Ethan Cohen—Masks



Ethan Cohen—Masks


L’art nègre? Connais pas! — African art? Never heard of it!1
Pablo Picasso, 1920
 
No pivotal topic in twentieth-century art has received less serious attention than primitivism—the interest of modern artists in tribal* art and culture, as revealed in their thought and work.2
William Rubin, 1984
 
Today the truth is on display that Picasso would not have been the renowned creative genius he was if he did not steal and re-adapt the work of ‘anonymous [African] artists.’3
Sandile Memela, 2006
 
We need to learn more about Africa, to open our eyes, become more informed in a global sense, even more embracing of diverse art practices from around the world, and I think Africa is just part of it.4
Ethan Cohen, 2017
 
Ethan Cohen—Masks is a special satellite exhibition in support of artists Aboudia and GonçaloMabunda and the Light & Dark exhibition series. It presents an intercultural opportunity to consider contemporary African art alongside traditional African objects. Cambridge School of Weston (CSW) alumnus Ethan Cohen ’79 (Ethan Cohen Fine Arts Ltd., New York, NY) joined Cambridge School of Weston art faculty and Thompson Gallery Director Todd Bartel to co-curate the final Light & Dark exhibitions—Aboudia and Gonçalo Mabunda.5Ethan Cohen—Masks enters the fold of exhibitions to shed light on the influence of African artifacts upon the history of European painting and contemporary African art. The Thompson Gallery and CSW are grateful for the opportunity to exhibit the art of Aboudia and Mabunda and Cohen’s mask collection; all of the work on view for the final Light & Dark exhibitions is brought to CSW courtesy of Ethan Cohen Fine Arts, New York, NY.
 
Ethan Cohen Fine Arts (ECFA) was founded in 1987 in SoHo (then called Art Waves Ethan Cohen Gallery) and has presented both emerging and internationally renowned artists for over 25 years.6 Today, ECFA is located in Chelsea, in the heart of Manhattan, and in Beacon, NY. Many of the emerging artists have now become household names. A groundbreaker in the field of contemporary Chinese art, ECFA was the first gallery to present the Chinese avant-garde of the ‘80s to the United States, introducing the works of celebrated artists such as Ai Weiwei, Xu Bing, Gu Wenda, Wang Keping and Qiu Zhijie.7 Today, ECFA represents a diverse global mix of art, including contemporary American, African, Iranian, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Russian, Pakistani and Thai, with a continuing focus on emerging as well as established artists.8
 
Ethan Cohen—Masks provides insight into the works of Aboudia and Mabunda, connecting contemporary African art to traditional, African ethnographic production — simultaneously providing context and echoing various cultural affinities shared by the Light & Dark artists. The three final Light & Dark exhibitions demonstrate the sense of invention, spontaneity and playfulness exhibited by the current generation of African artists, but also point to critiques of their respective cultures; their individual imagery raises questions pointing to their own immediate cultural situations, and exploring how each has emerged into the global spotlight. Together, Aboudia’s and Mabunda’s art, along with EthanCohen—Masks, celebrate the vitality and ingenuity of African expressivity, while also expanding the Light & Dark exhibition’s theme to include cultural conflict and cultural transformation of the darker and lighter sides of humanity.
 
Given that today’s flourishing art market burgeoned largely because of the advent of Modernism over a hundred years ago, it is important to recognize the impact of Asian and African influences on European art. Much more is understood about 19th century Asian influences than 20th century African/Oceanic influences upon European artists. For example, while research into Japonism and Ukiyo-e printmaking has been ongoing and longstanding, the influence of African and Oceanic art on European artists is a relatively new field. Serious study began in earnest after WWII.9 In the mid 1980s, an important exhibition sponsored by the Museum of Modern Art entitled Primitivism In 20th Century Art presented the first scholarly work on the topic. Today, thanks to the groundbreaking work of William Rubin (curator and director of the painting and sculpture department at the MoMA from 1968 to 1988) and the writers and curators of that foundational exhibition, we possess key insights into how the early modernists were influenced by the ethnographic productions of various African peoples — the Kota, the Dan, and the Fang,10 for example.
 
