View of the exhibition “Paper Power,” 2020. View of the exhibition “Paper Power,” 2020.
For most of its history, paper was a disobedient medium. It was made from discarded scraps of hemp, cotton, flax, and bark—in a word, garbage—that had to be boiled into pulp and bullied flat by heavy stones. Different kinds of fiber would harden at different speeds, creating hills and valleys, dark patches, and shriveled corners, so that each piece, in its own unique way, refused to be perfectly straight or pale or smooth. Paper wasn’t a neutral host for art but a stubborn work of art in its own right.
At a glance, the theme of Michael Rosenfeld’s current exhibition can seem like a hazy curatorial gimmick. The sixty-three artists, represented here by ninety-seven works, have two and only two things in common: they lived in the twentieth century, and they used paper. By surrendering to the medium’s primordial powers, however, the show—which can be seen by appointment—ends up feeling surprisingly cohesive. Even in an age of 8½ by 11, it suggests, making art out of fragile, resilient paper in some sense means making art about fragility and resilience in the real world. If this sounds like a case of forcing politics where it doesn’t belong, just listen to Robert Hughes, nobody’s idea of an activist-critic.