Our august museums and galleries are filling up with ‘mixed media’.
I suppose I am looking for who to blame.
Much of it is unreadable. Shedding no light in our current gloom. Not even amusing.
A distant origin of mixed media as an intellectual practice may be the cabinets of curiosity beginning in the age of (European) exploration.
Allegory of Sight (Venus and Cupid in an Art Gallery), c. 1660; oil on copper.
Jan Brueghel the Younger, 1601-1678, Flemish. Philadelphia Art Museum
An image of a room of curiosities filled by collectors of the artist’s day with scientific instruments, wonders from overseas and also paintings.
These articles were not, of course, put on display as works of art necessarily. They were for the interest of others and for intellectual stimulation. To demonstrate the status, also, of the cabinet’s owner.
A more recent inspiration seems to lie with Marcel Duchamp, (1887-1968, American born France). We like to blame and laud him.
And the European Surrealists, practitioners of Dada also. Always in for lots of any ambient blame.
Object, 1936, fur-covered cup, saucer and spoon.
Meret Oppenhem, 1913-1985, Swiss. MOMA, NY
Here are two interesting creations before the modern era. They are an extension, I suppose, of sculpture as portrait.
Auto-Icon of Jeremy Bentham, 1832, wax, human bones, hair, wool, cotton, linen and accessories.
Thomas Southwood Smith, 1788-1861, British and Jacques Talrich, 1790-1851, French.
Bentham requested that his body be left to Science. It was later embalmed minus his head which was sculpted by Jacques Talrich.
Bentham sits just inside one of the doors of University College, London who loaned him to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY in 2018
Raj Kissen Mitter, c. 1840, trousers and turban (2017), unfired clay, pigments, cotton over bamboo and straw.
Attributed to Sri Ram Pal, Indian working in the 19th century.
Originally the figure was wearing Bengali-style clothes and sitting on an Anglo-Indian chair was holding a hookah.
Loaned by the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2018
Sculptural portraits of real men and quite sober.
Marcel Duchamp’s creation below the museum calls ‘semi-ready-mades’ by reference to the name ‘ready made’ given to the artist’s single, ‘found’ objects – like the notorious and famous urinal.
These ‘semi-ready mades’ are mixed media and should, of course, be read in the context of the artist’s philosophy and entire oeuvre.
Why Not Sneeze, Rrose Selavy?, 1921, painted metal birdcage, wood, 152 marble cubes to resemble sugar, porcelain dish, thermometer, cuttlebone for the absent bird.
Marcel Duchamp, 1889-1967, American born France. Philadelphia Art Museum
Mixed Media was a favourite tool of the Surrealists.
Retrospective Bust of a Woman, 1933 with elements reconstructed in 1970, painted porcelain, bread, corn, feathers, paint on paper, beads, ink stand, sand, and two pens.
Salvador Dali, 1904-1989, Spanish. MOMA, NY
Chaise Lilas Avec Oeufs (Lilac Chair with Eggs), 1965, eggshells and wooden chair with paint.
Marcel Broodthaers, 1924-1976, Belgian. Philadelphia Art Museum
The Surrealists were among those who influenced Joseph Cornell, an autodidact and a man who lived apart from the art community in the United States, caring for members of his family.
His works are regularly termed ‘assemblage’ but are, nevertheless, mixed media, very often of found objects with collage.
Untitled Book Object, 1933-45, (Journal d’Agriculture Pratique et Journal de l’Agriculture), 1911;
printed book modified with collage additions, cut flaps and openings, black ink, watercolour and graphite.
Joseph Cornell, 1903-1972, American. Philadelphia Art Museum
Untitled (Bébé Marie), 1940s, papered and painted wood box, with painted corrugated cardboard bottom, containing doll
in cloth dress and straw hat with cloth flowers, dried flowers, and twigs, flecked with paint.
Joseph Cornell, 1903-1972, American. MOMA, NY
Richard Rauschenberg, who revered Marcel Duchamp and is the chief overturner of the Abstract Expressionist hegemony (with Andy Warhol) evolved his own mixed media, known as ‘combines’.
Bed and detail, 1955, oil, pencil, toothpaste and red fingernail polish on pillow quilt; and bedsheet mounted on wood supports.
Robert Rauschenberg,1925-2008, American. MOMA, NY.
The artist made this when he did not have the money for a canvas. He used a quilt given him by the artist Dorothea Rockburne.
