Now-legendary figures as well as younger artists who have revolted against the aesthetic orthodoxies of their times are featured in the Walker Art Center exhibition Abstract Resistance on view February 27–May 23. Nearly 40 works ranging from the 1950s to a brand-new commission do not conform to a single theme, but are united in challenging what is expected of art, from the way it looks to the role it plays in society at large. The exhibition considers “resistance” as a complex formal and political force, as is suggested by the title it borrows from a featured sculpture by Thomas Hirschhorn. Ultimately, Abstract Resistance proposes an alternative framework for aesthetically inventive, ethically engaged, and politically defiant art. The exhibition, drawn mostly from the Walker’s collection, highlights works in assemblage, collage, and photomontage by Francis Bacon, Lynda Benglis, Anthony Caro, Sarah Charlesworth, Bruce Conner, Willem de Kooning, Lucio Fontana, Hollis Frampton, Philip Guston, Rachel Harrison, Hirschhorn, Ellsworth Kelly, Paul McCarthy, Robert Motherwell, Bruce Nauman, Cady Noland, Charles Ray, Gedi Sibony, Kara Walker, Andro Wekua, and Cathy Wilkes.
Starting with Michel Foucault’s assertion that “where there is power, there is resistance,” curator Yasmil Raymond argues that art made since World War II has been shaped by traumatic historical events in complex ways. Rather than creating an explicit art of social protest, artists have responded to violence and upheaval with art that rejects comforting moral certainties. Such art, says Raymond, is “resistant to interpretation; it withholds information, it tends to evade identification, and certainly it protests interrogation.”
Abstract Resistance brings together four generations of artists whose works have rarely, if ever, been seen together in one installation. Works by legendary figures such as Francis Bacon, Lynda Benglis, Philip Guston, and Willem de Kooning are juxtaposed with new acquisitions and a commissioned piece by artists currently at the forefront of contemporary art, including Rachel Harrison, Thomas Hirschhorn, Gedi Sibony, Andro Wekua, and Cathy Wilkes, among others.
The “abstract” qualities of the works in the exhibition are grounded in the context of the real world in ways that are emotional, visceral, and confrontational, creating an ethical relationship to recent events and the challenges facing political thought today. They are inherently “contemporary” and meant to be understood in the context of our times, when so much in our culture and society seems geared toward individualism, escapism, and a familiar kind of order. In both scale and content, Wilkes’ walk-in environment, commissioned by the Walker, evokes a domestic space in which the viewer is surrounded by found and hand-made vessels, toys, and a life-size terracotta figure that suggest symbols of birth, life, and communion.
In their struggle with the abstract qualities of death, violence, and conflict, the artists represented in Abstract Resistance provoke discomfort as well as the possibility for empathy.
To accompany the exhibition, the Walker will publish a collection of essays by exhibition curator Yasmil Raymond, art historian Simon Baier, and philosopher Marcus Steinweg as well as artist statements by Thomas Hirschhorn, Gedi Sibony, and Cathy Wilkes. The publication will be available online and through the Walker Art Center Shop in April.