Walker Art Center

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Abstract Resistance
Curator Yasmil Raymond discusses art as more than “stylized leisure”

By Yasmil Raymond

With a new commission and works dating back to the 1950s, the exhibition Abstract Resistance brings together now-legendary figures as well as younger artists who have revolted against the aesthetic orthodoxies of their times. While these pieces do not conform to a single theme, they are united in challenging what is expected of art, from the way it looks to the role it plays in society at large. The show considers the metaphor of “resistance” as a complex formal and political force, as is suggested by the title. The exhibition, drawn mostly from the Walker collection, highlights works in assemblage, collage, and photomontage.

Former Walker curator Yasmil Raymond of the Dia Art Foundation, New York, talks about the development of her show with Camille Washington, Walker visual arts fellow.

How did the exhibition Abstract Resistance come to be? Did you develop it from one particular artwork or idea?
It started from a small idea about three-dimensional works of art that have the sensibility of painting. I was curious to explore objects that seemed to share this hybrid form. Initially, I was thinking about a new generation of artists, most of them sculptors, actually—Gedi Sibony, Rachel Harrison, Cathy Wilkes, Andro Wekua—and their use of assemblage and “combines,” to use a term coined by Robert Rauschenberg, to sort of propose other objects. I started calling these works “freestanding”— they encapsulate a freestanding attitude outside commonly used “isms” such as post-minimalism, conceptualism, and so on. These artists conflate those terms and reinvent them.

Why did you decide to borrow the title of a Thomas Hirschhorn work—which is in the show—and what does it mean to you as an exhibition title?
As the show materialized, I looked closely at Hirschhorn’s work and talked to him about it. I saw in the title Abstract Resistance a promise, a proposal for another way of describing a specific attitude, a freedom I see in certain works of art and the terms in which artists make art. I think of these works not as propaganda or fixed statements. They are malleable ideas that can give in and simultaneously be resistant and reject. The work that is not explaining itself is resisting abstractly—it’s resisting by rejection, absence, opposition to the status quo.

This attitude causes a level of discomfort because it hits on difficult topics, beliefs, and habits. For examples from the exhibition, take Charles Ray’s crashed car or Andro Wekua’s blinded spectator or Philip Guston’s obscure landscape of limbs. These subjects are, in themselves, loaded with implications and urgency, but they are not clear-cut slogans. They remain unexplained and unresolved. They’re on this unfamiliar ground that I’ve come to identify as their “abstract resistance.” But it’s not just artists from this exhibition; “abstract resistance” is a broad way of defining a large number of works of art.

You co-curated several major exhibitions while you were at the Walker. What makes this one special for you?
It’s the first one I’ve curated independently, and it reflects a need I felt to make a show about artworks that, despite their generational differences, dare to address the tragedies of our world. I wanted to present pieces that share formal aspects as well as confront the spectator with unsettling feelings. A lot of the works in this new show are “abstract”—not in a Jackson Pollock type of way, but in the ethical and political claims, in their rhetorical intensity and moral ambiguity. I want the viewer to expect art to be more than stylized leisure and to be ready to exercise eyes and mind, consciousness and empathy.

Rachel Harrison, Al Gore, 2007

wood, chicken wire, polystyrene, Parex, cement, acrylic, Honeywell T87 thermostat
85 x 34 x 17 in.

Courtesy the artist and Greene Naftali, New York