Editor’s Letter

David Lebe: In Fact We Laugh with the Idea of Death #3, 1986/87, gelatin silver print, hand-colored photogram, 16 by 14 1/8 inches. Courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art.


ARTISTS INCLUDED IN major biennial exhibitions, like the ones opening in Venice and at the Whitney Museum in New York this month, can find themselves subject to countervailing expectations. These events are significant now in part because they have featured significant artists in the past. Selected contemporary artists become part of a tradition of lasting importance. The trick, though, is that they also have to appear to rebel against that tradition, offering something clearly and emphatically new. Biennials can be sites of discovery and conduits for refreshing the art market with novel aesthetics and younger faces. As Lawrence Alloway, one of the first critics to recognize the increasing importance of this global exhibition system wrote in 1969, “equations of art with the new, the never-before-seen, and the radical is, automatically, a form of approval.”  

Art in America often highlights the work of emerging artists appearing in biennials, though we try to avoid celebrating the new for its own sake. For our First Look column this issue, for example, Wendy Vogel introduces the work of Ilana Harris-Babou, whose video Human Design is featured in the Whitney Biennial. Harris-Babou examines how contemporary material culture is intertwined with African American familial bonds and informed by the history of slavery in the US. The work featured on the cover is a still from a mock cooking show she filmed in 2016 with her mother, in which the two women discuss culinary tradition and recite Audre Lord’s writings on links between eroticism and politics. 

Complex art like this requires second and third looks as well as the context that critics and curators can offer. But that kind of care can fall to the wayside amid overheated speculation about which new talent will withstand the inevitable wave of even newer talent scheduled to arrive in precisely two years’ time. There have been plenty of warnings about smothering young artists with hype, rendering them victims of an institutional art world’s “insatiable appetite for the next hot thing,” as artist Judy Chicago writes in a 2014 book critical of the studio art education system. “The art world picks up, extols, rewards, and then discards, young artists like so many used clothes,” Chicago states, “an unfortunate tendency because careers disintegrate before the artists have the opportunity to mature.”

Chicago, who recently had a retrospective at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Miami, has been discovered and rediscovered several times over the course of her six-decade career. In fact, the “long overdue rediscovery” has become a kind of cliché for female artists who attain veteran status, especially artists of color. Luchita Hurtado, Carol Rama, and Carmen Herrera are among those who have received almost absurdly belated recognition in recent years.

In this issue, several stories highlight older artists who are being embraced by major arts institutions after decades spent working in near obscurity. Hurtado recounts travels in Chiapas, Mexico, in the 1940s—formative years for the nonagenarian artist, whose first museum solo exhibition opens this month at the Serpentine in London. The opportunity to mature that Chicago describes might be cold comfort for artists who never received support at crucial moments in their creative development. It would be understandable if Zilia Sánchez, now 93, had given up at some point in the 1960s, disillusioned with the mainstream art world. Instead, she remained defiant, producing sensual abstract paintings on curvaceous supports. In this issue Christina Bryan Rosenberger writes on Sánchez’s first museum retrospective and argues that her work provides a sharp revision to conventional narratives of Minimalism, linking the movement to Latin American currents.

At seventy years old, photographer David Lebe is also having his first institutional retrospective, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Lebe created some of his most poignant images during the height of the AIDS crisis and found a visual vocabulary that is at once formally experimental and engaged with the world around him. As Jameson Fitzpatrick writes in these pages, “Lebe’s photographs seek to show not just what is, but what might be.” Lebe, who has lived with AIDS for decades, makes art on his own terms, sustaining himself and his partner, and finding in that the support he needs.