The Public Review

Always the Observed

on Joan Jonas: Good Night, Good Morning at the Museum of Modern Art, New York

Katherine Siboni • June 16, 2024

The monographic retrospective has long been a favored genre of art historical inquiry, in both the academy and the museum. Such individual attention inevitably serves the art market’s desire for an institutionally accredited genius. However, the relationship between the museum and the market has become more intimate and less opaque over the last half-century—perhaps a result of more conscious attunement to market interests, but also of living artists maintaining significant control over their exhibitions’ content. These conditions can result in exhibitions with a lack of critical distance for contextualizing their subjects and their art.

The current exhibition of Joan Jonas’s work at MoMA is a case in point: While the Jonas retrospective offers an impressive look at an important artist who has received too little institutional and scholarly attention, visitors are left with a portrait of the artist isolated from her rich social history. Writer and curator Katherine Siboni offers a sensitive reading of the exhibition that attends to its thoughtful curatorial throughlines, but also points to other critical contexts that the exhibition passes over.

Solidarity in Print

on Public Works: Art by Elizabeth Olds at the Harry Ransom Center, UT Austin, Texas

Michelle Donnelly • May 9, 2024

Since 2019, when a still ongoing movement to unionize workers at museums across the United States took off, the labor of art has again become a central current in art historical inquiry. Many museums have devoted exhibitions to the topic; the current exhibition of Elizabeth Olds’s work at the Harry Ransom Center contributes to this trend, highlighting an understudied artist whose oeuvre makes a rich and sensitive contribution to the history of labor and racial politics in the US. However, as art historian and curator Michelle Donnelly notes, the exhibition is marked by a hesitancy, perhaps the result of its situation in a museum under the jurisdiction of Texas’s public university system. In recent years, conservative lawmakers in Texas have enacted legislation that limits what schools can teach about race and racism and prohibits Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) offices and trainings on college campuses. Such political developments threaten the university as a central site of democratic inquiry and expression and raise urgent questions about how to continue doing political work in the academy. As Donnelly asks, how can curators grapple with the political stakes of an artist’s practice—in Olds’s case, with anti-racism and anti-capitalism—against these increasingly hostile conditions? 

Locating the Gaze

on Dislocations at Palais de Tokyo, Paris

Cecilia Bien • April 1, 2024

Paris maintains an ambivalent position in the contemporary art world, marked by various cultural institutions that promote national patrimony amid ongoing attempts to meaningfully come to terms with its colonial histories. While international galleries and art fairs have recently opened outposts in the city, are its main art institutions recirculating national narratives, or are they moving towards the internationalism and discursive concerns that one encounters in contemporary art’s global hubs? The latest group of exhibitions at the Palais de Tokyo, Cecilia Bien writes, represents an intentional effort to assert Paris’s standing in contemporary art through engagements with decolonial thematics. Yet, as Bien argues, transforming the city’s perception in the art world requires at least paying lip service to discourses and artistic practices around diaspora and identity that circulate prominently in the field. The four exhibitions now on view begin to do this, shifting an emphasis from the city’s affinity for luxury economies and national heritage into an earnest attempt at a political reckoning. 

Editorial Board • December 31, 2023

With almost a year of reviewing behind us, we asked our editorial board what exhibitions stood out to them in 2023. Here's what they reported back. 

The photo that remembered how to forget

 on Noor Abuarafehs Resistive Narratives at Kunstverein München

Linnéa Bake • November 16, 2023

In September, Kunstverein München opened Palestinian artist Noor Abuarafeh’s first solo exhibition in Germany. Abuarafeh’s work deals sensitively with the politics of archives and art history, and the exhibition ruminates on how to narrate and recuperate histories of Palestinian art and life. Even before Hamas’ deadly atrocities on October 7 and Israel’s relentless bombardment of Gaza, Abuarafeh’s exhibition made an important and necessary contribution to Germany’s cultural landscape, where Palestinian voices are often marginalized. As the country’s cultural institutions now cancel programs with Palestinian, Arab, and left-wing Jewish artists and writers—as well as cultural producers invested in decolonial projects, often from the Global South—who have voiced solidarity with Palestinians, the exhibition takes on new, urgent resonance. Curator and writer Linnéa Bake reviews the exhibition, which closes this weekend.

Experiments in Eden

 on Wynnie Mynervas The Original Riot at the New Museum, 

New York

Anna Cahn • November 4, 2023

Marcia Tucker founded the New Museum in 1977 as a nonhierarchical institution that would “show new and radical art in a new and radical way.” Few museums at the time exhibited art of the present, much of which was characterized by ephemerality and experimentation, and this unconventional museum set out to provide a forum appropriate for it. In the decades since, the New Museum has become a permanent and prominent fixture in New York’s museum landscape. It has also, perhaps inevitably, strayed from its founding spirit and submitted to the corporate logic of the late-capitalist museum, evidenced most vividly by the museum’s response to its staff’s unionization in 2019 and its handling of contract negotiations. Meanwhile, the museum’s recent programming has reflected a commitment to young and under-appreciated artists who are often on the outskirts, if not entirely outside of, New York’s blue-chip, market-minded scene. Wynnie Mynerva’s recent presentation is one such example of the New Museum giving space to a new and radical practice. Art historian and curator Anna Cahn reviews it here.

