Gallery  December 11, 2023  Rebecca Schiffman

Robert Storr's 'Retinal Hysteria' Responds to Our Cultural Anxiety

Courtesy of the artist and Venus Over Manhattan

Julia Jacquette, Brains and Bile, 2018. Oil onlinen; 48 x 60in (121.9 x 152.4cm). 

In 2001, Jan Christiaan Braun curated a landmark exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum that brought together five American artists whose work engaged in the less picturesque and more grotesque aspects of contemporary life. In his seminal catalogue essay for Braun’s exhibition, Eye Infection, art historian and curator Robert Storr said, “Artists who have fixated on and examined the blemishes in America’s self-image have, more often than not, been treated as embarrassing nuisances…With only ourselves to stare down, the deformations of our own features are harder to avoid, as is the presence of those who insistently hold the mirror up to them.” With the 2001 exhibition Eye Infection, these artists – Robert Crumb, Mike Kelley, Jim Nutt, Peter Saul, and H.C. Westermann – were finally getting their due. 

Courtesy the artist . KARMA , and Venus Over Manhattan, New York

Woody De Othello, Title to come, 2023. Glazed ceramic; 64 1/2 x 21 x 14 in (163.8 x 53.3 x 35.6 cm). 

With the political, social and cultural upheavals of the past 20 years as well as the rising impact of climate change, artists working today have not stopped visually responding to and grappling with all that we have endured—in fact, if anything, artists have become even more visually responsive in recent years. Retinal Hysteria, the current exhibition up at the gallery Venus Over Manhattan, speaks to these visual anxieties with works by over 40 artists. Some artists are of the original set including Robert Crumb and Peter Saul, but many are new names, blending the young contemporary artists like Woody De Othello, Jamian Juliano-Villani, Chibuike Uzoma, Ana Benaroya, and Julia Jacquette, with the more established names like Raymond Pettibon, Deborah Kass, George Condo, Maria Lassnig, and the legendary Louise Bourgeois. The artists all share what Storr, who is the show’s curator, terms, a “disorienting intensity.” Set between the gallery’s two spaces, the exhibition revisits the ideas presented in Braun’s Eye Infection through a contemporary lens.

Art & Object spoke to Storr, who was formerly Dean of the Yale School of Art and senior curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art. Storr gave us the inside scoop into his ideas and motivations behind Retinal Hysteria.

Courtesy of the artist and Venus over manhattan

Jamian Juliano-Villani, Totally Home, 2018. Acrylic on canvas, 60 x 60 in152.4 x 152.4 cm.

Art & Object: What made you want to reconsider the 2001 exhibition, Eye Infection? What have you learned since then that you incorporated into the new show? 

Robert Storr: The idea of doing the show actually came from the gallery, because they had tracked the importance of Eye Infection and the essay I wrote for it as being a seminal text with a change of taste. So they said, we just want to know what would happen if you reconsidered it. I don’t normally do gallery shows, but I thought it would be interesting. So I said, let’s give it a shot.

A&O: I think the recreation was quite successful. The art world is in such a different place today than it was when Jan Christiaan Braun did the initial show, but the premise still feels very relevant.

RS: Yes, all the artists in Christiaan’s show were ones I had known, written about, and about whom I talked about with him. It was symbiotic.


Courtesy the artist, Garth Greenan Gallery, New York, and Venus Over Manhattan, New York

Gladys Nilsson, Gamboling, 2023. Pen, col-ored pencil and graphite on paper; 16 x 12in(40.6 x 30.5cm).

A&O: Almost all the works were never exhibited publicly or were made with the show in mind. How did you decide who would be in the exhibition? And when you approached them, what did you ask them to produce? 

RS: I started with a mental list of artists that I thought were in the same zone, and I know their work, in most cases, quite a lot. There was one person in particular who I asked who could not do it, or did not want to do it, but basically, I got yesses from almost everybody asked. That’s the way it worked. Knowing the work as well as I did, I said, “Do you have something of this kind? Or might you make something of this kind?” Because I knew what their range was, so I thought, okay, ask people for something they have in storage or ask them to start something new.

A&O: And to clarify, when you asked artists if they had something “of this kind,” what does that mean?

RS: What kind is something that is reflective of, or simulates an excessive overload. Too much of everything. At the time, all of us coming out of the pandemic, and all of us were under assault for the next however many years by Mr. Trump. I think a lot of people are feeling quite agitated. I thought, well, supposedly for the show, take a key component of their psyche and channel it into the actual work of art. In America, we’ve had agitating periods before, so there are works that speak to those times that are important, that I included. But it’s not a show about Trump or about the pandemic, it’s a show that recognizes the effects of both of those on the collective psyche. 