Cy Twombly, who often worked with Rauschenberg at this time in his NY studio, is thought to have added the pencil marks on the pillow
The art form took off after Robert Rauschenberg.
Monogram and detail, 1955-59, oil, paper, printed reproductions, metals, wood, rubber shoe heel and tennis ball on two conjoined canvases with oil, an Angora taxidermied goat with brass plaque and rubber tire on wood platform mounted on four casters.
Robert Rauschenberg, 1925-2008, American
Moderna Museet, Stockholm loaned to MOMA, NY in 2017.
It was four years of experimentation for the artist before he decided, with the advice of Jasper Johns, to let him just stand there on his canvas with the tire around his middle. The artist was reminded of the interweaving of the letters of a monogram with this goat and his tire.
There are numerous interpretations of this piece. This is not a piece to obstruct the imagination.
Crossing lines between a kind of performance art without a live performer, theatre props, sculpture, political statement, memorial, even ritual objects, perhaps even toys for personal enjoyment or therapy
mixed media has been used to create things sometimes interesting and often forgettable.
My issue being that mixed media seems to be overtaking other more traditional kinds of art – painting, sculpture – without equaling them in discipline or skill or interest.
Sometimes I think that this mixed media are the most successful relics of the Surrealists and of Marcel Duchamp;
and carry their DNA : often obtuse in their meaning, fantastic in their form.
There is, however, one obvious difference between the creation of these innovators and much of the mixed media today:
Sometimes the imagery in today’s mixed media is so deeply personal that you don’t know what it is about or why you should care.
Sometimes the imagery is impoverished in that it is overly descriptive of whatever is the subject matter so that nothing is left to the imagination of the viewer.
Often the subject matter is not of universe-crashing interest in the first place or isn’t making a novel aesthetic or any other point.
This said, there is one good thing about this inundation of mixed media:
this art form has completely scrambled the old hierarchy between art and craft.
Less hierarchy, I say, and more equality!
Many, if not all, mixed media pieces involve artisanal work.
Some of this is high order.
sometimes the artist’s point is patently political. And all power to artists who keep up the truth-telling traditions of art. God knows we need this!
Adrian Piper’s piece below is, by far, the most far-reaching work of mixed media I have seen.
The artist, Adrian Piper, an African American, member of an upper-middle class NY family, who holds a PhD. in Philosophy, and who (the artist) chose not to pass as white,
has, in her words “fled to Berlin with my life” after years of teaching college-level philosophy and making art in the US.
She has left her ashes to MOMA, NY along with a bottled collection of her hair- and finger nail- cuttings.
An act which is said to have given MOMA’s lawyers pause
but which is one of the most meaningful artistic statements I have seen given the 401 years of North American history on the subject of race.
What Will Become of Me, 1985, ongoing; two framed texts, glass jars, shelf, hair, fingernails and skin.
Adrian Piper, American born 1948. Private collection on loan to MOMA.
One text describes the artist’s annus horribilis, 1985,when she began this accumulation. The second is her will.
Sometimes a work is beautiful. Just that.
The questions as always are:
is the artist saying something or just indulging him/herself?
What is being said?
If nothing or nothing much, why should we care about the work?
In a time where lying and ‘truthiness’ and the gross manipulation of images and words are the norm, what does the unreadability of much of today’s mixed media do for us?
And what is the real reason that museums are filling up with this?
For the moment, this stencil on a real manhole cover outside a real meatpacking business in the old Meatpacking District of lower Manhattan where the Whitney Museum is now located, says a great deal.
Isn’t it time for clarification? Please!
A manhole cover in a street in the Meatpacking District, Lower Manhattan. 2018
Here a sample of mixed media in creation date order from some north American museums between New York and Washington, DC:
Untitled, 1963, synthetic paint, plaster and glue on cotton, mounted to wood on five panels.
Yuko Nasaka, Japanese born 1938. Solomon R. Guggenheim, NY
Untitled, 1966, painted steel, horseshoe-crab shells, steel pipe fittings, velvet hooks, steel saw blades, fiberglass, velvet and soot.
Lee Bontecou, American born 1931. Solomon R. Guggenheim, NY
Back Seat Dodge ’34, 1968, mixed media.
Edward Kienholz, 1927-1994 and Nancy Reddin Kienholz, 1943-2019, Americans
Loaned by L.A. Louver and Collection of Los Angeles County Museum of Art to the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC in 2015
Artists of genius, dedicated to exposing the unequal distribution of power and money in as many ways as they could.
