Matthew Higgs is an artist, curator, and writer. He is the director and chief curator of White Columns, New York City’s oldest, alternative not-for-profit art space. In 2012, Higgs curated the outstanding show, Everyday Abstract — Abstract Everyday at James Cohan Gallery. The following transcript is a discussion of the conception, planning, and organization of that show. We spoke at his White Columns office.
THE BELIEVER: What was the germ of this show?
MATTHEW HIGGS: It had really begun just as kind of me sort of observing the way that certain artists were working with found commonplace everyday quotidian materials, yet they were ending up with something that very closely resembled abstract art. So there was a kind of paradox where the materials in the work retained their everydayness, but somehow they were put in the service of something that seemed to be abstract. It seemed to me there’s an interesting paradox to me between the thingness of the object, which was retained, and—you know, this idea that they sort of become something else. It seemed to me to work against perhaps an earlier mid-twentieth century idea of modernism, especially abstract painting, which was the idea—coming from Clement Greenberg—that abstract paintings existed outside of the real world. That they were kind of a world unto themselves. They didn’t have any kind of external stimuli in them—they were sort of in denial of social, economic, psychological realities. It wasn’t the abstract in the sense of the sublime. Like, zen abtraction. It was something quite different. My feeling was that it’s connected to social realities. It’s connected to a shift in the economy. Moving toward—even things like recycling. The idea of discarded materials. The idea of scavenging materials. The idea of repurposing abandoned materials. There seems to be something in the work that connected it to a kind of dysfunctional idea of society.
I wasn’t saying this is a style or a manner of making work. What I was saying is it occurs often enough that it’s more than isolated incidents. It seems to me that this was a methodology that all kinds of people in different circumstances, artists of different ages, have all arrived at independently. And that was sort of the initial motivation.
BLVR: Is this different from say, the Arte Povera movement in Italy?
MH: Yeah Arte Povera, you know obviously it shares some sensibility in that Arte Povera in it’s classical formation is rooted in the everyday, and it was rooted in, you know—
BLVR: Garbage, sometimes.
MH: Yeah exactly. But it seems to me within Arte Povera there’s a kind of sort of, you know, poetry. That perhaps is less apparent in the work in this show. This work seems to be more ordinary. Perhaps more humble. And perhaps less demonstrative than Arte Povera was. I think, you know, a lot of Arte Povera works still pose toward the theatrical. Certainly when you’re in the space with a some of these works, they occupy a lot of space. They take on a lot of kind of very theatrical presence. And a lot of the work in this show does the opposite. It moves away from this idea of a physical presence to something that’s you know, marginal. It has a kind of marginal impact.
BLVR: So it’s not attempting to transcend its materials at all?
MH: Yeah, there’s a kind of honesty. And a strange kind of truthfulness to the materials. And the intended effect of the work is quite modest. And it seems counter to, you know, the idea that art has to make some kind of grand statement. That art has to occupy some kind of grand presence, or all those kind of gestures. This work seems to be working against those kind of ideas. They obtain their ordinariness.
BLVR: Do you think that’s more true right now, than say ten years ago?
MH: I think you can read it as a reaction. I’m not sure individual artists would agree with this, but I think you could read it as a reaction to you know, perhaps some of the excessive spectacle like artworks produced in the last decade. A number of critics have used the term you know, carnivalesque, relating to sort of like the Biennales and art fairs where people end up taking their cell phones for autographs, or the kind of thing that’s covered in glitter, and making neon signs, a gigantic sculpture based on a manga sculpture and so forth. It seems to me that kind of sort of excessiveness in art, this work I would suggest is a counter to that. It seems to me that the excessive carnivalesque art is connected to the blooming economy of the early to mid 2000s, when not only the art world was blooming, but everything was blooming. And then of course, that crashed, and it seems to me that this work is empathetic to what came, what followed - that idea of being more closely connected to, or emerging from existing social realities. It’s what I found most interesting about this work, that it’s uhm, that it’s connected to how people live their lives. Or how their lives are.