In the spring of 1971, the Guggenheim was set to open a solo exhibition from German conceptualist Hans Haacke. It included two installations of framed photo-documents about New York City slumlords, the most famous of which was Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971. For this piece, Haacke hung 142 photos he took of Manhattan buildings owned by Harry J. Shapolsky. Each was paired with a typewritten index card containing a description of the building and information about which of his sixty-something shell companies he used to purchase it. This painstaking investigation, which Haacke conducted via public records, revealed the machinations of one of the city’s worst landlords, a man who the New York District Attorney called “ruthlessly” exploitive. Six weeks before opening, the director, Thomas Messer, demanded that Haacke remove his real estate pieces from the show, on the grounds that, “while the exposure of social malfunction is a good thing, it is not the function of a museum.” Haacke refused to self-censor. Messer fired the curator. The show was canceled, and Haacke became a martyr for the cause of institutional critique.
On view now at the Guggenheim, exactly fifty years later, is the group show Off the Record, which includes contemporary art from the collection that deals with documents and records. At its center, Sadie Barnette reproduces her father’s FBI files, using black and pink spray paint to mark and highlight aspects of the text. Like Shapolsky et al., Barnette’s installation borrows a key journalistic method: sifting vast quantities of public records to reveal abuses of power. The five memos reproduced in My Father’s FBI File; Government Employees Installation (2017) were obtained via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), and tell the story of how her father, a Black Panther Party founder, was surveilled and harassed at the hands of the FBI. Unlike Haacke, however, Barnette doesn’t just repurpose journalistic strategies for an art-world context, but applies artistic strategies to destabilize the source material. Spray paint usually appears either on walls, as graffiti proclaiming the presence of whoever did the tagging, or on sidewalks, as indicators of where construction workers should dig. In this case, it does both: it wrests intelligence away from the domain of secrecy and establishes Barnette’s claim to it, while suggesting new ways of excavating meaning by transforming one of the world’s most banal objects (a memo) into an aesthetic curiosity. Here, Barnette builds on Haacke’s muckraking legacy by introducing poetry in the form of spray paint. In doing so, she casts a spell that unblinds us to the strange and arbitrary nature of power, which is the first step towards dreaming of a world without it. If journalism reveals society’s so-called malfunction, then art empowers viewers to imagine if it were otherwise.
What kind of transformation must take place in order for truth-telling to enter the realm of art? The answer varies. Barnette’s piece is visually striking, with vivid spray paint stipples set against the crunchy texture of cheap Xerox, but other works in Off the Record are more like Haacke’s, in that they simply move archival material into the white cube. There’s also plenty of stuff in between. An installation by Sarah Charlesworth called Herald Tribune: November 1977 (1977) features twenty-six prints of front pages from a month’s worth of Herald Tribune newspapers, which the artist edited by masking the text before photocopying it, leaving only photos and the masthead. Seeing these images swimming in blank space, the senses are barraged by the constant depictions of war, authoritarianism, brinkmanship, and – most of all – powerful men engaged in world-historical struggles. Through a process of subtraction, she reveals what it takes for an event to even be considered world-historical, and draws our attention to the masculinist bias we’re submerged in but can’t always see.
In her series From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried (1995-96), Carrie Mae Weems used daguerreotypes of enslaved Africans as her starting point. The two prints on display are taken from the archive of a 19th-century Harvard scientist who used the images to advance the study of eugenics. They appear in Weems’s pieces behind etched glass with text that dramatizes the humiliation inherent to this project. She also tinted the images red, which adds a human warmth to them, and draws away power from the scientific aura that black-and-white photos possess. Her intervention doesn’t just redirect the original meaning but reconstitutes it in a process that feels alchemical, using signs and symbols to scramble the original images’ insides.