Woman Eating, 1971, polyester resin and fiberglass with oil and acrylic paints and found accessories.
Duane Hanson, 1925-1996. American. Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Washington, DC
Views of Book with pins, table knife, scissors, razor blade, metal foil, piece of glass and plastic rod, 1970.
Lucas Samaras, American born Greece, 1936. MOMA, NY
Pollution-Cultivation-New-Ecology Underground, 1972-1973, wood, plastic, resin, adhesive, electric system, cotton, wire, thermometer, paint, hair, plexiglass.
Tetsumi Kudo, 1935-1990, Japanese. MOMA, NY
Self-Portrait with Sculpture, 1980, polyvinyl polychromed in oil.
John De Andrea, American born 1941. Loaned by a private collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY in 2018
Fee Couturiere, 1963, cast 1984, painted bronze.
Louise Bourgeois, American born France, 1911-2010. Solomon R. Guggenheim, NY
Capri-Batterie, 1985, yellow light bulb, lemon, wood box.
Joseph Beuys, 1921-1986, German. Loaned by a private collection to the Philadelphia Art Museum in 2019/2020
Golem, 1987, papier-mache made from Chinese and Japanese newspaper and glue, with metal frame support.
Robert Wilson, American born 1981 and Moidele Bickel, German born 1937.
This golem, an animated being made from earth in Jewish tradition, was designed as both costume and sculpture. The costume was made for an experimental play of Robert Wilson’s.
Views of Housepainter II, 1984, bronze polychromed in oil, and mixed media with accessories.
Duane Hanson, 1925-1996, American. Private collection on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2018
Dreams, 1984, paper, wood, ceramic, textile, metal, paint, ink and glass.
Varujan Boghosian, American born 1926. Philadelphia Museum of Art
Homeless Vehicle Project of 1987-89, mixed media.
Krzysztof Wodiczko, American born Poland in 1943. Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC
Untitled (Night Train), 1989, glass, silicone, glass and coal
David Hammons, born 1943, American. Museum of Modern Art, NY
Angel of History, 1989, lead, glass and poppies.
Anselm Kiefer, born 1945, German. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
The poppy has its double symbolism: one looks back and remembers particularly the sacrifice of lives given for the freedom from Fascism and totalitarian government.
The other provides the death-bearing forgetting induced by opiates to those who prefer a different past, present and future.
Self, 1991, blood, stainless steel, refrigeration, perspex.
Mark Quinn, British born 1964. On view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2018.
The museum explained that this was cast from a mould of the artist’s head and uses 10 frozen pints of the artist’s blood. It is is one of a series of such works exhibited in an environment which is fragile.
They mark the stages of the artist’s ageing.
Guarded view, 1991, wood, paint, steel and fabric.
Fred Wilson, American born 1954. MOMA, NY.
This piece was part of a much commented exhibition at the Whitney Museum of (North) American Art in 1994: Black Male: Representation of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art. The artist points to museum guards, tasked with safeguarding people and artworks, rarely noticed and often the only people of colour in the galleries. Paid not much also.
Not much has changed since 1994 except that the art displayed is much more expensive now.
Untitled, 1992, beeswax and human hair.
Robert Gober, American born 1954. Philadelphia Art Museum
Angel: the Shoe Shiner, 1993; painted wood, rubber, fabric, glass, ceramic, shells, painted cast iron, hand-tinted photographs, paper, mirror, two video monitors, and two videos running on each monitor.
Pepon Osorio, Puerto Rican born 1955. Whitney Mueum of American Art, NY
Untitled, #829, (Halo), 1996, silk flowers, specially formulated wax, pigment, tassels, ribbon, steel armature, cable, cable nuts, chicken wire, wire, silk duchess satin sleeves, Velcro, quick link shackles, jaw-to-jaw swivel, coil chain, 1996.
Petah Coyne, American born 1953. Philadelphia Museum of Art
Palanquin, 1997, bamboo, cane, cushions, colonial hat, snake skin.
Huang Yong Ping, French born China, 1954-2019. MOMA, NY
Work of Days, 1998, gathered dust on squares of adhesive vinyl.
Rivane Neuenschwander, Brazilian born 1967. MOMA, NY
The room is designed to be a dust trap, dust representing the fragililty of life, the passing of time, the presence and finite nature of things and of us.
Swan Motel, 1999, plaster, wood, Lite-Brite pegs, light bulbs and sockets.
