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Spotlight: an alternative canon of 20th-century art or savvy sales strategy?

Frieze Masters both embraces and challenges the idea of 'masters'

Matthew Slotover and Amanda Sharp will have known when naming Frieze Masters that for many in art history world, the idea of the “master” is outmoded. And it is from a critical viewpoint that Adriano Pedrosa has put together the most tightly focused section of the fair, Spotlight, capturing a two-decade burst of activity amid thousands of years of art.

Pedrosa describes Spotlight as “a section of solo shows of artists from the 20th century”. It would be impossible to focus on earlier periods—there is insufficient material available for solo shows of earlier artists—but Pedrosa has not simply cherry-picked significant 20th-century artists. “The idea of ‘masters’, for me, already raises some issues in terms of how the idea of the master can be challenged, not only in terms of the art historical canon, but also, quite frankly, in terms of the market itself,” he says, “because we are dealing with an art fair—it is not the selection of one­person presentations in an institution."

“In England perhaps, in terms of a mid-20th-century master, you would think of someone like Francis Bacon. So, of course, he is an artist that is very much established both institutionally as well as in the market itself. I wanted to challenge that in Spotlight, particularly looking at ­certain discrepancies or a certain dis­equilibrium that exists between institutional recognition and the market. And perhaps the generation or the movement in which there is a [big] discrepancy is precisely the conceptualists of the 1960s and 1970s.”

The result is a provocative alternative canon of conceptualist and feminist artists. Some booths feature major established figures, like Bruce Nauman at Sperone Westwater (S9), as well as other, more cultish figures who have made significant waves in museum circles, like Sanja Ivekovic at Espaivisor, Valencia (S17), who had a show at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York in 2011, and artists like the Filipino Roberto Chabet, showing with Osage Gallery, Hong Kong (S16), whose work has not been seen in the UK. In showing these artists as masters he wants to “try to send a message and to change the perception of things” by laying down the gauntlet to a market which is “usually looking at painting made by male, European artists”, he says.

Museums and public institutions have long challenged the Euro-US dominated canon which was perhaps most clearly articulated by Alfred Barr, the founding director of MoMA. In the UK, Iwona Blazwick has been central to that process in her roles at the ICA, Phaidon, Tate Modern and now the Whitechapel Gallery, where she is the director. Less well known, but key in her curatorial outlook, was a project on the curating course at the Royal College of Art in London, in which she asked students to research non-Western avant gardes. “They came up with the most incredible material from very unlikely places,” she says, “from Jamaica and Prague, from Mexico City, from Japan, Africa and India, so it was a real revelation. It was the first time that we saw an alternative to what has always been claimed as a Western inheritance.”

The hallmarks of Blazwick’s Whitechapel programme have been a notable abundance of shows of women artists, from Nan Goldin to Alice Neel and a plethora of non-Western art, including, recently, an exhibition dedicated to Walid Raad and the ongoing programme “Artists Film International”, a collaboration with 12 organisations across the world.

Along with the Tate’s current head of collections for international art, Frances Morris, Blazwick was behind Tate Modern’s controversial thematic opening displays, which comprehensively broke with the Barr model, allowing a greater emphasis on contemporary art and a significant presence of artists from outside Europe and the US. The Tate Collection’s continuing expansion into Latin America, Asia and now Africa has reinforced Pedrosa’s conviction that Frieze and London provide the right platform for his conceptualist revisionism. “London is a particularly interesting place to do it, and perhaps the most receptive place for something like this to happen,” he says. “You don’t see that type of openness either from an art fair or from institutions elsewhere.”

So will the market respond? Henrique Faria (S8), who is showing the Argentinian conceptualist Osvaldo Romberg in Spotlight, feels optimistic that private collectors will begin to follow institutions’ lead in exploring this global conceptualist tradition in greater depth. “In the conceptual niche of Latin American art, there are some very interesting artists whose works have not got the recognition they deserve,” he says. In his experience, many private collections’ approach to this material “is very conservative”. His biggest clients are museums, but “academia and cultural institutions spur the interest of the rest of the collectors base,” he says. So, too, do pioneer collectors. “As with Latin American Geometric Abstract, Concrete, Neo-concrete art—15 or 16 years ago, nobody was really collecting that. But Patty Cisneros and Adolpho Leirner put together amazing collections…and those collections started the general interest in the work.”

