15 November 2023 – 27 January 2024

New York, 69th Street

In the early 1990s, a new generation of artists in the United States were using exhibitions to share their outlooks on the social and political turbulence of the time. Two of those exhibitions—which opened in the same year—were the 1993 Biennial Exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and ‘Theater of Refusal: Black Art and Mainstream Criticism,’ curated by artist Charles Gaines at the University Art Gallery (UAG), University of California, Irvine.

Both shows—along with the artists who participated in them—have since been recognized as initiating critical debates that prevail to this day. A number of those artists now work with Hauser & Wirth: Ida Applebroog, Charles Gaines, Zoe Leonard, Glenn Ligon, Cindy Sherman, Lorna Simpson and Gary Simmons, as well as the Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts.

About the exhibition

On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the two landmark exhibitions—in a social and political context that bears many similarities—RETROaction celebrates the transformative impact these artists’ works had in the 90s and their active resonances now. Curated by Kate Fowle in collaboration with Homi K Bhabha, Charles Gaines, and Ellen Tani, RETROaction starts at Hauser & Wirth’s Upper East Side location in 2023 and ends in Los Angeles with part 2 on 5 May.

A conventional retrospective looks back from the summit of the present to synthesize the past by giving it a culminating shape. In contrast, the ambition of this show is to configure the art of the past in a contemporary constellation of influences and interventions, rather than to synthesize it in the retrospective mode. RETROaction brings forth the legacies of the early 1990s to interact with the lessons and lesions of art today. This show traces the momentum generated by a group of artists who, 30 years later, continue to make a compelling case for their ideas and beliefs. RETROaction provides a double-frame. It takes a view of the present in all its decolonizing tumult—racial violence, pandemics, climate catastrophe, migration and displacement—pinpointing a critical moment of transition in the 90s from which to move forward.’

Homi K. Bhabha


On the “Theater of Refusal” and the 1993 Whitney Biennial's place between past and present

1993 in context

By the time Bill Clinton was inaugurated in January 1993, AIDS was officially the #1 cause of death for men aged 25-44 in the country; the Los Angeles riots had become recognized as the most destructive period of local unrest in US history; and the Culture Wars went into full force after the Robert Mapplethorpe ‘obscenity’ hearing marked the nation’s first criminal trial of an art museum over content in an exhibition. Terms such as multiculturalism, identity politics and marginalization signified spaces of contestation for journalists and academics, while in art, the market had collapsed following a global recession, causing an unprecedented number of galleries to shutter. As the year progressed, the World Trade Center was bombed; the prosecution of two police officers involved in the Rodney King beating was broadly seen as ‘too little too late’; and Clinton’s ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy barred openly gay people from the military. Amidst the turmoil, Toni Morrison was recognized for her ‘visionary force and poetic import’ to become the first Black woman—and second woman ever—to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

On the first and second floors of its Upper East Side location, Hauser & Wirth presents works by Ida Applebroog, Charles Gaines, Mike Kelley, Zoe Leonard, Glenn Ligon, Cindy Sherman, Gary Simmons and Lorna Simpson. Selected in collaboration with the artists where possible, the works, made between 1986-1994, capture the spirit of cultural debates of the early 1990s, provoking relevant questions about the roles of racial address in a museum or gallery display, activist art and critical theory, sexual difference and the body politic.

For more information on Ida Applebroog ‘Marginalia Series’, Mike Kelley ‘Untitled (6th Annual Luau),’ ‘Untitled (Christian Drama/Thursday Night) and Glenn Ligon ‘Red Portfolio,’ click Learn More below.

RETROaction Symposium: ‘Now-ness’ and Prophetic Criticism

Celebrating the the exhibition ‘RETROaction’ at our New York, 69th street gallery, we hosted an afternoon symposium at The Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College on themes of ‘Now-ness’ and Prophetic Criticism.