Anti-Asian and the Art Institution

 on Mai Lings NOT YOUR ORNAMENT at Secession, Vienna

Carlos Kong • October 20, 2023

Anti-immigration rhetoric and policy have become defining features in Austrian politics, particularly since 2017 when the center-right Austria’s People Party (ÖVP) formed a coalition with the far-right populist Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ). Leading politicians unreservedly propagate white supremacist logic, speaking about “population displacement” that creates an environment hostile for non-white residents. Austrian politics and the environment they’ve created reflect a Europe rife with anti-immigrant sentiment.

The Viennese artist collective Mai Ling takes up the effects of this environment on Asian communities in Austria and the German-speaking world, focusing on intersections of racism, sexism, and homophobia experienced by Asian FLINT* (women*, lesbian, inter*, non-binary, trans* people). Their current exhibition at the Secession grapples directly with histories of anti-Asian racism in the region and develops infrastructure around the exhibition to foster broad community engagement. Reviewing the exhibition here, Carlos Kong—The Public Review’s cofounder and editor—considers the responsibility of art institutions in a climate of racism and antagonism.

Collapsed Locality

 on Tony Cokes at Dia Bridgehampton

Kai Hatcher • August 27, 2023

Site-specificity has been a dominant feature of Dia Art Foundation’s work since its founding in the mid-1970s. As the keeper of monumental in-situ artworks such as Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970), Walter de Maria’s The Lightning Field (1977), and, most recently, Cameron Rowland’s Depreciation (2018), Dia has a sensibility for histories of land and site and for art that engages with place-based narratives. This year at Dia’s Bridgehampton location, Tony Cokes was commissioned for the annual installation, with Dia marketing the exhibition as one of the first in recent years by a “non-local” artist. In a contemporary art world that favors global circulation and translatability, what relevance does locality or intimacy with a particular community play? Artist and art historian Kai Hatcher reviews the installation here.

The Banality of Tragedy

 on Philip Guston Now at the National Gallery of Art

Rachel Burke • June 6, 2023

The Philip Guston retrospective was postponed in 2020, in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, for fear that Guston’s paintings referencing the Ku Klux Klan could be misinterpreted. The decision was controversial, taken as yet another symptom of the failure of art institutions to confront head-on and self-consciously their histories and complicities in regimes of power, specifically in white supremacy. The exhibition is now on view at Washington, DC’s National Gallery of Art, the third of four stops on its tour. Just steps from the seat of the US government, the museum is unusual from its peer institutions; though it was established at the impetus of industrialist Andrew W. Mellon with his funds and collection, it is thoroughly public by US standards—its operations are funded through the federal government and admission is always free. How did this public institution, the most-visited art museum in the United States, situate the painter’s idiosyncratic oeuvre, a landmark in the history of postwar art in the US, both formally and politically? Art historian Rachel Burke reviews here.

False Friend

 on Iris Touliatous Gift at Kunsthalle Basel

Brit Barton • May 5, 2023

In the German-speaking world, the Kunstverein and the Kunsthalle are models of democratic, municipal art institutions. They are nonprofit and non-collecting and are typically supported by public funds and dues-paying members, who are often involved in the institution's governance. Frequently translated as art association, the Kunstverein has no real institutional counterpart in the Anglophosphere. From the US, with its thoroughly private, oligarchic, and corporate art institutions, it’s easy to idolize the spirit of the Kunstverein. Yet, like any institution, these member-oriented spaces are a product of a particular history that manifests in the bylaws and operations governing them. Recently, artists have taken the site, history, and bureaucracy of these institutions as their material, creating work that interrupts, amends, and challenges their promise—see Bea Schlingelhoff’s intervention at Kunstverein München or Eva Barto’s at Künstlerhaus Stuttgart, both in 2021. Greek artist Iris Touliatou's exhibition at Kunsthalle Basel is the latest of such critical engagements. Artist and writer Brit Barton reviews her exhibition here.

Toward Divesting the Artwork

 on David Joselits Arts Properties

Genevieve Lipinsky de Orlov • April 11, 2023

Among The Public Review’s primary concerns is the nonprofit art institution and its mediation of art for the public. This interest arises in large part out of the increasing privatization of art, culture, and their institutions and the dilemmas that this transformation of public history and knowledge entails. An increasing number of books published over the last few years have taken up this shift and examined its implications for the museum, many of them accounts from inside the museum—see Clémentine Deliss’s The Metabolic Museum (Hatje Cantz 2020), Laura Raicovich’s Culture Strike (Verso, 2021), or Karen Archey’s After Institutions (Floating Opera Press, 2022)—and others from scholars including Aruna D’Souza and Bénédicte Savoy. David Joselit’s new book adds to this growing body of literature, offering an account of the museum in the West and a theory of the artwork’s property relations. Our cofounder and editor Genevieve Lipinsky de Orlov reviews it here.

The editors • February 11, 2023

“With The Public Review, we hope to publish public-minded art criticism that finds an eager readership and, in the best case, stimulates discussion and debate beyond itself.”