The Carnegie International is the second oldest international contemporary arts exhibition in the world. Established in 1896, just one year after the Venice Biennale, the Carnegie International has a storied history. Today it is probably eclipsed by flashier, socially central (and aligned with the art market) surveys like the Whitney Biennial. Even art fairs like the New York Armory Show, Frieze London, or Art Basel Miami seem to establish the metrics of inclusion and importance once measured by the Carnegie International. It was therefore a pleasure to experience curator Ingrid Schaffner’s refreshingly idiosyncratic 57th installment of the Carnegie International. Schaffer explained, “The aim of this International is simply to inspire museum joy. Simply put: the pleasure of museums comes from the commotion of being with art and other people actively engaged in the creative work of interpretation. Draw on what you know.”1
Andrew Carnegie founded the International to inspire local audiences and artists. Yet, it was also a way of raising Pittsburgh’s profile and achieving its nationalistic desire to be viewed as a center of modern culture as well as industry. It became a strategy for Carnegie to acquire new art for the growing collection of his new museum. With the first exhibition came the acquisition of Winslow Homer’s The Wreck (1896) and James A. McNeill Whistler’s Arrangement in Black: Portrait of Señor Pablo de Sarasate (1884), the first Whistler painting to be acquired by an American museum.
Carnegie’s initial impulse was to advance international understanding with a bilateral process of North American and European curators working and consulting together. Schaffner was born in Pittsburgh, and while perhaps a coincidence, she appears to have been the right fit for the job. Her work ethos produced a highly researched and popular exhibition. To curate and select artists, Schaffner worked with what she calls “companions.” Magalí Arriola (independent curator, Mexico City), Doryun Chong (Chief Curator, M+, Hong Kong), Ruba Katrib (Curator, MoMA PS1, New York), Carin Kuoni (Director, Vera List Center for Art and Politics, the New School, New York), and Bisi Silva (Founder and Artistic Director, the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos) added to Schaffner’s international research by traveling with her to destinations new to them and bringing their curatorial perspective into the mix.2
Opening up Schaffner’s curatorial process to this team reflects the bilateral process desired by Carnegie. The end result was the presentation of work by thirty-two artists and artist collectives, as well as a robust schedule of public programs and artist-driven events and performances. The exhibition invited visitors to explore what it means to be international at this moment in time, and to experience “museum joy” in doing so. For Schaffner, it seems museum joy is most vibrant when experienced as a form of communing. To navigate the exhibition that is spread and mixed throughout the permanent galleries, there was The Guide, shaped to feel like an almanac or daybook. As much a work of the show as the art, its writing style is in parts like a personal journal filled with thoughts, ideas, descriptions, and homilies. Always accessible, it doesn’t talk down to the reader. This is important since the information it imparts took the place of didactic wall labels, which were completely absent in the galleries. I loved this bold design choice. Many wall texts in museum exhibitions currently are written with an arch tone and are so overly academic they become exclusive of the general public. It was truly refreshing wandering the International not being told what to think, or reflexively reading the wall label first and looking at the artist’s work second. Instead, there was the surprise of following the numerically laid out trail, making discoveries, connecting dots, taking breaks, and reflecting—without the usual instructions. The Guide was placed in each gallery, elaborating on the work only if you wanted more. Information kiosks appeared strategically every so often and visitors could ask docents about the show or how to find the next installation. Schaffner went out of her way to humanize the visitor’s experience.
On the December day I visited, I came in from a biting Pittsburgh winter’s cold. The news headlines were dark. Government shutdowns loomed, culture wars raged, immigration tweet storms filled my iPhone, and trade wars were in full swing. Based on recent biennials and museum experiences, would I find another Dana Schutz Whitney Biennial dustup? Maybe a Sam Durant Walker Art Center meltdown? Perhaps a Laura Owens MoMA artwash protest barring me from the door? Possibly another high-profile curator being called out for sexual abuse? Or perhaps a decolonization manifesto about Andrew Carnegie and his white colonialist enterprise? Instead, what I would shortly experience was a museum packed with what seemed like a cross section of Pittsburgh and more. This was a hometown crowd just absorbing it all and mingling with people like me, interlopers hoping for something different. I was encountering the first inkling of museum joy [Image 1].
Walking up to the museum, the visitor encountered an auspicious beginning. El Anatsui’s monumental installation Three Angles (2018), made of folded offset printing plates meshed together with one of his signature bottle cap tapestries, traversed the entire exterior façade of the museum entrance. It was an expansive effort by this major artist who doesn’t hold back. Inside the foyer, Kerry James Marshall exhibited his complete comic series, Rythm Mastr (1999–present) stretching across seventy feet of wall space. First shown in part during the 1999 Carnegie International, here it came full circle with its most up-to-date incarnation. Marshall began this project in response to growing up in a time when there were no black characters in the comic strips. His project has now expanded to four different narratives that are based in part on his impressions of Bronzeville, the neighborhood where he lives in South Chicago [Image 2].
Adjacent Marshall was a public participatory project from Lenka Clayton and Jon Rubin, Fruit and Other Things (2018). It needs a short context. Between 1896, when the first International opened, and 1931, the Carnegie Museum of Art made open calls for submission by artists for each edition and over that time rejected a total of 10,632 paintings. The list of jurors includes such artworld luminaries as Pierre Bonnard, Marcel Duchamp, Thomas Eakins, Robert Henri, Winslow Homer, Ben Shahn, and James Thrall Soby. Records of the unwanted pictures, along with the artists and the dates they were painted, were kept and remain part of the museum’s archive. Clayton and Rubin hired sign painters to sit in the museum and hand-paint the titles of each rejected picture in alphabetical order. These works on paper were then displayed briefly in the galleries and handed out to visitors for free, along with documentation about the original artist and date. Participants stood in line (there was always a line!) and waited to receive one as they were finished. They were then asked to take them home, frame them, photograph them, and send a copy of the photo back to Clayton and Rubin, completing the circle. I stood in line and waited for mine, entitled Mrs. V.P’s Garden On the Hudson River. While waiting, I thought of Lewis Hyde’s 2007 book The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, of the spirit of generosity, of giving back to one’s community. This project, through the act of receiving a gift and its anticipation, lightened the elitist mood some biennials can have. I felt in some way it softened the blow for those long-ago rejected artists with whom I have great sympathy. The number of rejected artists pointed out the sheer numbers of how many try and do not make it to the summit of these competitions, even today.
