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Picasso Y-Block Controversy: Why the Art World Is Rallying to Save Two Murals in Norway

August 7, 2020 2:45pm

Picasso's 'Fisherman' in the process of
Picasso’s ‘Fisherman’ in the process of being removed from Oslo’s Y-Block. LISE ASERUD / NTB SCANPIX VIA AP)

Over the past few months, curators, activists, and historians have closely watched the demolition of the Y-Block, a building in Oslo. Though hardly a well-known structure beyond the confines of Norway, the Y-Block has become a structure of interest in the art world because it contains two murals by Pablo Picasso and Carl Nesjar that are key in both of their oeuvres. Produced over a 10-year span, the murals could be forever changed when they are separated from the building they have long called home.

The murals have their roots in the year 1956, when Picasso and Nesjar first met. The pairing was not an obvious one. Picasso was a celebrated modernist known for pushing the limits of how the human form could be represented; Nesjar, by contrast, was lesser-known, and mainly inclined toward low-key sculptures made from concrete. But the two found discovered a shared affection for Brutalist design, and Nesjar was ultimately tasked with translating Picasso’s drawings into monumental, three-dimensional concrete forms. At the height of their collaboration, Nesjar was called Picasso’s “right arm,” and wound up functioning as the artist’s confidant. “I must be the only person in the world who has corrected a Picasso drawing,” he said in 1968.

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By the time Picasso died in 1973, the two had worked together to realize more than 30 monumental site-specific concrete murals and sculptures worldwide. “Jacqueline,” a series of towering monuments to Picasso’s wife, are installed on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge; the Vondelpark in Amsterdam; and in Helsingborg, a town in southern Sweden, among other locations. Bust of Sylvette, a 36-foot-tall sandblasted sculpture of Picasso’s beloved model, Sylvette David, was installed in the courtyard of Silver Towers, a high-rise apartment complex in New York designed by architect I. M. Pei, in 1968. (A single mock-up, signed “Bon à tirer pour Nesjar. Picasso,” served as that project’s contract.) In 2008, Bust of Sylvette was declared a New York City landmark. 

Their first collaboration, five concrete murals designed for Oslo’s Regjeringskvartalet complex—the city’s governmental quarters—was the only to become a matter of international controversy, however. In 2011, right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik detonated a car bomb near the complex’s Y-Block, a structure named for its shape as seen from the sky. Eight people were killed in the explosion, and later that day, Breivik murdered 69 more—most of them teenagers—on Utoya island outside Oslo. For many Norwegians, the Y-Block, which was left standing but has been kept deserted since the events of 2011, became to some inextricable from the worst atrocity committed in the nation during peacetime. 

Intentions to demolish the Y-Block were announced in 2014, and in 2017 Oslo officials formalized plans to redevelop the entire Regjeringskvartalet complex in a sleek, glass-encased design. Proponents of the demolition argued that its location atop a vehicle tunnel proved an insurmountable security risk. The Y-Block would be deconstructed, while the nearby H-Block, which houses three small Picasso murals, would be restored.

Preservationists, politicians, and art-world figures decried the destruction of the Y-Block, which dates to 1968 and is considered a masterpiece of Scandanvian minimalism. Advocates for keeping the Y-Block put forward difficult questions: Wasn’t destroying the structure a fulfillment of Breivik’s anti-democracy mission? Two murals by Picasso and Nesjar—Fisherman on its facade, and The Seagull in its lobby—decorate the Y-Block, and therefore make the building art historically important. Would become of these works?

Early reports about the demolition stoked fear—they mentioned workers untrained in preservation, who some believed would crack the delicate murals while drilling. An international uproar followed. Demonstrators, clad in stripes meant to recall Picasso’s famed Breton shirts, crowded in front of Fisherman. Their protests began to same futile at a pint. A motion by an opposition party in Norway’s Parliament aimed to reverse the demolition plan; the motion failed. A petition to save the building amassed nearly fifty thousand signatures, and curators at New York’s Museum of Modern Art released an letter to Prime Minister Erna Solberg of Norway pleading for the preservation of the structure: “The demolition of the building complex would not only constitute a significant loss of Norwegian architectural heritage, but it would also render any attempt to salvage or reposition Picasso’s site-specific murals elsewhere unfortunate.” 

