In the early 1990s, a new generation of artists in the United States were using exhibitions to share their outlooks on the social and political turbulence of the time. Two of those exhibitions—which opened in the same year—were the 1993 Biennial Exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and ‘Theater of Refusal: Black Art and Mainstream Criticism,’ curated by artist Charles Gaines at the University Art Gallery (UAG), University of California, Irvine.
On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of these landmark shows, Hauser & Wirth is pleased to present ‘RETROaction,’ a two-venue project that will begin at its Upper East Side location in 2023 and continue at its Downtown Los Angeles gallery in 2024. Many of the artists who participated in the seminal exhibitions that inspired ‘RETROaction’ are today recognized as having established the terms of critical cultural debates in the early 1990s. Eight of these artists also now work with Hauser & Wirth.
Artists include Ida Applebroog, Charles Gaines, Mike Kelley, Zoe Leonard, Glenn Ligon, Cindy Sherman, Gary Simmons and Lorna Simpson with Kevin Beasley, Torkwase Dyson,, Leslie Hewitt and Rashid Johnson.
Thirty years later, in a sociopolitical context that bears many similarities, ‘RETROaction’ celebrates the impact those artists made and reflects their continued influence upon art and discourse while suggesting that our current moment is a time for retroaction—rather than retrospection—and that the past and present are in an active, ongoing dialogue.
Homi K. Bhabha, who wrote for the 1993 Whitney Biennial catalogue, explains the purpose of the exhibition at Hauser & Wirth, of which he is the co-curator: ‘A conventional retrospective looks back from the summit of the present to synthesize the past by giving it a culminating shape. In contrast, the ambition of ‘RETROaction’ is to configure the art of the past in a contemporary constellation of influences and interventions, rather than to synthesize it in the retrospective mode. ‘RETROaction’ brings forth the legacies of the early 1990s to interact with the lessons and lesions of art today. This show traces the momentum generated by a group of artists who, 30 years later, continue to make a compelling case for their ideas and beliefs. ‘RETROaction’ provides a double- frame. It takes a view of the present in all its decolonizing tumult—racial violence, pandemics, climate catastrophe, migration and displacement—pinpointing a critical moment of transition in the 90s from which to move forward.’
‘RETROaction’ has been curated by Kate Fowle in collaboration with Homi K. Bhabha, Charles Gaines and art historian Ellen Tani.
New York Presentation
On the first and second floors of its Upper East Side location, Hauser & Wirth will present works by Ida Applebroog, Charles Gaines, Mike Kelley, Zoe Leonard, Glenn Ligon, Cindy Sherman, Gary Simmons and Lorna Simpson. Selected in collaboration with the artists where possible, the works, made between 1986-1994, capture the spirit of cultural debates of the early 1990s, provoking relevant questions about the roles of racial address in a museum or gallery display, activist art and critical theory, sexual difference and the body politic.
On the third floor, works by New York-based artists Kevin Beasley, Torkwase Dyson, Leslie Hewitt and Rashid Johnson comprise an updated iteration of ‘Theater of Refusal,’ which in its original 1993 incarnation juxtaposed the contributions of eleven contemporary Black artists with published texts that critically discussed their work. Curated by Gaines and Ellen Tani, this current revisitation of the original show is entitled ‘Theater of Refusal: Black Art and Reconstitution.’ Featuring artists who are committed to both abstraction and materiality, the presentation will also include critical texts and raise important questions about the premise of the original exhibition while ‘rethinking structures of artistic knowledge and the critical discourse that surrounds it,’ as Gaines describes. When ‘RETROaction’ travels to Hauser & Wirth Downtown Los Angeles in 2024, this section of the exhibition will feature works by Los Angeles-based artists.
In spring 2024, a new edition of the 1993 publication ‘The Theater of Refusal: Black Art and Mainstream Criticism’ will be released by Dancing Foxes Press with Künstlerhaus Stuttgart and LAXART, marking the 30th anniversary of Charles Gaines’ and Catherine Lord’s exhibition and publication ‘The Theater of Refusal.’ Coedited by Rhea Anastas, Charles Gaines, Jamillah James and Eric Golo Stone, this publication reprints in facsimile the eponymous 1993 publication that documented the show, which contained essays by Maurice Berger, Gaines and Lord, as well as the transcript of a roundtable that included a range of artists and writers. Reproducing images of the exhibition for the first time in color, the new edition augments the original publication with an essay by poet and scholar Fred Moten; recent conversations between Lord and Gaines and between Moten and Gaines; a roundtable discussion that echoes the first, moderated and edited by Thomas (T.) Jean Lax and Jamillah James; and an afterword by Rhea Anastas. Supporters include Hauser & Wirth, Galerie Max Hetzler, the Rennie Collection and a Teiger Foundation Director’s Award.
On 27 January 2024, Hauser & Wirth will host two live roundtable discussions at the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College in New York City, looking more closely at the 1993 Whitney Biennial and ‘Theater of Refusal’ with some of the artists and curators who initiated and participated in these shows. The roundtable events will explore the cultural and social issues of the 1990s in relation to our present moment.
About the 1993 Whitney Biennial
The 1993 Whitney Biennial was described to the press as ‘guided for the first time by a single curatorial perspective and exploring both the primary artistic and social concerns of American art in the 1990s.’ Involving more than 80 artists, it was curated by Elisabeth Sussman with Thelma Golden, John G. Hanhardt and Lisa Phillips. A ‘vital dimension’ to their thinking—as described by Sussman—was ‘the ways in which artists confront such dominant issues as class, race, gender, sexuality and the family’ as well as ‘to show the growing influence of mass media and computer technologies in our visual culture.’ The Biennial provoked—to quote Sussman again—‘a gargantuan uproar’ that fixated primarily on the show’s seeming political correctness, which for others—such as Homi K. Bhabha—enabled people ‘to think beyond narratives of origin and initiatory, initial subjects and to focus on those moments or processes that are produced in the articulation of ‘differences.’’ Another unusual aspect to the show was that it traveled to the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Seoul in 1994, where it inspired the creation of the Gwangju Biennial, which started in 1995.
About ‘Theater of Refusal: Black Art and Mainstream Criticism’
Originally conceived in 1989 by artist Charles Gaines as an examination of Black artists’ relationship with postmodernism, ‘Theater of Refusal: Black Art and Mainstream Criticism’ eventually opened in 1993. The aim was to challenge the art world to cultivate a new critical language by using the exhibition ‘to reveal the strategies of marginalization about a group of contemporary black artists, and to propose an alternative,’ as Gaines described it in the catalogue. Presenting works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Renee Green, David Hammons, Ben Patterson, Adrian Piper, Sandra Rowe, Gary Simmons, Lorna Simpson, Carrie Mae Weems, Pat Ward Williams and Fred Wilson, the curatorial innovation of ‘Theater of Refusal’ was to display work by the artists alongside previously published texts and reviews that Gaines highlighted to expose journalistic assumptions and ingrained attitudes which maintained marginality and normally remained invisible. The show opened in April 1993 at the University Art Gallery (UAG), University of California, Irvine, developed in close collaboration with its director, Catherine Lord, and traveled to other UC galleries through 1994.