Now is the time…

Art-works have long memories and art-shows have long histories, but the lasting impressions they leave come not from the accumulation of time, but from the imminent moment in which they break through the time-barrier. We return to important works of art, or significant art-events, because the history and memory of their presence inspire an iterative ‘present’—a recurring sense, caused by the breaking of the time-barrier, that now is the time of their reckoning and reconstruction. Now-ness creates an uncanny sense for the viewer, curator and critic, that the significance of these works lies not in what ‘more’ could be said about them from our perspective, but by delving into what was once fugitively figured in these works and that breaks-through now with an impending, imminent visibility.

It's not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on what is past; rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation—Walter Benjamin

At this point, when the new constellation emerges now, we don’t turn back in time but fast-forward the past. Art and artists walk back and forth, entering and exiting the site of tension, all the while engaging with constellations that have come together in a flash. RETROaction flashes like a streak of lightning across a common sky that lights up two exhibitions, decades apart, with an electric charge that brings them together, now.

Homi Bhabha

Charles Ray, Fire Truck, 1992–93, in the 1993 Biennial Exhibition, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. © Charles Ray.

On the 1993 Whitney Biennial and its place in the present

Ursula Issue 9: RETROACTION

Homi K. Bhabha and Kate Fowle in conversation with Jessica Bell Brown, Kimberli Gant, Elena Ketelsen González and Xiaoyu Weng

In his ‘Submerged Text’ series, Charles Gaines identified essays and articles that weren’t implicitly about race (or art) and selected a few paragraphs from which to isolate words that reference race or hold racializing connotations. He then removed all the other words, substituting each letter that made up the words into numbers that were handwritten incrementally until another loaded term appeared, at which point the counting would go back to 1 again.

‘Submerged Texts’ were completed both as drawings and wall works. The version of Submerged Text #3—which takes paragraphs from James Joyce’s novel ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’—is installed on the ground floor windows of the gallery. This is loaned by a Private Collection and reformatted by the artist for a window for the first time.

Living with the risk of dying is part of the struggle to survive, or claiming the right to an equitable life. This is the arc of existence and extinction that bridges the early 1990s to the present day. The long shadows of AIDS’ deaths fall across the bodies of men and women; migrants and refugees—refused, rejected, returned—lose their lives from sea to shrouded sea; streets turn into killing fields where Black lives are cut short in the cause of criminal in-justice. The risk to life is death; the risk to living is dying in the quest for life.

The on-going risk to living is the injury of trauma and indignity. It happens because you are fixed in distorted images of your race; or your gender is accused of not being fixed enough; or your persecution doesn’t merit refuge and security. It doesn’t happen everywhere, but it may happen anywhere; not all the time, but at anytime. As WEB DuBois has said: ‘now seldom, now, sudden; now after a week, now in a chain of awful minutes.’

Now…Now…Now…changes with each iteration, place, time, and person, but the constellation of moral and mortal risk is uncannily similar.

Art is the custodian of the constellation of risk; the timekeeper of the recurrent now…now…now. Art doesn’t only alter our views; it arrests our line of sight. The effect of such displacement is a re-alignment of visibility and legibility that re-positions your way of being in the midst of art’s imminent practice. To be re-positioned in this way is to be part of the churn of a work’s active agency as it pushes against its own way of being and its mode of making.

Homi Bhabha

On the third floor, works by New York-based artists Kevin Beasley, Torkwase Dyson, Leslie Hewitt and Rashid Johnson comprise an updated iteration of ‘Theater of Refusal,’ which in its original 1993 incarnation juxtaposed the contributions of eleven contemporary Black artists with published texts that critically discussed their work. Curated by Gaines and Ellen Tani, this current revisitation of the original show is entitled ‘Theater of Refusal: Black Art and Reconstitution.’

Featuring artists who are committed to both abstraction and materiality, the presentation also includes critical texts and raises important questions about the premise of the original exhibition while ‘rethinking structures of artistic knowledge and the critical discourse that surrounds it,’ as Gaines describes. When ‘RETROaction’ travels to Hauser & Wirth Downtown Los Angeles in 2024, this section of the exhibition will feature works by Los Angeles-based artists.

