The Avant Garde Won't Give Up
Radio: Hunter Drohojowska-Philp talks about the plucky CoBrA artists at Blum & Poe.
From this episode:
The Avant Garde Won't Give Up is the title of a group show of artists active in the years after World War II, 1948 to 1951. Living in Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam, they were known by the acronym CoBrA and often melded figurative and abstract elements in their paintings. Though influential, even radical, during their time, many have faded from the larger historical narrative. That is one reason curator Alison Gingeras decided to reassess the movement. Her show, smartly installed at Blum & Poe, is immediately intriguing.
The title is translated from the text scrawled in French by Asger Jorn atop an academic painting of a young woman holding a fan, though Jorn has added a wicked mustache and goatee to her innocent face. Jorn, a catalyst of the CoBrA group, and emerges as the figure of dominant interest in the show and the instructive catalogue, which illustrates his 1964 telegram rejecting money offered by philanthropist Harry Guggenheim. "Go to hell with your money, bastard," Jorn writes.
In the midst of Nazi-occupied Denmark, Jorn had worked with a group of artists calling themselves The Hell Horse and the seeds of their resistance fueled the evolution of his interest in artist collectives including CoBrA. The best known artists, Pierre Alechinsky, Karel Appel, Jorn and others looked to the art of children, the mentally ill, and tribal cultures for inspiration and a faith in instinct and spontaneity.
Although the group only existed formally between 1948 and 1951, their ideas continued to affect a larger number of artists throughout their careers. Some of the surprises in this exhibition include biomorphic bronze sculptures by Sonja Ferlov Mancoba and abstract paintings by Ernest Mancoba, a black artist from South Africa. Shinkichi Tajiri, born in LA and known for his towering white sculpture of the Friendship Knot in Little Tokyo, was interned during the first years of World War II, then joined the US army, served in Italy and returned to Europe to study art in 1948. After marrying his wife Ferdi, a Dutch artist, they settled in the Netherlands and found that their experimental tendencies were in synch with those of the CoBrA artists. A few of his sculptures are on view along with a short experimental film in black and white of the CoBrA artists smoking pot in Paris to a jazz soundtrack. The Vipers won a Golden Palm Award in 1955.
When this show was at Blum & Poe's New York City gallery, it was confined to a historic overview. At their Culver City location, Gingeras included a number of contemporary artists with similar interests. Along with a number of "modified" found paintings by Jorn, there is a found painting altered by Julian Schnable and then re-painted as one of his "Big Girl" series and a number of altered found paintings by Mark Flood. More convincing in the mood of collective irreverence are the electrified sculptures and paintings of Jon Pylypchuk, who shows at China Art Objects but was involved with the Canadian collective Royal Art Lodge and now operates his own downtown gallery Grice Bench.
Including the contemporary material might dilute the impact of the concise historic show but it also sends the message that CoBrA ideals survived long after the artists themselves. Blum & Poe has now underwritten a number of important exhibitions of under-recognized groups of late modern artists — Mono-ha from Japan, Tansaekhwa from Korea, and now CoBrA. All have been supported by sound curatorial scholarship and researched catalogues so that this giant commercial space, showing artists like Takashi Murakami, Mark Grotjahn and Julian Schnable, is making a stand for the long view, the perspective that art comes from art and that commercial and critical success is, more often than not, fleeting. The show is on view through December 23.