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Only white and male? Questioning the Pop Art canon

Nadine Wojcik cmb
June 23, 2020

The Museum Ludwig in Germany spent two years examining the diversity of its collection. The resulting show, "Mapping the Collection," highlights long-overlooked female, queer, Indigenous and African American artists.

An ad by Corita Kent says 'people like us yes'
Image: Rheinisches Bildarchiv, Köln/Estate of Corita Kent Immaculate Heart

Who decides what belongs in an artistic canon? For instance, in the Pop Art canon? Is it the loudest or most extroverted artists? Those who have the most shows to their names or whose works are the most expensive, such as those by Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol or Claes Oldenburg? Is it a coincidence that these accepted representatives of the genre are all white males?

The Museum Ludwig in Cologne, in western Germany, hosts the largest collection of Pop Art outside of the United States. Over two years, it critically examined these works to see if they were truly representative of American art of the 60s and 70s. The answer was definitely not, and it spurred the newly opened exhibition, "Mapping the Collection."

The show aims to expand perspectives on American art of the time by presenting lesser-known artists from the museum's collection alongside loaned works, with the emphasis on female, queer, indigenous and artists of color. Exhibited artists include Sen­ga Nen­gu­di, Adrian Piper and T.C. Can­non.

While the exhibition was years in the making, its opening has coincided with global protests against racism and the legacies of colonialism and slavery, reflecting the pressing relevance of the call to re-examine cultural inclusion.

Missing perspectives on still-timely topics

"Perspectives were missing from our collection. Why have they not been represented? We don't have an answer, but we are working on it," Museum Director Yilmaz Dziewior said at the exhibition's press conference. "We believe these artists deserve more attention because they addressed questions of their time that are still relevant today."

The 60s and 70s were tumultuous years in US history. There were the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and African American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., the Black Power self-determination movement, protests against the Vietnam War, and rising feminist and gay liberation movements.

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Senga Nengudis performance 'Inside/Outside' (1977) relates to the elasticity of the human bodyImage: Timo Ohler/Senga Nengudi

Many artists addressed these social upheavals, including African American, Latinx and Indigenous artists. However, their works are rarely seen in art museums, even though the contemporary artistic style transcended ethnic and social differences. The role of relationships and alliances between artists was also of key importance. 

Despite this interconnectedness, artists did not have equal chances when it came to the art market or institutional reception.

"In order to overcome a one-sided narrative of art history, it is not enough to just exhibit these other pictures now. Instead, one must critically question one's institution and collection," said curator Janice Mitchell, who led the 2-year inventory of Museum Ludwig's collection.

The museum consequently bought new works in preparation for the exhibition. According to director Dziewior, further purchases are planned.

While the exhibition is particularly timely due to the Black Lives Matter protests, Mitchell said this must not distract from the fact "that these topics are always present and you have to grapple with them."

The exhibition "Mapping the Collection" opened at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne on June 20. It will run through August 23. 

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