Key to the establishment of the truly global avant garde that Pedrosa proposes is the fact that conceptualism and its various manifestations in video, Performance and text art are almost a lingua franca, despite being arrived at in varying conditions. Blazwick cites a particularly significant moment in the late 1960s and early 1970s. “In England, Belgrade, Vienna, Tokyo, Los Angeles, New York and Rome, seven artists [including Marina Abramovic and Chris Burden] without any knowledge of one another went into the public arena and asked the public to harm them,” she says. “It is uncanny that in each location there was an individual who had that impulse. What happened at that moment, in that weird zeitgeist? And [similar situations] come up time and again. But then you realise that very different local conditions applied: the conceptual art in Chile was made in response to Pinochet and censorship, it was a matter of life and death; conceptual art in America was made in response to capitalism. You see the different conditions which drive similar solutions.”

Conceptualism has been central to recent Chinese art, too, but Philip Tinari, the director of the Ullens Center in Beijing, says that the “hiatus from reality” that denied any aspects of Modernism from entering Chinese culture in the communist period before the “Reform and Opening Up” policies of 1979, meant that there was no legacy for artists to respond to. “If there is a canon of Chinese art,” Tinari says, “it is represented in things like the Ullens collection or the Uli Sigg collection that was just given to M+ [in Hong Kong] and this is a narrative that traces the period from 1979 to the present.”

Rather than being based on a steady growth of Modernism, says Tinari, “the Chinese embrace of conceptualism has always been mediated and tempered by very specific encounters”, such as a mid-1980s Robert Rauschenberg show, and the visit of Gilbert and George in 1993, leading to a piecemeal construction of the history of Modernism. The Chinese contemporary art scene has only ever existed in a period in which conceptualism has been pre-eminent in the avant garde. “That is what the [Chinese] artists gravitated towards, because artists everywhere tended to gravitate towards it,” Tinari says.

Internationally, he believes, “there is still very much a canon in play. You only have to see the exhibitions at the top five international museums each year—last year was the year of Richter, and right now we are in this LV [Louis Vuitton]-mediated Yayoi Kusama moment.

It is also possible to argue, however, that art history is now dictated not by a canon but by a network. As Tinari says, Chinese artists are now experiencing global art events in “real time” online, and this develops an increasingly diverse view of artists in the present and recent past. Blazwick concurs: “It is an exciting moment when there are a lot of revisionist views of art history, led, I must say, by artists.” Those artists are setting about “finding lost histories, the lacunae. It has also been characterised by this turn towards the archive as something really exciting, not as something dull and boring and basement, but something full of unexplored treasures.” Pedrosa will hope that Spotlight will be just that.

Three in the Spotlight

From Croatia (once part of Yugoslavia), Argentina and the Philippines, the work of Sanja Ivekovic, Osvaldo Romberg and Roberto Chabet typifies the art highlighted by Adriano Pedrosa as running counter to the conventional Western canon

Sanja Ivekovic, Espaivisor, Valencia (S17)

The subject of a recent retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Croatian artist is emerging as one of the key feminist voices from eastern Europe, where she pioneered video and photo-based art. In the video Personal Cuts, 1982 (above), shown on television in Yugoslavia, images of Ivekovic cutting holes in a stocking-like mask over her head, were ­interspersed with images of Yugo­slav propaganda following Tito’s death.

Osvaldo Romberg, Henrique Faria Gallery, New York (S8)

The Argentinian artist’s work attracted some attention in the 1970s, when, according to his present dealer Henrique Faria, “the pieces were shown in Basel and would sell within ten minutes of the fair opening”. Faria shows works from Romberg’s “History of Art” series (above, Allegoria della Fede, Vermeer, 1976), where he deconstructs masterpieces by Velázquez, Constable and Caravaggio among others, analysing their chromatic structures.

Roberto Chabet, Osage Gallery, Hong Kong (S16)

Filipino artist Chabet is “a fundamental figure and a teacher of so many artists,” Adriano Pedrosa says. Map and Rooms, 1985, is one of 300 works which comprise Chabet’s “China Collage” series, so named because maps of China, Mongolia and Korea were the basis of the first works in the series. Chabet shredded images from books, magazines, newspapers and maps leading to an image he described as a “picture morgue”. B.L.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Where has all the Bacon gone?'