Mapping the Collection at Museum Ludwig, Cologne

11 September 2020 By

The 1960s and 1970s were two decades that defined US-American Art and its history more than any other, set against a backdrop of Black Pow­er, Equal­i­­ty, In­­di­ge­­nous self-de­ter­mi­­na­­tion and Wo­m­en’s Rights.

The exhibition Map­ping the Col­lec­­tion takes a fresh look at this moment in time, using the Museum Ludwig’s own reputable collection of art works from the United States as a starting point to critically examine who is represented in the museum’s collection and which art forms and artists have been systematically excluded over the past 60 years.

Featuring 32 artists across five rooms, the comprehensive show features characteristic works by renowned white male US American artists from the collection such as Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Jones, Robert Rauschenberg or Claes Oldenburg, alongside works by lesser-known American artists that were acquired in recent years for the museum’s collection, such as David Wojnarowicz,  Leon Polk Smith, Ana Mendieta, Senga Nengudi and Corita Kent (Sister Corita).

Loans of work by artists from the USA, such as Asco, T.C. Cannon, Barbara Chase-Riboud, David Hammons, Adrian Piper or Howardena Pindell amongst many others, represent the work of female, queer, indigenous or Black artists who operated in parallel to the mainstream art movements of the time but who are, up until today,  barely presented in the narrative of twentieth-century American art.

Mapping the Collection aims to shed light on the role these marginalised artists played in the de­vel­op­­ment of American art dur­ing a period shaped by social unrest and political upheaval.

Work by Leon Polk Smith for example, acquired by the Museum Ludwig in 2018, features in the exhibition amongst well-established figures of the Colour Field Painting movement such as Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland.  By using contrasting colours and a flat application of colour, the shapes and forms of Leon Polk Smith’s canvases like Correspondence red-white no. 1 (1961) recall the works of Piet Mondrian. Smith was of Cherokee background and the geometric patterns and shapes of indigenous art he encountered when growing up in the US-American Southwest had a strong impact on his oeuvre. However, the anonymity of abstract art led to Smith’s paintings not being recognised as being inspired by indigenous culture, which from today’s perspective limits our understanding of his practice and neglects the role indigenous culture played in the development of US-American abstract art.

African American artists at the same time formed a visual language that spoke to the experiences of Black people in the United States. Artists associated with the Black Arts Movement created works that directly addressed the racism and discrimination within US-American society. In Feed Folks (1974) and Bye-Centennial (1976), both body-prints on paper, David Hammons criticises the United States’ prioritisation of public displays of patriotism over a commitment to end racism and poverty.

Influenced by the burgeoning feminist movement, female artists started to use their art to speak about their own experiences as women in society and to challenge societal views of gender roles. Senga Nengudi’s photographic documentation of her collaborative performances with Maren Hassinger, such as Studio performance with R.S.V.P. (1976) can be read as an affirmation of the Black female body.

In her series Untitled (Facial Hair Transplant) (1972), Cuban American artist Ana Mendieta challenges views of how a ‘male’ or ‘female’ body should look. Many artists, for example Corita Kent (Sister Corita) were active in the Anti-Vietnam-War movement. Her works combine the visual language of Pop Art and mid-century graphic design to express messages of peace and empathy. Kent lived many years of her life as a Catholic nun and her prints combine images from magazines with quotes from the bible and poems by E. E. Cummings and Robert Frost.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, artists started to make city-life in Los Angeles or New York the subject of their artistic practise.  In New York, David Wojnarowicz wandered through the city’s streets with a mask of French poet Arthur Rimbaud’s face. Wojnarowicz photographed his friends or himself wearing the mask in various places that were often frequented by gay men but which, due to gentrification, no longer exist.

The United States continues to engage in armed conflicts across the globe and the government continues to react with violence to protests against racism and inequality. The exhibition also features a number of works that relate to recent events in US-American history such as Sharon Hayes’s ‘10 Minutes of Collective Activity’, which was completed a month after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The video looks back at Senator Abraham A. Ribicoff’s historic nomination speech for George McGovern as the party’s next presidential candidate in 1968, criticising police brutality. His speech had not lost any significance in 2003 and it unfortunately still has not today.

Mapping the Collection sets the tone on how a museum can critically engage in discussions about representation and diversity by revisiting its own collection. It successfully brings previously overlooked connections between artists and activists to the fore, demonstrating how art always remains connected to the social and political context of its time. By including numerous artists from marginalised communities that have been excluded from the dominant narratives of US-American Art History,  the exhibition also powerfully reveals the influence that an artists’ background—in regard to race, social class, and gender—has on the reception and understanding of art and what role our museums play in the creation and affirmation of art historical narratives.

In the light of the global political events of the past months, particularly in the United States, Mapping the Collection is an important reminder of how a museum’s collection mirrors power by praising certain artists and thus systematically excluding others from entering the exhibition space, highlighting the responsibility of contemporary art museums to urgently expand the limits of conventional art collecting.

Last but not least, Mapping the Collection shows us that representation and agency are as relevant today as they were then—both in the United States and across the globe.

Films about the exhibition can be watched here.


Christine Takengny
Senior Curator

Museum Ludwig, Heinrich-Böll-Platz, 50667 Köln, Germany. Open Tuesday-Sunday 10.00-18.00. Exhibition continues until 10 October 2020.