George Segal, 1924-2000. Delaware Museum of Art, Wilmington.
Of Strong Robust Constitution, 2000, wood, metal, ceiling tin, chain.
Alison Saar, American born 1956. Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia
A Blanket and the Sky, tar drum sheets, blanket, 2004
Sheela Gowda, Indian born 1957, active Bangalore. Private loan to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2020.
This is a commentary on the many shanty towns of her country.
This creation has two levels. On the ground floor of its longer side, the opening reveals a blanket laid on the ground. On the upper level whose opening is on the shorter side, there is a representation of a city with tightly knit streets. Above is the night sky.
Views of Patrick, 2004, foam core, mat board, digital chromogenic prints and polystyrene, and detail.
Oliver Herring, German born 1964. On exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY in 2018.
The figure’s pose reprises that of The Thinker (1881) of Auguste Rodin.
The museum explains that the figure was created by overlaying a foam core substructure with photographic details of sections of skin which correspond to the parts of the body being built.
For the Love of God, platinum, diamond, real human teeth and real skull.
Damien Hirst, British born 1965. Currently on display at a London gallery.
News, 1969-2008, OKI microline 590N 24-pin printer with newsfeed on table and roll of paper.
Hans Haacke, German born 1936. On display at the New Museum, NY in 2020
Engine (installation view), 2009. Hand-felted wool made in co-operation with the Fabric Workshop; wood, (with three-channel projections).
Marie Watt, American born 1967. Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia
Statement from the museum:
‘After winding one’s way (inside this felted igloo), the viewer experiences the effects of the felt; the interior is dark and the silence palpable.
‘Watt drew upon the narrative tradition of Native American storytelling, using projections of storytellers Elaine Grinnell of the Jamestown S’Klallam and Lummi Tribes, Roger Fernandes of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, and Johnny Moses of the Tulalip Tribe….
‘…..Felt is the oldest and simplest cloth in the world. Felt is not woven; wet animal hairs are agitated into matting. It is an ancient and universal fabric.’
Skywalker/Skyscraper (Axis Mundi), 2012.
Marie Watt, American born 1967. Whitney Museum of American Art.
The artist is a member of the Seneca nation which is part of a confederacy with the Mohawk and four others.
This work is her comment on the large contribution made by Mohawk ironworkers to the building of New York skyscrapers. And the use of blankets of this type at birth and death.
Two views of The Experiment, 2012, polyester resin, glass fiber, acrylic paint, glass eyes, human hair, wood lacquer, mirror, metal parts and leather.
Elmgreen and Dragset. Private collection on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2018
Trayvon Martin, Most Precious Blood acrylic, matte medium and watercolour paper, and detail
Barbara Bullock, American born 1938. Woodmere Museum of Art.
Trayvon Martin , 17 years old, was fatally shot by a neighbour in 2012 while he was walking home.
Ratanakiri Valley Drip, 2012, bamboo, rattan, steel, wire, burlap, beeswax, damar resin, earth pigment, charcoal, plastic twine and oil paint.
Sopheap Pich, Cambodian born 1971. Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
Where Have You Gone-Where Are You Going; wax room, 2013.
Wolfgang Laib, German born 1950. Phillips Collection, Washington, DC
440 pounds of beeswax collected near the artist’s home in southern Germany, applied one inch thick to the walls of a small room with one light bulb.
A fragrant room and quite otherworldly.
beginning & the end neither & the otherwise betwixt & between the end is the beginning & the end, 2016, tape, paper, glue, beads.
Raúl De Nieve, born 1983 in Mexico; lives in the United State. (Photo by Matthew Carasella, Whitney Museum of Art). Whitney Biennial 2017.
There is no glass in the ‘window’. Everything was made by hand from found objects, plastic beads, cardboard, found trim, fabric.
Travel Light, 2017, gypsum, resin and candles.
Arlene Schechet, American born 1971. Jewish Museum, NY
Claim (Whitney Version), exterior view, 2017. Pope.L (a.k.a. William Pope.L), born 1955. Photo by MAXIMILÍANO DURÓN/ARTNEWS
Claim (Whitney Biennial version), detail: one piece of bologna, 2017. Acrylic paint, graphite pencil, pushpins, wood, framed document, fortified wine and bologna with black-and-white portraits.
Pope.L aka William Pole.L, American born 1955.
Ravens, 2015, Carcass, 2015, mixed media.
