February 3, 2009

CoBrA: The filter of nostalgia ultimately defangs the beast

In ArtForum Karen Kurczynski reviews three recent sixtieth-anniversary exhibitions dedicated to CoBrA, at the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique in Brussels (where the new Two Coats of Paint header photograph was taken), the CoBrA Museum voor Moderne Kunst in Amstelveen, and the Stedelijk Museum Schiedam. "Formed in Paris in 1948, Cobra connected an international group of artists (from many more cities than just the 'Copenhagen/Brussels/Amsterdam' its acronym indicates) isolated by the war and eager for renewed collaboration. Karel Appel, Constant, Corneille, Christian Dotremont, Asger Jorn, and Joseph Noiret all signed the collective’s manifesto; Pierre Alechinsky and others joined shortly thereafter. Together, they aimed to reanimate modes of spontaneous expression as a collective and materialist endeavor (inspired equally by neo-Marxism and by the philosophy of Gaston Bachelard)....

"With more creative installation in a contemporary vein, the museums could have established the radicalism of Cobra, replacing the nostalgic restoration signaled by the endless photographs of days long gone (which postered the central courtyard in Amstelveen) with ongoing cultural interventions. The opportunities to demonstrate Cobra’s resonance with recent practices would have been rich: Their poet’s cage had dramatized the museum as a violently controlled space; Heerup’s sculptures on a bed of coal implied links between raw materials, political power, and community. These works anticipate contemporary interventions within art institutions, such as Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Coco Fusco’s 'Two Undiscovered Amer-Indians Visit the West' performances of 1992, which added the rhetoric of colonial otherness to Cobra’s playful staging of the poet as criminal, and Rirkrit Tiravanija’s 'JG Reads,' 2008, a film and plywood construction documenting poet John Giorno’s writings and studio. In the Tiravanija work, the unfinished construction implied a speculative arena, however modest, rather than an expansion of museal space via materials recuperated from a safely historicized avant-garde.

"Outside Denmark, Belgium, and the Netherlands, Cobra is still criticized for the qualities celebrated in those locales: its primitivist inspiration from children’s and outsider art and the paradox of its attempts to politicize painting (a project that was, in fact, always already doomed in the eyes of the Situationist International, formed later in 1957, by Jorn and Constant). Yet the uneven aesthetic 'quality' of Cobra’s production—which challenges the very definitions of quality and taste—is a fascinating problem never addressed by the group’s defenders. Moreover, Cobra’s redefinition of gestural expression through disposable and multimedia formats finds its echo in the output of more recent collectives such as the Royal Art Lodge and Forcefield—and it is highly significant that, as history repeats itself, such groups have rarely managed to exist more than a few years without succumbing to some sort of individualist, marketable, and institution-friendly production.... I can only hope that the next major Cobra exhibition will present the collective in all its radical contemporaneity: for its insistence on the politics of artmaking, its rejection of specialization, its adamant collectivism, its aesthetic of spontaneity and de-skilling, and its groundbreaking exhibition design. The anniversary shows only saw this legacy through a filter of nostalgia, which ultimately defanged the beast." Read more.

Update: After reading this post, Arthur Nieuwenhuijs writes from Paris that he has created a website for Dutch painter Jan Nieuwenhuys 1922-1986. Jan, Constant's brother, was also a founding member of Cobra. "Jan was more expressive in his work than as a person, so he stayed most of the time in his studio and had very few expositions." Mr. Nieuwenhuijs reports. "Most of his art friends from Cobra became well known artists. Most collectors and musea know Jan's work but for the public he is the unknown and lives in the shadow of his brother Constant." Check out Jan's comprehensive website here.

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