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Karen Kurczynski

Karen Kurczynski, assistant professor of modern and contemporary art in the Department of the History of Art & Architecture, discusses "Human Animals: the Art of CoBrA," the exhibition she curated for the University Museum of Contemporary Art (September 15 – November 20, 2016), and the appeal of the CoBrA movement to students and scholars of all disciplines.


You wrote a book on the CoBrA, a post-war European avant-garde art movement. Can you tell the story of how you first became interested in this movement?

I actually wrote a book [titled The Art and Politics of Asger Jorn] about the Danish artist Asger Jorn, who was the cofounder of CoBrA along with many other movements. I became interested in graduate school, when I was studying modern and contemporary art, and I took a seminar at Columbia University in which we discussed post-war European art and I learned about CoBrA for the first time. I actually learned about this group the Situationist International—they are a critical theory group that are most known for Guy Debord's The Society of the Spectacle, which was a book that we still assign in critical theory classes, and this film--the famous film that he made based on it. But Jorn and Debord worked together and that fascinated me because Jorn was a painter primarily; he was an older generation, he was danish, he had done all these different things throughout his life, and I decided to write a PhD dissertation on the situationist phase of Jorn’s work, which was 1957-61, and when I went to Denmark to do research, I found all these other things he had done, earlier and later. The CoBrA movement was 10 years earlier and I think it's really been overlooked in histories that focus on the situationists, because that movement is fascinating to people and it's an anti-art movement. What's fascinating about Jorn is that he's an artist, but was a cofounder of this movement that eventually excluded all artists.

I was really interested in the contradictions of this person who was clearly a really complex figure, who hadn't been written about in English, not in 30 years at least. There was no book on him in English. When I saw the work in Europe, his paintings and other ceramics and other media that he did, I was blown away by it. And just, materially, it's really vivid, colorful, very inventive. So, I decided to write a book on him, and focus on the evolution of his work over time. I was definitely drawn to the art and politics angle of CoBrA, and, in this exhibition, I'm sort of foregrounding it by putting the poet's cage right in the middle, which is an interdisciplinary aspect of the movement [featured in the landmark 1949 Cobra exhibition in Amsterdam], not just the painting and sculpture.

In light of the interdisciplinary aspects of the movement, do you think that this exhibition appeals to students of all different disciplines and majors? Is there something students should know going in?

I think they should know that it's going to be a lot of new artists to them, but that all they have to do is connect to the work. That's all you need in any art exhibition, but with modern art it's particularly true. These are artists that were trying to start over after World War II, and each one of them—there were about 40 artists involved in CoBrA, most of whom are not familiar names because they're European artists—has a very compelling story, so the viewer get whatever level they want to get out of it. We've provided a lot of information [for museum visitors] in the brochure, in the wall texts, but we try not to overload people so they can just come in and experience it. There are poems in the poet's cage they can take home with them. A lot of the Cobra movement—they were against the professionalism of the art world, so they believe you can be an artist or be a poet with no experience. They believed in amateurs being able to do these things and they wanted fresh perspectives, starting over after World War II. So you don't need to know anything to like it. I just want people to get in the door.

You mentioned that this movement comes from a desire for fresh perspectives after World War II. Could talk a little more about that: where does this artwork fit in historically?

The artists in this movement are from the same generation as abstract expressionism. So, we're familiar with artists like Jackson Polluck in the United States in the ‘50s, and that generation generally wanted to start over after World War II, after the devastation of the bomb and the Holocaust, and the devastation of the war. In Europe, the artists of CoBrA—which stands for Copanhagen, Brussels, Amsterdam, the three capital cities where most of the founders were from (although the movement involved one Japanese-American artist, Shinkichi Tajiri, and a South African artist, Ernest Mancoba, who is unfortunately not in the show, but photos of him are in the show, so it’s not just European, but it is mostly northern European artists) in countries that were occupied during World War II, and they each have different experiences under the occupation. The movement started in 1948, so it was right after the war that these artists were in these cities that were then liberated and they were able to travel again, and they wanted to immediately go around Europe and see what had happened during the war in these other places. They weren't nationalists—they were against, the politics of limited nationalism that caused the devastation of the war. And, obviously, they were all occupied by the Germans, and had to live through that, so they were trying to connect with the historical avant-garde, so they went back to Paris, which was still the center to them—many of them had been there before the war.

How do you think CoBrA applies to this context? What does it mean to bring it to this university, here, and then what does it mean to have it today?

I worked on the show with the NSU (Nova Southeastern University) Art Museum in Fort Lauderdale, so the historical show, which is "Human Animals: The Art of Cobra," all comes from the NSU Art Museum (with a few additional works from Smith College). That was already under the planning process when I realized we had a gap at the university art museum here and were able to show it, so it was really lucky for me that I was able to bring it here to share with my students, my colleagues, my community. I do think that there's a lot of interest in the movement on campus, both among artists and among people who know art history but don't know this movement. A lot of the issues are still very current in art today. The issues of collectivism, but also independent individual expression within a collective framework. The issues of painting, the materiality of painting and how it relates to politics, are still very prominent in the art world. The histories of art that have been forgotten or marginalized are being reinvestigated today, so we're at a moment where we're looking in art history beyond the Americans of the 1950s, at what happened elsewhere in the world. The CoBrA movement was international, experimental, interdisciplinary; these are all very prominent themes in art today. There are a number of artistic collectors today that were inspired by CoBrA. 

Do you teach about CoBrA in your classes? How do students respond?

I do. And they're liking it; it's new to them. In my modern art class, they're all writing about the CoBrA work on display—I always have my students write about artwork they can see, at Smith or somewhere else, depending on what shows are up. It's great to have this show right here with all these different artists. I should specify, too, they're not just looking at the CoBrA art. "Contemporary Legacy" is the second exhibition, and we added contemporary artists all the way up until today. The CoBrA movement, because it had so many different artists, has something for everybody, and the vividness of materiality—a lot of people really respond to that. When people come in the gallery, they note how colorful it is, and it appeals to a lot of artists for that reason. Everybody finds what interests them about it, and students responded either to the historical aspects or the contemporary aspects. CoBrA has certain aspects that are dated: some of the artists look at women in conventional, cliched ways, or non-western people—there's some primitivist aspects in the use of masks—so it's nice to see the contemporary artists that respond to that and critique it in certain ways. We've got both aspects in the show.

What woud you would say to a student that is resistant to looking at museum art, or maybe hasn't ever been in any of the museums on campus?

Go and see what you can see—if you don't respond, it's free. You have literally nothing to lose. You can just walk in, you can walk out. And every four months the art on display changes, so if it's not this show, go see the Kara Walker exhibition in the spring because she is incredible. Just don't be afraid to look; you don't have to understand anything. You can just like it or not—everyone knows what they like. If you keep looking, I think you'll find something.