Modern Nostalgia

"Beyond Belief" makes me nostalgic. It’s a current exhibition (the full title is Beyond Belief: 100 Years of the Spiritual in Modern Art). It’s also the opening track on Imperial Bedroom by Elvis Costello. Not the first record I owned. But the first one where I knew every word and thought I was the only one in the world who knew every word.

It was the summer of 1982. I was 13. My Bar Mitzvah was that year, and I was entering high school. Up to that point, my performance as a student had been less than sterling but my interests at home revealed a different kind of kid. I would steal away from the stiflingly humid Maryland summer heat into the one room that had air conditioning in the nineteenth-century farmhouse in which I grew up. It was the guest room beside my parents’ bedroom. On the shelves were the mysteries my mother had read, a complete Encyclopedia Britannica, dictionaries, a Physicians Desk Reference, and off in a corner a few MoMA exhibition catalogs from the few years my parents belonged, likely before my older brother was born. I remember those MoMA catalogs on Alberto Giacometti and Mark Rothko so well. I was learning to draw then, emulating the Marvel comic book stylings my brother cultivated. But these men were shamans. They could reach the unattainable, conceive the unimaginable.

The author with Alberto Giacometti's Head (Three-Quarters Profile) (Bust of Diego) 
and a Joy Division t-shirt.

Beyond Belief makes me nostalgic for my life in art in New York in the late 80s through the 1990s when I worked as a registrar and art handler at a gallery in SoHo that was dedicated to the display of identity-based artwork. One of the best artists who showed at the gallery was Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, whose work can be seen in Yerba Buena Gardens and in the recently reinstalled galleries of the Crocker Art Museum. Jaune told me I had to read Suzi Gablik, author of Has Modernism Failed?, a ground-breaking and deliciously nostalgic work from 1984. Gablik explores the spiritual underpinnings of Modernism in its earliest forms, such as Wasily Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich, who saw their work as divine. And she bucks the important, later modernist critics such as Clement Greenberg for whom “meaning was a form of philistinism."

The author with a few pieces by Wasily Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich, 
and a Captain EO t-shirt.

The exhibition also makes me nostalgic for the first Ross Bleckner exhibition I saw in SoHo in 1988 when he seemed like he was the center of the art universe at Mary Boone Gallery; hearing about Ana Mendieta's early, tragic death in 1985; my discovery of Felix Gonzalez Torres and the Andrea Rosen Gallery in 1990; my first reading of "Concerning the Spiritual in Art,” a modernist manifesto that felt as earnest and determined as anything I'd read before it; my first sighting of a Mona Hatoum work in-print or in-person; my earliest viewing of a Giacometti, and just how personal and classic it felt. Seeing both Giacometti’s Head (Three-Quarters Profile) (Bust of Diego) and Rothko’s No. 14, 1960 at The CJM makes me so proud. 

The author with Ross Bleckner's Knights Not Nights
and a Modern Lovers t-shirt.

On the exhibition Beyond Belief's opening night I had my picture taken with the beatifically ninety-plus year-old art historian and curator Peter Selz, someone I've known long enough now in California to call friend. Along the way, I realized he was the one who had written that Rothko catalog in 1961 that I read as an adolescent. In fact, Selz gave Rothko his very first exhibition at New York's MoMA when Peter was a curator there. We stood together in front of the Rothko at the CJM. For a lingering, happy moment I was home, thirteen years old laying in my PJs on the carpet in the air conditioned dream and slowly placing the needle arm down to rest on the spinning black vinyl with the red Columbia record label.

Me and Peter Selz
The author (all grown up) with Art Historian and Curator Peter Selz.

History repeats the old conceits
The glib replies the same defeats
Keep your finger on important issues
With crocodile tears and a pocketful of tissues

"Beyond Belief", the song by Elvis Costello, likely composed as a purely modernist exercise of piecing together rhyming, found non-sequiturs, now seems to be about nostalgia.

About the Author
James G. Leventhal is the CJM's Deputy Director for Development. James has 24 years of experience in arts administration including appointments at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. He has presented nationally on the use of technology for audience development and engagement in museums, and serves on the Board of the Western Museums Association. He draws almost every morning with his seven year-old son, hoping to create a life full of art and nostalgia.
Find him on twitter: @jamesgleventhal


Yeah, that Bleckner show kicked ass. Neo-Geo at Sonnabend in 86 also rocked. Steinbach in the late 80s at Sonnabend was earthshattering. I thought I'll never be able to make anything this GREAT.
Yeah, that Bleckner show was super. Neo-Geo in 86 hit me like a train. And a year later Steinbach also at Sonnabend just blew me away. I looked at him and thought, I'll never ever make work this great.
loveitallabove said…
uh...I'd say all this in "none to shabby," T.B.:
philip king said…
A good thing about Saatchi was that he bought up the New York shows of that period en mass so we had it in London fresh from the gallery walls. Bleckner was just an amazing event and Saatchi's neo geo display changed everything in London's art world.

Your art book memories remind my of finding my mothers collection of art books at a similar age James.

I really do need to get along to CJM right away to see the show...I'm buried in work on Giacometti so perfect!
amy berk said…
Painting that Costello cover on a friend's jean jacket was my first commissioned work. Thanks for writing this piece and sharing your impressions of that exciting time and how it continues to shape the now and the future.
Unknown said…
James, I really appreciated reading your blog thoughts and I really appreciate your t-shirt photo shoot in the galleries. You are making me head back into the galleries tomorrow for yet another look at the amazing works in The Museum right now. Thank you!
loveitallabove said…
Dear Friends, Thanks for all the comments back! I'm so glad this piece jogged similar sets of memories for so many of you! Tim and Phil, you guys are amazing! Phil, your work is chock full of this meta-ness on modernism presently in reflective/nostalgia mode kinda, right? Fraidy, let us all now praise the gifts we have at The CJM :) Jeanne, thx - see you at TBA on Rosh Hashanah? Amy Berk, the coincidences are uncanny!! Will I see you at the SFAI opening in a couple of weeks?...

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