Despite divided public opinion, in June 2019, a crane lowered Fishermen onto two trucks en route to storage. The Seagull soon followed. Both are to be reinstalled in the new complex, which is slated to complete construction in 2025. 

Nesjar’s daughter, Gro Nesjar Greve, and the grandson of Y-Block’s architect Erling Viksjø jointly filed a lawsuit against its relocation. In an interview with the Art Newspaper, Greve said, “Under Norwegian law, the Y Block murals are considered a co-authored art work by Picasso and my father and the architect Viksjø [so] we do have what are called ‘moral rights’, as long as we can prove that the murals are a collaboration—that my father was not just a fabricator for Picasso but part of the artistic process.”

Curators and activists have largely fixated on the murals co-authored by Picasso, but those works are only one facet of the art history that is being forever altered by the building’s demolition—there’s architecture history at stake, too. Viksjø and engineer Sverre Jystad designed the Y-Block using “Naturbetong”, or “natural concrete,” an experimental casting technique based on an aggregate of aluminum and silicon metal, which created a tactile surface receptive to sandblasting. Nesjar’s technique, called “Betograve,” entailed pouring concrete over a form—in this case, Picasso’s designs—tightly packed with gravel. The concrete was then sand-blasted with a high-pressure hose, exposing the gravel beneath. The final product was a singularity for the time and place: Brutalist architecture married with modernist figuration.

Nesjar knew early on that his and Picasso’s murals would enhance a building that was significant in its own right. “In Scandinavia, there is great excitement about spreading culture for the masses, but not East European style,” Nesjar told the New York Times. “When I showed Picasso photos of the concrete art I was working on in Oslo, he got very enthusiastic. He leapt to his feet and ran to show it to the maid.”

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Barbara Kruger’s Strange, Alluring Text-Based Artworks: How the Artist Critiqued Advertising and Rose to Fame

August 6, 2020 2:59pm

Barbara Kruger, 'Untitled (Who owns what?),'
Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Who owns what?), 1991/2012, digital print on vinyl. COURTESY THE ARTIST AND SPRÜTH MAGERS

Known worldwide for her iconic text-based works that examine consequences of capitalism, bodily autonomy, and more, Barbara Kruger is one of the most famous artists of the current moment. Her pieces often take the form of cryptic statements written in a sans serif font that recalls advertising copy; they’re printed on vinyl and black-and-white photographs, and have appeared in museums and public spaces around the world for four decades. With her work in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in York, Tate in London, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and other international institutions, Kruger will be the subject of a landmark exhibition scheduled to open at the Art Institute of Chicago and set to travel to the Museum of Modern Art and MoMA PS1 in New York and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. (Initially due to take place in 2020, the show has been delayed by the pandemic.) The guide below traces developments in Kruger’s long career and some highlights from her groundbreaking body of work.

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Barbara Kruger, Untitled (We Don’t Need Another Hero), 1988, billboard. OREN SLOR/COURTESY PUBLIC ART FUND, NY

Kruger showed work internationally in the 1980s. 
Born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1945, Kruger spent a few years studying at Syracuse University and Parsons School of Design, where photographer Diane Arbus was one of her instructors, in the mid-1960s. She later created illustrations and designs for several Condé Nast magazines, and the artist showed work in the 1973 Whitney Biennial and had several solo exhibitions throughout the decade—at John Doyle Gallery in Chicago in 1976 and at Franklin Furnace Archive in New York in 1979. Additionally, she had created a window installation for Printed Matter in 1979, one of her first public-facing projects.

