How Woke Are the Fall Shows at New York’s Blue-chip Art Galleries?

Installation view of Jean Dubuffet: Le cirque 540 West 25th Street, New York, September 18 – October 24, 2020 (photography courtesy of Pace Gallery)

A few weeks ago, I tweeted out a response to an email I had received from Pace gallery about their upcoming shows for the fall season in New York, and it read: “Not a trace of wokeness here: Fall Exhibitions at Pace Gallery – Jean Dubuffet, Robert Mangold, Yoshitomo Nara, and Julian Schnabel.”

The tone of that email initially sent to me by Pace was that steadfastly upbeat, essentially, “Look at all the blue-chip artists in our blue-chip stable; won’t you come by and, you know, get a little taste of greatness?” Subsequently, Pace revised its schedule to include Nina Katchadourian — not that I think their addition of a woman artist has anything to do with me or with the view among those sensitive to these concerns that this lineup makes the gallery look oblivious. I’m sure that Katchadourian’s addition was a business decision.

Likely Pace planned these shows more than a year ago, so it may very well be unfair to expect them to upend their program to address the demands of our political moment. But then the moment is relentless. The United States is literally and metaphorically on fire: spontaneous, out of control blazes in the west; organized, protracted protests and demonstrations across the country calling for social justice or, on the other hand, clamor to be allowed to flout public health guidelines and not wear a mask. The chief of the executive branch is actively calling for militias to patrol polling places and indicating that he may not accept the results of the upcoming election if they are not favorable to him. And, a global pandemic has caused the deaths of over 200,000 people here and brought the nation’s economy to its knees. These are rather difficult circumstances to ignore, yet Pace’s program is somewhat echoed by their fellow up-market art boutiques.

David Zwirner’s fall schedule for New York consists of Suzan Frecon, Harold Ancart, Josh Smith (also showing concurrently at their London location) and the perennial Donald Judd. While there is one woman included (which has the whiff, but not the substance of gender parity) she and the other artists are all Anglo-American or White European with nary a trace of weighty political content in the work.

On the other hand, Gagosian gallery is showing Louise Bonnet and Theaster Gates, and according to a recent email, also Titus Kaphar. (Initially there were no dates or location aside from “New York,” now the site lists the West 21st Street outpost and gives dates from October through December, perhaps replacing a Donald Judd’s exhibition that was previously slated to be shown there.) This lineup seems rather more in tune with the times given that they have a (European) woman and ostensibly two Black men in the lineup (with Kaphar as the scribbled-in designated hitter).

Hauser and Wirth are featuring Luchita Hurtado, Jack Whitten, and George Condo, which is, on paper, certainly better than how Pace and Zwirner are dealing with the underrepresentation of artists that have been historically othered. But the picture becomes more complicated when I find that Nathaniel Mary Quinn and Meleko Mokgosi will be shown by Gagosian in London, and Hauser and Wirth are showing Ed Clark and Lorna Simpson in other cities.

Installation view, Josh Smith: Spectre David Zwirner, New York, 2020 (courtesy David Zwirner)

I found myself trying to construct an argument that might encompass all these facts and make sense of how premier actors in the art gallery scene might be reading this moment. It’s the tendency for dominant and aloof powers in the art market to turn critics and writers into hierophants who attempt to read the entrails of the various politics and concerns that the galleries ritually disembowel. I slowly realized that these mercenary for-profit entities aren’t likely to respond to political pressure to ante up when it’s their turn at the table in the representation stakes. I am looking in the wrong place if I’m looking at these businesses to help me negotiate this brittle time.

Rather I’ve come to conclude that these purveyors of the visually fashionable (and yes, occasionally meaningful) work of artists aren’t constructed to help us imagine a better system of artist training and art production, display, and collection. These galleries exist to make profit, to make markets, not to make meaning. Though on occasion I love the artists they show, I’ll need to look elsewhere for clues on how to save ourselves.

Looking at the upcoming shows from Pace, David Zwirner, Gagosian, and Hauser & Wirth one hardly gets the sense that we are in a moment of acute crisis.Read MoreOpinion, David Zwirner Gallery, Gagosian Gallery, Hauser & Wirth, Pace GalleryHyperallergicRead More

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