The timing in itself felt strange, like the delayed – and more effective – late appearance of the chief character in a play.
Jacqueline Rose, “The Haunting of Sylvia Plath,” On Not Being Able to Sleep, 2003
Walking through the Isa Genzken retrospective at MoMA the other day I noticed that if I looked at a work before reading the wall label, I was always wrong in guessing the date of the work, thinking it was earlier. In general, I was off by anything from 15 to 20 years, and sometimes more, although in some rooms a 20-year difference was common.
Virtually all the works seemed to me to have been made earlier than they were. It’s as if the works occupy an obliquely parallel temporal relation to earlier works by other artists (like a rhomboidal tracking of those earlier works). The “lateness” of her work didn’t seem to be that of an artist who fixates on a particular historical modality or style and repeats it out-of-time, like a repetition compulsion to stave off the anxiety of a present moment. If so, her work wouldn’t be rhomboidal; it wouldn’t progress. And there’s an acute thoughtfulness to the Genzken work, particularly through the 1990s, that belies nostalgia, academicism or simple borrowing. The word “derivative” does not apply to it. The work conveys an unusual attention to art that has come before it. It has about it a deliberate un-mindfulness of historical timing, as if the works pause stubbornly and un-self-consciously to reflect and filter pre-existing modalities, processes, materials, subjects, forms, events.They take their own time. In their un-mindfulness they create a glitch in the more typically untroubled movement of museum-time. Viewing the exhibition, I sometimes wanted the work to have been made earlier, but that desire was always frustrated.
The curators refer to her “radical inventiveness.” But to me, the most interesting aspect of the work is that it’s not “radical” as we’ve come to understand that term. Nor is it “inventive” as the word is typically used by curators and critics. It seems to be insistently un-inventive, unconcerned with the radical, unless we define as radical a subtle reflection on and recalibration of what has come before. This work depends on the time-lag. And this begs the question of whether we understand timeliness in art. It also begs the question of how we define “influence.”
Can someone who lags behind in a critical manner be considered an influence as typically defined? (And maybe a few less qualifiers of her purported influence could have been omitted from the MoMA website text altogether – “Isa Genzken is arguably one of the most important and influential female artists of the past 30 years.”)
The fact that the Genzken work reflects on, processes, and filters earlier practices without employing the use of language is particularly interesting because it means the spectator has to think through one visual language to think about another visual language differently. I don’t doubt that I saw an exhibition that many others, less historically-minded others, have not. But that may just speak to defining more broadly – less broadly, more subtly? -the contemporary challenges of curatorial and critical work.