The 1936 “Cubism and Abstract Art” graphic by the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Alfred J. Barr, Jr., has become the stuff of legend in art circles. In it, Barr presents a very pared-down history of art that condenses many movements into a teleological chart that reinforces the importance of Cubism and its ilk. Like colonialism itself, this version of history is in service of one thing: justifying the dominance of modern European civilization, even if, as in this case, it is focused on a particular cultural movement.
Artist Hank Willis Thomas has updated the arcane image for his exhibition at Maruani Mercier Gallery in Brussels, Belgium. He’s expanded the image to not only bring it forward to the year 1970 but has also incorporated the structural realities of society that Barr consciously ignored. Because of the location of the show, the emphasis is understandably on Belgian history. Some connections may seem obtuse at first, but slowly they make sense, like the connection between copper mining and Art Deco — I mean, all those shiny metals used for streamlined details and forms, as well as radios and electronics, had to come from somewhere, right?
In this image, the power relationships and structural oppression easily mingle with academic art terms, and all together they look like a web of relationships that can be as contradictory and confusing as Barr’s chart is simplistic and naive.
Thomas’s graphic demonstrates how we can alter myopic visions of art in ways that continue to engage with historical works while not allowing them to ellipse the larger an evolving histories that help us understand our world.
Belgium and Congo were forcibly connected for a century — with one of those nations clearly benefiting at the expense of the other. So, one wonders, what does that mean for art? When we look at a painting by Belgian Surrealist René Magritte should we also consider how Congo factors into his work?