In the 1980s, Kruger’s star began to ascend, and she had solo presentations at a bevy of international institutions and galleries, including the P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in New York, the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles, Mary Boone Gallery in New York, the Kunsthalle Basel in Switzerland, Monika Sprüth Galerie in Cologne, and the National Art Gallery in Wellington, New Zealand, and others. Among Kruger’s numerous public artworks of the 1980s was a digital billboard displayed in New York’s Times Square as part of the Public Art Fund’s “Messages to the Public” series. For that project, Kruger projected messages like “I’m not trying to sell you anything” and “I just want you to think about what you see when you watch the news on t.v.”—critiques aimed at both the media and its consumers. In 1988, a billboard by Kruger emblazoned with the message “We don’t need another hero” went on view in Brooklyn. “I was lucky to have early support from places like the Public Art Fund, which allowed me to do projects I never could’ve done on my own,” Kruger told Interview Magazine in 2013 of her early public art projects.

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Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Who is free to choose?), 1990, gelatin silver print in artist’s frame. COURTESY THE ARTIST AND SPRÜTH MAGERS

The artist’s solo shows and public works continue apace in the following decade.
In 1990, Kruger’s monumental wall work Untitled (Questions), 1990/2018, was first installed on the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles’s exterior south wall. (The work would be reinstalled on the facade of the museum’s Geffen Contemporary building in 2018 and is set to remain on view through November 2020.) During this decade the artist had solo outings at Mary Boone Gallery in New York, the Guild Hall in East Hampton, and MOCA in L.A., among other venues. She also participated in many group shows around the world, quickly becoming a household name, both within the art world and beyond. In 1992 and 1996, Kruger’s art featured in the exhibitions “More Than One Photography: Works Since 1980 From the Collection” and “Thinking Print: Books to Billboards, 1980-95,” respectively, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, as well as a group outing with Cindy Sherman and Jenny Holzer at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. Her public pieces took on new valences, too. For one such work, Bus (1997), Kruger wrapped a New York City bus with vinyl textual works, including the words, “The greatest threat to freedom is the absence of criticism.”

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Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Shopping), Schirn Kunsthalle / Kaufhof Department Store Facade, Frankfurt am Main, Germany, 2002, PVC net film. COURTESY THE ARTIST AND SPRÜTH MAGERS

In the early millennium, Kruger creates large-scale installations around the world.
Kruger hit the ground running in the new millennium with a mid-career retrospective that ran from 1999 to 2000 and traveled from the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, to the Whitney Museum in New York. A few years later, she debuted her storied 2002 work Untitled (Shopping), which covered the Kaufhof Department Store facade in Frankfurt as part of the Schirn Kunsthalle’s exhibition “Shopping: A Century of Art and Consumer Culture,” organized by the institution’s erstwhile director Max Hollein. The mural Untitled (Shopping) bore in German the words “You want it. You buy it. You forget it.” Other landmark projects of this decade include Kruger’s site-specific installations at the Kunst-Station St. Peter in Köln in 2003 and the 2005 Venice Biennale. At the Biennale, she covered the Italian pavilion with a vinyl mural with Italian and English messages, including “Admit nothing blame everyone” directly above the entrance.

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Barbara Kruger, The Globe Shrinks, 2010, 4-screen video installation at Sprüth Magers, Berlin. JENS ZIEHE/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND SPRÜTH MAGERS

The artist takes her monumental messages to multiple museum and gallery interiors in the 2010s.
Several of Kruger’s projects in the following decade took up space on the walls and floors of museums and galleries around the world. She debuted the four-channel, 13-minute video installation The Globe Shrinks at Mary Boone Gallery in New York in 2010; the immersive work ponders, in part, what kinds of meaning can be gleaned from everyday occurrences. The Globe Shrinks features wide-ranging depictions of physical violence, religious worship, and interpersonal interactions along with text components bearing phrases like “Tempt it,” “Shove it,” “Fear it,” “Shame it,” “Doubt it,” “Buy it,” and more.

