What Was Contemporary Art? A New Book Asks the Question

Maurizio Nannucci's All Art Has Been Contemporary is one of many works included in Richard Meyer's What Was Contemporary Art?
Maurizio Nannucci's All Art Has Been Contemporary is one of many works included in Richard Meyer's What Was Contemporary Art?
photo courtesy of MIT Press

No matter how much new art continues to appear, an age-old question remains: what makes something art?

No one knows that question better than art historian, author and professor Richard Meyer. The Robert and Ruth Halperin Professor in Art History at Stanford University recently released a new book entitled What Was Contemporary Art?, which explores just that. On Saturday, March 30, MOCA will host a book signing and discussion with Meyer and its director, Jeffrey Deitch, moderated by the director at USC's Fisher Museum, Selma Holo.

Meyer (who, in full disclosure, was a professor of mine at USC) shakes up the very definition of art himself through his curatorial work and calls both Deitch and Holo (another professor of mine) as "wildly adventurous and wildly imaginative."

In November 2011, Meyer guest curated "Naked Hollywood: Weegee in Los Angeles" for MOCA, creating the only museum exhibition to date that displayed photographer and Arthur Fellig's hilarious and, at the time, scandalous (not to mention sometimes bloody) photos of movie star fans, strippers, celebrities, crime scenes and more.

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He also co-curated an exhibition at Fisher Museum (with Ariadni A. Liokatis) concerning Andy Warhol's photographs. With these shows, Meyer sought out normally overlooked pieces not usually seen in an art museum.

"I was most interested in Warhol's photos of Studio 54 or drugs or restaurants after everyone's left the table and the table hasn't been cleared yet," says Meyer. "Those photos of Weegee's, they were never intended to be seen as art -- even by the elastic standards that he had."

Ultimately, the Weegee show became about the institution's ability to label something as art and the idea that today, we look back at art history and decided which pieces get their own space in museums.

"What happens when non-art materials -- crime photography, tabloid images, snapshots, advertisements -- enter the institutional space of the art museum?" says Meyer. "What kind of transformations occur -- both in the elite precinct of the museum and in the rough-and-tumble world of mass culture and pulp entertainment?"

What Was Contemporary Art? explores these questions, digging into art history to discover the moments in which a piece became a work of art and viewers praised it accordingly. "A lot of the book is not about art but rather about things that were never supposed to be art that were taken or mistaken as art," says Meyer. "So facsimiles or cave painting, protest posters, cartoons -- there's a lot of things, whether that's glass objects by Steuben that a lot of people thought were really vulgar but contemporary art decided was not only art but contemporary art, art of the moment."

For instance, "contemporary art" as seen from the perspective of the 1930s included items like facsimiles or prehistoric art, which were held in museums. Meyer sees these as, at the time, "no less 'contemporary' than the paintings of Picasso and Matisse elsewhere on view in the museum" because they also inform what that era held up as art.

While artists like Picasso play major parts in art history, Meyer discovered -- in the nine years it took him to finalize the book -- that what was considered "contemporary art" during certain time periods was often more surprising. "I found it was constantly not what I expected. It wasn't Matisse and Picasso. It wasn't modernist abstraction," says Meyer. "It was the windows of Saks Fifth, the largest candy factory in the world, the Necco factory. It was Soviet photographers wearing roller skates so they could move through the new urban landscape more quickly and get shots they otherwise wouldn't be able to get."

Though What Was Contemporary Art? might seem like a weighty text, Meyer does not even expect readers to closely study its pages. "I'm happy if people just look at the pictures," he says. "I always think as an art historian I'm making picture books in a profound way. The pictures tell the story."

While Meyer also looks at current art, he ultimately finds it more important to step away from the all the novelty and "let oneself fall behind the times," he says. "Not everything needs to be understood or thought about the way we're thinking about or understanding it right at this moment when we're having this conversation."

He references the cover of the book, in which a girl in the 1940s gazes at a Plexiglas sculpture crafted by Alexander Calder. While we see works like Calder's as something belonging to modern art history, at one point that woman gazed on the work for the first time. That woman got older and that piece became part of art history, and, in the same way, Meyer realizes his own book will soon become "another relic."

The discussion and book signing will take place at MOCA's Ahmanson Auditorium, Sat., Mar. 30 at 3 p.m. 250 South Grand Ave., dwntwn., (213) 626-6222, moca.org.

Follow me on Twitter at @eva_recinos, and for more arts news follow us at @LAWeeklyArts and like us on Facebook.

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