Nasher Prize Juror Briony Fer considers the role of art history within the landscape of contemporary sculpture.
Each summer since the inception of the Nasher Prize in 2015, a select group of noted curators, artists, and scholars convenes in London to debate at length the merits of potential honorees. The jury is subject to change from year to year, and the 2019 Nasher Prize Jury includes the debut of a new juror, Dr. Briony Fer. The writer, critic, and curator is Professor of Art History at University College London and is the author of two acclaimed books, On Abstract Art and The Infinite Line: Re-making Art After Modernism. Her expansive range of subjects includes ruminations on repetition, minimalist seriality, feminism, and abstraction.
Fer has written widely on a number of artists, including Vija Celmins, Louise Bourgeois, and Agnes Martin. She also has curated exhibitions featuring artists as diverse as Gabriel Orozco, Eva Hesse, and Anni Albers. Fer’s retrospective of Bauhaus pioneer Albers premiered at the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen K20 last summer and will open at Tate Modern on October 11.
In June, Nasher Chief Curator Jed Morse sat down for a conversation with Briony Fer in her University College London office.
Landshoff, Herman (1905-1986) © Copyright bpk. The artist Eva Hesse with her sculpture Untitled or Not Yet in her studio in the Bowery, 1969. New York City. Inv FM-2012/200.3254. Sammlung Fotografie / Archiv Landshoff. Muenchner Stadtmuseum.
Jed Morse: Briony, thank you so much for taking some time to talk with me today. I wanted to talk a bit about your work and what you’ve been doing. One of the things I’m interested in, of course, is that you wrote a dissertation on the Russian and French avant-gardes. You started off in Modernism, but your career has expanded quite a bit. You’ve done a lot of work on contemporary art, and I’m curious what was the path that led you from the Russian and French avant-gardes to the art of today.
Briony Fer: Well, it’s lovely to talk to you, Jed. It’s been many years, but I did start off writing on Russian Constructivism. I was really involved in Russian art at that time. It seemed to have an urgency in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s. I learned Russian at school. Some people thought it was going to be the language of the future, actually, at that time. Hopefully not again!
I had certain tools that I could bring to it and I was really interested in the networking of avant-gardes. So that’s something that people have worked on subsequently. I was very interested in those critical debates about the function of art and what art could do; how art related to society; how the great Russian Formalist critics understood how art works. I came very much from that set of interests, but I think even when I was young, even when I started off, I always had this feeling, certainty, that you couldn’t be an art historian, a decent art historian, without being engaged in some way with contemporary art. And that contemporary art had to inform your art history in some way. So that’s always been there.
I went on to work at The Open University at a moment that was incredibly lucky for me, with a range of really cutting-edge art historians and thinkers, including Charles Harrison, who was part of [the conceptual artists’ group] Art and Language. That sense of working with artists was absolutely fundamental to the way we were trying to reconfigure modernism. And it was very formative for me; I was forced to expand my research interests because we were writing about a very wide range of things. And so that was incredibly facilitating.
I think I moved up the century, from the ‘20s, including now questions around Surrealism and sexuality, through to the neo-avant-gardes of the ‘50s and ‘60s. I’ve written and always been very interested in American art. And obviously fundamental to me has been the work I did on Eva Hesse. She is an artist who really shaped a lot of my interests in Modernism and particularly American Modernism. Subsequent to that I’d become interested—and feel I always should have been but didn’t have the tools—to think about an expanded geography of abstraction.
I’ve written a great deal about abstract art and I’ve been interested in abstraction from the very outset. But you know, how could you be interested in abstraction and not think of the great Neo-Concretists? Not take on [Hélio] Oiticia, Lygia Clark, and so on? So, it’s many years ago now, but I really felt the importance of that. I’ve been lucky enough to teach. I’ve been lucky enough to teach Brazilian and other students from all over the world and really gained from their insights as they’re studying here in London. I owe them a lot, but it is obviously a matter of great importance to expand the geography of art history. As contemporary art has become increasingly prominent, I have had more opportunities to work more closely with artists and even create exhibitions with them. That’s really been a wonderful development for me.
