ARTnews recently learned that the gallery Blum & Poe is planning an exhibition of works from the Cobra movement. The show, organized by the former curator of the Pinault Collection, Alison Gingeras, will take place at the gallery’s New York location in September 2015. (If you need a refresher, Cobra was a manifesto-driven movement devoted to expressionistic painting that lasted from 1948 to 1951; its name was cobbled together from the first letters of the founders’ native cities—Asger Jorn was from Copenhagen, Joseph Noiret and Christian Dotremont hailed from Brussels and Constant Nieuwenhuys, Corneille Guillaume Beverloo and Karel Appel all came from Amsterdam). We asked Gingeras why she thinks it’s a good time to bring Cobra back into the spotlight.
ARTnews: Why is now the right time for a Cobra show?
Alison Gingeras: We live in a largely amnesiac time—visual culture cycles at such a rapid pace that historical precedents are forgotten, repressed, or simply unknown.
Within the plurality of contemporary art practices, there is an aesthetic echo of Cobra in certain strains of contemporary painting (take, for example, the resurgence of expressive painting as well as work that conflates abstraction and figurative elements).
While living artists might not be actively conceding their indebtedness to the “look” of Cobra or acknowledging the politico-conceptual underpinnings of this movement, it is instructive to rediscover Cobra through the lens of today. Just as the mainstream art world (and market) has been gradually “rediscovering” the avant-garde movements of the post-war periods—over the past few years there have been scholarly revaluations of Arte Povera, Gutai, Mono Ha, and the Zero Group—a precise reexamination of Cobra’s wide-ranging ambitions seems ultra-timely.
AN: What do you think will be the most eye-opening aspect of the show? What kind of approach are you taking to Cobra?
AG: Cobra was arguably the last truly international avant-garde movement. This loose collective of artists actually reached beyond the three northern European cities that gave rise to its name. As you might expect, we hope to document not only the painterly and sculptural aspects of Cobra, but the experimental literary, architectural, and socio-political activities of the group. Our show will not only be a “redux” of emblematic works by famous pillars of the movement (such as Asger Jorn, Karel Appel, Constant, Aleshinsky, et al), it will also present a revisionist vision that will equally embrace lesser-known Cobra figures. For example, the Japanese-American sculptor Shinkichi Tajiri was a key part of the group—he befriended Appel and Corneille at the Cobra exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in 1949 and was an active member of the group. Likewise, the South African artist Ernest Mancoba was an important part of the group, yet in the first wave of literature on Cobra he is relegated to the role of husband of the Danish sculptor Sonja Ferlov (who was always considered a central Cobra figure). By foregrounding these artists alongside the work of better-known Cobra members, we hope to recapture the radical scope of the political, literary, and aesthetic program of Cobra and hint at its ongoing legacy.
When/where was the last decent Cobra show?
The last wave of Cobra museum exhibitions happened in the early 1980s, primarily in Europe. There is a traveling exhibition organized by the Cobra Museum in Amstelveen, the Netherlands, that is currently being presented in Fort Lauderdale (a nice Miami Basel detour).