On ViewCarnegie Museum Of Art
58th Carnegie International
September 24, 2022–April 2, 2023
In the 1890s Andrew Carnegie, who then was the richest American, paid for the construction of Pittsburgh’s art museum, and also the natural history museum, a large concert hall, a lecture hall and the main branch of the library, all housed in one enormous building, which is almost eight hundred feet long. For the first time, Pittsburgh, which was a grand industrial center, had a major cultural attraction. And then in 1896, the Carnegie Museum began to present survey art shows. Carnegie wanted these exhibitions to bring the art world to Pittsburgh. Nowadays, however, any claim that the contemporary art world can be adequately encompassed by a survey including just a few dozen works is an obvious, through often productive, fiction.
In 1985, the year I started reviewing these exhibitions, the International presented forty-two of the best known American and foreign artists exhibiting in New York. In 1991 the show extended to the natural history museum as well as a number of sites in Pittsburgh and turned its critical focus to the nature of the art museum. And in 2013, broadening the geographic reach of the exhibition, thirty-five artists from nineteen countries were presented, including a variety of figures from outside North America and Western Europe. Now the 58th International deals with “the movements of images, ideas, objects, and people that incite emancipatory expressions and artworks.” Organized by the curator Sohrab Mohebbi, associate curator Ryan Inouye and curatorial assistant Talia Heiman, it contains work from about eighty collectives, institutions, and estates. Included are artists from Latin America, South East Asia (but not China or Russia), the Middle East (including Iran). The show includes four distinct exhibitions: the works donated to the Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende; the Fereydoun Ave and Laal collection of contemporary Iranian art; the Dogma Collection, from Vietnam circa 1975; and Zahia Rahman, Seismography of Struggle (2018–22), an inventory of political and critical journals. The complete object checklist runs to ninety pages.
When you learn that the concerns of the exhibition include “migration, appropriation, expropriation, and decolonization,” then you can reasonably anticipate that there would not be much art here devoted to “luxe calme et volupte” (Henri Matisse was on the International jury in 1930). This is a show of political art. You discover when you read the labels that most of what here looks like art-for-arts-sake in fact presents political meanings by virtue of its materials. Thus at the entrance we find Krista Belle Stewart’s Eye Eye (2017–ongoing), a vast mural made from earth pigments of clay from the land of her native Syilx Nation. Thu Van Tran’s ten gorgeous frescoes, Colors of Grey (2022–ongoing), use the colors of the herbicides employed in the Vietnam War. And Banu Cennetoğlu’s right? (2022), a cloud of gold letter balloons filling the Hall of Sculpture, appears to resemble a politicized version of Andy Warhol’s Silver Clouds (1966), containing the letters of ten of the articles of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Unlike Warhol’s balloons, Cennetoğlu’s will be allowed to deflate throughout the run of the exhibition, asking (so the label explains) if rights can remain intact if they aren’t being actively upheld.
In the Internationals, each curatorial team invites a new cast of artists. The 1985 show included Eric Fischl, Jenny Holzer, Bill Jensen, Robert Mangold, Brice Marden, Julian Schnabel, and Frank Stella. And 1991 included Richard Serra, David Hammons, Lothar Baumgarten, Christopher Wool, and Katharina Fritsch. All of these artists have continued to develop, but none have returned. This show scrutinizes political history of some decades ago concerning Iran, Vietnam, Guatemala, and the American atomic bombing of Japan. But the art used to present this history, mostly recent work, comes from artists who haven’t previously been in Internationals. The Carnegie thus is remarkably supple, admirably capable of re-inventing itself.
Were I in charge of the awards for this iteration, I would give Anh Trần’s Run to the rescue with love (2022), a marvelously ambitious abstraction, the award for the best painting in the show. And for most subtle political art my prize would go to the contribution of The Dogma Collection: a series of art school drawings on the backs of North Vietnamese propaganda posters that turn propaganda into truly artistic images. In fact, the Carnegie Prize did go to LaToya Ruby Frazier for her More Than Conquerors: A Monument for Community Health Workers of Baltimore, Maryland (2021–22), a vast photographic documentary installed downstairs near to the entrance. The piece includes double-sided texts and images displayed on modified IV poles that are socially distanced, each focusing on the story of a single health worker.
In the preface of Mirror of the World. A New History of Art, Julian Bell says that he sees “art history as a frame within which world history, in all its breadth, is continually reflected back at us.” His description applies word for word to this International, which does a superlative job of reflecting our present political situation. But that’s precisely why the show is hard to adequately summarize. Who right now is capable of adequately describing our historical period? When the Carnegie Internationals were created, they were an important innovation, a way of bringing art from the world to Pittsburgh. Now, of course, such surveys have been much imitated and travel is easier. But that said, this 58th International effectively does its job, presenting a coherent, visually satisfying display.
Just as some paintings contain a small self-portrait of the artist, reminding us that this artifact needed an artifice, so globalization involves the circulation of products and resources, including—of course—artworks like those in the International. And so it’s unsurprising that the critical claims of the art on display were accompanied by one performance not in the catalogue, executed by artists not named in the exhibition press release: a protest at the opening by the unionized Museum employees seeking wage increases.