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Themes Of Identity, Division At The Kemper Art Museum

Pablo Picasso, Les femmes d'Alger (Women of Algiers), Variation "N", 1955. Oil on canvas, 45 x 57 5/8". Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University in St. Louis. University purchase, Steinberg Fund, 1960. © 2014 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (click for larger version)
March 25, 2015
There is important immediacy in the current multiple exhibitions at Washington University's Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, particularly as they relate to one another and to imaginings of self-identity.

In Kemper's entry hall is Carrie Mae Weems' "Untitled (Colored People Grid)," recently acquired by the museum. The work forms a grid of 31 screen-printed papers and 11 inkjet portrait prints. The portraits frame young African-American boys and girls, photographed at an age that Weems says is "when issues of race really begin to affect you, at the point of an innocence beginning to be disrupted." This display becomes a key to understanding the relationship of the three other exhibitions, which share themes of identity and division.

From Picasso to Fontana

William N. Eisendrath Jr., director of the Kemper Art Museum collection from 1962 to 1968, aggregated an international collection admired by many. "From Picasso to Fontana — Collecting Modern and Postwar Art in the Eisendrath Years" is a replay exhibition from the Kemper's familiar collection of art. In this current context, the works acquire new meanings. The exhibit is curated by Karen K. Butler, associate writer of the museum.

A gallery wall divides art from Europe and art from the United States, suggesting the change from early 20th century art, centered on Pablo Picasso, to the mid-20th century emergence of abstract expressionism, when the center of the art world moved from Paris to New York.

Picasso's "Les femmes d'Alger (Women of Algiers)," one of Eisendrath's most significant acquisitions, references earlier work by Eugene Delacroix. Three Algerian women are sleeping, smoking or reclining while a servant carries a teapot. By adapting Delacroix's representation of a time in early French occupation into one of post-Algerian independence, Picasso effectively bookends the history of French colonialism in Algeria.

Sam Durant

Across the hall is Sam Durant's "Proposal for White and Indian Dead Monument Transpositions, Washington, D.C.," curated by Sabine Eckman, the William T. Kemper director and chief curator of the Kemper Art Museum.

Durant often uses monuments and memorials to focuses on complex topics such as racism against black Americans and the exploitation and massacre of Native Americans. Monuments typically celebrate national collective identity and often sanitize even genocidal pasts, while prioritizing the viewpoints of the victors.

In this gallery-scale installation, Durant has 30 minimalist sculptures, each appropriating the form of an existing monument to White or Indian victims killed between the 17th century and the end of the so-called Indian wars in 1890. All reference the traditional obelisk. Of the 30 monuments that Durant was able to identify, only five are for Native American victims.

Parallel Modes

Kemper's teaching gallery upstairs is showing "Parallel Modes: Illustrated Visual Journalism and American Photography, 1955-1980." It is curated by D.B. Dowd, professor of communication design in the University's Sam Fox School, and professor of American culture studies in arts and sciences.

Birmingham Race Riot, from the portfolio X + X (Ten Works by Ten Painters), 1964, Andy Warhol, 20 x 24" University acquisition, 1970 WU 4233 E © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (click for larger version)
Included is Andy Warhol's screen print from Charles Moore's iconic photograph of a dog attacking a protestor in Birmingham. By removing the middle grays, Warhol's contrasty print underscores our binary thinking of blacks and whites –and the shameless violence that keeps repeating itself.

In the Picasso to Fontana exhibition, European artists contrast with those in the United States. The Durant exhibition plays off a division between Indians and whites. Illustration artists and photographers in Kemper's teaching gallery divide according to method of working.

This triptych of exhibitions invites the viewer to not only think, but to feel and to discover emotions in all those frames that Weems has left empty, in the entry hall exhibit. She may be imagining new portraits that could be placed in those remaining multi-colored squares. Weems invites viewers to imagine into a very different and hopeful future.

Parallel Modes: Illustrated Visual Journalism and American Photography, 1955-1980. At the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum. Joel Meyerowitz, New Mexico, from the portfolio Early Years, 1972. (click for larger version)
"From Picasso to Fontana — Collecting Modern and Postwar Art in the Eisendrath Years, 1960-1968" is on view through April 13, as is "Sam Durant: Proposal for White and Indian Dead Monument Transpositions, Washington, D.C." Parallel Modes: Illustrated Visual Journalism and American Photography, 1955-1980, closes April 5.

The museum is located at 1 Brookings Drive on the campus of Washington University.

Slow Art Day

In this time of accelerating change, note Kemper's selection as the St. Louis site of Slow Art Day, Sunday, April 12, a global event where people gather at art museums to view five selected pieces of art, slowly, and then enjoy lunch/conversation together. Details at: www.eventbrite.com/e/slow-art-day-2015-saint-louis-kemper-art-museum-tickets-15700325095.

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