Pierre Alechinsky’s Avec Lewis Carroll represents atypical Blum and Poe’s revelatory show The Avant-Garde Won’t Give Up: Cobra and Its Legacy. At first glance, the large canvas is a swirl of colors. A closer look reveals profiles of The Mad Hatter and his creator Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. Cobra artists liked picture games, and the other objects on display are equally whimsical and intricate.
Cobra is the acronym for Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam where artists involved in the movement were located and most active from 1948 to 1951. The Leftist coalition went on to depict postwar Eastern Europe in childlike, primitive forms and colors. Blum and Poe’s guest curator, Alison Gingeras, contends in the exhibit catalogue that Cobra’s relative obscurity is from its loose affiliation, Marxists sympathies and resistance to the status quo. It probably did not help that Cobra’s central figure, Danish painter/sculptor/ceramic artist Asger Jorn (1914-1973), refused the 1966 Guggenheim Prize, telling Henry Guggenheim and his committee to ‘go to hell.’ Thus, much of the artwork is on display in North America for the first time.
Visitors to Blum and Poe will come away from The Avant-Garde Won’t Give Up learning a great deal about Cobra with appreciation. The ‘Catalogue and Exhibit Checklist’ is essential because the artwork (on loan from museums and private collections), journals, monographs, and archival photographs are unidentified. Placards can be a distraction and more carefully studied than the item described. Eliminating them suits the exhibit’s iconoclastic spirit and the attractive gallery space.
The Avant-Garde Won’t Give Up uses three floors (starting on five in ascending chronological order), beginning appropriately with Jorn’s The Avant-Garde Won’t Give Up (L’avant-garde se rend pas, 1962). Jorn found the anonymous painting in a thrift shop and gave the proper young Miss a goatee and the exhibit its manifesto.
There is another piece by Jorn in the show titled Couple amoureux interplanétaire, (Interplanetary Couple, 1954). Held in a private collection, the Italian owners loaned the painting to Blum and Poe for a rare public viewing. The lip-locked duo is human, but their out-of-this-world love takes them exploding, starry-eyed fabulous fifties Sputnik heights. No wonder the owner’s treasure it — this painting surely must shine in whichever room they keep it.
The fifth floor’s Gallery South is devoted to Helhesten (Hell-Horse), the first Cobra art created during the German occupation of Denmark. The Nazis censored and denounced non-representational art, which Helhesten mocked with cartoonish abstraction — for in Norse mythology, the fairy tales collected by The Brothers Grimm, and in Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle, the horse is a messenger of death. As seen in other rooms, Cobra artists continued depicting animals in less-menacing ways after the war.
Unfortunately, some pieces did not survive, including some works by Dutch painter Eugène Brands (1913-2002). In addition to paintings, Brands made a series of masks that now only exist in photographs; however, they are fantastic photographs of wearers enjoying themselves.
Through Cobra officially disbanded in 1951, founding artists remained active and influenced others. Among them is Japanese-American sculptor Shinkichi Tajiri (1923-2009), who settled in the Netherlands after World War II. Two of his works stand out. Lament for lady (for Billie Holiday) (1953) is a mixed-media sculpture Tajiri built — a symbolic gramophone out of a Strange Fruit of copper and bronze along with Ms. Holiday’s photograph. Part of the bottom is shaped like a trumpet. Placed above that is a meshed circle in the shape of gramophone’s sound piece, the horn. Over the horn is her photo, singing her eternal song.
Tajiri also made experimental films. Shown on continuous video stream is the 1955 Cannes Film Festival-winning short ‘The Vipers,’ which is about smoking pot. The artist cannot be faulted for research — he shot the film high.
Cobra’s continuing legacy is featured in a second exhibit, also curated by Ms. Gingeras, at Blum and Poe’s Los Angeles gallery from November 5 through December 23, 2015.
The Avant-Garde Won’t Give Up: Cobra and Its Legacy runs through October 17, 2015.
Blum and Poe, 19 East 66th Street, New York, NY, USA, +1 212 249 2249
By Patricia Contino
Patricia Contino received her MFA from The New School Writing Program. She uses vacation time either at performances in other cities, The University of Iowa Writing Festival, or very long nights at the Metropolitan Opera. The lifelong NJ resident and fangirl is the administrator for Columbia University’s Masters of Bioethics Program.