She continued making works in that vein throughout the course of the decade. A sprawling installation by Kruger went on view at the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow in 2011 that included black-and-white and vibrant green components. One of the floor elements of that work reflects the format of a newspaper, its headlines replaced with uneasy phrases like “Why women have never had it so bad,” while columns between the black-and-white and green sections of the piece bear the bolded words “Power” and “Envy.” In 2012, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. put her work Belief + Doubt on view in its lower level lobby. That red, black, and white work, which is still up at the museum, spans the space’s walls, floors, and escalators, and bears messages like “Plenty should be enough” and questions like “Who is beyond the law?” and “Who is free to choose?” A few years later, in 2016, Kruger debuted a wall painting, Untitled (Blind idealism is…), that presided over the High Line in New York, and in 2017 she presented the site-specific piece Untiled (Skate) at Coleman Skatepark on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, which was commissioned by Performa and poses the questions “Whose hopes?,” “Whose fears?,” “Whose values?,” “Whose justice,” and other messages.

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Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Skate), 2017, vinyl, site-specific installation at Coleman Skatepark in Manhattan’s Lower East Side (commissioned by Performa). COURTESY THE ARTIST AND PERFORMA

A collaboration with Volcom for a New York biennial becomes one of her most well-known works.
In 2017, the artist collaborated with Volcom, a clothing brand that centers skate culture, for her contribution to the Perfoma 17 biennial in New York. She created a pop-up shop in the city’s SoHo neighborhood where T-shirts, beanies, sweatshirts, and skateboards were up for sale, and, according to a report by W Magazine, the event drew robust crowds. “I walk around New York and L.A., and you see people lining up at a number of stores—not just one,” the artist told W. “The idea of sitting in chairs and waiting for a group or a brand or a text is the kind of alignment and social relation I’ve made my work about for years, so this was a chance to actually quote that.”

Kruger’s project for Performa also included a site-specific installation of text-based works at Coleman Skatepark on the Lower East Side. Of course, by the time Performa 17 opened, the skater brand Supreme had already spent years producing merchandise with a red and white logo bearing a strong resemblance to Kruger’s artwork. The artist responded in 2013 to Supreme’s lawsuit against a rival streetwear company with a sharply worded statement: “What a ridiculous clusterfuck of totally uncool jokers. I make my work about this kind of sadly foolish farce. I’m waiting for all of them to sue me for copyright infringement.”

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Barbara Kruger, Untitled (A corpse is not a customer), 2020, for the New York Times‘s series “Art in Isolation – An Ongoing Visual Diary in Our Uncertain Times.” COURTESY THE ARTIST AND SPRÜTH MAGERS

Kruger’s star rises further as her art addresses global issues.
Kruger’s latest works aim to draw attention to systems of power, current events, and existential quandaries. For the 2020 edition of Frieze Los Angeles, the artist presented a series of 20 questions—including “Who do you think you are?” and “Who dies first? Who laughs last?”—displayed across digital billboards, street banners, landmarks, and public spaces throughout the city. For the New York Times‘s feature “Art In Isolation: An Ongoing Visual Diary in Our Uncertain Times,” an ongoing series of artworks created amid the pandemic, Kruger created the work Untitled (A corpse is not a customer), which appeared in print and online. Kruger has insisted, however, that she does not characterize her work as “political art,” telling Interview in 2013, “I never say I do political art. Nor do I do feminist art. I’m a woman who’s a feminist, who makes art.” In 2019, following the closure of Mary Boone Gallery, Kruger joined David Zwirner, which represents her with Sprüth Magers. When it opens at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2021, the artist’s next big exhibition is poised to be a blockbuster, though she has commented to the Cut that success is “brutally arbitrary,” remarking that “who is seen and who is not seen is always a result of historical reckoning, social circumstances, and good luck.”

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$200,000 Art Prize Goes to Tarek Atoui, Innovative Artist Who ‘Shifts Perspectives’ Through Sound

August 7, 2020 11:49am

Portrait of Tarek Atoui.

The Contemporary Austin in Texas has announced the latest recipient for its biannual prize, one of the largest in the United States. Tarek Atoui has won the 2022 Suzanne Deal Booth / FLAG Art Foundation Prize, which comes with a $200,000 cash prize, as well as a solo exhibition, publication, and related programming.

