  Holzer is not one to mince images or words, so a reference to Linda Nochlin’s challenging treatise “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” is perfectly at home in Holzer’s selections.



Carrie Mae Weems (b. 1953, Portland, Oregon)

Weems uses black-and-white imagery in her choices as an organizing principle.  Whether or not one searches for deeper meaning in her palette, and it’s here, the contrasting excitement of her display is truly beautiful. Color as metaphor for the emotions takes a back seat for this artist and is only present in Max Beckmann’s painting Alfie with Mask. Drawings and etchings are given their due, with George Gross’s caricatures of pedestrians with dog and Picasso’s The Poor.  An instant favorite of mine on first viewing for its graphic abstraction is Elkoh Hosoe’s Embrace (1945), a depiction of a white woman and a black man with two legs entwined.   

Giacometti’s Spoon Woman (1926-27) is an attention-grabber with the concave spoon shape representing the bottom half of her torso.  The Nose, by the same artist, is a Pinocchio-like profile in black, sharing the same bay with a large, minimalist painting by Franz Kline.  But the real showstopper in Weem’s display is Robert Norris’s ominous, draped wall hanging, a compilation of felt, rubber and wire strips that conjures up an altarpiece for a Black Sabbath ceremony.  Viewers can bring their own dreamscapes to this creation.



Julie Mehretu, (b. 1970, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia)

A sober yet hypnotic mood holds sway in Mehretu’s choices.  The cumulative effect is a world gone awry, leaving mostly fragmentation.  In Simon Hantai’s Cut Emerald Eye, the gaze is askew, and Wilfredo Lam’s Zamberia, gives us a surreal figure of a woman with spikes for hands.  Yuko Nasaka, part of a 1963 Japanese avantgarde collective in answer to growing industrialization, is represented by a dazzling array of 30 square panels, whose circles were created on a turntable with the artist using a palette knife to scratch in each design, then finish with a spray of car lacquer. 

Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for a Crucifixion (1962) never ceases to shock.  In three panels with the artist’s characteristic reds and blacks on display, two male witnesses encounter a severed human carcass.  Blythe Bohner, a founding member of New York’s AIR Gallery, the first coop space for women, is here in a series of blurry abstracted self-portraits that call identity itself into question.



Richard Prince (b. 1949, Canal Zone, Panama)

What you should know about this artist is his inclination to surprise.  Considered a key part of the Pictures Generation, Prince has appropriated advertising images, our obsession with celebrity, with a constant questioning of the very principle of artmaking.

Prince takes a largely nonrepresentational view in his selections, leaving it to the viewer to sort out the arbitrary sensibility at work.  And there is plenty to contemplate.  A special standout is Paul Jenkins’s The Prophecy, an apocalyptic dark journey of chaos.  Switching gears, he presents Mara Helena Viera da Silva’’s Untitled (1953), an oil on burlap pastiche of a painting—free-floating candy wrapper-like images in a lyrical playground of positive and negative space.  Kenzo Okada’s forms as well are an elegant response to the darker conceptions at play here. 

Worth mentioning are two abstract canvases he has included by Stuart Sutcliffe.  Known as the “fifth Beatle,” he left the band in 1961 to pursue the visual arts, dying a year later. 



Paul Chan (b. 1973, Hong Kong)

Water is the prevailing element in Chan’s universe of choice and its calming, transcendental qualities in the artwork seem to work on many of the museum’s visitors.  To forgive the punning, there’s a buoyance on the scene.  An added enticement on this level is a cobalt blue carpet that sets off the selections.  It’s a delightful shock, whether a member of the museum’s own curatorial staff was responsible or the artist himself.  In the artist’s words, “the notion evokes ideas and feelings where the spiritual, the material and the sensuous collide.”

Hilla Rebay, one of the first founders of the museum, has a delightful paper collage of a woman at the seashore.  She lounges in a yellow striped dress, a cat on her lap, with strips of blue for the passing clouds.  Leger’s Starfish from 1942 is here, as are German Expressionist Kirshner’s Three Nudes in Water.  A surprising photograph by Francesca Woodman shows a woman on the beach reflected through another bather’s mirror.  All in all, a memorable presentation.



Cai Guo-Qiang (b. 1957, Quanzhou, Fujian Province, China)

The first rotunda is devoted to this artist’s array of what he terms “non-brand” artworks.  The artists encountered are given a clustered salon-style presentation and are not represented for any recognizable style, but rather their early inclinations.  It’s a figurative as well as abstract assortment that fills the walls, with a handy guide available for identification.  Some good examples of this approach are Vasily Kandinsky’s landscape, Munich (1901-02) and Piet Mondrian’s Blue Chrysanthemums (1920). 

An unexpected addition to this artist’s choices is the nearby inclusion of his gunpowder paintings, a medium he has enjoyed employing in the past. 

Artistic Director and Chief Curator Nancy Spector and her staff have done an excellent job in introducing us to this first round of artist-curators.  Hopefully, we can look forward to more such experiments as winning as this one.


Artistic License is on view at the Guggenheim Museum (New York City) through January 12, 2020.


Author Bio:


Sandra Bertrand is Highbrow Magazine’s chief art critic.


For Highbrow Magazine



Image Sources:


Courtesy of the Guggenheim Museum (photos by David Heald).


not popular
Bottom Slider: 
Out Slider