Albers, Anni (1899-1994) © ARS, NY. Diagram showing method of draft notation: plain weave, Plate 10, On Weaving, 1965, Anni Albers Papers Box 27 folder 5. © 2016 Josef and Anni Albers Foundation © The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 2018. Photo: Albers Foundation/Art Resource, NY
JM: I wonder—how has that interaction with contemporary artists affected how you work on more historical subjects?
BF: Certainly for me, the particular artists who I’ve worked with—for example, Gabriel Orozco, Roni Horn, many others—and the conversations that I’ve had with them have really helped me think again about lots of received ideas or so-called conventional wisdom. Watching how artists work. Thinking about how artists work. What it is to make stuff. How hard it is, often. How exacting it is as a discipline. It’s helped me understand a great deal about process. A great deal about the shortcomings of some assumptions that art historians often have about how things get made. In my writing I have tried to express how open things might be, rather than predictive or predictable.
But I’d even go further and say that in my experience, contemporary art, when it counts, makes you see history differently. It reveals different histories. It makes one imagine other perhaps neglected histories. Different conjunctions appear that could never have been available to think before. Take those old narratives of stylistic developments [that]place the clean-cut precision of geometric abstraction over here, and interests in the body or corporeality over here. These kinds of opposition between the utterly rational and the irrational or corporeal simply don’t work. There’s no way you can hold those two things apart when you actually get involved in looking at contemporary art, let alone studying it. There are many other examples of how my work as an art historian has been shaped in experience as well as by theory. Of course I want to maintain some space for thinking about larger historical patterns and art historical patterns, but I really think for me that part of the excitement is the way in which contemporary art can unleash different histories that you never even thought were there.
Hesse, Eva (1936-1970) Tori, 1969. Fiberglass on wire mesh, 47 x 17 x15 (largest of nine units). Purchased with funds contributed by Mr. and Mrs. Leonard Korman, Mr. and Mrs. Keith Sachs, Marion Boulton Stroud, Mr. and Mrs. Bayard T. Storey, and with other various funds, 1990. The Philadelphia Museum of Art / Art Resource, NY . © Estate of Eva Hesse.
JM: Talking about contemporary art affecting how we perceive of the broader trajectories, did your book The Infinite Line—which looks at remaking art after Modernism—come out of a similar dialogue of addressing contemporary art and having that help you see more historical periods?
BF: Yes, absolutely. The Infinite Line is a book about repetition actually. They wouldn’t let me put repetition in the title—publishers don’t like repetition. They think it’s kind of boring. But obviously those cycles that repeat, and the way in which things repeat in order to maximize difference is still something that we see in art today. The book was an attempt to chart a different way of thinking and suggest that symbiotic relationship between history and the contemporary. To think the contemporary, you have to think its historicity; to think history, you have to think of what’s become of these different trajectories from the past.
JM: So following that line of thinking—tracing lines of thought or trends within art—are there certain trends or paths that are being developed in art and sculpture today?
BF: Well, partly because of the Nasher Prize, I have been reflecting on this – but it’s also very much to the fore in the work that I do. I have been thinking particularly of the role of sculpture, but perhaps one could broaden this to art more generally. In any case, we have a more expanded sense of what sculpture is. I think now sculpture can’t simply be defined by its materiality, and yet questions about the role of making and what it is to make something are often highlighted or dramatized in relation to sculpture. I’m interested in work that presents itself in that expanded sense as a made thing, a material thing, a fabricated thing. And I think there is an interesting constellation to be mapped based on that question of what it is to make something and what making even means in relation to the digital and the technological world we now live in. I think these different technologies are developing apace and are absorbed in art and art practice, often indirectly rather than directly, and not kept out.
I think that question of making has become quite an urgent one again in this very context. I don’t just mean making things out of clay or traditional materials, though artists can do very surprising things with all sorts of old or artisanal materials. But you can also make something out of anything. And a digital space is something that you can shape and make so I think that’s a very interesting question to think about.
