In 2008 New York feminist artist Judith Bernstein was having her first show in decades at Mitchell Algus Gallery, presenting her iconoclastic “Horizontal” series, large-scale drawings of phallus-like screws dating back to 1966. By coincidence, Los Angeles art provocateur Paul McCarthy had come to the gallery to meet with Algus about another under-known artist, the late Robert Mallary. McCarthy instantly remembered Bernstein’s work, her scatological humor and in-your-face courage; he brought word of her show back to his daughter, Mara McCarthy, with whom he had recently opened the Box LA, a gallery devoted to showing historic work by artists who may not have received the sustained attention they deserved.
“That transformed my life,” said Bernstein, 74, speaking from the Chinatown loft where she has lived for 40 years, making—but rarely showing—her groundbreaking drawings and canvases. That is, until now. Since that first introduction, she has had four solo shows at the Box, the most recent opening in February 2017. In the past six years, her star has risen, with exhibitions at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, Mary Boone Gallery, and the New Museum in New York, Kunsthall Stavanger in Norway, and the ICA in London, among many other venues. Having faced derision and censorship early in her career and endured obscurity and cold shoulders for far too long, Bernstein is deeply grateful to McCarthy, who has since collected her work in-depth and enthusiastically spread the word. “I was thrilled. It was wonderful,” she said. “It is very unusual for an older person to have a mentor. Mentors are usually for people much younger. So to have a mentor at my age was an extraordinary thing.”
Beyond the economy of galleries, fairs, and auction rooms, there is an alternative artist-to-artist network rooted in relationships based on aesthetic influences and mutual appreciation. In recent years, artists with some degree of success and visibility have gone out of their way to bring attention to lesser known peers and predecessors. Through these efforts, the art world has been introduced and reintroduced to a host of important figures, many of whom have worked for decades in obscurity. Now, with fresh attention focused on their work, these underappreciated artists can assume the spotlight, overcoming obstacles and prejudices that may have stood in their way earlier in their careers.
In many ways, the relationship with Bernstein was precisely what the elder McCarthy had in mind in 2007 when he brought the idea of a new style of gallery to his daughter, a graduate of Bank Street College in New York in museum education. According to Mara McCarthy, her father was deeply engaged in exploring his own mentors and influences in preparation for “Paul McCarthy’s Low Life Slow Life,” a two-part exhibition that first opened in 2008 at CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in San Francisco. Having had little financial success himself until he was nearly 45, McCarthy identified with many artists who had been highly influential in the California scene of the 1960s and ’70s but had never become household names. Together with ephemera, souvenirs, and archival material from his early career, he gathered works by a diverse group of artists ranging from Bruce Conner and Stan Brakhage to Robert Mallary and Jay DeFeo in order to give context to his own work.
Another artist who, like Bernstein, is gaining long-overdue recognition is Denzil Forrester, 61, whose exhibition at New York’s White Columns in the fall of 2016 was something of a sensation. “What’s been really exciting for us is that the response both in London and here has been remarkable, considering that he was almost completely unknown [before],” said White Columns director Matthew Higgs, explaining that he would never have known about this black British artist if not for the recommendation of painter Peter Doig. Doig had been following the work since the 1980s, when he was an undergraduate at St. Martin’s in London and Forrester was a graduate student at the Royal College of Art. From the outset, Forrester was making vivid and moving paintings about the Afro-Caribbean community in London, particularly dark, beautiful renditions of the crowds in reggae nightclubs.
“Peter was blown away by this incredibly ambitious, brilliant work,” said Higgs, adding that Doig continued to follow Forrester’s progress through the 1990s, when both artists encountered criticism for working in figuration. Forrester at first found remarkable success for a young artist, winning both the Rome Prize and the Harkness Fellowship, but suffered particularly with the rise of Damien Hirst and the YBAs, a trend accompanied by a rage for conceptually driven artworks. Undoubtedly, racial prejudice played a role as well, given the artist’s identity and subject matter, according to Higgs.
