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Why are curators putting dead artists in contemporary shows?


Artist and writer Dushko Petrovich writes about the increasingly popular phenomenon of curators (or artist-curators) including the work of deceased artists in contemporary shows. This behavior seems to be a symbolic gesture that points to the work of artist that the curator (or artist-curator) believes to have been overlooked. Petrovich notes the last two Whitney Biennials and most recent Greater New York have utilized this model. He asks, “Is this revival of the dead mere ‘nostalgia’ for the past, as PS1 claims, or is it evidence that the contemporary can’t keep up with itself?” I would argue that this symbolic gesture of an artist “bowing out” of an opportunity is actually another way to accrue value via selflessness–though that is a cynical view.

Read the [full text on ArtNews][1], or the intro below.

The peculiar appearance of Forrest Bess, the “pseudo-hermaphrodite” painter, at the 2012 Whitney Biennial still stands out in my memory. The eleven paintings were vivid and haunting, and his story of genital self-surgery, with accompanying photo-documentation, was even harder to forget. In a further strangeness, his work and personal effects were presented not by the show’s official curators—Elisabeth Sussman and Jay Sanders—but by a fellow artist, Robert Gober. Of course, the most startling eccentricity was that Bess was in the biennial in the first place, having been dead for 35 years.

Bess wasn’t the only dead artist making a cameo in the hands of a living artist. In that same biennial, Werner Herzog gave the work of Hercules Segers, who died in 1638, a soundtrack from the (living) Dutch musician Ernst Reijseger, and Nick Mauss used a Marsden Hartley painting as part of an intentionally out-of-time installation comprised of various materials from the 1930s. But if these artist-curators used older materials to make contemporary art, Gober went much further—he used older materials to make a contemporary artist.
Importantly, Bess, who had had a solo exhibition at the Whitney in 1981, wasn’t presented as a historical rediscovery; nor were his paintings shown in isolation, so as to appear sui generis or “fresh.” The alchemical magic of the display was that the personal and historical material—the infamous “after” shot, along with Bess’s correspondences with Betty Parsons, his dealer, and with the art historian Meyer Schapiro—were leveraged to make not just the artworks but the artistic figure himself relevant to the present moment.
Reviewing the show in 2012, New York Times critic Roberta Smith observed that Gober’s project “proffers Bess as a kind of foundational artist of our time,” but four years later, it’s Gober’s curatorial maneuver that seems even more foundational. Bess remains an important “contemporary” figure, but everywhere you look, shows of the living are being used to bring back the dead.

Among the many departed participants in the 2014 Whitney Biennial was Matt Hanner, who died in 2011 of a brain aneurism and was represented as Stephen Lacy’s contribution to the show. The 2014 edition of the Hammer Museum’s biennial, “Made in L.A.,” devoted an entire room to the work of Tony Greene, who died in 1990, as the focus of a show-within-a-show called “Amid Voluptuous Calm.” (Greene was also included in the Whitney Biennial in 2014, where artists Richard Hawkins and Catherine Opie, former CalArts classmates of Greene’s, curated his work jointly.) By the time that the fourth iteration of “Greater New York” opened, this past September—with the long-dead given notable prominence in the realm of the living—it became clear that making the work of the deceased “contemporary” constituted an undeniable curatorial zeitgeist.

These big periodic group exhibitions used to be exclusively about gathering current work from living artists, so much so that we never had to think of “the living” as their natural category of inclusion. Recently, however, all these shows have proven very welcoming to the dead.

*Image above, “Alvin Baltrop, The Piers (sunbathing platform with Tava mural), 1975–86. COURTESY THIRD STREAMING, NEW YORK AND MOMA PS1”


There is a whole class of dead people to which I have referred before as Art Martyrs. The list includes non artist luminaries such as Walter Benjamin. Basically if an art related individual dies a sudden death in the midst of a career ascent or just before they are (re)discovered as a major contributor to the field, they get adopted by the art world as a martyr. Some of the art martyrs are not dead yet, at least almost.


@DADABASE Ha, “art martyrs” is a good term. I’m curious to hear which artists are on the list. Also, are these artists who were already prominent and died, or those who hadn’t yet reached acclaim and were “discovered” by a curator? I feel like this notion of discovery is important here, at least economically–to uncover a trove of overlooked and potentially very valuable available works.


The quintessential Art Martyrs are Pollack and Warhol who both died as they were entering a new phase of recognition by general public. Other ones that come to mind are the artists impacted by Aids-HIV crisis Mapplethorpe, the General Idea people and Felix Gonzalez-Torres. There are also the german ones, Joseph Bueys, Marcel Broodthaers and Martin Kippenberger.