Atoui, who was born in Beirut and is currently based in Paris, is an artist and composer known for a practice that prioritizes collaboration with local communities and looks at the ways sound can be used to “shift perspectives,” he said in an interview with ARTnews. “It’s coming up with a project where research is based on human encounters and the reality of the place, and trying as much as possible to have an idea of a project that builds up from discussion, leaving flexibility for it to be porous.”

When coronavirus-related restrictions on travel are lifted, Atoui will travel to Austin and immerse himself in the city’s famed music scene, to explore ways of opening it up to other communities. The pandemic and social distancing will also play a part in how Atoui’s exhibition manifests. “I don’t have the answers for it yet,” the artist said, referring to his planned approach to the work. “We’re still learning how to live with something like this.”

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Tarek Atoui, The Reverse Collection, 2016, at Tate Modern, London.

One of Atoui’s most significant ongoing projects is “Within,” which began in 2012 and relies on collaborations with people who are deaf to create instruments that create sounds in non-audible ways, including visual and physical ones. Atoui’s work has been included in major international exhibitions, including the the 2019 Venice Biennale, the 2014 Berlin Biennale, and Documenta 13 in 2012, and is due to appear in the forthcoming Gwangju Biennale in South Korea in 2021.

“Tarek’s work has been very powerful for the audiences that engage with it,” sharon maidenberg, the Contemporary Austin’s new director, told ARTnews. “The willingness to make people feel vulnerable and connected to their own bodies and how art physically feels in your body is a really powerful way to connect a fine art practice at a moment like this, when people are questioning everything and looking for that deep meaningful engagement that is more visceral.”

Atoui’s largest solo exhibition to date will open later this year at the Sharjah Art Foundation in the United Arab Emirates. The show was postponed from March because of the coronavirus pandemic, and was originally envisioned to include a residency program that would bring various musicians from around the world to a sound lab there. Atoui said that his experience in having to reconceive the show has opened up a new process to which he’ll approach future exhibitions.

“I’m trying to be more ambitious and take this further in the sense of trying to think about what stays after the exhibition and the event,” he said. “Of course, there is the memory and this feeling of having lived an experience that is unique, but I’m also trying to go beyond to see what is possible to leave behind.”

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Tarek Atoui, The Ground, 2019, installation view in “May You Live In Interesting Times,” at 58th Venice Biennale. PHOTO: WEN PENG. COURTESY THE ARTIST AND VITAMIN ARCHIVE.

Atoui’s solo show will open at the Contemporary Austin in spring 2022 and then travel later that year to the FLAG Art Foundation in New York. He was selected by a six-person advisory committee that included art historian Darby English, LACMA director Michael Govan, Chinati Foundation curator Ingrid Schaffner, Tate Modern senior curator of performance Catherine Wood, and FLAG Art Foundation director Stephanie Roach. The committee was led by Heather Pesanti, the Contemporary Austin’s chief curator and director of curatorial affairs.

In an email, Pesanti lauded Atoui’s “generative, experimental art practice [that] catalyzes research and innovation while fostering collaboration and inclusivity.” She added, “At this moment in time it seemed more important than ever to reach across the ocean to build bridges between cultures, geographies, and perspectives, a feeling that Tarek’s ability to create open-ended possibilities and connect local communities across the world will be inspiring and restorative.”

The first iteration of the Contemporary Austin’s artist prize was awarded in 2016 to Rodney McMillian as the Suzanne Deal Booth Art Prize, which came with $100,000 as well as a solo show and publication at the museum. The initial seed money was provided by Suzanne Deal Booth, a trustee of the institution and one of the world’s top collectors.

In 2018, ahead of the announcing of the second recipient, the Contemporary Austin announced that the prize had been renamed the Suzanne Deal Booth / FLAG Art Foundation Prize, after Amanda and Glenn R. Fuhrman, who have ranked on ARTnews’s Top 200 Collectors list every year since 2010, signed on to bolster the cash award to $200,000. The 2018 winner was Nicole Eisenman.