This leads me to certain questions around scale that seem urgent today, even we might call it—I don’t want to be melodramatic—a kind of crisis of scale. One can’t help be tired by some of the bloated critical rhetoric that seems to mirror rather than analyze contemporary cultural overload of one sort or another. It’s not necessarily easy in this context to enter into an encounter with the specificities of things, or to see how things are made visible in an exacting way—but all the more important. I think a sense of scale, is not so much just about literal size but about how one places things, how we inhabit that object world. There is a kind of physicality about an encounter in much contemporary art that I think is important to hold onto.
JM: You’ve recently written books on Richard Serra, Gabriel Orozco, you’ve done a lot of work on Eva Hesse, but also contemporary artists like Roni Horn, Rachel Whiteread, Phyllida Barlow. You have a broad knowledge of contemporary art and contemporary sculpture in particular. I’m curious if you’ve seen a change over your career in terms of where the interest in art lies. This is maybe more of a sociological observation, but for a long time, the emphasis was on artists like Richard Serra and predominantly male artists, but now there’s more of an emphasis—or starting to seem to be—a bit more balancing the scales and recognizing great female artists. I think your work on Eva Hesse has helped do that. I wonder if over the span of your career if you have a perspective on how that’s changed.
BF: Obviously over my career, I’ve really committed a lot of my attention to women artists from Eva Hesse through Agnes Martin, Lygia Clark, Lygia Pape, recently Anni Albers. Yes, for sure, the recognition of those artists has been absolutely transformed, and yes, this has been incredibly important to me. One can see that in museums. There’s still work to do, but I think the transformation has been extraordinary. Likewise, I think, it continues to be vital to try to expand the geography of art. Thinking beyond Europe and North America has become a necessity for anyone thinking about contemporary art. Absolutely a necessity. And not only to incorporate it into the history, but to try to encourage viewpoints from different positions. From the perspectives of the global south, for example. I think all of this is still in transition. But they are vitally important new directions that we need to take account of.
Roni Horn, Opposites of White, 2006-2007. Photo: Marjon Gemmeke. Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth Collection Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, the Netherlands, purchased with support from the Rembrandt Association (partly thanks to its P.H. Soeters Fund for 20th century glass art, its A. Quist-Rütter Fund, its Titus Fund, and its Van Rijn Fund), the Mondrian Fund, and the BankGiro Lottery.
JM: The Nasher Prize jury is made up individuals from a variety of perspectives. There are artists like Phyllida Barlow and Huma Bhabha, there are curators like Pablo León de la Barra, directors like Okwui Enwezor and Nicholas Serota, and you’re coming to the jury deliberations from the perspective of a scholar. You’ll have to project what it’s going to be like tomorrow since this is going to be your first time in the jury room, but I’m curious if you have a sense of how your role as a scholar, as an art historian who works on contemporary subjects, will play a role within the conversations.
BF: As you say, it’s my first time so this is rather speculative, but I’m excited about it because the jury has such a very wide scope. The artists we’re thinking about, the question of contemporary art, it means so many different things. The range of artists that one might consider and think about is challenging to say the least. I think something I would hope to bring is a sense of historicity. I am by no means the only person who can bring that to the table amongst the individuals that you mentioned, and the others on the jury. Obviously, a prize is an odd thing, the best work doesn’t get made with a prize in mind by artists or scholars or anybody. But the chance to recognize really serious work invites us to think about why art matters in the culture, and there are a lot of many urgent reasons why we need to think and be able to articulate why art matters to us now.
Art obviously makes visible things that can’t be said through other forms of knowledge. It’s very important to try to insist on the necessity, the importance of art, sometimes quite difficult, exacting, not necessarily easy art—it must be always engaging and compelling.
I’m looking forward to it because I think it offers so many interesting perspectives on why sculpture matters now. I don’t think art says something about the world in a didactic sense—as if it should make a statement or convey a message. People often want it to, but that’s a different matter. I think art is of the world. It articulates something about our being in the world. So I’m less interested in the kind of art that carries a very overt message and more interested in art that articulates something about the world by being of it and that rearranges how we think as a consequence.