Numerous artists and curators have used archives or museum collections to attempt a new interpretive work, thereby positing revised histories and forming new narratives from the juxtaposition of disparate cultural artifacts and artworks. One memorable recent effort was Massimiliano Gioni’s The Encyclopedic Palace at the 2013 Venice Biennial. This was an homage to late outsider artist Marino Auriti’s endeavor to build an edifice containing all human knowledge. In a micro effort, but no less ambitious, Cameroonian Koyo Kouoh’s Dig Where You Stand (2018) is another outstanding effort. She brought together artworks, books, and artifacts from the collections of the Carnegie and the Natural History Museum in her show within a show. Her project reflects on the motivations of the Carnegie’s founding elite and themes of decolonization, a subject much discussed in contemporary artmaking. It is a credit to Schaffner that she gave Kouoh the tools to critique the museum’s origins and current culture. Dig Where You Stand creates generous conversations for its varied audiences. Kouoh’s unexpected, challenging, and smart selections of objects and artworks are grouped into three sections: Coloniality & Agency, Speculative Temporalities, and Mobility & Exchange. They delivered on the intention to dig into the holdings of the collections to reveal how issues of labor, race, ethnicity, gender, and species cut across structures of knowledge and filter throughout the entire museum culture. One strong piece that is hard to forget was a bald eagle with glass eyes lying in a vitrine, having been shot down during the Battle of Gettysburg. It is a potent symbol for an embattled democracy [Image 3].
On another wall hung a large Kara Walker drawing. A well-known John Baldessari with colored dots was placed near a Nam June Paik assemblage that sat adjacent to a Cecil Beaton coronation portrait of Queen Elizabeth II. These visual concussions began to pry open the visitors’ collective unconscious and challenge the cultural assumptions we all carry around, whatever our background.
There were many more surprising and talented artists in this survey. In a long, ungainly hallway were the funky paintings, ceramic vases and sculptures, and slacker fashion videos. Beverly Semmes’s wall-sized video presents a group of erstaz models having fun in what feels and looks like a Betsey Johnson runway show on acid. Yuji Agematsu’s little sculptural time capsules made of everyday debris picked up on one of his daily walks are obsessive and like most Japanese packaging are beautiful. Thaddeus Mosley’s large rough-hewn totem-like wood sculptures held a deep resonance and commanding presence in their indoor/outdoor settings. They are quietly majestic. Saba Innab’s work, an abstract ruin of concrete and steel that mimics a tunnel dug out by the embattled citizens of Gaza, was installed adjacent the ancient Greek sculptures from the museum’s collection. This intentional positioning was poignant and disturbing. British artist Jeremy Deller placed tiny television screens showing his period reenactments of historical battles in the museum’s Hall of Miniatures period rooms. The artist claimed he wanted to make the world’s smallest video installation, and perhaps it was. In any event, it was witty and intrusive.
Karen Kilimnik’s humorous, quirky paintings and objects insinuated themselves into the decorative arts collection, and felt right at home as oddball interventions. Somehow they enlivened everything. Mel Bochner’s one-liner text paintings are playful and punchy and can be lots of things to lots of people. There were many more wonderful artists but the intriguing books as art installations of Dayanita Singh or the striking ceramic wall installation by Sarah Crowner especially deserve their own long consideration.
Finally, Alex Da Corte’s Rubber Pencil Devil installation (2018) was a spectacular manifestation of Schaffner’s museum joy premise. Da Corte created a faux house that served as a mini-theater, screening fifty-seven short videos on a bank of monitors in honor of the 57th Carnegie International. The structure was sixteen feet high by twenty-two feet wide by sixteen feet deep and constructed with aluminum beams and supports that rose to a pitched roof and were fitted all over with colored neon. The gallery buzzed with artificial light and tinted colors. The screening time was about three hours with various soundtracks, including those by the singer St. Vincent. Da Corte was the main actor in many of the videos, with an inventive and funny characterization of Mr. Rogers, a nod to the well-loved children’s show, which was taped for PBS-TV in Pittsburgh. A giant Heinz Ketchup bottle holding a stick of dynamite cavorted about in another video, referencing the Pittsburgh-based Heinz Corporation with a synchronistic fifty-seven varieties of pickles. Life-size dancing cartoon characters including Bugs Bunny, Big Bird, the Pink Panther, and Charlie Brown made their appearances. In the post-pop land of make-believe that enchanted Rubber Pencil Devil, the specter of Andy Warhol (another Pittsburgh connection) was respectfully and joyfully (that word again) summoned in Da Corte’s pastel-hued delectation. If there was a crowd favorite at the Carnegie International, then this artwork was it [Images 4 and 5].
There was no overt theme to the Carnegie International; rather, the poetic sum of shared aesthetic experiences left the spirit replenished. That is how, if you took the time, I believe Ingrid Schaffner would have had you receive it. It was well worth making the trip to Pittsburgh, and experiencing what Andrew Carnegie wished at one time to be the center of our cultural firmament.