In the introduction to the catalog of Primitivism In 20th Century Art, MoMa’s scholarly exhibition which juxtaposed European artists’ art with “tribal” works that inspired those European innovations, Rubin acknowledges problems associated with the meaning of the word “primitivism” — the simplification and stylization of observed forms. Rubin devotes considerable attention to this problematic “art-historical term,11 noting that it carried associations of “belief in the superiority of primitive life” and “imitation”12 — and it must be pointed out that Europeans tended to view “all non-Western art…[as] inherently inferior.”13 Furthermore, outside of the art lovers and the avant-garde pioneers of the twentieth century, the term “‘primitive’ often had a pejorative meaning.”14 By the late 1800s, Rubin points out,
 
artists had expanded the connotations of “primitive” to include not only the Romanesque and Byzantine, but a host of non-Western arts ranging from the Peruvian to the Javanese — with the sense of “Primitivism” altering accordingly. Neither word, however, as yet evoked the tribal art of Africa or Oceania. They would enter the definitions in question only in the twentieth century.15
 
But here it is important to acknowledge that art forms from these peoples and subsequent others only came to Modernists’ attention after Picasso painted his “revolutionary” Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, completed in July of 1907.16The work was inspired by a seminalvisit to the first anthropological museum in Paris, The Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro (founded in 1878), Picasso was “shocked” by the masks and “fetishes” he saw there and had a “revelation”: At that moment, I realized what painting was all about.17 Picasso resolved his Demoiselles within weeks of that visit. In the words of William Rubin:
 
the fame of [Les Demoiselles d’Avignon] spread quickly through the little world of advanced artists in late 1907, and with it tribal art became an urgent issue.18
 
By embracing primitivism [between 1906-1907], Picasso short-circuited the continuity of…inherited conventions, and his year-long exploration of increasingly remote and alien aesthetic correlative permitted him to rediscover pictorial authenticity for himself.19
 
Rubin points out that despite its groundbreaking status in the history of Western painting, Demoiselles is not the first Cubist painting, but rather, “it cleared the path for its development.20 Within the first year after Picasso completed Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Georges Braque created the L’Estaque landscape paintings of 1908—the earliest examples of Analytic Cubism21—in a style that picked up the planer geometry of Picasso’s Demoiselles while adapting Cezanne’s ideas of “[studying] nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere and the cone.”22 In turn, “advanced taste beg[a]n to open to the more challenging tribal objects,” and wholesale application of artistic “Primitivism” ensued in one form or another, continuing to this day.23
 
Ethan Cohen’s primary interest in collecting masks is to understand contemporary African art—for instance, the art of Aboudia and Mabunda.Cohen’s interests in the masks of Africa and Oceania often parallel Rubin’s research. The selected masks on view provide great insight into the affinities adopted by Picasso and the Cubists during the first half of the twentieth century, but also relate strongly to the work of Aboudia and Mabunda, who both promote references to their respective past into their art.
 
All of the objects on view in EthanCohen—Masks are emblematic of the qualities that gave rise to the European avant-garde’s appreciation of, and subsequent experimentation with, “perceived inventiveness” and expanded possibilities for the “multiformity”24 of pictorial expression. Cubism, for example, can be defined as an art that dispensed with the Renaissance system of perspective in favor of fitting together edited, geometric segments from multiple views of a respective subject onto a single canvas — thereby flattening the foreground, the middle ground and the background, while compressing the objects viewed within the depicted spaces. As Rubin points out, European artists promoted “a fundamental shift in the nature of most vanguard art from styles rooted in visual perception to others based on conceptualization.”25 In other words, African and Oceanic objects inspired the first major steps in the European avant-garde away from visual semblances and toward synthetic abstraction and stylization. The Baoulé Buffalo mask (checklist 4), the SongyeKifwebe mask (checklist 8), the Krahn Mask (checklist 10), the Pende mask (checklist 11), and the HyenaMask (checklist 12) are most indicative of the advanced kinds of physical and spatial liberties that attracted European Avant-garde artists—in particular Pablo Picasso who was drawn to the most radical forms, the “abstract, transformative and transmogrified” masks of the Baga and Grebo:26
 
Picasso’s distortions…were an invented projection of an internal, psychological state…rather than through pictorial conventions directly derived from seeing...[M]any more such affinities may be found between Picasso’s art and that of the tribal peoples than is the case with the work of other pioneer modernists reflects, on Picasso’s part, a profound identity of spirit with the tribal peoples as well as a generalized assimilation of the principles and character of their art.27
 
While Picasso had seen some African objects on occasional studio visits (to Matisse, Derain, and Vlaminck) during the six months prior to undertaking the Demoiselles, and while the Trocadéro visit clearly took place during and not after its execution, neither in this picture nor in any other painting, drawing, or sculpture did Picasso literally copy or imitate any tribal object.28
 
So deep were Picasso’s internalized affinities that “Demoiselles” has been said to haveobliterated the vestiges of nineteenth-century painting.”29 This idea sheds light upon Picasso’s infamous, obviously sarcastic and disingenuous claim that he “never heard” of African art. Of course he did. It was Picasso alone who possessed a deep appreciation and intuitive understanding of the inherent powers of reduction within tribal abstractions. As Rubin puts it, “In no other artist’s career has primitivism played so pivotal and historically consequential a role as in Picasso’s.”30 So radical was Picasso’s apprehension that even today, his proclamation “L’art nègre? Connais pas!” is often misunderstood and misinterpreted. A case in point for needed and continued reflection is a 2006 news story about “the first significant exhibition of Pablo Picasso’s work in South Africawhich “provoked a furious row after a senior government official accused him of stealing the work of African artists to boost his flagging talent:
 
