Improbably, “In The Name of the Artists: American Contemporary Art from the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art,” a show of 219 works curated by Gunnar Kvaran, the director of the private Norwegian museum, is the first showing of works by Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Matthew Barney, Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman in São Paolo [open through Dec. 4]. “Most of the artists in the show have never been shown in Brazil, which was quite a surprising discovery for me,” Kvaran told A.i.A. “It has been moving to see the reception. A curator at the Museum of Modern Art in São Paulo stood in front of a work by Damien Hirst, and said to me, ‘you know, I’ve never seen a work by him before.'”
The exhibition is staged in the Biennial Pavilion during an off year-the 60th anniversary of the São Paulo Biennial is 2012—and is sponsored by Iguatemi, a Brazilian company that manages luxury shopping centers. Aiming to bring contemporary art to a cultured Brazilian audience, the show was culled from the 500 works in the collection of the Astrup Fearnley, which is funded by shipping magnate Hans Rasmus Astrup and focuses on the acquisition of works. The collection consists of artists who are either icons of late 20th-century art or well on their way to becoming so in the 21st century. The Norwegian museum awaits the completion of a new building in Oslo, designed by Renzo Piano and scheduled to open in September 2012.
Although the permanent collection of the museum does not have a specifically American bent, and includes holdings of works by Norwegian, Chinese and Indian artists, a strong focus is put on New Yorkers. They include Koons, Prince, Sherman and Barney, and young popular artists, often working in pop, politics and post-punk modes: Paul Chan, Frank Benson, Nate Lowman, and Dan Colen. “We’ve been following American artists for a very long time,” Kvaran said.
The exhibition, which inhabits 15,000-square-feet of the pavilion, leaves plenty of room for the works and accommodates both film installations and monumental sculptural works, including Mother and Child Divided (1993) by Damien Hirst, featuring a cow in formaldehyde, and a floor installation, Blue Placebo (1991) by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, which consists of candies wrapped in blue foil. Other pieces on view are Titi (2009), a metal sculpture by Koons, fabricated to appear like a helium-filled balloon in the shape of a cartoon chicken.
In some cases, the institution owns a large majority of the artists’ canonical output—most of Chan’s video work, for example, or the largest collections of Benson’s and Lowman’s work from the past decade. This is part of a longstanding curatorial initiative that points to the institution’s desire to stake a claim in the art historical narrative of the future.
When collecting so widely, a collection has to contend with the fairness and equality of history. “Our collection has more male artists than female artists,” Kvaran says. “Sadly, it reflects the situation of art history for the past 100 years. Our institution reflects that reality, and we are not entirely responsible for the imbalance.”
Female artists are certainly included in the Astrup Fearnley collection and the São Paulo show, which has works by Louise Lawler, Nan Goldin, Shirin Neshat and Sherrie Levine, among others, with very few emerging female artists represented. “We’re seeing many changes in the art world,” Kvaran said. “More and more women are exhibiting.”
In 2009, the museum presented “Indian Highway,” an exhibition of contemporary Indian art that included a numer of women. “Chinese Power Station: Part II,” a 2007 showing of Chinese work, was almost equally balanced between the genders. “There are a lot of important works being made by women, and we hope to demonstrate that more in our collection in the future,” says Kvaran.