When it comes to Modern art, exactly whose Modernism is it?
In recent years, a newer, so-called transnational approach to telling this story has emerged. Its practitioners have been making room in 20th-century art’s familiar narrative, which usually focuses on Western Europe and North America, for lesser-known artists, movements, ideas and events from other parts of the world.
Alexandra Munroe, the senior curator of Asian art at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and its first “senior adviser, global arts,” is one of the most visibly active and influential scholars who have taken a transnational approach to her work. Ms. Munroe’s family lived in Japan when she was growing up; she was an undergraduate at Sophia University in Tokyo before continuing her art history studies in the United States. In 1994, as an independent curator, she organized “Japanese Art After 1945: Scream Against the Sky” for the Yokohama Museum of Art. That same year, in New York, it was also shown at the Guggenheim Museum SoHo. Outside East Asia and even in Japan itself, that exhibition helped knock down the familiar Modern art canon’s door with its look at strains of Modernism that often reflected deep, indigenous Japanese roots.
“Over the last 20 years, the landscape has dramatically shifted,” Ms. Munroe said. “Resistance was furious when I began. Academics called me a heretic and the late critic Hilton Kramer, reviewing ‘Scream Against the Sky,’ dismissed the works it featured as derivative.” Later, as director of Japan Society’s gallery in New York, Ms. Munroe organized the first comprehensive retrospective of Yoko Ono’s multimedia oeuvre in 2000; in 2005 she oversaw a collaboration with the Japanese contemporary artist Takashi Murakami, in which he was a guest curator for the exhibition “Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subcultures.”
Ms. Munroe, who joined the Guggenheim Museum’s staff in 2006 and has helped it integrate a global view into its curatorial mission, said of her work: “It has both reflected and anticipated the age we live in. Globalization has created a new consciousness about the interconnected world and given us tools to think about art histories from Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, challenging a certain parochialism in the art world and redrawing the way we write art history.”
In 2009, the Museum of Modern Art began its own Contemporary and Modern Art Perspectives initiative. Tapping into MoMA’s longstanding international relationships with other institutions, C-MAP, as it is known, allows curators working with different regional focuses — Asia, Central and Eastern Europe, Latin America — to gather research that feeds into exhibitions like its recent “Transmissions: Art in Eastern Europe and Latin America, 1960-1980.” Separately, MoMA’s recent monographic show focusing on the career and ideas of Joaquín Torres-García, an influential painter-theorist from Uruguay, also took an in-depth look at a lesser-known chapter of Modernism’s evolution in South America.
Stuart Comer, MoMA’s chief curator of media and performance art, has taken part in the C-MAP initiative along with his colleague Roxana Marcoci, the museum’s senior curator of photography. “Nowadays,” Mr. Comer said, “curators of my generation — I was born in 1968 — are coming into positions of authority. We were brought up thinking about Marxist and postcolonial critiques, institutionalized racism and milestone exhibitions like the 1993 Whitney Biennial, which looked at identity politics and multiculturalism.”
Ms. Marcoci said, “Through C-MAP, we’re expanding the criteria by which we’re considering the histories of modern art in an increasingly global art world.”
Ming Tiampo, who teaches art history at Carleton University in Ottawa, organized “Gutai: Splendid Playground” in 2013 with Ms. Munroe for the Guggenheim Museum in New York. That exhibition examined Gutai, one of the most influential Japanese avant-garde movements in the post-World War II era. “The story of Modernism has been told as a unidirectional story of influence from the center to the periphery, with the periphery only providing inspiration and not innovation to the center,” Ms. Tiampo said in an email.
Japanese Modern art received considerable attention as the transnational approach first began, and art from Asia continues to figure prominently on many curators’ collective agenda, perhaps as a reflection of the region’s economic and political importance today. In recent years, Guggenheim Museum exhibitions have also examined the work of the Korean-born artist Lee Ufan, influences of Eastern philosophy on Western Modernists and paintings by the Indian painter V. S. Gaitonde.
The Dallas Art Museum recently presented exhibitions focusing on the Gutai artists Sadamasa Motonaga and Kazuo Shiraga, and over the past several years the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York have all hired Modern or contemporary art curators with expertise in Asian art. “International Pop,” an exhibition organized by and first shown at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, is now on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It offers a global view of Pop Art’s reach and permutations during its heyday. Currently Ms. Munroe is organizing a survey of Chinese art from the late 1980s to the present, which will open at the Guggenheim in New York next year.
Numerous modern-art museums — including MoMA, the Tate Modern in London and the Stedelijk in Amsterdam — are trying to broaden their holdings with works from beyond Western Europe and North America. As the Guggenheim plans a branch in Abu Dhabi, its curator and manager of curatorial affairs, Valerie Hillings, noted that at that new space, “the Western perspective will be one among many, and we will be seeking to present and celebrate multiple viewpoints,” with a focus on “modern and contemporary art made in and by artists from West Asia, South Asia and North Africa.”
The New York art dealer Fergus McCaffrey has helped introduce Gutai and Modern Japanese conceptual art to the international marketplace. Broader audiences may benefit from a global approach to looking at Modern art’s history by having opportunities to learn about hitherto unknown artists, he said. “Some, like On Kawara, who were long the best-known representatives of a particular place or genre, now must make room for our recognition of other pioneering conceptualists like, say, the Japanese Jiro Takamatsu,” he added. The “new” art history, Mr. McCaffrey pointed out, reveals that for numerous familiar places and periods, certain well-known artists, styles or movements “were not the only game in town.”
Richard Armstrong, the Guggenheim’s director, said that curators and museum administrators “have to be inquisitive — and humble too.” He added, “When going beyond the borders of Europe and America, one faces a double burden when representing the U.S. — for political reasons, and also because others bring their own perceptions of the U.S. with them.”
Still, he said, such efforts yield rewards. “Those who gain include audiences in New York and other cities around the country and around the world,” he observed. “You can even look at this new tendency from a humanitarian point of view and recognize how good it is for more different people and places to be brought into the discussion of art history as our notions of aesthetics change.”
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