Although the department of contemporary art is new to the IU Eskenazi Museum of Art, the museum has always collected art from the present moment. When Donald Judd’s Untitled was acquired in 1979, the work had been made just the year before. Four decades later, the wall-mounted stack of brass rectangular prisms exemplifies the daring and controversial practices of minimalism and seriality that defined Judd’s work and influenced later generations of artists. A 2019 sculpture by Steven Naifeh, Desert Rose, echoes Judd’s interest in patterns of repetition with its vertically climbing discs inspired by the natural phenomenon of crystal formation. This work, which was commissioned in response to the museum’s I. M. Pei–designed building, fills a niche in the second floor of the Thomas T. Solley Atrium in the spirit of a votive figure, like some of those on display in the Ancient, Asian, and Islamic galleries next to it. Contemporary art is defined by the moment it which it was made. In that sense, all art was once contemporary, no matter how long ago it was created.
Artists often look back at the history of art for inspiration. In Flight of A Thousand Birds the Pakistani-born American artist Anila Agha draws on traditional decorative patterns associated with Islam. The vegetal patterns in this laser-cut steel disc were adopted by Muslims from earlier motifs of the Byzantine Mediterranean and Sasanian Iran. In this way, Agha’s contemporary interpretation considers how all artistic traditions are always hybrids of earlier cultures. Similarly, the metal tapestry by the Ghanaian artist El Anatsui reflects longstanding traditions of Western African art seen in Ghanian metalwork, such as this Akan gold dust box and Soul Washer’s Badge that are also in the museum’s collection. Anatsui’s sculptures, which are flexible like fabric, resemble the construction of Asante wrappers, which are also stitched together from smaller pieces of patterned fabric.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the globalization of the world economy, contemporary art has taken on transnational and materially diverse characteristics. For example, El Anatsui makes his tapestries from bottle caps secured together with copper wire. These caps are mostly from Nigerian liquor bottles and refer to the triangle trade that took enslaved people from Africa to the Americas for sugar cane harvesting and returned distilled alcohol to the continent. Conversely, Naifeh’s sculpture was digitally modeled and 3D-printed simultaneously in the United States and Europe. Although similar in material appearance, London-based artist and designer Paul Cocksedge’s A Gust of Wind was created manually. Adorning the ceiling of the museum’s Luzetta and Del Newkirk Café and Gift Shop, the installation imagines a stack of papers blown into the air and frozen in time. Unlike Naifeh’s printed column, Cocksedge shaped each individual sheet of his sculpture by hand, arranging them in a digital model before suspending them on-site with a network of wires. As the world continues to grow and change, so too will the directions taken by the contemporary artists who respond to it with their art.
Elliot Josephine Leila Reichert
Curator of Contemporary Art
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Reichert, Elliot Josephine Leila. "Contemporary Art at the IU Eskenazi Museum of Art." Collections Online. Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 2020. https://artmuseum.indiana.edu/collections-online/features/contemporary-art-at-the-eskenazi.php.