What about Asgor Jorn’s work piqued your interest?
I found out about Jorn through his work with the Situationist International, and set out to study just that phase of his work (1957-61), when he made two artist’s books with Guy Debord and the “Modifications” paintings on flea market canvases. But I was intrigued with the amazing work I saw in Denmark from all phases of his career, the strong parallels with what was going on in the US and the fact that he was totally unknown here. For example his artist’s group Helhesten during WWII referred to the importance of “mythmaking” at exactly the same time as Rothko, Gottlieb and Newman in the US, without knowing each other’s work. I was drawn to working on postwar Europe because I’m fascinated with the artistic dialogue between modernity and tradition, and the field is much less well known than American art at the same time; it’s also overlooked as the predecessor to contemporary art, now defined as starting sometime later, usually the 1970s.
Jorn in particular is interesting for many reasons. I’m drawn to his playfulness and humor as well as his interest in politics and the relationship between abstract painting and politics in the wake of Surrealism. He has been seen as an expressionist but he always worked in group contexts, a paradox I find both fascinating and essential to the structure of the avant-garde in the modern era. The political implications of his work include both Marxism and the encounter with other cultures, as in the Cobra group’s interest in children’s art, tribal art, folk art, and all forms of outsider art. Jorn’s writings developed a number of profound and important themes such as an anthropological view that considered all art forms from all communities equally valid, and a (neo-)Marxist view that art means much more than simply a market for luxury commodities or a form of cultural propaganda by the dominant national institutions. Art has a critical role to play in society, Jorn wrote, precisely because of its purported “superfluousness.” Its use to human culture is its uselessness, in other words its inability to be instrumentalized or turned into propaganda. Jorn also was an advocate for Nordic art—meaning all forms of art from the geographic region of the Nordic countries. His artwork in the form of painting, printmaking, ceramics, tapestry, collective wall painting, and artist’s books are fascinating in themselves, and I hope to expose more US audiences to his work through the exhibition on Cobra I am curating for Nova Southeastern University Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale. His series of artist’s books on Nordic art from all periods (published by his “Scandinavian Institute for Comparative Vandalism”) are equally fascinating, both as art works and as interventions in art history that seek to expand the canon beyond the classical tradition.
You recently taught a course focused on team-based learning. How do you feel like this practice translates to art history and what benefits did you see from teaching it in this manner?
Team-Based Learning is hard to introduce into art history in some ways because it was invented to teach business and social science disciplines; however I think it is very adaptable also to humanities fields known for individual research and appreciation like art history. For one thing, art history is less individualist than people commonly think, particularly if we consider how museums operate, and that is the field many of our students are aiming to enter. Many aspects of my work are collaborative, from faculty committees to team teaching, editing anthologies and co-writing research papers, and especially museum curating and museum educational programming. So introducing some of the activities I actually do opens students’ eyes about the realities of what art history is. It’s a dialogue with an increasingly wide range of audiences centered around the physical encounter with works of art most often in public settings, not just a sole scholar sitting alone in an archive somewhere. Team-Based Learning is known to reach a wider audience than a normal passive-lecture approach; the best students learn just as well from either method but the middle-grade students improve with TBL. So it’s a more democratic and expansive approach. It’s also more dynamic and more fun. You can’t “cover” as much material but that is precisely the point—teaching art history is not about learning all the facts that are available through one search on the internet, but rather about a way of thinking and communicating with other people, through art. TBL allows for much more creative and interactive engagement with art. TBL students learn what is covered in class better, deeper, and more long-term, and they have a much stronger sense of the practical applications and relevance of art history than in a regular class.
Do you have any new projects that you are especially excited about?
I’m very excited about two upcoming trips related to my research and exhibition in preparation on the Cobra movement (Copenhagen, Brussels, Amsterdam, a group co-founded by Asger Jorn in 1948). I’m going to Paris to interview what may be the last living Cobra artist, Pierre Alechinsky, and to Madrid to give a talk on Cobra in a conference on foreign artists living in Paris from 1945-55, on the invitation of Serge Guilbaut. Both relate to the exhibition I’m curating in Florida called “Animal Culture: Cobra and the Popular Imagination” to open in April 2016. There is also a Cobra show organized for fall 2015 at the Blum and Poe gallery in New York and Los Angeles curated by a colleague of mine. Both will be accompanied by significant catalogues, and indicate a growing interest in this understudied movement in the US. After working in relative obscurity on Jorn for several years it is gratifying to see the art world starting to recognize the contributions of his work and that of his colleagues.
Alechinsky will also feature in my second book project, tentatively titled after my 2011 article “Drawing Is the New Painting,” on the rise of drawing as a major medium of contemporary art. I see drawing today as an inherently hybrid medium the function of which is to connect all the others, and potentially to connect the separate disciplines (such as art and design, or art and science) and even alienated communities. Cobra (particularly Jorn, Alechinsky, Constant, and Christian Dotremont) made some very interesting work that connected art and poetry, and art and architecture, based primarily on the drawn, handwritten, or painted gesture. The drawing book will focus on later moments when drawing rose to prominence, such as the 1980s with Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat and the 1990s with Raymond Pettibon and William Kentridge. I’ll begin working seriously on this in the fall.
What benefits do you see for students who take courses in art history?
Art history is unmatched for developing expertise in critical thinking, visual literacy, and communication skills. What field doesn’t need those? Critical thinking is the specialty of the humanities, because the humanities teaches us to recognize and appreciate alternative viewpoints, emotional states that are often suppressed in our daily lives, other communities and cultures from our own. Visual literacy of course is art history’s area by definition: all that formal analysis we do in class teaches us to understand the world around us in very direct terms, in a society where visual media are increasingly prominent and ca. 80% of our neurological sense data comes from visual stimuli. Modern and contemporary art teach us to comprehend not only visual analysis, but also multi-sensory formats and interactive or performative situations that shed light on all areas of human experience (in fact this is true in older fields as well, though it took them longer to recognize, for example, the performative or social aspects of exhibiting or selling a 17th-century painting). The complexity of studying art works and comprehending their network of social meanings so carefully encoded in art’s often unprecedented and unfamiliar forms may seem esoteric at first, but in fact it prepares you to understand all aspects of the culture around you. If you can learn to understand what’s going on in a Manet painting you are better equipped to analyze the political speeches or ads you watch on TV. You are able to read between the lines of not only what a newscaster says but also the rich and nuanced language of visual persona and bodily gesture conveyed non-verbally. Even learning about abstract art like Jackson Pollock, which is much less obviously about interpersonal affairs, teaches essential skills of close observation and specific description that improve the quality of your engagement with the world and your communication with other people. Once you have understood the complexities of art, “visual culture” and pop culture come to seem like an open book. Finally, the communication skills art history teaches are unparalleled because of the specificity and uniqueness of art. If you are able to translate the incredibly complex and meaningful experience of a great art work into language your neighbors can understand, then you can communicate any aspect of human experience. Only art and culture contain the full range of human experience—our highest aspirations and lowest depths and everything in between. In a culture dominated by business and science where every public exchange has to be rational, optimistic, and focused on outcomes, art makes us realize that this is actually only a very limited part of the experience of living on earth. As one of our colleagues said at a HFA meeting recently, “the humanities teach us to be human.” Fortunately for the outcomes discussion, they also teach us fundamental skills that can be applied in every other field.