The year is coming to a close, and I think many can agree that 2017 has been one hell of a rollercoaster.
When it comes to the concern of what art can do for us in these tumultuous times, we have to obvious answers: protest or escapism. The exhibition Delirious: Art at the Limit of Reason, 1950 – 1980 at the Met Breuer offers us a third, more complicated, answer.
Curated by Kelly Baum,Delirious is comprised of dozens of paintings, drawings, video, and sculptures that range in their origin and movement. However, according to the press release, “delirium … serves as an umbrella concept that includes a range of analogous experiences, all of which flirt with the irrational.” Irrationality is then split into various categories across galleries with labels like “Vertigo” or “Twisted.” This allows the viewer some level of organizing thought and principle when moving through this vibrant– and sometimes overwhelming –exhibition.
With that in mind, don’t expect to have your hand held through this show. The thirty years that Baum is examining is perhaps the most fraught decades of the twentieth century: the aftermath of the Second World War, the Cold War, and the political and social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. Irrationality seems like a natural point of departure for artists being exposed to the horrors of wars, the souring of “free love” movements, or the political turmoil and corruption of the 1970s. This is all very fertile grounds for exploration, and this exhibition proves that there were a multitude of ways to engage with delirium.
The perennially haunting presence of Warhol’s Electric Chair, a BDSM head by Nancy Grossman, the ghastly figure of Miss E Knows by Jim Nutt, or the gritty and visceral video work of Dara Birnbaum leave you feeling jarred, to say the least. At certain points throughout the show, I heard hushed giggles of nervous laughter. It makes sense because one does feel nervous, along with feeling disturbed and melancholic. Suddenly, amongst the feeling of darkness, I genuinely felt the absurd humor in the exhibition. Lee Lozano’s quasi-instructive drawing which says to “THROW THE LAST TWELVE ISSUES OF ARTFORUM IN THE AIR” made me think some of the nervous laughter in the galleries was actually sincere. Laughter and wit is sometimes the best solution to a bleak reality.
One leaves this exhibition feeling sobered, but hopeful, too. It speaks to the power of these many artists (across borders and generations) that turned to their art practices to confront the irrational worlds in which they lived. Art as a medium to confront trauma and to channel catharsis can be deeply unsettling, as one can see in Delirious. However, it also offers the opportunity for release and healing, and in light of this past year, that message feels more vital than ever.