Rirkrit Tiravanija’s newspaper paintings have taken an aggressive figurative turn, departing sharply from the restraint of the previous text-based works. The new works draw their iconographic and stylistic vocabulary from the well of Philip Guston’s late work. Tiravanija piles dismembered limbs and brick walls over wheatpasted pages of contemporary newspapers, transposing Guston’s generous but highly opaque symbolism onto our modern political moment. In particular, these paintings interrogate our fraught notions of immigration and borders, the conflation of the racialized other with fear. The Wall has become a symbol of America’s nationalistic mania; the body parts suggest mass graves. In spite of this deadly serious subject matter, the works are also, however, deeply comic – the cartoon language they employ was funny when Guston used it, and remains so under Tiravanija’s deft hand.
Tiravanija, like Guston, accepts the impossibility of a “pure” artwork, of true abstraction. Likewise, they both reject straightforward readings – nothing can ever be one-to-one in life, nor should it be in art. These works revel in pictorial and temporal corruption, letting the outside world in – and using a hyperspecific historical moment to capture something timeless.
“So when the 1960's came along I was feeling split, schizophrenic. The war, what was happening to America, the brutality of the world. What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything—and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue?”
– Philip Guston, New York Post, April 9, 1977
“But you begin to feel as you go on working that unless painting proves its right to exist by being critical and self-judging, it has no reason to exist at all—or is not even possible.”
— Philip Guston,
“Faith, Hope and Impossibility,” 1965 The idea of Art was never static in my thinking. The act of making was a quest, a curiosity, a question, a search, perhaps for truth, perhaps for reasons to exist. In Guston one finds an artist not just of craft and skill but of total commitment to doubt and criticality, an artist of possibilities and at the same time the confluence of impossibilities. In his earliest works one can sense the seeds that will become the trunk of his tree, the breadth and depth of his ideological formation. One can sense his humanist outlook in the images of oppression and poverty in which the rise of capital has left behind a detritus of abject fragments. One senses it in the seams and stitches of a hooded culture and the found scraps of child’s play, slowly emptied out into shimmering hues of paint only to slowly hover between objecthood and subjectness.
— Rirkrit Tiravanija
For me, the red-brick walls that Guston drew from Giorgio de Chirico’s Italianate surrealism—they crop up in his work from beginning to end—resonate deeply, and in that resonance one finds the necessity to rethink, reread, and reestablish contact with the roots of his work and life, and with what he has left behind for us to experience. In the contemporary upheaval, the laughter of criticality returns under the shadow of red-brick walls, in the bottomless pit, under the heavy coat in which immigrants carry their life’s worth, to find that ladder propped up against the redbrick wall, and to climb over it into the detritus of the unknown world, looking for a better life, looking for that freedom.
— Rirkrit Tiravanija
I had always been attracted to Guston, perhaps more as a sign than for his form. The stories of his rejection by his peers in the 1970s, when he fled from abstraction to figuration, inspired curiosity. Really? How and why should an artist’s decision to shift his work from one form to another become fodder for resentment? Isn't it obvious that artists should consistently question their pasts and their reasons for being? For Guston, the form art took in the 1950s was self-righteous, academic, and elitist, yet it was consumed without criticality. The fragmented legs and limbs of Mr. Guston’s images can be read as tokens of humanity’s present pitfalls. The rush to freedom is capitalized by fear: the ball of limbs crowded together becomes a form of otherness that can only be read as indeterminate, and in what is indeterminate, seemingly unidentifiable, a picture of fear emerges. Perhaps the balance between life and death in this society can only be addressed by the lightest of forms, the cartoon, seemingly childlike, without the weight of reality. But it is in that balance that Guston’s symbolism arises, and the laughter of criticality, of the self not taking itself seriously.
- Rirkrit Tiravanija
“You know, Philip, what your real subject is? It's freedom!”
—Willem de Kooning to Philip Guston, Marlborough Gallery, 1970
Since the 1990s, Rirkrit Tiravanija (b. 1961, Buenos Aires, Argentina) has aligned his artistic production with an ethic of social engagement, often inviting viewers to inhabit and activate his work.
Solo exhibitions include the ICA London (permanent installation), Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian, Washington D.C. (2019), the National Gallery of Singapore (2018); Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (2016); the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow (2015), the Kunsthalle Bielefeld (2010), the Kunsthalle Fridericianum, Kassel (2009), the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, the Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Serpentine Gallery in London (2005), as well as the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam (2004). Tiravanija's work has been recognized with numerous awards and grants including the 2010 Absolut Art Award, the 2004 Hugo Boss Prize awarded by the Guggenheim Museum, and the 2003 Smithsonian American Art Museum's Lucelia Artist Award.
Tiravanija lives and works in New York, Berlin, and Chiang Mai. Tiravanija is on the faculty of the School of Visual Arts at Columbia University, and is a founding member and curator of Utopia Station, a collective project of artists, art historians, and curators. Tiravanija is also President of an educational-ecological project known as The Land Foundation, located in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and is part of a collective alternative space called VER in Bangkok.