Affecting Presence gathers a diverse selection of objects from the Menil’s holdings to experiment with two complementary ways of understanding experiences of art. One stresses the primacy of the viewer; the other the commanding agency of the work of art. The works on view range from ancient sculptures and functional objects from Europe, Africa, North America, and the Pacific to Euro-American paintings and works on paper from the recent past—all of which exemplify the reduction of form or the absence of representation.
The exhibition highlights abstraction as an artistic means used across time, place, and culture to make present the ineffable forces that shape human experiences. 20th-century abstractions by Constantin Brancusi, Frank Bowling, Eduardo Chillida, Sam Gilliam, and others are presented alongside a variety of abstract forms from earlier eras, showcasing the rich history of this aesthetic practice. The exhibition explores the convergence of a viewer’s individual pursuit of transcendent experiences in art with each object’s power and “affecting presence.” The culmination of creative and meaningful acts, works of art conjure in us powerful and idiosyncratic responses. For example, an exquisite sogoni kun headdress from Mali possesses an artistic refinement of form that is considered ka di or “sweet” when used in performance.
In 1984 museum founder Dominique de Menil directed viewers to seek out transcendent experiences in art, to fully engage with and absorb a work’s “delicious presence.” She placed the responsibility for such intimate contact on the viewer’s willingness to invest the time and energy: “passivity is fatal.” During the 1970s and 1980s, the American anthropologist Robert Plant Armstrong endeavored to reveal the process of the transformative experience that de Menil described. He too asserted the integral role of an active viewer, but Armstrong emphasized that objects make significant contributions to the transaction, that objects have agency and impress their being on the viewer. Armstrong developed the concept of “affecting presence” to unify the different types of aesthetic accomplishments and replace European hierarchies of fine art. He understood all examples of creativity—craft, sculpture, painting, poetry, music, and literature—as a “presence” saturated with material and communicative energy. In the relational contexts of the gallery space, the 30 objects in the exhibition sample the potentials of the unrecognizable to affect us and prompt each viewer to engage with different approaches to abstraction.
Affecting Presence is curated by Paul Davis, Curator of Collections.
This exhibition is generously supported by Mark Wawro and Melanie Gray and the City of Houston