Wake Up! History Is Being Made. Here’s How Artists Are Making It Happen
What makes a man (or, for that matter, a woman)? As we face everything from global climate change to the outbreak of disease, what we know of human life on earth is rapidly transforming. Artists capture some of what it means to be alive today, and it is these varied forms of creative expression that not only reflect a time and place but also shape it for future generations. History is never neutral, and artists have their role to play in how we remember and respond to the particular politics of a time and place.
It is a timely moment to look back at the last century, as the unity of the European Union is under scrutiny and America prepares for a historic election. To look back is to see not only how far we have come, but also to understand what we have lost and gained on the journey. New Images of Man, curated by Alison M. Gingeras, takes up this challenge. The exhibition, staged at Blum & Poe in Los Angeles, looks back in order to understand our present—and our possible futures. She takes as her point of departure the MoMa’s 1959 group exhibition of the same name, curated by Peter Selz, which brought together artists whose work grappled with the human condition against a backdrop of immense change.
Part homage, part radical revision, Gingeras presents a new slice of the contemporary moment, expanding the original line up to include artists from the same generation who were overlooked at the time, as well as younger voices who capture our present day. The overwhelming maleness and whiteness of Selz’s show is overhauled, with instead introducing artists who hail not only from the US and Western Europe but also Cuba, Egypt, Haiti, India, Iran, Japan, Poland, Senegal, and Sudan. The misogynistic gender politics of the original is also given much-needed correction, with artists including Alina Szapocznikow, Niki de Saint Phalle and Carol Rama added into the mix.
The Polish self-taught photographer Zofia Rydet is also included. Although active during the 1950s, she was not able to access the opportunities of the New York art scene from behind the Iron Curtain. Photographs from her documentary series the “Sociological Record” are included, in which she captured thousands of ordinary households in Poland from 1978 until her death in 1997. The photographs of Deana Lawson offer a different take on these everyday struggles and existence. Her gaze focuses African-American family life, crafting formal compositions that draw inspiration from classical painting.
Photography is an important part of Gingeras’s exhibition, which also responds to another seminal exhibition staged in 1955. Curated by Edward Steichen, the legendary director of the Photography Department at MoMA, it was titled Family of Man, and celebrated the camera as a powerful, immersive tool for the affirmation of human experience. Sixty years on and a lot has changed, but the role that artists play in shaping the way that we see the world remains strong. We are living through a period of immense existential questioning and profound collective anxiety. New Images of Man contemplates what it means to be alive during these turbulent, and reveals the power of the image in eliciting emotion and empathy towards our fellow humans.