On 10 January 1940, the Fifth Avenue shop of the Steuben Glass Company in New York opened an exhibition entitled ‘The Collection of Designs in Glass by Twenty-Seven Contemporary Artists’. Featuring original designs – by artists including Giorgio de Chirico, Fernand Léger and Henri Matisse – hand-carved onto blown glass by Steuben’s own craftsmen, the show was an unprecedented success with the public, if not with the critics. Léger’s contribution, in particular, was singled out by Ruth Green Harris of The New York Times for its mismatch between artisanal form and an abstract machine aesthetic, resulting in nothing more than a malignant ‘lump on the surface of the glass’. Steuben had hoped to open the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, just around the corner. But a memo records a moma staff member’s dismissal of Steuben’s ‘reminiscent’ (read: nostalgic) designs, fit for a middle-class clientele whose ‘taste is not in proportion to their income’.
MoMA director Alfred H. Barr Jr. would recall that particular memo when, in 1948, the Boston Institute of Modern Art announced its change of name to the Institute of Contemporary Art in a lengthy public statement, widely circulated by the Steuben company (whose president now sat on the institution’s board). Modern art, the statement declared, had become a ‘cult of bewilderment’; the institution’s new banner would signal a change in attitude towards exhibiting, at once ‘conscientious and forthright’. If Barr had previously identified the ‘modern’ with all that was ‘progressive, original and challenging’, for his successors in Boston this was now a mode that had ‘run its course’. The journal American Artist saw the Boston Institute’s statement as a ‘splash’ comparable to the legendary Boston Tea Party, and many other papers ran with similarly sensational headlines. MoMA offered ‘No statement and no comment’, while Barr privately grumbled about the institute’s ‘lack of discrimination and general adherence to commercial standards.’
If, in recent years, the notion of a ‘contemporary art’ has attained something approaching a stable definition, then Richard Meyer’s new book, What Was Contemporary Art? (MIT Press, 2013), sets out to recall a time when such a consensus was not yet possible. Recent books by Alexander Alberro and Terry Smith have broadly agreed in identifying a new hegemony of the ‘contemporary’ – a phase marked by globalized neo-liberalism, the digital, the spectacular – taking over from its ‘modern’ forebear at a particular point in time coincident with the fall of Soviet communism. By harking back to debates in the us from much earlier in the century, Meyer’s important intervention sets out to disturb and destabilize such a neat periodization. Eschewing the more theoretical speculations of Alberro and Smith in favour of a series of engagingly written narratives drawn from the history of the contemporary in American art, Meyer follows a path that is broadly chronological but full of interesting diversions, teasing out a series of provocative implications along the way in a tone at once warm and wry.
His story begins with a confession Rosalind Krauss made in 1984. Upon hearing the announcement, as a young art history student at Harvard in the mid-1960s, ‘that a sculptor had been killed in Vermont’, her first thought, after the relief that the dead artist in question was not her friend, Anthony Caro, but the Minimalist David Smith, was: ‘Um, I now have a thesis topic.’ Death had conveniently delivered the artist ‘into history’, as Meyer puts it, ‘or at least into the history of art’. Himself a professor of art history at Stanford University, Meyer is taken aback by Krauss’s reminiscence for the distance it exhibits to the attitude of his own students, who would certainly feel no need to wait for an obituary before selecting an artist of the present for their dissertation. Today’s doctoral theses are dominated by studies of contemporary artists, outnumbering the amount of art history dissertations tout court by the mid-1990s.
Upon the completion of her doctoral thesis, Krauss published a section of it as an extensive two-part essay across the February and April 1969 issues of Artforum (with the intervening issue given over to the entirety of her classmate Michael Fried’s dissertation on Édouard Manet). But if, as Meyer’s example suggests, art criticism was once freely parasitic on academic art history, the author seems to lament that today the reverse is true. He recalls one incident in particular, which occured while teaching a course historicizing contemporary art at the University of Southern California in 2009, when a student asked if they would be expected to endure ‘that long slog through the 1990s’ before a presumed proper concentration on the 2000s and beyond. ‘Prior to that semester’, Meyer drolly remarks, ‘I had rarely taught a seminar that reached the 1990s, much less “slogged through them” to arrive at the millennium on the other side.’ In order to hunt down the origins of art history’s endemic ‘now-ism’, Meyer turns to the early career of Barr.
In 1927, Barr taught America’s first university course on contemporary art, at Wellesley College in Boston, a field he defined generously enough to encompass the Bauhaus and the pages of Vanity Fair. Two years later, he became the first director of MoMA. In those years he would refer both to ‘modern’ and ‘contemporary’ work, but most of all he liked to refer to an art that was ‘alive’. If Barr would later sneer at the Boston ICA’s ‘commercial standards’, the ICA’s decision to place price tags on the works exhibited in its 1941 show ‘Paintings by Fifty Oncoming Americans’ was at least partially prepared by MoMA’s inclusion of a price list in its catalogue of ‘Persian Fresco Painting’ in 1932. And while Meyer remarks on the irony of anonymous Steuben craftsmen reproducing Matisse’s signature upon a glass bowl, he also finds a comparable erasure of the names of the painters who reproduced the works in Barr’s ‘Prehistoric Rock Pictures’ for MoMA in 1937.
But even these examples make clear, along with others presented by Meyer, that Barr’s moma afforded a definition of the ‘contemporary’ far broader than we might think possible today. ‘This book does not argue that contemporary art is over or that we have arrived at a “post-contemporary” moment of cultural production,’ Meyer insists. But his text occasionally strikes a tone of mourning and melancholia for an era at once less settled and less hurried. He seeks this in a detailed exposition of a few ‘traces and instances’ (a term he draws from the ‘post-black’ un-manifesto of Thelma Golden and Glenn Ligon) drawn exclusively from the history of American art, from Barr’s field trips at Wellesley taking in local factories and thrift stores, to a stolen moment the author finds alone at a Ligon show in 2005. And while it would undoubtedly be interesting to read a companion piece exploring the history of the contemporary in Europe, Meyer’s book remains a vivid narrative and a timely call to pause a moment in our pursuit of the now and, as he puts it, to ‘take a deep breath, and consider histories prior to our own’.