In 1993, the exhibition ‘Theater of Refusal: Black Art and Mainstream Criticism’—curated by Charles Gaines and Catherine Lord—challenged the limitations of the discourse of marginality and its instrumentalization by mainstream criticism. As an anti-essentialist argument, the show called for a theory of subjecthood that could reflect the entangled reality of the mainstream and margin. Gaines asked: How might Black artists, through their work, reflect a multiplicity of ‘sometimes conflicting and sometimes unifying ideologies’ and ‘a dynamic marginality that constantly seeks to define itself?’

In response, this exhibition features four Black artists—Kevin Beasley, Torkwase Dyson, Leslie Hewitt and Rashid Johnson—whose commitment to both abstraction and materiality pursue decoloniality as method, exploring the remnants and logics of colonialism and racial capitalism that are very much alive today in order to exert a ‘dynamic marginality’ in the domain of abstraction. Their work is reminiscent of what philosopher Cornel West called ‘prophetic criticism’: rather than simply critiquing the status quo, these artists pursue a model of criticality that is unbounded. Their work honors processes of both becoming and undoing. Their work understands abstraction as situated and Blackness as amorphous. It is an experiential proposition that slows perception and focuses the surface, merging abstraction with deep study. It is reconstitutive in its ambition, and like the project ’Theater of Refusal,’ rethinks structures of artistic knowledge and the critical discourse that surrounds it.”

About the 1993 Whitney Biennial:

The 1993 Whitney Biennial was described to the press as ‘guided for the first time by a single curatorial perspective and exploring both the primary artistic and social concerns of American art in the 1990s.’ Involving more than 80 artists, it was curated by Elisabeth Sussman with Thelma Golden, John G. Hanhardt and Lisa Phillips. A ‘vital dimension’ to their thinking—as described by Sussman—was ‘the ways in which artists confront such dominant issues as class, race, gender, sexuality and the family’ as well as ‘to show the growing influence of mass media and computer technologies in our visual culture.’ The Biennial provoked—to quote Sussman again—'a gargantuan uproar’ that fixated primarily on the show’s seeming political correctness, which for others—such as Homi K. Bhabha—enabled people ‘to think beyond narratives of origin and initiatory, initial subjects and to focus on those moments or processes that are produced in the articulation of ‘differences.’’ Another unusual aspect to the show was that it traveled to the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Seoul, Korea in 1994, where it inspired the creation of the Gwangju Biennial, which started in 1995.

About ‘Theater of Refusal: Black Art and Mainstream Criticism’

Originally conceived in 1989 by artist Charles Gaines as an examination of Black artists’ relationship with postmodernism, ‘Theater of Refusal: Black Art and Mainstream Criticism’ eventually opened in 1993. The aim was to challenge the art world to cultivate a new critical language by using the exhibition ‘to reveal the strategies of marginalization about a group of contemporary black artists, and to propose an alternative,’ as Gaines described it in the catalogue. Presenting works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Renee Green, David Hammons, Ben Patterson, Adrian Piper, Sandra Rowe, Gary Simmons, Lorna Simpson, Carrie Mae Weems, Pat Ward Williams and Fred Wilson, the curatorial innovation of ‘Theater of Refusal’ was to display work by the artists alongside previously published texts and reviews that Gaines highlighted to expose journalistic assumptions and ingrained attitudes which maintained marginality and normally remained invisible. The show opened in April 1993 at the University Art Gallery (UAG), University of California, Irvine, developed in close collaboration with its director, Catherine Lord, and traveled to other UC galleries through 1994.

Installation view of ‘The Theater of Refusal: Black Art and Mainstream Criticism,’ organized by Charles Gaines, University Art Gallery (UAG), University of California, Irvine, 1993. From left: David Hammons, ‘African American Flag,’ 1990; Renée Green, ‘Blue Skies,’ 1990; Gary Simmons, ‘Us & Them,’ 1990; Pat Ward Williams, ‘32 Hours in a Box . . . and Still Counting,’ 1988. Photo: Catherine Opie

On view at New York, 69th Street

‘RETROaction’ is on view until 27 January 2024.

Current Exhibitions