Tasha Lewis, American unknown birthdate. On display at the Arts Alliance, Philadelphia in 2016
Falcon, 2013, mixed media.
Tasha Lewis, American unknown birthdate. On display at the Arts Alliance, Philadelphia in 2016
Untitled, 2014, styrene index cards, metal, wood, paint glue.
Tara Donovan, American born 1969. Pace Gallery loan to the Smithsonian Renwick Gallery in 2015
American Bison/Prairie House, 2015, red oak, cast iron, wool.
Emily White, American, unknown birthdate. On display at the Arts Alliance, Philadelphia in 2016
A moment in the life of a sculpture – 1.8, 2015; knotted and braided fiber with programmable lighting and wind movement above printed textile flooring.
Janet Echelman, born 1966, American, the Renwick (Smithsonian Museum of American Art) in Washington DC on view in 2015 and 2020.
The sculpture corresponded to the energy released across the Pacific Ocean during the Tohoku earthquake on March 11, 2011, an event so powerful that the earth shifted on its axis and the day was shortened by 1.8 millionth of a second.
In the center of the room, a vintage octagonal oak chest which had at one time been used in a shop or workshop. It has triangular drawers.
The drawers are full of eclectic things.
In Midnight’s Garden, cochineal, various insects, mixed media, 2015.
Jennifer Angus, born Canada, 1961.Smithsonian Renwick Gallery, Washington, D.C. 2015.
Views of To the Son of Man Who Ate the Scroll, 2016, android, plastic coat, expandable foam shoe, and cardboard and linen shoe.
Goshka Macuga, Polish born 1967. Loaned by the Prada Foundation to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2018.
This robot talks.
He recited text from Thomas Paine, Alfred Einstein, Walter Benjamin, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ayn Rand which deal with the definition of humanity and of consciousness.
The Big Bling, 2016, on the banks of the Schuylkill River, Philadelphia
pressure-treated laminated timbers, plywood, fiberglass, and gold leaf. 40 foot high
Martin Puryear, American born 1941.
Loaned to the City of Philadelphia in 2017 by the artist, Matthew Marks Gallery, and Madison Square Park Conservancy, NY
Commissioned by Madison Square Park, New York, it was on temporary loan to Philadelphia. It is resting along the right bank of the Schuylkill River, its head turned away from the city.
Chair of the Ministers of Defence, 2016, polyurethane resin, wood, acoustic foam, jeans, trousers, du-rags, altered t shirts, altered hoodies, guinea fowl feathers, wrought-iron window gate, vintage Beni Ourain Morocca rug, kaftans, housedresses, Masai war shields, and vintage peacock rattan chair.
Kevin Beasley, American born 1985. On loan by two private collections to the Baltimore Museum of Art in 2019.
The iconography of this piece derives from two separate sources. One is the Baroque altarpiece for Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome created by Gian Lorenzo Bernini
and a widely known 1967 photograph of Black Panther Party founder, Huey P. Newton. In that photo, he is holding a shotgun in one hand and a spear in the other. He is sitting in a wicker ‘peacock’ chair.
Minister of Defence was Huey Newton’s title. Every part of this work references the Black Panter Party’s philosophy or its grounding in African icons.
The Ride, 2017, black and white silver gelatin print on auto body parts, spray paint and lacquer, and detail.
Mohammed Borouissa, French-Algerian born 1978. Exhibited at the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia in 2017 courtesy of the artist.
Made of European car parts imprinted with photographs of people from Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club. This club is based in the Strawberry Mansions section of Philadelphia. The club is one hundred years old and allows members of this low-income community to learn horses in the long tradition of Afro-American cowboys even though they are in the midst of a large city.
The artist lived in this community in Philly for eight months in 2014
The Orphan, 2009, wood, polymer resin and enamel paint.
Rachel Feinstein, American born 1971. Courtesy of the artist on loan to the Jewish Museum, NY in 2020
Mr. Time, 2015, powder-coated aluminum, vinyl and working clock.
Rachel Feinstein, American born 1971. Loaned by the artist to the Jewish Museum in 2020.
Butterfly, 2018, polyester resin and pigment over foam with wooden base.
Rachel Feinstein, American born 1971. Jewish Museum, NY loan from a private collection.
Cupboard VIII, 2018, stoneware, steel, raffia and Albany slip clay.
Simone Leigh, American born 1967
Corrugated, 2018, bronze and raffia.
Simone Leigh, American born 1967. Courtesy of the artist for the Whitney Biennial 2019