Makeover Of Carnegie Museum's Contemporary Art Galleries Emphasizes The New And Under-Recognized

Jul 23, 2018

The Carnegie Museum of Art is revising its take on contemporary art.

CROSSROADS opens Fri., July 20. A preview takes place Thu., July 19, at the Third Thursday event. The Carnegie is located at 4400 Forbes Ave., in Oakland.

The museum dove into its huge collection of art created since World War II and emerged with Crossroads: Carnegie Museum of Art’s Collection, 1945 to Now. The museum’s re-installed contemporary galleries will include about 150 paintings, sculptures, photographs, installations, and films, organized not chronologically, but under eight themes (or “chapters”). And the focus is on works that are either new to the museum or have not been shown in decades.

“Our museum can only show a fraction of its collection at any given moment,” said Eric Crosby, the museum’s Richard Armstrong Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art. “It's very exciting to see those under-recognized works in the context of our iconic masterworks as well as recent acquisitions. It's all about that mix.”

Fans of iconic works like Giacometti’s rail-thin bronze sculpture “Walking Man” shouldn’t fret: Some of these works will remain, and there will be plenty of familiar names, from Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock to Mark Rothko and Cindy Sherman. But spotlights will shine on such recently acquired works as Kerry James Marshall’s painting “Untitled (Gallery)” and Pope.L’s sculpture “Fountain (reparations version),” and on pieces from the archive, like prints by the feminist collective Guerrilla Girls and a 1981 painting by Keith Haring.

The show leans heavily on North American and European artists; exceptions include “Black Crowd,” a 1954 painting by Chinese émigré painter Zao Wou-Ki.

Film, meanwhile, gets more attention than ever in these galleries: The exhibit is named, after all, for Bruce Conner’s epochal 1976 short “Crossroads,” a collage of U.S. military atomic-bomb tests at Bikini Atoll in 1946. “Crossroads” is included, as is Gordon Matta-Clark’s “Conical Intersect,” documenting his “architectural interventions” in Paris. This section, titled “Artists’ Cinema,” harks to the Carnegie’s role in the 1970s and ’80s as a national hub for experimental filmmakers, including Hollis Frampton and Stan Brakhage. Screenings of works by other artists are planned, said Crosby.

Other intriguing additions to the contemporary galleries include the section titled “Call of the Wild,” with work by the loose-knit band of Northern European artists called CoBrA, who embraced outsider art and made painting and sculpture that was playful and expressionistic. Crosby said the museum has an extensive collection of CoBrA works due largely to Leon Arkus, a former museum director who was a fan.

“These are artists who are striving to understand the origins of creativity, and I really think their work, even though it dates from the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, feels very much of the present right now,” said Crosby.

The other “chapters” include “A New Horizon,” highlighting the abstraction movement of the 1950s; “More Than Minimal,” with minimalist works from the 1960s and ’70s; “Night Poetry,” with dreamlike works including the title piece, a 1962 painting by Pittsburgh-born Raymond Saunders; “Less Than Half The Picture,” whose title quotes the Guerrilla Girls’ famous indictment of the underrepresentation of women and artists of color in museums and galleries; “The Persistence of Painting,” featuring artists who paint in the age of the smart-phone camera; and “Free Radicals,” focusing on art that challenges the social and political status quo.

“Free Radicals” includes Marshall’s 2016 painting “Untitled (Gallery),” which depicts a stylishly dressed African-American woman standing in an art gallery next to a photo of herself, “arms crossed confronting the viewer with a kind of inquisitive gaze,” said Crosby. “Kerry James Marshall is one of the most important living American painters working today, asking us to consider the exclusions in the history of Western art, namely the exclusion of black figures from that narrative. Here he is reinserting that figure, allowing us to reflect on the history of not only our collection but of Western art in general."

“I hope that visitors feel that each of the chapters within the installation have a very different feel to them, and that we’re providing multiple points of entry for people to experience the highlights from our collection,” says Crosby.

Other highlights, viewed on a walk-through prior to the galleries’ re-opening included two that were last shown at the 1991 Carnegie International

Louise Bourgeois’ “Cell II” is an installation with several upright wooden doors circled to form a chamber, and a light inside illuminating perfume bottles, a sculpture of hands and a mirror. “Every element of this sculpture points back in some very deeply personal and subjective way to her memories,” said Crosby. (Bourgeois is best known in Pittsburgh for her “eyeball” sculptures in Downtown’s Katz Plaza.)

Dan Graham’s “Heart Pavilion” is a small room on the gallery floor, made out of curved mirrors. “He’s creating a space, a viewing structure for you to see yourself and to see others within the space of the museum,” said Crosby.

Crossroads can be previewed Thursday night, at the Carnegie’s monthly Third Thursday event. The exhibit opens to the public on Friday.