Courtesy the artist, Kasmin Gallery, New York, and Venus Over Manhattan, New York

Judith Bernstein, EVIL HAS THE UPPER HAND #2 (TRUMPENSCHLONG), 2023. Acrylic oncanvas; 82 x 80in (208.3 x 203.2cm). 

A&O: Completely. There were many works that I had not seen before, and the craziness in the works in the exhibition was reflected in the entire space. I felt my own anxieties reflected in the works. I was also just curious about H.C. Westermann. In your essay for the 2001 exhibition, you spoke often of Westermann and how he related deeply to the works on view. I noticed that he isn’t in the current exhibition. Did you consider including him?

RS: Yes, I did. The problem is that it’s very hard to get his work. He really is an elder statesman; Jim Nutt, Peter Saul, and R. Crumb are alive and kicking, Mike Kelley died a few years back. But Westermann has been gone for quite a while, so I just said, given the logistics and fact that I didn’t want to make this show about the other show, I thought it would be okay not to include Westermann.

A&O: The show, if I understood correctly, is meant to be a "hysterical" cacophony of images for our eyes. What is your definition of hysteria? 

RS: Hysteria is a loss of control, a hypersensitivity to things. It is when you really think you are losing your grasp on reality, and that is what the show is hopefully tuned into. It’s not a specific thing. It’s a movement. It’s the mind. I wanted to do things that resonated with that state of mind, as far as I explained it, or the stimulating that would set people off, would trigger them in fact. 

© 2023 The Easton Foundation. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth, and Venus Over Manhattan, New York

Louise Bourgeois, Triptych for the Red Room, 1994. Aquatint, drypoint and engraving on paper, triptych; Overall: 27 3/4 x 111 3/4 in (70.5 x 283.8 cm). 

A&O: I think that definitely came through in this show. Did you ever consider expanding the idea to say, sound art or outsider art, to expand the sensory overload of the show?

RS: In regards to including outsider art, this was not a show about that, although outsider art has been important to a number of these artists. But I thought we should just go with people who are conscious of what they’re doing and trying in some way to articulate it. Let me put it this way: I did not want to do another show that was about exception artists who fall outside the mainstream. I wanted to talk about the state of mind rather than the state of social standing, that was the important thing. 

A&O: How did you group the works and decide on their placement between the two gallery spaces?

RS: As an experienced art installer as something I do for pleasure, which I did with great pleasure at the Modern and elsewhere, I figured this is a situation where you round up the ingredients, you get them into the spaces that will accommodate them. So in this question of how do you shake and bake them out? Do you mix them up, but also have certain characteristics, late characteristics in individual works, or with those more modern works? That’s what I was trying to do.


Installation view of Retinal Hysteria.
Courtesy Venus Over Manhattan

Installation view of Retinal Hysteria

Installation view of Retinal Hysteria.
Courtesy Venus Over Manhattan

Installation view of Retinal Hysteria

Installation view of Retinal Hysteria.
Courtesy Venus Over Manhattan

Installation view of Retinal Hysteria

Installation view of Retinal Hysteria.
Courtesy Venus Over Manhattan

Installation view of Retinal Hysteria

Installation view of Retinal Hysteria.
courtesy Venus Over Manhattan

Installation view of Retinal Hysteria.

Installation view of Retinal Hysteria
Courtesy of Venus Over Manhattan

Installation view of Retinal Hysteria

A&O: Is there anything else you would like to share?

RS: I would just say that in the opening of the gallery, there are all drawings. There’s one painting by George Condo, but everything else has drawings, even the Condo painting has drawings visible. I thought that much of this art comes with the frenetic impulse and doodles come out of that. So I thought, okay, you have an introductory passage that opens that up. And then, you move through this process of discovery through the show, it’s like unwrapping presents at Christmas and seeing how everything naturally falls together. 

A&O: Yes, I especially loved the Louise Bourgeois drawings. I had never seen those before.

RS: I had her in mind from the very beginning. I couldn’t have a show on hysteria and not include her. And I think a final anecdote to the Bourgeois is that these works show that they might not make events or feelings that people don’t know what to do with materially better, but it lets them smile a little bit. The world is in a tragic, comic state, and this show puts pressure on the comic side of tragedy, as well as the tragic side of tragedy. 

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