All perception is misperception. There is more than philosophic reverie in this problem, there is real injury and loss. My first serious injury, when I was 18 months old, happened when I reached out from the top of a play slide toward a picture on a nearby wall. There was a raccoon in the picture and I wanted to touch the raccoon. What I didn't know was that the picture was a mirror, and the raccoon was on my shirt, here, not over there. I slashed my eye hitting a shelf on the way down and nearly lost vision on the right side. The scar's long. Maybe right then I began to be interested in things made for concerted looking, for looking into; art things.
When Andrea Geyer was asked to do an Artist Research Residency at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, what she ended up doing was so basic as to be stunning. She noticed a void at the heart of MoMA's history that's never really been addressed: that the three women who founded the museum are absent from its archive, almost entirely. Think of early MoMA and you think of director Alfred Barr, not founders Lillie P. Bliss, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, and Mary Quinn Sullivan.
"I wondered: What are the systems and mechanisms that enable our continuous blindness and deafness around these histories? What does it take to disrupt this process? How to uncover our own patterns of nonrecognition?" Geyer told Artforum.
Geyer began making video and a map in response. Revolt, They Said is the map, a diagram you can't possibly take in all at once. You have to drill down, into individual names and connections, then pull out again to see a new whole. It's a family tree of the women of modernism. Geyer is creating it—taking additions and corrections still—as a counterpoint to Alfred Barr's famous 1936 family tree of (male) modernism, the road map of the homogenized canon.
The New Foundation in Seattle is making that huge, multifold map, complete with written histories about every woman listed, free and available to anyone who visits—get there before the show closes January 16. I've been carting around my map and opening it up every once in a while just to see the spreads, to admire the printed insistence of Geyer's resistance. I'll be saving it, and I'm thinking of lending it out from time to time to any friend who needs concrete hope of women being remembered.
In addition to the takeaway maps, the gallery is showing a quietly moving exhibition of Geyer's related photographs, paintings, and a video of a layered performance by two dancers and a narrator, interacting with the American collection at the new location of the Whitney Museum of American Art, in the aptly titled mega-exhibition America Is Hard to See.
The video is a double pleasure. You see America Is Hard to See as Geyer's performers interact with those great works, by artists from across the American 20th century. And you feel the reignition of a museum itself—Geyer's vision, as she put it in a talk here in Seattle in October, of "reintroducing time into the chronology and pacification of time that happens in museums."
During that talk, Geyer sang her own folk song in the lecture room at Seattle U, interrupting the (non-)vibe of the bureaucratic, super-rational lecture-room architecture, making sure "our maps [are] brushing up against our poems." (The few minutes when she was singing were the time during the talk when I felt most comfortable about having my baby son along with me. Geyer called him out at the start, saying that babies were welcome, and I believed she meant it, but the rest of the audience didn't necessarily feel as warm.)
Archives and histories love data. They do not know what to do with "the turbulent emotional stuff," Geyer said at the talk. Geyer comes from a culture "marked by trauma that is processed on a national level relatively appropriately compared to other countries with fascist histories," she said. She comes from Germany, where denial is not a possibility.
Geyer first realized her commitment to history and documentation after leaving art school as a young student, and deciding to work instead as a photojournalist. Art felt "detached," and in photojournalism, the profession itself talked about ethics.
Geyer's former photojournalist's eye still goes straight for what's missing. (She left photojournalism in order to have greater control over her images, and the context surrounding them.)
"I had to leave Germany to realize I have things to do," Geyer said. "Not just to be paralyzed by guilt... What I'm proposing is that we reappropriate institutions as viewers, and see what's there, and what isn't there."
It's harder work than it sounds. Her work is a reminder that we're always just getting started, and that we have to refuse to stop.