The show’s most purely journalistic piece is Carlos Motta’s Brief History of US Interventions in Latin America Since 1946 (2004-06), a broadsheet newspaper that museum-goers are invited to take home. Even before digging into the article, one is struck by the visual impact of how many events are listed, and how many inches of column space they collectively take up. Though the verso side is stamped with two horror-movie-like hand prints – the signature mark of the Salvadoran White Hand death squad – the broadsheet itself is such a plain informational object that I found myself wondering whether it was even art. Like a readymade, the fact that this information appears outside its quotidian context encourages viewers to suspend preconceptions they might have about it.
In the lead-up to the Guggenheim’s cancelled Hans Haacke show in 1971, the director at the time referred to Haacke’s fact-finding projects as “an alien substance that had entered the art museum organism.” Even then, it wasn’t novel for artists to depict social conditions with the hopes of improving them – this was the basis of the social documentary tradition that dominated during and directly after the Great Depression. What was novel was for Haacke to present his rote, programmatic research without any aesthetic intervention after the fact (or more precisely, his only intervention was to arrange it into documents that conferred authority and rigor.) Contemporary art museums no longer see fact-finding as an alien substance. In fact, art institutions tend to hide their own abuses of power, some of which have been exposed through fact-finding missions by artist-journalists. Forensic Architecture accomplished this with their 2019 film Triple-Chaser, which explored ex-Whitney vice chairman Warren Kanders’s ties to arms manufacturing – though the fact of its inclusion at their biennial raises questions as to how much it threatened the power structure in question. Museums now create forums for artists to offer institutional critiques, and this is an increasingly useful way to neutralize them.
In each of the works mentioned here, artists make formal incursions into the physical stuff of power. Some of them are painterly, like Sadie Barnette’s spray paint tags, Sarah Charlesworth’s masking technique, and Carlos Motta’s drippy handprints. This tactility channels the material reification of power; these incursions are embodied experiences for the artist, and authority is constituted by and through these physical documents, like talismans. In the exhibition text, curator Ashley James highlights another key strategy, which is to modulate the material’s affective force by editing or injecting color, as in the case of Carrie Mae Weems. “With the red tinting, I see that as a first introduction to how artists sometimes deploy color in order to stage these critiques,” she told me on the phone from the Guggenheim, “recognizing that the aesthetic of black-and-white is so implicated in how we perceive the authority of documentation.” This authority is constructed through the suggestion of historicity, which is to say, through established facts that aren’t up for negotiation. Weems, whose engagement with the work has an almost clinical quality – like a chemistry experiment with dyes that reveal hidden contents – forces that negotiation. Furthermore, a show of conceptual art dealing with documents has potential to come off as drab, but the exhibit’s vibrant and varied color palette stimulates the eye as much as the intellect. Meanwhile, it benefits from an expanded definition of what a record is, which gave James a framework to approach the Guggenheim’s formidable collection of ’70s photo-conceptualism, but is not so loose as to lose coherence.
In his book Aesthetic Journalism, the art historian Alfredo Cramerotti writes: “If journalism can be considered a view of the world (of what happened and its representation), then aesthetics would be the view of the view.” The works here are distinguished by the way they balance these two inclinations, a dynamic that Ashley James says is “one of the key tensions of the show.” Some artists generate counter-records in hopes of supplanting the official one; others, like Barnette, have an ambiguous relationship to the record (her work links documentation to white supremacy while also harnessing some of its power for herself.) Then there’s a third category, which springs from a distrust of the historical project tout court. James identifies a work by photographer Lorna Simpson, Flipside, as the piece that exemplifies this outlook. The black-and-white photo diptych depicts, on the left, a Black woman with a natural hairstyle and, on the right, an African mask, both seen from behind. A small plaque underneath them reads: “The neighbors were suspicious of her hairstyle.” The refusal to engage the viewer’s gaze, and the cryptic but sinister nature of the message, suggests that the artist isn’t trying to be understood. This speaks to a kind of protective pessimism, whereby any engagement with the language of power is seen as the first step to forfeiting one’s own. It’s a crucial reminder that, in some cases, rather than striving towards transparency, we’re better off seeking obfuscation.