What is it about African tribal art that so allures us denizens of the modern, industrialized world? I wonder this whenever I encounter tribal artifacts in museums and galleries, and I’m prompted to again by two exhibitions presented by Paul Kasmin Gallery in Chelsea. In Kasmin’s 10th Avenue gallery, there’s “Arman the Collector: The Artist’s Collection of African Art,” a stunning presentation of works collected by the artist known for accumulating many similar objects into absurdist sculptures. Then, around the corner, in Kasmin’s West 27th Street gallery, there’s “Brancusi in New York 1913 – 2013,” a glowing display of five polished bronze works celebrating the 100th anniversary of Constantin Brancusi’s participation in the New York Armory show of 1913.
The link is that both shows concern European Modernists who were enthralled by African art. Arman — he was born Armand Fernandez in 1928, and died in 2005 — was a major collector of it, and Brancusi said that his two most important influences were his native Romanian folk art and African sculpture. For me there’s another connection: a certain ambivalence they both invite, having to do with tension between the sacred and the profane.
All 21 pieces in the Arman exhibition are as impressive for their aesthetic qualities as for their uncanny psychology. Except for a wonderful Senufo bird sculpture, all represent humans. They’re all carved from wood, with some painted and incorporating additional materials like fiber, shells and teeth. Most are masks, and they abstract the human face in a fascinating variety of ways.
A comment by Arman on his African art collecting, quoted in an essay by the critic Adrian Dannatt in a small exhibition catalog, typifies how modern sophisticates thought about tribal art for much of the 20th century: “My dialogue with African art derives from the conviction that artistic creation arises from a common fund of humanity, and that in the discovery of aesthetic solutions, the making of masterpieces supersedes regions, cultures, and becomes part of the treasures from all places and all times of human creation.”
But as art historians, anthropologists and other thinkers have pointed out, tribal artists didn’t think of the things they made as art, in our modern sense of the term. The catalog has brief explanations of what many of the show’s works were actually made for.
“Luba Female Bowl Bearer,” which represents a kneeling woman holding on her lap a bulbous vessel with a lid in the form of a child’s head, had a down-to-earth purpose. This type of sculpture was used by the Luba people of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo to invite spiritual assistance during a woman’s pregnancy: “Neighbors seeing the figure in front of a woman’s hut will fill the bowl with ceremonial offerings to help her avoid hardship during pregnancy.”
One of the fiercest masks is painted in dark brown and white stripes and has a bladelike fin rising from between its protruding eye sockets and cresting over the top of its head. It was made by a member of the Songye tribe of Congo. Used in magic ceremonies, their masks were supposed to reside “in a place beyond the normal order of the universe” and to serve as “collaborators between reality and supernatural forces.”
Notes on several other objects refer to ways they were used in dance and ceremonial actions. Not mentioned is that many African tribes used stimulants and mind-altering substances to intensify the effects of their rituals.
A museum setting like this one, however, erases the practical magic of these objects and diminishes their spiritual potency. They have become inert collectibles. The sacred is profaned.
In the Brancusi show, each of five bronzes polished to a golden sheen is displayed on a limestone pedestal in a luminous installation resembling a chapel and a high-end jewelry store. All are examples of well-known works. They include the flattened, elongated oval “Fish”; a Cubist conjunction of boxy and ovoid forms called “Head”; two egg-shaped heads lying on their sides, titled “Newborn”; and “Sleeping Muse II,” a 1910 version of which was included in “African Art, New York, and the Avant-Garde,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art last year. With its domed pate and exaggerated brows over blank, insectoid eyes, “Madamoiselle Pogany II” most conspicuously reveals Brancusi’s debt to African art.
What a casual viewer may not realize is that none of these objects were cast during Brancusi’s lifetime (1876-1957). All were produced posthumously in editions using molds found in his studio by the Brancusi estate, between 1992 and 2010. (Although the provenance of these pieces is explained in the catalog, it is not acknowledged in the gallery’s wall text.) Knowing this gives pause. What exactly are we looking at? Is it the real thing, or is it the promotion of a famous brand gussied up in spectacular, pseudo-sacramental style? Gold or fool’s gold?
This sort of confusion pervades today’s art world, where, so often, the sales pitch comes in the form of quasi-religious rhetoric. It’s a big reason the tribal arts of Africa and other lands — as well as the putatively purely authentic creations of folk artists and so-called outsiders — are held in such high esteem. (See, for example, this year’s Venice Biennale, which prominently featured folk and outsider art.) They hold out the possibility of escape from a globally desecrating commercial vortex, even as they — and we — tumble helplessly into it.
Paul Kasmin Gallery presents “Arman the Collector: The Artist’s Collection of African Art” through Jan. 11 at 293 10th Avenue, at 27th Street, Chelsea, and “Brancusi in New York 1913 — 2013” through Jan. 25 at 515 West 27th Street, Chelsea; 212-563-4474, paulkasmingallery.com.