After discussing the possibility of organizing two shows for him—the first at Tramps Gallery, Doig’s former studio in London, followed by one at White Columns—Higgs and Doig visited Forrester, who retired from teaching and lives in the town of Truro in Cornwall, England. “Denzil had miraculously saved all his work,” said Higgs, and their goal is to organize a publication and encourage a major institution to take on a full-scale Forrester retrospective. “We both feel that Denzil is the most significant British artist to have emerged in the 1980s,” he insisted. “Most of the people who did emerge then are not that well-known now—like Christopher le Brun and Lisa Milroy. We feel that Denzil’s work, which was largely unknown, was as strong as or even stronger than that of any of those artists who were successful at that time.”
Certainly, there can be a constellation of reasons why an artist’s career gets marginalized, but few are as daunting as the racial prejudice or gender bias experienced by Forrester and Bernstein and their peers. Many younger African-American artists now experiencing a kind of renaissance of success have been among the most active in championing the work of their mentors, who deserve much wider coverage and appreciation. For example, Chicago artist Rashid Johnson, 40, organized an exhibition of work by Sam Gilliam, 83, an abstract painter based in Washington, D.C., for the David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles in 2013. L.A. artist Sam Durant, 56, single-handedly revived the career of Emory Douglas, 74, the official minister of culture of the Black Panther party, whose graphic designs for the political group’s weekly newspaper has influenced a new generation of artists.
“I think we are connected to artists who came before us, particularly the generation that Sam represents, because I feel like my thinking and my work are born from things they had already begun to negotiate, and part of what my work does is explore these historical concerns and these antecedent concerns and imagine what work and life looks like as a result of what came before me,” said Johnson, who met Gilliam when he and Kordansky, who represents Johnson in Los Angeles, approached the artist about organizing the exhibition. Johnson has always been fascinated by the older artist’s works, particularly his draped paintings. But he cautioned that his role was far from making a discovery. “I mean, Sam was a famous artist and continues to be a famous artist. The link to me just kind of adds an interesting narrative, because artists do gain value when we see that artists from generations after them are still looking at that work.”
Durant had been making art about the Black Panther party for some time when he finally met Douglas in 2002, during a survey show of the younger artist’s work at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. He invited Douglas, who lives in Oakland, to come and speak. “He was a very gentle, soft-spoken person—very, very committed—a very serious person but with a great sense of humor,” recalled Durant. From that encounter came an opportunity to edit Black Panther: The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas, published by Rizzoli in 2007, concurrent with curating an exhibition of the work at MOCA, Los Angeles, the same year. (The show appeared at the New Museum in New York in 2009.) Since then, Douglas, who had been caring for his infirm mother and stepfather for some time, has returned to making art; he participated in the Sydney Biennial of 2008, and collaborated on projects with the Zapatistas in Mexico, the Maori Black Panthers in New Zealand, and Richard Bell, an aboriginal artist in Australia.
“I thought the work was visually very compelling, with a fantastic sense of design and really interesting way of conveying messages through visual methods. I wanted people to know that this was someone who was important to me and his work informs my work,” said Durant, who opened a show of his own latest works at Blum & Poe in Los Angeles in January. Durant acknowledged that many of his peers who have experienced success, such as Mark Bradford, Theaster Gates, and Kara Walker, have made an effort to “open doors” for this earlier generation. “I think it’s so terrific. I honestly didn’t think I would see it,” he said, explaining, “they have been excluded since the beginning, so I thought, why would it change? But it is very gratifying and hopeful to see it happen.”
Sometimes one artist’s engagement with another artist’s work and career can have posthumous ramifications. Many people are familiar with the world-famous paintings of Los Angeles Pop artist Ed Ruscha, but few know about his deep engagement with Noah Purifoy, an African-American artist who died in 2004 at the age of 87. Purifoy, who spent the last 15 years of his life creating an outdoor installation of sculptures and assemblages covering more than ten acres in the middle of the Mojave Desert at Joshua Tree, was the subject of a retrospective curated by Franklin Sirmans at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2015. Ruscha contributed to the catalogue, but more than that, having known the artist and assisted with his foundation since 1995, he went so far as to donate much of the land for Purifoy’s project.
