by John Selvidge

Image: figure 1

Artspace at Untitled recently staged an encounter with anonymity with The Art of Collection: A Collaborative Exhibition with Emily Reynolds of Anonyma Fine Art. The exhibition featured over 40 works, mainly paintings, from Reynolds’s collection of either literally or virtually unknown artists of the 20th century that she compiled from over a decade of hunting for them outside the usual channels of the institutional art world.

Variety characterized the selection at Artspace. Works exhibited hailed from the U.S., France, Germany, Martinique, Cuba, India, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Bulgaria, though many were of completely unknown provenance, nameless artists outnumbering those identified by a wide margin. The exhibition favored abstract paintings, many reflecting a mid-century expressionist flavor, though many figural works were featured as well. Most evinced the curator’s preference for palettes of warm earth tones, a few vibrant exceptions highlighting primary colors. Almost everything in the exhibition was sensuously vital, and several paintings displayed a remarkable tactility, some with etch-marks driven into coats of thick paint, that suggests a taste for artists who glory in their materials—sometimes to the extent that a painted surface becomes a nearly sculpted one.

Far from just surface effects, these haptic qualities can be understood as furthering Anonyma’s central concern with the anonymous. Traces of affective excess like these offer visceral evidence of real, historical agents behind these works, but the echo of human self that arrives with them lacks, in most cases, the taxonomic or demographic descriptors like gender, ethnicity, and nationality that anchor notions of artistic identity in place. Viewers hungry for context, background, or other indications of an artist’s presence standing behind these works are likely to be disarmed.

johnThis absence opens an interesting space for contemplating them as facts unto themselves—loosely, as art-objects for their own sake, without reference to art history or their creators. Does nostalgia move into this space, a romance of the retro patina where we imagine a history for these relics? Regardless, insisting on anonymity seems timely: if today’s currency for discussing art defaults to identity, Anonyma poses an interesting challenge since its artists have none.