In 1969, the Rhode Island School of Design was operating at a deficit of $180,482, with the Museum of Art costlier than the college.
The RISD student body was denouncing the museum as a bastion of wealthy elitists. In what was likely an effort to soothe both problems, the museum’s then-director Daniel Robbins summoned a celebrity savior: Andy Warhol.
Warhol proceeded to curate Raid the Icebox 1, culling the exhibit entirely from the museum’s storage. Presented with anarchic flair, the landmark show included everything from Cézanne and umbrellas to broken chairs and a cabinet of shoes. Paintings hung on wire fencing, and objects were arranged to resemble their home in the museum’s dark basements.
Now, 50 years later, the RISD Museum has again ransacked its metaphorical cold storage with Raid the Icebox Now. Whereas Warhol’s iteration exposed “the museum’s crude systems of storage,” in writer Natalie Musteata’s words, this revival is more polished. Eight renowned artists have guest curated exhibits from the museum’s collection—selecting objects as storage from Warhol did, or, in some cases, creating new work entirely.
Raid…Now is hardly as crude or anarchic as Warhol’s original, but it is uneven. The curating artists are inconsistent in their ability to craft new and engaging contexts for old work.
Profound and consistent, however, is Simone Leigh’s The Chorus, which makes voices resound where before they had been silenced. Leigh installed a handful of pieces from the museum’s collection, as well as several small speakers, throughout the museum’s Greco-Roman and Egyptian galleries. On a busy day, Leigh’s audio track can be hard to hear, but patience for the necessary quiet is worthwhile. A room of Greco-Roman sculpture provides a bench where visitors can meditate with Silence, a marble bust by Nancy Elizabeth Prophet, whose diary is recited from a bluetooth speaker nearby.
Eventually the audio segues from Prophet’s life to an essay on the sinister yet ordinary oppressions of work—even more specifically, those oppressions as experienced by women of color throughout history.
From the RISD collection, Leigh adds Janine Antoni’s Chocolate Gnaw (Maquette) (1992), a chocolate cube sculpted by the artist’s teeth, to a room populated with Greek artifacts. The chocolate seems an absurd joke at first. But the punchline becomes quite macabre in the overall context of The Chorus.
Nicole Eisenman’s tactics provide a goofier but nevertheless potent reevaluation and appropriation of the museum’s archives. In Tonight we are going out and we are all getting hammered, Eisenman erects a gay club, complete with mirror ball and strobe lights, in what’s usually the museum’s contemporary wing. The room’s walls are decked with a few painted abstractions but mostly stuffy, historical portraits, recasting both categories as the club’s patrons and sensations. Statues, including a priapic bear and a 14th-century Saint Barbara, queue up outside the ‘club’ in a clever sight gag.
Eschewing labels and explanation (or including any of her own art), Eisenman’s presentation overwrites the intended meanings of existing artworks. RISD faculty Jonathan Bonner’s austere abstract sculptures become ineluctably reminiscent of sex toys. The same applies to Tony Feher’s Untitled (2004). These amber-colored bottles, each topped with a bright glass bead, recall not beer but rather poppers—tiny bottles of amyl nitrates sniffed before sex.
Nearby is an 1860 portrait of Christiana Carteaux Bannister, painted by her husband Edward. Madam Bannister, as her salon clients knew her, was of Black and Narragansett heritage (as was Nancy Elizabeth Prophet). An abolitionist and entrepreneur, Madam Bannister financially supported her artist husband until his death. Her biography is slim, a casualty of the racist amnesias and erasures conveyed in Leigh’s Chorus. Perhaps Bannister gains new humanity in the prismatic utopia of Tonight we are going out and we are all getting harmmered, but in reality, she died alone in a Cranston asylum.
Back in 1969, Robbins wondered if an artist’s “attitude [might] do violence to the true nature of the objects” they curated. Subject to the museum’s necessary restraints, with storage conditions much improved since Warhol’s visit, Raid the Icebox Now pacifies more than it provokes.
But there are enough notes of lamentation that we might hear the past in its cruelty—and also its resistance. As Walter Benjamin once noted, revolt is “nourished” not by an ideal future but “by the true image of enslaved ancestors.” Madam Bannister, sober and composed in the club, seems to speak similar sentiments.
Reprinted from Art New England (Jan/Feb 2020 issue).
Editor: Sarah Baker