There seems to be some clandestine agenda… that projects Picasso as someone… who loved African art so much that he went out of his way to reveal it the world… But all this is a whitewash… he is but one of the many products of African inspiration and creativity who lacked the courage to admit its influence on his consciousness and creativity.31
 
Today the world’s eyes and minds are keenly focused on problems of appropriation. Similar concerns in the art museum world came to light in 1984, when Thomas McEvilley criticized MoMA’s exhibition Primitivism in 20th Century Art for not providing contextual and ethnographic information regarding the “tribal” artifacts on display adjacent to European artists’ works. In his celebrated critical reflection, McEvilley argued that “‘Primitivism’ lays bare the way our cultural institutions relate to foreign cultures…The Museum pretends to confront the Third World while really co-opting it…32 McEvilley’s argument initiated a global shift in attitude that attempted circumvent such shortsightedness moving forward. Curators worldwide began looking to global possibilities for contemporary art. As an intercultural, pan-African project, Ethan Cohen—Masks follows in this lineage by bringing together traditional and contemporary cultural objects in an effort to better understand the relationships between them. Cohen began collecting masks and tribal objects as a way of learning more about the cultures he visits as he works with the artists he meets:
 
I want to understand where these objects come from, who made them, why they are made.33
 
Today, contemporary African art is being made that links itself to its own past; in light of African art and artists voicing their own views as part of a global art community, the time is ripe for such inquiry.
 
Todd Bartel
Co-Curator, Gallery Director
Thompson Gallery
_________________________________________________________
[1]  Pablo Picasso, quoted in ActionCahiers de Philosophie et D’Art, April 1920, Number 3, Paris, France, p. 25
[1]  William Rubin, Modernist Primitivism an Introduction, in Primitivism In 20th Century Art, ed. William Rubin, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, New York Graphic Society Books, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 1984, p. 1; *Note: During the past twenty years, the word “tribal” has been frequently used in preference to “primitive” in characterizing a wide variety of arts of more or less noncentralized societies with simple technologies. Both words are profoundly problematic; we use them reluctantly (and interchangeably) in this book to answer the need for a generalizing collective term for the art we are addressing. No adequate or generally agreed-upon substitutes for “tribal” and “primitive” have been proposed… But the need for a general term arises from the wish to allude to characteristics that appear (to some Western eyes, at least) similar in variety of cultures in different parts of the world. p. 74
[1]  Sandile Memela, quoted by Stephen Bevan in Picasso 'stole the work of African artists,’ The Telegraph, 12 Mar 2006, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/southafrica/1512804/Picasso-stole-the-work-of-African-artists.html, retrieved March 30 2017
[1]  Ethan Cohen, transcribed text from Ethan Cohen Fine Arts’ website video, Ethan Cohen on Aboudia, 2014, http://www.ecfa.com/aboudia, retrieved March 9, 2017, transcribed by the author
[1] Ethan Cohen selected the work on display. Todd Bartel installed the work, researched the artists and wrote the accompanying exhibition texts.
[1]  About Ethan Cohen Fine Arts, ECFA document, updated 2017
[1]  Ibid.
[1]  Ibid.
[1]  Rubin, p.3
[1]  Rubin, p. 14
[1]  Rubin, p. 2
[1]  Rubin, p. 2
[1]  Rubin, p. 6
[1]  Rubin, p. 6
[1]  Rubin, p. 2
[1]  Rubin, pp. 7, 250
[1]  Rubin, p. 242
[1]  Rubin 13
[1]  Rubin, p. 241
[1]  Rubin, p. 253
[1]  Rubin, p. 253
[1]  Paul Cezanne, Letter to Emile Bernard, April 15, 1904, http://arthistoryproject.com/artists/paul-cezanne/letters-from-paul-cezanne-to-emile-bernard/, retrieved January 8, 2017
[1]  Rubin, p. 7
[1]  Rubin, p. 3
[1]  Rubin, p. 11
[1]  Rubin, p. 14
[1]  Rubin, p. 265
[1]  Rubin, p. 260
[1]  Rubin, p. 253
[1]  Rubin, p. 241
[1]  Memela
[1]  Thomas McEvilley, Doctor Lawyer Indian Chief: “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art” at the Museum of Modern Art in 1984, Art Forum, November 1984, p. 60
[1]  Ethan Cohen, phone interview, April
 
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