This presentation of work by more than forty artists has been assembled from the New Museum's growing collection of contemporary art from the mid-1970s to the present and covers a broad selection of media and genres, most recently video and interdisciplinary work. In keeping with the museum's goal of supporting change and growth within artistic practice, roughly half the artworks on view were produced by emerging artists during the past ten years.
All museum collections reflect the unique profile of the institution that assembles them, and the New Museum is no exception. Since the museum's inception twenty-five years ago, its collecting policies have developed along largely investigative lines that questioned how a collection could stay relevant and timely. Until the last few years, many works entered the museum's possession as gifts or purchases, only to be de-accessioned after a designated amount of time to acquire still newer works. This process discouraged acquiring groups of work by established artists while guaranteeing a constant renewal of the museum's definition of contemporary art.
Significant examples of work by certain artists who had important one-person museum exhibitions at the New Museum during the 1980s and 1990s are included here: Robert Colescott, Bob Flanagan, Hans Haacke, Bruce Nauman, Andres Serrano, Nancy Spero, David Wojnarowicz, and Martin Wong. Wong's painting A-One (1984), for example, was given to the New Museum as a direct outcome of the museum's 1998 survey and represents one of the most prolific periods of the late East Village artist's career.
Several other artworks have been drawn from the museum's exhibition history in different ways. Works such as ACT UP (Gran Fury)'s neon sign Silence = Death (1987), Sherrie Levine's watercolor After Fernand Leger (1984), Camilo Jose Vergara's photo series The New American Ghetto (1975-present), and Krysztof Wodiczko's slide installation, Review of Selected Public Projections Since 1981 (1990), each capture a moment in the New Museum's curatorial evolution when large group exhibitions based on didactic themes provided the program focus. For example, Wodiczko's images of temporary, nighttime projections in public places throughout the world continue to startle and disturb more than a decade later, despite the fact that their technology has long been superseded by large-scale plasma screens and fiber-optic signage.
At the opposite end of the curatorial spectrum, a number of pieces on view are by artists who are exhibiting at the New Museum for the first time: Peter Cain, Craig Kalpakjian, Zwelethu Mthethwa, Gustavo Romano, Daniela Rossell and Vibeke Tandberg. Cain's untitled drawing (1990) documents the artist's quasi-surreal fixation on the aerodynamics of the automobile, while Mthethwa's striking large-scale color photograph (2000) continues his explorations of domestic spaces in his hometown of Cape Town, South Africa. A silent video projection by the Argentine artist Romano uses x-ray photography to follow the methodical movements of a skeletal hand writing cryptic lines in a journal.
In 2000 the Museum received the Altoids Collection, the largest gift of artworks in its history. This unique partnership will eventually bring more than one hundred pieces by emerging artists into the collection. A handful from this group, including Kristin Lucas, Paul Ramirez-Jonas and Fatimah Tuggar, had already shown at the New Museum prior to the Altoids gift, making their inclusion here doubly pertinent. Lucas' engaging video Host (1997), in which the befuddled artist goes to an ATM for psychological help, playfully sends up common fears of the virtual age, while Ramirez-Jonas' handmade photo-book 100 (1995) contains a hundred portraits of individuals from newborn infants to centenarians.
The installation of A Work in Progress is organized to create visual dialogues between works by artists who are not otherwise seen as related to one another. Works by artists associated with performance and conceptual practices from the 1970s - Tehching Hseih, Komar and Melamid, Hiroshi Sugimoto, and Lawrence Weiner - may be shown alongside artists who use comparable practices today. For example, Mark Lombardi's drawing, Bruce Campbell, Esq., Cayman Islands (1998), which documents key players in the Iran-Contra arms scandal of the 1980s, uses charts and graphs to lay out the results of the artists research in much the same way that artists of the 1960s used everyday, "non-art" materials and procedures toward similar ends.
In like fashion, examples of work by artists associated with the photo-based, neo-conceptual movement of the 1980s - Sherrie Levine, Louise Lawler, or Allan McCollum - can be seen in proximity with emerging photo artists such as Jessica Craig-Martin, Sue de Beer and Eve Fowler, who are in many ways their artistic progeny. In this context, the leap from Lawler's Arranged by Mr. & Mrs. Atmore Pope or their Daughter Theodate (Manet) (1983), to Craig-Martin's Tocca Ball, New York Armory (1998) might be, from a purely stylistic standpoint, a long one. Yet the way each artist analyzes culture by casting a cold eye toward the art world's social hierarchy links their gaze across two distinct artistic paradigms.
The open-ended structure of A Work in Progress encourages viewers to examine this selection of contemporary art and to keep the transitory nature of artistic innovation in the forefront of their minds. The view of art history promoted by the New Museum is that there is no single dominant narrative of the art of the past quarter-century. In any event, it is too soon to know for sure. For this reason, many works shown here will not always be the same as those gracing the pages of most books on contemporary art. A Work in Progress argues instead that all art, contemporary or otherwise, is best experienced as if it were being encountered for the very first time.
-Dan Cameron, Senior Curator