When Ruscha was first taken out to Purifoy’s site, he had never seen anything quite like it, even though he had been visiting the desert for many years. The two artists, who had attended the same art school, Chouinard, now CalArts, hit it off. Purifoy was living in a trailer at the site, in harsh conditions, building “a crazy quilt of artworks,” according to Ruscha, perhaps inspired by Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers, where Purifoy had worked as an administrator for many years. Ruscha felt an affinity and admiration for the artist despite the fact that, on the surface, their work had little in common. “Of course, there are all sorts of gestures an artist can do that can communicate to someone who isn’t making the same kind of art,” Ruscha explained, evidently admiring Purifoy’s accomplishments. “You can see what another person has gone through and empathize with something like this.
“I don’t go looking for things like this, but I could see Noah’s purpose in life and I began to really respect that. It happened almost accidentally,” said Ruscha, who joined the board of the Noah Purifoy Foundation when it was founded in 2000 to help preserve the fragile works from the unforgiving environment. “I have never done this in any other way with any other artist. It’s just a unique experience in my life,” he concluded.
Nan Goldin has gone out of her way throughout her career to bring attention to fellow artists, most recently to Greer Lankton. A fixture on New York’s East Village scene and frequent muse for the photographer, Lankton died in 1996 at the age of 36; she was the subject of a universally acclaimed retrospective at Participant Inc. on the Lower East Side in late 2015 that made it onto nearly every critic’s best-show-of-the-year list. A transgender woman, Lankton made haunting and erotically disturbing life-size dolls.
“Nan is a great example of an advocate,” says Lia Gangitano, founder and director of Participant, who has worked with Goldin on exhibitions ever since Gangitano was a curator at the ICA Boston in the 1990s. “She is a fierce friend who puts all her passion and persuasiveness behind her peers.” Gangitano originally encountered Lankton’s work at “Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing,” the AIDS-related show that Goldin curated at Artists Space in 1989, and she felt that she got to know the artist through Goldin’s many portraits of Lankton. The show at Participant came about because Lankton’s husband was looking for a partner to do an exhibition and he called Gangitano on the recommendation of a curator at the Whitney. “I wouldn’t even have known who Greer was if it weren’t for Nan,” she said, recalling that she instantly agreed to the exhibition, having seen examples of her work over the years in Goldin’s personal collection.
“Greer is not a self-taught artist,” Gangitano explained. “She went to art school. But who was Greer making this work for? For herself in a way, she was making her own world, so it was never going to be that sort of art-generational branding that was going to fit in to the East Village gallery scene.” Gangitano sees a connection between Lankton’s uniquely personal body of work and Goldin’s approach to photography, insisting on extremely personal subject matter when everyone else around her in art school was making documentary work. Since the exhibition at Participant (which traveled to Between Bridges, a gallery organized by artist Wolfgang Tillmans in Berlin), Lankton’s career has resurfaced, with major acquisitions by the Art Institute of Chicago and New York’s Leslie-Lohman Foundation; her work will appear in an upcoming show at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., curated by Lynne Cooke. Gangitano is hoping to organize a publication devoted to Lankton. “Fingers crossed,” she said.
To a curator like Gangitano, seconded by Matthew Higgs at White Columns, artists’ championing other artists is not that unusual; in fact, it’s one of the most effective ways to find new or overlooked talents. “It really is the primary way things happen,” Gangitano said. “People ask me all the time how I find artists, and I always say my main resource for finding artists is other artists. It’s not like I’m just getting a good tip. It’s the way in which a community unfolds. If you are interested in a person, you are interested in the persons around them.”
Barbara Pollock has been writing on contemporary art since 1994 for numerous publications. She is the author of The Wild, Wild East: An American Art Critic’s Adventures in China (Blue Kingfisher, 2010).
A version of this story originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of ARTnews on page 74 under the title “You’ve Gotta See This!”