The very name “Carnegie International” practically begs for postcolonial institutional critique, as it bears the name of immigrant billionaire philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who in many ways epitomizes the American Dream. And that critique is precisely what Filipino artist Pio Abad delivered for the 58th edition. Above a doorway, the artist inscribed the phrase AMERICANS CANNOT BE GROWN THERE. It’s easy to miss the intervention, because the same font is used for donor names throughout the building, so you might not bother to read it, just as you might not bother to question who funds any given institution. The quote comes from a letter Carnegie wrote in 1898, offering to buy the Philippines its independence from the United States government. He suggested $20 million—the exact amount the US had paid Spain earlier that year under the Treaty of Paris. Carnegie argued that, as it stood, the colony was barely worth the cost it took to run the thing. A staunch Republican and anti-imperialist, he preferred to better the world through capital investment rather than governmental control, and eventually gave away almost 90 percent of his wealth.
In the intervening 124 years, the US has meddled in the welfare of plenty of other nations, and it became obvious that Carnegie’s model isn’t easily replicable—all the hard work and education in the world is not enough to make most immigrants into benevolent billionaires. In the show, artists from outside the West respond to the myth of the American Dream that Carnegie and other businessmen-politicians exported, as well as its attendant damage.
Abad’s is one of many works in the show to tackle American imperialism. The exhibition, titled “Is it morning for you yet?,” brings together works made after 1945, the year marking the end of World War II and the resulting rise of the US as a global power. It is also the year considered by many art historians to mark a break from modernism. Most of the other works in the show have messages that are sharp yet subtle, like Abad’s. Throughout the exhibition, curator Sohrab Mohebbi focuses largely on works of political abstraction, in an apparent continuation of “Searching the Sky for Rain,” a 2019 show he cocurated at SculptureCenter in New York with Kyle Dancewicz.
Many works demonstrate how abstraction becomes a strategy for conveying messages or showing solidarity in the face of censorship. Forbidden Colors, a 1988 work by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, comprises four canvases of equal size mounted side by side; painted red, green, black, and white, they evoke but do not illustrate the Palestinian flag. The work is from a time when Israeli occupation made it illegal to display the flag in the territory. Walking around the exhibition, one wonders how many such messages remain unrecognized or indecipherable, lost in cross-cultural translation, or meaningful for only a small audience.
The show also probes the relationship between abstraction defined as nonrepresentational imagery—which has a long and rich history outside the West—versus a transcendent genre of painting, where European modernists and American postwar artists dominate the canon. The latter, of course, drew extensively from the former. Paintings by Melike Kara employ swift lines to emulate motifs and knotting techniques used in Kurdish tapestries, techniques that have changed as the stateless group has endured forced migration. Translating the designs from one medium to another, she pushes back against distinctions between vernacular and high art, a delineation often wielded to dismiss contributions from non-Western cultures.
In Anh Trần’s large, unstretched canvases, the Vietnamese artist confronts the history of American Abstract Expressionism. The English titles of her paintings featuring colorful washes and expressive lines often contain the word “love”—a concept that, as she notes in an interview in the catalogue, doesn’t translate well into Vietnamese, which has different words for romantic love, familial love, etc. She also expresses anxiety over pressure she experienced in art school to revere canonical Ab-Ex painters, given that the movement was used by the CIA to advance American cultural imperialism at the same time that the US was waging war in her country.
Works like Trần’s, as contextualized by Mohebbi, challenge the idea that art might ever speak to some sweeping “human condition.” In the wall text for his 2019 show, he asked who is perceived as having the right to speak about such a thing, and whether this glossing over of difference is ever desirable. Now, at the Carnegie, works he has selected by Korean artists Yooyun Yang and Mire Lee—shown near one another—evoke bad feelings in manners both relatable and culturally specific. In Yang’s series of paintings, close-ups of an eye, a palm, and a moon—among the show’s few representational works—are rendered in dark, moody colors that give them an almost David Lynchian aura. Lee’s dripping, motorized peach-ish sculpture evokes human carnage and loss in a manner that is disgusting, frightening, beautiful, and tender all at the same time. In the catalogue, the two artists speak with writer Yeonsook “Rita” Lee about han, a Korean word that roughly translates to grief and resentment. It’s a feeling said to be part of Korean identity, for some, a natural effect of colonialism.
Elsewhere, works assume familiar abstract forms from art history, but wall labels and catalogue texts reveal subjects that aren’t rendered representationally—political messages are often present but not obvious. A wall text explains that a striking copper painting by Krista Belle Stewart of the Syilx Nation that greets visitors in the museum lobby is made from a pigment she developed using soil from land she recently came to own in Ottawa. In the catalogue, she reflects on what private land “ownership” means for an Indigenous person living on a reservation still owned by the British Crown, and whether ownership is desirable at all. On the second level of the museum’s grand atrium, Thu Van Tran, originally from Vietnam and now based in Paris, painted frescoes that look almost like Monet’s Water Lilies, but with orange streaks that disrupt the tranquil ambience. Tran stained the museum walls with colors the US government used to code herbicides that were used as weapons in Vietnam—Agent Orange is the best known, others include white, pink, green, blue, and purple.
It was refreshing and moving to see work that dealt in earnest with the pressing issues of our times and that was also thoughtful about art’s purpose, limits, offerings, forms, and histories. Mohebbi’s curatorial argument—about the politics of abstraction and the outsize impact of American culture on art worldwide—was one of the sharpest, clearest, and most historically grounded I’ve seen in a long time. But is it the argument we need now? It notably follows on the heels of Documenta, a show that, with its distributed curatorial method and emphasis on resource-sharing rather than art objects, exposed the frictions inherent in importing global perspectives into the Western frameworks such as “fine art” and “the museum.” Curated by the Jakarta-based artist collective ruangrupa, the quinquennial implicitly argued that the only true way to decolonize the museum is to tear it down, repatriate everything, and redistribute the wealth. Just months later, the Carnegie International brought in artists grappling with those very frictions and contradictions in their work, and confronting the histories of imperialism that gave rise to them. I agree with ruangrupa’s position, and yet I got much more out of seeing Mohebbi’s show, which above all else makes a case for artists: their ability to help us deal with the past and imagine a future, how governments and institutions are often their biggest obstacles, and their adaptive persistence despite opposition.